From nerdy Mister Rogers cardigans to rugged fishermen's pullovers, the sweater is a versatile garment, whose broad appeal obscures its recreational and sportswear origins. Sweaters were initially popularized by winter-sports enthusiasts in the late 19th century, as seen in early advertisements featuring skiers and hikers outfitted in heavy knit wool. The word sweater comes directly from this sportswear usage, as they were frequently marketed for their ability to absorb sweat during intense physical activity, keeping the wearer warm and dry. Conversely, sweaters were also touted for the opposite effect, promoting sweat during exercise to help people achieve short-term weight loss.
The line between utility and fashion blurred in the late 1800s, when university sports programs began to outfit athletes in matching sweaters to distinguish their players from those on opposing teams. Harvard University was supposedly the first to apply an embroidered letter (an “H”) to its team uniforms. By the turn of the century, letterman sweaters, as they were soon known, had spread to American high-schools, along with the varsity letter tradition.
Sweaters can be divided into two major categories: the cardigan, which opens in the front and features buttons or a zipper closure, and the pullover, which does not.
The cardigan owes its name to Britain's Earl of Cardigan, whose troops fought the Russians in button-down knit jackets as part of their uniform during the Crimean War of the 1850s. One-hundred years later, the modern resurgence of the men's cardigan sprang from a more genteel source, the Ivy League universities of New England. Especially in the 1950s, cardigans were established as the look of young, educated, and affluent Americans (several decades later, in 1980, a quartet of authors capitalized on Ivy League style in general and cardigans in particular by writing the "Preppy Handbook").
In the 1960s, the cardigan was a major piece in Mister Rogers’ wardrobe as he strolled his studio Neighborhood; in the 1970s, President Jimmy Carter wore cardigans during his televised fireside chats.
The roots of the pullover go back even further. Since the 1700s, the knitting industry has been a major source of income for many coastal communities in the United Kingdom. As the demand for sweaters grew during the Victorian Era, many important stylistic and creative developments occurred in these regions.
A good example is the Aran or fisherman’s sweater, which originated on a single island in Ireland. Knitted of heavy ivory-colored wool with interlocking cable detailing, these sw...
The classic argyle pattern is based on the tartan of the Campbell Clan of Argyll, Scotland. The design consists of a series of diamonds overlayed with intersecting lines, and they can be knit in any number of colors. Argyle sweaters were widely produced during the 20th century by knitwear manufacturer Pringle of Scotland, and were popularized as casual wear after their adoption by the Duke of Windsor in the 1930s.
The Fair Isle pattern, recognized by repeated rows of geometric shapes in contrasting colors, also first appeared in Scotland. In the 1920s, the Prince of Wales embraced the Fair Isle look when he wore these knit patterns during public sporting events. A variation of Fair Isle design is seen in the Nordic sweater style, typified by those produced by Dale of Norway. Nordic sweaters often feature winter-themed patterns such as snowflakes or reindeer and include ornamental metal clasps or buttons down the front.
A similar graphic look that expanded on the Fair Isle knitting technique is the North American-made Cowichan sweater, fabricated by the Cowichan people native to British Columbia. Like Fair Isle, this style includes horizontal striped patterns, as well as the simplified, almost pixelated shapes of regional animals like eagles or whales. Cowichan sweaters are traditionally made from thick, hand-spun yarn and are finished with a loose shawl-style collar.
The ultimate luxury sweaters are those made from cashmere wool, an extremely soft and lightweight fabric spun from goat hair. Cashmere came to western Europe from Kashmir, where it was traditionally used to make shawls. During the 1920s, fashion designers like Patou and Chanel began to work cashmere fabric into their sweater collections.
Another icon of upper-class taste is the classic V-neck sweater from Lacoste, which is famous for its signature crocodile logo. Lacoste sweaters became a symbol of the wealthy in the 1950s as the company expanded its offerings beyond René Lacoste’s original line of all-white tennis sportswear.
During the same period, beatnik trendsetters appropriated the sweater to achieve a rebellious, counterculture look. The iconic black turtleneck, called a polo-neck in the U.K., came to symbolize a rejection of the standard suit-and-tie uniform of the business world. Turtlenecks were frequently seen on defiant celebrities of the era like James Dean and Marlon Brando. Another rebel in his own right who was associated with black turtlenecks, although not strictly of the sweater variety, was Apple co-founder Steve Jobs.
Today, a very popular seasonal sweater phenomenon revolves around the ugly Christmas sweater, an ironic statement piece showcasing garish prints of anything from overly cute kittens to grumpy Grinches. The best Christmas sweaters (or worst, depending on how you look at it) are frequently adorned with tacky, three-dimensional decorations like bows, bells, battery-powered Christmas lights, and stuffed Santas or reindeer.