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.

About our sources | Got something to add?

▼ Expand to read the full article ▼

Best of the Web (“Hall of Fame”)

The Black Tie Guide

The Black Tie Guide

Peter Marshall became an authority on formalwear out of necessity — he needed a tux to wear on the maiden transat… [read review or visit site]

Fashion Columbia Study Collection

Fashion Columbia Study Collection

The Fashion Columbia Study Collection (FCSC) is the digital home of the Columbia College Chicago’s fashion archiv… [read review or visit site]



Most watched eBay auctions    

New Men's Barbour Gray Sweater ~clifton Chunky Shawl~ Shawl Collar, Size Xxl WowRare Antique Mens Vtg 1920's 30's Shawl Collar Cream Wool Pullover Sport SweaterVintage 90's Men Fred Perry Vintage Sweater LLyle & Scott Vintage Mens Jumper Sweater Size L Logo Vgc Rrp £99 Woolmark WoolVtg Patagonia Green 1/4 Zip Wool Sweater Mens LargeVintage 90s Mens Ralph Lauren Polo Jeans Co. Wool Eagle Sweater Sz S Vintage Mens Ralph Lauren Hand Knit Lambswool Sleigh Dog Pull Over Sweater Sz M Vtg Wool Handmade Mens Blue Snowflake Cowichan Brass Zip Up Sweater Coat JacketVintage Coogi Australia Cotton Cosby Sweater Mens SmallVintage Men's Coogi Australia 100% Pure Wool Cosby Multi Color Sweater Sz LSoft Vintage Men’s Pringle Dark Brown Cashmere V-neck Sweater 42Vintage Pendleton Sweater Native Indian DesignPaul & Shark Jachting Vintage Men's 3 Button Jumper With Wool - Size Xl *Vintage 1980s Men’s Super Soft Merino Wool Irish Knit Cable Sweater Sz XlVintage Pendleton Western Big Lebowski Shawl Cardingan Sweater Men's Size MFred Perry Argyle Jumper In Grey Marl - M - Ska Mod Golf Casuals RockabillyVintage 1970s Ivory Irish Wool Men’s Cable Knit Fisherman’s Sweater Sz XlVintage 1980s Coogi Australia Men’s Charcoal & Pewter Cosby Sweater Sz 4xlVtg Fred Perry V Neck Jumper Indie M Medium 42"chest Mod Weller Cream Oi Vtg Fred Perry Cardigan Cardi Indie M Medium 40"chest Mod Oi Weller Office 1p 1c Vintage 90s White Birds Animal Print On Trend Sweatshirt Jumper SVintage Mens Pendleton Wool Sweater Big Lebowski Cardigan Cowichan Size L LargeFred Perry Knitted Harlequin Zip-through Cardigan - M - Ska Mod Casuals WellerVtg 90's Polo Ralph Lauren Wool Ski Sweater Knit Turtleneck MediumVintage 1980s Cable Knit Made In Italy Wool Ivory Men’s Sweater Sz MMen`s John Molloy Fisherman Cable Knit Sweater Size-m? Made In IrelandVintage Fila Mens 3xl Casual Tracksuit Jumper Top Blouse Sweatshirt SportLacoste V-neck Knitted Jumper In Ecru - Size 7 - Xl - Ska Mod Casuals ScooterLyle&scott Mens Vintage Jumper Size XlPatagonia Vintage Men's Pullover, 1/4 Snap Sweater Pullover Synchilla Fleece LLyle & Scott Vintage Mens Cardigan Jumper Sweater Size L Logo Vgc Rrp £99 CottonNorwool Of Norway Pure Wool Blue/white Metal Button Sweater Size-lVintage Authentic Coogi Mens Medium Multi Color Crew Neck Sweater Cosby No TagMen's Vintage Izod Lacoste Cable Knit Sweater V Neck - LargeAdidas Mens Xl Tracksuit Hoodie Warm Blouse Sweater Jumper VintageVtg Pendleton ~the Dude Big Lebowski Cowichan Button-up Wool Cardigan Sweater XlVintage 70s Hippie Unisex Cowichan Lebowski Shawl Collar Sweater CardiganVintage Ll Bean Birdseye Sweater Norwegian Wool Navy Blue Crewneck Men's LargeVtg Mens Medium White Cable Knit Cardigan Sweater - M Acrylic Vtg Fred Perry V Neck Jumper Indie M L Medium 45"chest Mod Weller Agryle Vintage Dehen All American 'pete Miller' Men's Red Wool Varsity Cardigan Sz L-xlVtg Lyle & Scott Jumper Indie M Medium 37"chest Mod Oi Weller Black Skinny WoolVintage 90s Polo Ralph Lauren Men’s Striped Wool Sweater Sz L True Vintage Big Lebowski The Dude Wool Cowichan Cardigan Sweater Pendleton ~ MCleveland Browns Mens Vintage 80's Cliff Engle Wool Sweater Sweat Shirt 2xl XxlVtg Mens Coogi Australia Mercerized Cotton Multi-colored Jumper Sweater XlVtg Polo Ralph Lauren 100% Cotton Yellow Blue Pink Plaid Sweater M Mens ClassicVtg Izod Lacoste Alligator Mens V Neck Preppie Sweater M Gray Cable PulloverIzod Lacoste Mens Sweater L Large Alligator Logo Green Vintage Shirt JumperVtg ~ Izod Lacoste *black* Gator Cardigan Button Sweater ~ Mens L LargeAuthentic Vintage College Letterman's Sweater From The 1940's Carleton College?Vintage Caldwell Cowichan Shawl Collar Cardigan Wool Sweater Mens Sz MediumMen's Patagonia Sweater Knit Wool Green Vintage Camping Heavy Thick LargeVtg Polo Ralph Lauren Men M Medium Turtleneck Cotton Sweater ~ EucNy Giants Vintage Men's Sweater Size Adult X Large Wool Blend Usa Cliff Engle œMens Vintage 70s Cowichan Cardigan Sweater Stag Deer Nordic Lebowski Shawl LVtg 80s Orig Fred Perry Mod Jumper Sweater Cable Knit Punk RareVintage Men's Polo Ralph Lauren Skier Snowflake Hand Knit Sweater Sz XlVintage Patagonia Retro Fleece Cardigan Men's MediumVtg 1940s French Wool T-shirt Undershirt Top Chore Henley Sweater.workwear.work