Sweaters, also known as jumpers, are a casual wardrobe staple for elegant men. They come in many shapes, knits, and materials, but why is it so hard to find a good one?
Part of that question lies in defining what constitutes a “good” sweater. In our book, a good sweater is worth the price in terms of the quality of the materials, the construction, the durability, and a timeless cut and pattern. A sweater that is worth the investment should:
- Be constructed of natural materials or a blend of natural materials
- Properly fit in the body, sleeves, shoulder and waist
- Use only buttons or toggles, and not zippers; zippers are better suited to sporting attire than casual or professional attire
- Be a classic cut and style
- Not feature brand logos
- Shouldn’t pill excessively
Sweaters help dapper men transition between the seasons, add texture and layers to outfits, and stay warm in chilly environments. In this guide, we will explore how the sweater evolved to be the classic wardrobe staple it is today, and how to find a good one. Every man should own a few!
History of the Sweater
Like many garments, the history of the sweater is mostly a functional one. The most famous historical wearers of sweaters were fishermen, who needed warm and hard-wearing garments to protect themselves from the elements. As far back as the 15th century, fisherman’s wives from Guernsey in the Channel Islands between Britain and France knitted “guernseys” with tightly spun and knit wool that repelled the sea spray. As trade developed, the guernsey was adopted and modified by coastal communities across the British isles and North Sea. Called a “gansey” by other communities, these sweaters were distinctively patterned across the yoke with a stitch local to the wearer’s village. The neck was finished with a short collar and the cuffs were structured so that they could be easily re-knitted. Until the turn of the 20th century, ganseys were hand-knitted by a loved one and were still worn almost exclusively as a working man’s garment, though many men owned a finer gansey for Sundays and holidays.
In the mid 19th century, the gansey was adopted by the Royal British Navy, and they are still part of the uniform for various members of the British military. At the same time, knitted sweaters from Fair Isle in the Scottish Shetlands were first being traded off the island. Elsewhere in the British Isles, the Aran sweater, which hails from the Aran Islands off the coast of Ireland, was adapted from the gansey sweaters brought by fisherman brought in to help improve the local fishing industry. Local women then altered the sweater and began knitting an all-over pattern.
Until the first few decades of the 20th century, the sweater remained a functional garment for certain professions and communities, but that all changed as fashion became a driving force behind clothing choices.
In 1921, the trend-setting Prince of Wales was given a Fair Isle sweater vest which he then wore in public. He was always keen to promote British products, and he would go on to wear Fair Isle sweaters and socks, sparking a craze for the pattern and setting crew neck and v-neck sweaters on a course to become wardrobe staples for all classes of men. In the same decade, the young playwright Noel Coward popularized the turtleneck, which was also known as the polo neck sweater.
In the 1950’s, a Vogue magazine article profiled the Aran sweater, and the resulting demand led Ireland began commercial Aran production and exportation worldwide. Between the 1920s and 1970s, film and rock stars like Errol Flynn, Steve McQueen, Cary Grant, Mick Jagger and Michael Caine wore every variety of sweater and cemented their role as a masculine, casual-cool wardrobe staple for style conscious men.
What is a Sweater, Exactly?
A sweater, or a jumper or a pullover depending on where you are from, is a knitted garment that covers the upper body and arms. It can cover parts of the neck as well, depending on the cut. Sweaters can be defined by many characteristics, most notably the cut or style, the pattern, or the knit.
There are a handful of core styles:
- Crew Neck: Named after the fisherman who originally wore this cut, a crew neck is a pullover sweater with a rounded, close-fitting neck. Today, they are the most popular sweater style. It can be worn with a collared shirt underneath, but there is not enough room to wear a tie as well.
- V-Neck: The v-neck is essentially the same as a crew neck, but the neckline is cut into a v-shape. Due to the cut, this sweater is best worn with a collared shirt and a tie or an ascot, making it perfect for the office.
- Turtleneck: Also known as a roll neck, mock neck or polo neck sweater, some or all of the neck is covered by this sweater. A turtleneck is the highest, followed by the roll neck and then the shorter mock neck. They can be worn on their own with a pair of chinos or blue jeans, or they can be worn on casual Friday to the office under a blazer.
- Shawl collar: The modern shawl collar sweater is descended from military or “infantry” sweaters given to American GIs. It features a rolled neck that is crossed or uncrossed in a v-neck shape; some versions offer 1-3 buttons or toggles that can be either functional or just for looks.
- Cardigan: A cardigan opens down the front like a shirt or a jacket, and is closed by buttons or toggles. The most common version is single-breasted, but some retailers now offer double-breasted versions that look like a cross between a peacoat and a cardigan. Again, save zippered cardigan sweaters for sportswear.
- Half-zip: This modern style has a high collar that can be opened and closed with a short zipper, though it is typically worn open. It’s a relatively new style, and by now you can guess how we feel about zippers.
- Tennis: Tennis sweaters are as classic as they come, and they have a deep v-neck with a brightly colored trim around the neckline and possibly the hem and cuffs. Originally they were almost exclusively cable-knit in white or cream, but they now come in a variety of colors and finishes.
- Commando or “Wooly Pully”: This close-fitting crewneck sweater features reinforced shoulder epaulets and elbow patches, much like it’s military ancestor.
Sweater Patterns & Knits
Sweaters come in a wide range of colors, patterns, and knits, including:
- Solid, which can be knitted from a single color thread or a range of colors to add depth of color
- Fair Isle uses multiple colors and traditional Scottish patterns to create a bold result
- Aran is a knit that uses wider, thicker patterns to create a more three-dimensional texture in a solid color
- Cable knit is a classic pattern that imitates a 2-stranded rope, and usually, it comes in solid colors
The sweater material you choose is most typically dictated by your budget, intended purpose, and functionality. Aim to buy the best quality you can; one rule of thumb is to look at the level of detail a retailer provides about the material. If it’s inexpensive, it will probably read “100% wool” or merely “cashmere”. If more detail is offered, such as the ply or the specific country of origin of the fiber, the more likely it is to be a higher quality, because the retailer will feel the need to justify the price.
Cashmere is a coveted material for both its softness and warmth, which can be up to 8x warmer than sheep’s wool. However, prices for cashmere sweaters can vary wildy. The reason is that not all cashmere is alike, though all cashmere is derived from the fine under hair of the cashmere goat. The finest quality cashmere is made from the thinnest (usually between 14 and 16.5 microns) and longest fibers (up to 36mm long), usually from Mongolia and China. Long, thin cashmere fibers make for the softest, most durable sweater that will last the longest. thick, which is one of the reasons for its softness. Cashmere from Iran (17.5 – 19 micron) and Afghanistan (16.5-18 micron) is less desirable because it is rougher and pills more easily. Shopping for quality cashmere can be hard because retailers rarely share the information you need, such as the origin of the cashmere, the number of plies (2-ply, 3-ply, etc.) or the grades of the fibers (A, B or C). In this case, use common sense; $100 cashmere sweaters are unlikely to be the best quality. Look for ply info if you can find it, the higher the ply the better, and test cashmere to see how it resists stretching. Pull it between your fingers a bit, and if the fabric springs back, it is tightly woven and likely to be a higher quality. If it doesn’t, don’t buy it.
Alpaca is generally considered to be as soft as cashmere, but microscopic air pockets in the fiber makes it about 7% more warmth than cashmere does. At the same time, Alpaca is elastic, lanolin free, hypo-allergenic and hence ideally suited to people who are allergic to wool or cashmere. It is most likely to be found blended with other natural materials.
Wool is famously itchy, but that shouldn’t prevent you from looking at this wonderful traditional fabric. Consider wearing wool sweaters over button-down shirts and look at all the qualities of wool to find what suits your taste. A fine and thin Merino wool, for example, is excellent for layering in the office, over shirts, and under jackets.
Cotton and Linen
Cotton and linen are especially popular in warmer climates or for transitional seasons. These sweaters don’t provide much protection from the cold, but it is a step up compared to just wearing a shirt. Since they’re so light, they can easily be tied around your neck or waist. They are also a fantastic option for travelers since the weight and size of the sweater is light when compared to a thicker wool sweater.
Synthetics and Poly-Blends
It can be very difficult to avoid synthetics and poly-blends these days, and these materials are popular because they stretch easily, feel comfortable on the skin, and they cost less than their natural peers. The flipside is that they are rarely designed to last and are often intended to be thrown away after a few years of wear. Avoid them as much as possible.
Like any garment worth wearing, a sweater should fit you properly. Unfortunately, because sweaters are knitted, they are not easy to alter and therefore finding good fit off the rack is necessary. Here is how each element should fit:
- The hem of the sweater should overlap your waistband (at a minimum) or fall just below it. If you can see your shirt peeking out from underneath it or your sweater bunches when you sit, it is either too short or too long, respectively.
- The shoulder seam should sit directly where the top of your shoulder bone ends
- The sleeves should end at the base of your thumb if worn alone, or a 1/2″ before it if worn with a shirt underneath
- The body should fit comfortably with a little extra material; if it rolls or billows by the hem it is too large, and likewise if the seams of your shirt show through it is too tight
Do’s and Don’ts for Men’s Sweaters
- DO store sweaters neatly folded rather than hanging
- DO minimize how often you wash your sweaters; the less the better!
- DO wash your sweaters according to the instructions on the label, but make sure to dry them flat and not in the dryer
- DON’T reject “itchy” materials such as wool; simply plan to wear them with a shirt underneath
- DON’T wear a zip up sweaters even with casual outfits; reserve them for golf and sports
- DON’T pull or clip loose threads, as you might unwind part of your sweater; try to pull the loose thread through the back side of the sweater
- DON’T wear a visible t-shirt underneath your sweater, it cheapens the look
- DON’T toss pilling sweaters; some pilling is unavoidable so get a clothes razor or sweater stone to make your sweaters look like new again
How to Buy Sweaters
Sweaters come in and out of stock based on the seasons and are rarely stocked for more than one season, so it can be difficult to recommend one particular model. The above criteria should give you the tools to look critically at any brand’s sweater offerings and decide if they are worth your money. Typical brands such as Brooks Brothers, J. Crew and Club Monaco will occasionally offer a 100% natural material sweater, but they are often limited additions that you have to sort out from among the poly-blends. Here are a few brands that consistently stock high-quality sweaters in natural materials.
Blarney Woolen Mills
This family-owned Irish company has been making wool based products since 1750. They offer numerous classically designed sweaters in different kinds of wool, and at reasonable prices to boot. Check out Blarney Woolen Mills selection of men’s sweaters here. They even offer some hand knit options, which is extremely rare!
O’Connell’s is similar to Blarney in that they are a family owned business that produces classic sweaters in natural materials. They offer some spectacular Fair Isle designs in real Shetland wool, which is the original (but famously scratchy) material. In addition, they offer Aran, cashmere, crew neck, v-neck and cardigan sweaters in a range of other materials. Take a look at O’Connell’s sweater selection here.
Another Irish company, this sweater maker offers a much smaller selection but they are worth taking a look at for their linen and cotton options. This spectacular bird’s eye crew neck or this replica fisherman’s gansey in linen are both classic and highly unusual. Check out Inis Meain’s full sweater selection here.
An English manufacturer, John Smedley has been producing high-quality knitwear since 1784. This brand is a great option for investment-level basics that you will wear time and time again, such as solid turtlenecks, crew necks and v-necks in extra fine merino, cashmere or Sea Island Cotton, in addition to natural material blends. James Bond even wore their Bobby sweater in Skyfall. Take a look at John Smedley’s extensive sweater selection here.
Vintage or Secondhand
Finally, don’t forget to consider vintage or secondhand sweaters. Older sweaters, especially those in resaleable condition, are often constructed with better techniques and materials than their more contemporary peers. Ten-year-old Ralph Lauren sweaters, for example, have last longer and aged much better than recently purchased RL sweaters in our experience. Furthermore, if you can’t afford new cashmere sweaters, you can often find very high-end brands in barely worn condition on sites like eBay. Store brand sweaters, such as Neiman Marcus, can be a great source for quality cashmere.
What is your favorite style of sweater and how do you wear it? What techniques do you use to find sweaters worth the investment?