The knitted sweater is a staple garment of everyday clothing, being functional, versatile, and fashionable. The hand-knitted “shirts” and “waistcoats,” worn as underclothing by both rich and poor from the seventeenth century, can be linked to the “gansey” or “jersey” worn by fishermen and sailors of the British Isles and Scandinavia from the mid-nineteenth century. With the emergence of machine production, the functional, fitted woolen sweater was adopted for sailors’ uniforms in 1881, and continues as standard issue for navy and army personnel into the early 2000s.
By the end of the nineteenth century, fashionable clothing had become more relaxed as outdoor and leisure pursuits grew in popularity, cumbersome multiple layers reduced, and knitted underwear transformed into outerwear. Fashionable young men increasingly took up sports activities, and the masculine “sweater” (a close-fitting, knitted undergarment for absorbing sweat generated by exercise) was soon adopted by women.
The growing emancipation of women saw their participation in sports such as golf, tennis, and cycling, and, together with the bifurcated “bloomer,” the fitted sweater formed an outfit which gave unprecedented freedom of movement. The publication of instruction booklets for knitting designs fostered the rapid spread of new sweater fashions.
The evolving forms of the sweater have become symbolic of their time. During the 1920s and 1930s, key events influenced the sweater in fashionable dress: Coco Chanel’s use of knitted jersey fabric (inspired by men’s sweaters) for relaxed but sophisticated style; the Fair Isle patterned pullover worn by the Prince of Wales; Elsa Schiaparelli’s famous trompe l’oeil hand-knitted sweaters; and the jazz age of F. Scott Fitzgerald and The Great Gatsby. The jumper-knitting craze that followed World War I’s “knitting for victory” inspired several popular songs. Long lean “jazz jumpers” (both homemade and store bought) helped to define the softer, boyish silhouette of the “flapper” era.
The intricate tailored hand knits of wartime thrift; the glamorous styles and provocative image of the Hollywood “sweater girls” of the 1940s; golfing argyle-patterned sweaters, and the twin set of classic sophistication, (produced, for example, by Pringle of Scotland), have all become standards. The black polo-neck sweater of the avant-garde and the beatnik’s “sloppy Joe” mohair sweater of the 1950s; the growth of Italian style and casual wear in the 1960s, and the ravaged punk sweater of the 1970s, have also become iconic.
Pioneered by British designers such as Patricia Roberts, Artwork, and Joseph, the craft revival of the 1970s and 1980s transformed the hand-knitted sweater with multiple colors, pictorial or graphic patterning, and intricate stitchery. “Designer knitting” strongly influenced the development of technology for more complex mass-produced sweaters. In Europe, Missoni and Kenzo applied new color, texture, and proportion to high-fashion sweater dressing, exploiting jacquard technology to the fullest. Krizia created a popular range of animal-patterned sweaters that became a signature in each successive collection. Sonia Rykiel, Vivienne Westwood, and later Clements Ribeiro recolored traditional sweaters in stripes and argyle pattern variations. By the mid 1990s, the knitwear designs of Missoni and Rykiel were again popular as revival fashion reinterpreted earlier periods. At the more commercial end of the fashion spectrum, Benetton focused on color and universal appeal for its low-priced knitwear, which, through global branding and retailing, made basic knitwear accessible, fashionable, and fun. In the twenty-first century, a wide range of machine-made sweaters regularly feature in high-fashion collections of such as Prada, Armani, and Donna Karan. Oversized, dramatic, and elaborate hand-knitted sweaters are a focus of Dior, Gaultier, and Alexander McQueen couture collections. As knitting technology advances, the sweater remains integral to fashion and a basic garment capable of infinite variation.