The History of Sweaters


Weaving has existed for so long that there is even a Greco-Roman goddess of weaving. Some historians date the invention to around 18,000 years ago, near the end of the Paleolithic era. The oldest surviving woven article dates from around 5000 B.C.E. and was found at Fayum, Egypt’s oldest city and one of the oldest cities in Africa. All of the world’s major cultures wove fabrics, many of those cultures apparently having come about the technology independently, as evidenced, for example, by the pre-Columbian weaving traditions of the New World.

There is, however, no god or goddess of knitting—primarily because knitting was invented in a time long after man had ceased being etiological. By the time sweaters emerged on the fashion scene, necessity and desire—not gods and goddesses—had become the mother and godmother of invention.

The earliest known extant examples of garments with a knit-like appearance date from around 300 B.C.E. to 300 C.E. and are from Egypt and Peru. But the single-needle technique (called “nålebinding”) that produced those articles is not true knitting as the craft is defined today. Today, knitting is a process using two or more needles to loop yarn into a series of interconnected loops that then create either a finished garment or fabric. Exactly where knitting originated has been lost to history, primarily because knitting fibers (yarns) are biodegradable, so very few ancient articles have survived the ravages of time; but many experts believe that it is the technique for making fishing nets that evolved into knitting. It is also believed that knitting was invented by Arab sailors and nomads who then carried the craft to North Africa and from there into Spain, with Catholics quickly spreading the craft throughout Europe. The earliest surviving example of true knitting is a pair of patterned socks dating from circa 1100 C.E., found in Egypt. By the 14th century, knitting had spread throughout Europe, so much so that some paintings from the period even depict the Virgin Mary knitting. The verb “knit” did not appear in the Oxford Unabridged Dictionary until the 1400s.

The sweater is the proverbial Everyman’s outer-garment. While a man of modest means may not be able to afford a proper overcoat, rare is the man who does not own a sweater. Over the years, several styles have become classics: crew neck; v-neck; turtleneck; mock turtleneck; cardigan; quarter-zip or half-zip mock-turtleneck; Henley; polo; and, especially as a cotton sweater in the spring and summer months, the boat neck. The precise origin of most of the classic sweater styles is unknown: Many of them seem to have come into existence by the mid-1800s. Clearly, the polo sweater draws its inspiration from the polo shirts of the 1920s, and the Henley sweater was inspired by men’s underwear of the Victorian era. But it is the cardigan sweater which has the most documented history.

According to fashion historians, the cardigan sweater got its name from James Brudenell, the 7th Earl of Cardigan. He was also a British Army Major General who led a brigade during the Crimean War (1853 -1856), which pitted an alliance of France, Britain, the Ottoman Empire, and Sardinia against the Russians. During Brudenell’s campaign, officers are said to have worn knitted waistcoats with their uniforms for extra warmth. And because of the success of the campaign and the stories that emerged therefrom, the garment became popular, eventually evolving into a long-sleeved sweater which, when worn under a jacket, gives the appearance of a waistcoat. (The word “cardigan” also traditionally applies to sleeveless sweater-vests, but the term “cardigan sweater” is generally used to describe a button-up sweater with long sleeves).

The sweater is regarded as an absolute necessity in cool climates. Because it is generally worn over shirts, it creates layering, which is conducive to preserving body heat. And though technically an outer garment, a sweater is sometimes worn under coats and sport coats, thereby providing an additional layer of warmth both indoors and outdoors.

Sweaters are most attractive and most effective when made of natural fibers: wool, silk, cotton, or linen. And a gentleman should choose a sweater style that best compliments his natural attributes. While a polo sweater tends to suit most physiques, a short, stocky man should, for example, avoid turtleneck sweaters, wearing, instead, a v-neck or a cardigan. And a tall, slender man with a long neck may find that he is most becoming in a turtle neck or crew neck.

Care and Storage

Sweaters require gentle care if their longevity is to be maximized. While dry cleaning is a convenient and generally safe option, for best results, a wool sweater should be gently hand-washed in cold water with a mild detergent; thereafter rinsed in cold water; then squeeze-dried (not wrung) in a dry towel before being placed onto a flat surface in direct sunlight to air-dry. (Pre-soaking the garment in cold water with detergent for at least one hour is advisable). In order to expedite the drying process, the sweater may be placed atop a dry towel and turned over once or twice during the drying process.

On occasion, the ribbed cuff and waistline of a sweater will become stretched out of shape from repeated wear. On such occasion, the ribbing may be “tightened” by placing only the ribbed portions of the sweater into hot tap water until saturated. Thereafter, the ribbed portions should be squeeze-dried in a dry towel before the sweater is placed onto a flat surface to allow the moistened sections to air-dry. Sweaters made of cotton, linen, or silk yarns may also be dry cleaned. But they, too, are better hand-washed in cold water with a mild detergent. After being squeeze-dried as described above, they should be dried in an automatic drier on medium-high heat so that they may regain their original shape and tautness.

When not being worn, sweaters should be folded and stored on a shelf or in a drawer. Never should sweaters be hung on clothing hangers.

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