Knitwear Guide: Sweaters, Jumpers, and Cardigans

We need a knitwear guide. Sorry it’s halfway through winter for most, but better late than never, I guess.

Most important rules: Don’t hang sweaters. Don’t machine wash or dry wool. Natural fibers beat synthetic. Don’t wear argyle. For fuck’s sake, don’t tuck in sweaters. Normal fit rules apply.

Jumper versus Cardigan – The term “sweater” refers to both jumpers and cardigans. Cardigans are basically sweaters that button or zip in the front, as opposed to pullovers or jumpers. Most of the same rules apply to both jumpers and cardigans. Neither one is more stylish than the other, although some people say cardigans remind them of Mr. Rogers. 


That’s not usually a problem, in fact some people think of Mr. Rogers as a style icon in his own right.

I. Materials.

A. Wool.

You’re probably aware that wool comes from animals—mostly sheep, but also goats (cashmere, pashmina), alpaca, and muskoxen (qivuit), to name a few. Quality and softness vary with the animal, and with the animal’s age. Generally, cashmere is softer, lighter and warmer than alpaca, which is softer than lambswool (from 7 month old sheep), which is softer than most sheep’s wool.

Wool quality depends mostly on the strength and thickness of the fiber. Finer fibers are softer, and can be spun more easily (a quality known as “crimp”). Merino wool, named for the species of sheep from which it is derived, is finer than most wool (comparison to crossbreed pictured) 


, which makes it suitable for blending with other fabrics like cashmere and silk. Fine wool is also less prone to pilling.

The main benefits of wool: Generally wool is more durable than materials like cotton and synthetics. It will last longer without developing holes or coming apart at the seams. Wool is generally a better insulator than cotton or synthetics, which is why it is used in outerwear as well. Wool does not retain body odor, which means it does not need to be cleaned as frequently.

Downsides: Wool absorbs moisture more readily than other materials. Putting a wool sweater in the dryer will cause the moisture to be lost quickly, resulting in major shrinking. Do not stick wool in the dryer.

Caring for wool: Wash by hand in temperate water and dry on a drying rack, or dry clean. Never wash wool in hot water or stick it in the dryer. It will shrink. Some people stick wool in the dryer to intentionally shrink it. I don’t recommend this because it can produce unpredictable results, but if you choose to do so, it will usually shrink one full dress size. If you’re worried that your sweater smells like BO, you should hang it up in the bathroom when you take a shower.

When a wool sweater starts to pill

you can remove pills with a pill razor (much like a shaving razor) or sweater stone 


Do not hang sweaters on clothes hangers. You will end up with stretched shoulders. Fold them and keep them in a bureau. A wood bureau is best because it draws moisture away. Don’t stuff them in the drawer either—leave room for them to air out after you wear them.

B. Silk.

Silk is a fiber produced by insects. It is more commonly used in finer clothes, but silk sweaters are common enough to warrant mention here. Silk is made from silkworm and other insects’ cocoons, which are boiled in water to extract the longest fibers. Silk is lightweight and breathable, but much less warm than wool.

Care: Mostly the same as wool. Silk will not shrink as much (about 8% of its original size, not a full dress size). Silk should be dry cleaned, and only sparingly. Also: Sweat can make silk turn a nasty yellowish color. Don’t wear it when you’re going to sweat.

C. Other natural fibers: Cotton, Linen, and Hemp.

Cotton is grown from a type of gossypium plant, linen from a flax plant, hemp from cannabis. The rules of care are mostly the same for all three: They are machine washable, but should still dry on a drying rack. They won’t shrink as much as wool—although they will shrink—but drying clothes in the dryer generally causes damage to the fibers and shortens their life. All three should be kept away from moisture, as they can develop mildew. But they are less susceptible to moths and carpet beetles, and they don’t usually pill like wool.

Cotton is common and inexpensive, but has a reputation for wearing out faster than wool. Cotton provides less insulation than wool, but it is breathable, so it is worn in all seasons.

Linen is higher on the quality totem than cotton. It’s expensive and tedious to manufacture, but once made, it is a lightweight fabric used for spring and summer wear due to its perceived cool feel and breathability. (You won’t wear linen sweaters in the winter unless you’re layering, and probably not even then.) Hemp is a little heavier, and the fibers are stronger than cotton or linen. Its texture is comparable to that of linen.

D. Synthetics and blends.

Synthetic materials are cheaper than natural ones. Acrylic sweaters are the most common. On the plus side, they are often more resistant to the elements (chemicals, oils, sunlight, bugs) and they tend to be machine washable. (Still dry on the rack, as acrylic will shrink and pill too.) The tradeoff is that they don’t keep their structure long, they’re usually made more cheaply, and they’re both less breathable and less warm.

II. Styles, Patterns, and Knits.

Rule of thumb: Finer patterns for finer knits, brawnier patterns for brawnier knits. Credit goes to Esquire for this rule.

Solid Color– With solid colors, fine knit is safer for business casual, but thicker knits can be done too. Colors depend on season. Darker colors work well in fall and winter, lighter colors and pastels work well in spring and summer, navy blue works all year around.

Solid colored turtenecks frame the face well and give definition to the torso. Some people think they look hipster 


or effeminate 

(for better or worse), but with the right attitude they can look manly 

. (Thick knit honorable mention: Hemingway. 

) Turtlenecks weren’t really in this season, but men’s fashion is cyclical, so expect to see them again next year or so.

A navy blue v-neck sweater with a white button down, tie, and khakis is classic business casual. It can cover a wrinkled or untailored shirt, and it keeps you warm. Crew necks are also acceptable, but in my opinion v-necks are easier to pair with a button down shirt. Darker reds are also acceptable, but since they remind me of Target employees, I pass them up over blue.

Stripes. – In keeping with the rule from above: Thin stripes go better on fine knits. When it comes to stripes on thick-knit sweaters, stripes should be broad with alternating bright and dark colors. 

Fair Isle/Nordic Sweater. – Fair isle sweaters took me by surprise this season. I long associated them with the ugly sweaters in the “avoid” category, but this year there were some good ones if you knew where to look.

Besides fit, the most important bit with regard to fair isles is the color scheme—there should be a motif. Example: Tallest Man on Earth. 

Notice how the colors are all autumnal, a rusty brown on top of a weathered, creamy color. Too many colors will make it loud, and too few will make it dull. Some contrast is good, but there should be a happy medium.

Related is the Native American knit, which is more popular in the American southwest. Honorable mention in this category: The Dude. 


Aran, Cableknit, or Fisherman’s Sweater. – Arguably a staple of the manly man’s wardrobe. There are a few stories about its origins—Art of Manliness (linked below) describes a legend where the pattern would identify the wearer’s clan, in case he was thrown overboard and drowned, and had to be identified. (According to Wikipedia[12] , this is likely a myth.)

Cable knits don’t have to fit perfectly around the midsection, but they should fit in the shoulders and under the arms. See the fit section below.

Avoid or Use Caution – Argyle, Coogi, Ugly, Half-Zip, and Black Mannequins.

Avoid argyle sweaters. They are frequently associated with guys who are just starting to try dressing well without having read the rules. Argyle is angular and usually three colors, which are bad things for plebes. The pattern is too jarring and uneasy to work well in most settings unless the colors are muted, and even then you’re not erring on the side of caution. (One notable exception: Argyle sweaters are permissible if you’re on the golf course. Also, argyle socks are fine.)


are only allowed if you’re trying to bring back streetwear 

from the early 1990s

. For all intents and purposes, just avoid coogis.

If you’re going to wear an ugly or gimmicky sweater, you have to understand that it’s not fashionable. People might laugh the first time they see it, or you might be wearing it to a party. That’s fine if it’s what you’re going for, but be warned, the novelty will wear off after the first time you wear it. After that, you will look like a try-hard jackass. On a similar note, reindeer sweaters should only be worn in the weeks leading up to the holidays, after which they should be retired until next year.

Half-zips are controversial, but the majority consensus is that they look dad-core.

Finally, avoid anything you see online that is displayed on a black mannequin. This is not limited to sweaters. They never fit like they do in the picture (usually because they are pinned back), and they correlate very strongly with poor quality. (Perhaps someone can link the yesstyle picture for reference.)

III. How Should it Fit?

Like anything else in fashion, fit is the most important point. When worn casually sweaters can have a little extra baggage, but if they’re too loose you’ll add pounds to your frame or look sloppy. Too tight just looks silly.

Thin knit: Shoulder seam at shoulder bone. Arm holes can be a little wide, but if your sweater has wings when you stretch your arms, it’s too big. Here’s a good fit.

Thick knit: Same rule with shoulders and armholes. Thick knits are expected to be a little baggy in the arms and midsection, and they don’t have to be perfectly tailored to your frame. They can also hang a little bit lower than your pants pockets 

without entering faux pas territory. Just make sure you’re not overdoing it, or you’ll be adding visual pounds to your frame.With cardigans, avoid collar gap. Try to get the cardigan to lie tangentially with the back of your neck. The bottom button should meet your belt.

How do you button cardigans? First, always leave the bottom unbuttoned. Second, button the others to where they give you the best fit. Some guys undo the one on the top, some guys just do two in the middle, and some do all but the bottom. Some even go all unbuttoned. The only bright line rule is never button the bottom.

My sweater doesn’t quite fit. Can I get it tailored? Most tailors don’t do knitwear, and those that do charge more. Most sweaters don’t have to fit perfectly, but if it really is too big, consider just sizing down or finding a similar one by a brand that caters to your body type. (With that in mind, yes, sweaters can be tailored.)

IV. Layering.

I think a contrast between outerwear color and sweater color looks better than matching colors. Maybe that’s just me—I know some people on here prefer closer colors between layers.

What do I wear under a v-neck sweater? Button down or crew neck t-shirt. Collar should stay under the sweater, as should cuffs, and shirt should be tucked in.

Are sweaters under blazers allowed? Yes, sweaters under blazers are allowed. However: 1) Both must fit exceptionally well, and 2) patterns absolutely cannot clash.

What about with suits? It’s not exactly erring on the side of caution, and it’s less formal than a suit without a sweater, but yes, it can be done.

What if I get hot, and I don’t know what to do with my sweater? Esquire answers that better than I can.

V. Note on Sweater Vests.

I usually avoid sweater vests because they tend to remind me of Rick Santorum. Having said that, I don’t think they’re totally out of the question—this guy does it well.

Same rules apply as far as shoulders. Arm hole should open where your shoulder breaks. If it’s too small in the chest, it will make your gut look big.

VI. Where to Buy.

Sweaters are such a broad category that it’s difficult to recommend particular places. Generally a brand’s reputation for quality and price overall will correlate strongly with its reputation for sweater quality and price.

For what it’s worth, here are some quick recommendations:

  • Solid color jumper or cardigan, for business or casual setting: J. Crew Merino, or cashmere if it’s in your price range.
  • Fair Isle: White mountaineering is a solid choice for a fine knit, Gant’s Army Jacquard is a good brawny knit.
  • Cable Knit: H&M is apparently sold out—their sweaters are dirt cheap but poor quality; LL Bean is better quality; and SNS Herning (which is actually waffle-knit, but an MFA favorite nonetheless).
  • Coogis (in case I piqued your interest): ebay.

Further reading:

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