Whenever I feel uninspired or bored with my own closet, I have a habit of stealing my family members’ clothes. The blue knit sweater pictured above was first stolen from my unsuspecting brother around 2007. He had gone to college, and I was tired of trying to look cute during the winter. I relished the simplicity, warmth, and comfort the oversized sweater offered me.
The sweater has since become one of my most reliable go-to’s, either for days when the weather is extremely cold, or for days when I want to appear nondescript and sensible. It has seen both outdoors adventures and my laziest moments at home, and has been un-stolen and re-stolen time and time again over the years. But while this particular sweater’s story is enmeshed with that of my own family, the story of its ancestors spans hundreds of years and many generations of families.
Scholars believe that the technique of knitting first originated somewhere in the Middle East, as early as 11th century BC, later developing independently in South America and spreading to Europe by Mediterranean trade routes. From the 14th century onward, knitting became an essential technique for producing everyday items in Scandinavia and Britain, possessing great instrumental and cultural value. Knit sweaters were first used by fishermen, who relied on the heat insulating and water-repellant material properties of wool to protect themselves from the forces of nature. The different stitches were closely linked to clan identities, and were guarded secrets that were passed down through generations. Because of this, stitch patterns were used to identify the bodies of fishermen who washed onto the shore after fishing accidents.
In the 20th century, the knit sweater became increasingly popular worldwide. For instance, Fair Isle sweaters originated in northern Scotland and became popular worldwide during the 1920s, thanks to the trendsetting Prince of Wales (pictured above). The Aran sweater, or the cable knit sweater, first appeared in the Aran Islands during the 1920s, but gained worldwide popularity when in 1956, when a pattern for an Aran sweater design was published in an issue of Vogue.
This popularization of knitwear can be attributed to several factors. First, the rise of commercial machine knitting helped make knitwear more accessible to the masses. Coco Chanel’s innovative use of jersey in women’s fashion during the 1910s helped ushered Western fashion towards a simpler vision of elegance. Moreover, aspects of knitwear appealed to different eras for different reasons: for example, the simplicity and resource efficiency of knitwear appealed to Americans during World War I; in the 1960s, the modern, informal, and comfortable aesthetic of knitwear was embraced by youth culture. By the 1980s, knitwear had become mass-produced and affordable, but its popularity waned with young people because it was considered old-fashioned.
Finally, throughout the past few centuries and especially in the 20th century, knit sweaters has had ties to gender and family. For instance, in the 1920s, Aran sweaters were knit by women who gathered to chat and exchange tips, and the sweaters were given to their lovers and husbands as gifts. During World War I and World War II, American women were encouraged to recycle wool and knit sweaters for their husbands to help the war effort. The gendered significance of knitting, as well as its ties to love, care, and family, have endured throughout the decades and up until the present day.
Today, the knit sweater has lost its specific ties to the fishermen of Scandinavia and Britain, and become a garment of the masses. Although some styles of the cable knit sweater are associated with preppy, WASP-y fashion, for the most part, the garment has become so popularized that it is now a staple in many people’s closets. Yet despite its ubiquity, a cable knit sweater can still be an object of great significance for many people, symbolizing warmth, comfort, family, and tradition. It might be knitted by someone’s mother (like Mrs. Weasley’s Christmas sweaters), or inscribed with an important insignia (like the “H” sweater popular amongst Harvard students). Alternatively, it could also be a forgotten sweater lying in the bottom drawer of someone’s dresser, soon to be stolen by his sister while he’s away at school.