EDITOR’S NOTE: Once again the writing of my friend Zoë is accompanied by her great illustrations.
Ivy women live for the coming of sweater weather. They’re warm, they’re practical, and we’ll wear each of them exactly twice a season to rotate the horde we conceal from friends and family. The uninitiated may ask, why so many? Aside from the Fall weather’s tendency to whiplash between balmy and frost on the pumpkin within the same week, we’re all chasing the spiritual warmth only to be found in small format back catalogues of Yankee magazine. We’re certainly not going to find it at the holiday gatherings for which we’re all subconsciously bracing ourselves.
The origins of wool sweaters vary from 9th century Viking invasions to the 15th century fishing trade of the Guernsey Islands. Formerly known as “ganseys” in the British Isles, the short collars and ribbed cuffs of homemade sweaters could be knitted again and darned. This valuable skill is worth learning to extend the longevity of your favorite knits, not just to flex on social media. The most popular Ivy variations primarily originate from the coldest and wettest byways of the North Sea and the Atlantic Sea. Hot toddy, anyone?
Crewneck Lambswool Sweaters
The first in classic cozy, lambswool sweaters in solid colors are the original layering garment for when it’s too cold for just a shirt and too warm for a jacket. With a short, ribbed collar and matching cuffs, the silhouette tends to be less bulky than some of the following sweaters. Merino is a thinner alternative that’s no less warm, however these tend to show the outlines of buttons and develop mysterious holes for no good reason. Both lambswool and merino are excellent with waffle cotton base layers, as you’ll want to wash them as little as possible.
Where to wear: Anywhere, anytime from September to April, especially in New England.
Wear with: These are the white shirts and khaki trousers of the sweater world, they can be worn with anything.
How to wash: Lambswool may be able to withstand a delicate cycle with just a drop of detergent, as long as you dry them flat. Merino shouldn’t even be in the same room as a washing machine, soak or dry clean only.
Also known as Aran or Donegal sweaters, depending on where you source them, fisherman sweaters from thick gauge unscoured wool with natural waterproofing properties. Each stitch pattern has its own symbolism, most of which were knitted to protect the person wearing them from the sea’s capricious gales. The cable knit is intentionally bulky to provide insulation, and often bought a size larger than usual to accommodate one to two layers underneath. With an authentic fisherman sweater, you shouldn’t need too many to keep toasty.
Where to wear: Near or on the water, anywhere the wind is liable to blow right through you.
Wear with: A wool skirt or a traditional kilt, essentially any outfit that would pair well with galoshes.
How to wash: As little as possible to preserve the wool’s natural oils. Spot clean when necessary, treat and soak in plain, cold water for big spills, roll in a towel to squeeze out excess water, and dry flat.
Existing in between a lambswool crewneck and a fisherman sweater, Shetland sweaters are named for the Shetland Isles and thereby the breed of sheep from which their wool is sourced. Coarser and often thinner than worsted wool, Shetland wool is more fibrous and seems almost hairy. Seasoned sweater collectors will easily be able to distinguish the J. Press’s ‘Shaggy Dog’ variety from the ‘brushed wool’ variant. This brand is best for contemporary examples, as they offer smaller sizes and use pure Shetland wool. Most contemporary retailers substitute mohair for Shetland wool, which simply isn’t the same.
Where to wear: Brunch, preceding or following antiquing, a farmer’s market, or produce picking.
Wear with: Cords and duck boots. Shetland is a working wool, even if you’re not doing any real physical labor.
How to wash: Hardly ever. Too frequent washing of a Shetland sweater will strip it of its shaggy-ness. Spot clean or brush to remove surface stains. Air dry for unpleasant odors.
Fair Isle Sweaters
The sweater vest has fallen by the wayside in recent years, whether because of school uniform PTSD or some truly heinous intarsia examples produced post 1969. Named for a tiny island now owned by the National Trust of Scotland and home to fewer than 100 occupants, Fair Isle sweaters were made popular by the Duke of Windsor. We’ve all heard that story. The sweaters themselves have regained popularity in recent years, with their intricate, multicolored patterns either being cheaply reproduced or maligned as ugly Christmas sweaters. This writer says, no more! They are works of art and deserve to be worn as such.
Where to wear: On errands, about town, and in buildings that have central heat but still manage to be drafty.
Wear with: Cotton trousers, loafers, and a collared shirt which you must tuck in. I don’t care what you saw styled on television.
How to wash: Don’t, if you can help it. Amateur washing of Fair Isle can lead to bleeding or almost comical shrinkage. Leave this to a professional.
Far from appearing stuffy, turtlenecks immediately add sophistication to any outfit. Originally developed in the 16th century to protect knights from chafing against their chainmail, turtlenecks made it easier to move their heads about in combat. Think of that the next time you quickly turn and retreat to avoid a social bore on the town Common, your neck protected from the scratchy collar of your grandmother’s tweed overcoat. Cashmere is my favorite material for this type of sweater, with alpaca and merino following close behind. Fine gauges and chunky knit turtlenecks wear well over a cotton turtleneck base layer for those bitterly cold days of midwinter.
Where to wear: Dinners, art gallery and museum exhibitions, meeting in-laws.
Wear with: Wool trousers and wool skirts, with stockings. Pair well with equestrian style boots or embroidered velvet slippers for more formal occasions.
How to wash: Soak in cold water, press with towel to remove excess fluid, dry flat.
Another victim of the early aughts, cardigans have seen their fair share of experimental cuts over the past twenty years. Many of these had no regard for warmth, or even coverage. Can you imagine how ridiculous a low-cut superfine wool cardigan from 2008 J. Crew would have looked on James Brudenell, 7th Earl of Cardigan, as he led the charge of the Light Brigade of British cavalry against the Russians in the Battle of Balaklava (1854)? The thicker the cardigan, the better. Mohair, lambswool, Shetland wool, and even thick gauge cashmere are all worthy options. My perennial gripe is that it’s impossible to find a camel hair shawl collar cardigan in women’s sizing, and this season is no different.*
Where to wear: In the house, buying used books, or surveying your property.
Wear with: A house dress or pajamas, in either cotton or silk.
How to Wash: Please refer to previous materials for reference.
*Two days following the completion of this article, the author discovered a vintage camel hair shawl collar cardigan. This doesn’t darn the hole in the market.