A Woman’s Guide To Ivy Sweaters And A Gift Guide For Those Who Buy Them

My friend Zoë at the Evening Bar in the Shinola Hotel, in Detroit last week.

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

Lambswool Sweater

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.

Fisherman Sweaters

Fisherman Sweater

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.

Shetland Sweaters

The Shetland

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

Fair_Isle

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.

Turtlenecks

Turtleneck, hell yes.

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.

Cardigans

Cardigan

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.

ZG Burnett

27 Comments on "A Woman’s Guide To Ivy Sweaters And A Gift Guide For Those Who Buy Them"

  1. This was a wonderful article and it felt specifically tailored to me, a woman with a large collection of vintage sweaters! I have at least two from each category except the sweater vest. Thank you for the wonderful read and the beautiful illustrations!

  2. The Scotia Jumper calls the classic Commando, including suede at the shoulders, to mind.

    https://www.campbellsofbeauly.com/shop/scotia-jumper-suede-2-ply/

  3. I nominate ZG to attempt an investigative piece on the character and history of the natural (jacket) shoulder, which, for all the talk about messenger bags and ‘trad cars’ (really??) and Ivy vacation spots and blah-blah, remains the defining symbol-and-motif of this very particular-and-unique style. The hallmark, insignia, emblem, and coat-of-arms of classic Ivy.

    That none of the current J. Press jackets feature a natural shoulder (let’s not argue; I’ve seen them), and that only one manufacturer is making it in the old Grieco Bros./Norman Hilton tradition– this is both scandalous –and, well, interesting. And cause for some protestant reformation-ish, Luther-style “Here I Stand!” action, no?

  4. Yes!!! An enjoyable piece. Thank you. Wearing a navy crew neck Shetland sweater over a Mercer Tattersall shirt and beneath a frighteningly bold vintage Southwick tweed jacket today as it happens.

    Autumnal Regards,

    H-U

  5. Thank you for this. As I’m contemplating Xmas gifts for my better half, it’s a good reminder of what she might appreciate most. And speaking of appreciation, the tips on sweater care are absolutely invaluable to me, as I’m pretty hopeless with this stuff. A key takewaway for me: wash as little as possible! 😉

  6. Yeah! Hurrah! Whoopee! An article for us! Thank you, Zoe. And thank you, SE for the link.

  7. The sun came out at the words: “which you must tuck in.” The autumn leaves burst into resplendent view at the Balaklava reference. (The year was indeed 1854.) Good taste, insight, lore, plus care tips. This is a bellwether for fall sweater wearing for all seasons.

  8. This was a delight to read and the illustrations are both charming and skillful. I’ve been trying to maintain a degree of minimalist curation in my wardrobe, particularly with sweaters, simply because they take up so much space. But after reading this, I’ve decided to give that up. I can make room.

  9. Good work!

  10. Besides her obvious allure and charm, her writing and fashion sense to me can be described as sensible. Sensible is a word I have not seen used in these precincts and I would encourage others to consider it. Ivy is at its core a sensible (practical can also be considered) manner of dress, both male and female. Thanks, Zoe for another informative, entertaining, and useful (a very prep word in itself) article.

  11. Awesome OMG (Old Money Gal) style. Terrific illustrations.

  12. Correction:
    Turtleneck, hell yes.
    “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.”

    By the 16th century chain mail had been replaced with plate armor in Europe,except of course, for impoverished
    knights and lowly foot soldiers.

  13. Charlottesville | November 16, 2021 at 4:11 pm |

    Another stellar post by Ms. Burnett, including delightful illustrations. Brava!

  14. Thank you for the lovely comments, everyone! And thanks to Roger for the correction, however I must counter correct that chainmail pieces were also used during the 15th and 16th centuries as extra protection between plates of armor. This collar from the Met is an excellent example:

    https://www.metmuseum.org/art/collection/search/34834

    Turtlenecks most likely existed in some form before that time, but the chainmail probably tore the cashmere to shreds.

  15. Chain mail, plate armor and turtlenecks: No place but Ivy Style.

  16. Thank you for this piece whis I found both entertaining and informative.

  17. Make that “which” I found
    Sorry.

  18. Those illustrations add a certain İndescribably pleasant quality to an already delightful blog.

  19. Interesting that a knitted garment as basic (and comfortable) as a sweater (and relatively simple to make at home if one knows the technique) only became popular in the 20th century. Almost everything people wore before the 20th century was woven. I wonder why. Correct me if I’m wrong.

  20. Fred Johnson | November 17, 2021 at 8:57 am |

    I too would love to see more and regular articles from Zoe.
    She seems to be more affordable and practical than Muffy but along the same line of thought. A woman’s Ivy thoughts and insight is always welcome here, at least for me.

  21. Fred Johnson | November 17, 2021 at 8:58 am |

    I too would love to see more and regular articles from Zoe.
    She seems to be more affordable and practical than Muffy but along the same line of thought. A woman’s Ivy thoughts and insight are always welcome here, at least for me.

  22. ZG,
    a piece on the history and evolution and ‘American campusization’ (clumsy phrase, but oh well) of the American natural shoulder (ANS) will benefit from your skill(s). Give it a go. There are at least three living-and-breathing sources who, willing to speak truthfully, will inspire us to look more closely-and-carefully at the wide-and-high shouldered, overly padded jackets that some are trying to recommend and peddle as “natural.”

  23. Ivy Style is back and nobody told me?! !! I had to find out by doing a “sack suit” image search! How long has this been going on?

    ZG, I second S.E.’s nominating you to investigate the natural shoulder. You will do good work, ZG. I’m sure of it.

    S.E., “only one manufacturer is making it”…the natural shoulder. Which manufacturer is that? J. Press shoulders look “funny” on the mannequins in their ads. And timely Luther referece! Sola Shoulda Natura!

  24. Also lacking is a piece on the history and evolution of Viyella. I nominate ZG– again.

  25. SE– thank you for the kind words and your vote of confidence! I’ll definitely address natural shoulders vs padding in an upcoming list of women’s sport coats/jackets/blazers, and I’m sure other Ivy-Style writers can weigh in on the menswear end. Big yes to Viyella, still love their tattersall shirts.

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