Men's knitwear buyers guide

Knitwear is such a versatile component of a man's wardrobe. When chosen thoughtfully and styled the right way, and a jumper becomes a sophisticated style piece in your sartorial arsenal, rather than something you've just thrown on to keep warm when it's chilly outside.

It's undeniable that knitwear tends to lean towards the 'wear at the weekend' end of the style spectrum. However, this guide will walk you through how you can wear knitwear for various occasions, even as a smart alternative to your standard button-down shirt.

Where did men's knitwear originate?

The humble jumper started life as a functional item of clothing for fishermen: life on the cold seas demanded a warm, hard-wearing garment. As early as the 15th century, fisherman's wives across the British Isles and France made tightly knitted 'guernseys' from unscoured wool that repelled the sea spray.

In the mid-19th century, the 'gansey' (as it was later called) was incorporated into the Royal British Navy's uniform. Around the same time, the Fair Isle sweater from Scotland and the Aran sweater from Ireland were traded outside their places of production.

Sweaters remained an item of work clothing until 1921 when the trendy Prince of Wales wore a Fair Isle sweater in public, sparking a craze for the design and propelling the sweater into the realms of men's fashion.

Soon after, playwright Noel Coward made turtlenecks famous for the artistic community. By the 1950's sweaters, including the popular-again Aran style, were being exported and worn by stars such as Errol Flynn, Steve McQueen and Michael Cain, cementing them as a wardrobe staple for men around the world.

Which one is correct – knitwear, jumper, sweater or pullover?

Potatas, potatoes. They actually all mean the same thing – it just depends on where you live.

In the UK, we generally favour the term jumper. The American term sweater can bring up connotations of sweatshirts and tracksuits, but it is increasingly being adopted as the catch-all term for long-sleeved clothing items that have no/few buttons to close at the upper chest or neck. A pullover is just a way of describing a knitted item of clothing that you need to pull over your head to get on.

We use knitwear as a broader term that encompasses sweaters/jumpers in all their varieties, cardigans, and knitted long and short-sleeve tops made from a knitted rather than woven fabric. We tend to exclude items made from fleece and sweatshirts in this category.

 

What is the best material for a jumper?

Regardless of style, choose knitwear made with pure, high-quality natural fibres such as wools as they allow your body to breathe. Synthetic fibres such as polyester may seem more practical from a care perspective as you can throw them in the washing machine. Still, they trap heat which is uncomfortable at best and causes overheating at worst.

Furthermore, knitwear made from natural fibres keeps its shape far better in the long run and is more likely flattering your figure. Synthetic fabrics lose shape, so by the end of winter, you'll end up looking like a sack of potatoes.

Our picks are:

  • Lambswool: As the name suggests, this wool is shorn from young sheep of various breeds around seven months old. Lambswool is so soft as it comes from the sheep's first shearing – wool becomes coarser as it ages. It is naturally moisture-wicking, hypoallergenic and breathable.
  • Merino wool: Shorn exclusively from the Merino sheep, this wool is soft, lightweight and works in harmony with your body's temperature to keep you comfortable. Merino has a smaller diameter than lambswool (17 – 20 microns) and a long staple (fibre length), making it drape beautifully.
  • Cashmere: This super soft material is from the undercoat of the cashmere goat. Given the fibres' fineness (an 18.5-micron diameter versus a human hair's 80-micron diameter) and the fact that these goats only produce small amounts each year compared to sheep, it is costly.
  • Cotton: Cotton is not as warm and soft as wool or cashmere, but the breathability lends itself to working well in warmer climates. It holds water well, too. If it gets wet, it can take quite some time to dry and may not hold its shape terribly well as it can overstretch.

 

Which men's knitwear style should I choose?

Style comes down to preference, but to make shopping easier, it’s handy to know which collar style suits you best.

If you aren’t sure, the team at Alexandra Wood would be delighted to help you.

Collar styles

For the majority of sweaters, the collar will dictate what style it is.

  • Crew neck: A close-fitting, round neck. This is probably the most popular style as it allows you to wear a t-shirt or collared shirt (no tie) underneath. The crew neck is a classic that will never go out of style.
  • Roll neck: Also known as a turtleneck, the tube-shaped collar is long enough to be folded over, creating a soft roll at the top. A shorter collar covering most of the neck but doesn't fold over is called a mock neck.
  • V neck: Fittingly named because the neckline is cut in a "V" shape. This style works well with a collared shirt and tie for the office.
  • Shawl neck: Features a rolled neck that can be crossed or uncrossed in a "V" shape and may have 1 – 3 buttons or toggles at the top as a nifty detail.
  • Quarter-zip: Features a short zip that extends to the top of the collar that can be left undone. Very sporty and best for smart casual or casual days out.
  • Polo: As you'd expect on a polo shirt, this style has a small collar and a placket with three buttons. We offer them in long and short versions, which work well under a sports jacket for a smart casual look out of the office.
  • Tennis: A classic style with a deep V neck. Originally entirely cable-knit in white or cream, the collar and cuffs, and often hem, are now usually knitted in a bright contrasting colour.

Unique patterns or design features define other styles, such as:

  • Cardigan: This style opens down the front with either buttons, toggles or a zip. Cardigans are usually single-breasted, but double-breasted versions occasionally appear. Keep the zippered version for casual or sportswear, and pair a chunky version with nice buttons with a dark pair of jeans and boots.
  • Sweatshirts: Made of fleece, these simple sweaters are the domain of gyms and sofas only. Handy and warm, but certainly not fashionable despite what you see on the catwalks.
  • Aran: A traditional sweater from the Aran Islands of Ireland that uses a mix of knitting styles, including cable. Initially, the Irish made Aran jumpers from undyed, unscoured wool as the lanolin made it more waterproof.
  • Argyle: These sweaters feature a distinct geometric pattern of overlapping diamonds in different colours derived from the tartan of Clan Campbell of Argyll in Western Scotland. (A lovely dinner party fact for you there!)
  • Fair Isle: Synonymous with Christmas, these jumpers feature geometric and snowflake patterns.
  • Commando: This military-inspired sweater features reinforced shoulder epaulettes and elbow patches in a contrasting, sturdy material.

Lightweight versus chunky knitwear

Whether you choose a lightweight or chunky knit mainly comes down to comfort.

For those transitional months between seasons and cool summer evenings, a lightweight crew or V-neck jumper in merino wool with a flat or jersey knit is a great choice. Just pop it over a simple t-shirt or even wear it on its own.

As we descend into the depths of winter, you'll need thicker options. Look for chunky cable or Aran knit, or even a moss stitch jumperthat you can layer under your coat.

What you intend wearing over your knitwear will also have some bearing on your choice – more delicate knits work better under sports jackets, whereas you may be able to fit a chunkier knit under an overcoat.

 

How should my jumper or sweater fit?

An oversized sweatshirt is great for lounging in front of the television. But that's precisely where loose-fitting jumpers belong – at home.

We're big believers that everything should be close fitting but not tight. This philosophy applies to all body shapes and sizes as it is the most flattering type of fit. The bulk created by excess fabric simply draws more attention to your mid-section and won't allow for a jacket or coat to sit nicely over the jumper.

Here's how to tell if your knitwear fits correctly:

Shoulders

The shoulder seam should gently hug the edge of your shoulders as this will give your frame a clean, crisp appearance. Shoulder seams that are either too tight or too wide tend to be unflattering as they lack the sharp edge that your body needs for a neat look.

Sleeves

Make sure that your sleeves end just after your wrist bone and slightly cup your hands. If the sleeves sit any higher, the sweater is too small, but if the cuffs cover your hands, you'll look like a teenager wearing their Dads jumper.

Waistline

Where possible, your knitwear should have some shape in the waist. Lines that run straight up and down beside the body aren't attractive. 

Length

There is usually a cuff of some description at the bottom of a jumper or knitted top – traditionally made with a rib stitch. We advise tucking this under before you assess the length of the item. It should sit around your hips.[KS1]

Not all knitwear is made equal – even if the description is similar, try on your knitwear before you buy it wherever possible

How to wear your knitwear

You're probably an expert at the plain shirt - fine knit - trouser combo for business casual, but there are a few other options to consider:

  • Wear chunky or fine crew-neck knits over a simple, fitted t-shirt to protect your knitwear, keep you cool when it gets warm and warmer when it gets chilly.
  • Wear a fine knit under a sports jacket with dark jeans for a smart casual look for the office.
  • Wear a quarter zip jumper with either a contrasting shirt in chambray or denim underneath, or with a simple t-shirt, and layer a sports jacket or outdoor jacket over the top.
  • Wear a fine knit polo top (with or without a t-shirt underneath), dark jeans and a jacket. The polo neckline with buttons is sporty and smart, and the wool knit keeps you warm.

Once you have your outfit sorted, there's the matter of a cuff at the bottom of all sweaters. Most men seem to pull this straight down straight, making the jumper look unbalanced and creates a firm line between the torso and the trousers. We always suggest tucking that part underneath to blur the lines between the tummy and the trouser waistline to soften your silhouette.

How to layer with men's knitwear

If you live in a temperate or cold climate, layering is a necessary skill. The trick is to purchase items that layer well together.

Before you go shopping, think about what you'll wear over your knitwear, such as a roomy overcoat or a fitted jacket. For example, if your coat has slim sleeves, a chunky knit may fit, but it may be impossible to lift your arms. Here, a lighter weight knit will feel more comfortable.

Also considered how fitted your outwear is around the waist – the thicker fabric of a chunky knit may make it difficult to do up a zip or buttons and make you look heavier than you are.

Finally, layering also includes accessories like scarves. Wearing a scarf over a knit with a high neckline would be overkill, whereas a fine knit with a V-neck or crew neck layered with a scarf and tailored overcoat looks wonderfully smart. Avoid too many textures with your scarves and knitwear, also. A cable-knit jumper paired with a cable-knit scarf is a little too much for anyone!

How should I care for my knitwear?

Before you do anything, read the care instructions on the label.

We cannot stress this enough!

Washing instructions can vary between garments, even if the same brand sells them, so don't assume you can treat two different jumpers the same way. That said, you'll find instructions generally include a variation of these steps:

  1. For natural fibres like lambswool, merino wool and cotton, hand wash or gentle machine wash with cold water and a purpose-made wool detergent.
  2. Roll out the excess water using a towel (avoid wringing) and dry flat in the shade away from heat.
  3. Store neatly folded in a drawer with plenty of breathing room. Forget cedar balls or lavender sachets, instead purchase a moth alarm which keeps those pesky creatures at bay and saves you from distressing holes in your knitwear.

We advise customers to refrain from washing their knitwear too often as this can stress the fibres and reduce the item's longevity. Wearing a t-shirt or shirt underneath knitwear will help you extend the time between washes.

You may like to purchase a pilling device to gently scrape away those annoying bobbles of fluff and keep your knitwear looking new and fresh.

Discover our full collection of knitwear.

You may also like to read: 5 ways to wear knitwear