One of the most important purchases a man can make in winter, getting the right piece of seasonal knitwear takes time, it takes nous, it takes a lot of scrolling through almost-identical looking navy crewnecks on Mr Porter and Uniqlo. Rather than tear your hair out or going for the first thing that appears on the ‘New In’ screen, here is a useful guide, covering all the big knit genres with input and insight from the brands, designers and brains behind the best jumpers in modern menswear. Cashmere, mad prints, granddad jumpers and rare, rare fibres from furthest reaches of New Zealand. All shall be revealed.
A fabric that causes a light bulb ‘ah, that’s why it costs that’ moment when you finally decide to take the plunge, there’s no question that cash(mere) is king when it comes to quality knitwear for daily winter use. Taking all of the warmth of wool with none of that pesky itchiness, it’s worth splashing out a bit on a simple cashmere crewneck, or a full loungewear set if you’re feeling flush. We've found bottle green to be a shade that works particularly well with the texture of cashmere, FYI.
“The qualities that make cashmere so special are most emphasised in knitwear, where the fibre is given space to breath,” says an unnamed representative (how mysterious) from Sunspel. Cashmere is warm, even when exceptionally fine, which makes it a lighter, more versatile option than a chunkier winter knit.”
With 150 years in the business of making nice jumpers, Sunspel’s cashmere is top tier, using sustainably-sourced fibres finished in a Scottish factory dating back to 1870. “Cashmere is recognised worldwide for being exceptionally soft and luxurious. The main reason for this is how fine and long the fibre is, it gives cashmere its soft handle and warmth.”
No truer words have ever been spoken, Señor Sunspel.
If you haven’t been reimagining your entire winter wardrobe around the blue collar fantasy of a life trawling for mackerel, then you must have been living under a barnacle. Outside of a little beanie hat that doesn’t cover your ears, the most important element of the Finsbury Park Fisherman look is a chunky, oversized jumper. There are almost as many styles of nautical knit to choose from as there are black bream at Billingsgate fish market. You have your luxury take on traditional Aran Island knits by Inis Meain and colourful, shaggy Shetland wool crewnecks by Sheitland & Co, but an enduring favourite is the navy mock neck by Quaker Marine Supply, a (until recently) dormant East Coast sea-faring brand worn by Hemingway that was revived in 2018 in Brooklyn (come on, where else?), the fishing jumper is core to its offering.
“A great fishing knit has to have just the right mix of utility, comfort and style,” says Kevin McLaughlin, founder of QMS. "While the woollen models of yore serve their purpose, we decided to use a thick-gauge cotton yarn to give it more year-round comfort and versatility without sacrificing warmth. We kept it simple and focused on the fit above all, but included some carefully considered knit details like side slits so the sweater falls nicely at the waist without bunching up.
"The neck is arguably the most important detail so we fine-tuned ours so it hits just right, giving your neck the warmth you want without feeling constricted."
In recent years all manner of luxury labels have moved into the knitwear space, reimagining the humble wool jumper as a properly desirable, statement item. Saint Laurent does a mohair knit, The Elder Statesman will sell you a two grand tie-dye cashmere crewneck and Casablanca has used its painterly, illustrative mastery to do for the jumper what it has already done for the silk shirt (make it cool and fun and sexy and expensive). Rowing Blazers made a winter splash when it re-launched a sheep-emblazoned jumper made famous by Princess Diana, an undisputed loud knitwear legend. While we do love a simple, dark, crewneck, there’s an exciting new appeal to knits that take inspiration from the loud, camp collar shirt movement from a couple of years ago, with intarsia prints and colourful boucle on heftier fabrics.
A favourite in that psychedelic space is Howlin’, the Belgian-Scottish operation that makes classic Shetland wool jumpers with an acid trip twist. The results are fun, bright, slouchy, unisex knits in kaleidoscopic colours.
“I would say our inspiration is simply daily life, which includes everything: a walk in nature, music, galleries etcetera,” says Patrick Olyslager, the brand’s co-founder. "As for patterns, these are all sketched and designed afterwards on computer using several programs. The goal is to create a true Howlin’ pattern which is neither classic or too futuristic.
“Since the start of Howlin’ our goal was to create [our] own little universe," he adds, "bringing a fresh somewhat twisted approach to Scottish knitwear while respecting its rich heritage. Keeping the best of the old techniques and mix it with new technology, patterns, colours and ideas.
“The pattern making can be quite transcendental as it means messing around in pixels for days which often leads to a tunnel vision. Especially when it involves 15 colours. I always remember, 15 years ago, an old Scottish knitter saying: many tried, few succeeded. Let’s say we are still trying. Main tip is to go out for a drink afterwards with some friends in order for your eyes and mind to settle down.”
One of the most impactful trends in modern knitwear, it turns out, is straight from a 1950s, smoke-choked social club. Time is a flat circle etc. Sleeveless granddad jumpers are back in a big way, with the Italians – your Pradas, Bottega Venetas and Guccis – all creating upmarket takes on sleeveless V-neck jumpers of late. If you’re really fashion, you’ll wear yours with nothing else underneath (it helps to be a 6’4” waif boy), or I suppose you could go classic and wear a shirt.
Outside of the high-brow continentals, it’s best to take a traditional approach with a sleeveless jumper, to opt for a label with a bit of long-standing skin in the game, like John Smedley for instance. Still based out of the same Derbyshire mill that it has called home since 1784, Smedley knows how to make a jumper, both with and without sleeves.
"Wearing a sleeveless V-neck is a statement in itself so you want to consider all the right details," says Jess Mcguire-Dudley, design director at John Smedley. "You want to consider all the right details, such as the gauge of the knit – finer knits such as ours provide a sleeker modern finish, and the cut of the V should be considered too– too high and it can look school uniform-esque and too low can be too retro. You want a sleek fit, that is long enough in the body to ensure a smooth finish but not too long as to cover a trouser top or belt completely. The point of the V should sit roughly at the level of your 3rd or 4th button on your tailored shirt."
Honourable Mention: The Rarest Fabric in The World
A fabric that is so rare that, errr, you can’t even really buy anything made from it right now, Cervelt is a down from the New Zealand red deer. It has incredible thermal and moisture wicking abilities. Lighter and softer than cashmere, it took one company, Douglas Creek, eight years to develop before it was even brought to market.
“Cervelt fibre is 3000 times rarer than cashmere, 200 times rarer than gold, supply is maintained at 1 tonne per year, It is “the diamond of clothing,’” says Lorraine Acornley, knitwear designer at Connolly, one of the only brands who have been able to use cervelt in knitwear. “Only 20grams of this precious fibre is obtained from each animal, it is impossible to scale up production which means a rarity it will remain.”
A couple of years ago Connolly made a jumper from cervelt that, we can confirm, was so soft that it scarcely felt real. “It is a very tricky fibre to work with,” adds Acornley. “It’s incredibly rare and needs to be twisted in a particular way so finding spinners and weavers who knew how to handle such complexity was challenging. It took a long time to develop our woven cervelt scarf. And once we had managed that we decided to try and knit it as a sweater which required its own separate set of rules. The results were tremendous, and we feel we are pioneering this new fibre.”
A new car, or a beautiful and obscure jumper from a beautiful red deer? I think you know the right choice.
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