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The evolution of the sweater

Mar 21, 2011

Coordinated sweater, scarf, and tam as winter fashion accessories in Fleisher Yarns' advertisement in The Ladies Home Companion, December 1920. (Courtesy Susan Strawn)
A note from Kathleen: You know about my love for all things old-timey (three cheers for the Masterpiece Theater production "Downton Abbey"!).

The new issue of Knitting Traditions feeds my love for keeping the past alive. There are so many fascinating articles in this issue, but one of my favorites is all about how knitting for women evolved from utilitarian socks, gloves, and mittens to stylish sweaters, hats, and scarves.

I think you'll enjoy this piece as much as I did, so here's an excerpt.

Comfort and Good Looks: Sweaters and Scarves as Fashion Essentials
by Susan Strawn

Knitted sweaters and scarves are a mainstay of the modern American woman's wardrobe. Surprisingly, however, it was only a century ago that they began to claim their place in mainstream American fashion.

Knitting was long considered a utilitarian craft, best suited to making warm socks, gloves, and mittens. As early as 1846, Decorative Needlework by Miss Lambert provided patterns for such handknits but focused mainly on soft infant and toddler garments and bassinet covers.

A few adult sweater patterns appear, tucked among the counterpanes and domestic whimsies, in late-nineteenth-century knitting books. The Butterick Publishing Company's Art of Knitting (1892) includes a pattern for a man's "foot-ball sweater" (a turtleneck pullover), but patterns for women comprise only accessories, capes, and shawls.


An advertisement in the July 1922 issue of The Delineator for the summer issue of Needle-Art. The copy states, "Scarfs that match will be worn with slip-on sweaters this Summer, making them 100 per cent more attractive. How shall you make the scarf? The Summer Needle-Art will give you full instructions..." (Courtesey Susan Strawn)

At the close of the century, women were becoming more active outside the home, some entering careers, and these women wanted simpler styles suited to their new roles. For some time, people had been agitating for dress reform, maintaining that the tight-fitting fashions of the time were not only uncomfortable but unhealthy as well. Sweaters, it could be argued, played a role in dress reform and gave women greater comfort and freedom to pursue an active life, including sports.

Women's sweaters and scarves attained fashion status during the 1910s, and in 1917, The Ladies' Home Journal declared sweaters a wardrobe essential.

Sweaters of the early 1900s were long, typically worn with a wide matching scarf or "girdle" (belt). Department stores and mail-order catalogs sold millions of commercially manufactured sweaters, and abundant patterns were available in books, needlework magazines, and in booklets published by yarn manufacturers.

After World War I, American fashions became increasingly youthful and more casual, reflecting the greater freedom and equality that women had earned. Nonetheless, Paris still was a dominant arbiter of taste. Elsa Schiaparelli and Gabrielle (Coco) Chanel in particular popularized knitwear. "Paris now knits her blouse," proclaims the magazine The Delineator.

In barely two decades, knitted garments for women had transformed from utilitarian to fashion essential. We can thank an unlikely combination of influences—the turn-of-the century craze for sports, dress reform that suited changing roles for women, a multitude of new knitters during World War I, and the brilliant Parisian designers who popularized knitwear—for making knitted sweaters and scarves a wardrobe mainstay.


This is just one of the educational and entertaining articles in Knitting Traditions. You'll also get 45 projects inspired by knitting's rich history. You can get Susan's entire article in Knitting Traditions, so order yours now!


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anex2 wrote
on Mar 23, 2011 3:55 AM

good post

ksfarmer wrote
on Mar 21, 2011 7:44 PM

I really enjoyed this history of the sweater.  I never would have thought that women's sweaters were just a century old....

StacyB@10 wrote
on Mar 21, 2011 5:06 PM

Coordinated sweater, scarf, and tam as winter fashion accessories in Fleisher Yarns' advertisement in The Ladies Home Companion, December 1920. (Courtesy Susan Strawn)

is there a pattern for this? the hat is lovely, it would be fun to make the whole outfit.

szknits wrote
on Mar 21, 2011 3:07 PM

Apparently there are several stitch patterns either named for or developed by Elsa Schiaparelli. My basic knitting book "The Complete Book of Knitting" by Barbara Abbey pub date 1972 has three Schiaparelli stitches, all of which make lovely fabric stitches. They are based on crossed stitches, and are involved enough to be interesting, but not take too much concentration. I have not seen them in other books, although they are probably out there.

It is fun to look at the older knitting patterns. I was lucky enough to be the recipient of pattern books from the 30's through the 90's from a good friend. It is interesting to see the differences in fitting as well as construction.

I'm so glad other folks have noticed the costuming in the Downton  Abbey series. Very interesting! The Tudors series has incredibly beautiful costumes - I think I will watch it a second time just to look at the garments!

ZassZ wrote
on Mar 21, 2011 1:50 PM

Well absolutely loved Downton Abbey right from the gowns, dresses, hats, blouses, shoes, boots to the impeccable aprons, pintucked and embroidered, and all the embellishments of every kind in obvious abundance.  For example, the lace cravats, ear rings, necklaces and other jewelry worn by the players in this incredible drama.  Loved it all!  Good news is that a second series in coming in fall of 2011.  

Knitting Traditions feeds my love for keeping the past alive as well.  I feel it  contributes to the importantance of knowing who and what we are "today".  So I appreciate and treasure, my keeping of this interesting magazine with articles that inform us in such an important and historical way.  

on Mar 21, 2011 8:07 AM

It's sort of interesting how knitting really took of in the 1930s after going into a bit of post World War I slump in the 1920s.