The evolution of the sweater

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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