What the Heck Is a Sweater?

As we were working on knitscene Winter 2018, editor Hannah Baker threw me a sweater question I had never considered before:

what are sweaters?

This devolved into an entire discussion about the nature of sweaterdom. What the heck is a sweater, anyway? According to the Oxford Dictionary, a sweater is “A knitted garment typically with long sleeves, worn over the upper body.” By this definition, I think both the Wiltshire Vest and the Pocono Cocoon are sweaters (hence the “Cozy Up with 12 Sweater Patterns” headline). They’re both worn over the upper body, and the cocoon kind of has long sleeves. But I’m still not convinced that they are sweaters.

Are these really sweaters?

Are these really sweaters?

If you interpret the definition as “anything you wear up top, with or without sleeves,” it includes a lot of garments I personally wouldn’t consider a sweater. Would this include vests? I recognize that “sweater vest” is a real term; does this mean they’re sweaters? A poncho is worn over the upper body, but I don’t think it’s a sweater. I also wouldn’t call the cocoon a sweater; I see it more like a shrug, which I think of as an accessory. Does the garment need to cover both the front and the back of the body to be a sweater?

Does this cover enough to be a sweater?

Does this cover enough to be a sweater?

Focusing on the “typically with long sleeves” explanation doesn’t help anything either. I do feel like a sweater needs to have some sort of sleeve. (For this reason, I would call the Wiltshire Vest a sweater; it does have a bit of a cap sleeve.) However, limiting it to just long-sleeved garments eliminates short-sleeved cardigans, which I quite am certain are sweaters. Also, where is the line of demarcation for “long” sleeves? At the elbow? Three-quarter length? Or does it have to be to the wrist?

This is definitely a sweater. I think.

This is definitely a sweater. I think.

Sleeves in general brought up another question: what are knitted tees? Are tees sweaters? Are “short-sleeved pullover” and “tee” interchangeable terms, or is there a subtle distinction between the two? Is it a style difference, or are they wholly different types of clothing? If a tee is a sweater, is a tank top a sweater as well?

Is this a tee or a sweater? Is it both?

Is this a tee or a sweater? Is it both?

I’m afraid there just isn’t a hard and fast definition on what is and what isn’t a sweater. While we can all agree that pullovers and cardigans are most definitely sweaters, the lines get a little hazy when you start discussing other upper body garments. I guess it’s just like Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart once remarked in a much more interesting case, “I know it when I see it.”


Knit some (maybe) sweaters!