Everything You Need To Know About Knitwear

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Everything You Need To Know About Knitwear

Words by Mr Stuart Husband

30 November 2020

Wait, we know what you’re thinking. Knitwear. Sounds a bit… cosy, right? All homely cardigans and comedy Christmas jumpers. Well, think again. Knits are one of the most versatile elements of a gentleman’s wardrobe, from sleek cashmere and chunky cable-knit cardigans via boiled-wool coats that verge on the edgy. They have also been part of the arsenal of menswear icons from Mr Jean-Paul Belmondo to Mr Warren Beatty, neither of whom you could accuse of being cosy.

Knitwear is too versatile to be just one thing. Call it a rollneck, polo neck or turtleneck. Are you adamant a sweater is the same as a jumper or prefer to use the does-what-it-says-on-the-tin term, pullover? Knitwear is as various as the names for it. This variety means it sits equally well with tailoring as with downtime denim. 

Whether worn plain or in a Fair Isle pattern, knitwear is at once both transformative and comforting - offering unequalled respite on the coldest of winter days. It’s also adaptable. Merino, the most versatile of all wools, is both insulating and breathable, and good at adapting to a wide range of temperatures. Speaking of which, knitwear is easy to care for so long as you abide by some simple rules, including washing on a low temperature.

This will also help ensure it’s a wardrobe staple for many seasons to come. To help you choose your knitwear wisely, read on…

01. Consider colourful cable knits

If the devil really does reside in the detail, then the coming of knitwear season gives you ample opportunity to go properly satanic. Judicious use of layering, along with colour and textural contrasts, can add fiendish pep and zing to your cold-weather armour. Just look at the way this gentleman pulls back the sleeves of his topcoat to reveal his sweater cuffs – a cable-knit sky-blue counterpoint amid a symphony of greys. If you’re feeling particularly keen on a colour splash, may we suggest mohair? The fuzziest of the knitwear family, mohair, is also a great way to introduce colour to your ensemble, as it responds well to dye. Mohair is also remarkably fluffy, if you like your knitwear a little more devil-may-care.

02. Weigh up a wool coat

Certain things just work better when boiled – eggs (soft, mind), wagyu beef (sous vide, naturally) and wool. The shrinkage that occurs in the process of boiling wool results in a tighter, felt-like texture that’s regarded as the ne plus ultra of snugness, wind resistance and durability. All three things you’d want in the recipe for a winter coat. In fact, a boiled-wool coat may be the perfect pelt for repelling the season’s ravages, particularly when you add style and substance to the equation, as the outerwear in the frame here more than demonstrates.

03. Take the opportunity to add texture

It’s not just Aesop and Mr Charles Dickens who appreciate the value of a good yarn. Connoisseurs of cloth come into their own at this time of year, when words such as weave, warp, weft and grain are bandied about like hot chestnuts. This gentleman is making a bold textural statement by opting for a chunky sweater and scarf in tone-on-tone marbled grey. The temptation to say, “What the fleck?” is alleviated by the scarf’s artful drape and the playfully oversized proportions.

04. Pattern adds character to chunky knits

Pattern adds character, not to mention a rich heritage, to the knitwear story. A classic starting point is the Aran Islands, off the west coast of Ireland, famed for Aran, a style of knitwear characterised by the heavy use of cable stitches and other complex knitting patterns. Moving swiftly north west, and to knitting originating from Fair Isle, which is part of the Scottish Shetland Isles. Fair Isle knitwear is instantly recognisable by its complex symmetrical patterns, often of animals or other elements of nature. Typical motifs include crosses, lozenges, hexagons and an “OXO” design. If pattern is your thing, you can dig deep into our encyclopaedic guide, or simply follow the advice of Village People and “Go West”. The recent popularity of Native American and Pendleton-inspired prints similar to the eagle motif sported by the gentleman in the frame here, work equally well on shawl cardigans or wool overshirts.

05. Keep it smart casual in cashmere knitwear

The knitwear and tailoring combo is an access-all-areas shoo-in for the smart-casual age, particularly when brands are offering slim-fit cashmere and silk-blend rollnecks that entreat, nay, demand to be worn under suits and blazers for a breezy mien, even as the breezes start to bite. Finer and softer than sheep’s wool, cashmere is king in this world. Obtained from the fleece of the cashmere goat, cashmere’s premium feel is usually reflected in the price tag – but, if properly cared for, a cashmere garment has longevity, making it a genuine wardrobe investment with lightweight composition and unparalleled softness. Sound relaxing? Knitwear of this ilk is an easy way to introduce a little informality to tailoring, just as this gentleman does, playing with the whole formal-informal, utility-frippery thing by tucking the sweater in while teasing the neckline into Elizabethan-ruff territory.

06. Embrace the rugged rollneck

Knitwear may be soft, by its very nature, but it’s far from spineless. Just look at the way this gentleman pairs a rugged fawn rollneck with a shearling coat to create his own take on WWI flying ace style. It’s a look last seen on Mr Julian Cope in the 1981 video for The Teardrop Explodes’ “Reward”, and well overdue a mainstream revival, in MR PORTER’s humble opinion. There’s a variety of ways to describe this style of knitwear. A turtleneck has a lower neckline, rather like a raised band collar, if you want to get specific about it. Our only advice? Roll with it.

07. Don’t forget the finishing touches

Bad things about winter: the cold, the dark, chilblains. Good things about winter: roaring log fires, hot toddies, scarves. The finishing touch to any self-respecting cold-weather outfit, the scarf can add a touch of silk-cashmere swag, a pop of colour, a study in tonal contrast, or a rakish elan, whether tied low or high in a twice-around, a chest-warmer or – MR PORTER’s personal favourite – the Byzantine complexity of the seven-stage fake knot. “Scarf up the tender eye of pitiful day,” wrote Mr William Shakespeare, which we’re pretty sure is a paean to the time he suffered a corneal abrasion while attempting to negotiate a reverse drape cross.

It’s all you knit