Essays Knitwear Shetland

G. Bruce Boyer on The Brushed Shetland Jumper

By G. Bruce Boyer

Jan 25, 2023

G. Bruce Boyer on The Brushed Shetland Jumper

The Shetland crewneck is about as perennial as it gets. Not only in the Ivy manual, though that’s where it got its start, but as a staple in most winter wardrobes. Knitting has of course been around almost forever, an ancient skill -- think of fishing nets -- but the first advance over hand-knitting came towards the end of the Sixteenth Century when the first knitting machine for wool yarn was invented by a Cambridge man, William Lee, in 1589. In 1863 William Cotton, another Englishman, perfected a power-driven knitting machine and immediately wool knitted garments – stockings, underwear, and sweaters – became immensely popular.

At first sweaters – also called jumpers, jerseys, and pullovers – were worn by workingmen for warmth, but late in the 19th Century were taken up by athletes and by the early 20th Century were already prominent among college sportsmen – tennis and rowing seemed to predominate in those years on campus. In the States, pullovers with crew necks, i.e., round necks worn by rowing crews, were seen on Ivy League campuses by the 1920s. At that point the styling, a model of simplicity – finished cuffs, bottom edge, and neck, saddle shoulders, full body -- seems to have been set.

Shetland wool came to be the yarn of choice for crewnecks because it was uniquely lightweight and warm, perfect for wicking away perspiration while still containing a certain amount of natural oil in the wool itself to repel moisture from the air. The perfectly natural, climate-controlled activewear.  By mid-20th Century the Shetland crewneck had become an indispensable sweater in the undergrad wardrobe because it worked so well with khakis and button downs, could easily be worn under a tweed jacket, and came in a variety of colours from dark forest green, navy blue, and walnut to pastel shades of yellow, raspberry, coral, light olive, and lovat, to earthtones of   fawn, camel, sand, and chestnut. A hundred years after it had been taken up by undergrads, it’s still an indispensable item in the campus wardrobe.

My college wardrobe contained a definitely select and finite numbers of garments for everyday wear: khaki trousers, button down shirts, penny loafers, and the Shetland crewneck sweater. Any additions to that classic list were icing on the sartorial cake.

If I may take a little sociological saunter here, it was the Shetland sweaters that often determined the place of the wearer in campus life. Distinctions here were sometimes subtle, and there were always exceptions. I hate to categorise, because it might imply value judgements which I want to avoid, nevertheless there were identifiable groups. Conservative young men – those mainly in the sciences – usually wore navy blue, grey, or some shade of brown or dark green Shetlands. They might well have been members of the Chess Club, Engineer’s Club, or one of the math clubs.

Those in the arts tended to be slightly more flamboyant and wore their crewnecks in colours of olive, reddish brown, dark red, and camel. They constituted the majority of students at my school. Further along the spectrum were the more confident young men, the leaders in sports, members of honour societies, and members of the Student Council. Light blue was a favoured colour, as was pale yellow and taupe.

At the sartorial edge of campus were the most animated, those members of the Debating Society, participants in the various variety shows and other entertainments, those interested in acting, and the staff of the various student publications. Their crewnecks were often raspberry or coral, deep purple, or grass green. And finally, there were the few who were considered at the time to have gone into another dimension. They were the members of in The French Club, The Art Club, Modern Dance Club, perhaps the jazz band or philosophy. They read Baudelaire and Alan Ginsberg, listened to Coltrane and Sonny Stitt, and drank fiascos of cheap wine. They wore black crewnecks and sometimes berets. No one knew from where they bought either of them.

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