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The history of the cable knit sweater

Posted by Dan Holmes on

Have you ever wanted to know about sweater history? Good. We got you covered.

Where did cable knit come from?

The cable knit has a classic look, which is a large part of the appeal. It seems like a garment that's been around a long time. Cable knits have been worn for centuries, right? Wrong. The cable knit is actually only about 100 years old. The origins can be traced back to a tiny group of islands in the Atlantic Ocean.

The Aran Islands are a speck on the map to most people: three small islands off the west coast of Ireland. The islands are dotted with cliffs near the shore as well as expanses of limestone jutting from the ground. A freak of geography allows the islands to have an extremely unusual temperate climate for such a northern location. As a result, the Arans enjoy one of the longest growing seasons anywhere in northern Europe.

The first folks to live on the Arans were exiles from mainland Ireland, fleeing wars and the like. They eventually gravitated toward fishing, the seas filled with tasty catches. That's one of the reasons the cable knit sweater was born in the Aran Islands.

The fishermen in Ireland

In the 1890s, mainlanders introduced a top called a "guernsey jumper", which was used by fishermen to stay warm on the water. According to wikipedia, "these guernsey jumpers have similar stitch patterns, though usually only on the yoke, and are worked in fine wool not available to the Aran Islanders." The locals soon started using "thicker local wool, all-over patterning, and different construction such as saddle-shoulders, rather than the more usual gusseted drop sleeve."

The "Aran jumper" became popular with the locals on the Aran islands, available in cardigan styles and pullovers. The stitching increased in complexity with more stitching patterns, some of them thicker, or "cabled." No one was yet calling them cable knits, however, that would take another few decades.  

The woman who gave birth to the cable knit

How do you become a world famous knitter?

One stitch at a time, people. One stitch at a time.

The most famous knitter in history was Elizabeth Zimmermann, a British-born woman who emigrated to the United States in the 1930s and went on to host her own knitting show on PBS in the 1950s. Zimmermann advocated many new knitting styles and impacted trends in the industry for decades.

By the 1930s, the "Aran jumper" had migrated to the mainland of Ireland and in the 1940s, World War II

In 1958, influenced by the Aran cable process, Zimmermann knitted the first Aran (cable knit) sweater ever featured in a U.S. magazine. The sweater appeared in Vogue, and a pattern was included. Shortly after, American women were copying the pattern and Aran-inspired cable knit items were appearing on this side of the ocean. It quickly became popular with people from all economic groups, not just the rich, which had been the case in Europe.   

Vogue magazine makes the cable knit popular in America

When Vogue published their cable knit article in a '58 issue of their magazine it sparked an interest in the garment in America. Fairly quickly, the cable knit sweater started to make an appearance in the U.S. as a popular cool-weather option. It also became a fashion statement.  

Pop icons and the cable knit sweater

Close your eyes. Think of a cable knit sweater. Now think of a famous person wearing a cable knit. Do any come to mind? There are probably a few.

Maybe the most iconic cable knit from a motion picture comes from The Truman Show starring Jim Carrey. In the final scene, a culmination of Truman's search for independence, he wears a dark cable knit sweater as he sails a small boat to get out of his "world."

Others known for wearing a cable knit sweater are actors Grace Kelly and Robert Taylor, both fashion icons.

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