I had a brief chat on Twitter about jumpers over the weekend, so I thought I’d share some Thinks on the matter with you. Knitters probably think more about fibre and fit in jumpers than non-knitters, and as much as I'm coming to appreciate the boxy styles of the 1960s, I can't help thinking the simple, square shapes that came into style then and never really disappeared are at least partly responsible for the way the general public see handknits; a perception of poor fit and lack of style that knitters are still struggling to overcome. This isn't to say simplicity can't be stylish, but it needs to be done well, with careful attention to drape and shape.
Everybody looks for different things in their woollies, so I’m not going to be prescriptive about whether body X should wear woolly Y, but I am going to make suggestions according to what you might be looking for, with reference to vintage knitting styles. Knitted garments haven't changed massively over the years; if you're buying your knitwear on the high street, stick to the silhouette of your chosen era (boxy shoulders in the 1950s, emphasis on the waist in the 1950s) and choose a period-appropriate gauge of knitting (smaller stitches for pre-1960s styles, but not so fine they couldn't be handknitted) and you can't go far wrong.
I don’t want to add bulk
Choose a fine knit. If you’re knitting your own garment, don’t go over a DK/worsted weight; I’d opt for 4ply/fingering or lighter. Here in the UK, DK started becoming more popular in the late 1950s, so look for patterns produced before then if you want the widest choice of designs knitted in fine yarns.
If you’re shopping for woollies, it’s fairly easy to find fine knits, but don’t go for anything too fine – you don’t want to cross the line between ‘jumper’ and ‘long-sleeved T-shirt’.
I don’t want to add bulk but I still want to be warm Choose fleecy animal fibres. The fibres usually have qualities that make them far warmer than the plant-based or synthetic alternatives, and they’re also breathable so you won’t get horribly sweaty and then chilled when you cool down. Nowadays all sorts of exotic fleeces and blends get spun into yarn, but you really can’t go far wrong with good old wool. Most of my vintage winter patterns (pre-1960s) specify a wool yarn. Silk, while an animal fibre, has a very different handle and drape from fleece fibres, and isn’t as warm. My current favourite yarns – and no, I'm not getting paid to say so! – are King Cole Merino Blend 4ply, Wendy Merino 4ply and Excelana 4ply. I adored Sublime's pure wool 4ply, but the rotters discontinued it...
Mulesing (the removing of part of the sheep’s skin to prevent their hindquarters getting filthy, which encourages fly strike, a very nasty condition) is being phased out in sheep farming, and is banned in many countries already but if you’re worried about that, why not look for a locally-farmed wool so you can be sure of the source? You could get a beautiful jumper and help support rare breeds in your area.
Ribbing at the waist gives shape
I want something satisfyingly chunky You do get patterns using thick yarns from the 1930s onwards, but really, look to the mid-1950s and later for the best choice of chunky knits. Initially the thicker yarns were used more for jackets, but by the 1960s when lightweight, easy-to-dry synthetic fibres were being used to make yarn, designers embraced the opportunity to make all sorts of bulky knits with big stitches. Later in the 1960s and into the 1970s, Aran styles took off in a big way.
I want to show off my waist
Ribbing pulls inward, so look for garments with ribbing in the waist area. This could mean the entire garment is knitted in a ribbed pattern. You’ll find plenty of short jumpers ending in a deep ribbed band at the waist, as in the first picture on this page, but it’s also possible to find patterns for longer knits with a ribbed section at the waist point, as you can see in the second. Hunt through designs from the late 1930s to mid 1950s.
Ribbing is often used in designs with ‘negative ease’. This means the finished knit is actually smaller than the wearer’s body, and stretches to match the wearer’s shape.
No waist, but no less chic!
I don’t want to show off my waist Obviously, look for a woolly that goes straight up and down: 20s styles are great for this, and tend to reach to somewhere between the waist and hips, but some of the nicest examples I’ve seen from then combine knitting and crochet, so you’ll need to be bicraftual to make them. Patterns from the 1960s are straight but can be very plain, as simplicity was part of the midcentury modern look.
By the mid 1950s, squarer knitted jackets came into style, and so did hip-length cardigans, so you can pop these on over a more fitted knitted top. If you want a 40s or 50s look without drawing attention to your waist, opt for patterns that pull the eye upwards: fair isle yokes, for example.
I need versatility
BRING FORTH THE TWIN SET.
I love twin sets. Many combine a sleeveless or short-sleeved top with a long-sleeved cardigan. You can wear the top on its own in milder weather, pop the cardigan on over other things, or wear both for maximum warmth on really chilly days. What’s more, nothing says ‘vintage’ like a nice knitted twin set.
If you like to show off your waist, pick a pattern where the cardigan element is a bolero or cropped design and the underlying top is nicely fitted.