Pullover Poetry: On the Autumnal Appeal of Sweaters

Albert Einstein wearing a crew neck sweater
Image credit: Tullio Saba / Public domain

Have you ever read ‘Ode to Autumn’ by John Keats? It’s the one that kicks off talking about the ‘season of mists and mellow fruitfulness’ (An opening line that’s been repeated enough times to have become essentially synonymous with the fall season). Well, courtesy of more years studying English lit than I care to admit, I have read it and, let me tell you, I think ol’ Keats really misses a trick.

As best I can tell, the poem talks to autumn as though it were a person, which, fair enough, it is a poem and that’s how they roll, I guess. So autumn hangs out with the sun (also personified) and they get up to a bunch of stuff — vegetable-related activities, mostly. Filling vines with fruit, swelling gourds, that sort of thing. After that, autumn just kind of rocks up in a few places for a while, like a granary, a cider-press, and a field. Then Keats goes on to throw spring under the bus (‘Where are the songs of spring? Ay, Where are they?/ Think not of them’ — which, I think we can all agree, is a totally sick burn) and proceeds to close things out by chatting about some birds and gnats for a while. 

All of which is fine if you’re into Romantic poetry, I’m sure. But, if you’re just looking for some fall style advice like a normal person, Keats’ ‘Ode to Autumn’ holds next to nothing for you. There’s nary a mention of chore coats and mittens, of sweatshirts and cardigans, or of fleece and corduroy. Instead, all you get is line after line about harvests and hedges.

Worst of all, J. Keats fails to mention the very best thing about autumn: sweaters. The closest he comes is a reference to some ‘full-grown lambs’ bleating somewhere on a hillside, which would be altogether too early in the production process to resemble a real reference to any woollen wares. And all that when the opening line ‘Season of knits and sweater weather’ was staring him in the face the whole time. 

But enough about Keats and the vestiary trainwreck that is ‘Ode to Autumn’. The man died when he was just 25 years old; I’m sure if given more time he would eventually have gotten round to writing the great pullover poem. In its absence, however, we are left to explore the many virtues of jumpers and jerseys ourselves. 

Man smoking in a sweater on a stage
Image credit: Tullio Saba / Public domain

Ask just any clothes-loving person what their favourite season is and, in my experience anyway, they’ll almost always say autumn. It’s the time of year when (at least in colder climes) the temperature has dropped just enough for you to start layering but not yet far enough for those layers to be all covered up by greatcoats and Gore-Tex, which means its the season for busting out all of your best threads. It’s also the time of year when all things cosy kick into top gear; when life revolves around comfort, warmth, and all things hygge.

Nothing better represents these autumnal joys than the sweater. Whether you know it as a sweater or a pullover, a jersey or a jumper, it is a universal symbol of cold-weather cosiness and snug domesticity in the colder months. Moreover, it’s a true wardrobe essential, marked by its utility in nearly any climate. Jumpers are also remarkably versatile and can be used for layering or as outerwear, to add colour and texture to an ensemble or as a means of grounding something flashy with a more neutral base. Every bit as functional as it is stylish, a good sweater — or, even better, a few good sweaters — can’t be done without.

For all of its essential services and many virtues, you might think that the sweater dates about as far back as any piece of clothing can, and in one sense you would be right. Humans have been using wool for knitting purposes for about 2 000 years and precursors to the pullover date back centuries to when tunics were worn under chainmail. The modern ancestor of the present-day jumper, however, dates to around the fifteenth century on the English Channel islands of Guernsey and Jersey (hence the English term jersey). Typically made for fishermen by their wives, these garments were knitted using natural wool, which retained its oil and therefore offered warmth and protection even in damp conditions.

These woolly jumpers spread throughout Europe among working men and eventually reached the United States in the 1890s, where they were adopted by athletes. Given the perspiration-inducing activities of these sportsmen, the garment was duly given its American appellation of ‘sweater’. These first sweaters were typically heavy, dark blue numbers worn before and after sporting meets to keep players warm.

Vintage athlete in a crew neck jumper
Image credit: The Library of Congress / No known copyright restrictions

It is only, however, in the 1920s that pullovers first reach any kind of mainstream popularity, which means that contemporary jumpers have really only been in regular circulation for about a century. Their initial vogue was largely thanks to the vanguard of French Couture in the 1920s in the forms of Jeanne Lanvin and Coco Chanel including such working garments in their runway collections.

So, from the Channel to Chanel, the sweater (particularly as paired with a skirt) became what former Vogue editor Diana Vreeland called, ‘the 20th century’s unique contribution to fashion’. Indeed, a New York Times retrospective on the history of the sweater published in October, 1964, opens with the following musings on the garment’s contemporary ubiquity:

‘Babies wear them, so do their grandmothers. College girls live in them, and fashionable women collect them like jewels. In spite of the handicap of an unattractive name, sweaters have become the modern woman’s way of life.’

They have certainly proven essential to any modern person, whether your particular pullover poison be a cosy cardigan, a shaggy Shetland, flashy Fair Isle, an ancient Aran, a cool Cowichan, or a tight-fitting turtleneck. The options are endless and, Keats’ shortcomings notwithstanding, they are eminently worthy of being elegised.

Vintage man in a sweater reading
Image credit: Annie Spratt on Unsplash