It’s easy to see workwear and beachwear at two ends of a spectrum: one heavy and
hard-working, the other airy and thin, sleight if not a little skimpy. One built for outdoorsmen and adventurers,
the other for days when the only challenge is tanning evenly. But life on the coast is not all sunbathing and
cocktails. In places where life is colder and tougher, where people are out at sea in all seasons, you find the
other kind of beachwear: dense layers of insulation to hold out against ice and storms.
In the Scottish isles and the English Channel, in Ireland and along the Baltic coast,
knitwear traditions run deep. Wherever there is fishing, sailing, and naval work to be done, there are dense,
heavy-gauge, traditional wool sweaters. Garments like these were traditionally made on a very small scale, often by
hand, and patterns and designs were passed from generation to generation by nothing more than careful imitation.
This is why they are associated so closely with the places of their origins, and why we know many of them today by
place names: Shetland, Fair Isle, Guernsey, Aran.
Like other kinds of workwear, these sweaters migrated from their original uses into
contemporary casualwear over the past century. There was plenty of innovation along the way, and artisans created
new designs in conscious homage, riding a wave of post-war interest in folk culture. Like denim, which was first
worn in mines and lumberyards (and then, yes, by cowboys), the appeal goes far beyond the original purpose and
location. Perhaps it’s the designs: simple and practical, yet full of character thanks to an emphasis on materials
and traditional construction. Or perhaps it’s the palpable bond to a world of serious physical work, the kind of
work that leaves you tired and satisfied in every joint, unlike those modern professions that produce restless
bodies and over-stimulated eyeballs.
What keeps any legacy alive is the people who continue to practice it. One venture to
preserve and promote Irish knitwear is Inis Meáin, a brand based on the island of the same name, on the west coast
of Ireland. While committed to sustaining the manufacturing history of the island, and continuing to learn from the
people who represent the history of their craft, the owners Tarlach de Blácam and Áine Ní Chonghaile brought new
fibres into the mix. Merino sheep, which provide the best wool, have comparatively little meat, and so historically,
sheep-farming communities that wanted to farm for meat and milk have tended to compromise on their textiles.
Dispensing with the brush-stiff, scratchy wools of old, Inis Meáin turned to merino, cashmere and alpaca to knit old
designs in more modern, luxurious fibres. The result is a more refined fisherman’s jumper, equally at home with
jeans or tailored flannel trousers.
Image by Matthew Thompson (www.matthewthompsonphotography.com)
Cable knits, such as Inis Meáin’s, or the luxurious Scottish models made by
Johnston’s of Elgin and Connolly, are richly detailed. Their distinctive patterns of knotted ropes, trellises, and
interlocking diamonds emphasise the texture, subtle gradation, and colour density of the fabrics. It’s a pure, even
austere, design philosophy, in which nothing is added for decoration, but instead the knitting pattern itself is
used to make the raw materials sing. These knits are an effective insulating layer underneath a textured blazer when
the temperature starts to drop, and work perfectly underneath a cashmere topcoat on the coldest of days.
Another classic maritime piece comes from military use. The submariner is typically
cream or off-white, with a folded funnel neck for extra insulation where skin meets world. It was introduced into
British naval service in 1914, and translated into civilian life soon thereafter. It’s easy to see why: the
submariner is undemanding yet flattering. It’s the adventurous equivalent to the turtleneck, more continental
wanderer than continental philosopher. British brand Shackleton channels the spirit of arctic explorers in their
signature sweaters and heavy-duty submariners. For a sporting twist, consider the block stripe models from German
maker Heimat, which have more than a hint of the rugby pitch about them. You can follow the naval theme and wear the
submariner under a peacoat with a pair of well-shined boots, or embrace the softer side and pair with corduroy and
suede. If you have any arctic ice to break, you’d do well to pack one of Heimat’s woollen watch caps
Image by Leo
These jumpers are tough but capable of refinement. A Shetland or Aran sweater is the
natural partner to waxed jackets and sturdy boots. A textured knit elevates winter tailoring; deep tones of indigo,
umber, or flecked Donegal wool offset the muted palette. And off duty, there’s nothing better than a cashmere
roll-neck with a well-cut trouser. Whether you miss that salt and ozone bite in the air, or intend to remain firmly
landlocked, these knits will become warm favourites this season.