Style / January 2018

Style 101: The Cable Knit Sweater

The cable knit sweater has gone from a practical, hard-wearing garment designed to serve the fishing community to a staple reimagined and refined by luxury brands.

Steve McQueen, pictured here with Faye Dunaway, wears a vintage cable knit sweater paired with his signature Persol frames in The Thomas Crown Affair (1968).

The ever-changing, treacherous landscape of style trends mean that few garments successfully retain a steady presence on the scene. One anomaly, however, is the dependable cable knit jumper. Boasting a rich, albeit elusive, history in 19th century Celtic and Gaelic fishing communities, the cable design has since featured in varying forms in multiple materials, yet has remained timeless nonetheless. Taking rise from the everyday fisherman’s sweater, you would be pushed to find a modern brand that has not attempted to leave their sartorial mark on the humble stitch.

Origins

Legend has it that the design dates back to the ‘Aran sweater’ of the 1800s, with different Celtic clans having a unique cable pattern. This, in turn, was said to provide a way of identifying the bodies of fishermen who drowned at sea. Although romantic, this is now recognised as a mere tall tale. The sweater was most likely crafted by a group of Aran women predominantly for export purposes in the early 1900s, and has since become associated with Irish culture. In fact, the cable design appears just as much in the Gansey jumper worn by fishermen on the east cost of England in the Victorian era.

Traditionally knitted from worsted yarn, the dense sweater could withstand the turbulent weather of the open ocean, while a tightly knitted stand-up collar and cuffs kept out gale force winds. The cuffs were usually finished short of the wrist to avoid getting caught on fishing equipment and from becoming drenched in sea water as they worked, making this a garment dedicated to practicality. As with the Aran sweater, the cable pattern was painstakingly hand-stitched and was thought to represent the fisherman’s rope and tools, as well as adding a decorative element.

Although the Aran and Gansey sweaters were both originally crafted for spirited seafarers, once demand for fashionable knitwear rose in the 1920s, mass production meant the motifs became less complex. This enabled the cable stitch to become a garment in its own right, leading to the simpler versions we see today.

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Natasha Drax