When hibernation mode kicks in, style can easily become an afterthought, or at least something you do unconsciously. You get dressed in the dark, literally and figuratively. But that’s not necessarily a bad thing.
In winter, you reach for a cable knit jumper with the same cold-snap reflex that causes you to start ordering real ale at the bar and making stodgy one-pot meals every Sunday. Trust your instincts.
As well as being a rarely bettered winter warmer, cable knits (or Aran jumpers as they’re also known) offer impeccable cold-weather style, considered but comfortable.
Their origins lie in Irish fishing villages where, in the 19th century, untreated wool jumpers retained their natural oils and kept their wearers sort of warm and sort of dry on the Atlantic Ocean. The distinctive knitting style sees the interweaving cables raised off the main body of the garment usually running vertically to the hem.
Aran jumpers often feature other patterns, from basket weaves to chevrons. These have been linked – mistakenly, in the most part – with folklore and ancient knot-tying traditions. It’s also said that different villages had different designs so that the bodies of fishermen claimed by the sea could be more easily identified when they washed up. That’s functional fashion for you.
By the middle of the 20th century, the wider world knew about this Celtic couture. Cable knit jumpers became popular with both sexes and found a home with preppy fashion, middle-class cricketers and anything in between. Elvis had one for Jailhouse Rock. Steve McQueen had one for The Thomas Crown Affair. Ralph Lauren had one for everything, and still does.
These heroes of mid-century fashion knew that a cable knit is a good all-rounder: luxurious but practical, chunky but slimming, useful for the open sea and open-plan offices alike.
“Cable knitwear is unique and can’t be replicated by woven or printed effects,” says Tom Glover, managing director of Peregrine, a British knitwear company with over 200 years of heritage. “It’s a three-dimensional design with every stitch, transfer and loop carefully thought about and programmed. Cable knitwear is constantly changing with new machines and different yarns which makes it so diverse.”
How you wear it depends on how chunky you go with the knit. The thickest versions recall the style’s windswept roots and work best with other practical items like hardy raw denim, corduroy and hiking boots (you should also have a coat with a slightly relaxed fit to go over the top). “I love a chunky cable knit with denim and boots, it’s easy and practical on a cold day,” says Glover.
A thinner example with narrower designs is more at home as a mid-layer. Wear one under your blazer in the office or under a denim or bomber jacket at the weekend for maximum prep points.
The Best Brands For Cable Knit Jumpers
You know the famous polo shirt, but Ralph’s cable knit sweaters have also been mainstays of the brand’s Polo collection for decades. This is preppy done proper, knitwear designed to slip under a sports coat, not sail the high seas on. Think slimming cables, tasteful colours and a must-have for your business-casual rotation.
Spun out, as it were, from knitwear manufacturers JC Glover & Co. in the 1950s, this British heritage company has textile knowhow that stretches back to the 1700s. Its cable knit jumpers and cardigans go big on insulation, big on texture and are 100 per cent made in England. Don’t endure winter without one.
Don’t tell your gran, but Inverallan is responsible for what might be the best hand-made knitwear in the UK. The Scottish brand is a relative new-comer (it was founded in the seventies), but its expertise is as plain to see as the chunky cable patterns crisscrossing its jumpers. Made entirely from Scottish lambswool, this is a buy-once-wear-a-thousand-times kind of garment.
For unmatched authenticity, this brand is named after the island it’s based on, 30 miles into the Atlantic Ocean off the west coast of Ireland. The Aran Isles are where the cable knit originated, and although Inis Meáin has only been around since the seventies, its designers study historical photos of island life when producing garments. They call it “warmth from the edge of the world”. We’re not about to argue.
It’s based in Sweden these days, but Gant was founded in Connecticut and is synonymous with the Ivy League look. So of course there are smart cable knits piled up next to the brand’s chinos and Oxford shirts. Gant favours slimmer, finer styles and because it’s one of the label’s cornerstone items, there’s a broad spectrum of colours to pick from.
Another fixture of British heritage fashion, Gloverall started life in the 1950s turning surplus duffle coats from the military into must-have civilian outerwear. The brand’s Aran jumpers are another staple, machined from Merino wool without seams, which means it’ll last longer than anything else folded in your drawers right now.
This Japanese label does preppy American clothes better than most preppy American brands. Its cable knit sweaters are a nice mid-weight, not as heavy as chunky fisherman styles but with more substance than the occasionally flimsy ones you find on the high street. They pair just as well with workwear as they do with other collegiate staples.
Next has long been a reliable waypoint on the British high street for men looking to add to their office wardrobe or weekend looks. Knitwear is one of its specialities. Browse fine gauge options to slip over your shirt and tie or look for weekend insulation in earthy colours and modest prices.
Another heavyweight of Americana, Tommy Hilfiger also has a streetwear side that shows in its cable knits. Yes, it sells straightforward styles in sober colours like everyone else, but you can also pick one up in a louder colour or with bold stripes that would work nicely with some nineties denim.
Few brands do smart-casual gear with J. Crew’s consistency. Its cable knitwear spans traditional fisherman jumpers and business-casual V-necks. The brand has been one of the go-to options for an all-American wardrobe since the mid-eighties, and we can’t see that changing any time soon.
For a luxury knit to make you feel all fuzzy inside, you can’t go wrong with Sunspel. The British label has more than 150 years of expertise and a commitment to lavish materials and state-of-the-art ways of stitching them together. Slip into its Italian merino cable knit to see what we mean.