As men start to dress more casually, knitwear is becoming ever more important. It’s more often the top layer of an outfit, and so holds greater responsibility to both flatter the wearer and reflect their style. It deserves proper, in-depth attention.

This article is the first in a series that will create a PS ‘Guide to Knitwear’. Over the next few months, it will look at everything from quality to fit to history, and eventually become a comprehensive resource on the same scale as our Guide to Cloth or Guide to Shirt Fabrics.

What types of knitwear are there? When I pick up a sweater and it says 2-ply or 30-gauge, what does that mean? And how does that knowledge help me buy better – particularly online?

This first article in our Guide to Knitwear takes a bird’s eye view, looking at the world of knitwear as a whole and categorising it, by explaining how it’s made and what it’s made from.

This will give anyone with an interest in good clothing a better understanding of what they’re buying, and explain some of the key processes and terminology along the way.

 

 

Gauge: Shirt or jumper?

You may have noticed that most Scottish knitwear is at least a certain weight or thickness. Finer, thinner sweaters tend to come from Italy, or from makers like John Smedley in England (above).

It’s the biggest, most obvious difference between types of knitwear, and it’s an important one, because fine knitwear is much smarter – more akin to a knitted shirt in terms of style and formality – while thicker gauges are what you think of as a typical jumper, designed for warmth.

The main reason brands, and indeed whole regions, identify with one weight of knitwear is that you need different machines for different gauges, and machines are expensive. Plus, the local workforce tends to build up expertise on those types of machines.

A typical Scottish cashmere crewneck today is 21 gauge (although it’s got lighter over time – 50 years ago the standard was 15). The same factory will probably make that and everything heavier, up to a 5 gauge, which is the chunkiest shawl-collar cardigan. A fine-gauge knitter will usually produce a narrower range, perhaps 24 and 30 gauge.

The number refers to the number of needles, and so stitches, per inch on a flat-bed machine*.

This difference between types of knitwear will usually be obvious if you’re browsing in a store. But online, armed with only a product description, it can help define what kind of knit is on offer.

 

 

Ply: Thick or thin?

While ‘gauge’ is usually only mentioned in the technical description of a piece, ‘ply’ can be more prominent, sometimes even in the product name itself. As in ‘cashmere two-ply crewneck’.

This is because, within the categories set out above, ply is the best shorthand for how thick a sweater is.

The crewnecks you’re used to wearing are probably 1 or 2 ply (above). This is the most standard. The next level up is 4 ply, which is really a heavier, cold-weather jumper. Anything above 4 ply is usually a chunky shawl cardigan, which can be 8, 12, even 16 ply**.

But what does it mean? The number refers to the yarn used: 2 ply means two threads (‘ends’) twisted together in the yarn, 4 ply means four of them, and so on.

A yarn might be described as 2/28, which means two ends of a 28-count, with the 28 referring to the fineness (28 metres of it would weigh 1 gram).

This can get confusing when you go into detail, because the same thickness of yarn can be made by using one end that’s twice as thick, or four that are twice as fine (eg 4/15). But this happens rarely enough that ‘2 ply’ and ‘4 ply’ are still good shorthand for thicknesses of knitwear.

 

 

Knit: T-shirt or jumper?

This might sound strange, but T-shirts are knitwear. The cotton is knitted, just like on a jumper (the opposite being woven, like cloth for a shirt or suit).

What separates a T-shirt from a jumper is the way its knitted panels are put together. A T-shirt’s panels are ‘cut and sewn’: cut along the edges and then sewn together, with an overlock stitch for example.

The edges of knitwear panels are fully finished (or ‘fashioned’) along the edges, so there’s no need to cut them. They are complete pieces, which are then linked together, in a surprisingly painstakingly process.***

This is what separates a cashmere jumper from a cotton sweatshirt****. And it’s why a polo shirt made by a knitwear manufacturer is so different from the regular cotton version you associate with tennis and polo. When someone refers to a ‘knitted’ polo, they mean one that has been fully fashioned.

 

 

Hand, machine, or hand-machine?

There are also slightly different types of fashioned knitting.

The vast majority of knitwear uses automated knitting machines. Some makers still use hand-operated machines though, and this is often called ‘hand framing’ (above). This is much slower, with the advantages being that it can produce a more open knit, has some slight natural variation, and is an easy way to create designs or pictures (‘intarsia’).

The feel of hand-framed knitwear is also a little similar to actual hand knitting – as in, no machinery at all but just one person with a pair of knitting needles – which does still go on. Hand framed is often what brands mean when they describe something as hand knitted.

Finally, a very small amount of knitwear is made all in one piece, without any seams. The machinery to do this full-garment knitting is expensive and so not seen as much, and is perhaps better for lighter weights. Regular jumpers arguably benefit from the structure that fashioning and seams give them.

 

 

Fibre: Sheep, goat or plant?

This categorisation is a big one, but also the most obvious. Which is why it’s only being mentioned now.

Most consumers know what cashmere, wool and cotton are, and their various properties. They probably even know what shetland wool is like (above), and a silk/cashmere blend.

There is still a lot of detail that can be delved into here, such as the different qualities of cashmere, the types of cotton, and the breeds of sheep. Few people realise that with wool, for example, most is merino, most of that is lambswool (the first crop from the merino sheep), and lambswool originally from a particular part of Australia is Geelong. They are all subsets of each other.

But that level of detail deserves a separate article.

 

 

Finishing: Wash and brush

This is a minor distinction, but finishing on knitwear can make a difference.

The most obvious one is a brushed shetland, where shetland sweaters are deliberately brushed to make them fluffy.

But all knitwear is washed at the end to soften it and bring up the fibres, and in general Italian makers do this for longer than Scottish ones. The result is knitwear that feels softer when it’s first bought (above), but sometimes doesn’t age as well, either pilling or (if also knitted more openly) losing its shape.

In fact, that’s a final minor category: tighter knitting. It’s something that was done more in the past, to make knitwear that would feel very heavy and robust today. It was also only lightly washed, and sometimes called ‘bare finish’ knitwear as a result. But really most traditional pieces were knitted more tightly – not with any more stitches per inch (‘gauge’) but just with more tension on each one.

 

 

Conclusion, notes

Knitwear is either heavy or fine gauge, thicker or thinner, fashioned or sewn, machine or hand knitted, and more or less washed.

These are the things that define it and divide it. Understanding them helps you know why a 30-gauge polo works under a blazer, but a 15-gauge will be too thick. Or why a fully fashioned polo is a better match for flannel trousers than a cut-and-sewn one.

Even if you understood such things already, knowing the terms makes it possible to talk about or communicate them. Which is particularly important when buying things remotely.

Hopefully this first installment in the Guide to Knitwear has been useful. There is much more to come, on necklines, fits and identifying dead fishermen.

 

Notes:

*Sometimes the term ‘needles’ is used instead of gauge, to accommodate different types of machine. The numbers don’t align – eg 21 gauge is 12 needle. Easiest to stick with gauge.

**You rarely get 1 ply in knitwear, because, interestingly, spinning two yarns together makes the result more stable. A single yarn has a natural tendency to twist, or torque, one way, and having two spun together that have been twisted in different directions balances this out.

***The two panels of knitwear that are to be joined, have to be placed on the needles of a circular linking machine, one stitch per needle, by hand.

****Some T-shirts and sweatshirts are also circular knitted, so there are no side seams. This traditional technique gives more pliability to the cotton, but also means the body has to be straight and square, rather than shaped at all.

Subscribe
Notify of
guest
88 Comments
Oldest
Newest
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
Martin Baycroft

You may just want to check your facts. I doubt that 28 metres would weigh 1 gram.

Jonathan

Hi Simon,

Hate to butt in, but 28 metres per gram also struck me as awfully light for yarn (or ply). Are we talking about the full, intertwined yarn, or the incredibly tiny strands that make it up? Might the yarn itself be 28 metres per 100 g?

Apologies for any ignorance on my part – I am no expert, just curious to understand the particulars.

Jonathan

OK, thanks.

Martin Baycroft

Thanks. Why should I search Google when I can simply ask you?

James

Because the reply is quicker and doesn’t use up the time of a third party?

Alex

Good lord, what an obnoxious individual you are. I do feel sorry for Simon having to reply to people like you sometimes.

Martin Baycroft

Simon why do you allow people to post in such an offensive way? I am not an obnoxious individual, I simply asked you an innocent question aware, as others will be , that you sometimes make errors which, when pointed out to you, you acknowledge and correct.

Surely Alex is being judgemental and unkind?

Martin Baycroft

Thank you Simon, I appreciate that greatly.

Shoddy

Thanks Simon, this clarified a few thing for me.
Can you help me with this though: I bought (unseen) a while ago a John Smedley Hawling which is described as having an “all needle fabric”. It wasn’t what I expected and I’m not sure what it actually is. It reminds me of a thick sweatshirt really: it doesn’t feel like wool. Is that the “all needle fabric”. What does it mean?

ROISIN MCATAMNEY

Hi, all needle fabric will be referring to the structure used to create it, meaning that it was knit on all needles (front and back needle bed), across the with of the knitted panel. This creates a structure similar to a 1×1 rib (1 front stitch then one back stitch repeat) and has a lot a stretch.

Chris K

Thanks Simon, great article.

Look forward to reading the rest of the series.

With the exception of the couple of summer months we get in the UK, you are correct, dressing more casually, knitwear has come to the forefront.

I’m certain this series will help many who are just starting to build a knitwear collection, reducing the process of trial and error I’ve had to go through over the past couple of years regarding knitwear. For the most part though, I’ve got things right, realising crew neck, 2 ply, mid gauge sweaters offer the greatest price to wear ratio for me through the year, with roll necks, shawls etc. a nice extra around the edges.

Ck

Jonathan

Thanks, Simon – very useful article. I, too, await the others with interest.

On at least two of my wool sweaters, there appears to be an added strand of thread in the seams. I first noticed it on the collar at the junction with the body pieces. It is the same colour as the knit and therefore barely noticeable. Initially, I thought it might be wool, but it looks more like sewing thread to me.

The sweaters in question were all knitted by well-known UK makers. Might it be a modern addition to the linking process, included for added strength? I am rather curious.

Jonathan

Jonathan

Sure. Here’s one example from the side seam of a lambswool sweater. The yarn is T&D. The thread I mention is just visible along the right edge of the seam, in two parallel rows. It’s probably easier to spot without zooming in.

Hope the photo’s clear enough.

Jonathan

IMG_20210828_112032414_HDR~2.jpg
Jonathan

Hi Simon,

I have since learnt that this thread is added during linking to strengthen the seams. Some lambswool and cashmere garments (and doubtless others as well) apparently benefit from a little reinforcement there.

As I might have mentioned, this thread-work is evident on several of my sweaters. One sometimes has to look very carefully indeed to see it.

Jonathan

MBB355

You think a 15-gauge sweater is too thick to wear under a jacket? Colhays’ are 12-gauge, and they work fine.

MBB355

Thanks, I’d be curious to know what he says. Huge Colhay’s fan.

Mbb355

Makes sense, thanks!

Gilles

This is adding more complexity to an already complex topic…

Noel

Simon, how could this be if gauge means stitches per inch? Do the stitches vary in size ? Or do they both use an inch in length but a different with when defining gauge?

Noel

Thank you Simon. It would be interesting to know if you’re able to check.

D. O'Brien

I’m coveting that white t-shirt you’re wearing (in the photo). Who makes it? It’s a good one.

Nils

Simon, do you prefer these to the Sunspel Riviera t-shirt?

D. O'Brien

Thank you! As an aside: my only experience with a Warehouse product was with a baseball-sleeves shirt. I should’ve ordered a size up. It ran small. In conclusion, I should be reading more of your posts. Again, thanks.

Peter O

Dear Simon,
I’m very impressed by your thorough presentation. Since I switched from Smedley to Sunspel, I notice you only mention the former. You really look comfortable in your t-shirt!

Peter O

PS: I especially liked your clarity t-shirts are knitted. But afterwards I missed your omission of SOCKS.

Penn

‘The very first crop of [merino] is called Geelong.’ Perhaps I don’t know what ‘first crop’ means; but isn’t Geelong distinguished as being from a certain breed of merino, with fleece of shorter but finer fibres?

Mauro Farinelli

Whole garment, cut and sew, and fully fashioned knitting are three different animals that produce different results, the biggest being “whole garment” Please note “whole garment” is a weft weft construtction while the other two methods are wrap and weft, hence the void of ‘whole garment in menswear.
I would also argue that the wash process is one of the most important steps in knitwear. A properly washed knit can look and feel amazing regardless of the yarn, while a poorly washed knit and ruin even the highest quality fibers.
Overall, this is a great sum up for the basics. In your series, I hope you touch on different stitches, intarsia, and jacquards. You might even want to explore PPT/PFD.

Jason

Excellent article with the usual but phenomenal forensic analysis.
I’m looking forward to you getting into the quality and fit of different brands.
Knitwear – because of my lifestyle – features big in my wardrobe and with the exception of a couple of pieces from PWVC , PS and Ines Meain, the vast majority comes from Begg & Co and Anderson & Shepherd. One of which (Begg &Co) I discovered thru’ PS.
Both are expensive which really brings me to my point. With knitwear you really get what you pay for. Probably more so than many other categories of menswear.

Gilles

Very useful article Simon, thank you. Always useful to navigate in the difficult world or threads, yarns and gauges. Looking forward to an subsequent article on lambswool, merino and geelong!

Malthe

Thank you for always posting wonderful material

My physique is “burdened” by having had an interest in picking heavy things up and putting them down again, for many, many years. For me it has resulted in a quite big difference in shoulder to waist ratio. Often, wearing suits results in me either looking like a fridge or someone going to a fancy disco. Neither is desirable

When dressing I usually find it much easier to wear knits, as it can fall nicely while still down toning my physique.

Do you have any suggestion for other dress combinations, which would tone down a physique slightly?

Malthe

Thanks for the quick reply Simon

Overskirt?

Jon

Hi Simon, what jacket are you wearing with the yellow sweater? With the “fall” colors? It’s beautiful!

Emerging Genius

That orange sweater is quite striking.

Ben

As a consumer, I’m most interested in determinants of how quickly a knit pills and loses shape. In my experience, they’re not reducible to easily discernible (labeled) factors like brand, price, the type of fiber, gauge or thickness, and I still end up buying pieces that don’t last after all these years of shopping. A recent Cucinelli purchase still haunts.

Martins

I remember suggesting that! Nice to know it’s coming!
For me piling has been biggest deterrent of buying nice knitwear. If on one hand I can buy cotton Ralph Lauren knitwear in tk max for 40£, treat it like smart sweatshirt, have it remain presentable for couple years and still wearable 4-5 years later, with washing after every wear, why would I spend 200-500£ on something I would want to wear daily that I have to baby? I have couple special pieces but it was a hard readjustment to buy 250£ pwc cashmere rollneck that got a diagonal pilling mark from a single shopping trip where I carried shopping bag on my shoulder…Well , lesson learned, nice knitwear for me is for special occasions only..

Martins

Thank you!

Matt Spaiser

Thanks for explaining this. Knitwear is so popular yet not well understood, and this goes a long way at helping me know the basics of how to define different aspects of it.

Alexander

Dear Simon! Do you have experience with the shetlands from Trunk? https://www.trunkclothiers.com/products/trunk-berwick-shetland-crew-dark-olive?variant=15418869710883
It says „circular knit“. Should I expect them to be shapeless in the waist?
I never owned a shetland sweater. Is the trunk one a thoughtful starting point or should one go right to A&S if I want just one sweater in this category for now ? Is dark green a good choice? (It is clearly a forest green to me, but for some reason they call it dark olive.)
Thank you! Cheers

Alexander

Perfect, thank you! Are you wearing size medium? Thanks for the help, cheers

Nils

Dear Simon,

I also think that there are many interesting shetlands from various brands including A&S, Harley, Jamieson’s, Lawrence J. Smiths, Trunk or William Lockie. Do you have a preference for any shetlands from these brands, and why?

Thank you!

Jonathan

Hi Nils,

I am very fond of Shetland sweaters, and I have pondered this same question, having struggled to find RTW options that tick all my boxes. Usually, I have to compromise on something, be it authenticity (yarn/maker), fit, cuff style, or construction. I realise that authenticity might be a somewhat superficial criterion for some, but I, for one, genuinely value sweaters that are made on the island, or at least in Scotland.

Just some thoughts:

For me, the saddle shoulder provides a better aesthetic and greater fit options, and is a principal factor when choosing a Shetland. I think it is more likely to look good whatever size I select, unlike sweaters with shoulders seams, which may sag, or hang, from the top of the arm when worn large.

For sweaters with saddle shoulders, I believe the best unbrushed options are indeed the ones you mention: A&S, Jamieson’s, Harley/Bosie and Trunk. (Are the Trunk sweaters Shetland wool, or Merino in a Shetland crew style?) There are certainly other offerings out there, but there is also crossover. I know quite a few labels use Harley, for example. A&S are interesting. Some of their sweaters are said simply to be ‘knitted in Scotland’, and others actually on the Shetland Isles. Maybe they use two or more suppliers.

The O’Connells (Buffalo, NY) saddle-shoulder sweaters are in fact made by Laurence J Smith/Odie. But I do not believe these are available on the UK market. LJS goes by the name ‘Shetland Woollen Co.’ in the UK, and none of the sweaters under that label have saddle shoulders, from what I can tell. They apparently have plans to open an online shop sometime. Watch this space, I’d say.

One Shetland knitter I spoke to regards the ‘drop’ shoulder as the most traditional, over the raglan and saddle (I am reminded of that painting of Edward VIII in his Fair Isle V-neck!). My conclusion is that saddle Shetlands are an Ivy thing, for which knitters have historically aimed to cater and still do, in some cases.

Having long arms for my height, I also prefer turnback cuffs and the leeway they give. Shetlands with saddle shoulders and generous turnback cuffs (4″ or more, say) are nigh on impossible to find RTW. Jamieson’s sweaters might be the closest, at least on paper. I have not tried them yet.

For drop shoulders, one could consider a traditional island knitter, such as Anderson & Co.

If anyone has more, or spots an error, please let me know!

Jonathan

Nils

Thank you for your insights.

Gilles

Very interesting piece of information, thank you. On my side, I tried different brands and came to the conclusion that A&S were my favorite Shetlands. They are softer than other brands, very well made and in a unique color range. Regarding LJ Smith, I had a strange experience with them: The Shetland jumper I ordered was so smelly that I had to wash it twice and still couldn’t fully get rid of the smell. Besides, the fabric is quite scratchy.
Re Trunk, their Shetlands are good value for money, but certainly not the same quality as A&S. They are a bit scratchy as well and the knitting is a bit “loose” or less dense vs. A&S.
Finally on William Lockie, I find them very nice but a bit too long to my taste.
And I just ordered a Drake’s brushed Shetland, I will keep you updated once I receive it!

Jonathan

Thanks, Gilles. Curious to know what you think of the Drake’s sweater.

Interesting point about the smell. The occasional O’Connells (LJS) sweater is said to have the same issue. Presumably it has to do with the lanolin content, and how the sweater is washed before it leaves the factory?

I do not (yet) have an A&S Shetland, but I was impressed when I tried one. The softness of the yarn struck me, too. Unfortunately the shop didn’t have my preferred size-colour combination at the time. I might comment personally on the sleeves: the small was rather snug, even for my lanky arms, though I believe these sweaters are ‘cut’ with tailoring in mind. Just a point of fit to consider for anyone pondering one.

Until recently, Anglo-Italian had some Italian-made saddle Shetlands on their site (around the Trunk price point, if memory serves). Not sure who supplies the yarn.

Gilles

Hi Jonathan, just received the Drake’s Shetland (delivery took much longer than expected). A beautiful piece, slightly different than my other Shetlands, as the wool is brushed to add softness (yet not at the point of a Shaggy Dog). More fitted than A&S’s, which I found positive. But overall, A&S Shetlands remain clearly my favorites: denser yarn, softer than Trunk’s and absolutely gorgeous color palette.

Jonathan Stevenson

Hi Gilles,

My apologies – I completely missed this. Thanks for the update.

Any idea who makes the A&S Shetlands? And where the yarn originates? I did ask once, but never actually found out.

I have also been trying to find a supplier for the McGeorge Shetlands, which seem popular on the continent, especially in Italy. I believe that the current incarnation of McGeorge is different from the original (whose factory ultimately closed in 1992), but they still appear to offer very nice Shetlands. Theirs even look a little like the A&S ones…

Jonathan

Alexander

On the quality of Trunk: Forgive me my ignorance. Is the density of the knitting really a quality issue? Or maybe just a decision to make the sweater lighter and wearable through more months of the year? (Simon?).
I just received my trunk Shetland sweaters and I can just say right now that I like the cut and the collar style. I would not have described them as „scratchy“ myself.

Alexander

Nice, thanks.

Anonymous

Simon juts to clarify is Geelong a superior form of Merino and like Merino much lighter/softer than lambswool? I have ceased buying lambswool jumpers as they are often too heavy and course for our (milder and shorter) Australian winters. Can you please advise. Thanks.

William

As always, thanks for the great information, and I look forward to the rest of the series!

Quick question, besides RRL, can you recommend some brands that offer some fun, patterned shawl cardigans?

On a side note, even though I check the appropriate box (and provide my email address), I never seem to get notified of replies to my comments on this site…any suggestions?

Thank you!

William

Thanks…I had never actually noticed THAT section….will try that!

JF Aubry

Dear Simon, I have been looking desperately to replace a (very) old Old England fully finished crewneck fishermans rib jumper … made of cotton, excellent for summer evenings. I tride Google a hundred times, emailing Johnstons or others, with no success whatsoever. Do you believe I should just forget it as well as faux cols? Thank you so much for your always relevant knowledge of this fascinating industry.

JF Aubry

tried, the (French) corrector insists on tride

Rupesh Bhindi

Hi Simon,

Would you classify 2 ply as mid-weight cashmere jumper. This is what Thom Sweeney uses as their description.