Most of us have grown up watching the comfortably cheesy PBS show Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood, with the late Fred Rogers, or have at least heard of it. A closet full of colorful sweaters became synonymous with nerd/geek fashion, and thus became a quick way to get beat up if one chose to wear a sweater to school. But no more! Mens wool sweaters are so rugged, they can now be worn at the work site with pride!
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Sweaters were cool work wear for longer than you might think.
This has been proven for over a couple centuries now, thanks to the practical minds of Irish and Scottish fisherman (or, more accurately, their wives and mothers). Sending their men out in this tiny boats on some of the roughest seas in the world — just to catch dinner, and maybe make a few coins down at the market — required some heavy-duty clothing designs.
Good thing there were so many sheep around, lubbing the land just outside the fishing shanties and wharves.
People took note of how the little, docile beasties were able to tough out all kinds of weather with their powerful pelts. This gave them an idea: why not us?
So using wool became standard fare for the boys that bobbed on top of the dark waves.
But who said they had to look hairy bait buckets? Why not give them some style?
So the woven patterns of the Celts and the Scots — handed down by their Nordic ancestors (read: Vikings) — became the designs for this new form of fisherman “uniform.” The style quickly grew as famous as the wool sweater’s ability to ward off sea spray and North Sea gales, and the rest is fashion history.
Return of a Classic
Growing up on the east end of Long Island was more like being at the bottom of New England than part of New York.
Chowders were big out on the “North Fork,” almost every town was a fishing village, and we said “New Yerk” rather than “New Yawk.” It was peaceful living for the most part, with the Connecticut coast always in view across the rarely-violent Long Island Sound.
Tourists from “The City” (what other one was there for us Islanders?) loved to barge their way into local gift shops, snatching up any nautical items they could find to put on their urban mantles. Ship parts, oil paintings, old lanterns, and even decorated pieces of driftwood all became the demand of the Big Apple denizens, and we quickly learned to over-price these items; those city folks would pay anything, and we still had winter to get through after all the tourists left.
Cashing in on the craze for all-things-nautical were a few of the local seamstresses, who thought to weave some wool and recreate sweaters in the patterns learned by their Irish mums and grandmums, then put them up for sale in the local markets. Sure enough, EVERYBODY had to have one… even ME, and I was a local dude!
Up north and quite a bit further west, folks living near the Great Lakes were quietly enjoying these same sweaters all along, fishing year-round without nary a complaint. These rugged souls had been smart enough to keep their Nordic traditions fully intact, holding on to them ever since their forebears stepped through customs as Ellis Island.
Until tourists found them, too.
“What’s that feller wearin’ out there on the ice? Is that just a sweater? What’s he doin’ out there in this blizzard?”
“Oh, it’s just another day fer ice fishin’, dontcha know? Sven hardly notices the weather — he’s so used to it, ya?”
“Whatever. He’s crazy. But how much for that cool sweater he’s wearin’?”
People began to talk, then phone, then they all got on line.
It was only a matter of time before so much of the country connected over one thing:
Folks just HAD to have one of those fisherman sweaters!
Sure, companies like Orvis began having them made from the Green Isles from whence they originated, and only the rich got to wear them… probably once, around Christmas, and indoors. The rest of us saved all year to get one of those woven wool beauties.
Only to find they didn’t fit so great and were itchy as heck around the neck.
Regardless, the population was smitten, and the demand continued to grow.
But how to meet that demand, and solve the discomfort problems at the same time?
Mens Wool Sweaters: New and Improved
Getting a sweater for Christmas was (and sometimes still is) considered to be the second worst gift for the holidays — just above socks (underwear was always awkward to receive, but who doesn’t need that… other than the commandos out there?).
Men got tired of hearing, “You never wear that sweater I paid good money for!” So they started wearing the ugly things around the house, doing chores and all manner of dirty work, hoping for the chance to say, “I wore it a LOT, but now it’s ruined… sorry.”
Still… the experience of staying warm while working out in the elements (stringing lights, shoveling snow) in a wool sweater was hard to beat — even if the dang things looked like they were rejected by both Fred Rogers and Cliff Huxtable.
So how to retain the function without the foolery? And why not make it more comfortable, while we’re at it?
With the introduction of more fine versions of wool — like merino (from sheep), mohair (from goats), and alpaca (from the Emperor’s New Groove) — into the general market, sweaters could now be made of materials that blended the coarse (great insulators and weather fighters) with the soft touch of hair coming from animals that previously were there to cater to only the silver spoon crowd (especially cashmere, also from sheep).
Clothing companies were flooded with requests for sweaters that could be worn to work, but would also LAST.
And… if at all possible… they had to look like those fisherman sweaters everybody remembered, or only saw in the Far North or on the East Coast.
Acquiring patterns from every red-headed step-daughter and grandchild of a shield maiden they could find, the clothier companies were only too happy to oblige.
Heck — even the prices of Orvis came down as their quality went up (at least in the sweater department).
Now you can get that rugged look you’ve been craving for on the work site, and you don’t have to be in a dinghy or mushing a team of sled dogs to make it look “normal.”
You can also find your favorite wool weaves in just about every sweater style out there:
- Crew neck
- Quarter-zip/button pullover
- Turtle neck
- Any combination of the above
Usually dyed in colors that hew close to the natural look of the fibers, these sweaters are guaranteed to leave those candy-colored sweaters cowering in the back of Mr. Roger’s closet, waiting for the next trolley ride out of the ‘hood.
And don’t forget about the elbow patches!
They’re not just for stuffy English professors any more!
Better Sweaters for a Better Price
These days you don’t have to look very far or hard to find your favorite style sweater at a decent price, all ready for hard work or play.
Woolrich has staked their reputation and workmanship on designing and crafting coats, vests, shirts, and sweater from their namesake, since 1830. By now, I think it’s a safe bet that they know what they’re doing.
Almost every year, Duluth Trading Company adds a new line of rugged sweaters to their catalog. In fact, just this past year, they have included some very affordable, very tough-wearing wool togs from Scotland — all of the fisherman variety.
LL Bean does the sweater justice. They’ve expanded their line to include some more bold patterns, instead of just having the soft stuff favored by office-dwelling bean counters and the like… See what I did there?
Filson has also been around a long, long time. They’re not cheap, but their clothes are strictly for the worker out in the cold. Any wool product from them is destined to be of heirloom quality, and tough as nails — if those nails were made from wool.
Obviously, I’m not recommending any “big Box” stores for this final inner layer of your winter work armor. You’d be lucky to find anything that could last out the month, if not shrink into the next Christmas present for your newborn nephew.
You’re welcome to check out sites like Sportsman’s Guide or Amazon, because you never really know when you’re going to find the “golden fleece” of sweaters in those markets. Other stores for the outdoorsman, like Cabelas, are probably also worth a Popeye squint.
So there you have it: Everything you could ever want to know about mens wool sweaters — the retro-cool work wear layer for the man who’d help a neighbor change a tire in the cold, rather than just sing to him about how think nice thoughts about winter.
Because we all know those are becoming an endangered species.
Maybe these sweaters will help our moods.
Then we could all be like Sven.
Got a great sweater of a tale?
Be sure to tell me all about it in the comments section!
Now for the last layers of armor: Coats and jackets… and, after that — the final topper…