By Leslie Petrovski
The year was 1970-something. The yarn: Reynolds Lopi. The knitter: my mom. The design: a traditional Icelandic lopapeysa. The silhouette: oversized (though, truth be told, there’s a lot less ease than there used to be.) The colors: brown, tan, and white.
I wore that sweater with jeans and hiking boots (red laces) in high school, then with a brown corduroy prairie skirt in college (paired with Candie’s mules, if memory serves, and cabled ecru tights). Huddled in my first apartment, the thermostat turned low to save money, it was my winter companion. And, even today, that lopapeysa—which, but for a few pills, looks as good as the day it came off the needles— makes an occasional appearance when the temps hover near zero and I want to wear something serious—and seriously beautiful—to banish the cold.
Why do I continue to drag that not-so-soft pullover with me through the years? What makes a sweater one you’ll reach for now—and possibly 40 years hence?
I put this question to a variety of experts, knitters, spinners, designers, and the ultimate source of wisdom regarding all things related to yarn and needles—my knitting group—and some themes emerged.
It’s a classic.
There are reasons sweaters with long folk or regional traditions continue to inspire. There’s the beauty, of course, refined and proven from knitter to knitter over generations—and the connection to one’s own or another’s culture. But there’s also the appreciation of skill and craft. Who hasn’t eyed a Bohus, fingered their size 3s, and thought: bucket list?
Consider this: Is it the high-fashion sweaters you stalk at Rhinebeck? Or do you find yourself trailing knitters rocking intricate Fair Isles and fisherman’s knits?
“From time to time, we all succumb to the whims and caprice of fashion,” observes Meg Swansen, owner of Schoolhouse Press. “Our lovingly hand-knitted sweaters—the venerated ones we still like to wear, and the worn-out ones we plan to re-knit one day, most likely fall into classic categories such as Aran, Guernsey, Scandinavian, Fair Isle, Faroese, Icelandic, Baltic, Anatolian, Armenian, or South American. The elegance of form and sophistication of color combination help a sweater fit into any era of fashion.”
She’s not alone in that thought. “I have Dale of Norway Scandinavian sweaters that I knit 20 years ago, that I still love,” says Laurie Sundstrom, owner of Vintage Knits, a website that sells vintage patterns. “These sweaters are timeless, and look as good today as when I knit them; my investment in good materials (wool) and my time in knitting a complicated color pattern was well worth it.”
Today, there are many knitwear designers who understand that twining, ropey cables or traditional colorwork motifs can be rejiggered, tweaked, or shaped to create designs with one eye trained on modernity and the other on tradition. This issue is chock full of them, look to this story, which updates 12 classic Twist designs in new yarns.
“Seeing the resurgence in knitting and crafting over the last few years is really lovely, especially as the trend is to embrace the classic designs of the past,” says Wendy Bayford of The Vintage Pattern Files. “I do wonder if it has something to do with the hectic digital age that we all live in now where fashion is fast and everything is readily disposable. Each new project needs to be something you'll treasure as it's going to take many hours of work, so I think classic designs which have stood the test of time, are a great way to ensure you'll wear a garment for many years to come as they never really go out of style.”
Yarn rep and designer Cia Abbott Bullemer (a member of my knitting group) also appreciates clean, modern sweaters that nod to tradition. “Some designers make sweaters that are cool and interesting,” she says, “but I always think, ‘Will these designs still be wearable in five or 10 years with features like asymmetry, funky shoulders, unusual hemlines, or crazy color work?”
It suits you.
Ten or so years ago, I knit a lavender alpaca cardigan with contrasting loop-stitch trim that looked like an egg-dye kit had gotten the better of a poodle—and gave it away.
Most of us probably have a “what-was-I-thinking” sweater like this, created when we couldn’t resist the lure of the sale bin or an artfully styled image in a magazine.
Karen Templer, who writes the blog Fringe Association and runs a companion needlework accessories shop, Fringe Supply Co., has chosen to eschew the highly embellished, too-colorful knits that are so visually enticing in favor of what she tends to wear—neutrals.
“I hear this from knitters all the time,” she says, “you want to knit things that are fun to knit but that tends to lead to sweaters that aren’t the ones you reach for.”
After a wardrobe crisis that involved a move from San Francisco to Nashville, smaller closets, and growing concerns about the environmental and human impacts of fashion, Templer decided to rebuild her wardrobe by purchasing ethically made items—and knitting and sewing the rest.
These days Templer is mostly knitting basics, recently completing an elbow-length, V-neck pullover in black lite lopi yarn that she loves. To keep things interesting, she designed it on the needles—top-down—bending raglans and adjusting details as she worked. She calls it, the “perfect sweater.”
“Now I want seven of them!” she says.
It’s made to last.
When asked about timeless sweaters, designer and author Ann Budd, who wrote The Knitter’s Handy Book of Top-Down Sweaters, among others, didn’t hesitate: “Part of it is going to be the yarn,” she says. “Choose yarn that won’t pill and sag, and often that is a toothy wool—what some of us would describe as having a scratchy feel—that’s not treated to be superwash and keeps its resiliency.”
Deborah Robson, author of The Fleece and Fiber Sourcebook, agrees, mentioning a coral-colored sweater she knitted in 1972 out of a sport-weight Norwegian yarn that’s seen hard wear—and has yet to produce a single pill.
In general, Robson advises, choosing plied, worsted-spun (as opposed to woolen-spun) yarns made from longer-stapled wools (four-plus inches). Knitting sweaters at a slightly tighter gauge can also increase a yarn’s strength. Though the bulky lopi yarn Mom used to make my sweater is barely twisted, the stuff bears up—a function of how the tougher, longer-stapled outer coat from Icelandic sheep is blended with the downy undercoat to create a durable, perfect-for-outerwear yarn.
Sitting around the table at Zook’s Coffee and Cafe in Denver, Colorado, members of my knitting group discussed sweaters they have known, knit, and loved. Some mentioned sweaters that suited them—commercial and handmade—as well as the places and people associated with treasured knits. Crocheter Susan Permut seeks out figure-hugging ruffled cardigans. Sharon Miller relishes a red Christmas sweater she inherited from her mother. Jocelyn Chilvers turns to a boxy, charcoal merino wool cardigan, a gift from her husband and daughter, while Paula Stacey reaches for the cotton men’s sweater she purchased at Marks and Spencer in Canterbury to chase away the British chill.
As far as my old lopapaysa is concerned, I love it for the warmth and for the memories of my mother sitting in her big chair, her first seamless yoked sweater spilling off the needles.
Leslie Petrovski is a Denver-based writer and knitter who lives with her husband, kitty, and too much yarn in Denver, Colorado. She blogs at nakeidknits.com and occasionally posts a new knitwear design on Ravelry under her nom de knit, nakeidknits.