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The label in that sweater said “100% Acrylic” — Meryn Cadell, The Sweater

They have been worn to seal in warmth; drenched in sweat and battered from high seas and blowing snow; adorned with reindeer in hues of spruce green and splattered cranberry; exploited for mass consumption, and even immortalized in spoken word diatribes such as Meryn Cadell’s ode to The Sweater.

From the button-up cardigan to the woolly jumper, the sweater has a varied history that goes back to when hairy mammals were first sheared of their fleece.

While it was prehistoric humans who swaddled themselves in crudely designed pullovers made of sheepskin, the technique of washing, carding and spinning fibrous hair into wool and then intertwining the resulting material with sticks, needles or a loom is said to have developed around the middle ages, with the discovery of knitted Egyptian artifacts from the 11th-to-14th centuries.

Before the Moors arrived in Europe, the Spanish Christians employed Muslim knitters to make garments such as gloves and cushion covers, but it wasn’t until the 15th century that the first knitted jerseys, or tunics, were worn by fishermen trying to fend off the damp while trolling the waters off the British Isles. In fact, the jersey can be attributed to the island of the same name.

Sweater Weather by Kristin Froneman for Merrymen Magazine

The porridge-coloured wool pullover with the intricate pattern was first knitted by the wives of fishermen on the Aran Islands, off the coast of Galway, to identify those who met their demise at sea and whose bodies eventually washed up on shore.

Over in jolly ol’ England, a more sophisticated button-up, or button-down version of the jumper, the cardigan, was being worn by aristocrats to accentuate their top hats and tails.

The Oxford Dictionary claims that the word cardigan was made famous in Lord Alfred Tennyson’s famed poem Charge of the Light Brigade, and particularly in the Battle of the Balaclava. It turns out the leader of the battle, James Thomas Brudenell, was also the 7th Earl of Cardigan.

Another sweater that got its name from island origins is the Aran.

Sweaters would eventually make their way to North America, and while the Europeans can lay claim for bringing their own garments across the pond, the Quw’utsun Mustimuhw (Coast Salish) peoples, and in particular the Cowichan on Vancouver Island, produced their own version applying the same knitting techniques used for making blankets.

Using locally sourced bulky-weighted goat-wool yarn dyed in natural hues of black, beige and greys, the intricately patterned Cowichan sweater often depicted thunderbirds and other spirit animals. Their popularity would eventually catch on, and be appropriated for mass consumption, however, the Cowichan fought back to be remunerated for their work.

Today, authentic Cowichan sweaters can now be recognized by the registered certification mark found inside the garment.

And while hand-knitted woolly jumpers like your grandma used to make have all but gone the way of the dodo, the now synthetic fibre, zipped-up, sometimes garishly patterned garment still has us enwrapped in its warm embrace. We’ll soon be seeing them at ugly sweater parties, under parkas, buttoned up by hipsters, and laid out bare smelling of ape-scent gloriola, right Meryn?

© 2021 Merrymen.

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