Why should men wear sweaters?
One word. Versatility.
Sweaters are the perfect middle ground between casual and formal. Someone can pair a sweater with blazers and slacks or jeans and a t-shirt.
But… all sweaters are not created equal.
Different materials, styles, thicknesses – it can all be a lot.
But in today's article, I give you the ultimate guide to men's sweaters.
Common Sweater Styles For Men
Form follows function, and in the case of sweaters – form is often function. Just because something's called a “sweater,” it doesn't necessarily mean it's cozy winter wear.
Different manufacturing processes result in sweaters that look and feel very different from one another.
Below, I am breaking down the most common sweater styles for men.
A cardigan is a sweater that opens completely in the front.
Cardigan sweaters can fasten with either buttons or zippers or, in rare cases, ties – although the latter sometimes cross the line into robes or smoking jackets.
Thinner cardigans, made from finer wools such as cashmere, can be layered under jackets and suits. Just make sure to have a trimmer fit.
They vary from casual and sportswear to business-casual attire, depending on the outfit's cardigan and rest.
“Pullover” is a broad term encompassing sweaters that you pull over your head (as opposed to shrugging on over your shoulders like a jacket).
Some pullovers will have half or quarter-zip necks, and they can come with all manner of collar styles and necklines (discussed in detail below).
When someone says the word “sweater,” this is usually the generic idea that comes to mind: a knit, long-sleeved garment that tugs on over the head, typically big enough to go over one or more under-layers.
Named for the Aran Islands off the west coast of Ireland, Aran sweaters are thick, cable-knit sweaters made from 100% sheep's wool.
The Aran Islands are cold, wet, and prone to frequent storms, resulting in a local style of sweater that is exceptionally thick and weatherproof.
The most traditional Aran sweaters are made from wool that has not been washed or treated to remove lanolin, which is the oily secretion that helps waterproof sheep's wool. It carries a spicy scent similar to Kerosene.
More commercial variants scour the wool, removing the smell but also reducing the water-repelling properties.
Aran sweaters typically involve multiple panels of knit patterns running vertically along the garment.
Machine production and looms make most current models somewhat slimmer than the traditional sweater, but they are still one of the heaviest and bulkiest styles on the market.
Also spelled Gansey, Guernsey takes its name from Guernsey, a small island in the English Channel that belongs to the British Crown (but is not technically part of the United Kingdom).
The sweaters have been made there for centuries and remain the sweater of choice for most Channel fishermen.
Authentic Guernsey sweaters are spun with a “hard twist” that tightens the wool fibers. This makes them very dense and water-repellant. Tightly knitted stitches add to the water resistance.
Traditional Guernsey sweaters have visible ribbing on the upper sleeve and a raised shoulder seam.
Many different decorative patterns for the body panels exist, and most are made with gussets under the arm to allow greater freedom of movement.
The cuffs and hem are ribbed, and the neck is squared off and symmetrical all the way around. This was so that it could extend the time between washing by turning it inside out.
Like Aran sweaters, these are ideal for prolonged outdoor use. They are dense, heavy, and very insulating, and too bulky to wear conveniently under dressier jackets.
Submariner sweaters are thick sweaters with tall, rollable necks. This sweater type is similar to the British Royal Navy's submarine crews' uniform sweaters in World War II.
The ribbed cuffs and hem are tight against the body. The roll neck adds a double layer of warmth.
Submariner sweaters can serve both as outer layers or underneath a suit or sports jacket.
In and out of fashion at various times, the sweater vest exists as a natural compromise between warmth and bulk.
You can often tell a sweater vest's intended purpose by its design. Sweater vests with high collars and zippers or button fronts are used as outerwear. Solid sweater vests, with v-necks, are designed to fit nicely under jackets. The v-neck displays a necktie well.
Sweater Neckline and Collar Styles
All of the above body types can be manufactured with different styles of the neckline. This will affect both the appearance and performance of the sweater.
Crew neck sweaters are among the most common styles and also one of the simplest.
The neckline is round and has a narrow band of ribbing that adds just a touch of bulk. Initially, the crew neck was designed to keep football players' shoulder-pads from chafing against their skin.
This is a good-looking, minimal style that pairs easily with most clothing.
They don't pair well with neckties and can pinch the collars of some dress shirts.
A broader, softer neck opening can help leave room for those business-casual staples. Sweaters with a very tight crew neck opening will be limited to collarless undershirts and definitely no neckties.
The obvious answer to the drawbacks of the crew neck is the v-neck sweater. The neckline is cut in the shape of a “V” in front.
This neckline leaves room for a visible necktie. In most cases, the v-neck also allows room for the points of a shirt collar.
Unsurprisingly, these are the go-to for dress-casual looks that incorporate neckties and collared shirts. Therefore, v-necks are often seen with sports jackets and suits as well.
The classic turtleneck style is a tall collar folded over on itself. Unfolded, the collar would usually end around the lips or cheeks; doubled over, it makes a thick band around the neck.
Turtlenecks add warmth and make an excellent dressed-down replacement for the conventional pointed turndown collar seen on dress shirts.
Because the doubling over adds bulk, they tend to be among the thinner knit sweaters, making them useful layering items.
Turtlenecks are separated from rollnecks by their fit and fold: turtlenecks are a tight, close band around the neck that's folded neatly over at a flat angle all the way around the neck. Even when folded, they stand up straight, making a sort of “tube” around the throat.
A rollneck is essentially a baggier turtleneck: it shares the elongated neck (like the turtleneck, a rollneck sweater would cover part of the face if the neck were stretched all the way up) but has a wider opening and a looser knit, allowing a baggy roll around the lower neck.
These vary in tightness: submariners are rollnecks that hug pretty close, while some other styles slump all the way down onto the shoulders.
The neck (and therefore the roll) thickness can vary too, ranging from tiny little collars to big bulky cruller-looking things.
A good look for most men is a narrow rollneck with a wide opening: comfy, easy to layer, and forgiving of wide builds and faces.
The notch neck is a cousin of the V-neck and mimicks the T-shirt style of the same name.
It has a simple circular opening most of the way around but features a small V-shaped cutout at the front, just below your Adam's apple.
They're a more casual style designed to add some visual interest to the basic pullover sweater (and, it must be admitted, to allow well-built guys to show off a hint of the tautly muscled upper chest).
You'll usually see these on the lightest and tightest knit sweaters, typically colorful cotton ones made for younger men to wear in trendy outfits.
At the extreme end of baggy necks, you have the cowl neck: a tube of fabric around the neck opening so wide and soft that it doesn't require folding but instead slumps down into a pile of loose cloth.
The result is a baggy, rumpled look that's very relaxed (and very warming for the upper body).
They shouldn't be confused with shawl necks (described below) — the shawl neck has a defined shape, while cowl necks are inherently shapeless, or more accurately shapeable.
You can shift the pile around, make it flop one way or the other, spread it wide, or bundle it uptight — it's malleable.
The shawl neck has a wide, turned-over collar that narrows to points on the chest's front-most commonly seen on cardigans or half-zip sweaters.
Sometimes the points overlap for a vaguely double-breasted look, but they often meet in the center of the chest, usually where the opening ends, or the buttons/zipper begin.
Shawl necks upgrade sweaters into something somewhere between a basic pullover and a sports jacket: they suggest the lapels of a suit but keep the softness of a sweater.
They're an advantageous top layer in dress-casual settings.
A tie can dress one up further, while jeans can take them down into essential around-the-house wear.
Google “polo sweater,” and you'll mostly find pullovers from Ralph Lauren.
But there are a few light knit sweaters out there with the soft turndown collar and one-to-three button placket of a polo shirt.
These are mostly thin, lightweight “summer sweaters.” (Yes, it's a thing! Particularly in the tennis court/clam digging sort of New Englandy crowd.)
They're superior casual wear when the weather is just starting to get nippy and can be layered under thicker sweater styles in cold months.
Zipper and Button Styles
It's incredible how much difference a slight change in the sweater opening can make in the look. Briefly, here are the pros and cons of the various styles:
Half-Zip is sporty, simple, and easy to snug uptight for warmth in windy weather. Opened up, it leaves room for a collared shirt beneath the sweater.
Full-Zip is the most outdoorsy, active-wear sort of look. It's functional and convenient for sweaters that will be the top layer or a layer under a winter coat a lot, but it's not very dressy and doesn't pair well with sports or suit jackets.
Half-Button looks a bit dressier than half-zip and plays nicer with turndown collar styles. It can look oddly bulky buttoned up in some cases. However, so many of these spend their whole lives unbuttoned.
Button-Down is the classic cardigan look. It's relaxed but nice and can work as both a top layer or a substitute for a button-fronted dress shirt (or even paired with one) under a sports jacket.
These can all end up looking very different, depending on the sweater's bulk and other attributes. Still, in general, a plain front or a button-down will look dressiest, followed by a half-button, while the zippered options are more inherently casual.
Sweater Sleeve Styles
Getting panels and tubes of knit cloth to fit together has generated impressive human innovation over the centuries. Naturally, that's also developed some different looks.
There are actually a couple of different knitting techniques that all generate this same basic look: sleeves that join at the shoulder, with a vertical or slightly-angled opening that tucks the sleeve into the sweater (or vice versa) all the way around the armpit.
This produces the most familiar look to Western eyes: a shoulder seam pretty much like dress shirts, jackets, etc.
Depending on how it's knit, the set-in sleeve seam may have a raised texture or a decorative pattern, but they can also be done smooth and flat, and usually are.
Instead of ending at the armscye (the hole around the armpit), a raglan sleeve extends the top of the sleeve all the way to the collar. That necessitates a diagonal seam that cuts across the front and back of the shoulders.
It's a more straightforward sleeve to make than a set-in sleeve, and so you'll often see it on hand-knit sweaters. Usually, the sleeves are picked out in a separate color from the body for a sporty, two-tone look.
Raglan sleeves tend to be broader and looser than other styles. You most commonly see them on thick, bulky sweaters rather than snug, thin knits.
A dropped sleeve has a horizontal opening rather than a vertical one, usually located an inch or two down the shoulder's upper arm. That creates a visible band around the arm picked out with decorative patterns in many sweaters.
It's a more standard style in women's wear than men's, but it shows up from time to time on large, loose sweaters like cardigans and cowl necks.
At any given outlet, the vast majority of sweaters will feature set-in sleeves. Raglan and dropped sleeves add some visual interest to top-layer sweaters. Still, because they tend to be looser under the arm, they usually don't layer very well under anything tighter than a winter parka.
Sweater Fabrics and Fibers
Much of the cost of a sweater comes from its raw materials. Some can be found easily and affordably, while others are luxurious materials guaranteed to demand a higher price.
By far, the most widely-used traditional material for sweaters, sheep's wool, can vary considerably in finished products depending on how it is spun, treated, and woven.
Combing and washing soften the wool and removes rough edges from the individual fibers. That makes the texture smoother but also weakens the fibers, reducing the durability of the wool.
(Washing also removes most of the lanolin that gives wool its water-repellant properties, but most modern customers consider that a worthwhile trade, like lanolin, gives untreated wool has a pungent, oily smell.)
Wool is a good, sturdy option that provides lots of insulation. It's also quite durable so long as it's treated well: not stretched out when wet and not exposed to too much direct heat. It's often the chosen balance between price and function.
The smooth, straight hairs of the alpaca aren't technically wool – the fibrous fur, much like humans have on their heads, with a smoother surface and less frizz than sheep's wool.
Because their hollow structure is filled with tiny air pockets, they're also wonderfully insulating while remaining light in weight.
That makes alpaca a popular material for winter sweaters that can be layered without adding tons of bulk. Unfortunately, the per-unit cost is also relatively a bit higher, making alpaca-fiber sweaters a pricy treat.
A step up even from alpaca, the cashmere goat's hair is often held up as the gold standard of sweater materials. True, 100% cashmere sweaters are light, flexible, and insulating.
However, buyers beware; there is no industry-wide standardization for defining “cashmere sweater,” Many things sold under that name are really a blend of sheep's wool and cashmere hairs, with the wool dominating the mix.
At that point, the so-called cashmere sweater becomes indistinguishable from a wool sweater, albeit a relatively fine one.
If you see cashmere sweaters for under $100, and it seems too good to be true, it probably is.
For the real experience, you'll need to find a merchant who advertises explicitly 100% cashmere sweaters (and, obviously, who you can trust — if the claim is being made on a street vendor's cardboard sign, use some common sense).
Linen sweaters are relatively uncommon and much lighter than other options. They're usually summer sweaters, and men are typically left in linen's natural, creamy, off-white color.
While they're not a winter staple, these are very handy in spring, summer, and early fall. If you've ever seen someone walking along with a white sweater knotted loosely over his shoulders on a warm day, odds are it was linen.
Not a word typically associated with quality in clothing, polyester nonetheless has some advantages: it's cheap, it's flexible, it's low-maintenance, and in a tight-knit, it tends to snug itself to the body for a tight fit.
That makes polyester sweaters a usable part of layered outfits. If something looks and feels sort of like a fleece sweater but is made from a visible knit, odds are it's at least got polyester in the blend.
Cotton sweaters are thinner, lighter, and less insulating than wool sweaters. That sounds terrible if you're focusing on sweaters as a bulky layer for cold weather, but it comes in handy when layering sweaters for a fashionable look.
Thin cotton knits are practical layering pieces and can be worn in warmer weather than even fine wools. They're also much lower maintenance — most can be tossed in a conventional washer and dryer.
Light, breathable, and very thin, silk makes a good under-layer. It tends to get soggy once it absorbs sweat, however, so most sweaters that use silk do so as a blend, often with cotton or cashmere.
Silk blends make light, flexible, body-hugging sweaters that do well as part of a layered look.
Besides the sweater body's shape and cut, the visual pattern and texture really gives a sweater its unique character.
These are the terms most people think of when they describe sweaters: “a cable-knit sweater,” “an argyle sweater,” etc.
One of the oldest and most widespread ways to decorate knit garments is with the stitches of the knit itself. This builds the pattern directly into the sweater.
Decorative stitching makes the sweater look and feel chunkier. Because it can be done in the same color as the rest of the garment, it's a useful way to add visual complexity without introducing clash for low-contrast outfits.
Cable is meant to mimic the nets and rigging of fisherman's sailing ships. This is one of the most common patterns, especially in Aran and Guernsey sweaters. They typically run vertically, as thick, horizontal bands do not flatter most wearers, but horizontal cable-knits exist for those who want them.
Diamonds are essentially a wider cable knit, with smooth knitting between the bends of the “rope” pattern. They can be used to make complicated knot-work patterns and are common in monochrome sweaters.
Tree of Life stitching creates an angled ladder of branching shapes. Depending on the knitter's preference, it can look more abstract or more like a tree-shape. Christmas sweaters often feature them in green against a white background.
Ladder of Life stitching is another typical Guernsey design and looks very much like a rope ladder.
Honeycomb is a traditional Aran Island motif meant to represent the hard-working industry of honeybees. It's also one of the bulkier patterns, with lots of closely spaced bends.
Trellis stitching layers interlocking chevron shapes one atop the other. It's sometimes used to suggest mountains and hills.
Zig-Zags are essentially half of a diamond stitch. They are often done in a contrasting color for very bright, casual sweaters.
Irish Moss (Seed Stitch) is an interlocking pattern of very closely spaced stitches at right angles to one another. The result is a mat-like surface with a bumpy texture.
Trinity stitch (also sometimes called raspberry stitch) creates a pattern of raised, rounded bumps. It adds a lot of texture and some visible gaps to the weave, making a squishy but bulky sweater.
Solid Color Sweaters (Smooth Knit)
Sometimes simple is best, and for that, you want a smooth-knit, solid color sweater.
These are a reliable staple of layered looks, mainly when made from a thin, lightweight material like cashmere or a silk blend.
The striped sweater takes a solid sweater and adds pop. The broader the stripes, the gentler it is on the eyes. A sweater with one or two broad color changes looks fun and relaxed, while a narrow zebra stripe is an eye-grabbing showpiece.
Horizontal stripes have a shortening and widening effect, so already-stout wearers usually want to avoid them. Likewise, men who are already tall and thin will be stretched out further by vertical striping.
A classic sweater style, argyle, is a pattern of interlaced diamonds of different colors, overlaid with another pattern of thinner diagonal lines. It looks relaxed, cozy, and unpretentious, particularly in a muted color scheme.
The Fair Isle is a tiny island north of Scotland. It's famous for multicolored knit patterns with horizontal bands of different designs. Traditionally per row, only two colors are used. There can be up to five colors total in the pattern.
Needless to say, the result is eye-catching. The term is widely applied to any brightly colored sweater with horizontal bands of color. These are traditionally large and loose and worn as outer layers.
Sweater Sizing Guide
Sweaters are sized at the chest. Arms are proportionally longer or shorter based on that measurement. A “tall” size typically adds 2-4″ to the sleeve length without changing the chest dimensions.
Sweaters are a great way to stay professional at work while showing off your personal style.
The texture of sweaters adds diversity to your appearance, setting you apart from the corporate-uniform crowd. Use this guide to experiment with the sweater that is right for your lifestyle.