The polo neck, roll-neck, turtleneck, high-neck, or skivvy is a garment (usually a jumper or sweater) with a close-fitting collar that folds over and covers up the neck.
When we get dressed every day, we don't often consider the historical context of what we are going to wear. But every so often I find myself wondering where it all began. Apparently this is now called 'conscious fashion' - understanding where a fashion style came from and how it has travelled through time to land in our wardrobes today.
What I found out about fine-knit polo neck jumpers...
Dating back to at least the 15th century, they were originally designed to protect the necks of knights wearing chainmail. During medieval times knights wore chainmail under their armour in battle and jousting and subsequently experienced severe chafing often. Chafed necks were a big issue because not only was chainmail extremely uncomfortable, but it limited the knights' ability to turn their heads quickly in battle. A high-necked, long-sleeved garment that could protect the neck and torso from the rough, heavy chainmail became a necessity for any suited-and-booted knight.
As a very practical garment that provided both warmth and protection while being light weight, the turtle-neck was worn predominantly by working class labourers and even adopted by the Royal Navy as a standard uniform component.
Starting around 1860, the polo neck returned to the upper classes and the equine community as English polo players began wearing the garment in their polo matches. This is why it is more commonly referred to as a 'polo neck' in the UK.
Before we talk about why the fine-knit polo neck jumper really took off in women's fashion we really need to understand what makes fine-knit so special.
What is the difference between knitted and woven fabrics?
- Woven fabrics: The thread lays in the straight lines from left to right and up and down. In weaving, threads are always straight, running parallel either lengthwise (warp threads) or crosswise (weft threads).
- Knitted fabrics: The threads are knitted together by a process of inter-looping or inter-meshing loops. This results in a more flexible textile that has stretching and elasticity properties in all directions. Depending on the yarn and knitting pattern, knitted garments can stretch as much as 500%.
What is fine-knit?
Fine knit refers to the gauge of stitching, calculated as stitches per inch from the number of stitches in a 4" swatch of the knitted textile. Dividing the number of stitches used by the actual size of the swatch gives the stitch gauge of that sample. The swatch edges affect the reading of the gauge, so it is generally recommended that the swatch be at least 4" square. Similarly, the row gauge is calculated by dividing the number of rows knitted by the length of the swatch.
|Weight||Needle Size||Stitches per Inch|
|Lace||000 - 1||8.25 - 10.00+|
|Superfine Knit||1 - 3||6.50 - 8.25|
|Fine Knit||3 - 5||5.75 - 6.50|
|Light Knit||5 - 7||5.25 - 5.75|
|Medium Knit||7 - 9||4.00 - 5.25|
|Bulky Knit||9 - 11||2.75 - 4.00|
|Super Bulky Knit||13 - 17||1.75 - 2.75|
|Jumbo Knit||17+||0.00 - 1.50|
What is stretch knit?
Stretch fabrics evolved from the scientific effort to make fibres using neoprene. From this research, in 1958, commercial stretch fabrics ("elastomerics") such as spandex or elastane (widely branded as "Lycra") were brought to the market.
Today many clothing manufacturers blend spandex or elastane/lycra with other fibres such as viscose to provide stretchy, figure-hugging garments.
What is viscose?
Viscose (Rayon) is a regenerated cellulose fibre that is made from natural sources of cellulose, such as wood and related agricultural products. It can imitate the feel and texture of silk, wool, cotton and linen. The fibres are easily dyed in a wide range of vibrant colours. Viscose fabrics are soft, smooth, cool and extremely comfortable.
Sally Allen blends viscose with spandex in a fine-knit to produce a lightweight, soft, super-stretchy polo neck jumper in 20 colours that can be utilised in the fashionable practice of 'mix & match' layering.
How to wear a polo neck jumper:
Jeans and a tucked-in polo neck is the easiest and most obvious pairing, but to make this look pop, try seeking out a serious statement coat. Whether it’s textured with shaggy fur or a bold print. Suddenly an everyday outfit feels totally special!
How did the fine-knit polo neck jumper become a classic?
Throughout the 1920s and '30s, jumpers – also known as sweaters – grew in popularity as machine-knitting developments made such items both more affordable and more widely available. Designer Coco Chanel promoted the knitted jersey as everyday wear and this more relaxed attitude to dressing was cemented when the sweater (by Elsa Schiaparelli) made its first appearance in American Vogue in 1927.
The sweater had become an important piece of clothing for a new type of “modern” woman who would rather play a game of tennis than sit still in a parlor. But sweaters of the time tended to lose their shape quickly which resulted in a sloppy appearance. In the Spring of 1927, Elsa Schiaparelli noticed a woman in Paris wearing a plain but unusually woven sweater, which didn’t seem to stretch and had what Schiaparelli later described as a “steady look.” Schiaparelli discovered that the sweater had been knitted by an Armenian woman using a special double layered stitch. Elsa soon recruited the young woman to knit several prototypes for her. Schiaparelli drew a white bow to look like a scarf tied around the neck of a sweater on a black background and had the design knitted into the sweaters. The sweater had its public debut when Elsa wore it to a luncheon that included several leaders of the fashion world.
The sweater caused a sensation. A buyer from Lord and Taylor ordered 40 copies on the spot. Although her first collection launched the previous year had been well-received, it was the bow knot sweater which secured her fame.
By the early 1930s, sweaters were in such demand that Vogue launched the spin-off The Vogue Knitting Bible (later Vogue Knitting). The Scottish brand Pringle claimed to have invented the twinset (a matching jumper and cardigan) that same decade.
The glamour of knitwear was enhanced through the 1940s and '50s by the so-called 'Sweater girls': actresses such as Lana Turner, who received the nickname for her appearance in the 1937 film They Won't Forget, and Jayne Mansfield, known for wearing a tight sweater over a cone- or bullet-shaped bra.
The popularity of the jumper boomed during the 1950s, both in mass-produced and home-knitted versions, thanks to new yarns and new colours.
Decorum was restored by none other than Audrey Hepburn (of course) in the 1957 film Funny Face when she wore the black polo neck jumper that has become iconic.
The Principles of Knitting - June Hemmons Hiatt - Simon & Schuster - https://www.simonandschuster.co.uk/books/The-Principles-of-Knitting/June-Hemmons-Hiatt/9781416535171
Victoria and Albert Museum - The Fashionable Sweater - https://www.vam.ac.uk/articles/the-fashionable-sweater
Philadelphia Museum of Art: Shocking!: Teacher's pack -https://www.philamuseum.org/micro_sites/exhibitions/schiaparelli/kids/schiap-pack.pdf