The Cardigan – Genderless Knitwear for the Masses

Signifiers of social class presented themselves in two main forms during my schoolyears in Hull. The type of trainers you wore for P.E. made it pretty clear whether your dad was on the dole or not, and if that wasn’t obvious enough, 70% of kids in the free dinners queue at lunchtime were sporting lumpy hand-knits. My grandma Sadie spent (what felt like) every day of her retirement making cardigans for my kid sister and I, busily clacking away with ‘Countdown’ on full blast and the odd glance over at the knitting pattern.

She probably had no idea that her superb knit one, purl one skills were having the opposite effect in the playground. Instead of admiration, they were a source of great amusement and gave the corkscrew permed, menstruating bullies just another excuse to heckle me at morning break. Today, Sadie is still with us – busy smoking 40 a day, glued to the box most afternoons and rarely seen sans cardie (even during the heatwave this summer). My knitwear icon, she’s the reason I always prefer to keep warm by buttoning-up instead of yanking a jumper over my freshly blow-dried bonce.

Named after a British Army General, James Brudenell, the 7th Earl of Cardigan, who led the 1854 Charge of the Light Brigade against Russian forces during the Crimean War, cardigans were originally modelled on the braid-trimmed worsted wool waistcoats he sent his cannon fodder to battle in. As with all the best military stuff, it wasn’t long before the gallantry of cardigan wearing trickled down into the realms of fashion.

By the 1890s women were wanting a slice of the action, and tweaked versions with puffed sleeves and nipped-in waists were gaining popularity. Unsurprisingly, after decades of trussed up Victoriana, both genders fancied some freedom of movement, so it wasn’t long before sporty types started wearing them for tennis, golf or cycling. Ironically, cardigans became synonymous with healthy lifestyles, youth and activity – a far cry from the saggy acrylic numbers often spotted hanging on the backs of chairs in workplaces up and down the country.

Part of the magic lies in how they downplay the differences between men and women. A true slice of thermal androgyny, they should be worn slouchy by either sex and sized to skim the body. Buttons are the best thermostat – simply pop a few open when temperatures rise, and do the buggers back up when there’s a nip in the air. In order to avoid looking like a stuck-up 1980s Conservative MP, or Home Counties dog walker, you’re best avoiding the round-neck ones and opting instead for the laid-back V-neck shape. For inspiration, think Alain Delon sauntering around the suburbs of Paris, or Georgia O’Keeffe striding across the desert plains of New Mexico. Or if those are a little too highbrow, we can always bring things down a peg or two by remembering Kurt Cobain and the grotty green mohair one he famously wore on MTV with missing buttons and filthy pockets – or even better, Pauline Fowler, with trademark folded arms and matriarchal scowl. For those of you straddling between both camps, the unisex Santo Cardigan is arguably your best option. 90% Merino wool and 10% cashmere, it’s perfectly proportioned to offer cocooning comfort that looks sharp enough to fend off any playground jibes.

Leanne Cloudsdale