With fall in place and winter close by, I have been on the lookout for vintage sweaters. I love the chunky knits, big buttons and wintery patterns. At times like these, I wish I knew how to knit better. My skill set remains at a simple scarf, yet I dream of owning a vintage or repro sweater from each of my favorite 20th century decades 1900-1960.
Take a look at these pictures of women’s vintage sweaters from the 1900s, 1920s and 1930s and see how styles have changed over the years. Another article on sweaters styles from the 1940s, 1950s, and 1960s is coming up next week.
At the end of each article, I have some suggestions on where to buy vintage knitting patterns (free) and vintage inspired sweaters.
Sweaters Before 1900
Knitwear as outerwear was heavily influenced by two events. The first was recognizing wool as a sanitary and breathable material in underclothes. This eventually led to wool used as outerwear in fishermen’s sweaters who needed warm and water repellent clothing for their line of work.
The outdoor hardiness of knitted wool made its way into all kinds of sports and leisure wear, which was becoming something all classes of people were enjoying at the turn of the century. As with most sportswear, knitwear started out just for men and gradually adapted for women, who wore it not just for sport but at home, too.
Prior to 1900, women relied on knit or sewn capes and shawls for indoor warmth. Now with sporty knit sweaters, women could stay warm and still be active at home. I believe women in the lower classes benefited the most from wearing sweaters at home (working), although upper classes found them less bulky to wear in cars. To each class sweaters offered their own alternative to bulky coats, capes and shawls.
Sweaters in the early 1900-1910 decade were called Knit Sweater Coats or Sweater Jackets. Edwardian women’s sweater coats buttoned up in a single or double breasted style with large pearl buttons. Pullover sweaters were only worn by men and children, hence the distinction. With such large Gibson Girl hair, it was impractical for women to use a pullover sweater.
Sweaters were worn untucked except for Golf Coats, which were thin and blouse-like and worn tucked into skirts. The shape of the sweater coat mimicked the shape of blouses and the corseted body. The S-curve silhouette is seen above and in the sweaters below with their large puffy mutton sleeves and pigeon breasted fronts. The sweater coat collar was a V-neck with thick contrasting trim and cuffs. Some sweaters came with a matching knit sash tie. These were called Skating Coats (as in Ice Skating — a favorite winter activity).
Since so few Edwardian era pictures came in color, I tried to colorize the 1909 sweater above to reflect the “grey with cardinal red trim” colors it could be purchased in. Other colors available were solid grey, navy, white, black, and cardinal.
By 1910, the exaggerated S-curve shape was replaced by a more natural hourglass shape, moving towards the boyish flat shape of the 1920s. Sweaters narrowed to fit the new silhouette as well as growing longer to hang over the entire hip. Pearl buttons were replaced by matching knit buttons on some heavy winter sweaters.
The main shift was in the diversity of collars and colors. Sweater collars left behind the simple V-neck in favor of outdoor-friendly high buttoning muffs that wrapped the entire neck. There was the round neck collar that buttoned up around the front of the neck, then there was a smaller shirt collar that could lay flat on the shoulder or fold up around the neck. The extra large rolled shawl collar wrapped around the neck and folded over — the best of both styles.
Sweater colors shifted, as well, from plain dark colors to brighter reds, greens and blues. They still came in single colors or with a contrasting trim. Two front pockets were necessary for holding a pair of gloves or warming hands.
Sweater coat belts also experienced some variation. The wrap around and tie sash belt was still popular, now with tassels on the tips. Then there was an attached full belt that buttoned on the front on either side of the opening. Why don’t these exist today? They are so snazzy!
By 1918, sweaters were moving into the style of the 1920s. Many remained waist length, while others shorted up (and lightened up) with spring weight designs. Instead of one long column, they now had some shape around the waist coming down to the the top of the hip.
The shawl collar continued to be a popular design but with a deeper V opening. Some cardigans went so far as to open all the way down, lined with lapels on either side. They did not button close but instead were held in place by a loose belt or sash. The exaggerated length with long lapels contributed to the long and lean silhouette of the mid to late ’20s. Oversized collars made them young and childish, which also a fashion trend in the early ’20s.
Since women now bobbed their hair, the pullover sweater became fashionable. It was made of a thinner knit and often worn without a blouse underneath. Necklines were deep V’s with a long bow loosely tied at the bottom.
The sweater vest was a pullover or button up version of a sleeveless sweater. They were worn by women golfers or those who liked to look sporty. The arm openings were quite large with a very deep V neckline and long fit. They were much more comfortable to golf in than layers of shirts and sweaters previously worn.
Colors and patterns in the 1920s exploded. From big wide stripes to all over Fair Isle inspired patterns, sweaters now had personality. Orange, purple, black, yellow, and green were mixed and matched together. The color combinations remind me of those we saw again in the late ’60s and early ’70s. Shop vintage style sweater vests.
You can read even more about 1920s sweater history here.
The early 1930s re-introduced most of the design elements of early ’20s sweaters with large shawl collars or small shirt collars, two front pockets, and buttons. They were a practical and no frills design that represented life in the Depression era.
Sweaters as outdoor winter wear lost popularity to coats and jackets. Coats could now be lined, made thinner, and waterproofed, making them a better choice in wet conditions. Instead, sweaters and sweater shirts became a spring and fall fashion item. No longer bulky, a thin knit cardigan layered nicely over blouses and under warm coats if necessary.
By the mid thirties, styles became more beautiful, more feminine, reflecting a change in attitude from sad to hopeful. Sweaters were knitted shorter with modest high necklines and small collars or no collar at all. Sweaters were almost always a solid color without any contrasting trim. The beauty of the sweater was in the weave designs. Instead of the same stitched used throughout, the garment weaves now had stripes, checks and zig zags. A combination of weaves in one sweater was common practice. It gave the best fit, too.
The short barrel sweater was the biggest thing to hit the 1930s. It had a wide waist band to accent a small waist and a fitted but not too tight top with narrow sleeves. It came in long sleeve sweaters, short sleeve sweater shirts and sleeveless pullovers or button up vests. This short and fitted style was to remain popular for the next 30 years.
Mostly Free Vintage Sweater Patterns
Buying a vintage sweater is next to impossible (and very very expensive). They just didn’t hold up very well to age, moths, and washings. If you have the skills to knit or crochet a sweater, these links will help you find some free or cheap vintage patterns.
- The Vintage Pattern Files – Hundreds of free patterns from 1900 on up. Search by decade or size.
- Antique Pattern Library (Knitting) – Endless amount of free books and patterns. Books by date.
- 1916 Woolco Knitting and Crocheting Manual – Several basic sweaters scarves, mittens and more.
- Utopia Yard Book – 1919 Sweaters and cardigan patterns free eBook.
- 1922 Fleisher’s Knitting and Crocheting Manual – Features several fitted sweaters.
- 15 Corticelli Yarn Book – 1920s Golf Sweaters and Cardigan Sweaters.
- 1930s Short Sleeve Checkered Trim Sweater – Free Pattern here.
- 1934 Lacy Jumper with Short Sleeves Crochet Pattern – Search this archive of old newspapers to find even more free patterns.
- 1937 Cable Knit Sweater – Classic ’30s style in one solid color.
- Etsy – Search for any vintage sweater pattern. Has both eBooks and physical books such as this 1930s Barrel Sweater Pattern for $3.50.
- Pinterest – Search here for links to free patterns online. This board has links to 100 free vintage patterns from the 1930s to 1950s. This board has pictures and patterns to browse.
- A Stitch in Time – 60 original patterns from 1920-1949 reproduced and digitally enhanced with updated directions.
Vintage Inspired Sweaters
When you can’t knit a sweater for yourself, you can find new vintage inspired sweaters that will give you the vintage look but with updated yarn and fit.
1910s Style Sweaters – Chunky knit cardigans with big buttons may be easier to find in menswear, especially with the low hip length.
1920s Style Sweaters – Shawl collars and V-neck button down cardigans are popular this year, making a 1920s style sweater easy to find.
1930s Style Sweaters – Barrel fit sweaters are harder to find than a later 40s style, but many of the 40s and 50s styles can also work for the 1930s.