The history of knitted cardigans

Knitted cardigans were named after the 7th Earl of Cardigan, the first British officer to cross the Russian lines in the famous Charge of the Light Brigade, during the Crimean war.

He and his officers wore fur-trimmed or braided woollen jackets to keep them warm in the harsh Crimean winter – they actually looked very different from today’s knitted cardigans.

The garment we now call the cardigan was worn in the British Isles and France by the 17th century. Hand knitting was common in Ireland and the islands of Scotland, where Aran designs may go back as far as the 9th century, and Fair Isle designs to the 15th century.

During the 17th and 18th centuries hand knitting became a widespread industry in the British Isles, and knitted cardigans and sweaters were commonly worn by fishermen and other outdoor workers.

In the 17th century knitting frames were designed and developed, but they were very expensive. Then in the late 18th and early 19th centuries the Industrial Revolution mechanised wool washing, dyeing and spinning, and today most knitted clothes are no longer totally hand-made.

During the 2nd World War (1939-1945) wool was scarce in Britain and a booklet called “Make do and Mend” was put out by the British War Ministry in 1943, encouraging people to knit garments by unpicking old clothes. Probably because of the lack of wool yarn, the British cardigan fashions of that time were typically short and tight. But in America both long and short cardigans were fashionable and long cardigans stayed popular for a long time: Marilyn Monroe famously posed on the beach for her last photo shoot in a long hand knitted cardigan with knitted belt, and possibly nothing else.

Marilyn Monroe book front picture Marilyn Monroe book front picture

Amazon UK book…………………… book

In the 1970s this style made a come-back and it is again popular today.

There’s been a revival of hand knitting in recent years, and globalisation has led to the popularity of authentic designs, yarns and products from native peoples of many countries, which the Fair Trade movement has supported.  Thus we come up to date in this story of knitted cardigans.

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10 Responses to “The history of knitted cardigans”

  1. Keith H. Burgess Says:

    Can you please tell me where I can find/view on the web, patterns and pictures of 17thc. & 18thc. cardigans. Your assistance would be very much appreciated.
    Regards, Keith H. Burgess. NECLHG.

  2. Katy Says:

    I’ve emailed you with a few ideas Keith. I hope you find what you need!



  3. Anne Mooney Says:

    I am interested in the same information as Keith. I hope you can email me as you did Keith. Thank you so much. A

  4. charlotte Says:

    Is it possible to find the pattern to marilyn monroes handknitting cardigan?

  5. Matt Coard Says:

    Facts on the subject of fashions generally attracted me personally. This type of message, The history of knitted cardigans | Knitted Cardigans, may possibly make plenty of incredibly exciting in addition , wel informed remarks. …

  6. Katy Says:

    I’m sorry Charlotte – I don’t know where the pattern would be 🙁

  7. Adrian Says:

    Hello, I was wondering if there is a pattern available for the long cardigan worn by Marylin Monroe also this is the same type made famous by Starsky and Hutch in the 1970s cop show, I have also seen photos of Steve McQueen wearing a similar one in a picture from about 1966. It seems to have a distinctive ‘waffle’ effect stitch ….. can anyone help me identify the correct stitch used please……. or even point me in the right direction of a pattern I would be very grateful.

  8. Katy Says:

    I wish I knew Adrian 🙁

    If anyone reading this knows the answer to Adrian’s question, it would be great if you would let us know in these comments. Thanks in advance!

  9. Rose Says:

    Hello, your information on knitting in Ireland is incorrect. Knitting does not go back as far as the ninth century, and aran knitting was invented in the 20th century. You can read more on the wikipedia page.

  10. Katy Says:

    Hi Jane

    I think you may have slightly misread the article; my remark about how far back they go refers to “the islands of Scotland, where Aran designs may go back as far as the 9th century”.

    Wikipedia also says, “There is debate about when island residents first started making the jumpers. Undoubtedly, residents of the islands produced a local version of a Gansey jumper similar to other areas of the British Isles for several centuries”.

    The modern cable stitch itself does indeed just go back as far as 1898.

    As to how far back Irish knitting goes, I don’t mention this anywhere in the article. However, I have found the following, that suggests that no-one really knows the answer: “Hand-knitting was first introduced to Ireland in the 17th century. That said, it appears that some form of similar craftsmanship was present in Ireland over a thousand years ago” from

    It’s worth noting that Wikipedia often updates its pages, depending on which author has laid hands on it last, so what’s written there is subject to change.

    I hope you find some of that interesting 🙂

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