Well-Made and Essential Sweaters and Cardigans Perfect for Denim and Vintage Workwear Looks
Even if you’ve never had to scrape ice off your windshield or shovel snow off the walk, you probably understand the value of a sturdy sweater. Chances are, you have at least a few of them kicking around.
If you’re a northerner, they’re a crucial component of layered winter and fall looks. If you’re a southerner, a soft and well-worn sweater can serve in a jacket’s stead on rainy and cloudy days.
No time to “waste”?
If you’re in a rush and don’t have time to read why sweaters and cardigans are essential and learn what you should look for in well-made ones, you can jump straight to our list here.
Sweaters are one of those categories that denimheads arrive at late (if ever). Most of us build our rotations slowly, piece by piece. We start with jeans and boots, adding some shirting and then a denim jacket (not necessarily in that order). Our old sweaters, often holdouts from the before time, still do the job reasonably well. When it gets nippy, we reach for them.
If this sounds familiar, it’s because we’ve all been there at some point. Some sweaters cost as much as a well-made denim jacket, others as much as a well-made leather one. For those who’ve made the leap into well-made sweater territory, though, there’s no going back.
To be clear, the pieces we’ll be highlighting below are not luxury sweaters. These aren’t baby-soft cashmere pieces that need to be handled with kid gloves. We’ll be looking at heavy-duty sweaters and cardigans fit for shepherds and seamen. These sweaters are meant to be used and abused. Unlike luxury sweaters, they become better, not worse, as they age.
When the sweater is just right (meaning it’s timeless, adaptable, and well-made), you’ll only need one, not a drawer full of them.
Pick your sweater carefully and conservatively, and it’ll hardly spend any time in the drawer. It’ll be the first thing you reach for when the weather takes a turn for the worse. Each time you slide it on, you’ll be glad you finally pulled the trigger on a well-made one.
The sections we cover in this guide:
- Why well-made sweaters and cardigans are essential
- How to identify a well-made sweater or cardigan
- Our list of well-made and essential sweaters and cardigans
If you want to know more about why we created these guides, please read our Manifesto. If you want to understand the criteria we apply for each item, read our definitions of ‘well-made’ and ‘essential’.
An honest disclosure: Our guides are reader-supported. This means that we earn a small commission when you click on some of our links and buy something. It doesn’t cost you anything. Availability and price of the products we recommend are subject to change.
Why Well-Made Sweaters and Cardigans Are Essential
Well-made sweaters are both timeless and adaptable. They’re pillars of cool- and cold-weather looks that can be worn over most things and under the rest.
A conservative and impeccably crafted sweater is never out of style. Abuse it and it’ll do yeoman’s work for years. Take good care of it and it’ll become a family heirloom.
Well-Made Sweaters and Cardigans Are Timeless
Because they are so practical and ubiquitous, it’s perfectly reasonable to assume that sweaters and cardigans have always been with us. Surely, some ancient shepherd saw a sheep’s woolly coat and put two and two together.
Apparently not. Though we’ve been using wool to make garments for around five-thousand year, the pullover and cardigan have only been with us since the nineteenth century. The cardigan takes its name from James Brudenell, 7th Earl of Cardigan, who led the famous Charge of the Light Brigade during the Battle of Balaclava (the 1854 engagement that also gave us the knitted headgear favoured by stick-up artists).
Famously cool under pressure, Cardigan emerged from the battle unscathed, but his knitted wool waistcoat did not. He got a little too close to the fireplace, and the tails of his waistcoat went up in flames. The extinguished earl actually preferred the singed and shortened coat to his others, so he adopted the style. Like the tails of his waistcoat, the style caught fire, spreading throughout England, picking up sleeves somewhere along the way.
The pullover sweater, and especially the Arran sweater, which became something of an official uniform of grisled fishermen the world over, emerged a few decades later as a popular choice among the Irish fishermen of the North Atlantic. The sheep’s wool used to knit the sweaters retains some of its oils, making the sweater effectively waterproof—the fisherman’s best friend.
Sweaters and cardigans both moved effortlessly through the twentieth century. The cardigan became heavily associated with varsity looks in the roaring twenties and fell out of favour for a time, but it’s come roaring back every decade in some form or another.
The pullover sweater hasn’t had the same rollercoaster ride. It’s been a stable workwear pillar for more than a century, and it’s not going anywhere.
Trendsetters have often used the sweater as a canvas for more imaginative takes, and these have predictably come and gone each time the leaves turn. The simple heavy sweater, though, has been toiling away in the background. Since its birth, it’s been keeping us warm without breaking a sweat.
Well-Made Sweater and Cardigans Are Adaptable
Pullovers can be thrown on over just about anything (or nothing), but they tend to work best with uncollared shirts. If you’re going for a dressy look, you might choose to pair your sweater with a crisp collared dress shirt, but lighter sweaters (not featured here) will better serve your purposes.
Pullovers pair best with henleys and tees. If you’re wearing a vintage work shirt, denim shirt, or heavy flannel, keep the collar tucked inside the shirt.
With cardigans, you have much more flexibility. They can be layered over top of just about anything.
As a general rule, try to be consistent with the fit. Here’s what we mean: a loose-fitting sweater or cardigan should be paired with other loose-fitting items. If you could fit a small child in your sweater with you, or if your cardigan billows in the wind, pair it with an extremely loose-fitting long-sleeve or an oversized tee. If it’s a cardigan, the look should work (as below) whether it’s worn undone or buttoned up.
At the same time, if you’ve gone with a more trim-fitting piece, pair it with other pieces that fit close to the body. A trim denim jacket or a snug base layer will weave together a flawless cool-weather look.
Remember that this applies to your jeans as well. Slim-fitting sweaters paired with wider-leg jeans give a bottom-heavy look that works for almost nobody. Vice-versa, it’s also problematic. It’s fashionable for ladies to combine oversized sweaters with leggings, and some men can walk this tightrope, but it’s our style advice to pair like with like. Skinny jeans? Slim-fitting sweaters. Straight-leg jeans or comfort tapers? Roomier pullovers and cardigans.
How to Identify a Well-Made Sweater or Cardigan
Going with a brand with a reputation for making built-to-last and built-to-fade goods will get you most of the way there. Still, there are moments when we are pulled towards a sweater and we don’t recognize the brand name. To make sure we get our money’s worth, here’s what to look for:
What It’s Made of
With the RRL piece as the only exception, all the sweaters we’ve included on the list below are either 100% cotton, 100% wool, or some mixture of the two.
Synthetic fibres might help create a more comfortable sweater, but the kind of pieces we’re highlighting here prioritise rugged warmth and durability over downy-soft comfort. Cashmere is great if you want that wrapped in luxury feel, but that’s not what we’ll be looking at here.
The best makers source their materials extremely carefully. They choose wool or cotton that has a long successful track record for warmth and durability. There should be some substance there when you pinch the fabric between your fingers. In the same way that it draws the hand, it should also draw the light. Shiny sweaters should be left on the rack. Well-made sweaters absorb more light than they reflect.
Our favourite sweaters reward close inspection, and this goes right down to the yarn. The colour should feel rich and saturated. Some pieces start with a good deal of character baked into the fabric, but others will develop this character as you age them.
Pick your colours carefully, and let the textured knit do all the pattern work. Stripes or other patterns can work, but never quite as well as solid colours. Cowichan sweaters are an exception to this, but in that category, there’s a delicate balance between a statement piece and a comically overstated one. We want a timeless and well-made sweater, not something that looks like a Christmas sweater.
For best and most adaptable results, stick with the classics: a dark blue, grey, black, or brown sweater will go with absolutely everything.
What to look for in a well-made sweater or cardigan:
- 100% wool for warmth
- Merino wool / virgin wool
- 100% cotton for comfort and fading
- Thick and heavy
- Solid and dark colours for adaptability
- Saturated in colour
- Knit pattern should not draw too much attention to itself
How It’s Made
At the top of the scale, you’ll find hand knit sweaters made by artisans. These sweaters don’t roll off an assembly line so much as they are crafted slowly and purposefully by expert makers. They aren’t produced in a manner of minutes or even hours. They take shape over days or even weeks. Every piece is unique.
It’s a big leap up into hand-made territory in terms of price. Be warned: Handling these garments or putting them on can often push fence-sitters over the edge. If your eyes goggle at the price tag, best to just walk away. Once you’ve tried it on, you might prefer taking out a second mortgage to taking it off.
Only three of the pieces below are handmade. The rest of them can more than hold their own next to the hand-made items. They might not have the same kind of story, but you can still see and feel the construction in every inch.
The knit might be tight or loose, depending on the maker, but a well-made sweater feels substantial in your hands and on your shoulders. It holds some of its shape when you take it off the hanger. You can expect it to soften in time, but it doesn’t start its life soft. A bit of resistance at the beginning will translate to a long and useful life.
If you have any doubts about the construction, take a look at the seams on the inside and out. Stitching should be clean and tight throughout, and, if there are seams along the sides, they should look as clean on the inside as they do on the outside.
The collar should have a little bit of give (enough that you can haul it off without stretching it). If there are cuffs, they should grip the wrist firmly (though not so firmly that they can’t move up and down the forearm). Even if they’re designed to be rolled, they should look great when unrolled.
Finally, if there are buttons, they should not be plastic. Bone or wood is always a nice touch, especially if you’ve gone with a vintage style sweater. The buttons should be firmly attached, and they should be purposeful, not decorative. If there is a zipper, it should be every bit as sturdy as the sweater.
Construction details to look for in a well-made sweater or cardigan:
- Tight stitching throughout
- Stitches are clean inside and out
- Snug cuffs with a bit of give
- Sturdy collar if pullover
- Sleeves or collars meant to be rolled should still look great when unrolled
- Wood or bone buttons
- Metal zippers
Why It’s Made
The sweaters and cardigans we highlight below long for the outdoors. They won’t serve you well at the office or in a crowded restaurant, but they will be indispensable when the cold weather snaps at your ears and your nose.
They are made to be part of the great tradition of briny greybeards taking to the sea, their collars high and stiff around their throats. They look perfectly at home on deck or in the woods with a light dusting of snow on each shoulder.
They are functional pieces made with rugged outdoor use in mind. Like the forest and sea, they are eternal—eternally good looking and eternally lasting. Add a well-made sweater to your cool- and cold-weather rotation and you’ll soon wonder how you ever lived without one.
10 Well-Made and Essential Sweaters and Cardigans
There’s not a department store or mass-market retailer that doesn’t have a table piled high with sweaters somewhere in the menswear section. Well-made goods stockists will usually have a much smaller and carefully curated selection of sweaters. When you get the basics 100% right, you don’t need variety. Try a well-made sweater on and you’ll quickly see what we mean.
Here are ten of our favourite sweaters and cardigans. Even if you don’t find your forever sweater on this list, the brands and stockists we’ll highlight below are an excellent starting point for your search. Happy hunting.
The combination of the London-based clothier and the family-run Scottish knitwear legends might sound familiar if you read our guide to essential vests and waistcoats. Their 100% cotton knitwear is heavy enough to pass for wool, but it’s got that cotton fade factor that makes their knitwear such a hot commodity among denimheads.
As the indigo-dyed cotton ages, it takes on an unbeatable soft blue tone. It won’t happen overnight (the faded example below is the result of four years of steady wear), so think of every hour you spend in this as an investment that will pay future dividends. It’s a conservative piece, but it pairs so effortlessly with both faded and crisp new pairs of raw selvedge that the day you put it away in the drawer for the summer months will be a sad occasion.
- 100% cotton
- Indigo dyed
- Traditional cable knit pattern
- Raglan sleeve construction
- Made in Scotland
- Fades to a beautiful light indigo
Other Allevol x Inverallan sweaters to consider: 1G Roll Neck (70% wool / 30% mohair fisherman’s sweater), 6A Shawl Collar (shawl collar version of the 1A), 7A Double-Breasted Shawl Collar (double-breasted version perfect for buttoned-up looks)
Clutch Café ship from the UK. If they’re sold out or you’re looking for other places to buy Allevol x Inverallan, try: Allevol (UK)
There are dozens of Cowichan pretenders out there (most of them catering to the souvenir or kitschy markets), so you’ve got to search high and low to find the genuine well-made article. Cowichan sweaters are the result of a cultural collision.
English and Scottish settlers brought sheep and knitting techniques to the aboriginals living on Vancouver Island in the middle of the nineteenth century. Not long after, native artisans started knitting wool long underwear and sweaters. By the turn of the century, their patterned designs had become iconic symbols of native ingenuity and craftsmanship in the Great White North.
There are a handful of places to buy authentic Cowichan sweaters knit by artisans who live and work on the Cowichan reserve, but the selection and shipping options are limited. Though the Canadian Sweater Company doesn’t appear to work directly with native artisans, their sweaters draw inspiration from their designs.
They’re made by hand, and they include modern touches like heavy-duty brass zippers with leather pulls. They’ve got a wide selection, but it’s their 1056-2M (catchy name, we know), with its rugged blend of undyed wool fibres, that really ticks all our bent-wood boxes.
- 100% undyed wool blends
- Handspun wool
- Hand-knit on circular needles
- Seamless construction
- Fully customisable
- Heavy-duty brass zipper
- Branded leather zipper pull
Canadian Sweater Company ship from Canada. If you’re looking for authentic Cowichan sweaters, you can also try: Cheryl’s Trading Post (Canada)
With enough buttons to start your own trading post, The SNS Herning Stark Cardigan might take a while to get fully fastened, but you might just leave it on forever. Northern denimheads have long placed Herning sweaters on a pedestal—and rightfully so. The Danish brand has been a dependable family-owned brand for almost more than a century. Their sweaters are slim-fitting enough to wear under roomy denim pieces, but they’re roomy enough to wear as an outer layer.
Like their equally iconic fisherman sweater with its famous bubble-knit, the Stark Cardigan has an immediately recognisable pattern. The slight diagonal slant creates an asymmetric feel that draws the eye in, but the knit is not just there for show. Rub it between your fingers. It’s heavily textured yet flexible. Try it on and you’ll soon see what all the fuss is about.
- 100% new wool
- Merino wool inside the collar
- Knitted and sewn in Latvia
- Eye-catching slant knit
- 9 buttons
- Wash carefully and infrequently
Other SNS Herning sweaters and cardigans (available through their website) to consider: The Stark is available in several colours, and so is their Fisherman (1 kilo of roll-neck warmth)
Heavily textured knits aren’t for everybody. They seem to simultaneously hide and amplify the shape of our torso, so many people prefer sleeker knits. If a straightforward vertical knit is your bag, the next three sweaters will hit you square between the eyes. We’ll start with Andersen-Andersen (the company so nice they named it twice) and their classic fisherman crewneck.
They might not have the storied history of SNS Herning, but, like SNS, Andersen-Andersen is a Danish knitwear brand with a focus on timeless looks reminiscent of sea-goers and cabin dwellers.
Their Navy Crewneck speaks softly. The design is understated, but the quality is not. Patagonian merino wool knit and spun in Italy weaves together comfort and durability. The cuffs can either be worn either rolled or unrolled.
When unrolled, they have reinforced holes you can poke your thumbs through, making this a piece that was made with heavy layering in mind. Like most things designed in Scandinavia, this sweater just works.
- 100% merino wool
- Wool sourced from Patagonia
- Spun and knit in Italy
- Knitted on a 5-gauge flat knitting machine
- Assemblies reinforced with bar tacks
- Reinforced thumb holes
Lost and Found ship from Canada. If they’re sold out or you’re looking for other places to buy Andersen-Andersen, try: Division Road (USA), Burg & Schild (Germany), B74 (Germany), and Standard & Strange (USA)
Cream can provide a nice (if a little sharp) contrast with crisp raw denim, but few colours fit better with fully faded pairs. It helps draw the lighter tones of your faded blues to the surface and simultaneously brightens and softens a workwear kit.
For it to really work its magic, stick with a conservative roll neck like this piece from Heimat. The German brand has a very limited range of simple, well-made pieces. They stick to what they do well (and they do well-made sweaters very well).
Their U-Boat Roll Neck in seashell is machine knit, but it’s hand-assembled. Many of those who try one on for the first time notice that it feels a little snug in their usual size.
Resist the urge to size up. The merino wool will stretch just a bit. After a few wears, this will fit as well as any sweater you’ve ever owned. Absolutely flawless layering piece that should be able to slide under most denim jackets, but most at home with a pea coat or other heavy dark wool jacket.
- 100% virgin merino wool
- Made in Germany
- Beautifully finished neck and cuffs
- Vintage nautical design
- Fit slim at first but will stretch to fit perfectly
- Also available in black, orange, and green
Other Heimat sweaters worth considering: Jailhouse Sweater (navy and seashell stripes for that jailbreak look), The Mariner (blue and orange striped masterpiece available through their website), Rugby Crew Neck (bold grey and navy stripes available through their website)
Clutch Café ship from the UK. If they’re sold out or you’re looking for other places to buy Heimat sweaters, try: Second Sunrise (Sweden), American Classics London (UK), Tanner Goods (USA and Europe), Brund (Denmark), and Picking & Parry (Australia)
Most of the sweaters on this last harken back to the first half of the twentieth century—either to old-world fishermen or to sailors, those original boys in blue. Aero, best known for their impeccable leather reproductions of military jackets, has settled firmly into the latter category with their wool rollneck. It’s a meticulous reproduction of the sweater issues to Royal Navy submariners during WWII. Layer this with a pea coat and you’ll torpedo that vintage naval look right out of the water.
Knitted in Scotland using six-ply wool, this sweater is one of the sturdier pieces on a list absolutely bursting with heavy-duty sweaters. The cuffs and the neck are snug without being tight, and both can be rolled up or down as required.
For ease of identification in quartermaster stores, the Royal Navy placed the labels facing out on the bottom of the sweater, and Aero has reproduced this. They’ve used large stitches to fasten the labels, so like the RN seamen, you can choose whether to leave the tag on or tear it off. With reproductions, it’s details like this that make all the difference.
- 100% six-ply Shetland wool
- Knitted in Scotland
- Balanced comfort/warmth
- Long neck that can be rolled up or down
- Reproduction of 1941 pattern
- Identical to sweaters issued to Royal Navy submariners
Other Aero sweaters to consider: The Shetland Wool Rollneck is also available in cream, the RAF Comforts Sweater (10-ply Guernsey wool—ultra heavy duty), Hand Knitted Harris Wool Roll Neck (hand-knitted fisherman’s sweater)
When Marc Asseily and Laurent Vourven launched Arpenteur in 2011, they did so with a mission to create immediately iconic pieces that balanced past and present. There is a distinct workwear ethic behind all of their pieces, but there’s also that trademark French sophistication. They’ve managed to create beautiful and utilitarian pieces that feel elegant while looking heavily structured.
Their Plano Sweater in ecru (it’s also available on their website in grey and navy) is dripping with subtle but eye-catching details. The raglan sleeve construction is highlighted with a knit band that demands closer inspection. With an extremely comfortable fit that falls from the shoulders rather than hugging the body, this piece will work very well as an outer layer, but it will also work very well under parkas or other roomy outerwear pieces.
- 100% merino wool
- Seamless construction
- Made in France
- Ribbed neck, cuff, and hems
- Raglan shoulder construction
- Loose-fitting for off the charts comfort
Other Arpenteur sweaters to consider (all available through their website): The Plano also looks incredible in grey and navy, and their Dock Jumper (featuring a subtle roll neck) is definitely worth a look.
We love us some heavily textured knits, but there’s a lot to be said for tight knits that don’t look like knitwear from a distance. Dehen 1920, one of America’s oldest and most prestigious drapers, covers the entire spectrum with their wool garments. Hailing from the Pacific Northwest, they know that a wool sweater can be worth its weight in gold if it can be treated roughly day in and day out.
Their Shawl Sweater Coat has all the look of a sweater but the weight and endurance of a coat. A stunning three pounds of worsted wool goes into each of these, and you can feel that weight when you slide it over your shoulders. The knit feels indestructible, and we’ve yet to see one of these things that anybody has managed to put a hole in. If you’re hard on your sweaters, this heavyweight can take whatever punishment you can dish out.
- 100% worsted wool
- Extra-heavy four-end jersey knit
- Essentially indestructible
- Made in USA
- Custom black corozo buttons
- Traditional welt pocket construction
- Interior elbow patches
Brooklyn Clothing ship from Canada. If they’re sold out or you’re looking for other places to buy Dehen 1920, try: Division Road (USA), Rivet & Hide (UK), Burg and Schild (Germany), and Godspeed (AUS)
So far, we’ve stuck to Northern European and Pacific Northwest makers. No Well-Made Essentials list would be complete without at least a short visit to Japan, so we take you there now. Joe McCoy, the Real McCoy’s Americana-obsessed offshoot, has left the buffalo range and headed to the blustery coast of Ireland for this textbook take on the aran sweater. The kings of made-in-Japan reproduction have done it again.
Like the Allevol x Inverallan piece we highlighted above, this is a 100% indigo-dyed cotton sweater, so it is made to take on character as it ages. As it loses pigment on the cuffs and forearms, it will become a piece like no other. It starts its life in a dusty yet vibrant shade of indigo, so you won’t have to wait years and years for the fades to start appearing. Live in this thing for a season or two and you’ll bring all the grandpas to the yard.
- 100% cotton
- Yarn-dyed with indigo
- Made in Japan
- Classic Irish knitting technique
- Runs quite large for oversized fit (size down)
- Made to fade
Other Real McCoy’s sweaters to consider: Indigo Aran Crewneck (crewneck version of the indigo sweater, but with the cardigan-style pockets on the front), White Aran Crewneck (white version of the indigo crewneck)
The Real McCoy’s ship from Japan. Other places to buy Real McCoy’s include: Lost & Found (ship from Canada), Clutch Café (ships from the UK) The Real McCoy’s international (ship from the UK), Standard & Strange (ship from the US)
We’ve thus far avoided Ralph Lauren on these lists because we’re not crazy about the brand’s labour practices. Their Americana offshoot (with an uncertain future) produces undeniably gorgeous pieces, but, unlike other brands we cover in these lists, it’s extremely difficult to justify their prices.
In some categories, though, you have to doff your cap and give credit where credit is due. Their belted cowichan cardigans are simply the best-available version you can find anywhere. Yes, you’ll pay an arm and a leg for one of them, but you’ll have an iconic character piece that will almost certainly outlast the RRL badge.
They are tight-lipped about where they make their Hand-Knit Ranch Cardigan, but it’s clear that they’ve partnered with hand-knitting artisans to produce these pieces. They use a blend of 11 yarns, combining mulberry silk, wool, linen, and cotton. This isn’t a sweater so much as it’s a work of art that could just as well be mounted and hung over the fireplace. We recommend that you squeeze every drop of value out of it by wearing it absolutely everywhere.
- 37% mulberry silk / 35% wool / 15% linen / 13% cotton
- Shawl collar
- Buttoned placket
- Metal concho buttons
- Long sleeves meant for rolling
- Rib-knit cuffs
Other RRL sweaters to consider: Marled Wool Crewneck (oatmeal heather crewneck with red accents), Marled Aran-Knit Wool-Blend Cardigan (wool/cotton/linen blend in a grandpa sweater for the ages), Indigo Cotton Cardigan (ready to fade)
Ralph Lauren ship from the USA. If they’re sold out or you’re looking for other places to buy RRL, try: Stag Provisions (USA)
Got the Sweater? Kit it Out
Sweaters can be the pièce de résistance in a great kit, but they need complementary pieces to work with. Nothing works better under a sweater than a henley, and nothing works over one better than a military-inspired winter jacket. Underneath it all, you’ve got to have the right pair of raw selvedge jeans. Got all that? You’re set.