Oi Polloi

The Shetland Jumper — An Oi Polloi Champion

Published: Fri Nov 29 2019


Jumpers don’t get much respect do they? Big jackets are fawned over in pubs across the land, stashing unworn trainers under your bed has become a socially acceptable pastime and countless online forums exist dedicated to discussing the correct way to wash a pair of jeans… but the humble woolly jumper is ironically left out in the cold.

This is probably down to the fact that even the fanciest of jumpers are pretty simple, basic items without even as much as a RiRi zip for bragging rights — but it’s in this simplicity and lack of gimmickry that lies the appeal. As full sci-fi level jiggery pokery enters every corner of our lives, they remain reliably… er… reliable. And no jumper embodies this as much as the Shetland jumper — those brushed wool crew neck knits made in Scotland, and favoured by Ivy League students, mid-60s Mick Jagger and countless other sharply-dressed cats. 


But how did these fairly traditional Scottish jumpers become a key part of the wardrobe for rich students on the East Coast of America? And why should anyone care? Here’s a quick potted history.

As you’ve probably deduced, the story begins in Shetland — a gaggle of rocky islands halfway between mainland Scotland and Norway. Hundreds of years ago this remote archipelago was slap-bang in the middle of an important trade route, but due to the fairly sparse, windswept nature of the islands, the small population didn’t have much to offer.

One thing they did have was loads of hardy, stocky-looking sheep (which were about the only thing which could survive in the fairly harsh climate), and seeing as they were using the wool to knit jumpers for their own torsos, it wasn’t too much of a stretch to rattle off a few extra as a way to barter with the passing ships and trade for useful stuff that wasn’t found on the islands.

As luck would have it, the clothes they made were dead warm without being chunky, thanks to the unusually fine wool from the Shetland sheep, and jumpers soon became a major export.

On a slightly strange, sheepish side-note, apparently old time P.O.T.U.S. Thomas Jefferson kept a rare four-horned Shetland ram on the patch of grass out the front of the White House. This might sound like a bit of a jolly lark, but farmyard historians state it was anything but — and the ram was eventually put down after attacking some walkers, killing a small child and going on a full-scale GTA-esque five-star wanted level rampage. Look it up if you can be bothered.

Back to the jumpers, in the late 19th century rural Scotland was a mecca for rich gentry with time to kill — and minted land owners from all over Britain would take the trip up north to trounce around shooting grouse and tickling trout. These country pursuits required simple, hardy garb as opposed to regal finery, and functional clothing made from wool, waxed cotton and corduroy helped create what became the classic outfit of the country gent. The Shetland jumper (and it’s slightly more outgoing brother, the patterned Fair Isle knit) sat nicely amongst all this — an ideal warm layer for those cold and frosty mornings when a nip of whiskey wouldn’t suffice.

Meanwhile, across the Atlantic, a family company by the name of Brooks Brothers was on the hunt for new wares to catch the monocled eye of the American elite. The casual wealth of British high society was still the number one cultural influence across the pond, and Brooks Brothers were amongst the main proponents of this style.

These country pursuits required simple, hardy garb as opposed to regal finery, and functional clothing made from wool, waxed cotton and corduroy helped create what became the classic outfit of the country gent.

In 1896 they introduced the button-down collar after spotting the innovation on the shirts of English polo players, and in 1904, they brought over the Shetland jumper.

Back then, Brooks Brothers served up a swanky smorgasbord of choice garments from the high class domains of golf, rugby, hunting, fishing, sailing and basically any other leisure pursuit that demanded shedloads of dosh. Put simply, anyone who was so rich that they didn’t care about looking rich was well catered for. Campus outfitters J.Press were also keen on the jumpers.

By the 1930s, the students at America’s Ivy League colleges (eight elite colleges in north-eastern USA) were looking for just this kind of stuff. Dressing down was the order of the day for those who could afford to — and thanks to that brushed wool (a detail added in the early 20th century to lessen the itch-factor), the Shetland was the ideal thing to help attain that comfortably dishevelled flavour. The fact that campus mainstays J.Press had also came up with their own version, known as the Shaggy Dog, also helped the jumpers become synonymous with the Ivy League get-up.

It’s probably important to point out somewhere here that although there’s a fairly defined set of el classico Ivy garments (like Bass Weejun loafers and madras shirts), the lines were more blurred than you’re sometimes made to believe — and despite what various fancy dress role play weirdos might say, it wasn’t some strict military-issue uniform.

Whilst the book Take Ivy (a photo book of students striding around leafy campuses in button-down shirts and Bass loafers produced by a Japanese brand of American-inspired garb called VAN back in the mid-60s) is sometimes seen as a bible for people wanting to attain a certain level of casual style — it was in fact the result of strict editing. The people behind it spent a long time scouring the colleges of the East Coast before they found anyone they deemed slick enough to feature on the pages.

All this aside, the Shetland jumper was a firm favourite. They came in loads of colours and were sold in large stacks in all the classic campus outfitters. And being subtle, functional items, they had appeal beyond just swanky educational institutes — so when the so-called ‘Ivy look’ broke into the mainstream in the early 60s along with jazz records, French films and beatnik prose, the humble Shetland knit once again found a new audience.



They had appeal beyond just swanky educational institutes 

Since then, whilst most things have changed drastically over time, the Shetland jumper has remained pretty much untouched. Even now, hundreds of years after some salty-faced knitwear pioneer first decided to make a torso-shaped slab of clothing out of Shetland wool, they’re still made on a remote Scottish island in effectively the same way they were all those years ago. Oh yeah, and they’re still dead toasty.