When it’s bitter outside and the mid-winter blues are biting as hard as they can, a man has few sources of comfort. Short of a booze-laced toddy, I find that nothing quite improves a gray winter’s day as much as pulling on a truly exceptional sweater.
Heavy-gauge knitwear, especially when it’s been made with care and attention, is immensely satisfying to wear at this time of year—as soft as cotton wool and yet thick, warming and robust. Sources of next-level knits are few and far between, but a handful of independent makers in Europe are turning out some stunning pieces right now. So, if you’re in need of a serious winter warmer or two, these are the makers to check-out.
Colhays’ Debut Collection
Colhays is a new brand, but it’s made a big impression on the menswear scene in a few short months. The idea behind Colhays, according to founder Ronnie Chiu, is simply to take traditional Scottish knitwear (the Scots have always made a mean sweater) and to present it in a contemporary way.
“Colhays is founded as a nod to the lessons passed down by my father and grandfather. Growing up, they taught me that a man should invest in a few good pieces of clothing that last. I hope, by presenting Scottish knitwear in a contemporary manner, with modern styles and slimmer fits, I can persuade more men to buy into in this traditional, beautifully made product.”
Certainly, if you’re looking for investment-grade quality, Colhays’ knits are superb. From chunky lambswool cardigans to cable-knit crewnecks, Chiu has perfected the lot. Try the Cashmere Ribbed Submariner Turtleneck in cream or bordeaux, which is knitted from over just over a pound of four-ply cashmere yarn, spun by a traditional workshop in the Scottish highlands. These are extraordinarily soft, yet substantial—perfect for well-dressed weekends, layered over a sky-blue button-down with dark jeans and loafers.
John Smedley’s Legacy Crewneck
It’s not every day that a clothing brand celebrates its 235th birthday. But John Smedley is doing just that with its Legacy Collection, a tight capsule of luxury knitwear, made in the company’s historic Derbyshire mill in England’s midlands.
Smedley is known for its fine merino knitwear, which wears and washes beautifully over time, but to mark the passing of close to two-and-a-half centuries in the knitting business, the mill has gone one better, introducing limited edition pieces made from “noble fibers”—highly prized and difficult-to-source wools from the likes of British Alpaca, Guanaco (a close relative of the llama) and rare breeds of sheep.
Standout pieces include the Clio crewneck in natural Gauanco wool, made from the only British Guanaco fiber available to any brand in the world right now. It comes in a warm camel color with a heavy 5-gauge knit construction. Warming, densely knitted and extremely precious, only 25 have been made, so snap one up while you can.
J.Press’s Shaggy Dog Sweaters
As an Englishman with an interest in ‘trad’ and preppy menswear, I’ve got a real soft spot for J.Press. New York’s oldest old-school clothier has always offered beautifully made knitwear to layer over classic button-down shirts and under sport coats, and recently reintroduced its iconic ‘Shaggy Dog’ sweater.
The clue is in the name. The Shaggy Dog is made in Scotland from rustic Shetland wool, which is gently brushed and teased with thistles after knitting to lend each sweater an irresistibly fluffy texture. I call these girlfriend sweaters because they’re the kind of thing that your other-half will want to steal the second they see it.
J.Press offers these in well over a dozen, in either a ‘trim’ or ‘classic’ fit, so there’s no excuse not to treat yourself. This is a great weekend style, layered over a proper OCBD with dark slim-cut jeans or cords beneath.
Heimat’s U-Boat and Mariner Sweaters
Heimat’s knitwear isn’t short on character. The brand is relatively young, but it draws on a mid-century aesthetic to design its knits, all of which are made in Germany using a very particular quality of European wool that lends them a satisfyingly crisp texture—with an almost elastic weave that stretches and gives as you wear it.
The brand’s approach to color is satisfying too, with classic hues like cream and navy backed-up by turtlenecks in cool Air Force blue and hot orange, as well as a part of the collection that’s dedicated to thick hoop-striped sweaters in contrasting colors. The U-Boat Rollneck is a signature piece, but the Mariner, a slouchy Breton stripe sweater with a collar that’s designed to roll to the base of your neck, is also worth trying beneath a topcoat or suede bomber.
Thanks to its unusual knit-structure, a Heimat sweater will be a little small to size when you first slip it on, but it’ll give slightly over time and settle on your frame. These are knits that are designed to improve with age—and quite different from any other independent makers I’ve found to date.
Inis Meain’s Donegal Knits
Inis Meain is the kind of brand that can’t help but warm your heart—figuratively as well as literally. The company is an Irish manufacturer specializing in handmade Aran sweaters that are “inspired by tradition but not in awe of it,” to quote founder Tarlach de Blácam.
De Blácam established Inis Meain on the island of Inishmann in 1976, a rain-battered and isolated rock off Ireland’s west coast, home to some 200 people. He set up the company with his wife, Áine Ní Chonghaile, who was born on Inishmann but living in Dublin when the two met.
When they returned to Áine’s home the island was in a bad way, with a threadbare economy and natives leaving for the mainland in droves. They established a knitwear workshop to provide steady employment to the local population and stem the tide of emigration. Today, the company is the lifeblood of the local community and you’ll find its handsome knits stocked everywhere from 18East to No Man Walks Alone.
Most of Inis Meain’s designs use traditional flecked Donegal yarn, which lend its chunky sweaters a lovely mottled appearance. Try the Trellis Cable Turtleneck or one of the exclusive Donegal Merino Wool and Cashmere Sweaters on Mr Porter, and I guarantee you’ll fall in love with it.