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The History of the Ugly Christmas Sweater

The History of the Ugly Christmas Sweater

The History of the Ugly Christmas Sweater Title

It’s that time of the year – biscuits, Christmas songs and Christmas jumpers – some uglier than others. These knitted Christmas jumpers are usually in bright colours, come with “fun” patters and sometimes even décor like pom-poms and they are made from questionable fabric. But did you know that these jumpers haven’t always been ugly? And that we actually owe them to the Scandinavians?

You can also watch my video here:

The Development of Knitting in Europe and the Nordics

Let’s start at the beginnings – how did knitting in Europe and especially in the Nordics develop? It is difficult to determine how old the technique of knitting actually is but it is assumed that it is a relatively “younger” technique compared to others such as weaving. Knitting became popular especially in the 20th century when it also started to be used for garments such as sweaters. Before that, it was only used for stockings, sock, mittens or hats. It is assumed that it originally came to Europe from the Mediterranean or the Middle East, however this is not proven. In Europe itself, knitting can be traced back to the middle ages.[1]

A woman knitting, Faroe Island, date unkown.

And while the Christmas sweater today is especially popular in the English-speaking countries, its origins go back to the Nordics. Knitting started to become popular in Iceland and the Faroe Islands in the 16th century and at the same time it is assumed that it was also known in Denmark and Sweden. The oldest knitted objects in Norway date back to the late 15thand early 16th centuries. In contrast to other techniques, knitting in Nordics was not organized in guilds, it was spread especially in the 17th century to fight poverty. It was taught in prisons and other organisations which spread it among the poorer population. Some of them were turned into so-called “Manufacturhus” where the military, the poor or slaves produced socks, mittens or sweaters for sale. In the 18th century, there are records that women earned an income as knitters or by teaching knitting and other techniques. Consequently, knitting was established not only among the upper social classes but also as its on industry.[2] 

But it was not until the 19th century that the knitting industry became very important in many parts of the country. This was also the time when local patterns developed and some villages included them into their traditional costumes. In the mid-19th century, spinning mills and knitwear companies were established and spun wool from raw materials supplied by the surrounding farms. Often, the finished wool or yarn or finished products were used as payment for the raw materials.[3]

The History of the Ugly Christmas Sweater Women Knitting in Norway
Women knitting in Norway, 1914 (Picture source: Anders Beer Wilse, Norsk Folkemuseum)

The interwar years of the 20th century were marked by new leisure interests – people started to spend more time outdoors and these activities required new types of clothes which were often knitted – bathing suits, leotards for all kinds of sports activities or golf jackets. Suddenly, garments previously worn by workers such as sailors or fishermen were worn by men, women and children during their leisure tie. Another boost for knitted garments were the polar explorers. And also a political reason is “woven” into this garment: during the secession from Sweden at the beginning of the 20th century knitting patterns in two-coloured yarns stood for Norway and they were spread by Annichen Sibbern Bøhn who collected them and published the book Norwegian Knitting Patterns from 1929.[4]

This political message was strengthened during the German occupation – the German’s banned red top hats and knitting for soldiers emphasized the patriotic idea of knitting in Norway. Due to the wartime shortages of goods, many people made their clothes themselves at home and knitting was quite flexible as the garments could be re-knitted into new clothes. After the war, knitting became increasingly popular, also as the quality of the yarns increased and as patterns became more accessible – they could be bought in yarn shops or they were printed in magazines or knitting books. Local designers such as Bitten Eriksen and especially Unn Søiland Dale further helped popularize knitting.[5]

Knitting patterns made the Nordic jumpers more accessible.

Workwear and Skiing Outfits

Another source of the Christmas jumper is in workwear. According to Benjamin Wild, a British fashion historian, the jumpers with the signature contrasting bands of geometric patterns were worn by fishermen in the Nordics. Later on, skiing popularized the knitted jumpers, as skiiers neded warm clothing as much as the fishermen. The geometric patterns and colours then were influenced by the winter landscapes and forests. Affluent ski travelers as well as professional skiiers popularized these Nordic jumpers. By the way, the pattern also travelled to other countries, it can be found in the UK, for example, where it is called “Fair Isle knit”. I still remember Robert Seeger, an Austrian ski commentator who was also famous for his Nordic jumpers. And until today, it is quite common to use these jumpers for skiing – especially on days where it is not too cold.[6]

Skiing put the Nordic jumper on the global fashion map.

The brands Devold of Norway and Dale of Norway put the Norwegian knitted sweater on the international stage. The founder of Devold, Ole Andreas Devold developed workwear in the 1860s, his first garment, a work sweater later became known as the “Islender” sweater and is in the collection until today. The company also made the garments for several polar expeditions. Dale of Norway has been the official supplier of the Norwegian ski team for all Olympics and world championships. Later on, Dale of Norway was chosen by the International Olympic Committee to design the official sweaters for the winter Olympics. they also have the right to use the Olympic rings.[7] 

The Origins of the Ugly Christmas Sweater in the English-Speaking Countries

The first versions of the Christmas jumpers appeared on screen in the 1950s and looked more like the origianl Nordic jumpers rather than what we associate with Christmas jumpers today.

Now we have talked a lot about the Nordics, but as mentioned previously, Christmas jumpers are largely popular in the English-speaking countries. Now how did that start? The first what we could call Christmas jumpers made an appearance on screen in the 1950s. They were called “Jingle Bell Sweaters” and actually not as “ugly” as the sweaters today. They had more similarities with the Nordic knits I just described before and also reflect the increasing commercialization of the Christmas holidays. However, the real popularity boost came in the 1980s with movies such as “National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation” where the main character Clark Griswold wears these sweaters and, of course, Home Alone in the early 1990s.[8] 

With the commercialization of Christmas in the 1980s and 1990s, Christmas jumpers became increasingly popular.

Making clothes at home, especially those for children was very common until cheap, mass-produced garments from low-cost countries were imported in Norway in the 1980s. With the Olympics in Lillehammer in 1994, Norwegian knitting patterns saw increased international popularity. Nevertheless, by the late 1990s, only a few hand knitters were left and the industry moved towards machine-knitting. Over the past decade, the trend turned again and knitting has become increasingly popular again – with high quality materials from Norway and a focus on tradition and sustainability, knitted products from Norway have become popular export products.[9]

The Winter Olympics in Lillehammer, Norway, again boosted the Nordic jumper trend.

These sweaters stood for Christmas and family gatherings rather than a fashionable statement and by the turn of the millennium they would mostly raise eyebrows again. Remember Bridget Jones’s Diary in 2001 when Mark Darcy wears this ugly Christmas jumper making Bridget recoil? That was the view of Christmas jumpers at the time. But funnily enough, at about the same time, the first ugly Christmas sweater parties started to come up. Probably because while the sweater is kind of ugly, it still gives us this warm and fuzzy Christmas feeling. One of the first themed parties happened in Vancouver in 2002 and the popularity just jumpstarted from there. It may relate to the fact that people started wearing the sweaters in a humorous way.[10]

Colin Firth in a cringeworthy ugly Christmas sweater in Bridget Jones, 2001.

The Nordic/Christmas Jumper in Fashion and Pop Culture

Fast fashion retailers soon jumped on the trend but so did high-end retailers such as Nordstrom. And the sweater even hit the Runway, for example at Stella McCartney for Fall 2007, Givenchy and Dolce & Gabbana in 2010. Ralph Lauren regularly includes interpretations of the Nordic jumpers in his collections. The pattern was also on the runway of Chanel in 2016 and 2019, at Anya Hindmarch in 2017, Altuzarra in 2019 and Ermanno Scervino in 2021.

Nordic patterns inspired the Chanel Fall/Winter 2019 collection

With this growing popularity, the patterns also changed, leaving the traditional ones mostly behind and using quirky and really ugly ones instead. The sky is the limit – Rudolph with a 3D nose, a Star Wars pattern resembling the Norwegian knitting patterns, Santa using the chimney as his toilet and this year, especially, a Barbie version.[11] 

In 2012, the UK-based charity Save the Children launched the “Christmas Jumper Day” where people can donate their ugliest sweaters. This annual charity event has raised about GBP 35 million, around USD 44 million over the past decade and it is still happening. Needless to say, celebrities followed suit – from Miley Cyrus, Ryan Reynolds, Taylor Swift, Elijah Wood. Jimmy Fallon, host of the Late night talk show started “12 Days of Chrismtas” which still runs today. And needless to say, the Christmas jumper is a big thing on social media as well – #uglychristmassweater has about 880,000 posts.[12]

Miley Cyrus in an ugly Christmas sweater

With all this popularity, I would just like to add one thing here – if you are into this ugly Christmas sweater thing, please also think of wearing your jumper more than once. Or, if you need the surprise effect, every year, maybe consider purchasing second hand ones. As I mentioned before, many of today’s ugly Christmas sweaters are “cheap” but therefore also made from questionable materials and under questionable circumstances and I don’t think a celebration like Christmas should support this type of fashion. I personally prefer the traditional Nordic jumpers where there are many high-quality and sustainable options. 


Footnotes

[1] Store Norske Lexikon 2023.

[2] ibid.

[3] ibid.

[4] ibid.

[5] ibid.

[6] Express 2023.

[7] Gesamtmasche 2023.

[8] CNN 2023, Express 2023.

[9] Store Norske Lexikon 2023.

[10] CNN 2023.

[11] ibid.

[12] Save the Children 2023.


Sources

CNN, A cozy history of the ugly Christmas sweater, last accessed on 20 December 2023.

Express, Christmas jumpers: The REAL reason why Brits wear garish knits on the big day, last accessed on 20 December 2023.

Gesamtmasche, Der Norweger, last accessed on 20 December 2023. 

Save the Children, last accessed on 20 December 2023. 

Store Norske Lexikon, strikkingens historie, last accessed on 20 December 2023.


Disclaimer

This article is based on the personal, views, experiences and research of Elisabeth Steiger, no fees were received by the organisations and people mentioned above. 

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