Fall knitwear has been arriving in stores for months now, but if you’re like some of us you’re still dying of heat. Even so, for the sake those of us with an eye on our winter wardrobes, I’d like to take a minute to discuss the venerable roll-neck sweater, which – trust me on this one – is one of the most useful, versatile, and comfortable items of clothing any man (or woman) can have in his or her closet.
First of all, let’s get the semantics out of the way. For the purposes of this article, a roll-neck sweater and a turtleneck sweater are the same thing – and both are the same as a polo-neck sweater. A true roll-neck features a tube of fabric sewn to the neckline of the shirt, which can then be pulled all the way up to the chin, or folded – or rolled – down to the neckline.
That’s in contrast to a mock-neck or mock-turtleneck sweater, on which both ends of the tube have been sewn to the neckline. I would suggest avoiding the mock-necks, as not only do they have a tendency to make the wearer look like a high school sports coach (there are, of course, exceptions), but on cold days it’s incredibly handy to be able to pull that extra fabric up to your chin if you choose.
You have a couple of good fabric options when choosing a rollneck. For simplicity’s sake, let’s discuss the general categories of cotton, wool, and cashmere variants. Cotton rollnecks – just thick shirts, really – are by far the easiest to wear and wash. Wear it as you would a t-shirt, either tucked into your trousers or worn free. I enjoy these pieces, as they’re usually less warm than actual knit rollnecks. That’s handy if you’re layering for unpredictable (or temperate) weather, but they tend not to look as sharp as the knit varieties. On the plus side, they’re cheap and available, and they’re the kind of basic that can easily be turned into part of a daily uniform. My choice is Uniqlo’s offerings, which come in thick, black cotton (although a variety of other colors are available) that’s plenty comfortable and stands up to repeated washing. These don’t come with ribbed hems, so there’s no mistaking them for a sweater. Keep in mind that cotton is still cotton – it doesn’t insulate like wool does, and if you sweat through it, it won’t be pleasant.
Your second choice is the fisherman-style heavy roll-neck, which encompasses the whole range of rural, outdoorsy, salt-n-pepper manly offerings. You can find these at a variety of outlets at a variety of prices, from LL Bean to Inis Meain. The two most important considerations for these pieces are weight and material. Consider whether you plan to layer your sweater under your outerwear (you probably are). If so, how thick do you want the fabric to be? Thick cable knits tend to work best under equally heavy coats and jackets, as the sweater won’t visually overpower the outerwear, which itself should be roomy enough for added bulk. If your sweater doesn’t fit under your coat, you’ll be neither warm nor comfortable.
Second, consider the fabric. If you have sensitive skin, or dislike scratchy things touching your neck, consider avoiding heavy wool offerings. Purists will howl, but the addition of nylon or – gasp – acrylic to a wool blend (sometimes a hallmark of a cheaper or more fashion-forward knit) can make the fabric much softer to the touch.
Finally, consider the color and style. If you’re interested in any of the available fisherman-style, aran, or cable-knit sweaters, greys and oatmeals are traditional colors. If instead you’re searching for a “commando” sweater, most of which feature cotton or nylon shoulder and elbow patches, you’ll probably find a lot of blacks and dark greens. Don’t limit yourself, however – any of these options are very versatile.
Lastly, if you’re interested in luxury, you can consider a cashmere roll-neck sweater. These tend to be simple, and if they’re good they don’t need to be complicated: buttery-soft cashmere wool is enough of a focal point. They also tend to be thinner, which makes it very simple to wear one under a sport coat, vest, or other lightweight outerwear. Although there are cheaper options available at major chain stores, cashmere still tends to be expensive – from about 200$ on the low end to well over $1,000 for fancy, branded options. A cashmere sweater is by no means a wardrobe necessity – but that’s the definition of luxury, isn’t it?
And that’s really what makes the roll-neck sweater so handy: it can be worn with anything. Wool or cotton options are equally at home splitting wood with the sleeves worn up (yes, people still split wood), worn under a down vest while out for cocoa, or worn under a jacket when out on a date. A thinner, shirt-weight roll-neck in any fabric looks fantastic under a sport coat, and exists in the strange but wonderful intersection between sharp and casual. You can wear the same roll-neck sweater with faded blue jeans or sharp trousers without ever looking out of place. Plus, the elongating neckline looks truly fantastic under a dramatic lapel, whether you’re wearing a suit or high-collared outerwear. It’s one of the clothing world’s few go-anywhere pieces, and whether you’re wearing Ralph Lauren or Yohji Yamamoto, there’s a place in your wardrobe for a roll-neck sweater.