In Depth: Submariner Sweaters and Roll Neck Knits
As autumn rolls around and the mercury plummets, the trappings and trimmings of summer are swapped for the reliable and the homely. Salads make way for hearty soups and light cotton is replaced with thick wool. Somewhere amongst all this, is the roll neck jumper.
Like the button-down Oxford shirt or the three-button blazer, the roll neck is one of those timeless items that almost seems like it’s always been around. Whilst that’s obviously not the case, they have been about for a good while—back in the 15th century, gallant and chivalrous knights would wear something similar under their heavy chainmail armour to stop chafing, and in the mid-19th century, polo players wore high-necked jumpers during frosty days out on the field.
This explains just one of the many names that the roll neck is known by. Some people call ‘em polo-necks, some people call ‘em turtlenecks and some people even call ‘em skivvys, but generally, they all mean the same thing—a thick pullover sweater, made from chunky wool, with a high ribbed collar which can be worn either right up to the chin or rolled-down.
Whilst the early roll-necks were often hand-knitted for fishermen and sailors, they also made their way to the edge of the world, worn by Ernest Shackleton on his first voyage to Antarctica in 1907, and many members of the crew involved in the 1911 Australasian Antarctic Expedition.
Although these high-collared knits existed in various forms throughout the early 20th century, made with varying patterns and shapes, it was only really during the First World War that these disparate styles morphed into the jumper we know today, when the British War Office ordered thousands of heavyweight roll-neck wool sweaters to be made for the Royal Navy.
Sailors needed something to wear under their jackets whilst battling with harsh conditions out at sea, and these new jumpers fit the bill perfectly. That high neck stuck well out above the collar of a duffle coat, keeping necks toasty whilst on deck, and that soft wool added a slight element of comfort to the tight cabins and corridors not exactly built with luxury in mind.
These strengths also meant they were extremely popular with a somewhat enigmatic sub-section of the Royal Navy… the submarine crews. Due to the isolated nature of the job, submariners weren’t too fussed about following the guidelines set out by the naval top brass (and thanks to their long beards and lack of hygiene were seen as modern-day pirates by the rest of the navy), but although uniform codes weren’t followed half as closely as they were by sailors above the water, the general issue roll neck knit was greeted with open arms. When you’re drifting underwater in little more than an expensive sardine tin, anything to make things a little bit more bearable is welcomed. This heavy presence underwater gave the roll neck another of its many monikers… the submariner’s sweater.
In WW2 the roll-neck was a major part of the uniform for those involved with the Arctic Convoys—a series of ocean-going convoys which carried valuable supplies through the icy waters of the North sea to ports in the Soviet Union. The jumpers were also co-opted by RAF pilots, who wore them under flight jackets when extra warmth was called for.
As you’d expect for something so useful and versatile, the roll neck soon wound up on terra firma, and thanks to the countless army surplus shops which cropped up after WW2, quickly became a vital part of the outdoor wardrobe. Bikers wore ‘em under leather jackets, whilst climbers and hikers layered theirs under tweeds. As ever, they remained a favourite with explorers, and George Lowe famously wore a striped orange and ecru roll neck during the 1955-1958 Commonwealth Trans-Antarctic Expedition.
Thanks to these fairly courageous feats, the submariner’s roll neck was seen by some as a badge of a life outside the norm, and poets, writers and artists—keen to display themselves as outsiders—took to wearing them. The beat poets of the 1950s were fans, as was Ernest Hemingway.
By the 1970s, as lighter, slimmer-fitting turtle-necks made from fine gauge wool became a symbol of modern intellectualism (helped no doubt by people like Carl Sagan and Michel Foucoult), the heartier submariner sweater still remained as the ideal garment for a cold day outside.
Even today, the classic white roll-neck is still in use by the Royal Navy, worn by submariners somewhere under the ocean right this minute. The world might have changed a bit since they were first devised, but there’s still nothing that keeps the chill out quite like a well-made submariner sweater.
This season there are two versions of the classic submariner sweater from Nigel Cabourn. The George Lowe Roll Neck is a chunky striped jumper inspired by the jumper worn by explorer George Lowe during the 1955-58 expedition across Antarctica, whilst the Seamless Roll Neck is a slightly finer option, made on a tubular knitting machine for a smooth, seamless shape.