Essential retro knitwear – the good, the bad, the pretty

We got away with it for a while, but it’s time for winter now. You know how you can talk about people as ‘being born in the wrong era’? Well, I’ve always thought I was born in the wrong country. My country is perpetually summer and I don’t own a single coat because it never gets cold enough…

But back in the real world… I’ve always found knitwear very difficult to get enthusiastic about. Give me a camisole over a cardigan any day of the week. Knitwear is inevitably in my life though and over the years, I’ve bought tonnes of it. But as I was going through my closet recently I realised that there’s some pieces I own that I never wear, and others that I wear constantly – they form a key part of my winter retro wardrobe. Let’s not call it a ‘capsule’ wardrobe as nothing about the amount of clothes I own is capsule-sized (or… sane), but if I had to make one this lot would be my starting point for knits, at least.
Let’s see how far you agree with me… And considering I find it hard to get enthusiastic about knitwear, I’ve managed to write the world’s longest blog post. I hope you like a lot of waffle about jumpers and cardigans…
Best retro style knitwear
1. Quality fitted plain cardigans
I’m just going to tell it like it is – the Hell Bunny Paloma cardigan changed my life. No, really. Ok, I probably won’t be on my deathbed thinking ‘and then, when I was 29, a certain piece of knitwear changed everything…‘ But then again, maybe I will. This is how a fitted cardigan should be. It’s warm, soft, stretches to fit beautifully, comes in lots of colours you’ll actually wear and is the perfect waist-length. I kept seeing Amber talk about how much she loves them and I still, stupidly, resisted for ages. Then I bought one and BAM – two weeks later I had four of them. They go with everything – swing dresses, tucked into pencil skirts, loose with high-waisted jeans; they are the perfect 50s-style cardigan and made me realise how darn rubbish the ones I already owned were (we’ll come to that).
2. Striped jumpers
I’ve talked before about how half the time, if I know I’m not going to be standing in the freezing cold for half an hour taking photos of myself for this very blog, I’m quite often found lounging about the house in jeans. I still don’t really like not being a bit ‘me’ though, and a striped jumper is perfect for this because it’s classically retro and adds enough ‘something’ so your outfit isn’t dull. I particularly love my 50s style Collectif Marina and 60s inspired Fever Lacanau jumpers that I’ve pictured above (this one’s good for work too).
3. Leopard print cardigan
This is another one that helps to make a boring outfit a bit more exciting, with the added bonus of keeping warm. What I love about leopard print is that you can wear it like a neutral with so many colours and it instantly adds a fun 50s/rockabilly edge. And if it’s in cardigan form, you can wear it done up like a jumper, or loose as an edge to your outfit. I’ve had my leopard print cardigan for years now and occasionally forget about it, but the instant I put it on again I remember all the reasons it’s one of my favourite pieces of knitwear.
4. Neutral bardot jumpers
I had a great beige bardot style jersey top for years that I accidentally bleached (don’t ask) and I still miss that darn top every single day. Well, definitely most weeks, at least, when I go to wear it and remember it went to the great wardrobe in the sky. It wasn’t particularly warm though and that’s where my newer jumpers come in. I’ve got a cream coloured one from New Look and a gold lurex one from Collectif (you just saw that in this post) and I wear both constantly. Not only are they snug, they’re super feminine, go with pretty much all of my skirts and again hark back to retro shapes. The good thing is that unlike black or dark colours, they can really lift some wintry outfits in these shades too.
5. Fur collar cardigan
A newer addition to my winter wardrobe options and I really love this one. It’s instant vintage glamour and the best thing is that faux fur is just so warm and soft. What’s better than burying your chin into something snuggly when the wind is battering your face? What I like about fur just as a collar is that it’s not too bulky for going under a coat too. I own this Voodoo Vixen cardigan pictured and I can highly recommend it if you’re looking for your own (comes in lots of classic colours too).
6. Knitted pencil skirt
I’ve talked about my love of these before so I won’t labour the point too much, but for me – these are good. They’re super comfy and can be both casual or more dressed up. I love clothes that are multi-functional. Yeah, maybe they’re not traditional vintage style, but a wiggle is a wiggle, whether made of wool or bengaline, as far as I’m concerned… And I know which is warmer.
7. Dark polo neck
This may be one of the most useful pieces of knitwear I’ve ever added to my wardrobe because it can be dressed in so many ways. It can go under a pinafore dress for a mod look, or with a midi skirt for a slightly more 50s one. And, bonus – warm neck. And if you get one in black like I did, there’s no end to its outfit potential!
Worst retro style knitwear
1. Cheap ‘fitted’ plain cardigans
I’ve already told you that you shouldn’t bother with any other fitted cardigan than the Paloma, but if you ever need to understand why, just buy one of these cheap H&M ones that sell for about a tenner. Why not – I’ve bought five of the things in my time because I apparently needed that many to learn they really suck. They’re baggy in weird places and they can’t keep what little shape they have. Some things in life you can get away with buying the ‘value’ version, but a good fitted cardigan, in my opinion, is simply not one of them.
2. Short sleeved jumpers
What is the point of a short sleeved jumper? Apart from looking good – and I do love the style of them and how adorable they appear in 50s patterns. Usually how something looks is enough to sell me, but not the short-sleeved jumper (well not after the first two, anyway). And yes, I know they’re often worn as part of a twinset in said patterns, but those aren’t really my thing (or at least, not yet). Which leaves me with just the jumper and very, very cold arms. And no one wants that.
3. Short jumper dresses
I don’t exactly wear a lot of mini length skirts even in warm weather, but now and then the 60s mood will take me and I’ll put on one of the two far-above-knee knitted dresses I currently own. And then I’ll spend all day with cold legs. I should, at this point, admit that I am someone who really feels the cold, which is perhaps why I am so judgemental about knitwear in the first place to even write a post like this…
4. Cable knit/thick jumpers
I want to love a thick jumper because they’re so cosy but they just make me look so darn bulky. I’ve tried wearing them so many ways, and it’s probably because I don’t have a really decent one, but they just make me feel like an over-stuffed teddy-bear. I tuck nearly all of my tops into my bottoms so that my waist is still defined, but tucking a big knit into anything just doesn’t work. Maybe one day I’ll find a thick jumper I love, but that day hasn’t come yet…
5. Cropped knits
Could a cropped jumper be the most annoying piece of clothing in the world? You’re all nice and toasty warm, then you lean over and… COLD! Why is everything so cold?! I’ve never yet found something that is high-waisted enough to prevent the shock of that gap becoming exposed when your short jumper slightly moves up (which amazes me as I have some very high-waisted things). I’m all over cropped tops in the summer, but it doesn’t matter then. If you slightly expose some skin to the elements it doesn’t feel like the world’s going to end quite like it does in winter.
6. Fairisle pattern
Talking of things I want to love, we have fairisle. And actually, I do love fairisle and will happily wear it… any time between late November and December 25th. The problem is, it reminds me of Christmas so much that it feels wrong in my head to wear it at any point outside the festive period. It doesn’t help that my jumper, above, has rather large snowflakes on it either. I realise this is very much a me thing, but I need to stop kidding myself I’ll wear these knits when I know I won’t and stop thinking about buying more. They’re just not for non-festive me. Or maybe I just need to find a more subtle one…
7. Knitted berets
You’re probably shocked to see this here, if you’ve been following me for any length of time at all. I’m all about the berets in the colder months. They’re my easy way out of doing my hair properly and still looking stylish. I thought I wasn’t picky about what they’re made of, but I now own three knitted berets and unless I force myself to, I wear none of them. My felt ones win every time. And why? They keep their shape so much better. Knitted berets just fall so flat on my head they don’t look like berets at all really. Unless I’ve created volume with my hair for them to perch on top of. I haven’t quite given up on them completely, but they’re no felt hat.
Wishlist retro style knitwear
Well, we’ve all seen enough tacky Christmas jumpers to last us a while, so rather than dwell on ‘the ugly,’ here’s the things that I’d love to get my hands on some day…
Long jumper dresses
Collectif have been torturing me with the Olive dress. It seems everyone but me got one and oh, I could have, but while I’d love a knee-length or just-below-knee-length jumper dress, ankle-length is a bit too Victorian for me. Seriously, that dress would be hilarious on me. But how do you even alter a knitted dress? If I knew the answer I’d have snapped it up… But it’s probably for the best I don’t, eh? I’ll keep hoping for that Collectif petite range (if I wish it hard enough, maybe it will happen), meanwhile, as I’d really love to add one of these dresses to my collection.
Neutral polo necks
Seeing how much I love my neutral bardots, I think I may just wear some jumpers of the higher-necked variety too, if I had them, that is. Imagine that – something that goes with everything, but still keeps your neck warm? It’s the dream…
Patterned/embroidered cardigans
I really like wearing cardigans like jumpers, buttoned up and tucked into skirts. You can put layers underneath and the best thing is that, unlike a jumper, if you get hot during the day you can just take the cardigan off. Practical and cute, what’s not to love? If you’ve got a plain skirt, though, it’s nice to have a bit of variety up top, which would be wear lots more pretty cardigans with patterns etc on would come in really quite useful. These two Voodoo Vixen lovelies are top of my list, for sure.
All the bardots
I’ve accepted that it is my purpose in life to own all the bardot jumpers. If I have them in every colour, perhaps I’ll never need to buy another knitted top again? Right? Right. So now that we’re all agreed, you’ll have to excuse me while I complete my collection…
But what do you think? What knitwear can’t you live without in the colder months?


  1. January 24, 2016 / 2:22 pm

    Ha, I think I'm the opposite of you. Perhaps it comes from being a knitter, but the things I wear most are my fair isle beret, fair isle cardigan, short-sleeved jumpers (I wear them as tops in their own right), and my cable-knit cardis. Most of those I made myself. My plainest fitted cardigan still has quite an ornate texture, though it is solid navy rather than colourwork.

    I guess it all goes to show that we can all love vintage and still have our own style 🙂 It's all good!

    • January 24, 2016 / 2:26 pm

      It might help if you're a bit taller than me too – I find anything that adds bulk doesn't look right on me; I've always thought that's because I don't have the height to balance it out! Indeed, it's each to their own; and it's a good thing we don't all look the same 🙂

    • January 24, 2016 / 9:55 pm

      I've just had to accept that I'm a fat apple, and nothing's going to make me look like I'm slim or have a waist. So I need not fear adding bulk!

  2. January 24, 2016 / 5:39 pm

    I think we belong to the same country, I hate the cold! However my fur trim cardigan and fur trim jacket are little jewels in these grey days! I wish I was as fashion wise as you!

    • January 25, 2016 / 6:20 pm

      There's no such thing as too hot in my book… I would love more petite option fur trim jackets/coats. Faux fur is the best!

  3. January 24, 2016 / 6:57 pm

    Today I dressed for California. Then remembered I live in Wales, and spoilt the look with socks and boots…

    You have some sage advice here! I have 5 Primark cardis that literally come apart at the seams. Why did I buy 5 before realising the quality sucks?! I am also in agreement over short sleeve knits. I diverge on the topic of short knit dresses – I swear by M&S tights, a good pair of boots and slips layered underneath.

    I love my VV cardigans, they really are fab.

    Hope you're having a super Sunday!

    • January 25, 2016 / 6:22 pm

      Same reason I bought 5 H&M ones probably?! It seems like a bargain but then you gradually realise you might as well put money straight into the bin… Short sleeve knits are not for this country! I do love fleece lined tights but I'm much happier when they're paired with more leg coverage from my skirts! Just hate being cold so much! xx

  4. January 24, 2016 / 7:20 pm

    I can't stand short sleeved jumpers either – I mean when can you wear them? Sure I have a couple that have almost 3/4 sleeves and I'm having trouble finding good days to wear them, but with even shorter sleeves you can't wear it on warm days, because it's too warm and on cold days your arms will freeze. It's never good.

    Also having a long back, I can't wear cropped jumpers either. Even in longer ones I have to fear my back being exposed 😀 Sadly Collectif Marina top falls into this category, it's a bit too short to stay under my fifties skirt so at times when I reach for something or bow, it reveals my back and I hate it. Probably why I've worn it so little.

    The Paloma cardies are truly awesome. I have two of them in pastels, one with hummingbirds and then the black cowbow-ish cardigan and they're my most used cardies 🙂

    • January 25, 2016 / 6:27 pm

      I also have an issue with 3/4 length jumpers, but I will tolerate them on the not so horribly cold days… It seems to be the main length every retailer makes knitwear in, so annoying!

      That's so sad about the Marina jumper. I'm very short so I don't have that issue at all – if I did I'd probably feel like you about it. Collectif don't aeem very consistent with their jumper lengths, from what I've seen (and to be frank I've bought most of them!).

      I have that hummingbird cardigan too. It's a bit shorter than my Palomas, but I love it for a change and the embroidery is gorgeous. These days I will only consider adding Hell Bunny and Voodoo Vixen cardigans to my collection!

  5. January 25, 2016 / 6:31 am

    Gotta say, a short sleeve jumper gets a lot of wear in Australia, where we have all the crazy half cold-half warm-not quite either weather a lot. So I'm kind of loving my short sleeve buddies ~ heehee ;P

    But I have to agree with you for sure on the Voodoo Vixen fur collar cardis! They really are sooo nice; I enjoy the softness around my neck, it feels so luxurious. 🙂 ❤

    bonita of Lavender & Twill

    • January 25, 2016 / 6:28 pm

      I think we've just hit on the target market for short sleeve jumpers – your country of eternal summer :p not that I'm jealous or anything.

      At least I get looooads of opportunity to wear my fur collar cardi… 😉 xx

  6. January 25, 2016 / 11:43 am

    The Voodoo Vixen Edith cardigans are to me what the Paloma cardigans are to you! Unfortunately the amount of time I spend wearing them is pretty short, but I love collecting them none the less 😀

    • January 25, 2016 / 6:29 pm

      Let's swap… I could wear mine 10/12 months of the year with little fear of overheating!

  7. January 25, 2016 / 5:01 pm

    Ahmen to your description of the h&m rubbish cardigans. How are they soo tight and baggy at the same time. Why have I got soo many of them when I hate them! Arrrgh will I ever learn!!!

    • January 25, 2016 / 6:30 pm

      I think it's time to take a step back an end to the H&M cardi-buying madness… We all get there in the end, it's a bit like being an addict before that though 😉 the price is hard to turn down!!

  8. January 25, 2016 / 10:51 pm

    Love your good selection. It's interesting to see what you've put with in the bad section 🙂

  9. January 26, 2016 / 5:30 pm

    THANK YOU for mentioning the short sleeved jumpers thing – I just can't do it! I'm always cold, so I wear jumpers or cardigans a lot, but if they were short sleeved, my arms would just be chilly all the time!
    And I had the same Hell Bunny Paloma cardigan revelation too, also through Amber's raves about them 😀 I've got 3 now but need more, the buttons keep making attempts at escape, so they all need resewing really, strange as I haven't really used the buttons on them that much (I'd like to button them up more, but I'm now worried they'll all fall off!).
    Sian xx Rebel Angel

    • January 27, 2016 / 1:18 pm

      I'm always cold too, and I hate having cold arms especially! As I was writing this post my craving for a new Paloma for my collection reared its ugly head and I now have 5 of them. I panicked I would never be able to get the cute pink one unless I bought it now, you see… Strangely, though, I've never ever had a problem with the buttons and I nearly always wear mine buttoned up. And I'm proportionately busty too, but doesn't seem to cause any problems… Maybe you've got really unlucky?! xx

  10. January 26, 2016 / 11:38 pm

    Fantastic post! I'm a huge knitwear fan the whole year round (I almost never show anything above my elbows in public, even in the summer, so thin knits are my year round BFFs). In particular, I really like fitted and/or cropped cardigans, shrugs, and fitted sweaters. To date I haven't bought too many actual repro/vintage inspired brand sweaters or cardigans (most of mine are genuine vintage or vintage appropriate modern finds), but of those that I have, Hell Bunny's offerings are definitely one of my favourite brands putting out these kinds of fab garments (oohh, Sourpuss' are great, too, but I don't have that many…yet :)).

    Big hugs & happy tail end of January wishes,
    ♥ Jessica

    • January 27, 2016 / 1:19 pm

      I can't believe I didn't mention shrugs! Mind you, I'm yet to find a shrug that I really, really love as all of mine have gone out of shape in one way or another. I must get back on that search… I should check out Sourpuss too! x

  11. January 31, 2016 / 10:02 pm

    I have a few of the cardigans featured but I reallyyyyyy want that Collectif knitted dress! I am looking forward to Autumn and Winter so I can pull out all of my warm clothes that I have been waiting to wear x

  12. February 6, 2016 / 1:11 pm

    This is a great post, and I like your entertaining descriptions of the main knitwear groupings! It's always a dilemma staying warm without adding too much bulk, but luckily there are some flattering options, which you've highlighted. I agree, leopard print knitwear is always really playful and fun, while adding some much-needed warmth too!

    Saba x

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