An Ode to the Carving Sweater, the Unsung Hero of Festive Menswear

Put down the ugly Christmas sweater. Pick up one of these.

Three men's sweater perfect for Thanksgiving and Christmas 2021, a blue cardigan from Rowing Blazers, orange fisherman's pullover from Filson and green zip-up from Todd Snyder
Don't sit down at the head of the table in sub-par knitwear.
Rowing Blazers, Filson, Todd Snyder

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As a child, the first time I remember being aware of the power of menswear was seeing Dylan McDermott in his prime. No, I’m not talking about The Practice and certainly not American Horror Story, rather the unfairly maligned 1994 remake of Miracle on 34th Street (the one written and produced by John Hughes). 

Through the trials and tribulations of Richard Attenborough’s Kris Kringle, the single constant is McDermott’s unwavering commitment to the highest echelon of men’s style, like a bizarro version of Patrick Bateman (keeping the unimpeachable wardrobe and not-a-hair-out-of-place coif, minus the killing). There he is in a power suit in the courtroom, in a camel overcoat in the department story, on the snowflake dappled streets of New York in black leather gloves and a cashmere scarf because accessories are not optional, people.

The most memorable moment for me, though, comes at the beginning as he sits in the window of an apartment on Central Park West watching the “Cole’s” Thanksgiving Day Parade in the perfect example of a carving sweater, the unsung hero of seasonal knitwear. At the head of the dinner table, presiding over the turkey, he overdoes it a bit by adding a double-wide-lapel jacket, but hey, it was the ‘90s. 

Mara Wilson, Dylan McDermott and Elizabeth Perkins sitting down for Thanksgiving dinner in the 1994 movie Miracle on 34th Street
A big ’90s look, for sure, but one you should copy this year.
Hughes Entertainment/20th Century Fox

The first name in seasonal knitwear is, of course, the ugly Christmas sweater. We’ve got nothing against the holiday tradition — most people need an excuse to lighten up, after all, and we’re not talking about those inlaid with red and green bulbs —  but since its inception it has gone from a celebration of the ironic and garish to a mass-produced, dumpster-bound polyester nightmare. When we’re at a place where people are wearing the Xmas version of the Calvin peeing decal, it’s past time to pump the brakes.

But what makes a good carving sweater? And what is it, exactly? As the name suggests, it’s a warm layer bold enough to helm Thanksgiving dinner, one that will put friends and family at ease when you slice into the bird. But boldness here doesn’t equate to that of the ugly Christmas sweater, and you don’t need to be the head of the household to don one.

In the tasteless Christmas sweater department, the more ornamentation, the better, and any thrift store will do. With a carving sweater, the classic outfitters are your friend, as we’re talking about serious knitwear now. But don’t stick to the classics — pair a cable-knit with a turtleneck like McDermott, or a shawl collar with a bright color to illuminate the 5 p.m. darkness. Make daring choices with your sartorial wits about you.

Mara Wilson and Dylan McDermott in the 1994 movie version of Miracle on 34th Street
Go ahead and judge the movie, but you cannot knock the style.
Hughes Entertainment/20th Century Fox

Take, for example, this Wool Fisherman’s Sweater from Filson ($395). While other sweaters call themselves cable-knit with a few measly plaits down the middle, this Scottish wool pullover leaves no inch of fabric unadorned. The fisherman style certainly calls back to the sweaters of your forefathers, but when you don this in blaze orange (which you absolutely should) you’ll have the rest of your party wondering if they, too, could pull off such a bold coup de théâtre.

For those who appreciate the chunky knit but could do without the hunting aesthetic, Alex Mill’s version, the Fisherman Cable Turtleneck Sweater ($185), opts for the classic colors of ivory and navy, and drama above the collarbone. (If you want to match McDermott, that’s the ticket.) On the other hand, if it’s the daring colors you like and the turtleneck you’re not quite sold on, the brand also offers the Donegal Crew Neck Sweater ($125), a merino wool number that makes the cut as a top-notch carving sweater in the bright honeycomb hue. Layer it over a button-up and we’ll sign off on its credentials. 

It should be said that sweaters of the pullover variety are not the only knits we’ll accept. Todd Snyder shows the potential power of the right zip-up cardigan, a style that can often come off as clumsy in the wrong hands. The Canadian Cardigan Sweater ($698), specifically the cedar green style, brings a colorful pattern to the table that’s dapper without being distracting, and a pared down shawl collar that’ll keep your head above water. At Rowing Blazers, the traditionally graphic-heavy prepsters do offer a more conservative style in the New Penzance Knit Cardigan Blazer ($438) that swaps a zipper for brass buttons and doesn’t hold back in the collar department.

Three perfect Thanksgiving sweaters for men, a cardigan from J.Crew, a cable-knit from Alex Mill and a turtleneck from Inis Meáin
Cardigan, cable-knit or turtleneck, it’s all on offer.
J.Crew, Alex Mill, Todd Snyder

Elsewhere, we appreciate the use of herringbone in J.Crew’s Wool-Blend Shawl Cardigan Sweater ($168), especially in the oak camel color, as well as the Christmas tree-evoking Inis Meáin Boatbuilder ($540) and this Plaid Sweater ($748) from Polo Ralph Lauren which was hand-knit from merino wool. Handmade is always a plus.

In the end, while we can recommend you a sweater for the season, we can’t pull it off for you. These are the power suits of knitwear, and as the former won’t work without the proper wristwatch and impeccably steamed shirt, neither will these work thrown on haphazardly over a pair of beat-up blue jeans. Take a cue from McDermott and think about the full picture — freshly trimmed coif, included.

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