As part of our spring summer collection, we’ve recently introduced our own unique version of the Breton Stripe sweater. A truly classic item that has been adopted in different era and by a variety of subcultures throughout history, we set out to create one that is one of its kind in design, material composition and fit. In doing so, we hoped to create a piece that encompasses the subtle sophistication that lies at the core of our product development philosophy.
Read more about this below, or shop our Breton Stripe sweater here.
Also available in olive/navy stripe.
The Breton Story
The Breton Stripe sweater dates back to the 1800s, when it was worn as uniform by French sailors. In 1858, Admiral Ferdinand-Alphonse Hamelin, declared that the top was to be worn by all French sailors by law. People adopted the name the Breton Stripe because it came from the Brittany region of France, or 'La Bretagne', where the French navy was based. At this time, the first circular knitting machines were in use in France, meaning that these sweaters could be easily manufactured en masse whilst still retaining strength and durability. There were 21 stripes, each stripe representing one of Napoleon I’s victories against the British. The sweater also featured a wide boat neck and three quarter length sleeves which meant it could easily be removed and waved around as a signal for help when sailors fell overboard (the distinctive stripes also helped to alert others that help was needed).
French navy in training, 1935.
Since then, the Breton Stripe sweater has been adopted by artists, movie stars, singers, luxury fashion brands and recreated many times, making this piece a common sight around the world. There is good reason for its popularity too, as we will look at a little more below.
The “Elegant Rebel”
We’ve always been drawn to the Breton stripe as a style. There is something about the stripes that makes it stylish enough without standing out; eye catching, yet elegant. Coco Chanel famously first adopted the style by wearing wide trousers with it – a part of her characteristic “boyish” yet graceful look in an act of rebellion against traditional fashions of the day. Pablo Picasso had it as one of his favoured tops for painting, always wearing it slightly loose and baggy to give him freedom of movement and channel his creativity. Mick Jagger of The Rolling Stones was known to be partial to a Breton Stripe sweater on stage, preferring a quite slim fitting one with a wide boat neck – the style made him look stylish as befits an up-and-coming rock and roll star, and yet retain that understated British elegance, commensurate with his roots.
Left: Coco Chanel in her iconic Breton Stripe sweater with wide trousers, c. 1930
Right: Pablo Picasso, c. 1950
Left: Audrey Hepburn, 1954
Right: Mick Jagger and Brian Jones of the Rolling Stones
Having been inspired by the way this iconic piece has been worn by “elegant rebels” of their time throughout history, we felt it was an aesthetic that we relate to very much. As is evident by now, we are passionate about taking classic pieces and adding a touch of luxury alongside making modest modifications to ensure they suit the tastes of a modern audience, as well as fit with the lifestyle and wardrobes of people today. It therefore made perfect sense for us to create our own version of the Breton Stripe sweater.
The Colhay’s Version
With this piece, we have tried to keep the design fairly close to the original where we felt it was appropriate. As the piece has such a long history, we wanted to retain as much as possible but also to avoid simply producing a replica. We’ve kept a bit of that traditional boat neck shape, for example, but tightened the neckline for a more modern, flattering look. The original sleeves were quite short, about half way down the forearm, and so we’ve elongated them to normal long sleeve length for elegance and to avoid the piece looking anachronistic. We have made the body mid-length meaning you can tuck it into trousers or jeans for a more dressy look, or let it out at the height of summer when you’re wearing it with a pair of swimming trunks or resort shorts.
Note also that we have finished the hem and cuffs with a straight finish rather than a ribbed finish, in line with original features; the straight finish at the hem also allows you to more easily tuck into trousers.
The stripes on our Breton sweater have one wider stripe and one contrasting narrower stripe. Again, we feel this makes the sweater slightly more modern compared to the original which had equal width on both colours. The equal widths on the stripes have the tendency to make you look a little too much like a sailor and thereby run the risk of you being called up by the French to serve in their navy!
You will also see that the stripes line up on the body and sleeves – it is this extra attention to detail that makes the overall garment look a lot more refined than other iterations you would have seen.
The Cashmere Cotton Blend
As with all of our spring summer collection, our aim with the Breton Stripe sweater is for our customers to wear the garment and feel cool and comfortable without a compromise on style or sophistication.
Natural fibres are always going to be the most temperature regulating, allowing you to feel cool in the heat and keeping you warm when it’s cold. But what natural fibres should we use here? The original Breton Stripe sweater was made in a pure cotton, and most of today's iterations of this style is made in that fabric. Cotton, a very popular fibre during the warmer months, is a great material. It’s durable, hard-wearing, moisture-wicking and comfortable, however, it lacks that buttery soft, luxurious, lightweighted hand feel that you would find in more noble fibres like cashmere. At Colhay’s, our approach is always to take something ubiquitous today, like an all-cotton Breton Stripe sweater, and lace it with luxury. What can we do different here to make this a more luxurious, heirloom piece? What unique combinations can we come up with that would offer something more luxurious and soft to the touch than what is widely on offer? Our cashmere silk offering was one such answer. Another one of those is our recent introduction of the cashmere cotton blend.
After careful consideration, we decided to combine the softest cashmere with cotton, the latter a well-established summer choice, to create the perfect summer fabric. We decided on the combination of cotton with cashmere, as we feel it creates an exceptional fabric that combines the best of both worlds, and which is therefore perfect for summer wear - the breathable, resilient, moisture-absorbing qualities of cotton, along with the luxurious softness of none other than the highest quality Scottish cashmere. The exact percentage of the blend was also carefully thought through. A lot of “cashmere cotton” blends nowadays only have a very small percentage of cashmere, perhaps 95% cotton / 5% cashmere, or 90% cotton / 10% cashmere. With this low level of cashmere, it hardly makes a difference to the hand feel and we feel that it defeats the purpose of mixing the cotton with cashmere. Our blend contains 47% cashmere and 53% cotton. Cashmere takes up a much higher percentage in the composition, making it appreciably softer than other pure cotton garments or cotton blends. But at the same time, it is kept at just below 50%, because if it were dominant, it would have made the sweater too warm for hot weather. Cotton, as the slightly more dominant fibre, ensures that the sweater is airy and breezy; it will certainly feel breezier and lighter than our 100% cashmere and superfine lambswool offerings.
In terms of fibre performance, the cashmere cotton blend has the sportiness of cotton mixed with the soft hand feel of cashmere. The result is a fabric that balances bounciness (characteristic of cotton, which helps retain its shape after wear) with a relaxed drape (characteristic of cashmere). We wanted to achieve luxury without taking anything away from the fantastic natural properties of cotton, and by creating an almost 50/50 blend, we have been able to achieve this.
Like every one of our garments, the Breton Stripe sweater is hand knitted by our team of expert knitters in Hawick, Scotland. Hawick is predominantly a knitting town. Here, knitting is a carefully preserved skill - a craft that is passed down through generations. The community here have been knitting since 1771 when Bailie John Hardie introduced the first stocking frames to Hawick, and, as such, we believe it is the very best place to create and produce luxury knitwear.
Our small but incredibly skilled and knowledgeable team employ several techniques that yield superior quality knitwear. Most of these techniques have been abandoned by the mass producers who often favour speed over quality. These techniques require honed skills and years of practice, making them, and the resulting knitwear, unique and industry recognised as of superior quality.
One of these particular techniques is called fully fashioned knitting and hand linking, where components of the garment are knitted up first before being linked together by hand. It’s a meticulous process but it results in a stronger and more durable garment that’s not going to lose shape. It also means the garment fits better as the seams run smoothly in line with the natural contours of the body. Many factories avoid this process, favouring quicker ones which result in garments of far lower fit and quality.
You can see clearly the fashioning marks on the shoulder of our Breton Stripe sweater below - the small dots running along the shoulder line. Look for these marks because this is the tell-tale sign of fully fashioned and hand linked knitwear.
How to Style
The reason the Breton Stripe sweater is so popular amongst so many is down to its versatility. It’s incredibly easy to style and goes well with a multitude of colours - a great piece for throwing on on days where you haven’t got a great deal of time to consider your outfit. Jeans, shorts, linen trousers, lightweight cotton trousers and chinos all work well with a Breton stripe.
You can also wear a casual shirt over the sweater (as we have done with a pair of cream trousers and denim shirt), or underneath it, depending on your preference or the occasion. If you’re looking to make it more of a formal piece, wear under a blazer. The beauty of this garment is in its simplicity and its ability to slip into any combination, be it smart or casual.
Shop our Breton Stripe sweater here.
Also available in in olive/navy stripe.