Formal vs. Informal Knitwear

We are frequently contacted by customers who’d like some guidance on which pieces would suit them and their lifestyle best. Most commonly, we hear from men who aren’t sure whether they’d get enough wear from a garment given the climate where they’re living. Sometimes, though, we’re contacted asking for advice on when and how to wear a particular piece, what other items can it be styled with, and when can, or should, I wear it, in particular, on what sorts of occasions can a piece of knitwear be worn? 

Often the discussions revolve around formality - can a certain piece of knitwear be worn at the office? Will it be formal enough? Most of time, there is no concern whether a piece of knitwear can be worn casually, knitwear generally being quite a casual piece of clothing, but not so when considering if a piece of knitwear can be worn in more formal settings like the office. As such, we thought it would be helpful to set out our theory on how to determine a piece of knitwear's formality by looking at three dials: thickness, pattern and colour lightness, as well as some examples on how best to apply these criteria. 

Knitwear is our speciality and we’ve made sure we’ve designed pieces for every occasion. We live and breathe knitwear, focussing on seemingly the tiniest of details in the design process and are therefore able to give a great deal of attention to each piece. Every aspect of each of our garments is well thought through before we create it. The resulting pieces are well-made and carefully designed garments that are commonly elevated versions of classic menswear which are well-suited the lifestyle and tastes of the modern man.

Our philosophy at Colhay’s is underpinned by conscious purchasing. We feel inspired by the buying habits of previous generations and the idea of investing in clothing that you can be confident will last a long time. For this reason, we are not trend-led and design knitwear that won’t fall out of favour within twelve months. We choose only muted colourways that have more longevity than brighter shades.

We like to design clothes that are effortless to style, but it can still be tricky to know which pieces are appropriate for which occasions or function. We’ve created a guide on how to select knitwear according to formality and put together a small round up of our typically formal and casual pieces with our styling tips to spark your imagination.

Knitwear Formality Dials

The theory behind knitwear formality involves three scales: thickness, pattern and brightness/lightness. With each piece, you can take a look at where it sits on these spectrums and be able to make a decision on whether it’s most suitable for a formal or casual occasion. These rules are, of course, not hard and fast, and ultimately you should be guided by your own instinct as to whether you want to wear a garment for a casual or formal occasion, but we hope that they offer some guidance when it comes to styling and selecting pieces.

Dial 1: Thickness

With thickness, the thinner pieces are more refined and suitable for formal occasions, whilst chunky, thicker knits are ideal for casual wear. See below for example, the cashmere Belmondo rollneck in navy (left) is more formal as it is thinner (12 gauge, which is relatively thin compared to the rest of our knitwear range), whilst the superfine lambswool fisherman cable rollneck in ecru (right) is more casual as it is thicker. 

Dial 2: Pattern

Second is the pattern, with plain stitch pieces being more formal and the more patterned a piece is, or more busy the pattern is, the more casual it is. See below for instance - the cashmere polo shirt in cream (left) is more formal as it is plain stitch, compared to the cashmere wool chalet cable sweater in camel (right), which has a busier cable pattern. 

Dial 3: Lightness/Brightness

Finally, lightness or brightness. With this dial, the lighter the piece, the more casual and the darker, the more formal. See below by way of example, the cashmere polo shirt in oatmeal (left) is more casual as it is lighter in colour, compared to the cashmere polo shirt in navy (right) which is more formal as it is darker. 

So, when choosing your knitwear you need to look at all three aspects and, usually, if the garment sits at the end of the scale for two out of three dials, this is a clear signal of its formality.

Take our Cashmere Crew Neck Sweater in the oatmeal as an example. It's relatively thin (at 12G, it is on the thinner end of the pieces we create), so formal. It has no pattern at all, so again formal. It is light though, which tips the balance back towards casual. However, because the piece is formal for two out of three dials, it can be considered overall a relatively formal piece, making it appropriate for the office, for example. This doesn't preclude it from being worn casually too, of course. 

To take another example, let’s look at our Superfine Lambswool Rugby Shawl Collar Sweater. This is a thick sweater (so casual), but with no pattern (formal), and so the colour here is the decider. If you take a darker colour like dark brown or navy, the piece would probably lean more towards being a formal piece, making it suitable to wear even in the office. But take the cream shade, which is light in colour, this tips the balance of the piece into more casual.

Applying the theory above, we’ve set out a number of more examples below and put them into either a more formal or casual category. It’s important to note again that this is just our take on it, and you are of course free to wear what we might consider a casual piece in a more formal setting as you feel comfortable, and vice versa.

We also hope that by giving more examples of where in the formality scale certain pieces sit, it will help you decide which garments to invest in depending on your lifestyle.

Formal Colhay’s Pieces

Our formal sweaters are the thinner, more plain garments. All of these, when worn under tailoring, are perfect for the office or formal meetings. Of course it would no preclude it from being worn casually. Today, wearing a classic crew neck or v neck under a suit jacket is incredibly common in the workplace, so your choice won’t make you stand out from the crowd. When it comes to footwear, as the sweaters are formal themselves, they would go well with formal leather dress shoes that you might be expected to wear.

Cashmere and Lambswool Crew Neck Sweaters

Both options of our crew neck sweaters work perfectly when formal dress is required. The lambswool crew neck is supremely soft to the touch and incredibly comfortable. If you’re looking for something extra special and want to elevate the levels of luxury, try our cashmere crew neck. They are easy to style simply with a shirt and tie underneath. Knitted in a plain stitch, they are very much a classic piece, working well with suits and tailored coats.

Cashmere and Lambswool V Neck Sweaters

The principle of these sweaters is the same as our crew necks. Plain stitch and classic design that is the perfect partner for suits, dress shirts and tailored coats. Though a classic piece, there are carefully considered design details on this sweater that make it much more flattering than many v necks you’ll find on the market. In particular, the deeper shape of the v neck which adds a sense of elegance whilst also lengthening the body and broadening the shoulders. As well as being flattering, this also means the sweater works nicely with a tie and accentuates your shirt collar.

Cashmere Polo Shirt

We recommend wearing this cashmere polo shirt as a shirt substitute under your suit. Slightly less formal than a shirt, this still allows you to respect the dress code of your office but is likely to feel more comfortable. Even if you work in a formal business setting, there are occasions when you might feel like wearing something other than a shirt to feel less dressed up, and this polo is ideal. If you want to wear yours regularly but aren’t keen on the idea of washing it frequently, we advise wearing with a deep v neck undershirt underneath so that you are not wearing the cashmere polo shirt directly against the skin. A deep v undershirt is ideal here so as not to show under the placket off the polo shirt. If you prefer to wear a shirt, you could also layer one underneath and treat the polo as a sweater.

Cashmere Belmondo Roll Neck

Knitted in a plain stitch, this roll neck has been designed for formal wear and looks tasteful and sophisticated when worn under tailoring as a replacement for your shirt. Perfect for Fridays in the office, the roll neck flatters most body types and the plain stitch pairs well with formal suit fabrics.

Casual Colhay’s Pieces

You’ll notice that, generally speaking, the more casual pieces in our collection are the thicker or patterned garments. We think they work especially well with jeans or chinos for informal occasions. On your feet, we recommend boots, both a lace-up style or a Chelsea boot are great choices, in the winter. If you are not a fan of boots, try a lace-up or derby suede shoe. Suede works particularly well for casual outfits thanks to its more rugged and rustic texture. Perfect for weekend brunches or walks through the city.

Cashmere Ribbed Submariner

This thick and cosy sweater features a rib stitch which adds some texture and detail to the garment that works well for casual occasions. We like to wear this piece with long and thick overcoats, the reason being that the two thick textures really complement one another.

Another great partner for this sweater is a bomber leather jacket and the denim jacket - the rugged textures of the leather and denim go particularly well with the chunky rib-stitch texture of the cashmere ribbed submariner rollneck.

Cashmere Wool Chalet Cable Sweater

This sweater features a crew neck with a thick cable knit design. The cable knit itself is noticeable but not too busy or intricate, giving the piece a timeless feel. We recommend wearing with just a t-shirt underneath for a contemporary look and pairing with other chunky textures, jeans being a great choice.

Superfine Lambswool Fisherman Cable Sweaters

Our fisherman’s cable sweaters come in both a crew neck and a roll neck. The roll neck version frames the face and elongates the torso, making it a flattering piece on almost all body types, whilst the crew neck option is great for those who find a roll neck uncomfortable or restrictive. With regards to styling, the principle is the same as the sweaters we’ve mentioned above - we advise pairing with thicker textures for your trousers and jacket or overcoat.

Superfine Lambswool Rugby Shawl Sweater

This particular sweater lends itself to being worn as a mid-layer and has been designed to be worn with a t-shirt or shirt underneath. Rather than a formal dress shirt, look out for chambray or denim shirts which go really well with this style. And, again, pair with rugged bottoms.

It’s important to remember that, ultimately, your clothing choices and styling decisions are all about personal preference. We have created this guide for two reasons. The first being that it’s really important to us that each of our customers is able to get maximum wear from their garments. The second being that we are frequently asked for advice from our customers, pre-purchase, on which items would suit their lifestyle best.

At Colhay’s we feel strongly that each customer should understand the piece they’re buying and how they’ll be able to wear it with items they already own. If you’re unsure of what would suit you and your day-to-day life best, don’t hesitate to contact us. Our advice is always honest and is guided by our philosophy of inspiring fewer considered purchases, rather than several rushed ones. You can reach us here