I don’t know if you’ve heard but Knit.Wear magazine is back, and it’s awesome! This latest issue of Spring/Summer 2016 is one of my favorites thus far, with so many great knitting patterns I couldn’t believe! I missed Knit.Wear, a lot, and I hated when they changed their name to Knit.Purl. For all the good of this magazine, though, there was one little knitpicky detail that I had a slight problem with. Do you see that cover design? It’s a gorgeous wrap isn’t it, with its beautiful color and intricate lace? I think it’s a really cool design that I think deserves praise and attention. Only one problem: they insist that it’s a cowl. There’s no way it’s a cowl; it goes past the model’s waist! I’d never, ever call it a cowl and insisting that that’s what it is seems a little silly to me. I love the pattern, but I’d call it a poncho.
This begs the question, what makes a pattern a cowl or not a cowl? What makes a garment an anything for that matter? First I should say I’m not a historian nor an expert in garment names and definitions. These are just my opinions, not the be all, end all facts of what makes an article of clothing what it is. That said, I’ve seen and read through a lot of knitting patterns and designs – I own several years worth of knitting magazines and a huge bookcase full of knitting books. I’ve seen a lot of cowl patterns and scarf patterns and shawl patterns and sweater patterns and a few poncho and capelet patterns. The last two aren’t the most popular things to design but they do show up, so I do know a thing or two. Now that that’s aside, let’s go back to the question at hand.
A cowl is an accessory. This means two things – one it’s not worn around the torso at all. Two – its grading and sizing tend to be less complicated than that of a garment – there’s less measurements and such to worry about. With a garment you need to worry about your shoulders, your bust, often your arms, and usually your waist and hips as well. Many people do not fit the “standard” shapes of a garment and therefore often find themselves having to modify a garment pattern to get it to fit right. This isn’t true of all garments of course. Ponchos are garments where usually the only thing one has to worry about are length of the poncho (how far past the waist it travels) and width of the poncho in comparison to one’s shoulders (though sometimes not even that, depending on how drapey it is). Of course, some accessories do have multiple sizes like gloves and hats or have to deal with non-standard sizing issues like socks, but they generally aren’t as bothersome as garments and don’t require nearly as much fiddling for size from the designer’s point of view.
Okay, a cowl is an accessory, what else? A cowl goes around one’s neck, but so does a scarf. Unlike a scarf, however, a cowl is a continuous piece of fabric, meaning it’s essentially a scarf whose ends are seamed together (or just knit in the round as most cowls are). Another word for a cowl is an infinity scarf. So a cowl is a continuous circle of fabric that drapes around the neck, well so is a capelet and even a poncho. What’s the difference between those?
There actually isn’t that much difference if you think about it. Cowls tend to stay around the neck, capelets tend to go around the shoulders, and ponchos tend to drape from the neck past the waist. Again, I’m no expert, but I don’t believe that there’s an official definition that clarifies between a cowl, a capelet, and a poncho. So this is what I propose: if a cowl-like piece of knitwear does not go past one’s shoulders or at least not very far past one’s shoulders, then it’s a cowl. If instead it goes significantly past one’s shoulders but does not go past one’s waist or at least very far past one’s waist, then it’s a capelet. If it does go significantly past one’s waist, then it’s a poncho. If it goes past one’s knees, it’s probably something else, though, like a robe or a muumuu. Of course, if it doesn’t have sleeves then it’s probably still a poncho – that’s kind of its thing.
So what are your thoughts? Should a knitwear design that goes past your shoulders still be considered a cowl?