Commonly worn by military personnel, police, and even airline pilots, the ribbed sweater with reinforced shoulders and elbows has been a staple of uniforms for some time. The history behind this British piece of clothing is rather obscure, so let’s learn about the wooly pully sweater and how it came to be. Plus, I’ll detail some of my own examples.
Interestingly, tracking down reliable information about the origins and history of the wooly pully, also known as a commando sweater, has been fairly difficult. According to the blogger, hatchfive (2014, December 11), the wooly pully originated from the WWII v-necked jumper in the British Army, and gradually the color changed from tan to green. Eventually, heavier ribbed wool was used and reinforcement was added to the shoulders and elbows. By the 1960s, the sweater had become what it generally is today. Obviously the term “wooly pully” comes from the fact that they’re often made of wool and they’re pullover-type shirts.
Nowadays, you can find wooly pully sweaters on the market in all sorts of colors from the traditional olive drab green and brown to the more naval-oriented black and blue. They’re easily available from various clothing manufacturers (also at military surplus stores) and come in a variety of styles with various types of necks. They can be found with crew necks, v-necks, and even button-up or zipper necks. Some have pouches on the shoulders for holding pens and pencils. Some lack shoulder straps or reinforcement around the shoulders or elbows.
Of note, the shoulder straps are often erroneously referred to as epaulets which are ornamental insignia usually found on dress uniforms. Epaulets can be fastened to the shoulder straps, but the original function of shoulder straps was to keep backpacks or ammunition bandoliers from slipping off the shoulders. Nowadays, shoulder straps are generally seen as adding a bit of military flair to a piece of clothing, but on actual uniforms, they are used to display shoulder boards or rank slip-ons.
My Own Examples
The black one on the top and the blue one in the middle are manufactured by Rothco who makes a variety of military, tactical, and outdoor clothing. I bought them off Amazon.com. The dark blue one on the bottom is manufactured by Defense Logistics Agency and is a U.S. Coast Guard issue. All three are v-neck sweaters (which I prefer), but there are a few differences between them.
For starters, the black and blue Rothco sweaters feature more substantial reinforcing around the shoulders as well as on the sleeves (as is evident on the overturned left sleeve). These sweaters, although a size medium, are particularly long. To compensate, I roll back the sleeves and tuck the hem under. Notice how I’ve rolled back the left sleeves, whereas the right sleeves are at full length to show the difference. Also note that the Rothco ones do not taper down near the hem, whereas the Coast Guard one (bottom) does and is tighter-fitting. I also don’t need to roll the sleeves back or tuck the hem under on the Coast Guard sweater because they’re the proper length. On another note, the blue Rothco’s (middle) reinforcements on the shoulders and elbows turned slightly purple after I first washed it. Probably the result of some color bleeding. Also, note that it looks almost black in the photo, but when compared to the black Rothco and the blue USCG one, there’s a definite difference in color. In short, the black Rothco is definitely black, the blue Rothco is a very dark blue (with purple-ish shoulder & elbow reinforcements), and the Coast Guard one is a lighter blue than the Rothco.
The shoulder straps on the Rothco fasten by hook-and-loop fastener (velcro) near the collar on both sides.
Despite its large size, I actually prefer the Rothco versions in some ways because they’re made of 100% acrylic fabric and are less itchy. They’re also machine washable (I just hang dry them), and are less tight-fitting than my Coast Guard one.
Examining my blue Coast Guard wooly pully, you’ll notice that there’s far less reinforcement around the shoulders and on the sleeves. In fact, the only reinforcement on the shoulders is covered over by the shoulder straps.
The shoulder straps on the Coast Guard sweater are fastened by buttons near the collar. Note that the reinforcement on the shoulders is only present underneath the straps.
Another thing is that it’s made of 100% wool and is meant to be worn with a uniform shirt underneath. This also means the sweater is dry clean only (much to my annoyance) and far itchier to wear. That being said, it’s much more form fitting and the sweater and sleeves are the appropriate length (perhaps a tad too small, I should’ve ordered a larger size than 36R).
Of final note is that Coast Guard uniform regulations state that if the sweater is worn over a shirt with an open collar, then the shirt collar is worn on the outside of the sweater. If wearing a collared shirt and tie, then keep the shirt collar tucked inside. Furthermore, in the Coast Guard, the sweater is worn with uniforms more suited for an office environment (i.e. not out in the field while wearing working uniforms like the Operational Dress Uniform). I usually wear mine with my Tropical Blue or Winter Dress Blue uniforms. It can also be worn with the Service Dress Blue uniform in lieu of the coat.
I know lots of people who don’t really like the wooly pully. To them, it’s that ugly ribbed sweater that sits in their locker, closet, or sea bag, and never gets worn. I, for one, actually like it. If you have a good-fitting one, then it enhances your frame, gives off a sharp appearance, works well in the office environment, and generally serves as a good warming layer during cold days. I know, I know…I’m just stodgy and parochial like that.
hatchfive. (2014, December 11). British Army Wooly Pully [web blog post]. Retrieved from https://hatchfive.wordpress.com/2014/12/11/british-army-wooly-pully/