“Roll-neck sweater”

Reader Jeanne Nelson comments, simply:

“From the New York Times, 12 December 2103:

“But if Mr. [Colin] Wilson was no Angry Young Man, with his lush Romantic hair and roll-neck sweaters he more than looked the part.”

I gather she is suggesting as a NOOB roll-neck sweater,  a phrase with which I’m not really familiar, though having read it I get the idea.The Oxford English Dictionart defines roll-neck as “A high loosely turned-over collar on a garment; a garment which has such a collar.” The first citation (from 1897) is from the Washington Post, but everything after 1950 is from Great Britain, including this from a 1977 “Time Out” advert: “Former male model—but more the jeans and rollneck type.”

The New York Times obituary of Colin Wilson helpfully provides this cozy photo of the author in roll-neck, with his wife, Joy:


I am familiar with “turtle-neck,” which the OED defines identifies as “orig.” American and defines as: “A close-fitting roll or band collar, now usu. one intermediate in height between a crew-neck and a polo-neck.” The first citation is an 1895 Montgomery Ward Catalog:  “The Turtle Neck Shirt or Sweater, double from waist up, one of the most desirable garments ever invented for cold-weather shooting.” Two years later, 15-year-old Franklin Delano Roosevelt writes home from Groton School:  “I should very much like a red turtle neck sweater for skating and coasting.”

P.G. Wodehouse, who spent many years in the U.S., may have carried the term to Britain, writing in 1946, “He dresses like a tramp-cyclist, affecting turtle-neck sweaters and grey flannel bags.”

The New York Times has used the expression “roll-neck” or “rollneck” (the hyphen comes and goes) about fifty times in its history, including this from a fashion piece in 2009: “Remember when the cast of ‘Dawson’s Creek’ modeled in the J. Crew catalog and suddenly everyone was wearing those rollneck sweaters?”

By contrast, “turtle neck” or “turtleneck” have appeared some 4,000 times, including this sentence, just a couple of weeks ago, from an interview with Will Ferrell’s anchorman character, Ron Burgundy: “Dapper in a glen plaid polyester suit, brown ribbed turtleneck and dark-green leather jacket, Mr. Burgundy strode into the store, stopping to hold aloft some merchandise.”

Here’s the Times’ photo of Burgundy:


To me, this looks awfully close to Colin Wilson’s roll-neck. My sense is that originally, turtleneck referred to collars that were folded-over snugly and more or less low, and roll-neck to those that were folded over loosely and more or less high. I sense, further, that in the U.S., that roll-neck is a subset of the larger category turtleneck, and that roll-neck is in fairly wide use in the U.K., but is common in the U.S. only in fashion circles.

But I await the judgment of those who know better.


19 thoughts on ““Roll-neck sweater”

  1. Love reading all your articles! My mum and I have always called them roll-neck jumpers… I never heard of a “sweater” until I moved to the States 13 years ago 🙂

  2. You’d won’t get a judgement from me. I’m familiar only with turtlenecks. I used to wear them when I lived up north in your latitude. I’ve seen roll-necks, but never had a name for them. Likewise, I have no idea what a polo-neck is.

  3. I was rather surprised by this one. I grew up in Massachusetts with my mother using the term rollneck sweater, as do I, and it is differentiated from a turtleneck. Rollneck is not a term exclusive to the fashion industry.

  4. Turtle neck vs rollneck vs polo neck:
    Turtle necks are unmanly, and serve no purpose. They are machine knitted in a fine stitch, and worn as a fashion item not for warmth. They were a haute fashion item in the 60s worn under a jacket with jeans and desert boots.
    Rollnecks are worn by rugged men wishing to keep warm. Did Joy really sit around reading a book in a twinset and pearls with her knees pressed together? How odd. They (the rollnecks) must always be made of coarse, scratchy wool in natural tones.
    Polo necks are for polo players and have no ‘neck’ so they can keep cool since its hot work.

  5. I’ve actually had to research this for copywriting projects! The upshot: “Roll-neck” is not a NOOB. “Roll-neck” and “turtleneck” are North American terms for similar clothing features. Both come up high on the neck; a roll neck rolls and a turtleneck folds. “Roll-neck” is somewhat less popular than “turtleneck,” but I wouldn’t call it industry jargon.

    The NOOB, if it existed, would be “polo neck,” which is BrE for turtleneck. (OED: “1. A high, close-fitting turned-over collar on a sweater or other garment.”)

    Here’s a “polo-neck [turtleneck] jumper [sweater]“: http://bit.ly/1gyMb5K

    A polo *collar” is a turnover collar on a knitted sport shirt. This term appears to have been back-formed from “polo shirt” and to be used mostly or exclusively in the US; the OED doesn’t have a definition for it. (But neither do any of the US dictionaries I consulted.) Rene Lacoste, founder of the Izod brand, and the American retailer Brooks Brothers are both credited with inventing the polo shirt with its polo collar. See http://www.duchamplondon.com/marcs_blog/the-history-of-the-polo-shirt/

  6. Hmm, no knitters here? In the 1980s, roll neck collars were popular. They were *not* the same as turtlenecks. On most traditional sweaters (jumpers), the collar, whether it be a crew neck or turtleneck, is made with ribbing, which is identical on both sides and lies flat. The cuffs and bottom welt are traditionally made the same way. The body of the garment, however, is usually made in that smooth fabric called stockinette stitch, whose edges do roll if not stabilized with ribbing or some other stitch that lies flat. 1980s roll neck collars were made using only stockinette stitch, so they rolled. See, e.g.,

  7. Just to repeat Ella’s comments, “sweater” is very much an Americanism. In Britain it’s “jumper” (or sometimes even “pullover”). Just did a quick Google search and while Amazon (UK) has roll-neck sweaters for sale, for the UK sites proper – the John Lewis store, for example – it’s “jumper”.

    1. Just for completeness, Google U.S. defines “jumper” as “a collarless sleeveless dress, typically worn over a blouse.” It does, however, recognize and identify your def’n as British.

      1. So Hal, you’re saying that when I visit the States I should leave the “jumpers” behind? Along with with my dresses and blouses? good advice!

      2. I’m told that what is called a jumper in the US is called pinafore dress in the UK. (In fact, the definition of pinafore dress in Chambers is almost identical to the Google definition you give.) I’m also told by people who make their own clothing that many sewing patterns are printed in the US so use US terminology like “jumper”.

  8. From my perspective, in the UK (post 1950) the terms roll neck and turtle neck have always felt to me vaguely American. A roll neck is what I (and everyone else I grew up with) have always called a polo neck. (There is a photo of one earlier in the thread.)

    A turtle neck is not the same as a roll neck or polo neck. A polo neck is a very high neck that you fold or roll over. A turtle neck is not one you can roll or fold. It’s a ribbed neck that stands up. Here is a link to a photo of one: http://www.ewm.co.uk/lambswool-jumper-9.html

  9. From my UK perspective I agree with Sammy. Roll neck and turtle neck both sound American to me. We also wear jumpers to keep warm and not sweaters. We would therefore use the term “polo neck jumper” though roll neck does seem to be catching on. A search on the Marks and Spencer’s website shows that polo neck and roll neck are use interchangeably but polo neck seems to be more prevalent: http://www.marksandspencer.com/gp/search?field-keywords=roll+neck&x=-947&y=-36&viewID=results&intid=gnav_search&node=42966030

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