The differences between wovens, knits, knitted tops and knitwear bear repeating because I use these descriptions daily on YLF, and they can be confusing.
First, it’s important to understand the differences between woven and knitted fabrics. Apart from animal hide, all fabrics fall into one of two categories: wovens or knits. It’s not the fibre content that distinguishes them, it’s the manufacturing process. Yarns like cotton, viscose, rayon, wool, polyester, velvet, silk, and all sorts of man-made fibres can either be knitted or woven.
Woven fabrics are produced on huge looms that “weave” different yarns together by interlacing threads both horizontally and vertically. If you look very closely at the construction of woven fabrics — which requires a magnifying glass — you’ll see that the fabric is made of tiny squares. Woven fabrics do not stretch unless lycra, elastic or spandex fibres are woven into the fabric.
Clothing made from linen, denim, cotton twill, satin, chiffon, corduroy, tweed, silk, rayon and canvas typically use woven fabrics. Silk and polyester blouses, cotton peasant blouses, jeans, denim jackets, tweed jackets and wool coats are examples of woven items.
Knitted fabrics are produced on huge knitting machines that “knit” different yarns together. These machines use essentially the same technique as hand knitting to make fabric. They knit a row of plain and a row of pearl at high speed to create a “stocking stitch” effect. You’ll see the stocking stitch pattern on knitted items if you look closely. All knitted fabrics stretch.
Knitted tops are tops made of knitted fabric like jersey. A T-shirt and sweatshirt are examples of very basic knitted tops, but knitted tops can be much more complex in design. Any style of top made of jersey knit, terry cloth or fleece is a knitted top. Refresh your memory on the pros and cons of knits and wovens.
Knitwear is also knitted, but the components of an item of knitwear are knitted “piece by piece” on large machines instead of cut out from knitted fabric. Knitwear is divided into pullovers that do not have a centre front opening, and cardigans that do. In the US, knitwear — both pullovers and cardigans — are referred to as “sweaters”. Colloquially I refer to a pullover as a “jumper”, but pullover is the correct term.
To confuse things further, retailers can be sloppy with the terms they use. They often lump knits into one category, when knitted tops and knitwear are very different. I hope this clears things up.