Skip to main content

< Newsroom

Freeport, ME, October 20, 2020

Out to Sea: The Norwegian Fishermen Who Inspired L.L.Bean’s Iconic Sweater

The L.L.Bean Norwegian Sweater pictured in the 1965 catalog

The Norwegian fishermen of the early 1800s, with hands calloused by the casting of their nets, layered in wool each morning to brave the wet chill that awaited them at sea. When weather was fair, they boarded their vessels, loosened the stern lines and sailed with the currents into the deep North Atlantic.

The realities of fishing during that time – before survival suits and radio beacons – were such that men falling overboard was common. Rough winds and freezing water made for a deck of slick ice. Sails strung tight and strong, the men would fight to keep their footing, but the crash of the Atlantic waters was often too strong. Some would never return to their mooring.

As was the harsh nature of the fishing trade, Norway’s seaside villages developed a system to identify those who were lost at sea. Into the wool sweaters of seafarers, they knitted distinct colors and patterns – each fishing village with its own – for those who might be found on another shore, hundreds of clicks from port.

Centuries later, these intricate wool-knit sweaters are still carefully knitted in Norway’s breathtaking fjord country. It is their craftsmanship, and the harrowing stories of these brave men, that inspired the creation of L.L.Bean’s Norwegian Sweater.

The Norlender factory in Hosanger, Norway where the L.L.Bean Norwegian Sweater is knit

Beginning in 1965, Leon Leonwood Bean introduced the Norwegian Sweater to the L.L.Bean catalog, touting its warmth and water-wicking capabilities. Since its first iteration, L.L.Bean’s sweater has featured the iconic white bird’s eye pattern stitched into a deep navy, one of the oldest patterns Nordic supplier Norlender has on record. The family-owned fabricator, located on the island of Osterøy, has been making the custom sweater design exclusively for L.L.Bean since 1999.

“We knit L.L.Bean’s bird’s eye sweater using 100 percent natural Norwegian wool, which has exceptional properties that no synthetic fibers can match,” said Alwyn Lewis, company owner and chief executive officer of Norlender. “Wool is nature’s high-tech fiber, with insulating abilities that breathe and transport moisture away from the body. Wool regulates temperature, which surprises most people, ensuring that you never get too warm or too cold, regardless of season.”

The third-generation company crafts garments made from Norwegian wool used in yarns spun in Norway, which have “long and strong fibers with high thermal rating – a result of the natural evolution of our hardy Norwegian sheep,” Lewis says. The company uses special machinery to ensure yarns are completely interlaced, which makes for a compact, stable knit structure without “floats” on the back side of the garment, which can pull and snag.

First-generation family members of Norlender Knitwear with the company’s original knitting machine

Fifteen years after its debut, the L.L.Bean Norwegian Sweater would take on a life of its own. In the 1980s with the rise of preppy style, the Norwegian Sweater became a seaside requirement, pinning Freeport, Maine on the style map. The sweater was so popular, in fact, that it was named as “the nearest thing to a Prep membership card” in the 1980 style guide, The Official Preppy Handbook.

As if off to sea, the sweater disappeared from catalogs in the early 2000s only to reemerge in 2009 as outdoor apparel once again found itself center-stage in American fashion. Still made in Norway, developments in wool production over time have made the Norwegian Sweater lighter, but still thick, warm and water-resistant – all properties to brave the roll of the sea and the chill of winter.

Whether dropping lures for cod in the North Atlantic or simply warming up by the fire, the L.L.Bean Norwegian Sweater remains a style icon.

Natural Norwegian wool is known for its long and strong fibers with a high thermal rating (pictured: models for Norlender Knitwear winter 2020 campaign)

2020 Men's Heritage Sweater, Norwegian Crewneck in the signature Bird’s Eye pattern