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Men, it's time to get a witty knit

Colourful jumpers have long been consigned to fashion's doldrums – but they're back in style, says Lee Holmes

Until very recently, the mere mention of the words "novelty" and "sweater" to the fashion-savvy would conjure up images of an unwelcome Christmas gift from an eccentric great aunt, the not-so-sweetly loud and proud appearance of which was enough to make the whole family blanche.

But patterned knitwear need not be garish. Take, as a prime example, the much-loved Fair Isle knit that originated on a remote Shetland Isle (hence the name). In the 1930s, this was adopted by the future Edward VIII – later the eminently stylish Duke of Windsor – who saw the quirky garment as an integral part of his golfing uniform. In fact, it is safe to say that his Fair Isle sweater – along with equally countrified tweeds and plus fours – was the reason he became a sartorial role model from thereon in.

Paul McCartney certainly saw it that way. He too loved a Fair Isle knit, although admittedly in a more busy, 1960s-style psychedelic incarnation than that of his blue-blooded predecessor. Only in the early 1980s did Fair Isle fall out of favour. Vivid snowflake or leaping reindeer motifs were entirely at odds with the matt black and Memphis decade, and were considered cheesy enough to wear only with tongue firmly in cheek and preferably at a fondue party.

As any seasoned fashion follower will know, however, what goes around comes around and now the Fair Isle is the sweater to see and be seen in once more.

It all started, this time around at least, with Sarah Lund, the fictional detective from the Danish television series The Killing. With a bleak, Nordic landscape as backdrop, Lund's choice of eye-catching knitwear made a downbeat storyline almost bearable, not to mention its wearer a style icon overnight. Swedish company, Gudrun & Gudrun, the name behind the sweaters in question, was inundated with orders and is still enjoying a moment in the (winter) sun. For men, Junya Watanabe, French Connection and Margaret Howell have all designed suitably handsome variations on the theme this season.

But it isn't restricted to the Fair Isle either: Aztec and geometric designs are having their moment too. Burnished yellows and red Aztec knits can be found at Topman. Raf Simons takes a more pragmatic approach: his knitwear is monochrome, which some might argue is the most intelligent way to approach this trend, thus avoiding the type of fashion infamy that is normally the preserve of the children's TV presenter. Generally, motifs should be subtle and colours should be limited to just two or three.

Be mindful also of what you wear with your new knit. Tempting though it may be, steer well clear of winter's ubiquitous tartans, tweeds and corduroy at least on this occasion. Too literal a reinvention of the aforementioned aristo's wardrobe will bring the unfeasibly camp bumpkin over and above the country gent to mind. Instead, keep things simple and wear a patterned sweater with jeans, a white T-shirt and maybe a leather bomber jacket, should you be feeling a touch sporty.

Finally, there is always the striped knit to fall back on – Marc by Marc Jacobs' mohair knit is a master-class in how to do that – or bright but plain block-coloured jumpers. At the designer end of the scale, D&G has a knitted roll neck in brilliant orange, while more affordable cable or purl knits can be found at Cos and ASOS.