The Aran sweater is a piece of Irish heritage. Today the Aran is worn by men and women alike. In days gone by the women knitted them for their man and only for their man, a labour of love and pride.
History of the Aran sweater
In the early 1900s wives and mothers on the Aran Islands, off the west coast of Ireland, spun their own wool on their own spinning wheels, in their own homes. These women used that same wool to knit for their spouses and families. They knitted jumpers, hats, cardigans and shawls. This wool was 100% sheep wool; it naturally contains lanolin. The lanolin made the wool water resistant, keeping the fishermen and farmers dry while they worked.
Economic and social
Knitting was a necessity, a way of life, it provided them with clothing and also was a form of socialising for the island women. Each family had their own pattern for their distinctive Aran jumper. It is said that the reason for the differing patterns was for ease of identification in the case of drowning. The patterns often told the story of the family history.
Due to these clever and entrepreneurial island women, their men remained dry and they were soon operating as a cottage industry in knitting Aran jumpers to sell to or barter with people on the mainland. This was a much needed income for the islanders.
Form necessity to business
In the 1930s Robert J. Flaherty’s documentary ‘The Man of Aran’ was released in America. This documentary was responsible for the surge in demand for Aran sweaters and hats. The Congested Districts Board for Ireland realised that Aran knitting could be a lifeline to the economy of the Aran Islands and the West of Ireland. Their role was to alleviate the poverty in rural and congested areas; they invested in the cottage industry that was knitting Aran sweaters and helped them expand into the export market.
Patons of England published the first Aran jumper knitting pattern in the 1940s. Aran jumpers featured in Vogue magazine in the 1950s recognising that Aran sweaters were officially fashionable. What sealed the fate of the Aran jumper was when The Clancy Brothers and Tommy Makem wore them on stage when performing. Aran sweaters jumped from being fashionable to being iconic.
Each stitch of the Aran pattern has their own meaning:
Cable stitch is for safety and luck, the stitch looks like fishermen’s ropes and nets.
Honeycomb stitch represents hardworking and busy.
Diamond stitch is for success, wealth and treasure.
Basket stitch means hope for a bountiful haul or catch to fill the fishermen’s own baskets.
Blackberry stitch is a reminder of the abundant blackberry bushes on the Aran Islands.
Tree of life stitch represents the family tree, ancestors and family history.
Moss stitch is used as the ‘filler’ stitch, especially for the diamond.
Trellis stitch is a reminder of the landscape of the islands’ fields.
The best thing about the Aran sweater is the comfort it gives. It keeps you warm but lets you breathe, just like the comfort of home. This is the power and strength of the Aran sweater.
- Lee Valley