The commonly held belief is that these sweaters were knit by the women of the Aran Islands for their fishermen husbands and sons. The intricate patterns and stitches were never written down, but passed down through generations. Each family supposedly had particular patterns that were specific to their family, so that if a fisherman’s body washed ashore, the town could identify the body based on the sweater. I was disappointed to learn that the only truth in that story is pretty much that middle part about the women not writing down their patterns. [Ha, so all that clan patterns stuff is hogwash... love it. -ed.]
First things first, the Aran Islands lie about 6 miles off the western coast of Ireland, across the mouth of Galway Bay. There are three islands making up Aran: Inisheer, Inishmaan, and Inishmore. [Sounds like the start of a Monty Python skit -ed. Big note here, the knitting style has nothing to do with the Isle of Aran off the west coast of Scotland... still with us??]
Knitting came to the Aran Islands in the latter half of the 19th century, when women in rural communities were encouraged to take up weaving, knitting and spinning as a way to generate income. On the Aran Islands though, they only embraced knitting socks for use in their communities, not to be sold. For women, knitting was a communal activity where they got together to share their stitches, teach the younger girls, and I’m sure (like today) to drink tea and gossip. It wasn’t until the 1920’s and 30’s that they started to make sweaters instead of socks. It’s speculated that they were inspired to make the sweaters by the Scots who came to live on their islands. (It always seems to come back around to the Scots on this blog.)
In the 1930’s, a shop in Dublin, committed to selling Irish country crafts was put in touch with Aran knitters and started to buy sweaters from them. The first Aran knitting pattern was published in the 1940s and by the 1950s demand was high enough for companies to start supplying the women on the islands with needles, wool and a small income. It was around then that the fisherman on Aran started regularly wearing these sweaters.
The name “Aran” isn’t trademarked and is sometimes used generically to describe anything white, knit, and heavily patterned. So, if you’re looking for a traditional Aran knit, there are two important things to look for. First is the yarn. Traditional Aran knits are made from a rough, cream-colored wool, known as bainin (pronounced bawneen). The yarn is undyed and comes from sheep with tough coats from exposure to the rugged weather. The natural oil on the wool (lanolin) is left on to maximize its water-resistant and insulating properties.
The next important thing is the stitches. The stitches used are intentionally bulky to add thickness and insulation to the sweater. The stitches also have special significance and meaning, often associated with good luck, safety, and inspiration from the fisherman lifestyle and landscape. Whether these were originally designed with these meanings in mind, or have become a good story for the Irish to tell buyers is unclear. I would guess it’s probably a combination of both. Either way, I’ve bought 2 sweaters in my life and both came with a cute directory of the stitches and what they mean and does make for a good story.
For example, the highly recognized cable stitches are symbolic of the fisherman’s ropes and are considered to bring good luck and safety to the wearer. Similarly, the basket stitch represents the basket for an abundant catch. The trellis stitch is inspired by the rough stone walls found all over the Aran Islands and the moss stitch is inspired by the plentiful Irish moss. The honeycomb stitch is a tribute to the bee and its hard work and the diamond stitch signifies wealth. The zig zag stitch, also known as marriage lines, symbolizes the ups and downs of married life and the tree of life is for good luck, promising a long life and sturdy sons to become fisherman. The classic trinity stitch, which makes three stitches out of one and then one out of three, is said to grant the wearer the power of the holy spirit, and also to give the knitter a chance to say some prayers while knitting.
Look for "hand knit" on the label, as opposed to "hand crafted" which sometimes means knit on a knitting machine. I bought a sweater in 1998 in Donegal and the tag has the name of the knitter written on it. Knowing that Mary Sweeney made my sweater makes me smile.
Some technical info for the knitters out there, Aran knitting is not done in the round, but on two straight needles. A sweater is knit in 4 panels with relatively minimal shaping. These look harder than they actually are. If you can knit and purl and follow a pattern, then learning these stitches isn’t hard. The only extra tool you’ll need is a simple cable needle. A lot of these stitches are fun to do and can be used in all kinds of projects. My favorite book is the Harmony Guide to Aran Knitting, clear directions and tons of different stitches.
Finally; care. If you have an Aran sweater (or any wool sweater, actually) take good care of it and it’ll last for years. You don’t need to wash it after every wearing, just gently handwash as needed, pat dry and then lay flat to dry. This will help it get softer with each washing and keep its shape. Whatever you do, don’t dry clean it. Dry cleaning will only dry out the lanolin leaving it brittle. Don’t even put it in your washing machine, even on the gentle cycle. Wool shrinks with agitation, as well as heat, so even the gentle cycle will still cause it to shrink and lose its shape.