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How the Aran Sweater Evolved into a Fashion Staple

How the Aran Sweater Evolved into a Fashion Staple

Posted by Brian Patrick O'Sullivan on 23rd Oct 2019

A sweater can make or break a look. The symmetry to the rest of the outfit, the time of year, outdoor conditions. These are the factors that are taken into, to find the perfect sweater. We are going to talk about two sweaters from the Atlantic that have a long and storied history: the Aran Sweater and the Guernsey. Both of these sweaters are often confused for each other, mainly due to their countries of origin. To gain a better understanding of their similarities and differences, we are going to look at their histories, and define what intertwines and separates the two. Let us take a look.


First, its geography. The Aran Islands are a group of three islands located on the west coast of Ireland, on the mouth of Galway Bay. It is still one of the few parts of Ireland in where Gaelic is still spoken, but English is spoken here as well. Coming to the Aran Islands is stepping into Ireland’s proud past. Even with its most rugged terrain, the views looking out into the Atlantic Ocean are some of the most beautiful of its kind in the world. Dating back to as early as the late 1800s as a form of function many hardworking Irish man, the Aran Sweater came to be one of the most recognizable contributions of Irish fashion from the Aran islands. It was originally just an Irish garment, until the 1940s, when the first book about made available Aran patterns was published in the United Kingdom. It is these patterns that have given the Aran sweater its identity. The Aran sweater features up to six different patterns, all them intricate, symmetrical, and with great symbolism. Much of the patterns seen on the sweater is inspired by the Celtic knot work pattern. It is believed that the fishermen who went on their treacherous voyages from the Aran Islands, viewed the knot work as a source of inspiration, and good luck. This gives the sweater its unique texture due to the way the sweater is prepared and made. Because the wool of the sheep is unwashed, the lanolin (the wool’s fatty coating) from the sheep’s wool makes the sweater water-repellent. The type of wool that is used in an Aran sweater is from an undyed cream-colored báinín (wool produced from sheep), sometimes wool from a black sheep would be used. If you forgot your raincoat at home, no problem. So think of the sweater as a great substitute for your raincoat. Today, many of the Aran sweaters are made from a fine soft Merino wool. The famous Aran pattern on the sweater is believed to used for religious interpretation and inspiration. However, it was not until the early 1950s that the Aran sweater started to gain mainstream attention. The women’s fashion magazine, Vogue, first had the article about the Aran sweater published in the United States. From there, the popularity of the Aran sweater began to take off.


Some of the fine detailing that would later be applied spectacularly to the Aran sweater can be seen on these working sweaters on the Isle of Guernsey.

For the last 60 plus years, the Aran sweater is seen as more than just a practical article of clothing on a cold or damp day, but it is also as a way to add some style and substance to an outfit, whether you are a man or a woman. Let us take a look at how the Aran sweater has develop from a practical garment for fishermen to a fashion staple in many a wardrobe. It was Michael Kors that said it best, “It has stood the test of time because it's chic and practical. When the temperature dips, everyone wants a knit that looks good and feels amazing. The Aran is a lasting design of beautiful craftsmanship and texture; it's universally flattering and is incredibly versatile, too; it works well with almost anything." That is what makes the Aran Sweater an icon in the world of fashion, its versatility. For a woman, she could wear with something casual like a pair of blue or black jeans and sneakers or boots, or dress it up with a beautiful skirt. For men, he could wear it with jeans and sneakers as well on casual days, or dress it up with a pair of dress pants. Because of the role the Aran sweater can play, the way it can act makes it a true necessity for anyone’s daily wear. To understand its impact and inspiration, you can take a look at many of the fashion shows from New York, London, or Paris. As recent as 2014, Michael Kors featured the Aran sweater at his Fall fashion show in New York for Fashion Week. It varied in such Fall color classics as gray, dark brown, and olive green. As a result of his create integration of the Aran sweater into his fall line, the show was a complete success. What it went to show that no matter the year, the Aran sweater will always have a place at the clothing table. Timeless, with no sign of going out of style any time in the future.


Before the existence of the Aran sweater was the Guernsey. The origins of the Guernsey can be dated back to the 15th Century in the Channel Island of Guernsey in the United Kingdom. Even though the Guernsey originated in the 1600s, the name Guernsey outside of its origin, did not start until 1851, when it first appeared in the Oxford dictionary. Like the Aran sweater, the Guernsey was used by fisherman, to stave off harsh open water conditions, while staying warm and dry during their voyages. It was a tradition for wives of the fishermen to knit Guernseys for their husbands. The tradition of making these sweaters were passed down from mother to daughter for many generations. For the most part, the Guernsey was machine-made, however, the finishing touches of the sweater were made by hand. The wool that is used for the Guernsey is a Gansey. Gansey wool is a worsted-spun, high-twist sport-weight yarn constructed of five piles. Because the fishermen were traveling to different parts of the British Isles, the popularity of the Guernsey started to grow. While the classic Guernsey has no patterns, as the voyages began to spread to the Northern parts of the Isles, the pattern of the Guernsey developed its own flair. The farther north the fishermen went (towards Scotland), the more intricate the patterns were. So it was easier to identify a Guernsey from the south (plain in look) versus a Guernsey from the north (intricate patterns). This leads to one of the biggest differences between the Aran sweater.

Shamrock Gift's Traditional Crew Neck Aran Sweater from Saol. Shop Now.

As mentioned before, the Aran sweater uses intricate patterns depicting religious symbols and other areas of inspiration. However, with the Guernsey, there are two different patterned sweaters, the “working” sweater, and the “finer” sweater. The “working” Guernsey, has a simpler and more practical appearance. This was due to the fact that the simpler version was cheaper and faster to make, by using less material. The “finer” sweater was more intricate in design than the “working” sweater, and would be used for a more dressed up occasion. They were not made by wives, but by wives-to-be. These prospective wives wanted to demonstrate their value and worth to the man they want to marry, by showing him that she could make a Guernsey using a more complicated pattern. An example of what patterns are used in a Guernsey can be seen on the sleeve of the sweater. It is believe that the design on the sleeve is meant to represent a sailing ship’s rope ladder in the rigging, with the seam across showing a rope, and the garter stitch (different from a knit stitch) pattern depicts the waves similar to the ones the fishermen face on the open waters.

Shamrock Gift's Ladies Turtleneck Ribbed Cable Knit Sweater. Shop Now.

Although the uses for the Aran sweater and the Guernsey were similar, their origins, make, and design patterns is where they show their more stark differences. While the Aran sweater drew their design patterns from a more spiritual source, the Guernsey looked to their day-to-day livelihood as fisherman as a source for their inspiration. Although the Aran sweater was inspired by the Guernsey for its use, the look and feel of both sweaters are quite different. The Aran sweater is heavier and more substantial in ways of feel, the Guernsey is lighter in look and feel, but still very warm. The wool that is used for the Aran sweater and the Guernsey speaks to their heritage. The wool used for a Guernsey is specifically found in coastal England, while the Aran sweater uses wool specifically from the Aran Islands on the west coast of Ireland. While the Aran sweater is more coarse in terms of texture and feel, many Guernseys tend to be more soft to the touch. Just because they are different in feel, does not take away the quality of each sweater. Both use the best of regional material, to make the highest quality garment possible.

Even with their differences, both the Aran sweater and Guernsey are always in high demand whenever the weather turns cold. There is a reason why fisherman made each of them their garment of choice. They kept them warm, dry, and comfortable. When both of these sweaters branched out from their area of origin, they were well received. Quality garment is a quality garment no matter where you go. They never stay hidden for long, and the desire for them will be far and wide. It speaks to the timelessness of the sweaters. Beyond fads and trends, they are never out of style.


Shop our brand new collection of Aran knitwear for men and women from Saol.