The Definitive History of the Aran Sweater
Posted by Julia Brodsky on 8th Oct 2018
It’s officially fall, and that means pumpkins are in season and temperatures are dropping as the march to winter begins. We thought we’d take the occasion to host a pop-up blog within ShamrockCraic dedicated to the most Irish of cold weather apparel, the Aran sweater. Every Monday for the rest of October, we’ll bring you a feature article on a different aspect of the Aran sweater where we’ll cover everything from origin myths to the process of yarn spinning and the meaning of knit patterns. In this week’s article, we want to answer the most basic of questions about Ireland’s signature layering piece: Where does the Aran sweater come from and how did it become so popular?
It’s the quintessential image of the west of Ireland: a rocky coastline pounded by a rough, unforgiving ocean. A driving rain beats down while a handful of fishermen hauls in their boat, a thick wool sweater their only protection from the harsh elements. It’s a romantic picture, to be sure, and one that has origins in equal parts reality and legend, that gave birth to today’s highly sought-after Aran sweater.
Along with the flat cap and tweed jacket, the Aran sweater, also often referred to as a fisherman's sweater, or Irish fisherman's sweater, is one of Ireland’s most stereotypical garments, and over the past century, the sweater has achieved international levels of fame far beyond its namesake island chain. Given the sweater’s worldwide profile, it is perhaps ironic that the Aran Islands themselves have a long history of rural isolation and even today are one of the last strongholds of the declining Irish language. So how did the Aran sweater, born of humble rural necessity, achieve its high fashion notoriety? No doubt through the islands’ very real romance of remote cultural authenticity and heritage.
The three Aran Islands—Inis Mór (the largest of the three, whose name is Irish for “big island”), Inis Meáin, and Inis Oírr (the smallest)—lie at the entrance to Galway Bay, off the Atlantic coast of Ireland. There are roughly 1,200 full-time inhabitants, all of whom speak Irish as well as English, as the islands are an official Gaeltacht (a primarily Irish-speaking region). During the summer, the population swells with tourists who take the ferries from Galway Harbour to explore the islands’ rugged landscapes, ancient forts, and local culture.
The ragged coastline of Inis Mór, the largest of the Aran Islands (Chris Hill / Tourism Ireland)
The islands have drawn artists as well as tourists for years, especially as the Celtic Revival in the mid-19th century began to renew interest in Irish language and traditional culture. Lady Gregory traveled to the Arans in the late 1800s to learn Irish. John Millington Synge spent five summers on the islands at the behest of William Butler Yeats, and his 1907 book, The Aran Islands is a combination of his own journals and an account of life and culture there at the turn of the 20th century. Some criticize Synge’s work as primitivistic, but many artists who used the islands for inspiration took a similar vein in their work, hoping to convey how the Arans represented the last microcosm of a rapidly disappearing ancient culture—a sort of living time capsule.
Most infamous for his highly romanticized vision of the Aran Islands is filmmaker Robert J. Flaherty, whose 1934 film Man of Aran, drew criticism for his fictionalization of island life. The film is purported to document daily existence of an Aran basking shark fisherman and his family. It highlights the hardships of life there: one scene shows the family farming potatoes in scanty, rocky soil; in another, they struggle to bring their boat in against a howling, rainy gale. Flaherty was more concerned with poetry than reality, however; the “family” members were not related, but were chosen from among the islanders for their looks, and it had been several years since sharks had been hunted in the manner shown in the film. Though it cannot truly be classified as a documentary, Flaherty’s ethnofiction drew praise for its editing and aesthetics, and it certainly garnered worldwide interest in the three remote islands off the coast of Galway.
The tools and garb of the Aran fisherman are simple ones. The traditional boat, called a currach, is constructed of canvas stretched over wood lathes and covered with tar. It is light, but designed to endure the rough seas at the mouth of Galway Bay. With such light construction materials, fisherman could not wear normal shoes, which would damage the canvas, so they instead donned pampooties, soft moccasins made from goat or cow skin. On calm evenings, fisherman would take their currachs as far from the islands as the Cliffs of Moher (roughly 13 miles), but today the tiny boats are only used for tending lobster pots near the shore or for recreational racing. Aside from the currach and pampooties, of course, the fisherman would also need to protect his core from the cold waves and rain. Here is where the sweater comes in.
Today's Aran sweaters are made in all sizes for both men and women, while the knit patterns can be applied to shawls, wraps, scarves, and more. (Traditional Charcoal Irish Aran Sweater)
The traditional fisherman’s sweater is made from báinín (which takes its name from the Irish word for “white”, bain), a yarn of undyed sheep’s wool. The wool was also unwashed to retain the natural sheep lanolin, which would ensure the woven garment would be water-repellent, a must for anyone out on the waters off Ireland’s Atlantic coast.
Much like the islands themselves, the Aran sweater is associated with many fascinating myths and legends, two of which have reinforced each other through the years.
First, a morbid legend regarding the sweaters’ beauty: there is a common tale that each Aran islander family used a distinctive stitch or group of stitches in their sweaters so that if one of their men was drowned at sea, they could use the stitching to identify the body if it washed ashore days or weeks later. Second, a less disprovable tale (though no less morbid): it is said that islanders don’t learn to swim, since there is no chance of survival far out in the rough Atlantic waters, and it is better to drown quickly than to fight death. Indeed, many critics of Man of Aran note that Flaherty put his local cast and crew at great risk by asking them to film in stormy seas despite the fact that none of the islanders could swim. So it is perhaps no surprise that these two stories would go hand-in-hand as mutually reinforcing myths.
Boyne Valley Knitwear makes a wide range of contemporary Aran style sweaters. (Mens One Button Shawl Collar Cable Sweater)
But where did they come from? It is possible that the myth of the family knit pattern originated as recently as 1904, with John Millington Synge’s play Riders to the Sea, in which a woman recognizes a sock she knitted for her brother when going through an unidentified dead sailor’s clothing. Upon discovering the garment, the girl, Nora, cries, “It’s Michael, god spare his soul [...] It’s the second [sock] of the third pair I knitted, and I put up three score stitches, and I dropped four of them.”
It’s clear though that in this case, it is not a specific knitting pattern that gives away the identity of the body, but the dropped stitches the woman recognizes. However, as Synge spent several summers living on Inis Meáin, the largest of the Aran Islands, he was well acquainted with how cruel and treacherous the sea could prove. While his one-act play seems to paint a dismal picture—the youngest son of a woman who has already lost five sons and her husband to the sea falls off his horse and drowns—it may not have been that far removed from the harsh reality of life on the Aran Islands.
A fisherman farmer with his family on Inis Oírr in 1898, photographed by John Millington Synge. It was around this time that traditional Aran knit patterns were being developed. (Trinity College Dublin)
Similarly, there may actually be some truth to the notion of identifying bodies by sweater pattern. Or at least in the hypothetical. Rosaleen Hegarty is the owner of Crana Knits in County Donegal, one of the last hand-knit sweater operations in Ireland. Having been knitting for over 50 years, she remembers a time before knit patterns were written down and offers this assessment:
“Before the days when patterns were written, one woman in the area would have a good eye and the intelligence to make out a nice pattern, and her daughters and sisters would copy it and it would spread around the area.” No doubt, she says, that turn-of-the-century Aran Islanders would have had local or familial differences in their patterning. This was even more obvious on a national scale. Even through the 1960s and 1970s, she says, “I could tell where sweater was from based on the pattern that was in it—Donegal used a trinity stitch and blackberries. Wexford would do honeycomb,” and so on.
“So, if a body did wash up, and was wearing a hand knit sweater, and you took it to a knitter, you would be able to tell where the sweater was from, and then make some calls and see who was missing.” Still, she says, it wouldn’t have been the raison d’etre for the patterns, which were knit to trap a maximum amount of air that could insulate the body beyond what a flat sweater was capable of. “Irish Aran sweaters have the patterns all over because they needed the warmth all over.”
Unlike many other iconic Irish designs, with origins that predate Christianity, historians agree the prototypical Aran sweater is relatively new. The knitting patterns now associated with the Aran style sweater began emerging in the area in the 1890s and 1900s, when the Congested Districts Board hoped to better the region’s fishing industry. (Post hoc explanations abound concerning the origin and meaning of these designs, and such stories continue to provide a certain charm and whiff of authenticity to each of the unique Aran knit patterns. Come back for Part III of our series to learn more about the knitting styles and evolution of pattern meanings.)
The Board was founded in 1891 by Arthur James Balfour, the first Earl of Balfour, who was then serving as the Chief Secretary for Ireland. Its mission was to mitigate poverty and congested living conditions in the west and northwest of Ireland by funding public works initiatives, especially in fishing communities. In fact, fishermen and their wives from other British Isles came to the Aran Islands in those decades to train the islanders in improved fishing practices, which included—you guessed it—how to knit their traditional water-resistant sweater (of course, it’s called a “jumper” on that side of the pond). From there, local women began knitting their own versions of the sweater, using thicker, local wool and adding their own personal patterns.
This Aran sweater, from 1943, was featured in a 2017 exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art in New York called Items: Is Fashion Modern? (National Museum of Ireland)
Though it appeared altruistic, the CDB was part of a British Conservative party policy of “Constructive Unionism,” which attempted to quash agitation for Irish Home Rule through “kindness” (i.e. by implementing programs to increase employment and minimize emigration). Much of the funding came from the Church of Ireland, and many of its critics at the time accused the Board of funding Church projects, such as reformatory and industrial schools, which were homes for abandoned and orphaned children, and where many children suffered terrible abuse at the hands of their so-called “caretakers.”
Famed historian Joseph Lee refers to the CDB in his book, The Modernisation of Irish Society, and notes that it largely supported inefficient projects that floundered economically after the Board withdrew its funding. In 1923, the government of the Irish Free State dissolved the Board and its staff and duties were absorbed by the Irish Land Commission’s Department of Fisheries and Rural Industries. Whether or not the CDB’s knitwear initiatives in the Arans were a huge financial success at the time, the practice has endured even after Ireland won its independence, and the Aran sweater, despite its genesis as a product of British rule, has been reimagined as a garment that is Irish to the core.
In the 1940s, the first Aran sweater knitting patterns were published by Patons of England, ensuring the design could be enjoyed across the Channel. Then, in 1950, Grace Kelly was photographed wearing a chunky Aran knit, and the rest, as they say, is history. Export to the United States began, and six years later, Vogue published a knitting pattern for the Aran sweater. Stadun, a factory in Spiddal, County Galway, was the first to export to the US and employed roughly 700 Irish knitters. The company provided employment for many women in a time when they had few other options for income, given Ireland’s patriarchal and parochial government.
The Stadun family was also close friends with Luke Kelly and the Clancy Brothers, who had begun donning the jumpers for their concerts and wore them on an early 1960s episode of the Ed Sullivan Show, in which they performed for President John F. Kennedy. Worldwide demand for the sweaters skyrocketed. As the export trade boomed, the government sent instructors to the Aran Islands to teach knitters to construct the garments to standardized international sizing.
The Clancy Brothers and Tommy Makem were close with an Aran sweater manufacturer and it became their signature look during their early years on the folk circuit.
Today, the majority of “Aran” sweaters on the market are often neither made on the Aran Islands nor hand-knit, but they all are inheritors of the same romantic heritage of the islands on which they first appeared. And in contrast to products like Champagne or Bouillabaisse, the “Aran” designation is not name-protected, referring instead to a style of sweater that strongly evokes the sense of place of the islands themselves. It’s why the name still has quite the cachet, and at every gift shop in County Galway, clamoring tourists descend from their busses en masse to bring home authentic Irish knits for their families.
Today, many iterations of the Aran-style sweater use softer yarns than the unwashed sheeps’ wool associated with the first jumpers, making them a comfortable and cozy choice as the weather turns cooler.
The Aran name is not trademarked, and there are many sweaters that reference the original design patterns of the traditional Aran sweaters, including this Men's One Button Shawl Wool Collar Cable Sweater.
One company making contemporary Aran-style sweaters (and stocked by ShamrockGift.com) is Aran Woolen Mills, formerly Carraig Donn, established in 1965. No longer is itchy white wool the only option, either, as their intricate knits come in a variety of vibrant jewel tones. There are styles for the wee ones, as well, who are never too young to sport a piece of timeless Irish fashion. Closet full of all the jumpers and pullovers you’d need? The company offers gorgeous knit hats, gloves, and even hand-knit blankets. As summer turns to fall, take a leaf from an Aran fisherman’s book (or a fashion designer’s!), and slip into something steeped in Irish history and legend.
We hope you enjoyed the first in our Aran Sweater Pop-Up Blog series. Tune in next week for a comprehensive guide on wool. Where does it come from? How is yarn made? And more. Come back next Monday for the answers. And if you’d like to buy your own Aran sweater, visit ShamrockGift.com for our complete collection.