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. Last week, we offered a comprehensive guide on wool. In this week’s article, we dive into the details of the Aran’s unique knitting style, how it differs from other regional styles across the British Isles, and how it has become one of the most highly sought-after garments.

 

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Since wool for Aran sweaters is by and large sourced internationally in search of the softest offerings, it’s a reasonable question to ask what makes an Aran Sweater “Irish.” To answer that, we turn now to the knitting practice itself. While the manufacturing process has evolved in in the century-plus that the Aran sweater has been in existence, the patterns and various stitches have remained relatively unchanged, marking the Aran-style sweater as unique, and definitively Irish.

The Aran knit is distinctive, and easily picked out from other knits native to the British Isles by its thickness, solid color (classically white or cream), and its overall stitching. The Fair Isle sweater is another iconic knit, and it hails from the tiny Scottish island of the same name. The design typically features no thick, decorative cabling or other textures, but rather bright multicolored patterns, which are rumored to have been introduced to the islanders by Spaniards stranded there after the sinking of the Armada in 1588. (Others argue the designs came from Scandinavia.) The Guernsey or Jersey style sweater comes from the English Channel Islands. Like the Aran jumper, these styles also feature textured cables, but typically only over the chest, not covering the entire garment. Rosaleen Hegarty, owner of Crana Knits, believes climate has to do with the design difference. The thicker cables, zig-zags, and berry stitches add thickness and warmth to the sweater, she says. Since the Channel Islands have a warmer climate than Ireland’s west coast, the extra bulk is only necessary around the chest, whereas in Ireland, the sweater needs more fabric, and thus, more warmth over the entire core and arms.

The Scottish Shetland islands are famous not for their sweaters and thicker woolens, like so many of the other British Isles, but for their fine lacework. (Durable sweaters, hats, and gloves have naturally served a utilitarian purpose on the Islands, of course.) In the 1840s, mainland visitors to the Shetlands began bringing lace patterns to be copied, and soon the locals began adapting their own patterns onto the fine shawls and scarves. Unlike so many of the other distinctive knits from Britain and Ireland, Shetland textiles are prized for their delicacy—shawls are traditionally passed through wedding rings to showcase their fineness and fluidity.

 

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)

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? The basic knit patterns of an Aran sweater have not changed since their inception. (National Museum of Ireland)

 

In the 1960s, Heinz Edgar Kiewe, a knitting enthusiast and self-styled “textile journalist,” attempted to provide an origin story for the Irish-style knit patterns. In doing so, he conflated the cabled designs in Aran sweaters with the Celtic knots he observed carved in stone around the Irish countryside. He decided that the similarity between the two designs was more than enough evidence that Aran Islanders had been knitting the jumpers since the days of Saint Patrick, and in 1967, published a book of these theories entitled The Sacred History of Knitting.

It is possible that Kiewe’s book also attempted to propagate charming significances to each distinctive Aran stitch. The cable stitch, he claimed, represented the ropes used by the fishermen who wore the sweaters and risked their lives on the Atlantic, day in, day out. The basket stitch represented the fishermen’s baskets and the hopes for a bountiful catch. The blackberry stitch represented the island’s blackberry bushes, a sign of nature’s abundance. The diamond stitch, a prayer for wealth. The moss stitch, the vibrant green carrageen moss that clings to the stones of the Islands. The honeycomb, the bee-like industry of the Islanders. The zig zag, the cliffs. The trellis, the fields, and so on.

 

 

Whether or not they have any basis in history, these prescribed meanings behind each Aran stitch have stuck, and many websites will explain the significance of each design without mentioning Kiewe or his theories. By this point, the meanings of each stitch have become so widely accepted that collective belief may as well have rendered them true. Knitters and jumper aficionados alike can choose to make or buy sweaters in their desired patterns, imbuing their knits with personal meaning. (To read more about the various stitch patterns and meanings of Aran sweaters, read our separate blog post here.)

Rosaleen Hegarty estimates she has been in the Aran sweater business for over 50 years now and runs what she calls the literal “last cottage industry in Ireland,” whereby her employees hand knit from their homes and send her their finished products when they are ready for sale. She jokes that the only reason she keeps working is because she has no one to take over for her. She employs roughly 50 knitters, and between them and herself, they produce between 700 and 800 sweaters a year.

 

Merino Roll Neck Sweater featuring the classic honeycomb pattern.

Merino Roll Neck Sweater featuring the classic honeycomb pattern.

 

“I don’t put a time limit on my knitters because anything can happen at home and it’s a pastime for most of them,” Hegarty says. “They’re going to knit as much as they need to for the money they need.”

About 20 or so years ago, she estimates that she had almost 550 knitters. Why the massive downsizing? Hegarty believes a lot has to do with the educational opportunities leading to more professional jobs, especially for women. She notes that 50 years ago “every cottage had a woman knitting for extra money.”

A section of the Irish Constitution of 1937 reads, “The State recognizes that by her life within the home, woman gives to the State a support without which the common good cannot be achieved. The State shall, therefore, endeavor to ensure that mothers shall not be obliged by economic necessity to engage in labor to the neglect of their duties in the home.” What this section often meant in reality was that women were forced to quit their jobs upon becoming mothers, not to mention that many professions were closed off to them completely. Naturally, many turned to cottage industries to help subsidize their household finances, and hand knitting was a popular option. It wasn’t until 1973 when an Irish married woman could seek work in the public sector, and in 1977, the Employment Equality Act was passed to help end gender discrimination in the workplace. As second wave feminism gained steam and the Catholic church loosened its grip on the government in the late 20th century, the glass ceiling for Irish women rose perceptibly. Now, Crana employees knit more for pleasure than by necessity. (Hegarty even says that many of them ask for fresh wool sooner than they ask for their paychecks at the end of the month.)

 

Hand-knit Aran sweaters like this one from Crana Knits, are between 25 and 33% heavier than their machine-knit counterparts and have a greater depth of patterning.

Hand-knit Aran sweaters like this one from Crana Knits, are between 25 and 33% heavier than their machine-knit counterparts and have a greater depth of patterning.

 

Today, the vast majority of Aran sweaters are knit on machines, ensuring uniformity and consistency in the product no matter who purchases it or where. Undoubtedly for the mass market, this is a massive benefit to consumers whose demand far outpaces the ability of the hand-knit industry. But how do you tell the difference between a hand-knit sweater and one knit by machine? It turns out it’s more straightforward than you might think.

Hand knitters, like Crana Knits, often use a thicker yarn that the machines can’t handle, and a finished machine knit sweater will weigh between two thirds to three quarters of the weight of a handknit one. The chunkier yarn on the handknit sweater also raises its cables, zig zags, and other patterns further from the body, creating more warmth than a thinner, machine-knit sweater. Of course, another indicator of a handmade sweater is the price—it takes roughly 40 hours to complete an Aran sweater by hand, and those man hours (or usually, woman hours) are reflected in the price tag. Most handknit sweaters will go for retail prices between $250 and $300, whereas their machine-made counterparts can go for between $100 and $150.

Those with Irish heritage can now wear their ancestral clan’s patterns on their sleeve (and chest). As people worldwide began renewing interest in exploring their Irish ancestry, authentic clan knit patterns began to gain popularity and were sold online and in shops on sweaters and scarves.

 

 

Pearse Staunton of Aran Woolen Mills noted that anyone can make a new pattern and then attempt to register it as an official one for a designated clan, much in the same way that Scottish clans that have historically lacked tartans can today design and trademark their own patterns. However, like the invented meanings behind each Aran stitch, though clan knit patterns may not be as ancient as sweater-buyers might hope, they will likely take on significance through wear and handing down over generations.

When asked about the genesis of clan patterns, Staunton says, “The story is different people on the Islands knit different patterns. Say Mrs. Murphy mainly did cables, somebody over the road did diamonds and cables. If it had honeybombs in it it was Mrs. O’Brien. And those got adopted for clans.”

Rosaleen Hegarty herself has written all the clan patterns for ClanArans.com, basing her designs off stitches historically used in the regions from which the various clans hailed. Hegarty considers herself both an artist and a mathematician who enjoys designing and writing the patterns.

Far from being relegated to a piece of Irish whimsy, however, the Aran sweater also has a cemented place in the world of high fashion. It began with the image of sweater-clad Grace Kelly lounging on a sailboat off a distinctly Mediterranean-looking coast. Not long after, Steve McQueen was pictured in one. Vogue published an Aran sweater knitting pattern in 1956, and in the early 1960s, the election of John F. Kennedy as the first Catholic president of the United States had Americans ready to embrace Ireland, whether or not they themselves had any Irish blood. The romantic picture of Ireland as an unspoiled landscape of rolling green hills was already at the forefront in the American imagination by the time the Clancy Brothers appeared on the Ed Sullivan Show sporting cream-colored Aran jumpers, thanks in large part to the postcard business of English photographer John Hinde.

 

The photographs of John Hinde, like this one of a thatched cottage in Co. Galway, played a large role in crafting the mid-20th century image of a verdant Ireland. (Copyright John Hinde Collection / John Hinde Ltd)

The photographs of John Hinde, like this one of a thatched cottage in Co. Galway, played a large role in crafting the mid-20th century image of a verdant Ireland. (Copyright John Hinde Collection / John Hinde Ltd)

 

Hinde was a circus publicity manager with an interest in color photography, and in his many tours of the Irish countryside and coasts, he took photographs of the hills, the sheep, the cottages, and the harbors. He left the circus to set up a photography studio and shop in Dublin in 1956. At the time, most postcards of rural Ireland were black and white, hoping to convey the rusticity and beauty of the countryside, but Hinde felt the world needed to see the Emerald Isle in its vivid reds, blues, yellows, and—of course—greens. He played on Irish aesthetic stereotypes—red-haired children, green fields—and often slightly doctored his photos to achieve the desired vibrance and to capture the imagination of tourists and viewers. Legend has it that he kept a saw in the backseat of his car in case there was something ugly marring his desired shot—he would simply saw down a rhododendron bush and place it in front of the offending eyesore. His postcards, like the legends surrounding the Aran sweater, promote the romance of Ireland, a place that felt for many Irish Americans in the mid-20th century simultaneously familiar and remote.

Though Hinde claimed photographs had no artistic value, the Irish Museum of Modern Art honored him in a 1993 retrospective exhibit, and even after his death in 1997, his brightly colored photographs of the cottages, landscapes, and people of mid-century Ireland remain immensely popular.

 

Steve McQueen in an Aran sweater on the set of The Thomas Crown Affair with Faye Dunaway, 1968.

Steve McQueen in an Aran sweater on the set of The Thomas Crown Affair with Faye Dunaway, 1968.

 

Globalization may have dampened a bit of western Ireland’s mythical allure, but the frenzy surrounding the Aran sweater continues. Today, many top designers revisit the sweater as inspiration for their Autumn/Winter collections. In 2015, British Vogue named it the official sweater of the holiday season, as runways had exploded with the design. French designer Isabel Marant told the magazine, “There are iconic garments such as blue jeans, the white t-shirt, and military jacket that are so well achieved you will never tire of them, and the Aran knit belongs to that category. I love its efficiency; it’s warm, comfortable, and made of rough wool that lasts for ages.” Michael Kors notes that the sweater “has stood the test of time because it’s chic and practical.” The fashion fascination continues, of course—an embellished Aran-inspired knit graced Rag & Bone’s 2018 Resort collection just last winter.

In the fall of 2017, New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Modern Art ran an exhibition titled “Items: Is Fashion Modern?,” which showcased 111 distinct pieces of clothing or accessories with lasting or charged cultural significance. Among the many items on display were a pair of Levis 501s, a little black dress, a kippah, a keffiyeh, and, naturally, an Aran sweater.

SHOP IRISH SWEATERS AT SHAMROCKGIFT.COM

 

Ladies Irish Sweaters

 

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Super-Soft Aran Knit Crew Ladies Sweater

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Men’s Irish Sweaters

 

Single Button Shawl Collar Aran Sweater

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Irish Men’s Crew Neck Sweater

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Children Irish Sweaters

 

Baby Aran Sweater Hand Knit

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Baby Handknit Aran Crew Sweater

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Children’s Sweater from Ireland

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Come back next week for a complete guide on the best practices for caring for your Aran sweater, including detergent recommendations, storage techniques, and more. And if you don’t already own an Aran sweater, visit ShamrockGift.com for our complete Aran Sweater collection.

The first entry in our Aran sweater series, all about the origin and rise to international fame of the style, can be found here. 

To read about the history of yarn spinning and the process of turning wool into the Aran sweater, click here.

 

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