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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 the definitive history of the Aran sweater style. In this week’s article, we dive into the details of wool, where it comes from, how it’s spun, and why it has been used for thousands of years to make clothes.
When asked where wool comes from, almost anyone would be able to offer the answer— sheep. Nearly 90 percent of the world’s sheep produce wool and sheep’s wool is by far the most prevalent form of wool on the market for everything from mass-produced carpets to bespoke suits. But there are other kinds of wool, too, including from rabbits, goats, and camels. Fine cashmere and mohair come from goats, and fuzzy angora comes from rabbits.
Aran sweaters, however, have been made from sheeps’ wool since their inception in the late 19th century (though some contemporary designers have recently started to explore other forms of wool), so it is thus the wool of sheep that will be the sole focus of our exploration here.
Wool garments have been around for a long time—roughly since 4000 or 3000 BC. Originally, wild sheep were more often hairy, rather than wooly, and domestication and selection of wooly sheep is thought to have begun circa 6000 BC, based on archeological evidence from Iran. The oldest known European woolen textile dates back to roughly 1500 BC, and was discovered in a Danish bog. For the majority of pre-modern and modern history, the main fabrics of Europe were wool, linen, and leather. Cotton, a staple textile today, was merely a legend in the Western world—a curiosity from the East for the majority of the first millennium. In medieval times, wool production was not only for household consumption, but had grown into a trade that drove the economies of many European countries.
What makes wool different from hair or fur? Wool is crimped and has an elasticity that hair and fur do not, which make it easier to spin into yarn. Different types of wool have different amounts of crimp—a fine wool like Merino may have close to 100 crimps per inch while varieties of coarse wool have only one or two. That crimp also gives wool more bulk than other fibers, allowing the fabric to trap dead air and retain more heat, historically making it the go-to textile for people in colder climates. Aran fishermen were in good company; many desert tribes in Northern Africa have used wool garments and blankets for insulation against the frozen, windy nights. While central heating has rid most of the world of the need to don multiple wool layers for survival, the idea of cozying up in a giant sweater on a chilly night is still holds romance and general appeal.
Though it was known for centuries as the perfect fabric for the cold and damp, wool has recently been extolled as the perfect four-season textile. Companies like Smartwool have become popular by promoting wool as an ideal fabric for the heat—just as wool retains moisture to keep the wearer warm and dry, that same quality can help keep the wearer cool. As the wearer heats up, any moisture stored in the wool will begin to evaporate, cooling the air between skin and fabric. The faster the body warms up, the more quickly the water evaporates.
Though Aran fisherman have traded their white jumpers for Gore-Tex, modern wool is still an excellent choice for keeping wearers dry. Merino wool, which is now the most common wool for Aran sweaters, can retain up to 30% its dry weight in water before it begins to feel wet. In contrast, the majority of synthetic fabrics begin to feel wet after absorbing 7% or less.
Not all sheep are created equal, however—different types of sheep produce different types of wool, and demand varies, often depending on the fineness of the fiber. The softness of wool is measured on a system called the micron scale, which ranks a wool’s fineness according to the diameter of its fibers. (A micron, or micrometer, is equal to one one-millionth of a meter.) The smaller the diameter, the finer and softer the wool. Typically, wool used for garments is 25 microns or finer, and Merino wool, depending on its style, runs anywhere from 23 to 15 microns.
Merino sheep are generally estimated to have originated in roughly the 12th century in Extremadura, Spain. Between then and the 1500s, Spain gained fame for its fine wool, and until the 18th century, it was illegal to export Merino sheep to other countries. Indeed, the Spanish government considered the crime so serious that it was apparently punishable by death. As global trade relations increased, however, exportation laws grew less strict, and in the 1700s Merinos were brought to other European countries, and in the 1800s, to Australia, which remains the world’s top wool producer.
Ironically, wool from Irish sheep is typically not used for Irish sweaters. The very conditions against which the Aran sweater is supposed to protect—the rain and the damp and salty sea air—render Irish wool too coarse to be knit into clothing. Its roughness and durability make it a perfect yarn for carpets, and Pearse Staunton of Aran Woolen Mills estimates that it is about a 30 on the micron scale. Only one Irish sweater producer, Donegal Yarns, uses yarn from sheep reared in Ireland and is able to call their knits “Genuine Irish Wool,” but even their sheep are imported to be raised on Irish soil.
“Maybe somebody with a sheep is doing it in their own house for a singular sweater for themselves,” says Staunton. “But not on an industrial or wholesale scale. And the wool would be very itchy.”
Instead, sheep from Chile, Spain, and even parts of the UK are better choices for sweaters, as these countries generally have milder climates, and therefore produce sheep with softer, less weather-resistant fleece. Staunton jokes that today sweater manufacturers and consumers alike should exclusively look for the three S’s when choosing their wool: softness, softness, softness.
When the first Aran sweaters were being produced a century ago, however, Merino was hard to come by in the remote Aran Islands, so residents made do with what they had, knitting sweaters from local sheep that would be nearly unrecognizable in their coarseness to today’s Aran jumpers, probably for the best.
Though a wool’s softness generally depends on the fibers’ diameter and micron rating, some texture also comes from treatment during the shearing and weaving process. Wool straight off the sheep is often referred to as “greasy wool” or “wool in the grease.” What makes the wool greasy? Lanolin. What is lanolin? Also called “wool wax” or “wool grease,” lanolin is a grease from the sebaceous glands of wool-producing animals. It occurs naturally to protect the creatures’ skin and hair from the elements—natural waterproofing at its finest. The original fisherman’s sweater, by necessity, was knit from untreated wool rich in lanolin, which is thought to have aided the wool’s natural water-repelling properties. Now, however, as the sweaters are now designed for more commercial, less utilitarian purposes, Aran knit producers focus more on comfort and less on waterproofing.
“Over a period of time, the actual product has changed based on consumer demands,” Chris Weiniger, general manager of Donegal Yarns, one of the few remaining industrial yarn manufacturers in Ireland, explains. “In woolen spinning, the Aran sweater would have been spun with the natural lanolin in the wool, the grease in the wool. Today that’s not so practical.”
The lanolin, then, must be removed from wool fleece via a process called “scouring.”
Methods of scouring run from the basic (a warm water bath) to the complicated (processes using several detergents and alkalis). Most commercial operations use a chemical process to scour their wool. Many gentler scouring processes leave the lanolin intact, and humans often use lanolin harvested from sheep’s wool as a beauty product or softening agent.
Once the wool has been scoured, of course, it still looks a lot more like the pelt of a sheep than a cozy cable knit. Once the wool is either combed (forcing all the fibers into the same orientation) or carded (allowing some fibers to remain at odd angles relative to the general direction), the resulting product is called roving and is, finally at this point, ready to be spun into yarn.
The spinning process itself consists of simply twisting together the roving to make the individual fibers, which tend to average about 3 inches long, into a much longer bundle of yarn. Spinning is like glue to the crimps in the wool, and and the practice dates back as far as the Upper Paleolithic period. Hand-spinning was one of the first processes to be industrialized, as in the Middle Ages, wool production and trade drove many European economies.
Typically, women and children spun the wool into yarn while men worked the looms. As technology advanced, weaving grew from a cottage industry into full-on manufactories. The textile industry was one of the first industries to employ modern production methods—the Industrial Revolution of the late 18th and early 19th centuries heralded the rise of massive factories and the development of large-scale machine tools. The advent of factories led to an overall movement toward urbanization and arguably, the creation of a middle class. All this growth, however, came at a cost; harsh labor practices, including long shifts, low pay, and unsanitary working conditions were the norm. In textile factories, moreover, women and children worked the machines, chosen for their smaller hands that were better able to manipulate more delicate parts of the machinery. Many historians note that cruel labor practices had long existed before the 19th century, but were brought to light due to increased numbers entering the workforce during the industrial revolution.
Of course, wool can be spun into yarns of almost any desired thickness by spinning single strands of yarn together in a process called plying. A single ply yarn is typically very thin, and often used for lacemaking; a double ply yarn consists of two strands spun together and is thicker and often used for socks or baby clothes; three ply yarn consists of three strands spun together, and so on. In yarn spinning, somewhat confusingly, the “weight” of a yarn actually refers to its thickness, rather than the absolute weight by volume of a bundle of yarn and is sometimes measured in “ply.” (Although another key difference between today’s Aran yarns and the yarns used a century ago is also the absolute weight by volume.)
However, there appears to be little global standardization for yarn ply, and a yarn that might be referred to by its ply number in Australia might be called “chunky” in the UK and “bulky” in the US. The higher the ply, though, the thicker the yarn, and although the corresponding UK and US terms may not be as technical, descriptors ranging from “super fine” to “super bulky” clearly indicate yarn thickness. Generally, yarn used for machine knitting is medium to low weight and more evenly spun than yarns used by hand knitters and hobbyists—of course, virtually all types of yarn can be used for hand knitting. These days, the vast majority of Aran sweaters are knit using a medium weight yarn designed to machine specifications. But Donegal Yarns still produces some thick, three-ply yarns that they sell to hand knitters.
“A typical Aran yarn, like our Irish Heather Yarn for example, weighs 150 grams per meter, which is about 18 to 20 percent heavier than a typical commercial knitting yarn,” Weiniger says. “But the yarn has been refined over a number of years as consumer demand has changed to want softer yarns. Originally, you used to calculate one kilo for a garment, for a typical Aran sweater. But that’s very heavy, and today people are now looking for that Aran look without the weight.”
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Come back next week for a comprehensive guide on Aran sweater knitting, including a guide to knit pattern meanings, as well as how to tell the difference between machine knit and hand-knit sweaters. And if you’d like to buy your own Aran sweater, visit ShamrockGift.com for our complete collection.
Click here to read the first entry in our Aran sweater series, all about the origin and rise to international fame of the style.