As the weather gets chillier and we start to add layer upon layer of jumpers, I take a look at the tales and people behind one of the worlds most iconic woolen jumpers from the Aran Islands. Since its original existence and use, the Aran sweater has become a symbol of Irish heritage.
The Aran Islands are set off the west coast of Ireland at Galway Bay. The Atlantic weather is relentless with cold Atlantic gusts making life hard bearing, isolated but beautiful. The islands were self sufficient lands where fishing and farming were peoples’ livelihoods. Rearing sheep for wool and food was a large part of it.
The Aran jumper was used by the local people for generations. Wool is a naturally water-repellent material, with the jumper absorbing 30% of moisture before feeling wet. It is thick, full of natural oils, comfortable, and can be layered in the cold.
From its origins, the Aran jumper has been linked to local clans, with designs differing for each clan. Knitting became an all encompassing activity for women on the island, and each jumper could take up to 50 hours to knit. The jumpers were unique, with families often using different combinations of stitches. Supposedly this was also helpful if a fisherman became lost at sea, as the stitch pattern could be used to identify the body. A harsh reminder of the hardship on the islands.
It is said that the jumpers reflected the existence, hopes and losses of the islanders. The different knitted symbols tell a story and can be read by anyone who might know them. These stitches held unique meanings that represented the islanders’ lives and the land. An amazing compilation of these historic clan patterns can be found on the Aran Islands themselves.
The patterns follow combinations, dependant on the clan:
The cable stitch shows a Fishermans rope, and hopes for a fruitful day at sea.
The diamond stitch represents the small fields on the island, divided by stone walls. These are sometimes filled with the Irish moss stitch, which depicts the seaweed that was spread on the fields.
The zig-zag stitch, a half diamond, expresses the winding cliff paths on the island.
The tree of life was one of the first stitches, and is unique to the earliest knitwear.
The Aran jumper gained big popularity in the 20th century when it caught the eye of celebrities such as Grace Kelly and Steve Mc Queen. The first commercially available Aran jumper was available in the 1940s and their demand became huge. The islanders channeled their skills to an industry standard, with sizing and regular patterns. Although most are now made on machines, the designs are mostly unchanged and still carry their meanings and spirit.
These tales of the stitch patterns are sometimes called out as myths. But, these jumpers have been around for generations so are bound to have meanings attached.
Also, tales and magic are part of the Irish tradition both in oral and the written language. My father once told me to never let the truth get in the way of a good tale.