WOOL Aran Jumper

The Aran jumper is a beautiful example of the rich and varied history of Ireland. The wool used for the traditional woollen jumper on the Aran Islands is a scourged wool. Scourged wool is simply the process of taking the wool straight off the sheep and giving it a treatmeant to prepare it for use in wool items. The method of preperation traditionally was as simple as a bath in warm water and in more recent times a complicated process involving detergent and alkali in specialized industral equipment. It did not take out the lanolin, so valuable for its waterproofing.

“Wool straight off a sheep, known as ‘greasy wool’ or ‘wool in the grease’, contains a high level of valuable lanolin, as well as the sheep's dead skin and sweat residue, and generally also contains pesticides and vegetable matter from the animal's environment.”

 The Jumper that captured the heart of the people

The Aran knit jumper (Irish: Geansaí Árann) has undeniably given weight to the beauty and history of these enchanting islands and even for Ireland as a whole. The world over has fallen in love with the Aran Sweater and it’s easy to see why. {Photo Credit: Lisa Dusseault }

“Aran jumpers have long been a highly recognisable symbol abroad of the romanticism of Irish rural life and Irish folk art. The jumpers became particularly popular from the 1950s onwards when they began to be exported in their thousands from Ireland to shops in America, Europe and Japan.”

Clodagh Doyle, curator at the National Museum of Ireland – Country Life

The idea of very stitch having a story is said to have began from a combination of a book written in 1967 by Kiewe ‘The Sacred History of Knitting’, which was more of a fictional story than an actual historical document and J.M. Synge’s play ‘Riders to the Sea’, in which the body of a dead islander is identified by the hand-knitted stitches on one of his garments. (also a fictional story)

Although these are both misconceptions that may have fueled the idea of a particular stitch having meaning over the years it has well and truly taken on a life of it’s own as there are now many different interpretations of the stitches. The attention to and draw of the jumper and it’s folklore has surpassed many generations. Included below is a list describing some these interpretations:

A story in the stitches

Many have said that the original meanings of the Aran stitches can be traced back to a book titled: Sacred History of Knitting. This was an entirely fabricated book written by Heinz Edgar Kiewe. The best work on the history of Aran is a book by Alice Starmore, who picked though all this fog of made up stuff and got to the truth in her book, Aran Knitting.

“Kiewe, a self-styled 'textile journalist' who ran a yarn shop in Oxford, purchased one of the first Aran-style sweaters and, noting a chance similarity between the patterns and ancient Irish illuminated manuscripts, began describing the stitchwork in these terms.

Before long, his fanciful descriptions were being used to market the sweater abroad, particularly within the Irish Diaspora in the United States, and it became an accepted part of the sweater's lore that the knitting patterns were developed in ancient times, that each stitch pattern had an associated, usually Christian meaning, and that each family on the Aran Islands had its own clan Aran.

However, actual historical documentation, including some of the oldest photography shot in Ireland, are at odds with this mythology.” (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Aran_knitting_patterns) .

Whatever you believe about the origin of the Aran Island stitches and their meaning, it has undeniably been a source of inspiration for people around the world. We have fallen in love with the idea that each sweater and its carefully constructed pattern represents a history of folklore, legends and heroes.

Interpretations of stitches:

Cable stitch

The cable stitch, which is the most common type of stitch seen on Aran sweaters, is said to represent a fisherman’s ropes. There are many different type of cable stitches. The technique for cabling, which involves crossing one stitch over another is one of the easier stitches.

The row on which the stitches crossed over each other is known as the turning row. After the turning row, several plain rows are worked, followed by another turning row. Standard cables have the same number of plain rows between turning rows as there are stitches in the cable.

Diamond stitch

The diamond stitch supposedly symbolises the small fields on the islands. These fields were worked intensively by local farmers, and this stitch may be said to represent hopes of good luck, success and wealth in farming on the Aran Islands.[9] Diamond patterns might also represent the fishing nets.

Zig Zag stitch

Zig zag stitches, sometimes known as Marriage Lines, can be used to represent the typical highs and low of matrimony and marriage life. They are may also be used to represent the twisting cliff paths that are on the islands.

Honeycomb stitch

In Aran knitting patterns the honeycomb stitch, signifying the bee, is often used to represent both hard work and its rewards. The honeycomb stitch may be included as a symbol of good luck, signifying plenty.

 When only one repetition of the pattern is used, the honeycomb stitch is also known as the Chain Cable.

 Trellis stitch

Trellis stitch recalls the stone-walled fields of the Northwestern farming communities, in the upland areas in Ireland where rock outcrops naturally or large stones exist in quantity in the soil such as in the Aran Islands. The stitch is useful for adding dimension, and might be used as a symbol of protection.

 Tree of Life stitch

The Tree of Life stitch is frequently used as a motif of rites of passage, and of the importance of family. It is sometimes given a religious significance, symbolising a pilgrims path to salvation. This stitch is also known as the Trinity stitch.

Anne O’Maille, of O’Maille The Original House of Style, Galway will advise you well both on the knitting, the stitches and the wool to use. https://www.omaille.com/about/history-of-the-aran-sweater/

Then and Now

It is recorded that the first sales of Aran Island Jumpers (outside of the islands themselves) was in Dublin at a store called ‘The Country Shop’ in 1935. Dr. Muriel Gahan, founded the Irish Homespun Society in an effort to preserve some of the country's traditions and had visited the Aran Islands where she came into contact with local knitters. It was then that she began to buy from them to sell back in Dublin.

“During the 1950s, The Princess of Monaco and former Hollywood actress Grace Kelly was pictured in an Aran Jumper while out yachting as was Hollywood ‘King of Cool’ iconic actor Steve McQueen. Demand grew significantly after Vogue published patterns for men’s and women’s Aran Jumpers in 1956. Companies began supplying the island with Irish wool and gradually built up a network all over western Ireland of knitters producing everything from jumpers, to cardigans and bonnets.”

High Street Fashion and the Aran Jumper

To this day, the Aran Island jumper and many of the woollen items associated with the Islands is a symbol of classic, iconic style across the world. Inis Meáin Knitting Co is a company that is taking the concept of the Aran Islands sweater and giving a modern twist. Says owner Tarlach Deblácan of the idea, “we’re digging into the heritage of the Aran Islands and producing something different.”

Designer Kors told Vogue, "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."

Designer Colin Burke, https://www.brownthomas.com/magazine/issue-10/its-create-2019.html from Galway has recently represented Ireland, with his collection of Aran inspired knitwear, in Japan. His collection of ornate, hand-knitted and hand-crocheted, richly patterned sweaters each taking about 40-50 hours to make, display a masterful control of the craft with their dense, textured surfaces, many with stitches he has created himself.

{Source: https://www.independent.ie/style/fashion/fashion-news/the-aran-jumper-just-got-a-stylish-new-makeover-and-heres-how-you-can-wear-it-35536708.html}

An Icon here to stay

The history and heritage of the Aran Islands woollen garment may have had humble beginnings. As the traditional islanders pass down their skills through the generations, crafting out of raw materials and hard work they have left a legacy that goes on through out the world and is still very recognized and respected today.


Their memory lives on in my mind:

White bawneen coats and gleaming shirts,

Blue shirts and grey waistcoats,

Trousers and drawers of homespun tweed

That old and honoured men used to wear

As they went to Mass on Sunday morning

Making the long journey by foot,

When I was young they turned my thoughts

To purity, freshness, and also to piety.

Their memory lives on in my mind:

Long stately skirts coloured crimson,

Blue skirts that were dyed with indigo,

Heavy shawls down from Galway,

That neat and well-dressed women used to wear

As they went to Mass in the selfsame manner;

And though they’re rapidly going out of fashion

Their memory lives on in my mind

And will still live on till I go to the graveyard.

Máirtín Ó Direáin, Inis Meáin (1910-1988)