The Aran Sweater
Originally the jumpers were knitted using unscoured wool that retained its natural oils or lanolin which made the garments water-resistant and meant they remained wearable even when wet. It was primarily the wives of Island fishermen who knitted the jumpers.
Some stitch patterns have a traditional interpretation often of religious significance. The honeycomb is a symbol of the hard-working bee. The cable, an integral part of the fisherman’s daily life, is said to be a wish for safety and good luck when fishing. The diamond is a wish of success wealth and treasure. The basket stitch represents the fisherman’s basket, a hope for a plentiful catch.
Traditionally an Aran jumper is made from undyed cream-coloured báinín (pronounced bawneen), a yarn made from sheep’s wool, sometimes “black-sheep” wool. They were originally made with unwashed wool that still contained natural sheep lanolin, making it to an extent water-repellent. Up to the seventies the island women spun their own yarn on spinning wheels.
The jumper, locally called a geansaí, usually features 4–6 texture patterns each of which is about 2–4 inches in width, that move down the sweater in columns from top to bottom. Usually the patterns are symmetrical to a centre axis extending down the centre of the front and back panel. The patterns also usually extend down the sleeves as well. The same textured knitting are also used to make socks, hats, vests and even skirts.
There is debate about when island residents first started making the jumpers. Some have suggested that the jumper is an ancient design that has been used on the island for hundreds of years. Proponents of this theory often point to a picture in the Book of Kells that appears to depict an ancient “Aran jumper”. Also many megaliths around Europe depict similar patterns as those used in the knitting, which are carved into the stone, and date back several thousand years. However it is more likely that the knitting stitches were modeled on these than that they evolved contemporaneously.
Most historians agree that far from being an ancient craft, aran knitting was invented as recently as the early 1900’s by a small group of enterprising island women, with the intention of creating garments not just for their families to wear but which could be sold as a source of income.
The first Aran knitting patterns were published in the 1940s by Patons of England after being supplied by Ó Máille’s shop in Galway. Ó Máille’s was also responsible for most of the costuming used the filming of The Quiet Man in 1951. Vogue magazine carried articles on the garment in the 1950s, and jumper exports from the west of Ireland to the United States began in the early 1950s.
The development of the export trade during the 1950’s and 1960’s took place after P.A. Ó Síocháin organised an instructor, with the help of an IDA Ireland grant, to go to the islands and teach the knitters how to make garments to standard international sizings. Knitting became an important part of the island’s economy and during the 1960’s, even with all available knitters recruited from the three islands he had difficulty in fulfilling orders from around the world.
Aran jumpers are sometimes sold as a “fisherman sweater”, indicating that the jumper was traditionally used by the islands’ famous fishermen. It is said that each fisherman (or their family) had a jumper with a unique design, so that if he drowned and was found maybe weeks later on the beach, his body could be identified. There is no record of any such event ever taking place.
This misconception may have originated with J.M. Synge’s 1904 play ‘Riders to the Sea’, in which the body of a dead fisherman is identified by the hand-knitted stitches on one of his garments. However, even in the play there is no reference to any decorative or Aran type pattern. The garment referred to is a plain stocking and it is identified by the number of stitches, the quote being “it’s the second one of the third pair I knitted, and I put up three score stitches, and I dropped four of them”.
There is also some doubt about whether Aran jumpers were ever widely used by fishermen and many argue that the original jumpers with their untreated yarn would not have been suitable for this use. They were quite thick and stiff, which would probably restrict the movements of a fisherman. On the other hand these garments were the only form of hardy clothing they had to weather the Atlantic Ocean storms in. Islanders can be seen wearing them in photographs taken early in the last century.
Arising from the myth above is a widely believed misconception that Aran patterns have clan associations, somewhat like Scottish tartan. Although sometimes used as a marketing device, there is no evidence for any such association even among families who lived on the Islands. Only a relatively small number of family names are or were ever found on the Aran Islands and the majority of Irish families have no history of either wearing or knitting jumpers of any particular pattern.
While in the past the majority of jumpers and other Aran garments were knit by hand, today the majority of items on sale in Ireland and elsewhere are either machine knit or produced on a hand loom. There are very few people still knitting jumpers by hand on a commercial basis.
Machine knit jumpers tend to use finer wool and have less complex patterns, since many of the traditional stitches cannot be reproduced this way. They are the least expensive option. Hand looming allows more complicated stitches to be used, will have more stitches to the inch and be thicker. The best quality hand loomed sweaters are almost indistinguishable from hand knit. Hand knit jumpers tend to be more tightly knit, to have more complex stitch patterns and to be longer lasting and they attract a significant price premium. By holding them up to light the difference between the machine knit and hand kits is self-evident.
Wikipedia contributors (2006). Aran Jumper. Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. Retrieved August 23, 2006 from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Aran_sweater