The Aran sweater has become an internationally recognisable symbol of Ireland and the Aran Islands. The average sweater is made up of approximately 100,000 stitches and can take up to 60 hours to knit. The complex technique and arithmetic can take years to learn.
The classical fisherman’s sweater is a bulky garment with prominent cable patterns on the chest, often cream-colored. It is both stylish and functional, designed to keep the fishermen warm and dry, allowing easy movement so he can get on with his work. This design works as well for fashion concious people who want to keep the Atlantic elements at bay!
The Aran Sweater gets its roots from the early Celts, who wove the coarse woollen blankets, crudely fashioned to provide warmth and shelter against the harsh elements. By the first century AD, heavy woollen garments with natural oils were knitted using primitive needles. Many Aran patterns can be found on ancient Celtic stones and crosses and also on their jewellery.
The intricate stitch patterns were there for a reason – to provide extra insulation from the cold winds. Also their tight stitching helps the water run off the sweater – it can absorb 30% of its weight in water before feeling wet. And it draws water vapour away from the body keeping the wearer warm and dry.
Every stitch signifies something special and unique, symbolising the fishermen’s daily lives. Each family clan developed their own combinations of stitches and patterns. Sadly, all too often, drowned fishermen’s bodies were washed ashore and would be identified by the patterns of their family’s sweater. Here are three of the most popular stitches:
The Cable Stitch represents a fisherman’s rope and is said to give the fisherman a more fruitful outing on the ocean.
The Zig Zag Stitch represents the lows and highs of a marriage and in parallel the winding cliff paths that you simply can see around the island.
The Diamond Stitch signifies the little fields on the Aran Island that were worked by the nearby fisherman. This stitch is utilized in hopes of good luck, achievement and wealth in the fields of the Aran Islands.
Over 100 years ago, knitting was seen to be commercially viable and the first organised knitting industry was established. From humble beginnings, the Aran Island Sweater Market on Inis Mor has grown into one of the most successful craft industries in the world. It has contributed significantly to the economies of the three Aran Islands, Inis Mor, Inis Meain and Inis Oirr.
Along with the practical quality of Aran clothing the islanders always had a sense of style.
The Inis Meain Knitting Company has taken the traditional styles a luxurious step further, and their designs are a staple favourite of international fashion houses.
Each Aran sweater is a work of art, knitted by experts and carefully crafted to last a lifetime, a timeless reminder of an island and an art form quite like nothing else.