The Irish Aran Sweater

knitting.jpg The Irish Aran sweater carries with it a very interesting story.  Partially myth, but mostly true, you can’t help but be intrigued by how Irish Aran sweaters became popular.  Further, you’ve definitely seen these examples of folk art everywhere.  On a trip to Ireland , you’ll notice them in all the tourist shops.   If you’re going to find the origin, though, you’ll need to visit the Aran Islands during your tour of Ireland .

Off of the Galway coast, the Aran Islands are actually composed of three islands, Inisheer, Inishmaan, Inishmore.   The Irish Aran sweater isn’t what they’re famous for.   The island is mostly comprised of rock.  To make use of the land underneath, islanders created stone fences, miles and miles of them, actually.  At only 9 miles by 3 miles you can imagine how much stone the island must have been comprised of for such intricate fences to be made.  The Irish weather can also be atrocious.  While it never frosts or fries, there is always a breeze.   A nice warm Irish Aran sweater can easily take out the chill.

As for industry of the island, don’t guess Irish Aran sweaters, because you’d be wrong.  Until about 1920, there weren’t any Irish Aran sweaters being worn.  In fact, the islanders had to be self sustaining.  There was very little contact with the outside world.  To make their hard ships clear, you may note plumbing and electric didn’t come to the island until the 1960s.  So, besides growing all their own food, islanders actually knit their own socks.  Over the years, Aran knitters became very proficient with stitches.

Irish Aran sweaters may have started out as communion gifts.  They were to be knit meticulously as they represented the family .  Irish Aran sweaters may have been worn on Sundays to church, too.  There are rumors that women would knit the sweaters in a great variety of stitches in order to impress the man they wanted to marry.   Knitting him a sweater showed the man a woman was prepared to be a good wife (one of our Romantic Ireland stories ).  We wonder what happened when the woman spent months perfecting her Irish Aran sweater for a very large man only to be turned down?  Did she reserve the right to smother him with it?  There’s no history on that …

A myth about the Irish Aran sweaters suggests when a sailor was lost at sea, his family could recognize him from just one dropped stitch in his sweater pattern as it represented their familial clan .   This isn’t believed to be true, that Irish Aran sweaters are like the kilt tartan patterns , which represent familial clans, but the Aran sweater was probably used to identify sailors lost at sea due to them being knitted uniquely for them.

The truth is that small island communities with no industry needed some way to generate income.  Enter Dr. Muriel Gahan, who sold the first Irish Aran sweater in 1935 at her Irish craft shop in Dublin.  Over the years, Irish Aran sweaters have grown tremendously in popularity.   The variety of stitches carry charming names.  There are literally hundreds of combinations that can be used to produce a Irish Aran sweater design.

The traditional Irish Aran sweater needs two things.  It has to be made of untreated wool, since the sheep’s wool had natural oils to protect it from the weather.  Second, an Irish Aran sweater should use authentic stitches, like the blackberry and honeycomb.   If those two elements exist, you’ll be warm and happy in an authentic Irish Aran sweater… unless your true love smothers you with it.


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