How to knit Aran patterns
When I was a child hand knitted garments were commonplace, from socks, scarves and gloves to cardigans, sweaters and blankets and even swimsuits! You can imagine what they looked like when they were wet - not an appealing sight. Girls as young as five were taught the two basic stitches of knit and purl and with big needles and leftover oddments of thick wool and encouraged to start by knitting a square, the rule of thumb being approximately 20 stitches on the needle and knitting 20 rows . If there was not sufficient wool of one colour to make a square then stripes of a contrasting colour were introduced and the first item created was usually a pram blanket consisting of 12 squares sewn together, three wide and four long and when the young knitters were considered proficient they started to learn the Aran patterns.
On and off the west coast of Ireland where the Aran islands lie and where the Aran patterns originated each family had their own distinctive pattern. This had a twofold purpose - the type of pattern denoted where the family lived and how they earned their living and secondly a more serious purpose. The main livelihood of the islanders and the west coast families was connected to the sea and that area is notorious for the wild Atlantic seas and gales that suddenly blow up.Sadly the sea claimed many lives over the years and the bodies of the unfortunate men may not be found for several days, if at all, and possibly miles from the home place. One way of identifying the body was by the pattern knitted into his sweater or gansey as it was called. Thankfully today far more modern boats and equipment are in use although the currach(the traditional fising boat similar to a coracle) may still be seen in places.
Common features of Aran pattern are cables, honeycombs, zigzag, lobster claw, diamond and a pattern that is usually called blackberry or bramble pattern, for it looks like a blackberry, but was always known in Ireland as trinity stitch because on one row you knitted three times into one stitch and on the next but one row those three stitches were knitted together - hence the Trinity - three in one and one in three and virtually every family incorporated this stitch into the family pattern. The zigzag told that your home was at the top of the cliff path, the honeycomb that you kept bees and the cables and lobster claw denoted a fishing family.
Alot of would be Aran knitters are put off today when confronted by a printed pattern for it looks so very complicated. The trick is to break it down into pattern blocks rather than rows. Most patterns, especially cables and honeycomb involve the use of a cable needle which is a short needle approximately 5 inches long which is pointed at both ends and is very easy to use. The background of the garment i.e that is the part not patterned can be knitted in reverse stocking stitch which is purl stitch on the first and alternate rows and knit on the second which gives the appearance of stocking stitch on the reverse and plain knit on the front. Cables and diamon ds are always knitted in the stocking stitch. Cables are created by taking a block of even number stitches , I would suggest 10 to start with, and then when you come to this block and with the right side of the work facing you purl the 1st stitch of the block then knit 8 and purl 1. Do this for 4 rows (do not forget to reverse the 2 border stitches of the block - knit 1 purl 8 knit 1). On the 5th row purl the 1st of the block then slip the next 4 stitches on the cable needle and leave them to the front of the work and knit the next 4 stitches then knit the 4 from the cable needle and then purl the last stitch.Continue to row 9 then reverse the procedure - instead of leaving the 4 stitches to the front of your work leave them to the back, carry on doing this and you will see the cable emerging. The cable and its many variations is the basis of Aran knitting and the reverse stocking stitch of either side of the pattern block is to make the pattern stand out. I would suggest that anyone wishing to try Aran knitting should experiment with the cable pattern first by altering the number of rows between making the crossover and then perhaps trying to make a scarf using very chunky wool and very thick needles. Three cables could be incorporated into the design using the method above. You will be surprised how quickly your handiwork will grow.
When the knitter feels ready to follow a printed pattern I find that the easiest way is to mark the pattern blocks . This is not as complicated as it sounds because between each pattern block will be a small strip if reverse stocking stitch, find these and you have found your pattern blocks. There are many patterns that use only 4 rows to the pattern and the result is a garment that looks very intricate and classic. Traditionally the wool used was oiled wool called bainin in the cream colour that is usually associated with Aran garments but today there is a huge choice of wools and a whole spectrum of colours. The fashion pages of the current magazines are full of hand knit garments featuring the Aran patterns, especially the cable, and are priced accordingly.There is a great sense of satisfaction in creating your own garments, knowing that they are unique and a sign of time well spent and cost a fraction of the boutique prices but be warned - if you once start knitting Aran it can become addictive!