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Aran Sweaters: Myths, Legends, and Facts About Irish Knitwear

Updated on April 16, 2018
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Melanie has been interested in cultures, languages, and travel since her youth. She loves adventures and continues to explore new places.

The wide multi-cable stitch is one of the most complex types of stitches found in Aran sweaters
The wide multi-cable stitch is one of the most complex types of stitches found in Aran sweaters

Aran sweaters (or 'Geansaí Árann' in Gaelic) are a huge part of Irish heritage, particularly in the Aran Islands where the sweaters originate. This small chain of rocky islands is located off the western coast of Ireland in County Galway.

The Aran islands have been home to communities of fishermen for centuries and it was they who first wore these sweaters. While the men of the Aran islands fished, their wives wove these beautiful cream-colored sweaters to protect them from the bitter cold of the Atlantic.

The famous cable-patterned sweaters have their own heritage and history which includes a number of tales and legends that have been spun (pun intended) around their usage.

Inisheer ('Inis Orr' in Gaelic) is the easternmost of the Aran Islands.
Inisheer ('Inis Orr' in Gaelic) is the easternmost of the Aran Islands. | Source

How Aran Sweaters Are Made

Aran sweaters were first knitted from wool that had been left unscoured. Because of this, the wool retained its natural oils which allowed the sweaters to repel water, keeping the fishermen dry.

Today, many of these sweaters are machine-made, but the handmade Aran sweaters can still be purchased, although they cost considerably more. Machine-made sweaters are noticeably different as they are often made from finer wool and have significantly less complex patterns. This is because machines cannot reproduce many of the intricate stitches that are seen in Aran sweaters knitted by hand.

The cliffs of south Inis Mein
The cliffs of south Inis Mein | Source

What the Patterns Mean

There are many legends surrounding the cable-knit pattern of the Aran sweaters. Many of the patterns have a meaning based on Irish tradition, such as the honeycomb pattern which is said to be a symbol of a bee who is a hard worker.

Another traditional meaning that is incorporated into the sweater design is the cable design as fishermen work with ropes. This is said to be a wish of safety for the hard-working fisherman. Knit sweaters with a diamond design are said to bring wealth as this is a symbol of the basket of a fisherman.

Perhaps the most interesting legend behind the design of Aran sweaters is that each family had their own pattern stitched into the sweaters. As fishing in the stormy Atlantic was often dangerous work, if a fisherman had been lost at sea, he could be identified by the design on his sweater. While the idea of identifying a fisherman by his sweater is a fascinating story full of intrigue, it is actually a myth! This myth likely derives from John Millington Synge's play, "Riders to the Sea."

This legend may also have its origins in marketing with the purpose of creating an almost mystical feel surrounding the sweaters in order to sell more sweaters. In the spirit of marketing, these sweaters are often referred to as fishermen's sweaters to further drive the point home that Aran sweaters were worn by fishermen.

An Atlantic storm off the western coast of Ireland
An Atlantic storm off the western coast of Ireland | Source

The Origin of Aran Knitwear

Aran sweaters almost feel as if they had been an integral part of Irish history for hundreds of years worn by the men who fished the turbulent waters off the Irish coast. However, many historians agree that these sweaters most likely have more recent origins -- only dating back to the early 1900s.

The sweaters were not only knitted by women to keep their husbands warm, but were also made for sale so that the islanders could bring in more money. That said, there is no doubt that before the islanders started making what are today known as Aran sweaters, they made a similar type of sweater. Patterns similar to those used in Aran sweaters have been found on Irish megaliths as well as in pictures found in the Book of Kells.

Meanings of the Stitches

There are a variety of stitches used in Aran sweaters. Despite the knit style not having a family tie, the stitches themselves are said to have meaning.

The cable stitch, for example, is representative of a fisherman's ropes. As the cable knit is the most common stitch on an Aran sweater, it's easy to see the ties to the sea. While cabling is one of the least difficult stitches on this knitwear, it can quickly become intricate when it is used alongside other stitches.

The zig-zag stitch which is one of the more recognizable stitches is said to symbolize marriage.

The diamond stitch resembles the fishing nets you may see around the islands. However, the stitch actually represents the fields which bring wealth and success in the form of a bountiful harvest to the people of the islands.

© 2011 Melanie Shebel

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    • SallyTX profile image

      Sally Branche 

      4 years ago from Only In Texas!

      Fascinating history nicely presented! Voted up and interesting! ;D

    • profile image

      Kate 

      7 years ago

      Did you know that most women knitters made intentional mistakes in their knitting, so that if a body was recovered after a sea accident, they would be able to identify the body more easy.

    • profile image

      karolg 

      7 years ago

      I thought the fisherman themselves were the original knitters

    • livelonger profile image

      Jason Menayan 

      8 years ago from San Francisco

      Thank you for the history behind this beautiful item of clothing.

    • Hello, hello, profile image

      Hello, hello, 

      8 years ago from London, UK

      That is a wonderful and I enjoyed reading it. Thank you.

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