HISTORY PROJECT: The Legend of the Aran Sweater

Jean Seberg Aran Fishermans Sweater

I know, I know. There is already SO MUCH out there about Aran sweaters. There is, for example, a fantastic slideshow and timeline of the rise of this famous knitting style. There are articles about its morbid history as an identifier of drowned sailors; articles debunking that history as pure fiction; articles explicating the stitch motifs, like hieroglyphs, according to their folk meanings; articles upholding the sweater as symbolic of both national identity and transnational migration. Regardless of the angle, it is clear in all of these instances that the Aran sweater (also called a fisherman sweater*) is much more than just clothing: it is a legend.

As a scholar, I want to understand this legend. As a knitter, I want to be part of it. This week’s post is my effort to do both. Wading through the myriad definitions, explanations, and myths, it became clear that in order to understand the Aran’s mystique, we need to consider its historical and literary roots.

We call these complex cabled sweaters “Aran” because they originated in the Aran Islands off the Western coast of Ireland (an island group of three:  Inisheer, Inishmaan, Inishmore). Made from the cream-colored wool of rugged coastal sheep, they were intended to keep fisherman warm and dry while seafaring. This wool, known as baínín (pronounced “bawneen”), was minimally processed so as to maintain its high lanolin content. The lanolin (read: sheep grease) contributed to the resulting garment’s water-resistance.

In addition to its raw material, the sweater’s production technique was also intended to add warmth: the 3-dimensional pockets created by the complex stitch patterns and thick cables made the sweaters an effective insulator. So the Aran style is functional as well as beautiful.***

It is also mythical—there’s a widespread belief that each family on the islands developed its own unique pattern of stitches and cables and that this pattern served a practical (if morbid) function in identifying the bodies of drowned sailors. This notion of a distinct familial Aran pattern so entranced Bridget Haggerty that she traveled to the islands in search of her own family’s sweater. She was sorely disappointed to learn the truth: there is no such tradition.

Riders to the Sea by JM Synge at the Abbey Theatre in 1906
Female cast of Riders to the Sea at the Abbey Theatre, Dublin, in 1906

The roots of this influential myth probably lie in Irish writer J.M. Synge’s (1871–1909) 1904 play Riders to the Sea. In Synge’s play, the female characters do identify a drowned male relative by examining his knitwear, but it is not the design of a sweater that gives him away—it’s several dropped stitches in a sock. Nora, the youngest sister, had knitted stockings for her brother Michael and recognizes her telltale mistake right away:

NORA: It's the second one of the third pair I 
knitted, and I put up three score stitches, and 
I dropped four of them. 

CATHLEEN (counts the stitches): 
It's that number is in it (crying out.} 
Ah, Nora, isn't it a bitter thing to think of 
him floating that way to the far north, and 
no one to keen him but the black hags that do 
be flying on the sea? 

NORA: (Swinging herself round, and throw- 
ing out her arms on the clothes.) 
And isn't it a pitiful thing when there is 
nothing left of a man who was a great rower 
and fisher, but a bit of an old shirt and a plain 

Aaaaand now I’m *CRYING* — dropping stitches is always a sad affair, but this takes it to a whole new level.

But anyway, there we have it: the literary-theatrical seed that grew into Aran knitting’s corpse-identifying reputation. All of this is not to downplay the creativity of the women knitting these sweaters, of course. They did mix and match different motifs to create unique designs, and they did so with unimaginable levels of technical skill. But they did not devise such a “pitiful thing” as a family style by which to claim lost relatives.

Not only is the identificatory function a myth, but so is the idea that the sweaters express an ancient Irish culture. They are, in fact, a marker of modernity. Emerging at the turn of the 20th century (which is relatively recent in the grand scheme of things), they were part of a marketing campaign to sell the folksy charm of Old World islanders to a newly mobile global audience. Seeking new forms of income, Aran women were encouraged by the Congested Districts Board to sell knitted wares in order to bolster a farming and fishing economy that was waning in the face of globalization. Irish country stores began marketing the signature Aran sweaters in the 1930s; British knitting company Patons launched their first Aran pattern in the 1940s; and Vogue brought the tradition to the U.S. with their first Aran pattern in the 1950s.

The rest, as they say, is history. The style caught on with Hollywood stars in the 1950s and 60s and hasn’t let up since:

While the Aran tradition may not be quite what the legend suggests, it is nonetheless a provocative history. It reminds us that the “ancient” traditions that we perpetuate in our own crafting have almost always been intertwined with notions of the “modern,” as traditional techniques are subject to (and even created by) the forces of industry, economic development, and cross-cultural exchange.

So now, with full knowledge of both the facts and the fictions behind the Aran sweater, I of course want to cast on my own. And with the family myth dispelled, I feel like I have license to put my own spin on it. More specifically, I feel like I have permission to knit a pattern that is slightly afield of the classic Aran style (and slightly simpler) but still contains key elements of that island tradition.

Brooklyn Tweed's Bellows Cardigan by Michele WangBrooklyn Tweed’s Bellows Cardigan – Ravelry.com

Thus, I embark on the Bellows cardigan, by Michele Wang for Brooklyn Tweed. I first saw this sweater on Karen Templer’s Fringe Association, and I’ve been lusting after it ever since. Keep an eye here for the finished product (hopefully soon—I hear this is a quick knit!) and for my rundown of the knitting experience. Knowing me, I’ll drop a stitch or two somewhere in there, but hopefully you won’t discover that by fishing me out of the North Atlantic!

*Also called a “gansey,” although that name tends to designate a broader tradition of British and Irish sweaters, often with only the top half in cable-knit, and not specific to the Aran islands. (See Brooklyn Tweed’s new collection of ganseys for some lovely modern examples.)
**To promote it, J.Crew published this great post by Jeremy Lewis of Garmento Magazine.
***In the 21st century, of course, the islands are no longer full of wool-bearing sheep and hand-knitting women. So sweaters you find in Ireland today are more likely machine-knit from imported wool. This is a familiar story to anyone who follows the debates surrounding heritage certification for food, craft, etc. 


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