Your new Aran sweater is probably not as old as you might think. The first known example of Aran knitting appeared outside of Ireland in the 1930s. By the end of the nineteenth century, knitting was well established on the Irish west coast islands as a source of income. But it was mainly for domestic use, for family.
The British Government set up the Congestive Districts Board to look after the welfare of the islanders and established knitting as a commercially viable Industry. Necessity became a croft hobby, which grew into a nationalized cottage industry, which is now a global industry.
The shortage of knitters has made authentic Aran sweaters (Gaelic “geansai”) highly sought-after luxury items. Rosemary Faherty is one of the few professional knitters on the Aran Islands. “I can trace my ancestry back to 1798. I come from a long line of artisans. From basket weavers, cross and gravestone carvers, thatchers, dressmakers, raw cowhide shoemakers), and crios cord belt weavers. Knitting is passed down from one generation to the next, or it was!
“I can remember as a child washing, brushing, and spinning the wool and watching my grandmother and mothers knitting, each combination of stitches unique to each knitter.”
Rosemary lives on Inishmore, the largest of three Aran islands off the coast of Galway in West Ireland. The other islands are Inisheer and Inishmaan. Her white-walled cottage shop in the village of Kilmurvey is called Antuirne (Spinning Wheel). Her business is called Aran Islands Sweaters. She knits on commission and for relaxation.
The stitches that create Aran knitting patterns are complex, and the knitted goods are time-consuming to make. One sweater may entail 100,000 stitches and take 2-3 months to knit. A simple, bespoke hand-knit sweater starts at $300.
The Book of Kells makes references to elaborately designed garments similar to the Aran Sweater. Initially, the jumpers were knitted with unscoured wool that retained its natural lanolin, which made them wearable when wet. A traditional Aran jumper is made from undyed cream-colored “bainin” sheep’s wool. Up to the 70s, the yarn was spun on spinning wheels.
Says Dom Byrne of Dublin’s famous “Sweater Shop“: “It’s likely that merino wool has been present in Ireland since the height of Spain’s sheep trade in the 16th century. It’s substantially softer than lambs’ wool and naturally water-wicking. softer.”
He opened his famous shop on Nassau Street in 1986. Now he has outlets all around Ireland. Dom sees pros for both hand-knit and machine-knit.
“Hand-knit Aran sweaters are, without a doubt, the warmest option. Because human hands aren’t as strong as machines, they can’t pull the wool as tight. This means that hand-knit sweaters require more wool to make. The greater amount of wool makes hand-knit sweaters significantly heavier than machine-knits, and thus warmer. You can tell an Aran sweater was hand-knit if it features the blackberry stitch, which machines can’t produce.
“While hand-knits typically come in a handful of styles and 3-4 color options, machine-knit Aran sweaters come in hundreds of different styles and color combinations.”
Some of Byrne’s Aran sweaters are made in Donegal, Dublin, and Kildare. He recommends hand-washing in cool water and laying flat to dry. Machine-knit sweaters tend to use finer wool and less complex patterns. Hand looming allows more complicated stitching. Hand-knit sweaters are longer lasting.
The original Irish Fisherman’s sweater was boxy with saddle sleeves. Now you can get Irish roll necks, grandfather cardigans, wool wraps, scarves, throws, shawls and funnel necks,
An Aran sweater is water repellent, absorbing 30% of its weight in water before feeling wet. Wool has an excellent insulating capacity due to the high volume of air. The three-dimensional effect of the twisted stitches also increased warmth lo by creating air pockets.
According to “The Sacred History of Knitting,” written by Heinz Edgar Kiewe, who ran a yarn shop in Oxford, certain stitches gave specific meanings. The Cable Stitch is a depiction of the Fisherman’s ropes. The Diamond Stitch reflects the small fields of the islands. Diamonds are sometimes filled with Irish moss stitch, depicting the seaweed that was used to fertilize the barren fields and produce a good harvest.
The Zig Zag or Mraige Lines Stitch, a half diamond, represents the twisting cliff paths on the islands. The moss to Carrageen moss found on clifftops; much traditional stitchwork has a spiritual meaning, such as Jacob’s Ladder, which represents how the Islands worked together.
The Ox Diamond patterns might represent the fishing nets. Zigzag stitches, as Marriage Lines, can be used to describe the typical highs and low of matrimony and marriage life. A honeycomb pattern, signifying the bee, is often used to represent hard work and its rewards. The Trellis stitch recalls the stone-walled fields of the North-west Irish farming communities.
Dom Byrne has the last word about whether a machine or hand-knit is best. “Why don’t you have one of each?”