Last post, we left off with quite the cliffhanger. What happened when the Gansey went north??
Relax. I’ll tell you.
It morphed into the Aran sweater.
The Aran sweater takes its name from the Aran Islands, off the West coast of Ireland. Nobody is quite sure when, but most historians think it was invented in the early 1900s by a small group of island women who adapted the gansey by using thicker wool and adding their own patterns to represent local traditions.
Traditionally made from undyed, unwashed wool, their designs are based off a central axis of symmetry, with patterns extending down the sleeves and body (as opposed to the plain sleeves of the Gansey).
Aran sweaters came to the United States from the west of Ireland beginning in the early 1950s. Under the organization of Paddy Ó Síocháin (I know, right?!) exports took off in the 1950s and 60s. He hired an instructor with a grant from the Congested Districts Board for Ireland to teach knitters how to make Aran sweaters in standard sizes, and knitting soon became a significant part of the Aran Islands’ economy.
It’s romantic to think that, with all their symbols and with their Irish roots, these sweaters are the yarn equivalent of an old Irish granny, full of lore and Emerald Isle magic.
Marketers know this, so they’ve claimed that the stitches and patterns were handed down from generation to generation, and that drowned fishermen were often identified by these clan patterns. Anyone with access to Google will find that’s not quite true, but why suck the fun out of everything!
Many of the stitches seem to be modeled on neolithic burial sites and, famously, on designs in the Book of Kells. These patterns have picked up some fun symbolic meanings over the years. Cables are intended to mimic, funnily enough, fisherman’s cables, representing a fruitful day at sea.
Diamonds reflect the small fields on the Aran Islands. The diamonds are often filled with the Irish moss stitch, which depicts the seaweed used as fertilizer to secure a good harvest. Together, they represent a wish for success, wealth, and finding a diamond mine in your vegetable patch.
The zig-zags are the winding paths along the cliffs of the islands, while the Tree of Life represents hopes of family unity and long lives.
Basket stitches represent the fisherman’s basket for a good catch.
Finally, the honeycomb stitch is a tribute to the bee, representing hard work. Since Aran sweaters have around 100,000 stitches, the honeycomb is a fitting addition.
Next, we’ll explore the world of crochet traditions!
Irish Culture and Customs has a post by a woman who went to the Aran Isles to seek out her family pattern and unravel some of the history of the sweaters.
Aran Sweater Market has a catalogue full of patterns and kits. Bonus: if you have Irish ancestors, you can pick a pattern supposedly associated with your clan! If not, Colin Farrell’s clan pattern is pretty lovely, so just pretend you’re related to him.