Wool Maker Lane

knitting, spinning and life with alpacas

The Aran Jumper: Myth or legend?

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I recently grasped the opportunity to buy twelve hanks of beautiful Aran wool during a trip to the West of Ireland.   I have been dying to start an aran jumper for some time so when I came across this bargain I just had to dive in.  Having made the purchase I hunted for a pattern and this quest led me down all sorts of avenues…involving a little bit of research on the history of the old Aran.

The Aran jumper originates from the Aran Islands off the West Coast of Ireland.  There appears to be a number of phases in its story though.  During the 19th Century knitters on the Aran Isles were thought to be influenced by traditional guernseys worn by fishermen from England and Scotland which were mainly dark blue in colour.   Indeed the Gaelic word for jumper is geansaí (gansey) which obviously derives from the word Guernsey.  Playwright John Millington Synge took many photographs around the turn of the century during his time there.  One of these shows local men sporting such garments:

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Image of the Aran Islands between l898 and 1902 taken by the playwright John Millington Synge for Weekend Arts

Synge also contributed to some of the myths surrounding Aran sweaters; most notably the one where each family would only knit jumpers using particular stitches or pattern designs.  In one of his plays, Riders to the Sea,  a drowned fisherman could only be identified by the stitches on his gansey.

Another romantic theory was introduced during the 1930’s by a German author  Hans Kiewe.  He  made the argument that all of the stitches had a deeper sacred meaning but more recent research has put this theory into disrepute.

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(This picture of a quay in the Aran Islands, thought to be taken in the 1940’s – 1950’s, shows some young men wearing the familiar white Aran sweaters.)

Ann O’ Dowd, curator at the National Museum of Ireland, believes that the Aran jumper was not worn on the Aran Islands until the 1930’s and 40’s.  A combination of the influence of the fisherman’s guernsey, emigrants returning home with new knitting techniques and the contributions from local knitters all merged over time to bring forth the pullover that we recognise today as an Aran.

Throughout the 1950’s and 60’s Aran Sweaters became very fashionable when celebrities such as Grace Kelly, Marilyn Monroe and Steve McQueen started to wear them.   In fact one traditional Irish music group, Tommy Makem and the Clancy Brothers, always wore them whilst performing thus adding to the garment’s popularity.   As a child myself during the 1970’s I well remember donning a scratchy, heavy Aran made by my friend’s granny from coarse báinín wool.  Its design was fairly simple with symmetrical repeating patterns spanning out from a honeycomb panel in the centre.  Along side the twisted and diamond cables other common stitches used such as moss stitch and blackberry stitch.  Here is an example of an Aran Sweater from this period.

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More recently there has been another shift in the evolution of the Aran Sweater.  Designers, such as Alice Starmore and Carol Feller, have been making the cables more intricate resembling Celtic artwork found in ancient monastic scripts.   These very beautiful garments require an enhanced level of skill and concentration as the patterns don’t seem to repeat so regularly and many are knitted on circular needles.  Nowadays though they are knitted in wool that is softer and lighter on the wearer and also the knitter’s hands.

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I have a lot of thinking to do to decide how traditional or modern I wish to be in choosing a design for my wool.

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Author: woolmakerlane

I live in a small cottage in rural Ireland with my family. We care for two lively alpacas and two sedentary cats. I love all things "textile" but particularly knitting aran patterns and spinning my alpaca's wool.

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