Wool Maker Lane

knitting, spinning and life with alpacas


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The Aran Jumper: Myth or legend?

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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Autumnal Furrows

As the weeks get closer towards Hallowe’en the days seem to get busier and busier.   During the past week I had the joy of receiving three wonderful books two of which were knitting related.  Every spare moment I have had my nose in one of them seeking inspiration, or simply to improve my practice as a craftsperson.

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One of the books, Projects for Each Month of the Year,  is a small one by Elizabeth Zimmerman and was first published in 1974.  It is such fun.  She wrote this book in a very matter of fact way and to read it is like sitting down and having a chat about knitting with your favourite aunty.  I find such pearls of wisdom jumping off the page e.g. if you want to do a patterned swatch for a jumper why not elongate  your swatch and just turn it into a hat.  There is also a section about aran jumpers which I rather like.  There are ‘patterns’ within the book but not as we expect to see patterns nowadays as they are embedded within the text and accompanied by rudimentary graphwork.  The most comical pattern though is for ‘nether garments’ and you have to see them to believe them.  I guess they are basically knitted long johns but they resemble the leg wear of the gents you’d see prancing about in a Bruegel painting.  All in all it’s a lovely lovely book that I really have enjoyed.

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The next book that I had the privilege of acquiring this week is Wild Color by Jenny Dean.  I could quite happily pore over this book for hours.  I have to say that I no longer look at plants and trees in the same way.  I just keep asking the question “I wonder what possibilities there are if I were to use that to dye with?”  I realise now that while I was sitting around all summer trying to locate alum as a mordant I could have used the many rhubarb leaves in the garden instead.  I am delighted that I have so many plants all around my house that should be perfect for dyeing use and so I can’t wait to get started.

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This is where my hectic schedule and my lack of undyed wool gets in the way.  I have two alpaca fleeces yet to spin. I really need to spin them so that I can knit them.  Those of you who know about spinning will be aware that this is weeks/months  worth of work.   I’m also mad to get some more dyeing done (and the more that I read the Jenny Dean book the more enthusiastic I become).  Both of my animal fleeces are dark coloured and no use whatsoever in a dye bath so that leaves me with the dregs of Bert’s fleece which is white.  Yes, I’m afraid that’s what it has come to until I send off to the UK for more undyed wool.  I have spent a couple of evenings carding and spinning Bert’s leftovers into singles.  It’s not been too easy as it’s fairly short and has lots of noils.   I want a 3 ply yarn so I need to do one more bobbin’s worth and then I can dye away…. My new problem will be that I can’t decide what plant to use as a dye.  How spoiled am I?

Albie’s ulcer

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Poor lovely Albie has been recovering quite well this week but, understandably, he does not enjoy getting penicillin being shot into his eye.  The job of aiming and firing was mine until this week when I decided to have a go at catching and holding instead.  I am much better cut out for this activity.  As you can see from the pictures Albie is quite resistant to being caught.  It involves placing food in a ‘pen’ constructed from sheep wire and when he enters the wire is enclosed behind him so that he is contained.  That’s my cue to go in and ‘grab.’  Once caught one arm needs to go around the neck while the other is on the alpaca’s back.  He’s usually okay after this although I have received a few head butts this week as the drops were being applied.    It’s all worth it though as thankfully his eye is on the mend.

Autumnal Furrows

Last night I needed to knit and I realise that I am a frugal knitter.  I don’t buy wool on spec without having a plan so I had to go to my left over pile which doesn’t really contain that much.  I opted for the end of a ball of wool that I knitted a baby hat with recently (for Liam) and I cast on a 100 stitches to make another hat with but this time for an adult..(yes Christmas is definitely coming).  At 8cm I started casting off  in equal 10 sections every fourth row until there were 10 stitches left.

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Et voila..Autumnal Furrows.

It fits really well and is incredibly soft.  I’m so pleased with how it’s turned out.


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A swirly whirly week

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This weekend my fingers were itching to do some knitting. I had managed a couple of hours spinning over the week but felt the need to produce something other than wool.  I looked into my stock pile and found 100 grammes of petrol coloured aran wool from Tivoli Spinners which was left over from a pair of mittens that I made during the summer.  I figured that I would be able to get a hat out of it and duly cast on the stitches and started a k2p2 rib.  At the end of the ribbing I thought that a bit of a design would be quite nice and I found a lovely ‘South American’ swirly design in ‘The Encyclopedia of Knitting’ by Stansfield and Griffiths (2011).  The pattern for the design only covers 5 rows but I have to say that I was on tenterhooks the whole time that I was knitting it because I couldn’t be sure that it was going to be right until the five rows were actually complete.  Thankfully I made no mistakes and I think that it really enhances the hat which will be sent over to my niece in the UK shortly.

Albie’s eye update

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Poor lovely Albie is still suffering with eye problems.  The vet came out on Thursday and announced that he has an ulcer on his eye.  As she had never treated an alpaca before she went back to her surgery and called the Veterinary College in Dublin for advice.  That evening I picked up three tubes of Isathal, which is basically penicillin, to insert into his eye twice a day.  Now I have to say that this is easier said than done.  Firstly it is a two person job and secondly Alpacas lashes are beautiful and long and get in the way of a novice trying to take aim with a tube of ointment at the eye beneath them.  It’s looking slightly better but I’m not 100% sure yet.  I have everything crossed that it will clear soon.

Dyeing

Yes I’m saving the best till last.  A week ago I was dyeing with blackberries and boy was I thrilled with what came out of the pot.

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It was a gentle shade of purple..almost lilac really.  Spurred on by this success I decided that I would mordant another 500 grammes of wool and use the same dye liquid which I had put into the fridge with the small net curtain bag full of black berries and also, as it turned out, a maggot.  Again I used alum (25g) as the mordant in two and a half litres of water.  I simmered the wet wool in this for one and a half hours. I took the mordanted wool out and left it in the dark overnight.  The following evening I warmed up the blackberry dye with the net bag of berries and placed the wet mordanted wool into it.  I simmered it for one and a half hours and left it overnight.  After work the next day I was the happiest dyer on the planet with 500g of a most gorgeous shade of my favourite colour.  It’s so funny how the same mordant and the same dye solution were used but the shade variation is so great.  The only variable is the age of the blackberry dye.

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Now I am left with the quandry of what to do with the wool.  At the moment I am content to sit and look at it and wonder on the magic of the whole process and how lucky I am that I have been able to do this but I’m sure those fingers of mine will get itchy again soon and find something new to knit.