Aran sweaters are a modern classic item of timeless beauty, which captivates the pride of Irish heritage whilst simultaneously becoming a fashion staple for decades. According to Irish legend, Aran sweaters have special stitches that represent the owner’s family name. These stitches were kept secret from non-family members but then passed from generation to generation, making the sweaters the ultimate symbol of Irish Clan heritage. In fact, a famous Irish play set in the Aran Islands in the 1900’s called “Riders of the Sea”, has an emotional scene where a woman identifies her drowned brother by the four dropped stitches in his knitted woollen socks. In addition to representing clans, certain Aran patterns also convey a personal meaning.
Whether this myth is fact or fantasy, it is indisputable that knitting Aran sweaters became a valuable livelihood which accelerated economic growth in the 1890’s, in islands where fishing was originally the only source of employment. Knitting Aran Sweaters became a nation-wide pastime, it is even said that girls demonstrated their suitability as future wives by knitting Aran sweaters for men they hoped to marry. One sweater can take up to six weeks to complete and has approximately 100, 000 stitches.
A harsh beginning
Originally, Aran sweaters were made for fishermen who battled harsh weather conditions at sea, as the sweater was water repellent, breathable and warm. However, following Vogue publishing patterns for Aran sweaters in the 1940’s, Aran sweaters moved irrevocably from purely functional to the forefront of fashion and haven’t looked back since. Demand in Ireland as well as external countries grew exponentially. Without skipping a beat, the Irish government sent manufacturers to the islands to teach knitters the mastery of stitching these authentic sweaters and provided them with the necessary wool.
Nowadays, the Aran sweater is Ireland’s major contribution to international style and the demand for grows year on year. Hand-knit sweaters are naturally the most sought after of the Aran sweaters due to the culture, craft, quality and history they represent. However, the demand for these sweaters drastically over- exceeds the availability due to the labour intensive nature of the sweaters and the significant fall in number of skilled knitters. Sweaters that are made by sophisticated machine are now made in mass-production due to the significant economic gains that are achieved. These machines can make 10 sweaters per day, rather than one every six weeks for hand-knit ones. Genuine hand-knit Aran sweaters are now viewed as a rare, valuable and a true emblem of Irish Clan Identity.
A stylish contemporary accessory
From modest origins on the wind ravaged Aran Islands to runways worldwide, it’s incredible that a sweater so rich in history and tradition, has truly stood the test of time. As described by historian Dierdre McQuillan “The textured wool sweaters of the Aran Islands have become “as tenacious an international symbol of Ireland as the harp and Shamrock”