Aran Stitches and their Meanings

Almost everywhere you read about Aran Knitting there are lists of stitches with the ‘traditional’ meanings attributed to them, sometime simple, sometimes very elaborate stories.

The truth is there aren’t really authentic meanings to any of the stitches, at least not ones that have any tradition or history behind them. Aran knitting is a relatively recent invention and the stitches were created for their decorative appearance by clever and skillful knitters because they looked nice, not to convey any meaning.

The Creation of the Meaningful Stitch  Myth

The meanings that are generally attributed to Aran stitches have several origins:

  1. An article written in 1938 by a German man called Heinz Keiwe, who never visited Aran, never met anyone who knit a sweater and simply made up the meanings. His work however was widely accepted as truth by many people and the sellers of Aran knitwear were not about to contradict such marketing magic.
  2. The so-called meanings were embellished and added to by many later writers who found little literature on the knitting, were relieved to find Keiwe’s and freely expanded on  his ‘meanings’ and added others – a fair few of them totally contradictory.
  3. The reason the myth have persisted so long and are so widely belived is down to marketing. Aran knitting was always a commercial enterprise and the attribution of meaning to stitches greatly increased interest in the sweaters. Those producing them realised that and played up to it in promotional literature. In a similar way they now play up the notion of there being clan patterns, specific to families, which is a complete fiction but it sells sweaters.

The best work on the history of Aran is a book by Alice Starmore, who picked though all this fog of made up stuff and got to the truth in her book, Aran Knitting.

Some Meanings Attributed to Aran Stitches

For those who are interested, these are the meanings most often associated with commonly found stitch patterns in Aran knitting.

The most commonly seen Aran stitch is the cable, of which there are many variations. These are said to symbolise fishermen’s ropes.

The blackberry stitch represents nature. Some call it the trinity stitch and give it religious significance.
The Moss stitch, said to symbolise abundance and growth. It is often used as a ‘filler’ in diamonds.
The Honeycomb is a said to be a lucky stitch, signifying plenty and in the case of fishermen a good catch.
Lattice or Basket stitches to represent the fisherman’s basket – again an omen of a good catch.
The Ladder of Life and Tree of Life represent the stages of life. They are sometimes given a religious significance, symbolising a pilgrim’s path to salvation.

Plaited or braided stitches said to represent the interweaving strands of life.
Diamonds to represent the shape of the fishing mesh, and wealth and success.

Published: October 18, 2008 | Updated: March 31, 2017

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  • jasbir says:

    Hi There,

    I am working with a Production company in Toronto, looking into the history of knitting.
    I’d like to hear from as many people (academics, prolific knitters, anyone who has insight into Aran sweaters and the history)
    please contact me asap.

    +1 416-646-4434

  • TJ says:

    One source of the myth comes for J.M. Synge’s one-act play, “Riders to the Sea”. Fishermen have gone missing and knitted stocking has been found. Cathleen confirms that she knitted it, not because of the design, but because of a specific mistake she made in the stitches.

    NORA: (who has taken up the stocking and counted the stitches, crying out) It’s Michael, Cathleen, it’s Michael; God spare his soul and what will herself say when she hears this story, and Bartley on the sea?

    CATHLEEN: (taking the stocking) It’s a plain stocking.

    NORA: It’s the second one of the third pair I knitted, and I put up three score stitches, and I dropped four of them.

    CATHLEEN: (counts the stitches) It’s that number is in it. (Crying out) Ah, Nora, isn’t it a bitter thing to think of him floating that way to the far north, and no one to keen him but the black hags that do be flying on the sea?


  • jean Spencer says:

    Some of the patterns are physically reminiscent of things is the fishermen’s lives such as ropes and nets are they not?  Also the wheat sheaf pattern isn’t that from the fields on the island?  I thought that it was more like different patterns describing the world they live(d) in rather than clans.  As a Welsh national, I know that similarly Welsh love spoons are carved into various symbols eg bells and hearts and chambers of wood with a ball inside, all made from one piece of original wood. and which incidentally means either how many children you will have or that the person’s heart belongs to you.
    I mention the love spoons because as a sister culture to the Irish, symbols of what are meaningful and around us, and also symbols with no end whether a ball in a cage, or a celtic knot design are common to us.  I do feel without any research backing just a gut feeling that the designs on the Aran knitting are from things around the people who wore the sweaters.  On an island such as Aran, sea workers, and their families, and small farmers.  Please what does everyone else think? In Scotland where Clans are more prevelent, the tartans etc seem to be generally more modern and there is a great deal of Scandinavian influence in the Faire Isle patterned which are often very similar to the Icelandic traditional sweaters with patterns around the neckline.  I also feel that even back to the paleolithinc times, in present day Indian pottery sich as in New Mexico and elsewhere again designs are based on things around them in their lives.  So ultimately why should Aran stitches not also be so?

    • jean Spencer says:

      Also, as a President of a small Home Textile Tool Museum in NE PA in the US these days , I know the continuum of the processing of woolen fleece from shearing until spun and made into a sweater.  Sometimes I am sure due to the harsh environment of being out in the elements, the scouring was sot done so much so there would be more protection from the elements,i.e. not getting soaked through due to the “grease” lanolin left in the fiber.  In winter, in Wales, so I hear from my mother, sheep can stay out in the snow for a while as long as they have the ability to breathe – like an air pocket in front of their noses.  Their coats will keep them warm and dry because of the lanolin at least for some time, long enough for the farmers to retreive them in a lot of cases. 

  • Aran Knitter says:

    I took a class on Aran knitting and the instructor started by asking us what happens when a wool sweater gets wet.  Of course, it weighs a ton!  Had the fisherman and sailors worn these sweaters to sea they would have been hampered by the weight of the wet sweater, not to mention being drowned had they gone overboard.  Additionally, due to the amount of time these decorative sweater took to make they would have been saved as Sunday clothes.  They would have worn plain garter or stocking stitched sweaters UNDER their macintoshes.   The “meanings” as the author notes here are purely romantic.

    • JD says:

      Except for the fact the wool was “unscoured” meaning the natural lanolin was left in the wool making the sweater water proof–as the sheep themselves are as they stand in the elements of nature.

    • Katherine says:

      @jd The wool when it’s growing on a sheep is pretty much waterproof, but when woven into yarn and knitted it is more water-resistant than waterproof. You’ll stay dry for a good time in a shower of rain, not so much when submerged in water.

      Fishermen, not just in Ireland, were somewhat resigned to their fate if things went wrong and they ended up in the water. Few learned to swim, and in the past they didn’t have lifeboats or flotation aids on board, or wear life jackets. While not being able to swim is less common now, it’s still not unknown, though of course safety standards otherwise have immensely improved.

  • Mry Holmes says:

    Doesn’t make it not true either

  • Mry Holmes says:

    In the book ‘World Textiles” published by Thames and Hodder there are some very old photographs of fishermen wearing Aran sweaters and apparantly the patterns on their garments indicate which area they came from.

    • Katherine says:

      ‘Apparantly’ is a good word. This misconception was very, very widely disseminated and believed, but that doesn’t make it true.

  • P Gray says:

    That fable was originated with a stage play that mentioned she identified a body by the number of stitches she dropped in a garment. The Scottish, not the Britons, were known to have family patterns and such, but did not use Aran to do this.

  • DoChara says:

    It’s a nice story, but there is not a shred of truth in it.

  • K Thomas says:

    Regarding the history of Aran knitting – what comment have you on the claim that Aran patterns represented different fisher families and that when an accident occurred, the victim could be recognised by the pattern of the sweater he was wearing. (found on another website on Aran knitting)

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