Aran Knitwear

Aran knitwear is often on the shopping list of those visiting Ireland, and with a little care it can be a very good purchase. Choose the right one and you will have a beautiful, useful and durable sweater that will be admired for years.

A lot of lore and myth has grown up about Aran Sweaters and Aran knitting and stitch patterns in general. Some have a grain of truth but most are pure hokem.

Let’s dispel a few of them right away!

Family or Clan Aran Sweaters

Sorry to burst your bubble on this one, but there are no family or clan aran patterns, such as are found with Scottish Tartan.

In spite of this fact you will find plenty of places on the web perfectly happy to tell you how each family has its unique pattern and sell you a sweater in “your family Aran pattern”. It’s unadulterated nonsense, pure fiction; they made it all up as a sales tool because there were so many people who believed such a connection existed.

Only about a couple of dozen or so family names are associated with the Aran Islands in any case. In most other Irish families there is no tradition of either knitting or wearing Aran sweaters at all, and even on Aran the ‘tradition’ is relatively new.

The belief partly arose from stories of the bodies of Aran fishermen who drowned being identified by their ‘family’ sweater. Nobody was ever identified in this way; again, it’s all fiction. There is some tiny grain of truth deeply buried in this mess – many knitters had favourite stitches and pattern combinations which they reused often and which would be easily recognisable to other knitters.

No clan patterns then, so just pick a sweater you like, whatever name is on it, and enjoy it for what it is.

The Spread of Myth about Aran Knitting

Aran knitting is not an art that stretches back centuries, the people of the Aran Islands neither made nor wore what we now call Aran sweaters before about the mid-20th century and the stitches are not ancient and symbolic. So how did these myths become so widely accepted as fact?

Perhaps surprisingly it’s largely the work of one man – Heinz Kiewe.

In the 1930’s Murial Gahan, who owned a restaurant and craft shop in Dublin, visited the Islands and took some samples of the knitting she found there to sell in her Dublin shop. These were not Aran sweaters as we know them now, but an earlier form of patterned knit. There they were ‘discovered’ by a German visitor, Heinz Kiewe and that was the begining of decades of misinformation.

Kiewe developed a theory, based on little more than his own intuition, that the sweaters had been knit for generations on the islands, that the patterns used were ancient celtic ones and that there were images of Aran clothing in the Book of Kells. Although Kiewe had never been to Aran, he attributed meanings to the various stitches based on what he percieved or imagined to be the Aran lifestyle.

In 1967 he published a book, “The Sacred History of Knitting“, in which he expanded on his ideas, although remarkably he had still never visited the islands.

This book expanded in great detail on his ideas, creating an elaborate history of knitting stretching back centuries, describing and attributing ancient signifigance to patterns and  generally telling a story that was compelling and fascinating.

The problem is that none of it was based on fact, historical or otherwise.

That trivial detail didn’t stop other authors assuming it was true and spreading it as fact, and the book was widely used as a source by people writing about Aran knitting. That nobody in Ireland or on the Aran Islands ever went to great lengths to correct the inaccuracies is, if you think about it, unsurprising – it truly was a marketers dream!

Reclaiming the Truth about Aran

The two people are most responsible for getting back to the truth about Aran are Scottish knitting writer Alice Starmore, who dug beneath the widely-believed myths and winkled out the truth for her book “Aran Knitting“, and Richard Rutt whose book “A History of Hand Knitting” was first published in 1987. This is how it really came about.

The first known patterned sweater from Aran dates to about 1930 and is in the National Museum in Dublin. It’s not quite what we know to-day as Aran knitting, but you can see the relationship. This sweater resembles those created on the Scottish isles in many respects and it is possible that around this time at least one skilled knitter from Scotland was on the islands, perhaps working in the fish industry there, and brought a basic knowledge of stitch patterns to the Island women.

By 1946 sweaters knit in a style and construction that is more distinctively Aran had started to appear, as shown in a sweater from this period in the National Museum. The Islands by this time had become quite well known for their style of knitting, but it was produced only on a very small scale.

In the 1950s and 1960s, in an effort to provide a source of income for isolated Aran Islanders, commercial hand knitting was encouraged. It was seen that the Island women, who had little prospect of other employment, could produce a product readily saleable on the mainland. Knitting was taught to children in schools and to groups of women on the Island.

By the early 1960s the sweaters had fully evolved into the distinct and recognisable form familiar today and began to be widely produced and sold.

So, how Irish is Aran Knitting?

Completely Irish, and it there is no dispute about its origin in the Aran Islands. Some people have expressed dismay that something they believed was an ancient traditional craft was in fact of recent origin and always commercial in nature. They shouldn’t.

It is immensely to the credit of the women living on the remote Islands of Aran in the mid-20th century that they developed and created an original style of knitting with such wide appeal.

Their lives were as different as it is possible to imagine from those of their customers in Dublin, London, New York and other far flung places in the world. And yet they responded to the needs of their markets, concieved a myriad of beautiful and original knitting stitches and brought tremendous skill to bear in the creation of sweaters that were treasured for decades by their eventual owners.

It does no justice to these remarkable women to belittle their acheivement or their creativity or to devalue their sweaters just because they, and not their forebears, came up with the style of knitting.

Article updated: March 31, 2017 | Image Credits

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20 Comments

  • Pknit says:

    Thank you for this “eye opener”. The myth you are talking about was taught at my guild as truth…

  • The Cradle Galway says:

    I Love Aran’s and opened a little baby boutique is Galway and sell Baby Arans in all colours, the patterns are so durable and babies get so long out of them!

  • Lyn Newman says:

    Love your site – will direct people for the wonderful ARAN information you are providing

  • PJ Doucette says:

    A great book with interesting insight and possible “Tails” of sweaters is: “Nicole Dickson’s novel “Casting Off” It is the story of Rebecca Moray, an archeologist and single mother, who travels to a tiny island of the west coast of Ireland (Aran Islands). She’s there for a summer research project, studying the island’s lovely ganseys. The handmade sweaters’ distinctive patterns are stories told in the knitted rows and stitches. ” (from Amazon site)
    While Nicole admits to also never going to the Aran Islands, I read the book and now want to go myself to see this place!

  • […] I have been fascinated by cabling because of the Aran knitting “tradition” in Ireland (actually a myth perpetuated by tourist traps, something I only recently learned!) I am still extremely proud of this sweater, because I was so pushed by the project, and there was […]

  • Noreen says:

    Hello, I visited the Aran Islands a few years ago and bought an Aran knit jumper but one of the Irish guides who took us there hinted heavily that the jumpers were not necessarily Irish so I realised (with a heavy heart) that it might be a case of ‘made in China’ again. Oh well! My dad’s mum and sister (Irish – from West Cork) used to knit lovely jumpers for family but our English branch of the family did not get any I recall! Probably we didnt want them because, years ago, they were not as valued as they are now.

  • […] Aran Isle Sweaters Aran knitting tradition Wikipedia’s entry on Aran sweaters The History of Aran Knitting […]

  • Mary Holmes says:

    I have w onderful book called ‘World Textiles’ by Thames and Hudson which has a section called Textured knitting in which there are two photographs [which appear to be quite old] depicting fishermen wearing what appear to be Aran sweaters. One is an Aran Islander from Inishmaan wearing a textured pullover under his jacket and the other is an English fisherman wearing a knitted pullover, the pattern of which identifies im as coming from Lowestoft.
    Iwould be interested to know what you think of these in view of your assertion that the paterns in Aran knitting are modern inventions….People throughtout history have always created garments with significant paterns and designs…..its in our nature! Of course, clothes are ephemeral, especially those of the poor working classes….I should be very surprised if the designs had no significance to the makers or the wearers.

  • Rachel says:

    Mind you, Scottish clan tartans have no great ancient history either…

  • Karen Yingling says:

    This was quite interesting! I knit these myself and have one that is over 20 years old that is still in good shape. I will look to buy a pattern book rather than a sweater when I travel to Ireland!

  • Ann Gibson says:

    I knit an Aran sweater while on night duty as a student nurse in the Richmond hospital 1975. It kept me warm on my Honda 50cc bike. I still have it to this day.

  • audrey says:

    As an irish person that knits aran I was always of the beleif that the patterns were relative to families so that when the dead fishermen were washed ashore familes would know their own. Each family had their own distinc pattern

    • Mary Doherty says:

      The Traditional Irish Aran pattern’s relate to the Family name and there is Donegal Septs
      Island Sweaters where the Septs or Family pattern are knit by that family members.
      The Aran pattern sold in outlets are mass produced and not always hand knit. Contact Ancaire
      Derrybeg Co Donegal Ireland if you have Donegal Septs and wish to have a Septs Aran Swetter
      knit as the patterns are in the heads of the knitters and not on paper.

    • Katherine says:

      @Audrey, I believed that too till I started reading more than marketing blurb and looking at actual recorded history. It’s a very nice story that sells a lot of sweaters, but there is no truth in it.

      @Mary, I am certain that the sweaters Ancaire produce are beautiful and there really is nothing to beat a hand knit Aran. But the sept connection with patterns has no validity except is as far as some person, in recent times, thought it up for marketing purposes.

  • chris says:

    Thanks for a glimmer of truth in a sea of bright, shining fantasy.

  • gertrude draig says:

    I have couple of aran poloneck sweaters from a lovely lady in scotland: I find them very spiritual in terms of the patterns etc. They’re nice and warm and compared to modern clothes they are fantastic in terms of production and value for money. We are loosing so much to capitalism and shoddy production, so cottage industries should be supported.

  • Caitlin says:

    As a retailer of Aran Sweaters, I agree with your conclusion. But we ‘Oirish’ love a story, shoppers love a tale and therin lies the conundrum: to tell a ‘Tale’ or ‘Tail’ a truth? Still they are good honest sweaters which look beautiful and last the distance. Thank you to all who wisely purchase.

  • Veronica says:

    My father bought me an Aran knit sweater in the late sixties or early seventies at the A.S. Cooper shop in Bermuda. The sweater has the ‘Cardery’ label in it. Does anyone know anything about this company?

  • Mike Coyne says:

    Very interesting. Thank you. I have worn my sweater (that I bought at the Blarney Woollen Mills in 1995) nearly every day around the house. It looks like it did on the day I bought it.

  • Melissa says:

    I bought my Aran sweater at the Blarney Woolen Mills, too, and they still sell hand-knit sweaters (in fact, the ‘first-time’ knitter’s work is at a reduced price). Wonderful sweater, wears well, and is extremely warm. I love it!

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