Go Fish! (For an Irish Sweater)

The Aran jumper, better known as an Irish fisherman sweater, is a bulky, cable-patterned sweater popular in Ireland.  Its name derives from the Aran Islands off the west coast of the Emerald Isle.  The jumpers were originally stitched with unscoured and undyed cream-colored báinín, yarn made from sheep’s wool that contained natural oils, which made the material water-resistant – a perfect fabric for men primarily working on the sea!  The wives of fishermen would knit these beautiful sweaters for their husbands.  Each stitch has a meaning.  The cable stitch depicts a fisherman’s ropes to wish for safety; the honeycomb pattern symbolizes hard-working bees; the basket stitch represents a fisherman’s basket with the hope of a plentiful catch; the zig-zag stitch depicts the twisting cliffs on the islands; the tree of life pattern shows the importance and unity of family; and the diamond shape reflects the small fields of the Aran islands, which are sometimes filled with Irish moss stitch, depicting the seaweed that was used to fertilize barren land and produce a good harvest – therefore, the diamond represents good fortune and success.  Origins of the sweater are often debated.  Some historians claim that Aran jumpers have been knitted for hundreds of years, sometimes credited to knitting historian Heinz Edgar Kiewe, who claims he discovered an image in the Book of Kells, in which Daniel was wearing Aran knitted clothing!  Supposedly, there aren’t any other records of the fisherman sweaters until the early 20th century.  The likely explanation is that the women of Aran adapted the traditional Gansey sweater by changing the thickness of the wool and streamlining the construction.  There is a common belief that each family had a different pattern, in case one of their sons, husbands, fathers or brothers went overboard, they’d be able to identify bodies washed ashore, based on the clan’s sweater pattern.  This stems from the 1904 play Riders to the Sea, by J.M. Synge, in which a dead fisherman is identified by his clothing’s stitching, although there is no reference to Aran knitting in the play.  Jumper patterns do have regional associations though, so fishermen and sailors lost at sea could have been identified by sweaters associated with their county, town or church’s pattern.  Men also had their initials sewed into their garments, which also helped determine who they were, if killed.  (Fun Fact: The Ó’Máille family of Galway created traditional costumes for the 1952 film The Quiet Man!  You can still purchase their knits today!)  Irish-American leading men look pretty good in these sweaters, too!  The “King of Cool” Steve McQueen (pictured, top left) looks rugged on the set of The Thomas Crown Affair, and Ryan ONeal (pictured, below) looks handsome filming one of the final scenes of Love Story.  We love ’em, because they remind us of sweaters passed down and worn in our own Irish family!  It’s nice to keep cozy while paying tribute to the Gaels who lived and died before us!


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