Before the year 1900 the women of Aran knitted only stockings. Sometime in the early part of the 20th century they began to make sweaters. It's very likely that this inspiration came during World War I, when the boom in Aran's young fishing industry created a need for people to gut and pack the fish. This was a perfect job for young Scottish girls, who not only knew the work because they'd been doing it all their lives, but were also free to travel because they were either single or widowed.
These Scottish girls and women would have known how to knit, and they would have been experienced at making the gansey sweaters worn by Scottish fishermen. And since they were far from home and had no other chores, they would have had plenty of time to socialize between jobs. They would have spoken a different language, of course-Gaelic. But it is possible for speakers of Gaelic and speakers of Irish to understand each other.
It seems likely that these Scottish women were the ones who taught the women of Aran how to make sweaters, since the first Aran sweaters are almost identical to Scottish ganseys in construction and stitch patterns. However, by the early 1930s the Aran women had begun modifying the design to meet their own needs-which were mostly commercial. The first shop to sell Aran sweaters was opened in 1930, and by the 1940s the sweaters were being exported to other countries, principally the United States.
It's interesting to note that Irish fishermen did not start wearing the sweaters until the 1950s-after the sweaters had attained recognition in other parts of the world. By this time, though, they'd evolved from the original gansey, which was specifically designed for use by fishermen, to the Aran, which was not nearly so practical for someone in this line of work.
Characteristics of the Aran sweater
Aran sweaters are commonly knitted using undyed "white" (cream-colored) wool yarn that is fairly heavy. This is quite different from ganseys, which use a thinner yarn and wool that is frequently dyed. Aran women probably chose deliberately to go with the thicker yarn because it really brought out their stitch patterns, which are much more complex than those of the gansey. There was also a commercial benefit: Sweaters made from thicker yarn take less time to knit, and can be ready for market more quickly.
Aran sweaters also differ from ganseys in their basic construction, which is flat. This means that they must be seamed, unlike ganseys, which are knitted in the round. The presence of seams doesn't make for a very comfortable garment for someone as active as a fisherman; there's less freedom of movement, and the seams may split open if strained. This seems to indicate that Aran sweaters were not originally meant for fishermen-even though many authors have put forth that theory.
Aran sweaters typically have vertical panels that contain different stitch patterns. There's usually a center panel, which is about as wide as the neck, surrounded by narrower panels with symmetrical patterns (meaning, the panels to the immediate right and left of the center have the same pattern). The designs on the front of the sweater can be different from those on the back.
Aran knitters use a lot of cable patterns, in all their infinite variations-ropes, braids, diamonds, zigzags, and others. The most frequently used non-cable patterns are moss stitch (a two-row variation of seed stitch) and trinity stitch, supposed called that because it makes three stitches from one and then one stitch from three.
Suggestions for making an Aran-style sweater
With this combination of stitches-so many of which are raised-and the thick yarn used, Aran sweaters are usually quite three-dimensional. Their flat construction can make some of the stitch patterns difficult to do, because the knitter has to work every other row on the back side.
The best way to learn how to make Aran sweaters seems to be to study-and perfect-the stitches first, perhaps making a panel or two to get the gauge right. Once this has been accomplished, then you can advance to "putting all the pieces together"-and constructing your own sweater according to the very new tradition of the Aran Islands.
Published by kimadagem
kimadagem's main interest is crafting, especially fiber crafts and jewelry making. She also writes about what she knows, like traditional and alternative medicine, and what she believes in, like ecologic... View profile
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- Aran Knitting by Alice Starmore - much more than just a pattern book, this is also a fascinating account of the author's determined - and detailed - efforts to shed light on the confused history of Aran sweater knitting. Patterns for Guernseys, Jerseys, and Arans by Gladys Thompson The Aran Sweater by Deirdre McQuillan and Des Fox Irelandseye.com's page on the Aran Islands and the Aran sweater
- Before the year 1900 the women of Aran knitted only stockings.
- The Aran sweater evolved from the Scottish fisherman gansey.
- Aran sweaters are made with heavy yarn knitted into panels of raised stitch patterns.