Sunday, February 3, 2008

Apple #296: Aran Island Sweaters

I've been sick with the flu for over a week now. I'm only just now beginning to see a break in the clouds. I'm getting more of a runny nose and I don't feel the absolute need to sleep 12 or 14 hours a day -- only 10 or so. But sheesh, this has seemed like a long 9 days.

When I get sick like this -- which is not often, but it does happen -- I tend to land on a favorite set of clothes pretty early in the illness. Whatever I choose seems to be especially warm, soft, comfy, and probably also has pockets. This time, my outfit has consisted of thick, soft, jersey relaxing pants, a long-sleeve cotton T-shirt of some sort, and my wool sweater that I got in Ireland.

One type of Aran sweater. This one sells for about $75. 
(Photo & sweater from the Aran Sweater Market)

The sweater in particular has become, especially during this past week, something of a security blanket. It's kept me so warm and cozy. At night when I take it off to go on my 12-hour sleepfest, I say thank you to the sheep who made the wool, and thank you to the lady who knit the sweater.

She lived on one of the Aran Islands -- I think it was Inishmore -- and she spoke Gaelic as well as English, and she knitted sweaters like mine to support her family, in addition to what her husband earned. I was there on a study program in college, and, on the advice of our professor and guide, about six of us went to her house to buy sweaters from her. She opened a cupboard and took out maybe fifteen or sixteen of these sweaters, and we all stood in her living room trying on her sweaters (geansai) while she suggested which ones looked best on each of us. She handed me this one and said it had a non-traditional design on the front, something she'd made up herself, but she thought it would look good on me. I took her word for it, and this is the sweater I'm wearing today.

The patterns on mine look more like the man's sweater on the right: diamonds down the middle and bands of cables on either side. The neck on mine is much wider and more rounded, though.
(These are hand-knit from Irish Too. Sweater on the left sells for $298.95. Sweater on the right, $280.95)

I don't remember how much I paid for mine, by the way. I know that it was enough for me, a traveling undergraduate student, to feel it leave my wallet in a pretty big way. But our professor assured us we would be glad we'd made the purchase, and he was right.

I do remember the woman who made the sweaters telling us that the various stitches mean different things. They have to do with fishing, she said, since that's the way most of the men on the islands earn their living, and since it's such a dangerous occupation. The stitches are meant to give good luck, to act like a tie connecting the men to their home so they'll come back safely when the fishing is done.

But now, since this sweater has stood me in such good stead this past week especially, I want to know specifically what these various stitches mean.

  • First of all, the Aran Islands are in Galway Bay, on the west coast of Ireland.

This is all of Ireland. The Aran Islands are on the left (west), in the Atlantic Ocean.
(Map from Remunda's travel guide to the Aran Islands)

  • There are three islands in the Aran Island group: Inishere (the smallest), Inishmaan, and Inishmore. In Gaelic, the spelling is Inis Oirr, Inis Meain, and Inis Mor.
  • They each have a slightly different character. But all three are very small, very rocky, and very much exposed to the elements associated with the Atlantic Ocean (on Inishmore, it rained every day for about half an hour between 2:30 and 3:00). It can be a tough place to earn a living. Most of the children born on the Aran Islands are raised knowing they will have to leave in order to support themselves.

Inishmore. The islands are so rocky with barely any soil, so the walls help keep the soil from eroding and the whole place from turning barren.
(Photo from Discover Ireland)

The coast of Inishmore. You can just make out some people "bouldering" or climbing the rocks. This is fairly typical of the coastline of the Aran Islands.
(Photo by Eoin Lawless, posted at Bouldering in Ireland)

  • Tourism is now the primary industry of the Aran Islands, but many families still earn a living by fishing.
  • The boats fishermen traditionally used are called currachs. They're relatively small, about the size of a canoe but with a wider and flatter bottom. Some people still fish for a living in these boats.

Currachs used to be covered with animal hides. Now the exterior is fiberglass.  And they use motors now, too.
(Photo by Ann Torrence)

  • If my husband were heading out into the open ocean in one of those dinky little boats, I'd want to give him as many good luck charms as I possibly could, too.
  • And that's exactly what a lot of women meant those sweaters they made to be -- something that would help bring their husbands back home. It wasn't just the patterns they knitted; I'll get to those in a moment.
  • Though people have lived and knitted on the Aran Islands for centuries, it's thought that the islanders first started making these particular types of sweaters sometime around the 1920s. They were first made for special events like a child's First Communion, but that tradition seems to have faded with the decades.
  • The yarn used to make these sweaters comes from a particular cream-colored wool called bainin (pronounced bawneen). The wool may come from island sheep or elsewhere. What is more important is that usually at least some of the lanolin -- the sheep's natural oils -- is left in the wool. This makes the wool water-resistant and makes it a great insulator against the cold.
      • A note about the lanolin: I don't know how much, if any, was still present in the wool that made my sweater. One guy on our trip bought a sweater that had lots of lanolin in it, and whew, was that sweater stinky.
      • Also, if you wash your sweater or have it dry-cleaned, the lanolin will get washed out. Depending on what you prefer, that could be a good or a bad thing.
  • The stitches are also important because if they're done correctly, they form tightly-closed little air pockets that give the sweater an even greater ability to lock in warmth.
      • I'm noticing the some of the stitches in my sweater are a bit loose. The join on the left sleeve, for example, and a few of the cables I can see through. But I've had this sweater for fifteen years (egad, really?), so if that's the only flaw I'd say it's held up remarkably well.
  • I was told that the particular types of stitches meant various things. But now that I'm looking into this more, I'm discovering that different people say that the same stitches have different meanings. When people differ this much about the meaning of a particular thing, I've learned that that's usually a sign that I'm heading into Lands of Bogus Waters. So I'll give you some of the various meanings I've come across, and I'll let you decide whether you want to remember this symbology or discard it.

Some of the types of stitches used in Aran Island sweaters.
(Image from O'Maille)

More stitches
(Image from the Edinburgh Woollen Mill)

  • Symbolizes the Fisherman's rope, which is a traditional sign of safety and good luck
  • Hope for a good catch

Plaited cable
  • Interweaving of family life
  • Resembles the fishing net

  • Symbol of the longed-for wealth and success.
  • Diamond shape resembles the fishing net.
  • Same shape as the small fields of the islands back home.

  • Ladder of success
  • Reminiscent of the patchwork of walls on the islands at home.

Diamond plus Trellis
  • Bringing wealth home in the diamond-shaped fishing net

  • Could also be used to fill the diamond stitch
  • Supposed to depict the seaweed that was mixed with the soil
  • Hopes for a good harvest.
  • Nature and wealth

  • Represents the basket where the fisherman puts his fish -- hope for a good catch

  • Rewards of a good life
  • The bounty of nature

  • Strength that comes from the Holy Trinity

  • Eternal link to those waiting for him on the island
Tree of Life
  • Expresses the family ties between the fisherman and his grandparents, as well as to his children and his children's children.
  • Hope for a long life.

Double Zig Zag
  • Love
  • The give-and-take in a marriage
  • Twisting paths that run along the cliffs at home.

Others mentioned include the lobster claw, spoon, and bobble. There are probably many others besides.

If you want to know how to make these stitches and these sweaters, lots of books have been written on the subject. But here are a couple to start with:
Patterns for Guernseys, Jerseys, and Arans: Fishermen's Sweaters from the British Isles

220 Aran Stitches and Patterns: Volume 5 (The Harmony Guides)

Having looked at all these stitches, I see that my sweater uses diamonds filled with moss, cables flanking diamonds, then what's maybe her own stitch which is a single zig zag with what I think are bobbles in the curve of each zig, and finally a wide band of honeycomb at the top of each sleeve.

So I think that means lots of wealth, a bunch of good luck, and a little bit of love. Well, anyway the sweater's helped me stay healthy at least!

MSN Encarta, Aran Islands
MSN Groups, Celtic Origins, The Aran Islands
Thistle & Shamrock, Traditional Aran sweaters
O'Maille, Aran stitches
Irish Culture and Customs, Aran Isle Sweaters - how a dropped stitch gave rise to a popular myth
Luxury Experience, Irish Sweaters - A Story Behind the Stitches
Aran Wear Traditional Clothing Co., The History of Aran Sweaters
All About Irish, Aran Knits
Clan Arans, History of Aran Sweaters


  1. This was so helpful to me! I'm an artist working on a project that references historical knitting traditions from cold places - your first hand account of the visit was wonderful and I appreciate your inclusion of resource material. Thanks, I hope your sweater is still giving you health!

  2. I'm glad this was helpful! And yes, my sweater is still doing good things for me. :)


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