Traditionally, knitted in white báinín colour, these intricately cabled sweaters are surrounded by myth.
They are said to have originated in the Aran Islands off the coast of Ireland, where a group of women in the 1900’s started to knit highly intricate ‘traditional’ fisherman’s sweaters to earn some extra money. Admittedly, the designs used in Aran jumpers can often be found on the traditional fisherman’s ganseys, but these patterns are thought to have originally been taken to Ireland from Scotland (where these patterns were being used as early as the 9th century)
The earliest known surviving knitted Aran sweater dates from the 1920’s and is knitted in the style of a traditional ‘fishing shirt’ or ‘wedding shirt’. It has been noted by some people that these sweaters would have been too heavy for fishermen to wear, as once they were soaked through, the untreated wool would become very stiff and restrict movement.
Although the intricate patterns were originally handed down by word of mouth – jealously guarded in families (and Clans in Ireland) – the first commercially printed Aran patterns became available in the 1940’s and became increasingly popular in the 1950’s, as wool rationing was lifted. (Aran patterned sweaters use a lot more wool than a normal sweater, due to the number of travelling stitches, which necessitates more stitches on the needle per row).
The patterning causes the knitting to be much thicker than normal sweaters and traps warmth in small air pockets, plus the natural oil in the wool makes them waterproof. Aran sweaters quickly became popular with people who pursued a lot of outdoor activities. Today Aran sweaters are more likely to be made from Acrylic yarn with just enough wool to give it the spring required to hold the pattern in shape. In miniature Aran knitting works best in wool, but can be knitted in cotton or acrylic yarn (although this will result in a considerably larger garment, as neither of these yarns has the natural springiness of wool to pull the stitches together)
Aran patterns (sometimes referred to as Irish knitting) remain popular today and designs have spread to all types of clothing.