Aran Islands

A Tale Woven Over Time: The Legend of the Aran Sweater

ACS
by Alyssa Smith

April 29, 2019

3 minute read

Set along the Wild Atlantic Way on the western coast of Ireland are the Aran Islands – a trio of limestone isles that seemingly remain untouched by the hands of time. From ancient stone fortresses that stand defiantly atop dramatic cliffs, to weather-beaten homes inhabited by humble farm folk, the Islands are a storybook setting for the centuries-old maritime legends and Celtic myths born from its windswept shores.

One such legend that’s been passed down for generations is the origin of the Aran Islands sweater. Depending on who you ask, the storied sweater is an homage to centuries-old Celtic settlers, a religious garment worn to protect fishermen from the perils of sailing the Atlantic, or a creatively woven tale aimed at putting Aran Islands on the map. So, what was the true motivation behind the first stitch?

Sweater Aran Islands

The majority of historians agree that the Aran sweater was invented in the beginning of the 20th century, and was an adaptation of Scottish Guernsey jumpers, or “Guernseys.” The women of the Islands put their own spin on the sweater design, using thicker wool and patterns that completely covered the sweater. Knitting the sweaters turned from a crafty pastime to a source of revenue, as the garments were sold to tourists in Dublin and by the 1950s, worldwide.

Capitalizing on this popularity, English yarn shop owner Heinz Edgar Kiewe made the claim that the sweater’s intricate patterns held deeper religious meanings. Clever marketing also perpetuated the myth that particular patterns were linked to certain families, and that these stitches helped identify sailors who washed ashore after losing a battle with the sea.

Here are some common stitches you'll still see today:

    Honeycomb: Represents the industrious honey bee. This stitch symbolized hard work – a virtue the Aran Islands’ natives valued.
    Basket: Symbolizes the fishermen’s basket and hopes for a bountiful catch.
    Tree of Life: Also known as the Trinity Stitch, said to symbolize the strong ties of family and the desire for familial unity.
    Cable & Rope: A popular, commonly seen stitch. Represents the fisherman’s rope – said to bring good luck and safety.
    Moss-Filled Diamond: Represents the Carrageen Moss seaweed – an important fertilizer that helped the natives’ crops grow. Symbolizes fertile fields and abundant growth.

During your stay in Inisheer – the smallest of the three mystical Aran Islands – you’ll partake in a knitting workshop where you’ll learn about the traditional methods used to make the Aran sweater. As you discover the garment’s intricate stitch-work, you’ll be in on one of the Islands’ greatest sartorial secrets.

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