Despite some attempts to weave an origin story out of mythological or romantic anecdotes, the story of Aran jumpers began out of necessity. In the late 19th century, Northern Ireland faced a shortage of potatoes as well as rising unemployment and an emigration crisis. In a remarkable entrepreneurial fit, the Congested Districts Board for Ireland, among other things, suggested people weave and knit garments, and make a living out of this activity.
The Board trained knitters to realize patterns that will later become peculiar of the Aran jumpers: honeycombs, figure eights, and double diamonds that extend in columns from the top of the jumper to the bottom and down the sleeves.
Unlike traditional fishermen sweaters, Aran jumpers are not dyed, and such patterns result even more striking on the ivory paleness of the yarn.
The type of wool is thicker than the traditional fine wool employed by the other British Islands that spun fishermen sweaters. The thickness of the wool (the only type available in the Aran Islands) required adjustments in the traditional pattern of fishermen sweaters, including saddle shoulders over the gusseted drop sleeves. If the yarn is unwashed and not stripped of the wool’s natural oil (lanolin), the jumper is water resistant.
An Aran jumper from the 1940s on display at the MoMa in NYC. Photo: Peter Moloney.
History tells us that this business, fabricated by the government and embraced by the local people of the Aran Islands, became a rapid success: by the 1930s, Aran jumpers could be found in Dublin – sold to tourists as one of the many knitting traditions Ireland could pride itself with.
A feature on Vogue magazine in 1956 instilled an appreciation of Aran jumpers into American customers, and the garment was first introduced to people on the other side of the Atlantic, along with many others from the Old World.
In the late 50s and 60s, the Board looked at America as a potential export partner and conceded a grant for the knitters to learn to produce the garments in international sizes to be sold
The Clancy Brothers and Tommy Makem
Much like “Faire Isle” sweaters and “Shetland” knits and lace, the term “Aran jumper” (or sweater, as it’s more commonly called in North America) is used to describe pretty much any knitted sweater that features some of the characteristics of the original garment – regardless of where it was made or how; in the case of Aran jumpers, we are talking about the abovementioned honeycomb, double-diamond, and figure eight patterns.
Today, even in the Irish islands, the production of Aran jumpers has switched almost entirely to machine or handlooms. Very few knitters remain who can make truly hand-knitted Aran jumpers, and their rarity is reflected in the price.
While I have never been fortunate enough to hold an original, handknitted Aran sweater in my hands, I imagine the feeling would be similar to when I go back to my grandmother’s home and she cooks for me tagliatelle al ragù. It is not just delicious pasta firing off pleasure receptors in my brain, nor is it the nostalgic childhood memories, rather there is a deeper connection–the knowledge that before me, hundreds of people have experienced the same burst of flavor brought up by a recipe that’s been passed down for generations.
Perhaps in between the tight knits of a truly traditional Aran sweater, we get can find the chalky smell of burnt wood left in a fireplace where an old fisherman or his wife sat, spending hours creating this marvelous thing from balls of yarn. Or perhaps the faint aroma of sheep emanating from the yarn conjures up memories of a grandparent or the verdant countryside.
The reason to look for hand-knitted Aran jumpers, besides the obvious pleasure of feeling connected to the history of a country (like when you eat tagliatelle al ragù) is that handloom and machine-made versions cannot achieve the level of intricacy that old, experienced Irish hands are able to fabricate. For this reason, a truly, hand-knitted Aran jumper is not easy to find even online, and you might have to jump on a ferry and brace the ruthless waves of the Atlantic ocean for a chance to track one down at the source.
If you have no problem settling for something “inspired” by the original Aran, check out these options to amp up your knitwear drawer: