Aran Jumpers Between Myth and Tradition

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 oversea. The Clancy Brothers contributed to the popularity of the Aran jumpers in America, since the members of the Irish folk band, quite popular in the United States at the time, wore them as a uniform on stage.

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:

Orvis (Made in Ireland)  •  Peregrine via Huckberry  •  LL Bean  •  J. Crew

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Arianna Reggio

Arianna Reggio

Arianna is an Italian trapped in Southern California, and she's still trying to cope with the fact she's living in a country where they put pineapples on pizza. She is into both Style AND Fashion, but she hardly ever writes about it because all her free time is spent between yoga, rock concerts, and Victorian poetry.

4 thoughts on “Aran Jumpers Between Myth and Tradition


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    AvatarAndré Jenczmionka on said:

    Dear Arianna,

    Thanks for lovely article about Aran jumpers. As an owner of two originals, I really love them, but for those interested, you need to realize that these are pretty scratchy, yet incredibly warm “beasts” that can easily replace a jacket outside even on a cold winters day. I’m not talking about the mass-produced and, at the very best, “hand-loomed” sweaters sold for under 100€ in the touristy shops in Dublin’s fair city center – my advice is: stay clear from these and don’t fall for the sagas of Clan specific patterns – that’s a romantic sales story. I’m talking about the true hand knitted Aran sweaters that are maid of virgin wool, which is rough and tough like the fishermen that had to fight wind and weather for a meagre living on the rather barren Aran islands and needed warm, durable and water repellent woolens and they are nothing for sensitive skin. Yes, you still get them and there are few companies that foster the art of truly hand knit Aran sweaters, such as Magee. For visitors of Dublin seeking the real McCoy, go to the family run Donegal Shop (www.thedonegalshop.com, a small and unpretentious store in the top floor of St.Stephen’s Green Shopping Centre), where you’ll find a competent staff and truly hand knit Aran jumpers at around 250€ (price at the time of this comment), which is a fair price in my opinion. When buying, note that same sizes differ significantly between knitters (there’s a tag on each sweater denoting the name of the person who actually knit this sweater), so you invariably need to try them on. Also bear in mind that the sweaters stretch a bit with wear, so don’t err on the smaller side when choosing one. Absolutely DON’T ever machine wash a real hand knit Aran jumper unless your looking to utterly distroy it and retrieve something that looks like a sheep half digested by Daenerys Targarien’s dragons never to be worn again 😉 Hand-wash in lukewarm water with little to no wool detergent to retain the natural lanolin in the wool and only if really, really needed (i.e. Truly soiled)… the less you wash these or best not at all, the better… then you’ve got a garment you can inherit to your children, that’s how long living they are (most commercially available sweaters these days can only dream of this!).


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      Arianna ReggioArianna Reggio on said:

      Hi André,

      Thank you for sharing your experience and useful information on Aran jumpers. I am aware that most companies that cater to tourists provide inaccurate information about the history of this garment, which is why I wanted to provide a bit of background instead of romanticizing the story.
      I haven’t had the opportunity to hold an original in my hands, but I have the feeling they are not exactly the softest knits, and like you said they can be used in place of a jacket.
      If you ever feel like sharing a picture of your prized possessions, I’m sure the folks in the Epicurean Knits Thread would love it!
      Have a nice day,

      Arianna


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    AvatarLaurence on said:

    In the 19th century, there was no such thing as “Northern Ireland”.
    Northern Ireland didn’t come into existence until 1922.

    Also, the Aran Islands are off the coast of County Galway, which is in the west of Ireland, and which is nowadays in the Republic of Ireland.


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    AvatarPhilip Cataldo on said:

    Thank you for the article on Aran sweaters. I don’t own a hand knit version however since I am allergic to most wools I am very happy that the current machine made sweaters include Merino wool versions. I don’t seem to be allergic to merino wool. My favorite currant Aran sweater is te Ribbed Fisherman’s Turtleneck in merino wool.
    ( https://www.aransweatermarket.com/fishermans-merino-ribbed-turtleneck-sweater# )
    This sweater reminds me of the old Submariner’s sweater yet is soft and not scratchy. It is a little bulky, which I like, and very hardy. I also own some of the more traditional Aran sweater versions. All are well made and their merino versions are very comfortable to wear inside or outside. These Irish made sweaters are all very attractive sweaters. The most attractive sweaters I own.

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