The Aran sweater is not only a stylish and practical item of clothing but also an iconic symbol of a culture and history. There are a lot of stories about the origin of the Aran sweater, some of which may be somewhat embellished, but what is certain is that they are instantly recognisable and carry much more significance than simply keeping their wearer warm.
A traditional Aran sweater is knitted from an undyed sheep’s wool known as báinín. The lanolin in the unwashed wool makes it water-repellent, which is useful for an island community on the shores of the Atlantic. Today, they are also popular with tourists and are used as a fashion statement around the world. Examples include Shamrock Gifts Aran sweaters.
To trace the origin of Aran knitwear, you have to travel to the Aran Islands off Ireland’s western coast. There are three islands – Inishmore (Inis Mór), Inishmaan (Inis Meáin), and Inisheer (Inis Oírr) – all of which have fishing as a vital part of their economy. One popular story about the Aran sweater is that wearing a unique design would make it easier to identify any fishermen killed in the dangerous waters of the Atlantic.
Aran sweaters come with their own distinct patterns, many of which are associated with different symbolism; for example, the popular cable stitch has been called a representation of fisherman’s ropes, whilst the diamond stitch can symbolise fields on the island. There are multiple interpretations of the zig zag stitch – it might represent clifftop paths, or it might symbolise married life – whilst the honeycomb and its association with bees is fortunate because it represents not only hard work but also rewards from this work.
Many of the myths around the Aran sweater can be traced to a man called Heinz Edgar Kiewe. He owned a needlework shop and spotted that the patterns on the sweaters were very similar to ancient Celtic designs. This made him assume they had a history dating back thousands of years rather than having been popularised by the Victorians, as was actually true.
Even if the Aran sweater is not as old as some might like to think, it has grown a powerful mythology that has helped to popularise its designs around the world. The wealth, luck and protection associated with these sweaters keep people seeking authentic Aran knitwear.