Over the past few months, I’ve noticed an uptick in people talking about Aran Isle sweaters, mostly thanks to the movie Knives Out and a particularly nice sweater worn by star Chris Evans. Along with the typical sweater appreciation, I began to see articles going around about the supposed history of Aran Isle sweaters. According to these articles, families in the Aran Isles each had their own patterns they’d knit into sweaters for the fishermen. That way, if the worst happened while the men were at sea, the sweaters could be used to identify them after their untimely demise. While this is a great story, it is, I’m sorry to report, a myth.
Before delving into the true history Aran sweaters (sometimes referred to as ganseys), let’s define them. Traditional Aran sweaters are always made of cream-colored wool with some of the lanolin left in the yarn. The lanolin serves to make the fabric warmer and to help the sweater repel water—a necessity in a seaside fishing town. The sweaters feature elaborate raised-stitched patterns with wonderful names, including “ladder of life,” “lobster claw,” and “honeycomb.” These patterns served two purposes: decoration and insulation. Along with being beautiful, these areas of patterning create little air pockets that capture and trap warm air and keep the wearer extra cozy on chilly Irish nights.
What we think of as the traditional Aran sweater is actually fairly modern. The first recorded fisherman sweaters, also known as ganseys, didn’t come about in the Aran Isles until the late 1920s/early 1930s when they were common first-communion gifts for young boys. The adult-sized garments we now associate with fishermen probably came about a little bit later. In 1935, Dr. Muriel Graham, founder of the Irish Homespun Society, started selling handknit Aran items in Dublin. In 1940, the first pattern for an Aran sweater was published by Patons of England, and in the ensuing years, demand grew for these handknit sweaters, and they became a staple of the local economy.
So where did the myth of the family pattern originally come from? Probably from the 1904 play Riders to the Sea by John Millington Synge. In the tragic play, set in the Aran Islands, a woman is able to identify a drowned fisherman as her brother based on some dropped stitches. Companies wanting to add an air of romance to their handknit sweaters took this plot point and ran with it, and people outside of the island readily accepted it as fact. While it’s a complete fabrication, I have to admit that it makes a great story—as long as you don’t ask too many questions about the practicalities.
The myth was further cemented in the consciousness when, in 1967, Heinz Edgar Kiewe published The Sacred History of Knitting, a book with a completely made-up history of Aran knitting and associated patterns. (Kiewe owned a yarn store so he had an ulterior motive.) In his book, Kiewe gave the impression that the folks of Aran had been knitting such sweaters for centuries when in reality he was older than the oldest Aran sweater. For these reasons, I suggest taking any romantic stories related to Aran sweaters with a grain of salt—there’s a good chance they were the brainchild of a clever marketer.
Does all this take away from the beauty and romance of a traditional Aran Isle sweater? Personally, I don’t think so. Each sweater takes more than 100,000 stitches and months to complete. They are all works of art in their own right and a testimony to the art and skill of the maker. The fact that so many people watched Knives Out in the theater and came out talking about a sweater is proof positive enough of the allure of these fabulous garments.