Fierce Authenticity: The Aran Sweater

sweaters

The cold will come upon us soon and stay. In preparation I pulled out my faithful Irish handknit. It might come as a surprise to some that the source for this sweater was Lands’ End. The company was stocking their catalogs with some credible country attire at the time, such as moleskin trousers, heavyweight Viyella shirts and Irish hand knits. I fell in love with the sweater the moment I saw it. I did not keep a copy of the catalog page, but the sales pitch was similar to the narrative on the card that came with a bit of yarn for repairs: “Somewhere far away, in a small cottage, a hand-knitter made this fine sweater just for you.”  The knitter was V. Thompson, her name on the card, which was a novel and nice touch. I imagine that she was part of a small stable of knitters drafted into making sweaters that ended up under a few fortunate Christmas trees over 25 years ago.

Some readers will be cheered and others chagrined to know that the Aran handknit sweater was among the handful of “Official Preppy Handbook” approved sweaters.  Whether preppy or uber-traditional, it seemed like a must-have at the time. I recall seeing them on folks and was happy to think that the wearer had a passing association with the Emerald Isle.

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The sweater takes its name from a trio of Atlantic-battered, rocky limestone outcroppings that sit at the mouth of Galway Bay: Inis Mór, Inis Meáin and Inis Oírr. Or Arainn, Inishmaan and Inisheer; those are the Gaelic names (the language is still spoken on the islands). Inis Mór is the largest island, with over 7,000 acres and a population of 900.  The other two islands have a population of 500 between them.  National Geographic states that the islands “continue to support a way of life of fierce authenticity.” Although thousands of visitors come in the summer, I can only recall meeting one man who has been to the islands. That was the legendary importer George Graham. He visited the islands to buy sweaters and found the spartan lifestyle meshed with his routine of jogging and brisk ocean swims.

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William Buttler Yeats told his fiend John Millington Synge, “Go to the Aran Islands. Live there as one of the people themselves; express a life that has never found expression.” A command that brings to mind James Joyce’s line “to forge in the smithy of my soul the uncreated conscience of my race.” So Synge went in 1898 and spent the next five summers on the islands. His book “The Aran Islands” was published 1907.  Synge encountered men on the big island wearing the “the usual fisherman’s jersey,” a sweater similar to a gansey. Synge’s connection to the Aran is that he might be the inadvertent father of the macabre notion that one can identify drowned fisherman from their patterned sweaters. In his 1904 play “Riders to the Sea,” a drowned Aran man is identified by dropped stiches on his socks.

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On Inis Mór you will find The Aran Sweater museum. In the outside wall is a chipped and scratched sign that reads, “Ireland’s most famous garment is the Aran sweater.  The designs are said to go back to Celtic times and have developed over the centuries to the Aran sweater we know today.” The pedantic sort might insist that this evolutionary development started in the late 19th century and gathered steam after the 1934 dramatization of Island life called “The Man from Aran.”

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The heavy cream-colored boldly stitched sweaters we have come to associate with all things Irish seems to be born of desperate economic times and propelled by savvy marketing. The 19th and early 20th century life on the Aran Islands was a life of farming and fishing. In fact, by 1886 island life had become so grim that Father O’Donogue dispatched a message that said, “Send us boats or send us coffins.” The Victoria & Albert Museum credits early anti-poverty programs set up by the Congested District Board, formed in 1891, as the start of small-scale commercial home-knitting. It took about 45 years to develop the sweater we recognize today.

In 1930, Muriel Gahan opened The Country Shop on St. Stephen’s Green, Dublin. This shop was part of the nonprofit private company The Country Workers and remained open until 1978. One might think of the enterprise as an early example of fair trade. In 1935 she started stocking Aran sweaters after making a visit to the islands. By 1947 she was representing 80 island knitters. Another promoter of the islands and the sweater was the Irish language activist and entrepreneur Pádraig Augustine Ó Síocháin. In 1952 he bought Galway Bay Products Ltd. His sales brochures and book “Aran: Islands of Legend” were illustrated by the Irish artist Seán Keating. The artwork that Keating did for Síocháin’s brochures were featured, along with historic sweaters, in a 2008 exhibit called “Romantic Stiches & Realist Sketches” that ran at The National Museum of Ireland. The proliferation of knitting patterns for home-knitters by firms like Paton of England in 1940s and Vogue in the US during the 1950s added to the interest. A powerful pop culture influence was the Clancy Brothers and Tommy Makem, who frequently wore the sweaters, as did Steve McQueen.

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Reflecting on my Aran sweater, I have to admit we have both seen better days. Frayed collar, broken stiches among the honeycombs and diamonds, I tremble recalling the words of the women who runs the local knitting shop: “This the last time I am repairing this.” The prospect of having to acquire a new Aran sweater corresponded fortuitously with a promotional e-mail Ivy Style received from the Aran Sweater Market. I shared with them that our readers were predominately traditional men and that they would look askance at the women’s and even some of the men’s fashion knits, but they assured me that they also do traditional handknits.

The Aran Sweater Market is indeed a real place. Visitors to Inis Mór frequently find their way to the waterside stone enclave that proclaims a founding date of 1892. Inside they discover a catacomb of wooly grailness. Those who cannot make the journey can find The Aran Sweater market in Killarney, the Shannon Airport, or on the web. They have had an ecommerce site since 2001, where they have offered handknits. I looked at the Clan Aran designs, picked a few patterns that resembled my old sweater, and sent the info along with my measurements to the staff. They picked out an attractive one and dispatched it quickly, arriving within two days. The pattern chosen was the Collins (no family affiliation on my part and none needed).  The handknit sweater has a honeycomb central panel, flanked by cables, blackberry-filled diamonds, and honeycomb rope on either side. It is rendered in a natural báinín color.

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Like Lands’ End of old, Galway Bay, or The Country Shop, the only gentle rap against it is the illogical notion that it might be too easy. No ferry ride, no trampling country roads, collar turned against the wind, knocking on doors of distant cousins looking for a sweater maker. The Aran Sweater Market has already done the hard work enlisting the services of just under 200 knitters on the island and in the West of Ireland. Francis McCaffrey, Internet Marketing Manager for the Aran Sweater Market, said, “Hand-knitting is very much rooted in a certain generation. Most of the knitting ladies are over 60 years old, and one knitter from Donegal is in her eighties.” Given the maturity of the knitters, the Aran handknit is an endangered species.

The sweaters have 100,000 meticulous Marino wool stiches and take up to 168 days to make. The price is currently $199, about $50 more than the average catalog machine knit. It’s a premium Aran aficionados will find well worth paying.

I also discovered the genesis of my reluctance to acquire a new Aran sweater. Given my experience with their longevity, it is quite possible to measure a man’s mortal years in Arans. I have a sense that my number is three. Knowing that brings to mind Synge. I can see him in a Curagh contemplating his own mortality: “If we were dropped into the blue chasm of the waves, this death, with the fresh sea saltness in one’s teeth, would be better than most deaths one is likely to meet.”

I am not ready to swap whiskey for sea water, but I am comforted to know I will be outfitted for it in an Aran sweater. — CHRISTOPHER SHARP

24 Comments on "Fierce Authenticity: The Aran Sweater"

  1. I visited the Aran Islands in 2011 when I was spending the summer excavating in the Burren (I’m an archaeologist). I don’t think I’ve ever been in a more beautiful or peaceful place–standing on the cliff’s edge in Inis Oirr was like standing on the edge of the world.

    I’ve had Arans for as long as I can remember as I used to “borrow” my mother’s and grandmother’s Arans. I now have a substantial collection of my own and every time I wear them (many of them from the Aran Sweater Market, and others purchased on the Aran Islands) I think of that sense of endlessness you get from being on the Islands.

  2. Excellent taste of Gaelic morbidity, great piece!

  3. There is something special about wearing a hand made sweater from Ireland. Who knows how long it will be before they are not made anymore. I’m so happy to hear about the Aran Sweater Market. The idea of getting an Aran Sweater from the Aran Islands is as authentic as it gets. Heritage clothing and brands with a story and history should be supported. As always great article and I will be looking at supporting that Heritage clothing in the near future.

  4. Love these, but I don’t have a need for them.

  5. Wally "Biff" Scott | December 1, 2014 at 4:53 pm |

    Now I’m inspired to pull mine out of the cedar closet and wear it; usually I wait a few weeks longer. Oddly enough, Collins is a family name, but I don’t think the wife knew that when she bought the sweater at a little Irish shop.

    Best blog post on aran sweaters. Really first rate.

  6. Son of Ed(period) | December 1, 2014 at 7:49 pm |

    Excellent little piece. It’s nice to see some spotlight directed towards actual heritage brands. There are so many “resurrected” brands out there, so seeing a bit on the real deal is a breath of fresh, Hibenian, air. Well done.

  7. Karina Martinez | December 1, 2014 at 10:41 pm |

    I’m a knitter and I’ve always wanted to knit one. I have a pattern and will try soon.

  8. I bought my first and only fisherman’s knit sweater from the Sears Roebuck catalog back in the day, and paired it at first with a camel-hair boy coat and a tartan muffler, just thinking that was how it should be worn. I’m from the Upper Great Lakes region and had little or no idea of Ivy Style. But I wore that sweater out. Oddly, I never replaced it.

    I love the photograph of the sweaters stacked on the shelves. I can smell them.

    This post is exquisite. You have made a new friend here.

  9. I have an L.L. Bean cardigan that was made in Ireland circa 1994. It has all the beautiful patterns and textures of the Arans featured here (and on the Market’s website). It is so thick and warm that I almost never have the chance to wear it (no snow where I live). However, as it has great sentimental value, I have no intention of parting with it.

    Thank you for the outstanding article, and for reminding me of that wonderful cardigan I have.

  10. Great post Christopher! I have a fisherman sweater that is not a hand knit Aran, but hand knit by sister. There is something special about knowing that what you are wearing was made out of love. I have included a link to pics in case anyone is interested.

    http://oxfordclothbuttondown.com/2011/12/handmade-irish-fishermans-sweater/
    http://oxfordclothbuttondown.com/wp-content/uploads/2011/12/Irish-Fisherman-Sweater.jpg

  11. Bags' Groove | December 2, 2014 at 9:45 am |

    My wife reminded me of all the hand cream she needed after heroically knitting me a jumper with Aran wool. She’s always asserted it was the toughest wool she’s ever likely to use. All i remember is how the jumper wore me rather than me it. But for those whose wistfulness knows no bounds at the thought of wearing such a jumper, I say wist away, baby!
    And Victoria and Albert Museum, please Christopher.

  12. Bags’ are you from London? Tell me you’ve visited Thomas Farthing down the street from the British Museum…fantastic store!

  13. Bags' Groove | December 2, 2014 at 11:45 am |

    A little outside, but often in the metropolis, tomorrow for example, though solely for a gathering.
    I seem remember you already mentioning this place. I need to see RSH’s new space within the British Museum, having only seen their worthy elevation, so shall ensure that I pop along to Thomas Farthing whilst there.

  14. I knit one in my teens and still have it. I can’t believe anyone would need hand cream while knitting one of these. The yarn traditionally used would not have been scoured of its natural lanolin.

  15. I did bring it up before, hasn’t gotten enough mention around the interwebs in my opinion. Closest we’ve got in New York is Fine & Dandy, a little Roaring Twenties but still, great stuff!

  16. Bags' Groove | December 2, 2014 at 1:24 pm |

    @ AK

    Ah, but this was back in the days of the proper stuff: coarse, a little smelly, and with what appeared to be tiny bits of woody material within it. All somewhat abrasive for a delicate English flower’s hands.

  17. Mr. Sharp, another excellent piece!

    What’s the best source for the best Aran sweater ?

  18. Chris sharp | December 3, 2014 at 1:31 pm |

    Thanks all. Have to be brief on vacation.
    S.E. Definitely give the clan Arans a look if you are doing a web order.
    If your visting the islands or coast there are some places to look at.
    Have to run but can give you more info when I get back.

  19. Charlottesville | December 3, 2014 at 2:09 pm |

    Not at all the same thing, of course, but I note that the J. Press Shaggy Dog Scottish-made Shetland sweater is on sale: http://www.jpressonline.com/shaggy-dog/. Still pricey at $172.50, but also a classic.

  20. One of the color options for the shaggy dog sweaters is “‘spangam”. I wonder whether that’s supposed to be “sphagnum”?

  21. I think “spangam” is a typo for the well-known color “spam gun.”

  22. Wally "Biff" Scott | December 4, 2014 at 2:14 am |

    Is that anything like gangnam?

  23. BULBUL PAUL | August 15, 2015 at 12:07 pm |

    Me, Bulbul Paul ,I am a Hand Knitter. I have a small team here, in West Bengal (India). I have worked for Aran Sweaters through Indian Companies. If you don’t have any problem, I want to work directly for your Company by making hand knit sweaters. If you give me a chance, how should I start up with it ?

    Please send me an email if you agree.

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