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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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