If you could only have one sweater in your wardrobe, the perfect choice would be an Aran, or fisherman’s sweater.
It has all-season versatility (ok, maybe not all summer), and is classic yet fashionable. Luckily, since it will probably last your lifetime, it never really goes out of style.
It is a sweater that is as practical and looks as appropriate on a celebrity as it does on a fisherman.
You’ll find pictures with classic stars such as Steve McQueen, Ryan O’Neal, Robert Redford, Ralph Lauren, and Steven Spielberg, as well as younger stars such as Robert Patterson, Chris Evans, and Paul Rudd wearing them.
They have been featured on the cover of Vogue twice, once on Grace Kelly in 1950, and Taylor Swift wore one on the cover of her Folklore album.
In fact, if you wanted to own an item of clothing that is has been exhibited at the Museum of Modern Art, an Aran sweater is your chance.
A 1940’s Irish sweater was chosen as one of 112 pieces to be part of their “Is Fashion Modern” exhibit which explored what has influenced fashion over the past 100 years.
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What Makes Aran Sweaters Unique?
Aran sweaters (or Geanai Arran in Gaelic) were the work clothing of the farmers and fishermen that populated the Aran Islands situated off the west coast of Ireland.
The three islands (Inishmore, Inishmann and Inisheer) are the western most point of Ireland located at the mouth of the Galway Bay and the Atlantic Ocean.
Aran sweaters, whether original hand-knitted, or contemporary machine-made, are easy to distinguish by their color, pattern, and type of wool.
Most sweaters are kept in their natural color – báinin – although it is possible to find Aran sweaters in other colors today that reflect the Irish countryside.
Type of Wool
Originally, all Aran sweaters were made with unscoured wool. This is wool that retains its natural oils and lanolin. This makes the wool water-resistant. In fact, it can absorb 30% of its weight in water before beginning to feel wet.
This attribute, in addition to wool’s natural breathability, made it the perfect fiber for both farmers and fishermen. It’s unique in that it can wick moisture away from the skin while keeping heat in.
Because of all the air pockets in wool it is very insulating so it keeps the wearer warm in cold weather while still preventing overheating. The combination of wicking and insulating help maintain the perfect body temperature.
Native Irish sheep provide fine merino wool in a white to cream color. The merino wool is finer and contains smaller fibers than rougher wools so it is not only softer and more flexible, but shouldn’t be itchy against the skin.
One of the advantages of merino wool is that it often only needs a simple airing between wearings to allow the fibers to breathe before it can be worn again.
One of the most distinctive characteristics of Aran sweaters is their patterning. It isn’t a function of color choices because only a single color yarn is used, but rather the different knitting stitches used.
A single finished sweater has approximately 100,000 carefully constructed stitches and can require up to 60 days to complete. This labor intensive process is one of the reasons very few Aran sweaters are still made by hand. It just isn’t economical any more. Instead, most are machine made.
Patterning isn’t random. There are less than a dozen basic stitches that are used and each sweater uses a combination of 4-6 patterns, done in vertical columns, with one pattern taking center stage.
Families would hand down their patterning through generations so that they became identifiable by clan. In fact, there is an official register of historic patterns. It is said that fishermen could be identified by their sweater if their bodies washed ashore.
Each different stitch represents or symbolizes an aspect of Irish life and livelihood. Some say that the patterns are reflective of Celtic art. Regardless, each pattern is meaningful to either the farmers and/or fishermen of the Aran Islands.
Cable Stitch represents fishermen’s ropes and a fruitful day at sea.
It promises good luck and safety. It also illustrates how daily life and hard work are woven together.
Diamond Stitch represents the small patchwork of the farm fields of the island. It is a symbol for success and wealth in the fields, and hopes for good luck. When they are filled in by the moss stitch, it’s a depiction of the seaweed that was used to fertilize the barren fields and produce a good harvest.
Others believe that the diamond symbolizes the mesh shape of fishing nets. It also stands for success and wealth.
Zig-zag is often found at the sides of the center cable stitching and represents the ups and downs that married couples face, as well as the twisting cliff paths of the island.
Honeycomb is a reminder of the bees who work hard and assures a reward for labor. In other words, hard work and its sweet rewards.
It is believed to bring good fortune to the wearer. It also represents industry and efficiency as important values.
Trellis stitching represents the stone walled fields of the Northwestern farming communities. It is symbolic of the fenced in fields and the roughly hewn stones that protect the inhabitants from the strong winds on the island.
Tree of Life
Tree of Life is symbolic of the importance of the clan, clan unity, strong parents, and healthy children for long-lasting family lines. The stitch is usually found only on early examples of Aran knitwear.
Irish Moss stitching is often used as a diamond filler and suggests a respectable harvest.
It symbolizes the carrageen moss (seaweed) that is used as both food and fertilizer on the barren fields.
Trinity represents the importance of God.
Basket stitch represents the baskets the fishermen used and their hope of a plentiful catch to fill the basket.
Blackberry stitching is less common but symbolizes the rich abundance of nature and the blackberry patches that dot the island.
It may also possess some religious implications.
Chevron patterns evoke the Atlantic Ocean as it crashes against the cliffs of Inis Mór.
These few stitches are mixed and matched to create a sweater that uniquely illustrated the life and livelihood of the wearer. Today, they are just versatile, great looking, and practical fashion statements.
Buying Aran Sweaters
You can find an Aran sweater at many shops, brands and online since many companies produce them. For instance, they periodically show up in the Sundance catalog.
You can also still purchase an authentic version in Ireland, on Aran Island, and at one of these shops online. Styles, patterns and colors vary, but most sites offer crew neck, shawl collar, turtleneck and cardigans in cream/white, gray, tans, blues, and greens, with a couple offers in reds.
Aran Sweater Market
Aran Sweater Market on Inis Mór maintains the official registry of Irish clans. You can learn the history of a family name. It is also the place where clans registered their historic patterns since 1892.
Most of the sweaters they sell today are machine made, although they do still employ local skilled Aran sweater knitters to create their ClanAran handmade sweaters. All of their offerings are known for their quality, history, heritage, and durability.
Their men’s sweaters start at $75 and range up to $275 in XS – XXL. They also offer big & tall, women’s, children & babies, accessories such as hats and scarves, as well as home products. They offer a signed and stamped Certificate of Authenticity with your purchase.
The site is more than just a sweater shop. You can purchase vintage knitting patterns, wool, knitting kits, and patterns from the various clans. The site gives you a link to your Irish heritage, your clan, and Irish history in general. They have a page of all clan names and crests.
Blarney Woollen Mills
Blarney Woollen Mills is the world’s largest Irish shop. The mill was originally built in 1823 and known as Mahony’s Mills. Eventually, the demand fell and the mill was closed.
Christy Kelleher started working in the mill in 1928 at age 13, moved on to other jobs, and decided to start a small souvenir shop in 1937 in a thatched cottage back in Blarney.
When the mill closed in 1973 he raised the capital to purchase the building and transferred his shop there in 1975. Even after his death in 1991, the business continues to thrive and grow.
The shop offers a greater selection of gift items in addition to sweaters such as full lines of clothing, an extensive jewelry selection (including contemporary designers and Celtic designs) and every type of gift item including china and pewter.
If it’s uniquely Irish, they sell it. Their Aran sweaters are made in Kilcar, County Donegal from 100% merino wool. They start around $100 and come in sizes XS-XXXL. They offer a greater variety of clothing than other shops that feature Aran sweaters.
The Sweatershop in county Galway offers men’s (S-XXL), women’s, children’s, and home goods. Men’s sweaters start at $100 and men’s sizes range from S – XXL. There is also a selection of Guinness T-shirts and hoodies, as well as Celtic jewelry, accessories, shamrock and Guinness gifts.
The Sweatershop is also a family run business that was founded in 1986. They strive for quality, value and selection. They have a number of stores throughout Ireland including Dublin, Kilkenny, and Galway City.
The Irish Store
The Irish Store offers machine made sweaters starting at $110 and a few hand knit choices starting at $300. Their sizing goes from XS to XXL. Their jewelry selection includes rings, watches and cufflinks.
They are a relative newcomer – having opened in 2011. They combine a passion for all thing Irish with customer service and a commitment to promoting local suppliers and creators of quality Irish merchandise.
Aran Crafts is a family business found in county Kildare. Great great grandmother Kate O’Shea was the first craftswoman in Ireland to commercially market her hand knitted woolens in 1856.
Granddaughter Molly established West End Knitwear in 1957 to market Aran sweaters in Monasterevin. The next generation has taken the best traditional aspects of Aran sweaters and incorporated them into modern and fashionable styles.
West End Knitwear is the biggest knitwear manufacturer in Ireland today. They pride themselves on continuing to design garments for those engaged in rugged, outdoor lives. Their sweaters start at $75 and come in sizes XS – XXL.
Aran Island Knitwear
Aran Island Knitwear was established in 1938 and their thatched cottage overlooking the Atlantic on Inis Mór can be seen as you approach the Aran Islands. They offer both hand loomed and hand knitted sweaters and cardigans.
After 3 generations, Aran Island Knitwear has stores in Galway City and Cong, County Mayo, in addition to their original store. Aside from men’s, women’s, children’s and home furnishings, they sell hampers and knitting yarn.
Men’s sweaters come in XS – XXL and start at €55. Other men’s wear includes linen shirts, jackets, and caps.
Aran sweaters are iconic. There aren’t many single items of clothing that have had documentaries made about them.
They are as fashionable today as they were 70 years ago; they are as practical today as they were 250 years ago. You can find versions at innumerable clothing stores, or look for one from an authentic Irish maker.