What's behind an Irish/Aran Fisherman's Sweater?

Posted by Hilary Davison on

What’s behind the Irish-Aran-Fisherman sweater?

The traditional Irish-Aran-fisherman style sweater was designed by the residence of the Aran Islands, off the coast of Ireland. It is usually cream in color, the shade of 100% natural, unwashed sheep's wool and typically with a raised cable or diamond stitch.



There is debate about the original dates when island residences first started making Aran sweaters. Some stitch patterns are believed, erroneously, to have a traditional interpretation, often of religious connotation. These interpretations were fabricated by Heinz Edgar Kieve, a yarn shop owner who noticed a chance resemblance between Aran stitches and Celtic knotwork and assumed that Aran knitting was at least as old as, if not older than, the knotwork it resembles. He wrote a book on his suppositions, The Sacred History of Knitting, which provides most of the mythology surrounding the Aran sweater. His thesis has, however, been thoroughly debunked.

Most historians agree that far from being an ancient craft, Aran knitting originated as recently as the 1890s, when the government sought to improve the fishing industry on the Islands. Fishermen and their wives from other regions in the British Isles came to help train the islanders in better fishing and fish-processing skills, bringing with them an existing tradition of knitted guernsey sweaters. Guernsey is an island in the British Isles. These guernsey sweaters have similar stitch patterns, though usually only on the neckline, and are crafted in fine wool not available to the Aran Islanders. Enterprising local women began knitting their own version, using thicker local wool and an all-over patterning.

The adult Aran/Irish sweater, as we know it today has been dated back to 1932 when the first one was commissioned by social female reformer Muriel Gahan.

The first commercially available Aran knitting patterns were published in the 1940s by ‘Patons of England’. Vogue magazine had articles on the Aran knits in the 1950s, which grew the sweater exports from the west of Ireland to the United States.

In the early 1960s, Aran sweaters appeared on The Ed Sullivan Show and even in a special televised performance for US President John F. Kennedy. The Clancy Brothers, an Irish folk singing group, and Tommy Makem, another Irish folk musician also helped increase the demand for Aran sweaters.


Here you can see Elvis Presley, Jean Seburg and Steve Mcqueen wearing the Irish fisherman's sweaters.


British and French fashion scenes: Dublin-born London designer, Digby Morton (1906-83) featured Aran- “inspired” hand-knits for the first time in his 1955 autumn show in London, and by 1960, the Irish Times fashion editor was noting that the Irish hand-knit look was influencing Paris.


Part of the appeal and popularity of Aran sweaters comes from the array of myths:

  • The moss stitch was said to signify an abundance of growth.
  • The blackberry stitch was said to represent nature.
  • The honeycomb was said to be a lucky stitch, signifying plenty, or a symbol of a hard-working bee
  • Lattice or basket stitches were purported to represent the old wicker basket patterns, or hope for a plentiful catch
  • The Ladder of Life and Tree of Life were said to represent the stages of life.
  • The Cable was purported to symbolize a wish for safety and good luck when fishing.
  • The diamond stitch was said to be a wish of success, wealth and treasure.
  • It was rumored that each islander (or his family) had a sweater with a unique design, so that if he drowned and was found, maybe weeks later, on the beach, his body could be identified by the sweater design.

Today, Aran sweaters similar to the originals, hold a position at the forefront of street style and runway trends, updated by contemporary styling.

Don't expect to see the Aran sweater going out of fashion anytime soon!


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