Aran knitting is probably the craft most associated with Ireland, and Aran sweaters, both cardigans and jumpers, are popular and practical Irish gifts. These thick, sturdy sweaters are traditionally knit from undyed, natural wool with a variety of elaborate cable stitches. Originally, the wool used retained its natural lanolin, which increased its water resistance, but now the lanolin is usually removed from the wool as they are more loved for their appearance than function. They are cozy and warm, and make great winter wear, but nowadays people spending the day out in the elements have more specialized gear.
The popular pull overs are named for the Aran Islands off the west coast of Ireland, where they originated. The main industry for the three islands was traditionally fishing, and the men were at sea in small boats all day long, long before Goretex was developed! The women knit the sweaters to keep the men as warm and dry as possible when they were out fishing. Similar garments were knit throughout the coastal areas of Ireland and Scotland, but the knitters of the Aran Islands distinguished themselves with their stunning, detailed and complex cable knitting designs.
While the earliest evidence of Aran knitting stitches is a matter of debate, about a hundred years ago the islanders realized the commercial value of their traditional knitting beyond their own islands. They began an organized effort to produce the sweaters for a wider market, and they were an overwhelming success. They are timeless treasures that remain in demand as Irish gifts at home and abroad and serve as a symbol of the west of Ireland specifically and Ireland as a whole.
By hand, it can easily take an experienced knitter a week or more of full time work to create one Aran sweater so now they are produced by machine to keep the price from skyrocketing. Few people want to pay $500 or more for a sweater, no matter how gorgeous and practical it is! Not to mention that it would be impossible to find enough expert knitters to keep up with the global demand for Aran jumpers. But today’s machine produced Aran knitwear looks as amazing as ever with the same elaborate cable stitches such as the honeycomb, moss, tree of life and blackberry stitches.
Today, tourism is a critical part of the economy of the Aran Islands and they have retained their breath-taking beauty. The islands are rugged, exposed to the wild Atlantic, and life there is not easy. But they are gorgeous with small fields lined with traditional stone walls and cozy little cottages. You won’t find the same supply of modern luxuries, but sometimes you don’t want to find them. Sometimes the whole point is to get away from modern life and escape the world of buzzing, beeping busyness where we are always in too much of a rush to pause and look around. One of the greatest Irish gifts these three little islands offer is the feeling of being transported to a calmer, slower, happier world.