The Fabled Aran Sweater

Awash with ideas for Halloween costumes, I finally settled for Hemingway. It’s easy (spray-on white beard + pillow under sweater + fishing pole), and fun (goes well with copious amounts of liquor).

Turns out this is actually a Norwegian number donned by Papa, but whatever.

Turns out this is actually a Norwegian number donned by Papa, but whatever.

So, when planning out the attire, I naturally decided on a thick wool knit sweater to compliment the intense chill that will by 10/31 have descended upon Chicago. After a few trips to thrift shops I found the perfect specimen for a 3 dollars US currency: mint vintage Aran sheep’s wool sweater.

I’d always seen the sweaters at goodwill but never really gave them a chance, (my mind must have been clouded by dreams of finally finding an L.L.Bean Norwegian). So it wasn’t until after purchasing this that I even thought to research the history of the Aran sweater – a history that turns out to be richly storied.


So here goes:

The sweaters owe their title to the Aran Islands, off the coast of Ireland. The sweaters are distinguished by their use of complex and symbolically textured patterns stitched vertically down the front, (usually 4-6 patterns). Because the wool was generally unscoured, the garment retained natural oils from the sheep’s skin, making them water resistant but also very warm. Thus, they were the perfect attire for Irish fishermen in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. (They also provided knitting for the fishermen’s wives).

Aran Islands Fishermen. Unknown Date.

Aran Islands Fishermen. Date Unknown.

Over time, the stitching began to take on a symbolic meanings. For instance, the honeycomb is a symbol of the hard-working bee; the cable, an integral part of the fisherman’s daily life, is said to be a wish for safety and good luck at sea; the diamond is a wish of success, wealth and treasure; and the basket stitch represents the fisherman’s basket, a hope for a plentiful catch.

Additionally, combinations of patterns grew specific to families of prominent Irish fishermen in the area. Legend has it that the reason behind this tradition is that if a fisherman drowned at sea, his body could later be identified on the beach via the stitching of his sweater, despite facial decomposition. While this is generally refuted as a misconception parlayed by J.M. Synge’s 1904 play Riders to the Sea, in which the body of a dead fisherman is identified by the hand-knitted stitches on one of his garments, I still think it’s a fantastic story to accompany a fantastic sweater.

I wish that more garments had stories and legends surrounding them — because the history and philosophy behind the clothing is what makes fashion truly interesting to me.

Mich in an Aran, photo via Black Watch

Mick in an Aran, photo via Black Watch

Steve McQueen killin' it, photo via The Selvedge Yard

Steve McQueen killin' it, photo via The Selvedge Yard


Filed under Apparel, Literature

7 responses to “The Fabled Aran Sweater

  1. lulu

    new post please

  2. rus

    could you make a report about the plain turtleneck?
    i’d be interested what is the original and what story is behind it, by the way great blog 🙂

    greetings from germany

  3. amy

    nice summary.

    (but keith richards, yes?)

  4. tylerbenz

    oh boy… nice catch. KEITH NOT MICK.

  5. Falenes

    Just found your blog while researching sweater pattern ideas. I am excited about your Paris adventure! It’s one of my favourite places in the world. I have friends who live there who tell me there are 12 tourist layers of Paris. Layer one includes la tour eiffel, l’arc de triomphe, le louvre, etc. – the places everyone goes on their first trip. After 8 or 9 visits, I am probably only on about layer 3 or 4. My best advice to you is walk, walk, walk.

    Pour te dire merci, avec mes pieds je te caresse

    P.S. As I understand the world, it was the sailors, and not their wives, who were the knitters.


  6. Libby

    the isle of aran is off the west coast of Scotland, not Ireland. xxx

    • Not so Libby.
      The Aran Islands, home of the sweaters in question, are indeed off the west coast of Eire, near Galway. You’re most likely confusing them with the Isle of Arran in the Firth of Clyde, near Glasgow, western Scotland.

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