The Aran Jumper

Inis Meain, The Aran Islands

Check out how this practical woolly jumper travelled all the way from Ireland’s Aran Islands to the pages of Vogue magazine…

Humble island beginnings

Every great icon has a great back story! And the story of the Aran jumper begins on the wild Aran islands – three rugged isles peeking out of the Atlantic Ocean off Galway, along the west coast of Ireland. They were first inhabited by the Celts, who are thought to have inspired the intricate and unique designs found in Aran jumpers. The first Aran jumpers were made using unscoured wool – which retains its natural oils – to make the iconic fisherman’s garment. The end result was waterproof, breathable, warm and barely needed to be washed (although the smell wasn’t the best!).

Fishing was a huge part of life, and so these jumpers quickly became a staple of the Aran families. Rumour has it that families designed their own patterns so they could identify drowned fishermen. Although this has never been confirmed, it would certainly explain the unique patterns adopted by each family.

Stories in the stitches

The intricacy of the stitches used are not for the faint-hearted knitter. Each Aran jumper contains around 100,000 stitches and takes the Aran knitter approximately 60 days to complete! Plus, each stitch has its own special meaning, with many reflecting Celtic art and relating to island life...

The Cable: A depiction of fisherman’s ropes, it represents a wish for a fruitful day at sea.

The Diamond: This stitch is a wish for success and wealth! It reflects the small fields of the islands and are often filled with a Moss stitch, which represents the seaweed used to fertilise barren fields and produce a good harvest.

The Zig Zag: A half diamond, this represents the twisting cliffs and paths on the islands.

The Tree of Life: One of the original stitches and unique to the earliest examples of Aran knitwear, this reflects the importance of family and a desire for family unity.

Creativity extends beyond the islands

For a while, the Aran jumpers remained the Aran islands’ little secret. However, the great literary revival of the 20th century brought visitors in search of authentic Irish language and folk traditions. This led to a deeper appreciation of these hand-crafted jumpers. The industrious Aran women took hold of this, and began selling their designs to the mainland. By the mid 20th century, most island women were adding to their family income through their knitting work!

The Aran Jumper goes global

Who knew that these fisherman’s jumpers would one day walk the catwalk? After appearing in an issue of Vogue magazine in 1956, these woolly wonders were put on the world stage. Their global acclaim was boosted further in 1961, when Irish band The Clancy Brothers wore them on The Ed Sullivan Show, making quite the fashion statement. They were sent by their mother to keep them warm during a bitter New York winter!

The Aran jumper returned again to the city in 2017 to be included in an exhibition of global fashion in the MoMA, cementing itself as iconic in the fashion industry.

Those famous stitches can now be found in all sorts of colours, and are now one of the most successful craft industries in the world. But we never forget the Aran jumper’s humble beginnings out on the wild and wonderful Aran Islands…

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