Big knits are big in style, and the chunky Aran sweater – once Ireland’s fashion secret – has made a huge comeback. Comfortable and super cosy, the humble Aran sweater has been rediscovered and redesigned in recent years by trendy knitwear brands such as Chinti & Parker. There’s no doubt about it – the Aran cable knit is gone global.
Of course, if you’re looking for something truly authentic, you have to get it from the source: the Aran Islands. Although it’s still unclear when exactly the Aran sweater came to be, it’s thought to be in the early 1900s. Here’s everything you need to know:
The women of the Aran Islands started selling their designs to shops on the mainland, as a way of generating their own income. Warm and functional, these fishermen’s sweaters were originally made with unscoured wool using lanolin (a wax like substance) secreted by sheep. The end result was waterproof, durable and required minimal washing – although that did mean you were left with a slight odour problem… however, that didn’t matter to the fishermen. Warmth is what made Aran sweaters endure today. Families even created their own unique, complex patterns (each jumper can have up to 100,000 stitches apiece).
4 The Rise to Fame
In the 1950s and 1960s the export trade of Aran jumpers rose dramatically and soon they were appearing in Vogue magazine and wardrobes all over the world. Something that helped boost the jumper’s global acclaim was revolutionary Irish folk band The Clancy Brothers, whose performance on The Ed Sullivan Show in March 1961 lasted a record-breaking 16 minutes. The quartet were dressed in pristine knitwear – four thick white Aran sweaters that their mother Johanna had sent over to protect them from the bitter winter in New York. Their recordings went on to influence a new generation of artists – including a young Bob Dylan.
Handknit: These are the best quality, but they are also the most expensive. They are made from heavy yarn and knit very tightly, so the patterns are very well defined. Hand knit Aran sweaters are durable and long lasting, retaining both shape and definition for years. Consider buying a size up if you’re investing in a handmade sweater as they are a snugger fit, and won’t loosen with wear or washing.
Machine Knit: Machine knits are usually thinner and will stretch with wear over the years, so we’d recommend buying a size down. They will have less intricate patterns, so they are by far the least expensive. However, they tend to be more colourful, and feature more contemporary styles, with all of the warmth and texture of a traditional sweater.
A good quality Aran sweater should feel heavier than you expect when you pick it up. Traditionally, Aran sweaters were a slightly scratchy and uncomfortable, but the yarn that is used now is usually treated – it’s best to find a sweater with a tightly twisted yarn, which feels slightly harder to touch. The softer wools can lose the stitch definition over time, whereas the tougher wools won’t. If you’re looking for something with more colour and variety, you can get Aran style sweaters made from wool blends, cotton, and linen. These are a beautiful, modern twist on the traditional sweater.
The Aran sweaters use a variety of stiches, each with their own meaning and heritage woven throughout. The stiches are usually closely related to the earth, sea or family. Some of the more popular stitches include the honeycomb (a reminder of the hard-working bee), tree of life (symbolising family unity), the diamond stitch (a wish for success and wealth) and the cable stitch, which represented the fisherman’s rope, a symbol of safety and good luck. No matter what kind of stitch is featured on an Aran sweater, you’re guaranteed to be wearing a piece of history.
Now that that you know all about the Aran sweater, it’s time to buy your very own! Here are some selections of stunning knitwear to get you started.