Knitting formally began in Ireland in the 17th century, but variations of the craft were around for centuries before as noted in an image in the Book of Kells in which a drawing shows Daniel was possibly wearing something that looks like an Aran sweater. Along the western Irish coast, handknitting and other home crafts were methods to generate income in rural people living in poverty during the 19th century.
Aran sweaters became popular in the late 1920s. They were worn for mass and special occassions and much effort and pride went into their design.
From the beginning, the Irish sweater has been intimately linked to clans and their identities. Aran women shared their knitting patterns and skills and passed them from one generation to the next. An official register of these historic patterns has been compiled, and can be seen in the Aran Sweater Museum on the Aran Islands.
The yarn, which is made from a natural wool fiber called bainin, and the stiching are what sets a Aran sweater apart from all others. Because of the insulating capacity of the wool, an Aran sweater can absorb 30 percent of its weight in water before feeling wet. Many of the stitches used in the Aran Sweater are reflective of Celtic Art and each stitch has its own unique meaning.
The cable stitch is a depiction of the fisherman’s ropes, and represents success at sea. The diamond stitch reflects the small fields of the islands and represents the wish for success and wealth. The half diamond, or zig zag, stitch, represents the winding paths on the Aran islands. The tree of life stitch represents the importance of the clan and family.
The first Aran knitting pattern was published in the 1940s by Patons of England and sold by O’Maille’s shop in Galway.
Aran Sweaters and knitting are still popular. With commercialization and machine knitting, hand knit Aran sweaters are rare and valuable and sought after for their quality, their history, and the clan heritage.