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Irish Art - Aran Sweaters

With the cold weather approaching, I decided to dig through my cedar closet for warm clothing to donate to a local charity in time for the holidays. I came upon a pleasant surprise. Among the older garments that I never wear was an Aran-style sweater that I knit about 10 years ago when I lived in New York City. At the time, I hung out with a cadre of knitters in the West Village, and the day I finished this sweater, I received a round of applause from my knit mates. Then, I just made up a nice pattern thinking I had created a real Aran sweater. In the years that have passed, I have acquired true respect for authentic hand-knit Aran art.

Aran sweater patterns originated in the Aran Islands off the coast of Galway in western Ireland. I learned that these beautifully intricate sweaters are linked to Ireland’s clans and to their identities. If you know how to interpret the combination of stitches you can gain insights into the knitters themselves and their families. Each sweater pattern is carefully guarded and has been kept within the same Aran island clan for generations. Historically, Aran sweaters were not only a source of family pride, but also useful in identifying the bodies of fishermen washed ashore after accidents at sea. If you visit the islands, you can see the official register of these historic patterns at the Aran Sweater Market, which originated in the small island community of Inis Mor, now with a presence in several other locations throughout the country.

Aran sweaters are ideally suited for the island’s fishermen and farmers because they absorb 30% of their weight in water before the wearer feels wet. Their breathable natural wool draws water vapor away from the skin and the fiber’s high volume of air provides excellent insulation.

According to the Aran Sweater Market, a finished sweater contains about 100,000 stitches, many of which are reflective of Celtic art and compare to patterns found at Neolithic burial sites. The stitches carry unique meaning and a historic legacy from the lives of the Island community. A few examples: the cable stitch depicts fisherman’s ropes; diamond stitches, the islands’ small fields; Irish moss stitches, the seaweed used to fertilize barren fields; the zigzag stitch, the paths of the islands. The Tree of Life stitch, found in the earliest Aran knitwear, expresses a desire for clan unity.

As the demand for Aran sweaters grows and the number of hand knitters decreases, hand-knit Aran sweaters have become rare and valuable. So, I looked at my attempt at this very special art form and felt a heightened respect and gratitude for the communities on the Aran islands and the art form they have so diligently preserved for the enjoyment of hand knitters everywhere. Now, I’m inspired to keep my old sweater and to dig deeper into my closet for a different charitable holiday season donation.

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