Irish Aran sweaters: not quite as traditional as you might think

I’m having a bit of a run-in with a sweater company over a knitting pattern I bought.

The pattern in question is for a Foley clan Aran jumper. (Chris’s mother was a Foley, and it’s through his Grandma Foley that he’s been able to obtain Irish citizenship.) I expected, rightly or wrongly, a typical knitting pattern that tells you what to do row by row on a stitch by stitch basis in terms of knitting, purling, cabling etc. What I got was one line saying listing in what order to do the elements (moss stitch, blackberry stitch and several sorts of cable) of this particular pattern. And that was it: one line from which to interpolate a whole jumper.

Now, I’ve been knitting for half a century now (yikes) and I’m not a total idiot, but it’s taken me many hours to rewrite the pattern into a usable format. The complexity lies in the fact that the various elements extend over a differing number of rows (respectively 4, 6, 10, and 30 in fact) so it’s not straightforward at all. However, my labour of Hercules has only got me as far as far as row 7. I’m now giving up and am trying to get my money back. Probably in vain, but hey.

I shall instead construct my own clan jumper. “Wait,” you might cry in horror, “you can’t do that!” Actually, I can. All the various clan jumpers that are advertised have been concocted by knitted jumper companies in the last 70 years. So whilst they may use traditional pattern elements (for example trellis, tree of life, blackberry stitch), that’s as far as the tradition goes. Foleys have not been wearing their clan jumper for centuries, only since the pattern was invented for them a couple of generations ago.

Below is a swatch of blackberry stitch.

There’s a scene in ‘Riders of the Sea’ by Irish playwright J M Synge in which a woman identifies the drowned body of her brother by the four dropped stitches in one of his socks. (Obviously Mr S wasn’t a knitter because no knitter worth their salt would fob off something on someone with that many dropped stitches – we have our pride. Besides, that many and the thing would be unravelling…) A bit of inventive marketing spin from knitwear designers elaborated this into a myth that drowned fishermen were identified by the ‘clan stitch’ patterns of their jumpers. For me this conjures up the sad image of relatives picking through a pile of poor drowned Aran island fisherfolk washed up on every tide.

The fishing aspect has historical truth, but only dating back to the late nineteenth century when Irish fishermen started to wear ‘ganseys’, or Guernseys. These jumpers from the Channel Islands, with the distinctive diamond gusset under the arms allowing free movement, go back another century or so and started the trend for fishermen to wear nice warm woollies.

Now enter the Congested Districts Board for Ireland in the 1891. Set up by Arthur Balfour (who was later UK Prime Minister), their goal was to alleviate poverty in poorer parts of rural Ireland, particularly the west and north-west. The aid came in the form of funding for public works, modernising farming methods and sponsoring local factories so they could provide more employment. The Board established a knitwear industry in the Aran islands, where formerly sheep farming and fishing were the only means of making a living. The women took to knitting with a vengeance, stockings (socks) at first and then at some point moving onto jumpers. The earliest Aran sweaters known to go on sale were seen at The Country Shop in Dublin in 1935.

The first Aran sweater knitting patterns, published by the aptly named company Patons, went on sale in the 1940s. Vogue got in on the act in 1956, and since then the warm, intricately-patterned sweaters have gone from strength to strength. Some are still hand-knitted, but many are produced in factories these days.

Whilst they may not be that rich in tradition, the sweaters are rich in symbolism in the form of the stitches they feature. These mainly relate to nature and the sea. Basket stitch, for example, represents a fisherman’s basket and the hope for an abundant catch. Irish moss stitch depicts carrageen moss, a type of seaweed that is edible and also a rich fertiliser. Blackberry stitch symbolises the rich bounty of nature, and the Tree of Life stitch, also known as Trinity stitch, stands for long life and lots of children. These last two stitches are thought to have religious connotations too.

Work will begin imminently on a Dagg clan sweater of my own invention. The Foley clan sweater project may not have worked out but at least it’s inspired this new one, and I’ve dug out a little bit of history too.

Incidentally, Caiti spent time on the Aran island of Innishmore last year. She bought me some lovely authentic Aran island wool, some of which I’m busy knitting socks with at the mo. I’m still making plans for the ball of yarn pictures earlier. So plenty of knitting lined up for me for 2021.