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Knitting without the sheep

Any knitter who goes to Ireland knows what is waiting for them… Aran sweaters, Aran scarves, Aran blankets. Aran knitting of all shapes and sizes and colours.

It is probably no surprise therefore that while on my Irish holiday, I found my way to the Aran islands– and I was immediately struck by two things.

First, the islands are flat and bare and barren looking. Secondly, and of more interest to the knitter in me, there are no sheep on the islands.

Not a one.

This was as hilly as it got. The people of the village must face some awful weather when those Atlantic gales blow in.

This was as hilly as it got. The people of the village must face some awful weather when those Atlantic gales blow in.

We took a ferry across to Inisherr, the smallest of the three islands, hired bicycles and set out. Definitely no sheep. Lots of ponies pulling traps full of tourists, and a few donkeys. But no sheep.

But there used to be….

The original Aran sweaters (or jumpers – depending on your style of English) were all hand knitted in undyed pure wool. The wool was unscoured and spun by hand by women on the island. It retained a lot of the natural oils (lanolin) secreted by the sheep. This made the jumpers quite water-resistant (for wool) and they held their shape even when wet, which a lot of wool doesn’t. Being 100% wool, they were warm too – all of which made them very useful items for the island’s fishermen.

When you look at each panel, some of the stitches don't seem all that complex....

When you look at each panel, some of the stitches don’t seem all that complex….

Of course, the most famous thing about the jumpers is the patterns. Each garment has a web of intricate stitches and cables that can be quite staggeringly complex.

I don’t imagine I would ever be able to knit such a thing.

When you look at the garment as a whole, with so many panels with so many different patterns, the complexity is quite staggering.

When you look at the garment as a whole, with so many panels with so many different patterns, the complexity is quite staggering.

The different stitches are said to have meaning… the cable represents the ropes the fishermen used, the diamond pattern is suggestive of the small stone walled fields, the basket stitch is said to be a wish that the fishermen will fill their baskets with their catch before returning safely home. Of course, I have to confess that the meanings of these stitches do change according to who you ask, so it’s probably best to be a little flexible in that matter.

There are apparently different patterns used by different clans and families on the islands. This has given rise to the suggestion that the patterns on the sweaters were used to help identify drowned fisherman. Again, I’m not so certain this isn’t a nice tale made up to impress the tourists – but I for one was prepared to go along with it and be impressed.

With the coming of the tourist economy, the sweaters are now dyed very on-traditional colours... but people seem to like them.

With the coming of the tourist economy, the sweaters are now dyed very non-traditional colours… but people seem to like them.

Today the sweaters are a major part of the economy of the region. Although some still proudly boast of being hand knitted, many are now machine knitted. The problem is that skilled knitters are becoming harder to find. Still, I hope that the tourists, particularly Americans, seemed to be buying them by the box load to ship home will help keep the skill alive.

For my part, my contribution was of course to buy some genuine Irish Aran wool. I won’t attempt to knit a full Aran pattern, but I’m sure I’ll enjoy whatever I knit from it.

I chose wool in shades of blue - to remind me of the amazing blue water around the islands.

I chose wool in shades of blue – to remind me of the amazing blue water around the islands.

My final view of the islands as the ferry took us away was of the wreck of the MV Plassy. The ship was driven aground in a storm in March 1960. She was carrying – appropriately enough – whiskey, stained glass and knitting yarn.  The crew were all rescued by the islanders… and the wreck has been slowly rusting ever since. I had to wonder how many of the crew or their rescuers wore  Aran Sweaters that stormy night.

The ship originally ran aground on rocks near the island, but another storm pushed her up on shore several weeks later. Since then, she has been pushed around by several storms, as she lies rioting on the rocky shore.

The ship originally ran aground on rocks near the island, but another storm pushed her up on shore several weeks later. Since then, she has been pushed around by several storms, as she lies rotting on the rocky shore.

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8 Responses to Knitting without the sheep

  • Loved this piece, thanks so much!

  • Hi Janet,

    the secret to knitting an Aran jumper is a cable needle – a short needle pointed at both ends which you use to park stitlches and pick them up again to form cables and other patterns. It is actually quite easy. Because the woool is thick you work quickly and it is easy to see the patterns develop.

    Best of luck

    Catherine

    • Hi Catherine. I have done a little bit of cable knitting – but very simple patterns. It was fun, but I worry that complex patterns might be a bit tough for me just yet. I am going to try a couple more fairly simple projects and see how I go. Wish me luck – I’ll post the results here when they are done.

  • Such an interesting blog. In my ‘courting days’ I knitted my now husband an Aran jumper and a cardigan for myself. Not sure my fingers would allow this now. My memories of those months in 1971 include knitting by my mother’s hospital bedside and also through a hot summer.
    Now I’m wondering about dead sailors in their sweaters and was the right man identified by his sweater…

    • Thanks Elaine. My husband is not fond of knitted items – so I’ve never knitted him anything – which is a shame. The dead sailors are a haunting thought…

  • I did enjoy this post, Janet. I loved the wool colours you chose – very calming colours, somehow. And I loved that elegant oatmeal-coloured cardigan, too. Just the thing for a chilly autumn evening.

    • I loved that big cardigan too Elizabeth. I am a long way from knitting anything that complex just yet – but I am still working at towards something like that. It may just take me a while to get there.

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