From the islands of the Wild Atlantic Way to the catwalks of the world, Aran knits merge rich history and slick modernity. We take a closer look at the heritage influencing Mulberry and Michael Kors…
With their distinctive chunky cable patterns, Aran knits are instantly recognisable. Hailing from a small set of islands 30 miles from Galway Bay, off the west coast of Ireland - collectively known as the Aran Islands - jumpers from Inis Mór (Inishmore), Inis Oírr (Inisheer) and Inis Meáin (Inishmaan) have become a favourite of film stars, style icons and fashion houses.
Many trace their international popularity back to an appearance in a 1950s edition of Vogue magazine in the US. Following this, both Steve McQueen and Grace Kelly were spotted in Aran knits out yachting – and where the ‘King of Cool’ leads, many follow.
Since then, Aran knits have waxed and waned in popularity. Though in recent years, there’s been a noticeable surge of interest. From Cara Delevingne for Mulberry to the runways of Michael Kors, you can’t miss Aran. Alexa Chung is a fan, as is Sarah Jessica Parker who has a holiday home in Donegal on the Wild Atlantic Way.
Contemporary Irish designers like Simone Rocha and Joanne Hynes use Aran in new and interesting ways, pairing them with different textures and fabrics. We asked Hynes for some advice on wearing Aran without looking too traditional: “Wear it with neoprene, denim, leather and turn it on its head!"
Hynes says Aran has directly influenced her work over the past 15 years. “It represents our heritage and our identity,” she explains. “I have abstracted it in many forms and used it within knitwear shown at London Fashion Week. The abstraction has led to wonderful things and we have embellished Aran patterns in the past, using crystal and hand-work on top. I am interested in the history of it and its deep-seated symbol of Irish craft globally."
Symbolism of the Stitch
As well as being a symbol of Irish craft, Aran sweaters themselves are widely believed to be rich in symbolism. Each stitch is said to carry special meaning.
The cable stitch symbolises fishing ropes and wishes safety for those at sea, the basket stitch represents the hope of a bountiful basket teeming with fish, while the diamond symbolises wealth and success.
The Irish moss stitch depicts carrageen moss; a type of seaweed found on the Wild Atlantic Way, which was used as a fertiliser - this wishes a good harvest. Whereas the honeycomb stitch wishes reward for ‘hardworking bees’ and the zig-zag stitch represents winding paths that lead to the sea, and perhaps the ups-and-downs of married life.
Fishing is a reoccurring theme with Aran. Traditionally on the Aran Islands, sheep were the only animals on land and fishing the only employment, so because of this the two naturally combined. Wool came from the sheep and fishing folk began to wear Aran jumpers. Knitting became a social activity for the women of the Aran Islands and a great excuse to meet up and chat.
If you want to learn more about the craft of Aran knitting, why not try making your own? You can find free patterns here or if you’re on the Wild Atlantic Way, stop by a local mill, such as Foxford Woollen Mills in County Mayo, to see this craft up-close. If you’re on the Aran Islands themselves, just ask a local. Many B&Bs offer one-to-one tuition.
Grace Kelly via The Irish Store
Steve McQueen via Edel MacBridge.com
1950s Vogue via Etsy
Annie Leibovitz, September 2013, via Vogue
Sarah Jessica Parker via People
Alexa Chung via Lavidadeserenipity
Cara Delevingne for Mulberry via IMAGE
Michael Kors autumn/winter via IMAGE
Catwalk image on Facebook: The Donegal Shop