History Lesson: The Fisherman Sweater
Garmento magazine’s Jeremy Lewis gives us the backstory on the classic seafaring-inspired sweater.
Six miles off the western coast of Ireland sit
the Aran Islands, birthplace of the Aran sweater—known more simply as the
fisherman sweater. With their cliff-side farms and stonewalled fields, the
islands are an enchanting but unforgiving place where the sea is master over all.
Though beautiful, life on the Aran Islands is not without hard work. In 1891,
Ireland’s Congested Districts Board, looking to boost the area’s economy,
encouraged Aran home knitters to sell their wares. Knitting soon became an
important cottage industry, and at its core was the Aran sweater.
The Aran sweater is derived from the guernsey, or gansey, sweater, worn by fishermen throughout the British Isles for hundreds of years. Though often likened to a Scottish kilt, the Aran sweater is actually a modern invention, created by Aran Islanders who embellished a classic staple with local flair to sell as their own. Unlike most gansey sweaters, Aran ones feature a rich array of stitch techniques. Lore says that each stitch has a symbolic meaning. These meanings likely developed among the cottage-industry knitters who used the stitches as charms and created stories with their double meanings. The designs are heavily inspired by the architecture and design of the local Celtic ruins as well as
fisherman’s knots. The cable stitch, resembling a
rope, represents safety at sea or the fisherman’s life itself, the honeycomb is
a symbol of the hardworking bee, the lattice or basket stitch represents a
bountiful catch, and the diamond pattern is a symbol of wealth. The more
complex the design, the more difficult and time consuming and therefore
expensive it is to make. The sweater’s notable cream or ecru color comes from bawneen, the
undyed wool traditionally used for this and other workwear garments. With its
golden hue and beautiful knots and loops, a hand-knit Aran sweater has become a
kind of mascot of the islands.
The Aran sweater maintained its popularity in Ireland, but quickly its popularity caught on elsewhere: A pattern for an Aran sweater design was published by Vogue in 1956, and by the ’60s, it was a familiar style popularized by the Irish musical act the Clancy Brothers. Now totally ubiquitous, Aran sweaters are made all over the world, but the best are still made in Ireland.
Jeremy Lewis is the founder and editor of Garmento, an independent magazine that addresses fashion’s past and present. He has also written for Fantastic Man, Style.com, Artforum and Encens magazines.