History of Aran Sweaters: Origins, Knitting Stitches & Symbols

The History of Aran Sweaters: A visual guide to symbols used in aran knitwear

Four men in traditional Aran Sweaters and tweed flat caps

Knitting is one of the oldest forms of clothes making. It can be traced back as far as the 3rd century BC. Socks and stockings were the most common garments made. Fast forward to the 17th and 18th century, knitted sweaters and cardigans were made more, to keep out the chill on a winter’s day rather than as a garment to show off wealth and status Irish knitwear in particular began to thrive around this time. Irish sweaters, as we know today, originated from the Aran Islands. The Aran Islands are 3 rocky isles, located off Galway Bay, Western Ireland.

Aran Sweater Origins: About the Aran Sweater

Aran sweaters were first made by hand by the women of the islands. As sheep were the only animals on the islands, naturally they were used for their wool. The women made these for their families, mainly fishermen, to protect them against the harsh elements of the Atlantic coast. It is said that each pattern can be traced back to a specific clan and region. Legend has it, as fishing was a treacherous trade, many men lost their lives at sea, and the specific patterns on their sweaters were used to identify their unfortunate bodies!. These women had exceptional skills when it came to the craft of knitting.

They spun their own yarn on spinning wheels and each stitch and symbol is intricate and interwoven to create a masterpiece. As each sweater was hand-made, each one was as unique as the one before it. Some of the symbols used have a traditional interpretation, mainly a representation of good luck and wishes with some closely associated with religion. These sweaters continue to fascinate people worldwide. Here we will look closely into some of the most famous symbols used in Irish Knitwear.

Aran Sweater Stitches – Meanings & Symbols

The Cable & Rope Stitch

Cable rope stitch - a popular pattern for Aran sweaters. Also known as a rope stitch

This is perhaps to most widely recognised stitch commonly used stitch and would be familiar with most of our readers. The cable is a plain stitch that represents the fisherman’s rope, it is a tribute to their daily lives. As the cable is such an important tool, it is said to bring good luck while fishing and is a wish from home for safety.

The Basket Stitch

The basket stitch

This square stitch represents the fisherman’s basket and the hope of a plentiful catch.

The Diamond Stitch

The diamond stitich

The diamond stitch is usually formed with the Moss Stitch which is used as a filler between diamonds and represents the shapes and movement of the mesh used to make the fishing net. It is also used as a traditional blessing and wish to bring wealth, treasure and success.

The Honeycomb Stitch

The honeycomb stitch

Another one of the more popular stitches, the intricate Honeycomb stitch represents the hardworking honey bee. Hard work was a value held in high regard by the people of the Aran Islands. The symbol represents the sweet rewards for hard, honest work.

The Tree of Life Stitch

The Tree of Life stitch

Perhaps most closely related to ancient religion, the Tree of Life Stitch is also known as the Trinity Stitch. It can symbolise a pagan’s life journey to salvation. It symbolises eternity and the strong ties of a family and expresses the desire for unity among family. It promises the clan a long and prosperous life. It is also known as the ladder stitch or the ladder of life stitch.

The Zig Zag Stitch

The zig-zag stitch

This particular stitch represents the ups and downs of married life, as no marriage is a straight path. The design can generally be seen from the shoulder to the hem. It also symbolises the twisting and winding cliff paths so commonly associated with the West coast of Ireland.

The Trellis Stitch

The trellis stitch

This stitch is intricately weaved together on top of a purl stitch and represents the stoney fenced fields of the West and also the nets of the fishermen. The fences, like the stitch offer protection against the elements, the strong Atlantic wind.

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