According to most accounts, Aran sweaters - the home-made, utilitarian, hardwearing 'fishermans' sweaters made from undyed wool and featuring highly decorative stitch patterns - are actually a 20th century invention. There is little evidence that the garment was worn earlier than this along Ireland's Atlantic seaboard. The Anglo-Irish playwright John Millington Synge (1871-1909) famously went to live among 'the people' on the Aran Islands off the west coast of Ireland for short periods between 1898 and 1902. Synge's observations of life on the Aran Islands were recorded in his book 'The Aran Islands', published in 1907. In it, Synge comments on the local costume:
"In Aranmor [the largest of the Aran Islands] many of the younger men have adopted the usual fisherman's jersey, but I have only seen one on this island."
('The Aran Islands', 1907. Republished by Penguin Books, London, 1992, p14)
This 'usual fisherman's jersey' was known in the west of Ireland as a 'gansey', from the Gaelic word 'geansaí' meaning Guernsey. Which is as strong a clue as we will get that the Aran sweater actually evolved from the heavy woollen sweaters worn by French, English and Scottish fishermen (Guernsey is one of the Channel Islands, located between France and England).
Hand-knitting itself was widely practised in the west of Ireland from at least the 17th Century onwards. Dr Pococke, who toured Ireland in 1752, had this to say about the cottage knitting industry here on Achill Island:
"The inhabitants have a kind of sheep here with a coarse wool fit for yarn stockins, which they spin and knit and sell the stockins for about ten pence a pair; and with this produce they pay their rent."
(Dr. Pococke, 1752. Quoted in 'Achill' by Kennth McNally, p65. Pub David & Charles, Devon, 1973)
J.B. Trotter visited Achill Island some 65 years later and observed that knitting of stockings was still prevalent:
"The people manufacture woollen stockings and cultivate with great care all the available arable parts of land. Great quantities of stockings form stacks in many homes."
(J.B. Trotter, 1819. Quoted in 'Achill Island' by Theresa McDonald, p89. Pub IAS Publications, 1997)
In 1891 the Congested Districts Board was established to encourage the economic development of rural areas in which the population was out of proportion with the productive capacity of the land. The west coast of Ireland was one of the main CDB areas, and one of its targets was to develop the cottage knitting industry. Tuition in knitting was funded by the CDB and in the early years of the 20th century this formed a considerable industry on Achill Island:
"Instruction in various kinds of knitting was given to classes held at Keel, and in one year (to March 31, 1914) earnings from this single source totalled £510. Over the same period income from lacemaking was £102 at Achill Sound, and £34 at Keel."
(From 'Achill' by K. McNally, p111)
"A Miss Chevasse gave knitting classes in Keel, and upon her marriage to a Colonel Wright she suggested to Fr. Colleran that the classes be continued. Fr. Colleran, in conjunction with the CDB Inspector, employed a Miss Loughran to continue giving the classes, even though there were now some expert knitters in the village. In Dooagh, Miss Eva O'Flaherty started a knitting industry using knitting machines and very soon had a coterie of expert knitters and an impressive clientele from all over Ireland."
(From 'Achill Island' by T. McDonald, p314)
Further down the west coast of Ireland, on the Aran Islands, the first knitted sweaters to be sold were produced in the mid-1930s. According to accounts, the founder of the Irish Homespun Society, Dr. Murial Gahan, visited the Aran Islands around this time and purchased sweaters from local knitters to sell in her shop in Dublin. These sweaters featured the highly decorative stitch patterns that characterise 'Aran sweaters'. The use of these richly textured designs apparently stemmed from the custom in the west of Ireland from around the 1920s of providing a special sweater for boys to wear for their first Holy Communion. These sweaters would be hand-knitted from homespun undyed wool, usually by a family member, and as they were a source of family pride great effort went into adorning the garment with intricate and decorative stitches.
This origin of the characteristic Aran sweater in family honour is one source of the misconception that different stitch patterns in Aran sweaters are identified with a particular family, in the way that Scottish clans are identified with a particular tartan. This misconception regarding Aran sweaters was further fuelled by J.M. Synge's 1904 play 'Riders to the Sea', in which the body of a dead fisherman is identified by the hand-knitted stitches on one of his garments. On closer reading of the play, the garment is actually a plain stocking and it is identified by the number of stitches rather than by a decorative pattern - "it's the second one of the third pair I knitted, and I put up three score stitches, and I dropped four of them".
The first Aran knitting patterns were published in the 1940s by Patons of England after being supplied by a shop in Galway. Vogue magazine carried articles on the garment in the 1950s, and exports of ornate knitted sweaters from the west of Ireland to the United States began in the early 1950s. In 1976 Inis Meáin Knitwear was established as a co-operative on the middle of the three Aran Islands, and continues to export traditional Aran sweaters. Other areas of the west of the Ireland, most notably Donegal, also continue to produce premium quality hand-knitted Aran sweaters. Here at Achill Knitwear we source our Aran sweaters primarily from west of Ireland providers.