If the marchers in the New York City St. Patrick’s Day parade weren’t wearing fire department uniforms, high school band uniforms, or full pipe and drum regalia, they were wearing Aran sweaters . And they were beautiful – plain and fancy patterns, man, woman and child, marching up 5th Avenue on a windy but mercifully sunny Saturday.
The oft-told story of the Aran sweater is that they’ve been around for centuries and served to identify Irish fishermen should their lifeless bodies wash up on shore. This gave rise to the claim that Aran patterns were tied to families as are Scottish tartans; there are websites today that will sell you the Aran pattern for “your clan”.
It is now widely believed that Aran sweaters as we know them were started as a cottage industry in the late 19th or early 20th century in the Aran Islands off the west coast of Ireland as income for the isolated residents. Sweaters were traditionally knit with undyed cream wool called bainin (pronounced bawneen), which has high lanolin content and was thickly spun by hand. There’s no denying that the sweaters are cozy gear for outdoorsy types, and colorful history or no, the cables and stitches used in the construction of the garments are full of symbolism . No plans to visit Ireland to buy the real thing? Knit yourself an Aran:
There are plenty of books on the subject, or design your own using Barbara Walker’s Treasuries and a basic cardigan or pullover pattern. Elizabeth Dimbleby has photos and instructions for some common Aran stitches, including this fabulously complex “wide multi-cable”
Images of unfinished Aran sweaters are care of fluffbuff blog a great blog by an Italian in LA