Irish Wool Sweaters (Aran Sweaters):  A Visible Expression of Your Irish Side

The popularity of Irish wool sweaters (Aran sweaters) can be linked to their rich history, interesting folklore, impressive craftsmanship, practical usefulness... 

C'mon, seriously.  The real reason for their popularity is they look and feel great!  But it can also be fun to tell an interesting story about the clothes you wear...

Paul Newman smoking a cigar wearing an Aran sweater (and not happy about being photographed.)

Let's take a closer look at this unique form of Irish expression.

So ... Where Did Irish Wool Sweaters Come From?

Centuries ago, fishermen of the Aran Islands wore these warm, handwoven sweaters at sea.  Naturally water-resistant due to the lanolin in raw sheep's wool, they were a highly practical working garment.

In the early 20th century the Aran sweater began to expand in popularity, as young boys began to wear them to Sunday mass.  This led to the gifting of Aran sweaters for First Communion.

In the 1950s and 60s, the Irish wool sweater industry became more commercialized, with industry tradesmen visiting the Islands and sharing global standards and sizes.  Vogue magazine published several articles about amazing Aran sweaters. 

Machine knitting gradually replaced hand-knitting.  And Aran sweaters became a global phenomenon.

Irish Wool Sweaters - Stack of Aran Sweaters

Tales and Folklore

In the early years, knitting was a collaborative effort in the Aran Islands.  The women did not put patterns to paper, so the subtleties of Aran knitting were passed down to future generations by word-of-mouth.

Since the practical purpose of an Irish wool sweater was to keep a fisherman warm and dry, the wool was not washed prior to knitting, and the lanolin in the wool made the garment water-repellent.

Aran sweaters were designed to be unique, to represent the wearer and keep him safe. Some stitches represented religious beliefs, others represented the wearer's clan.

When fishermen were lost at sea, it is said their bodies could be identified by the sweater they wore.

Among the many myths surrounding Aran sweaters, is the idea of the sweater as a bridal shirt.  One legend holds that when a young fisherman became engaged, his bride to be would knit him a sweater, which became a symbol of their commitment.

And quite a commitment it was ... since the average Aran sweater requires about 100,000 stitches to produce!

Irish Wool Sweaters - Aran sweaters on movie stars.  Photocredit:  The Skinny Stiletto.

Photocredit:  The Skinny Stiletto

Patterns and Meanings

Every stitch of an Irish wool sweater indicates something distinctive and meaningful.  It can take months to complete a hand knitted sweater, depending on the complexity of its patterns. 

It is common practice to incorporate as many as eight different patterns into one sweater.  Here are some patterns and their alleged meanings:

Cable Stitch – symbolizes fisherman's rope. Most prominent stitch found in Aran sweaters.

Blackberry Stitch – link to the natural world.

Diamond Stitch – replicates fisherman's basket, denoting wealth.

Honeycomb Stitch – the 'lucky' stitch, suggesting a good catch for the fisherman.

Zig Zag Stitch – married life is filled with ups and downs.

Tree of Life Stitch aka Trinity Stitch – all about clan unity, long life, strong parents and sturdy children.

Moss Stitch - growth and spring on the Aran Islands

Ladder of Life Stitch - represents the stages of life we all go throug

Irish Wool Sweaters - Smiling Man in Sweater and Cap

Modern Types

Hand Knit: As the name implies, hand knitted sweaters are created by a human, yarn and knitting needles. Stitches and patterns of these sweaters are too complex and elaborate for a knitting machine to produce.

Hand Loom: Hand loom sweaters are fashioned on a single operator loom. While the type of stitches is adjustable, they aren't as tight as hand knit. The hand loom sweaters are more budget friendly than hand knit and for the price, they are comparable.

Machine Knit: Quality varies, depending on type of yarn and compactness of stitches.

Interesting!  What's Next?

At Irish Expressions, our our goal is simple: to provide you with a unique Irish experience, on demand, wherever you are in the world.

If you have enjoyed our section on fun Irish trivia and customs, you have probably been exposed to many of the most exciting traditions that Ireland has to offer!

Will that entice you to visit Ireland - or to return if you have already been? 

We hope so!  

But even if that is not possible, you can still enjoy the magic of Ireland in these pages.  Check out the links at the top of the page for simple instructions on how to explore Irish landmarks, sing Irish songs, enjoy Irish food, and much more!