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Head to Ireland to explore a knitting heritage bound up in myth, nature and one of the world’s most successful marketing strategies.
Comprising the windswept islands of Inis Mor, Inis Oirr and Inis Meain islands, the Aran isles sit off the west coast of Ireland. The 1,000-strong population lives a rustic existence where warm clothing is essential, and the locally-made Aran sweater has become world-famous.
Yet the history of the Aran sweater as we know it today is a relatively recent one. While the women on the islands have been knitting for centuries, the quintessential complicated stitches date only from the 19th century.
During the potato famine of the 1800s, the Irish government set up the Congested Districts Board, who encouraged women living on the Aran isles to knit socks, sweaters, caps and mittens to sell. To boost trade, the Board taught the women to develop more challenging stitches that gave the garments a luxurious feel.
Today, knitwear and yarn designer Jo Kerrigan believes the designs are a variant of Bavarian twisted stitch patterns. "They were usually worked over single rather than double stitches, and might well have been developed to cope with rough homespun wool that had a distinct singles bias, which could be corrected by the strong texture of the cabling," she says. "You see examples of this patterning in finer yarn all over Europe, but on Aran, where thicker homespun yarn was used, the cable over four or six stitches was more effective than one over one. And these techniques combined with the natural bainin wool – undyed oil-rich wool – hold off mist and light rain very well."
The marketing myth with a root in truth
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The complex designs of the clothing led to one of the most evocative legends of any knitwear, as Aran isle knits were said to be so individual to a household that a wife could identify a drowned husband by the pattern of his jumper.
Yet, Jo Kerrigan points out, at least part of the source of this legend lies in a work of fiction: "There is a general consensus that the 'identify your drowned husband by the pattern' idea stemmed from a misinterpretation of Irish writer JM Synge's 1920s play, Riders to the Sea. In that play a girl identifies the clothing of her drowned brother by a sock: ‘The third pair I knitted, and I put up three score stitches, and I dropped four of them...’"
By the 1930s, the line from the play morphed from literature to marketing gold, touted across the world and entrancing the Irish disapora as well as anyone with a passion for a good story.
But as Jo explains, as successful as this marketing strategy became, it isn’t entirely untrue. ìI think it extremely probable that most families would have their own arrangement of pattern stitches,î she says. ì It's only practical and sensible, and saves having to redesign it every time. So although the scene in the play is often misinterpreted, it’s likely that Aran knits were fairly identifiable and attributable to different families in what was, after all, a very small community.î
Land, sea, stitches
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Anne O’Maille is the head of O’Maille – the Original House of Style, a family business established in Galway in 1938.
"My uncles and aunt were original crafts people," says Anne. "My mother-in-law was an excellent knitter and my aunt Mary was a brilliant seamstress – she made many of the costumes for the 1952 John Wayne film The Quiet Man."
The O’Maille’s went on to become the first retailers in Ireland to trade in Aran sweaters, ensuring the intricate stitches remain one of the most recognisable – and challenging – knitting styles in the world.
Anne says. "My own daughter is a Master Knitter, but even she only knits about one Aran sweater a year. The commitment of creating an Aran sweater is too much for most people to take on. You need dexterity and lots of motivation to complete such an elaborate design. Whenever I knit one I try to make it more detailed than the last – it’s a chance to show off your talent!"
The stitches are rich in symbolism, so each design tells a story.
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"There’s a distinct connection between nature and the sea and the stitches," Anne says. “These knitting designs symbolise the daily life of the islanders, their remote surroundings, and their religious beliefs. Each garment incorporates stitches representing age-old Irish traditions and culture. For example, cable stitches represent fishing ropes; the plaited cable stitch evokes the powerful imagery of the interweaving of family life; diamond stitches signify the shape of the fishing net mesh – a symbol of wealth and success."
She adds: "Honeycomb stitches represent the rewards of a good life. Trinity stitches represent ancient and religious beliefs. Blackberry stitches have religious and natural connotations. And stitches such as lobster claw, spoon and basket are symbolic of the way of life of the knitters. To me, the cable stitch is the most demanding, which may be why I love it so!”
Jo Kerrigan is particularly fond of the moss stitch. "Moss stitch was always popular even before Aran sweaters existed, and I like to think that is a reflection of the wonderful variety of mosses that flourish over here."
Donal Sweeney is the proprietor of Rathlin Knitwear, a company in Kilcar, County Donegal, which produces hand-loomed knitwear. "We use very old handlooms, almost weaving the wool to give traditional sweater designs a contemporary appearance," he says. "A lot of the top designers take the old stitches, such as basket, or cable or honeycomb, and encompass it into a small part of the garment. People enjoy the fact the clothing has a history and a very definite identity. This area has some Gaelic-speaking communities, and we often stitch a bit of Gaelic into the garments."
Most Irish knitters are keen to point out that there’s more to their knitting heritage than the famous Aran designs.
Carol Feller is a knitwear designer living in Cork, southern Ireland. She says: "The ‘traditional’ Aran has long been exported to the rest of the world as being quintessentially Irish, but more important to me are the mills still operating here, including Donegal Yarns, Cushendale and Kerry Woollen Mills. They all produce high quality yarn and are making changes so they continue to appeal to modern knitters, while bringing the experience and knowledge from generations of working in textiles."
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Designer Al Stringer is the founder of Sleeve League, a Donegal-based website selling hand-loomed knitwear. The company has been reinventing traditional styles for a modern age with fewer demands on warmth and greater demands on appearance, using the rich, vibrant Donegal Yarns.
"I wanted to get away from the conception of Irish knitwear as being bulky cable-knit fisherman’s style and reinterpret them as something with a younger, more unisex feel," Al says. "The four designs Sleeve League currently markets draw on the natural colours of the countryside. So verdant green is in abundance, along with warm, evocative peat hues, big sky and open-water blues and the striking reds taken from the fuchsia blossoms that line the lanes at this time of year."
Jo Kerrigan is similarly inspired by the landscape when it comes to yarn designing. "I use natural dyes whenever I can – peat for black and brown, blackberries for violet and blue, various lichens for oranges, and so on. The colours aren’t as vivid as those you get from manufactured dyes, and they do tend to fade, but I love using them."
Lesons for life
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For many Irish knitters, the passion began early in their lives, and Jo is no different. "I have been knitting as long as I can remember. My mother was a wonderful craftswoman and she probably taught me the basics, but from then on I just worked it out for myself."
The Aran sweater patterns were familiar to Jo from childhood, but as an adult she realised she could use the designs and stitch combinations to create lighter, more free-flowing garments.
"Once I’d grasped the idea that I could bring the drama of Aran stitches into the world of fashion, I couldn’t wait to get started."
Now she uses combinations of rare coned yarns collected from all over Europe to create original, contemporary garments – such as an intricately cabled cropped jacket in a very fine, light Italian mousse yarn. "I had to ply it four times before I got the effect I wanted, but I’m pleased with the result. It’s elegant and airy, but it’s still an Aran pattern."
Carol Feller, too, remembers knitting being an early part of her life. "I began knitting in primary school when our whole class was taught, and I knitted for myself and my dolls," she says. "My grandmother was a wonderful knitter; in fact every September when my mum went back to school the nuns would examine her new jumper to see what wonder she’d produced that summer. But although she took great pride in her knitting it was primarily a functional tool to clothe her family."
A future for Irish knitwear
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While the number of people handknitting professionally in Ireland has reduced, Donal Sweeney is confident that it will continue as a trade. "There’s definitely a market for it. You just need some good, sharp young designers to come along, and we’ve seen colleges and universities in Ireland, such as the National College of Art and Design in Dublin, producing great designers who use knitwear in their collections."
Carol Fellers is equally excited about the future of Irish knitwear. "I find our contemporary yarns, tweeds and colours to be far more inspiring than any historical knitting past, whether real or fictitious! I’m currently working on a book of contemporary Irish knitting patterns, which will be published in autumn 2011. In this book, I’m using yarns milled and hand-dyed in Ireland to produce a collection that really taps into what I find inspiring about Ireland and Irish textiles."
The quality of the yarn and the looming has also been recognised more in recent years, as people have become willing to pay more for an exceptional garment.
"The perception of Irish knitwear continues to be very positive," Donal says. "People have become tired of synthetics. If you buy a good wool jumper and take care of it, you’ll be able to wear it for ten years or more. That’s value for money, however you look at it."
With this combination of high quality, good value, plus the reams of evocative tales, we’re sure Irish knitwear will continue to capture the imaginations of knitters and wearers alike.
This feature was originally published in The Knitter issue 22