Aran Sweaters – The story of a classic Irish gift

Aran sweaters were born from life at the edge of the Atlantic Ocean off Galway Bay and have garnered a reputation as a uniquely Irish gift and garment, so much so that an example of a traditional aran sweater is now on display in Ireland’s National Museum.

The Aran Islands are located approximately six miles off the mouth of Galway Bay in the west of Ireland. Life in this region is preoccupied with fishing, farming and tourism. The islands comprise of three. The islands comprise of three parts of varying size- the smallest is Innisheer, followed by Inishmaan, and then the largest island of Inishmore.

Stones are predominant feature of the Aran Islands. They are renowned for the abundance of traditional stone fences and ancient stone ruins which have become their trademark in the eyes of many visitors.

One thing you can be sure of on the Aran Islands is the typical Irish weather which can provide all four seasons in one day supplemented by those persistent Atlantic winds. Clean running water only arrived in the island during the 1960’s while electricity only became available in the 1970’s.

The aran sweater was born from the starkly self-sufficient loves of the islanders who lived off the seas but raised a few sheep for knitting and mutton. Knitting was communal for the wives and daughters of the fishermen while also acting as an informal method of education and story telling. The production of aran sweater was an arduous task taking between 40 and 50 hours per sweater.

Nowadays, sheep are few and far between on the Aran Islands with even fewer skilled knitters on hand to produce the classic Irish wool sweaters. Modern Aran sweaters for women and men tend to be machine produced using a softer Merino wool though high quality traditional hand knit garments are produced in more limited numbers.

So highly regarded are aran sweaters in the Irish culture and tradition, that sweaters produced in the 1930’s and 40’s are displayed at the National Museum of Ireland for visitors of all generations to marvel at.

Sweaters are still adorned with the patterns, designs and embossed decorations that made the garments so special and reflect the loves, lives, losses and defiance of this isolated Atlantic community of the west coast of Ireland.

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