Author: Joshua Burns
The Aran jumper is perhaps the most famous item of clothing to come out of Ireland. Traditionally, they are made from off-white* coloured wool, hand knitted* into distinctive, intricate patterns of different shapes. This immediately recognisable style comes from the Aran Islands, a group of three islands located not far from Galway Bay, on the west coast of Ireland. It is an extremely beautiful area famed for its traditional Irish culture, with most of the inhabitants still speaking Irish as their first language.
Many believe the origins of the Aran jumper to date back thousands of years rooted in the history of the Celts. Much of this is thanks to a yarn* shop owner called Heinz Edgar Kiewe who wrote a book claiming that the similarity between some of the patterns and ancient Celtic designs gave the jumpers a religious significance. He also propagated other myths, such as each family having their own specific patterns to identify family members who had been lost at sea* while fishing. These stories helped to add a layer of mythology to the jumpers, which helped to sell many of them. Unfortunately, all of this has been proven to simply be fiction-not a word of it is true.
The origins are actually much more recent, likely dating back to the 1890’s or early 1900’s, when the British government tried half-heartedly* to improve the situation of extreme poverty on the west coast of Ireland. They did this by bringing fishermen and their wives from areas of Britain to teach the Islanders better ways to catch and process fish, alongside other fishing-related skills. One of the skills they brought over was the tradition of making Guernsey jumpers. Guernsey is one of the Islands off the south of England, and if you look at their traditional craftwork, it’s quite similar to the Irish style. Building on this borrowed technique, local Irish women started knitting their own jumpers with thicker wool, more comprehensive patterns, and a different shape around the shoulders. These origins are still evident in the Irish word for jumper, ‘geansaí,’ which comes from the name of the island ‘Guernsey’. Originally, the jumpers were knitted with unscoured* wool, which meant the natural oils were retained in the fabric.
Because of this, the jumpers were waterproof, making them ideal for keeping the fishermen warm and dry while out at sea. Making them wasn’t an easy process, either. After sheering the sheep, the wool had to be washed in an acid solution of water and sheep’s urine. Then, to get rid of knots and tangles, it had to be carefully brushed before being made into yarn*. That was just the start of the process. After this you had to knit the intricate patterns, which can take many years of practice to develop the necessary skills. This is part of the reason they can command prices up to €300.
So, how did this traditional craft from a few small islands off the coast of Ireland become world famous? It was in the 1950’s that the well-known fashion magazine Vogue first published articles talking about the garment, and soon after the jumpers started being shipped over for sale. Then, in the 1960’s, a musical group called The Clancy Brothers appeared on an American talk show and gave a performance for US President John F. Kennedy. All four members of the group wore Aran jumpers, and this exposure helped fuel the demand for them.
Since then the style has become a fashion staple the world over, with many top designers such as Jean Paul Gaultier and Massimo Dutti using Aran jumpers in their designs. They have been worn by film stars and pop singers, and have even been featured in an art exhibit in the Museum of Modern Art in New York. It’s an impressive achievement for a style of clothing that traces its roots back* to the creative wives of a few poor fishermen.
- Off-white: A colour, similar to cream, that isn’t quite white
- Knitted: The craft of creating clothing with wool
- Yarn: String made out of wool for knitting
- Lost at sea: A polite way to say someone died at sea
- Half-heartedly: Not trying very hard
- Unscoured: Untreated
- Trace its roots: Originates