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What is Aran Knitting?

By Greer Hed
Updated Feb 04, 2024
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Aran knitting is a type of knitting that originated in the Aran islands, a group of three land masses that lie off the west coast of Ireland. This type of knitting involves intricate stitch patterns, such as complex cables, bobbles, and occasionally lace motifs. Aran knitting is almost always used to create a kind of heavy, woolen sweater called an Aran sweater. These sweaters were traditionally worn by fishermen in the Aran islands and were also sold by local artisans to visiting tourists. A popular myth regarding the Aran sweater states that each family or clan living in the Aran islands had their own unique sweater design so that the retrieved bodies of drowned fishermen could be readily identified, but there is no clear evidence to either fully support or dismiss this claim.

Many of the cables, bobbles, and other stitch patterns used in Aran knitting supposedly have a traditional symbolic meaning. Cable stitches of all kinds signify the fishermen's ropes, as well as their wives' hopes for a successful day of fishing. Blackberry stitch, or trinity stitch, is a kind of bobble stitch in which three stitches are knitted into one, symbolizing the Holy Trinity protecting the fishermen at sea. Diamond motifs represent wishes for success and wealth, while honeycomb patterns represent the hope that hard work will bring sweet rewards.

Aran knitting is usually found on Aran sweaters, although the technique can also be applied to other garments, accessories, and housewares such as socks, hats, skirts, bags, vests, and afghans. Typically, an Aran sweater is a long-sleeved pullover or cardigan with about four to six different stitch patterns incorporated in the garment. The stitch patterns cover the entire sweater, including the back and sleeves.

Traditionally, Aran sweaters were knit by hand from naturally colored yarns that were hand-spun from unwashed sheep's wool. Not washing the wool before spinning it into yarn allowed the fiber to retain its natural lanolin, a waxy substance often used for water-proofing. In modern times, most sweaters sold to tourists in Ireland are machine knit or made on a hand loom, as hand-knitting is slow and thus not very profitable. Machine knitting often means that some of the traditional patterns of Aran knitting must be omitted, as the machine cannot recreate some of the more intricate stitches.

Some hobbyist or professional knitters do still create Aran-inspired pieces by hand, however. In modern times, Aran knitting has expanded beyond the geographical limitations of the Aran islands. Knitters around the world can create designs replete with cables and other complex, textured stitches. Many knitting books that concentrate on designing and knitting Aran-inspired garments are available at bookstores and craft stores.

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