The Aran Sweaters

Standing like immortal gatekeepers at the mouth of Galway Bay are the Aran Islands; three wind-swept and wave-beaten landmasses that rise from the sea in a stirring display of towering cliffs, craggy limestone pillars and crumbling stone walls. The islands themselves bear the marks of over 5,000 years of human activity – ranging from a mighty Iron Age fort to the many religious ruins left by early Christian settlers.

Today, in the tradition of most of the 165 generations that preceded them, the 1300 inhabitants of the islands continue to speak Irish as their first language, and their lives remain intimately intertwined with the earth and the sea. Remarkably, it is a simple article of clothing – the Aran sweater – that has brought the eyes of the world to Inishmore, Inishmaan, and Inisheer, and to the people who call these islands home.

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The Aran sweater, an emblem of both the Aran Islands and, indeed, of Ireland itself, is a unique fusion of art and practicality. Perhaps no other sweater is as immediately recognisable; with its intricate patterns and handmade ruggedness it has forged a unique place for itself in the clothing world.

As it appears today, the Aran sweater first began to emerge in the early part of the twentieth century. The events from which the modern Aran arose from the ashes of earlier and less intricate designs are often debated, but it is reasonable to assume that at least one circumstance had a profound effect on the Aran’s evolution.

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Aran women had always been knitting fisherman’s jerseys, or ‘ganseys’, as islanders call them, to help their husbands and families weather the often-treacherous island conditions. However, during the last decade of the 19th century a government motion to improve the economic livelihood of densely populated rural areas began setting up lacemaking, knitting, and crochet schools around the country. It is reported that artisans were sent from these schools during the last years of the 19th century to teach Aran women how to knit intricate patterns. In the years to follow the women of Aran combined their new skills, artistic brilliance, and the traditions of life upon the sea to create the sweaters we know today.

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Certainly part of the sweater’s success is due to its mystique. In our age of mass production the items that we buy, and the very clothes that we wear cease to have a story. Our daily journeys to work and school find us amidst the bustle of modern life where we weave through the tangled noise of automobiles and armies of mobile phones. The Aran sweater stands like a monument, reminding us of a time that was simpler, and often more difficult. Historically, each family had their own particular pattern, passed down from mother to daughter, generation to generation.

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Indeed, the very story of our lives is woven into the sweater – every stitch has a meaning. For instance, there is the ‘Ladder of Life’ stitch, which symbolizes the pilgrimage to happiness, the ‘Tree of Life’ which grants good luck to its wearer, and even the stitch of ‘Marriage Lines’ with zigzags that represent the ups and downs of married life.

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For all of us standing apprehensively at the edge of a new millennium, the story of the Aran sweater is a beautiful one. For within the sweaters lies the work of a single person and the struggles, accomplishments and imagination of generations. And perhaps, while wearing our sweaters many years from now, we will be revisited by the pleasant illumination that sometimes the things we carry with us in life can be more than the sum of their parts.

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