The Aran jumper (Irish Gaelic: Geansaí Árann) is a style of jumper that takes its name from the Aran Islands off the west coast of Ireland. It is sometimes known as a fisherman's jumper. A classical fisherman's jumper is a bulky garment with prominent cable patterns on the chest, often cream-coloured.
The jumpers are distinguished by their use of complex textured stitch patterns, several of which are combined in the creation of a single garment. The jumper (or indeed other options such as "pullover" and "jersey") is largely determined by the regional version of English being spoken. In the case of Ireland and Britain and Australia, "jumper" is the standard word with "sweater" mainly found in tourist shops and America. The word used in Irish is geansaí, a Gaelicisation of guernsey which has been re-Anglicised to gansey in Hiberno-English.
Originally the jumpers were knitted using unscoured wool that retained its natural oils (lanolin) which made the garments water-resistant and meant they remained wearable even when wet. It was primarily the wives of island fishermen who knitted the jumpers before local knitters began selling their produce through initiatives.
Some stitch patterns have a traditional interpretation, often of religious significance. The honeycomb is a symbol of the hard-working bee. The cable, an integral part of the fisherman's daily life, is said to be a wish for safety and good luck when fishing. The diamond is a wish of success, wealth and treasure. The basket stitch represents the fisherman's basket, a hope for a plentiful catch.
Traditionally, an Aran jumper is made from undyed cream-coloured báinín (pronounced "bawneen"), a yarn made from sheep's wool, sometimes "black-sheep" wool. They were originally made with unwashed wool that still contained natural sheep lanolin, making the garment extent water-repellent. Up to the 1970s, the island women spun their own yarn on spinning wheels.
The jumper usually features 4–6 texture patterns each of which is about 5–10 cm (2–4 in) in width, that move down the jumper in columns from top to bottom. Usually, the patterns are symmetrical to a centre axis extending down the centre of the front and back panel. The patterns also usually extend down the sleeves as well. The same textured knitting is also used to make socks, hats, vests and even skirts.
There is debate about when island residents first started making the jumpers. Undoubtedly, residents of the islands produced a local version of a Gansey jumper similar to other areas of the British Isles for several centuries. Traditional Ganseys from neighbouring regions have much of the same cabling and pattern-work seen in Aran jumpers; however these Ganseys use different construction methods and are knit from a finer wool. Some have suggested that the jumper is an ancient design that has been used on the islands for hundreds of years. Proponents of this theory often point to a picture in the Book of Kells that appears to depict an ancient "Aran jumper". Also, many megaliths around Europe depict similar patterns to those used in the knitting, which are carved into the stone, and date back several thousand years. However, it is more likely that the knitting stitches were modelled on these than that they evolved contemporaneously.
Most historians agree that far from being an ancient craft, Aran knitting was invented as recently as the early 1900s by a small group of enterprising island women, with the intention of creating garments not just for their families to wear but which could be sold as a source of income. These women adapted the traditional Gansey jumper by knitting with thicker wool and modifying the construction to decrease labour and increase productivity.
The first commercially available Aran knitting patterns were published in the 1940s by Patons of England. Vogue magazine carried articles on the garment in the 1950s, and jumper exports from the west of Ireland to the United States began in the early 1950s. Standun in Spiddal, Co.Galway was the first to export the Aran sweater to the USA. This provided employment for women throughout Ireland.
The development of the export trade during the 1950s and 1960s took place after P.A. Ó Síocháin organised an instructor, with the help of a grant from the Congested Districts Board for Ireland, to go to the islands and teach the knitters how to make garments to standard international sizings. He commissioned the Irish artist Seán Keating, who had spent much time on the islands, to design and illustrate marketing brochures. Knitting became an important part of the islands' economy. Adding to the popularity of the Aran jumpers were The Clancy Brothers and Tommy Makem, an Irish folk music group which started recording in New York City in the late 1950s and who adopted the Arans as their trademark on-stage garments. In the early 1960s they appeared on The Ed Sullivan Show and even in a special televised performance for US President John F. Kennedy. The national exposure and the rising popularity of The Clancy Brothers and Tommy Makem fuelled the demand for Aran jumpers even more. During the 1960s, even with all available knitters recruited from the three islands and from other parts of Ireland, Ó Síocháin had difficulty in fulfilling orders from around the world.
Aran jumpers are often sold as a "fishermen's jumper", suggesting that the jumper was traditionally used by the islands' famous fishermen. There is also some doubt about whether Aran jumpers were ever widely used by fishermen and many argue that the original jumpers with their untreated yarn would not have been suitable for this use. They are quite thick and stiff, which would probably restrict the movements of a fisherman. However, the traditional Gansey jumpers which served as the model for the Aran jumpers have been worn by seamen and fishermen throughout the British Isles for centuries. Islanders can be seen wearing them in photographs taken early in the 20th century.
It is sometimes said that each fisherman (or his family) had a jumpers with a unique design, so that if he drowned and was found, maybe weeks later, on the beach, his body could be identified. This misconception may have originated with J.M. Synge's 1904 play Riders to the Sea, in which the body of a dead fisherman is identified by the hand-knitted stitches on one of his garments. However, even in the play, there is no reference to any decorative or Aran-type pattern. The garment referred to is a plain stocking and it is identified by the number of stitches, the quote being "it's the second one of the third pair I knitted, and I put up three score stitches, and I dropped four of them". There is no record of any such event ever having taken place, nor is there any evidence to support there being a systematic tradition of family patterns. There is, however, a long-standing tradition of jumper patterns having a regional or local identification. It is said that the county, or parish, or township of a sailor or a fisherman could be identified by his jumper pattern. Additionally, the wearer's initials were traditionally knit into the bottom of the garment, which would have been a far better indication of identity than the stitching pattern.
Aran production today
While in the past, the majority of jumpers and other Aran garments were knitted by hand, today the majority of items for sale in Ireland and elsewhere are either machine knit or produced on a hand loom. There are very few people still knitting jumpers by hand on a commercial basis but hand knit jumpers are still available at local craft initiatives.
Machine-knitted jumpers tend to use finer wool and have less complex patterns, since many of the traditional stitches cannot be reproduced this way. They are generally flatter, lighter and less substantial, without the pronounced texture of a hand knitted or hand loomed jumper. Machine knitted jumpers will loosen with wear, and so it is advisable to buy one size smaller than the size of the sweater usually worn. They are the least expensive option. Hand-looming allows more complicated stitches to be used, will have fewer stitches to the inch and be thicker. The best quality hand-loomed jumpers are almost indistinguishable from hand knit. Hand-knit jumpers tend to be more tightly knit, to have more complex stitch patterns and to be longer-lasting and they attract a significant price premium. By holding them up to light, the difference between the machine knit and hand knit is evident.
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