History of The Irish Knit Sweater

Womens Aran Sweater

The history of the Irish knit sweater began at the Aran Islands, three islands at the mouth of Galway Bay. The inhabitants of this region are almost exclusively Gaelic (or Irish) speaking people. The big Island is know as Inishmore, the middle one is Inishmaan and the southern one is Inisheer. Inish is the Gaelic word for island.

Those who lived there made their living from farming and fishing. Outdoor work in this windswept and wave-battered environment called for warm, protective and practical clothing. The original sheep's wool sweaters were made from wool that contained the natural greases which made them more water retardant. The farmers and fishermen wore them to protect themselves from the harsh Atlantic weather. For the 165 generations that preceded them, their lives remain interwoven with the earth and the sea.

This simple article of clothing has brought much attention to the Aran Islands. Irish sheep's wool Aran sweaters exploded onto the fashion scene after the election of John F. Kennedy in 1960. There were many photos of the Kennedy boys playing football in their sweaters, which within five years, had become a must-have article of clothing for Irish-Americans.

The differences between hand-knit and hand-loomed Irish sheep's wool Aran sweaters are weight, detail and color; and hand-knit sweaters cost nearly twice as much as the hand-loomed ones. The original hand-knit sweaters contain natural oils which make them more water resistant. Loomed sweaters have to be stripped of most of the oil, so they are not as waterproof, heavy or warm. The hand-knit sweaters contain more detail and unique patterns which the looms cannot recreate, such as the Blackberry Stitch. Authentic Irish knit sweaters only come in a few colors which are untreated white wool from white sheep, and untreated heather gray, gray or brown wool from black sheep. A jet-black sweater is not authentic because the oil has been stripped from the wool to absorb the dye. As in the original, the true Aran sweater is made of untreated sheep's wool, and features symbolic embossed patterns and designs that never go out of style.

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