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Aran Isle Sweaters - how a dropped stitch gave rise to a popular myth
I decided that it would be a great idea to bring back Aran sweaters for our children in my dad's family pattern - O'Flaherty. We weren't sure if there might be one for Haggerty, but we intended to look for that too. We came back with sweaters - authentic ones; but not one of them was attached to a specific Irish clan or tribe. I returned with a resolve to unravel the mystery behind the myth.
The Aran Islands lie on the most westerly edge of Europe, across the mouth of Galway Bay, six miles west of the Irish shore - 12 by boat, because of tricky currents.
Though they're often spoken of as singular, there are really three parts to Aran: Inisheer, the smallest island; Inishmaan, the middle-sized one, and Inishmore, the biggest.
Including Kilronan, which looks like a small town, there are 14 villages on Inishmore. Villages might be stretching the term; in reality, they are small groups of about 20 houses apiece, set at the intersection of paths and small roads through the stony pastures. There are more stones than earth on Aran and the islanders have always had to struggle with them. They made miles and miles of gray stone fences which have become an Aran trademark. Oddly, there are no gates. Instead, there are "Aran gaps" in the pasture walls - places where the stones are stacked at a different angle. If you want to drive your sheep or cattle through, you pull down the stones of the gap, then build them up again behind the herd.
Fishing, farming and tourism are the main industries and, because of the often-harsh weather, there is a great need for warm, protective clothing. Though Inishmore is only 9 miles by 3, the weather can be wildly different in different places: sun, cloud, rain, cold, warmth, drizzle, sun again -- and always the wind. For all its wildness, islanders say the weather on Aran is better than on the mainland. As one resident put it, "It never gets hot and we have no frost."
In the old days, the islanders lived starkly self-sufficient lives. Even though those stone-rimmed green fields may look as though they have been there for ever, they havent. Most of the farmland has been made by hand, slowly built up over the years out of seaweed, sand and patience.
The local museum sums up the old life in two brief lists of imports and exports. A century ago the imports were:
As for the exports...
At best, life was incredibly difficult. But the population continued to rise and by the end of the 19th century, the little farms and old ways of fishing werent enough to support the residents. In 1886, the desperate parish priest sent a message to the outside: " 'Send us boats or send us coffins'." The boats came, and many islanders left.
Today, the descendants of those who stayed are less self-sufficient, but they are a lot more comfortable and better connected to the outside world. Running water came in the 1960s; telephones and electricity in the 1970s. Today, a supply boat makes daily runs from Galway in summer and three times a week in winter. Mail comes in on one of several flights from the mainland. While most visitors enjoy taking the ferry to the islands, it takes just six minutes to get there by plane; Aer Arann provides flights all year round to each of the three islands.
There are three primary schools and a technical school. Each island has its own nurse, and there's a doctor on Inishmore. A rugged, covered lifeboat, which can stay afloat in any sea, is kept at Kilronan to transport emergency cases to Galway when the weather's too inclement for planes.
And then theres the tourist industry. In summer, the main island is packed with visitors who come to see the world-renowned fences, rugged cliffs, and historic treasures. For its size, Aran claims to have more ancient sites and religious ruins than any other place in Ireland. Among them are seven massive stone forts, all about 2,000 years old; four are on the big island and includes Dun Aonghasa which lies on the edge of a 300-foot drop.
Visitors also come to bring home an authentic Aran souvenir. Here is the story of how a tiny cottage industry evolved to give the world a generic term now used to describe any white patterned garment with embossed decoration.
Hand-knitting was first introduced to Ireland in the 17th century. That said, it appears that some form of similar craftsmanship was present in Ireland over a thousand years ago. In the forward to the now out-of-print book, The Complete Book of Traditional Aran Knitting by Shelagh Hollingworth, knitting historian Heinz Edgar Kiewe says that he discovered an image in the Book of Kells in which Daniel was wearing Aran knits - stockings, breeches, and a sweater! Perhaps the monk who drew that particular image was recreating a vision because there are no records of Aran sweaters until the 20th century!
In any event, knitting skills became a part of everyday life. All along the western seaboard, handknitting, weaving, and other home crafts were encouraged in the latter half of the 19th century as a way to generate income in poor rural communities. On the Aran Islands, however, according to an 1893 report, nothing woven or spun was being sold. The only items knitted by the women were socks for their own families.
In the old days, sweaters were never part of Aran native dress. However, the writer Synge noted in 1907 that some of the younger men were beginning to adopt "the usual fishermens jersey," common around British and Scottish coasts at the time.
The first Aran sweaters or geansaís (ganseys) as the islanders called them, made their debut on young island boys in the late 1920s and early 1930s. They were worn for First Holy Communions or to Mass on Sundays. Made from the bawneen - "little white" in Irish - or homespun, undyed wool, many were knitted initially like socks "in the round," i.e. on four needles and, given that they were for special, sacramental occasions, great effort and pride went into their design.
This is the first corroboration I've found that it was once traditional to give an Aran sweater as a First Communion gift - I had read that in the National Geographic article. We were in Ireland on a weekend in May when children make their First Communion; we ran into an Irish family at Blarney Woolen Mills who were there to buy a commemorative gift for their daughter. I asked if they'd be buying her an Aran sweater. They'd never heard of the custom. In retrospect, we were a long way from the Aran Isles and perhaps the tradition was confined to the west of Ireland - and just to the isles themselves?
There are two important elements that set a traditional Aran knit apart from all others. The first is the yarn itself. A proper Aran knit is made with a rough, cream-colored wool, known as bainin (pronounced bawneen). The yarn comes from sheep who have coats that protect them from the rugged weather. When the wool is spun and prepared for knitting, part of the oil is left in the wool; as a result, it has both water-resistance and insulating properties. When knit with the twists and turns of the close knit Aran style, the final garment has tiny air pockets that help to insulate the wearer from the cold air. In fact, when moist, the garment actually gives off heat.
The other difference between an authentic Aran and other intricately-knit sweaters is in the meaning of the stitches and the stitches themselves: The names of the traditional stitches write their own poem: blackberry, diamond, honeycomb, moss, lobster claw, ladder, plait, bobble, link, basketweave, tree of life. There are almost two dozen, and the combinations are infinite. Patterns known as the Ladder of Life and Holy Trinity have obvious religious links. Others talk more to life's experiences, e.g. the Double Zigzags relate to the trials and tribulations of married life while the Tree of Life tells of hope that a fisherman will have long life and sons to carry on his work.
The first garments to be sold date from 1935. In 1930, Dr. Muriel Gahan, founder of the Irish Homespun Society and a dedicated champion of Irish country crafts, opened a store in Dublin called The Country Shop. A few years later she visited the Aran Islands for the first time and through a friend, the artist Elizabeth Rivers, was put in touch with the local knitters and started to buy from them. These were the very first Aran handknits to go on sale.
Some of the early examples of these sweaters, which are now in Dublins National Museum, date from the 1930s, 40s, and 50s. One of the exhibits was made "in the old manner," from millspun Donegal wool, with a moss and stocking stitch in horizontal bands across the yoke and the tops of the sleeves.
Imagination and resourcefulness took other forms as well. Mairín ODonnell, one of the most gifted handknitters on Inishmaan, remembers that in the 1930s, when she was 6 years old, she learned how to knit on goose quills, because "needles werent plentiful at the time." Others recall using sally rods (from willow trees) and even bicycle spokes during the war years.
The first Aran knitting pattern was published in the 1940s by Patons of England. It was supplied by OMailles shop in Galway. Vogue followed in 1956. As demand grew, companies started supplying the island women with needles and wool. More and more knitters were recruited which provided them with a small but welcome income.
Today, Aran sweaters made on or off the Aran Islands either by machine or by hand are standard items in Irish tourist shops. On Inishmaan, the least visited of the three islands and still the repository of the purest Irish spoken in Ireland, the tradition continues in a very special and unique way. Here, sweaters made in cashmere, alpaca, mohair, linen, and silk are dispatched every week on the little nine-seater Aer Arann Islander commuter plane bound for Galway, and then Shannon airport and on to the fashion capitals of the world. These are the desirable luxury knits, the "New Age" Arans from the Inis Meáin Knitwear Company, that make it to the pages of Vogue, Stern, The Financial Times, and Frankfurter Allgemein and which can be found in elegant boutiques in Paris, New York, London, Milan, and Tokyo.
As to the mystery behind the myth? It's solved. The most creative Aran knitters devised their own stitches and arrangements and a typical sweater might contain up to eight different patterns. In J.M. Synges famous play "Riders to the Sea," the sister of a drowned man recognizes him by a flaw in his knitted socks a dropped stitch. Utilizing compelling copy, savvy marketers parlayed the notion that drowned fishermen could be identified by their sweaters - nothing as simple as socks and a dropped stitch. Today, even the Irish believe it's a sweater.
So, while it's a fact that each family devised their own patterns and there's an element of grim truth in the myth, I had made a huge assumption - that, similar to a Scottish tartan, there would be one particular pattern for the name O'Flaherty. I've since learned that on the Aran Isles, Flaherty and my ancestral name are as common as they are in the Claddagh village of Galway, where my dad was born. The truth is, I could choose from hundreds of "O'Flaherty" sweaters - each of them as individual as the knitter who made them. As simple as that. Amazing what good marketing can do - and how it can mislead.
If you own an Aran sweater, enjoy it for its warmth and beauty; but we also hope you might look at it a bit differently now. For while there's enlightenment in knowing the story behind its existence, what will always remain, at least for this writer, is utter awe at how it all came about. From socks to Vogue and the runways of Paris. Who would have thought.
Images: Stitches from the book:
There are hundreds of islands around the Irish coast. Achill is the biggest, the Arans the most romantic; Skellig Michael the most dramatic and Tory the most menacing - at least in legend. The Blaskets offer the most fertile ground for literature and Clare island is the most meticulously studied. But, whichever island you may visit, you can be sure each of them has its own superlative. For example, Little Skellig off St. Finian's Bay in Co. Kerry, is known for its gigantic colony of white seabirds called gannets.
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March 4, 2011
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