Uncovering the myriad of meanings behind some of the most popular Aran stitches…
The beautiful stitches that give Aran knitwear its distinctive look, also communicate a rich cultural heritage.
Most of us who are interested in Irish customs and traditions are familiar with the fascinating symbolism attached to the humble Aran sweater.
According to many fashion historians, the beautiful stitches that give Aran knitwear its distinctive look, communicate a wealth of intriguing details.
You may have heard the frequently repeated (although slightly morbid tale!) that explains that each Island family created sweaters using unique combinations of stitches for one heartbreakingly poignant reason: to identify the bodies of unfortunate Aran Island fishermen washed ashore having met their deaths in the harsh and unpredictable Atlantic waves.
You may also have heard a more cheery interpretation – an explanation for the level intricacy and character found in Aran sweaters that suggests that the mix of chosen stitches conveys the individual knitter’s hopes, dreams, aspirations and even religious beliefs.
Putting this more uplifting interpretation in to focus, it’s fascinating to consider the array of exquisite stitches found across traditional Aran knitwear. From cable and trellis patterns to ‘the tree of life’ and ‘the honeycomb’, each knitted stitch can be understood not only as a visually impressive handmade feat, but also as a symbolic expression of the knitter’s inner faith and feeling.
To help give you a better insight in to the potential to uncover layers of meaning in your favourite genuine Aran sweater, Blarney Woollen Mills offers you a brief introduction to some of the more popular patterns and their emblematic significance:
- Cable Stitch: Often viewed as the cornerstone of the traditional Irish knit, the cable stitch comprises one of the most commonly spotted Aran patterns. According to folklore, the cable stitch recalls the fisherman’s rope. The knitter crosses stitches one over the other to gradually create the cable ‘rope’ effect. Rows of plain stitches in between the ‘turning’ or ‘crossing’ rows help build a raised texture.
It’s beautiful, it’s evocative and, importantly, the extra depth and texture provided by the cable stitch helps to keep you extra cosy and extra snug!
- The Tree of Life: The pretty stitches that combine to form the ‘Tree of Life’ have long been recognised as having religious significance.
In many cultures, the Tree of Life is representative of immortality; for fishermen in the West of Ireland, this stitch more than likely signified hopes for a long and fruitful life.
Other associations include family, wisdom and faith.
- The Trellis: Many of Ireland’s most knowledgeable artisan craftspeople believe that the Trellis stitch owes its origins to the rugged landscape of the West of Ireland.
Where roughly stacked stone walls separate rocky fields; where weather-weary sheep graze the patches of grass that grow between the stony terrain, there is a sense that all that the rocky soil yields is incredibly precious.
The trellis stitch and its apparent visual connection with our natural surroundings reminds us of the great fortune of being able to sustain and nourish ourselves from all that nature has to offer.
Despite the harsh, craggy landscape of the West of Ireland knitters paid homage to their environs. They recognised the significance of the soil and the harvest. The trellis stitch, or so we’re told, represents the security and protection provided by nature.
- The Honeycomb: Life in the West of Ireland, and particularly on the three islands that comprise the Aran Islands, has always be challenging.
The wild Atlantic Ocean, the treacherous unpredictability of a fisherman’s life at sea and the challenges of living amidst a jagged, largely karst, landscape, mean that life has never been easy for inhabitants of the Aran Islands.
However, even when times are challenging, it can be reassuring to remind oneself that the hardworking bee gets his reward.
The bee and the honeycomb connote the wealth of great things that can come our way when hard work and good fortune collide. The honeycomb pattern is thought of as a symbol of a happy, fulfilling, plentiful life.
Beyond its symbolism, on a more practical level, it’s very easy to feel lucky when you’re wrapped up in knitwear that features a honeycomb stitch - the texture of the honeycomb pattern is renowned for offering splendid warmth and comfort, as well as fabulous style!
While fashion historians will tend to differ in their emphasis on the importance of the symbolism of the various Aran stitches, the romantic spirit of the Aran sweater is, nevertheless, undeniable.
There’s plenty to ponder the next time you layer-up in your favourite Aran knits.
Take time to look at your classic Aran knitwear with a fresh pair of eyes – it’s packed with motifs that express the hopes, wishes and aspirations of generations of skilled Irish artisans (or so the romantics among us chose to believe!).
Whether it was solely because of their aesthetic beauty or due to the deep-seated symbolism of each individual pattern, it’s clear that certain stitches have emerged as being more popular and more prevalent than others.
Happily, for those of us who relish the joy of discovering the unique depth of meaning attached to traditional folk crafts, contemporary Aran knitwear still presents hints of the past.
For example, the team of designers who create the fashionable Fisherman Out of Ireland range or the contemporary knits that form part of the Blarney Woollen Mills range, still create garments that are inspired by a core set of traditional Aran stitches.
So, for anyone with a fascination for all things slightly whimsical, poetic and imaginative, it will be a delight to know that your much-loved Aran sweaters have a unique story-telling capacity.
Open your wardrobe and identify ‘the cable’, ‘the trellis’, ‘the tree of life’ and ‘the honeycomb’ – whether your favourite Aran is a contemporary wrap or a very homely and traditional fisherman’s sweater, there’s sure to be scope to uncover the deeper meanings woven in your gorgeous Aran knit.
Have you read our blog on how to care for your Aran Sweater?