Sunday, 13 March 2011

Aran FAQ

This is a Work in Progress. I probably will update this over time as I find more information and books.
New text is like this
Aran Knitters FAQ

Do Irish People still knit Aran Jumpers?
Yes, many of them for entertainment rather than money, there isn't a lot of money to be made from knitting and when you mention payment and the time it takes to knit a garment people are surprised at the amount of work and the little you get paid. Because most Aran jumpers were done as piece work and during people's evenings etc., people didn't regard it as real work therefore there are several issues associated with it.
Ireland has been a more prosperous nation and many things associated with old harder times were rejected.
Many tourists have an idea that Ireland is a land still in the early 20th Century and while aspects of Ireland are sadly behind, one of Ireland’s largest “exports” is software
From the Irish Central Statistics Office here in 2006 57% of households had a computer, 2% didn’t state and 41% didn’t. 35% of computer owners have broadband, 47% had another internet access, leaving only 18% of computer users in 2006 without Internet access.

When were Aran Jumpers invented?
There is no evidence for Aran Jumpers, despite a lot of photographs of the Aran Islands (at the turn of the century the Aran Islands were popular due to a widespread resurgence in interest in heritage)
1893: the only items knitted on the islands were socks, according to a report which surveyed cottage industries.
1893: The Aran Islands, Co. Galway: A Study in Irish Ethnography by Prof. A C Haddon - some of the extracts that are about wool, clothing, etc.
"All the men are land-owners to a greater or less extent; the holdings, or cannogarras, as they are termed, vary from about 11 to 14 acres, the supposition being that each cannogarra can feed a cow with her calves, a horse and her foal, some sheep for their wool, and give sufficient potatoes to support one family. Most of the fields are very small in size, and are surrounded by walls composed of stones piled loosely on one another ;there are no gates or permanent gaps in the walls. A man usually owns a number of isolated fields scattered all over the island."

"The farm will usually keep a family in potatoes, milk, and wool."
"The bulk of the men on the north island may be described as small farmers who do a little fishing. There are, besides, two or three weavers, tailors, and curragh builders. The butcher, baker, and other allied tradesmen are mainly related to the small population, which may fairly be termed foreign, such as the representatives of the Government and the spiritual and secular instructors."

"The dress of both sexes is for the most part home-made, being largely composed of homespun, either uncoloured or of a speckled brown or blue grey, or bright red colour. The people appear not only to be warmly clad, but, as a rule, to be over-clothed. Both sexes wear sandals made of raw cowhide, the hair being outside. These \"pampooties,\" as they are called, are admirably adapted for climbing and running over the rocks and loose stones. Some of the men are now taking to wearing leather boots."
"The spinning-wheel is similar to that used in various places along the West, but it differs from that employed in the North." 
1907: Synge reported that some of the islanders were beginning to adopt the fishing costumes common to the British and Scottish coastline (i.e. the dark coloured gansey).
early 1930’s: white aran sweaters (as we know them today) began to become the fashion for young boys to wear at their communion; still a child-only garment at this stage, and a male one.
later 1930s: Muriel Gahan (a knitwear designer in Dublin) develops the idea of turning these items into adult size and marketing them in Dublin in a tourist shop. Paddy O Síocháin gets in on the act and creates the company. They are encouraged by funding from the Congested Districts Board.
Here’s a photo from Mairead’s blog which shows the actual traditional costumes worn.
Here’s a video featuring the Man of Aran film from the 30s no white cabled jumpers in sight.

Why have Irish knitters abandoned the Aran tradition?
The Aran Tradition only dates to the 1930s so it’s relatively modern. It’s also very associated with a twee Irishness that many Irish people find quite embarrassing and hard to swallow. The traditional Aran Jumpers tend to be very bulky and unflattering and many people would like a more flattering style, adapting them can be quite complicated and often regarded as not “really arans” and there is no way to really win. Even if you pick modern designs that are influenced by Aran designs they are often not felt to be true Arans. There may be more designs influenced by Arans in the future and hopefully the dialogue between the past and the future will continue.

Why are the Irish Knitters so angry about Aran Knitting?

Many Irish Knitters are uncomfortable with regular castigation about not respecting the Aran Knitting Tradition and about allowing it to die out, while the commentators have no idea what their history or experiences around Aran Knitting is. There may have been stories of complete dependence on Aran Knitting to keep food on people’s tables. Many people have worked in Tourist Traps and had to tell tall tales to keep the tourists happy. It is difficult to research the truth of a traditional Irish Knitting because there has been so many stories built up around it.

Why do Irish-Americans respect the Aran Traditions more than people who live in Ireland?
There are traditions that have build up around Irish-America that are actually Irish American and are not actually Irish. For a long time Ireland was very dependent on Irish Americans for money and maintaining some illusions were in many ways more important than the truth and while both cultures have roots in the same source there have been different growth and in ways it has been quite different. The influences and experiences are different and the things that people find important can be quite different. Many Irish people regard Aran Knitting as interesting but quite outdated. At the same time Irish Knitting and Aran Knitting has the same relationship that Fantasy has to Tolkien, there always will be an influence whether or not people acknowledge it.

Do only people from the Aran Islands knit Aran Jumpers?
No, Aran jumpers are and have been knit by people from all over Ireland and all over the world. Commercial Aran Jumpers are made all over the world.

What is a real Aran Jumper?
What many people regard as a real Aran Jumper is often a garment with drop sleeves, with three sections of patterning, a central section (sometimes relatively plain) two mirrored or the same panels that usually are designed to go up to the shoulders and plain side panels. The advantage of this style of pattern is that it’s relatively easy to size up.

Where are the Aran Islands?
The Aran Islands are mid-way down the western seaboard of Ireland, geologically they’re part of Clare, the part that sticks out below them, whereas administratively they’re part of Galway, the part inland and above.

What is my Clan Aran?
Clan Arans are a marketing gimic dreamt up by a company called Clan Aran, you can find them here  they are based in Killarney. (see map here for distance from Aran Islands to Killarney as opposed to Galway or Shannon). Also see article where I find some 1890s Aran Island Surnames and compare it to the Clan Aran list

Where can I buy real Aran Jumpers?
One of the shops is O'Maille's 

What’s the difference between hand made, hand loomed and machine made?
Hand made are made by hand by a knitter, hand loomed is supervised by a knitter but made on a machine, sometimes with some stitch manipulation by a person and machine made is where a machine is programmed with the pattern and created. Hand loomed and machine made tend to be more regular with fewer errors and much flatter than hand made. Hand made also tends to smell more like sheep and have a slightly oilier feel due to the natural oils being unsuited to use with machines.

But my jumper says Irish Made, why are you saying it’s made in China?
Irish Made and made in Ireland aren’t always the same thing. Irish Made can mean made for an Irish company. Made in Ireland is still a bit slippery as so long as somewhere in the process there was Irish involvement it still can be legitimately called Irish Made.

Why are some Aran Knitwear items made in China?
Expense, Chinese manufacturing costs are much lower than Ireland.

What do the stitches mean?
That all depends on who you talk to. People have attached certain meanings but I think stitches are like dreams, you can attach any meaning to the stitches and some of them will only make real sense to the stitcher, no matter what anyone else says. Sometimes the stories make enough sense to other people that they were adopted by others. Stories have been built around some of the stitches and have become more rigidly adopted.

Who is Heinz Keiwe and why is there steam coming out of Several People's ears at the mention of his name?

This is the man solely responsible for the respect given to the myth of the Aran Jumper, a romantic idea brought about, not by a visit to the islands but by a visit to Dublin. He took the garments found in a tourist shop and took a look at Celtic knotwork and possibly the Book of Kells and combined all of these into a magical story that got a lot of people's imaginations. Many people who have done research and looked for actual historical evidence have failed to find any. If Aran jumpers were as prevalent as is suggested there would have been photographic evidence before the 1930's. There is none. There is evidence for jumpers that resemble English coastal fishermans jumpers, garments that would have been practical and wouldn't have interfered with the job of fishing. Several Irish People are historians and like accuracy and he made stuff up.

Who has written about Aran Knitting?
Deirdre McQuillan - The Aran Sweater
Alice Starmore - Aran Knitting
Margot Cullen - Knot Sure
Shelagh Hollingsworth - Traditional Aran Knitting
Traditional Aran Island Knitting by Pam Dawson
Traditional Knitting - Gwyn Morgan
Aran and Celtics the best of Knitter's Magazine
Elizabeth Zimmerman has some Aran Patterns in both Opinionated Knitter and Knitter's Almanac
Kate Davies has a great blog post on the topic, which was also an article in The Knitter Magazine (checked 15/3/2012)
Irish Knitting - Rohanna Darlington
History of Handknitting - Richard Rutt
200 Aran Stitches the Harmony Guide
Irish Times Article (as of 15/3/2012 behind a paywall)




























But what about the poor lost Aran Fisherman?
Actually, the fisherman story comes from a JM Synge 1904 play Riders to the Sea where the fisherman was identified by a sock with dropped stitches.

Where can I find good Aran Patterns?
Now that's a loaded question. This depends on what you want from an Aran Jumper. The Harmony Guide is quite good for the drop shoulder version of the Aran Jumper with advice on how to make one to fit.

What designers have used Aran Patterns?
Gertrude Sampson
Glynis Robins
Cyril Cullen

Have Aran Patterns been used in other mediums?

What do you think of the books written about Aran Knitting? links to my review on this blog of these books
Deirdre McQuillan - The Aran Sweater - generally quite well respected
Alice Starmore - Aran Knitting - she examines four garments in the National Museum and comments on the development of the Aran style. Her patterns respect the Aran Tradition but take it forward and are knit in finer yarn in general.
Margot Cullen - Knot Sure - this is a biography of Cyril Cullen and has some photographs of some of his designs. He wrote some patterns for the RTE Guide which were popular and would have influenced Irish Knitters in the 60’s and 70’s, as this TV guide was quite popular.
Shelagh Hollingsworth - Traditional Aran Knitting - her intro was written by Kiewe, however the patterns are pretty traditional, it is widely available as it was reprinted by Dover
Pam Dawson - Traditional Aran Island Knitting
Paddy Ó Síocháin - Aran: Islands of Legend [this one I haven’t read, I have reserved it from the library and plan to read it soon - Deirdre]
Rohanna Darlington - Irish Knitting - she has a great intro on the development of the patterns, that she dates back to a pair of sisters who went to America and returned with some cabled knitting stitches, possibly from some German knitters.
Richard Rutt - History of Handknitting
Ethnic Knitting: exploration - more about technique than history, interesting variations
Carol Feller - Contemporary Irish Knits does some contemporary versions of Aran patterns and visits Irish Mills that are still spinning.

Aran Knitting books that I would like to review (feel free to suggest some in the comments)




Can I buy real Irish Yarn?
Unfortunately it can be hard to source true Irish grown and harvested yarn. For a long time there has been greater demand for sheep for food rather than sheep for yarn. We have sadly neglected many native breeds, in favour of breeds that produce more meat quickly.
Wicklow and Kerry Hill Sheep are actually listed as extinct breeds; Roscommon and Galway Sheep are still listed as surviving (see PDF here)
Sheep site with some policies here

There are only a small few yarn producers in Ireland

Cushendale Mill  imported to the US as Black Water Abbey Yarns 

Can I help Irish Native Breeds?

What shop first sold Aran Jumpers?
O'Maille's in Galway claim to be first

History of Aran Patterns
Patons were the first to produce commercial patterns Vogue magazine also printed them. Tivoli continue to design Aran style jumpers like this they also have other patterns, some of which use a lot of different yarns

How much were the Knitters Paid?
According to Weaving Tapestry in Rural Ireland by Meghan Nuttall Sayres Tapeis Gael Mentor Mary McKellis says (p 10) “‘These projects kept a pound in your pocket where they would otherwise be none’... recalling the days in the 1950s and 1960s when she hand-knitted sweaters for Gaeltarra Eireann for four shillings and six pence each.”

What weight is Aran Wool?
Aran Weight wool falls between double knitting and worsted. It's often worked with either 4.5 to 5.5mm needles.

Has this happened in other countries?
Staged Authenticity and Heritage Tourism in Science Direct.
From The Puzzle of Left-handedness by Rik Smits "Now and then researchers had their legs deliberately pulled by the peoples they were studying, and often with good reason. Strangers brought excitement, amusement and intriguing goods and customs. You might want to keep on the right side of people like that, in the hope that they'll stay and give you more things.  So the newcomers sometimes got more than they bargained for when they displayed an interest in something. It was an early form of the tourist industry. All over the world, 'natives' eagerly threw themselves into traditional handicrafts, dances and musical performances - many of which had never existed before, in that particular form at least"

How does Ravelry define Aran or Irish?
Aran = a style of knitting that includes intricate designs using cables, bobbles and other decorative elements that originated in the Aran Islands of Ireland. Please use this attribute only for patterns that are specifically made in the Aran regional style - this attribute will not apply to all cabled patterns. Lace and colorwork patterns should not be marked with this attribute.

Irish = knitting or crochet created with techniques traditionally from Ireland. Often includes richly cabled garments (knitting) or floral lace motifs (crochet). Please note that this attribute is specifically for traditional Irish crochet and knitting and should not be used on “Saint Patrick’s Day” themed items. Not all patterns with cables, shamrocks, or crocheted flowers should be marked with this attribute.

I heard a story that the pattern can't be honeycomb because there are no Bees on Aran.  Are there bees on the Aran Islands?
Yes, not only are there bees on the island, there’s a sub-species of bee.

Irish People talk about County Colours what are they talking about?
County colours are related to both Hurling (the fastest field sport in the world) and Gaelic Football and is from the GAA county colours which can be found here  please note that both London and New York are treated as Irish counties as well, there are several other GAA associations worldwide see here: if you’re wondering about Provinces there are four, Ulster, Munster, Leinster and Connaught and these correspond roughly to Northern Ireland (Ulster has 3 more counties than the part of Ireland referred to as The North); Southern Ireland, Eastern Ireland and Western Ireland. More information can be found on the websites of the individual provinces. Many Irish people will wear county colours during finals and will usually know what their county colours are.

What are you talking about with the People’s Republic of Cork?
Cork is Ireland’s second largest city. It is the most prominent city in Munster. Related to the county colours, the counties also have nicknames, Cork is the Rebel County. The county Colours are red and white and you can see the t-shirts and more about it here

Do Irish People wear Green on St Patricks Day?
Not all of them and seriously they don’t care, it’s usually a day off and yes there’s parades and overdrinking but there’s no pinching and no St Patty’s either, to Irish people it’s St Patrick or St Paddy’s.

Who are you and where did all this come from? What makes you an expert?
I'm a Librarian working for Dublin City Council, who has a degree in History and Classical Civilisation from what used to be UCG but is now NUI Galway,  I come from a small village west of Galway, that's close enough to the city (on my side anyway) that most folk went to secondary school in Galway city itself.  My father's family were farmers in our area and my dad remembers his mother and grandmother spinning using a large wheel.  He also remembers knitting socks.  In first year I did Archaeology and had an opportunity to visit the Aran Islands with the Archaeological Society, and then had an opportunity to work on the Archaeological Dig on Dun Aeongus for it's first month.  I also worked for a while for one of the Ferry Companies who go to the Aran Islands.  I've always had an interest in history and when I started knitting I was curious about the history.
A large chunk of this comes from the Irish Knitters Ravelry group and in particular the Aran Knitting Thread. A suggestion to consolidate it is here.

NB Congested districts board.  see sections 8 and 10 also  where WWI and a demand for Knitwear for frontline troops gave business where a decline in demand for lace started, a suggestion of drift from lace to knitting. Big demand for Machine Knit Arans even in the 1930s. note “training in machine knitting” From this pg 148 of the text and 20 of the PDF “Not the least difficult part of the Board’s duties is the developing of home and cottage industry. These comprise Basketmaking, carpentry, kelp-making, lace-making, knitting and the manufacturing of carpets and woolens.”
NB Maltese knitting partic Gozo
NB Newfoundland Aran Knitting - newfoundland pattern fusion of nordic and cables

4 comments:

  1. Brilliant FAQ. Thanks a million for posting this!

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