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About the Aran Islands
The origin of the famous patterns of the Aran Islands is lost in antiquity but the reasons for the arrival of the fishing 'shirt', or sweater as it is commonly called today, may be easily understood when the geography and history of the Islands is considered.
The Islands lie to the west coast of Ireland in the mouth of Galway Bay, and to their west they are exposed to the Atlantic Ocean. This geographical position has much to bear on the condition of the landscape and the way in which generations of the islanders have made their subsistence living in the past.
There are three main islands in the group, Inishmore, the largest, lying to the North, Inishmaan (or middle Island) and Inisheer, the island to the southeastern point of the three.
Although life could never have been said to be good on the islands, there have always been fluctuations in its population. Until about the early eighteenth century the Aran islands played a very important role in the defence of the Western coast of Ireland but later, when strategy altered, the people had to fall back on their subsistence farming and fishing with which we usually associate them. The land consisted mainly of rocky outcrops with small patches of workable soil. The islanders laboured hard and, by making dry stone walls surrounding tiny fields and, in some cases, bringing turf and seaweed to form these fields, managed to raise a few crops and rear hardy cattle on the land. With this and the fishing, which had since time immemorial provided food for the islanders and for the mainland, they were able to maintain a meagre living. Indeed, during the terrible potato famine in Ireland and at times when the mainland was heavily forested and boggy, conditions were so much better on the islands that it was easier to travel across by sea and settle on the islands.
As the mainland began to become more built up and industry developed, bringing better opportunities and living conditions, the emigration from the islands began again. Early in the twentieth century the younger folk left the islands hoping to make their fortune, not just on the mainland but as far away as the United States of America. During the decades leading up to the 1970s the population had dwindled to a quite alarming number. However, with the recent trend towards self-sufficiency, many of the islanders have begun to return to their birthplace and, hopefully, the population will begin a new ascent.
For these people their adventure is cushioned by the helpful wonders of the latest technology and they have the best of both worlds. For them there is the peace and the knowledge that they are making a proud and independent living as hundreds of islanders have in the past, together with the comfort of modern day communication and all the benefits that it provides, the speed of air travel, instant contact by telephone with the mainland and, should distraction be desired, the instant entertainment of radio, television and audio systems.
The cattle that were raised on the islands in the past were part of the income of the people; they were shipped to the mainland for a sufficiently good price to make it worth their while. Until fairly recently this shipment was quite a spectacle and of great fascination to the visitor as well as entertainment to the local people. Because there was no pier in those days on Inishmaan and Inisheer, the cattle were obliged to swim out to the mailboat (the regular caller) and to be winched aboard. Gradually this scene will disappear; a pier has been begun at Inisheer and in just a few years this will be, except for photographs, an historical oddity.
Visitors to the islands are made very welcome and tourism is quite a thriving industry. Although geographically they are relatively small, the islands offer much to see. They are steeped in history and any tourist on the west coast of Ireland should consider a visit to the islands an almost vital part of their tour while they are in the area. Arriving by air the whole pattern is laid out: the great cliffs of Inishmore, the limestone plateau and the historical sites, the famous stone forts and the remains of the monasteries and half buried churches. Visitors come from all over the world, many of them students of ancient languages, as this is part of the Irish-speaking district—the Gaeltacht—where the purest old Irish is still spoken. There are still the old fishing curraghs, canvas successors of the frail pre-historic skin-covered craft; still the rough cowhide pampooties—hand made leather, sandal-type shoes that have to be dampened occasionally to keep them supple—the brightly coloured crios—a long hand woven belt worn round the waist by the men—and, of course, the Aran knitting.
Famous though the knitting is, the idea of a great cottage industry is far from a true one. Unfortunately the remuneration from hand knitting is very small related to the time taken to produce a garment; add to this the expense of importing the yarn and all that remains is a few garments to attract the tourists. The bulk of the work that is sent all over the world has to be done by workers on the mainland.
When the patterns were first 'discovered' and admired as works of art as well as for their functional quality they earned their authenticity and rarity because the patterns had never been committed to anything but memory. Now that a generally accepted knitting notation has been formed and many of the pattern stitches and garment shapes have been recorded, it is no longer necessary to go to the Aran islands for the sweaters. They can be purchased anywhere in the world and may be hand knitted by those with the ability, but because of the skill and resourcefulness of the islanders of the past this type of work will always be known by the distinctive name of Aran knitting.CHAPTER 2
Development of Aran knitting
When we have learnt a little of the history, geography and way of life in the past for the Aran islanders it is easy to understand how the garments and the stitches may have come about.
The fishing shirts were originally made as a protection against the elements. The men were out in all weathers, fishing from their curraghs and later from heavier fishing vessels, in terrible seas such as were shown in the famous film of the Aran fishermen, 'Man of Aran'. It was known that wool had certain waterproof properties. Technology can now prove that what these people knew by experience is borne out by fact.
Possibly the most important feature in the make up of wool is its ability to absorb moisture without feeling wet. What is more, when it does absorb moisture, it gives out heat. Therefore, a fisherman's sweater, when it gets wet (provided the knitting texture is close) will not only keep the wearer dry but also warm. The somewhat complex fibre contained in wool consists of a series of scales, known as epithelial scales. These, when seen under a microscope, show that the scales overlap one another, lapping more, or less, according to the particular breed of sheep. In the same way that water flows over a tile roof without entering, so moisture is inclined to flow over the scales without penetrating.
One result of this type of structure is that, when the fibre is stretched, the scales draw together and on release they return to the original formation, thus making an elastic and resilient fibre. Furthermore, wool makes a splendid insulating material. By their nature, the individual fibres are able to trap air within the fleece while it is on the sheep's back, keeping the sheep warm in winter and cool in summer. This ability is not lost in spinning since the basic fibre construction does not alter, and this natural insulation is yet another advantage of wool.
Finally, the other protective quality of wool, which is not retained in wool for general use, is the natural grease it contains. This is a secretion of the sebaceous glands in the sheep's skin close to the wool follicles. This grease is useful to the hand spinner since it helps the fibres to cling together, but it is also useful when left in the yarn used for fishermen's sweaters to be used in rough weathers because it adds to the waterproofing effect of the fabric. (However, the oil content is reduced with successive washes.) This wool can be purchased ready for knitting and is called oiled wool, as opposed to scoured wool which has had the oil (or the greater part of it) removed.
Those who were able to make a living by fishing worked at that industry and some of those who remained at home tended the sheep. These hardy sheep produced just the right type of wool for spinning into the waterproof, slightly rough, yarn that is only slightly more refined these days, and it protected the men and animals alike against the same elements. By the time it had had some of the dirt and grease removed (part scouring) it had become the creamy natural colour (bainin) with which we are all familiar, and although the patterns are worked in other fashion colours and yarns, the true Aran is only made from the thickish bainin woollen yarn.
It has been mentioned that to keep the garment virtually waterproof, in addition to its natural properties, it is necessary to work the stitches closely. It is probably from this necessity that the beginnings of the fancy patterns were made. It will be obvious that the tighter one knits that basic of all patterns, stocking stitch, the finer will become any space between the stitches but, at the same time, in practice, this will produce a fabric as hard and as uncomfortable as a board. However, when one takes the weaving process of knitting a stage further and crosses the stitches this doubly enhances the scaled surfaces. It lessens the chance of inflow of moisture and with the weave entraps the air in the same way as the basic fibre, adding to the insulating properties. By cabling and twisting the stitches we not only eliminate the need for a board-like garment but we finish with a wearable sweater with all the characteristics of the wool itself—waterproofing, insulation and elasticity. We have created a functional piece of knitting and that alone is worth doing but, more happily, we have also created a thing of beauty. Without doubt, the shapes and patterns of the Aran knitting when put together in one sweater or similar piece of knitting make a remarkable collection of textures, sometimes almost a bas-relief sculpture.
The origin of the very first patterns cannot now be found but research into the general history of knitting and, in particular, Aran knitting has brought forth some very interesting speculation. The most generally accepted theory of the symbols in various patterns is that they are based on religious themes. When the geographical position of the islands is considered and one remembers their importance in the centuries of defence to the western coast of Ireland, it is obvious that it would be a natural calling place for all types of travellers, monks, merchants, explorers, etc. These people would bring with them items of other cultures, bearing religious symbols, even before Christianity, geometric shapes, lozenges, braids and zigzag lines, and in the same manner the knitting style that these travellers had evolved would have found its way to other countries. It has been seen that the bobble patterns and diamonds are still worked in parts of Germany, and they possibly had a common origin with Aran knitting. The simple cable patterns have been worked all over the world by many nations and indeed, before the sudden popularity of Aran knitting in the 1940s, the cable pattern was frequently seen on the ubiquitous cricket sweater. This journeying of the patterns, relayed purely by demonstration since there is no written record, is the most likely link between the knitting patterns and symbols of the world. As for the meanings, these are various and many become even more obscure as the names of the stitches are handed down.
The eminent knitting historian Heinz Edgar Kiewe has done much to try and disentangle the mystery of the symbols and suggests these religious meanings:
Interlacing or trellis— the bond of man with God and religion (person bound by monastic vows, etc.)
Plaits—the holy three strands of hair ribbon or straw, the plaited holy bread of the Old Testament, symbolic of a devout family bound up with God.
Tree of life or ladder of life—Jacob's dream of the ladder to heaven.
Holy Trinity pattern—this pattern, made by making one of three and three of one, is attributed to the message on St Patrick's breastplate—'I bind unto myself today the strong name of the Trinity by invocation of the same, three in one and one in three.'
These are religious meanings of some of the symbols and a religious connection can be traced via the merchant routes and the travelling of the monks from and to the very eastern end of the Mediterranean. In his printed notes on his research into Aran knitting Heinz Edgar Kiewe also gives some of the more romantic explanations for the decorative ornaments the craftsmen in ancient Irish knitting use:
Zigzag—knit stitches moving diagonally across a purl panel and used to represent the twisting cliff paths along the shore.
Double zigzag—also known as marriage lines, usually considered symbolic of the ups and downs of married life.
Cables—these are of all types and represent the fisherman's ropes.
Tree of life—this pattern is worked by knit or twist stiches forming a trunk and branches against a purl background, and signifies long life and strong sons to carry on the fisherman's work.
The ladder of life—purl or twist stitches are worked to form the poles and rungs of the ladder against a knit stitch background. It is usually considered symbolic of man's earthly climb to eternal happiness.
The Trellis—an intricate pattern of knit stitches worked to form a trellis effect over purl stitches and representing the small fields enclosed with stone walls found in the west of Ireland. Along the west coast of Ireland many of the fishermen had their own individual pattern, the romantic Victorian tale being that if the men were drowned in the constant gales that lash the Western coast, they could be identified by the patterns on their sweaters.
Holy Trinity stitch—sometimes known as blackberry stitch. This is made by making 'three from one and one from three' across the panel.
Honeycomb—this looks exactly like its name and is made by twisting stitches forward and back across the panel. It was considered symbolic of hard work bringing its just reward, as the work of the busy bee produces the golden honey.
Spoon stitch—lover's spoon—lover's pattern?
As well as these romantic explanations and the Christian religious possibilities it must be added that some of the designs are to be found on ancient Celtic crosses and symbols that pre-date Christianity. Without doubt, in the dark ages the islands suffered from visits from the Vikings, who would have brought yet more varieties of symbols with them. Wherever there is an element of design in history, unless the meaning has been passed down with folklore, the pattern remains and the reasons for its being pass into obscurity.
We are fortunate that only the meanings of the symbols have faded and not the patterns themselves. These were preserved originally simply by being passed down in families from mother to daughter; it was the women who did the knitting on the islands, not the men. Various reasons have been given for the patterns not having been recorded; some say that the families were jealous of their own pattern and did not wish to let it go or that, having secured this method of keeping the men of the family identifiable by the pattern, would not risk using a different one.
While both of these reasons could be true, it is also probable that when learning to knit the patterns, which must have been quite a daunting task when there were no written instructions to refer to, a young girl had enough to do to remember just the patterns that were familiar to her mother without trying to grasp a new design of her neighbour's. As the Aran knitter will be aware, it takes quite some time to become accustomed to working the particular patterns of a garment and they must be un-learned before the next sweater can be worked.
One theory of how the sweaters developed so many panels is that a woman working a stocking stitch sweater with only a centre panel was a newcomer to that family, usually a bride from another part of the island. This she would be knitting for her first born so that he might wear it when he joined his father in the fishing boat. Then, when the next son came along, another panel would be added at each side. By the time the grandchildren arrived, new panels would be added to the central patterns and in this way the tradition was perpetuated in the family. In those days not only were the women too busy to allow for learning new patterns but their education would not have allowed for any method of notating the patterns. It was not until instructions began to take on their present day style that sufficient interest began to be taken in the stitch patterns and proper preservation could be made.
Although an example of Aran knitting is illustrated in the ancient Irish Book of Kells in A.D. 820 the earliest piece of Aran knitting properly recorded and photographed was as recent as 1936. This was a 'peculiar whiskery looking chunk of a sweater in biblical white at St Stephen's Green in Dublin', purchased by Heinz Edgar Kiewe. This was identified as a sample of cable stitches and a photograph of it was published in Mary Thomas's Book of Knitting Patterns. As has been stated, before this time the only popular Aran patterns used widely were cables which had been used, together with moss stitch, on Jerseys and Guernseys and other fishing sweaters. Mr Kiewe feels that this may have been the beginnings of the upsurge of interest in the Aran patterns which have evolved into such an infinite variety today. Many of the modern day designs owe little to the authentic patterns, but each has a little place in the enormous, never-ending concept of knitting ingenuity.
Excerpted from Traditional Aran Knitting by Shelagh Hollingworth. Copyright © 1982 Shelagh Hollingworth. Excerpted by permission of Dover Publications, Inc..
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Posted June 6, 2012
Beautiful patterns, clearly explained and illustrated. May be daunting for the new knitter, but definitely worth adding to your knitting library.
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