Year of Mittens

Year of Mittens: The Rich History of Aran and Cable Knitting

August is almost over, and we’ve enjoyed seeing everyone’s finished and in-progress mittens. We hope you all have enjoyed working all of those cables!

Our August mittens for the Year of Mittens are a richly cabled design, inspired by traditional Irish sweaters, most often referred to as Aran sweaters. While these sweaters are traditionally knit in natural white wool, these mittens are knit using our Cumbria Fingering yarn in Windermere, a traditional Gansey sweater color. This blending of traditions across the sea is something that is really at the heart of how regionally specific knitting traditions develop, and evolve. 

There is a long and confusing history behind cable knitting. Many say that it originated long ago on the Aran Islands off the west coast of Ireland. This wind-swept, craggy string of rocks in the Atlantic Ocean is the perfect romantic setting for a thick woolen knit to take shape. Waterproof and knit tight as armor, densely knit extra thick sweaters were woven through with distinctive patterning developed over the generations by the women of the family. The story goes that the Aran cable patterns were specific to each family so that the bodies of the men lost at sea could be identified when washed ashore. A more likely, and less romantic, tale of the origins of Aran knitting is that the sweaters were developed for tourist trade sometime at the beginning of the 20th century. In any case, the intricate and intertwining patterns are certainly reminiscent of the Celtic knots so recognizable in traditional Irish imagery. These sweaters are beautiful works of art steeped in a long knitting tradition, whatever their beginning.

Most likely, these richly patterned sweaters developed simultaneously, through co-development occuring due to the migration and travel of fisherman all over the Bristish Isles, Ireland, Scandinavia, and France. The similarities between fisherman’s sweaters of these areas is plain to see. Regional styles prevailed, through use of wool type and color, style and complexity, but in many cases the overlaps in design are too commonplace to be able to label any one style of sweater strictly of one place. In Britain and France, closer to large cities knitters may have had better access to dyestuffs, or even later on, commercial dyehouses.  In other more isolated areas, natural undyed wool colors were more common. Surely, some version of what we call an “Aran Sweater” existed before they were commercially popularized in the 1950’s and 60’s, but most likely they had more in common with the traditional fisherman’s gansey than today’s richly patterned Aran designs. 

In the 1950’s, what we now refer to as Aran knitting was popularized in the US by a design in a 1958 Vogue Pattern Book. This sweater, knit – but not designed by – Elizabeth Zimmerman, started a craze for this style of sweater. The Irish Government, recognizing an opportunity to develop a very rural part of their country with a tourist trade, sent knitters and designers to the outlying islands to work with the local knitters to help them produce garments of high quality and using standard sizing methods. Today, you can still buy traditional Aran sweaters (and kits!) produced by the knitters of the Aran Islands: Inishmaan, Inishmore, and Inisheer. 

Of course, as knitters, we think you should make your own Aran-inspired designs, in fact, one of the challenges laid out by the Knitting Guild of America’s master knitter program is to design and knit your own Aran sweater! That said, maybe the August Mittens are a good place to start. 

Have you knit an Aran sweater before? Share your story with us! And, stay tuned on September 1st for our next installment in the Year of Mittens!

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