It’s almost Christmas 2008, and the present for my husband is the promise of a hand knitted sweater, just for him.   Not just any sweater,  but the beautiful Inishmore designed by Alice Starmore.

Inishmore sweater knit and photographed by allinred on Ravelry

Inishmore sweater knit and photographed by allinred on Ravelry

My husband loves history, and I was curious about the history and tradition in Aran knitting and more specifically the Inishmore sweater design.  I started doing research on it and decided that it would be a nice addition to the Christmas package.  The story and the history behind the Inishmore design and Aran knitting.

This idea kind of started brewing when I read the article in Knitty.com, Knit Like a Man,  about the Inishmore and Christmas presents for men.  I really took to heart the last paragraph, NO SURPRISES.  So in my attempt to really make my husband a part of this project, I decided to put this piece together for him and why not share it?

With the picture to refer to, we’ll discuss the stitch patterns in this sweater.  The center, double zigzag is also known as marriage lines, usally considered symbolic of the ups and downs of married life.  After just celebrating our 27th wedding anniversary, I can embrace this one.  The zigzags on either side of the center are used to represent the twisting cliff paths along the shore of Inishmore.  The cables in the Aran stitch patterns as seen here, represent the fisherman’s ropes.  The horseshoe cable seen on either side between the regular cables,  symbolizes the hoofprints of the horses used to drag the boats above the high water mark.  The stitches found inbetween the middle zigzag pattern, and throughout the sweater represent the mesh of the fishing nets, wealth and success.

Alice Starmore, the designer of this sweater and 19 other fabulous patterns in Fisherman’s Sweaters, was born in Stornoway, Scotland as Alice Matheson.  Alice learned to knit at the age of four and was creating her own knitting designs by the age of five.  She made needlework her professional career in 1975, when she produced a collection that was sold in a London boutique.  You can learn more about Alice and her knitting designs on her website, Virtual Yarns.  Her professional scope has widen to include fine art and her first solo, major exhibit, Mamba, was shown at An Lanntair, Stornoway, Isle of Lewis, summer of 2008.

I promised you a bit of history about the Aran knitting tradition and it’s history, I haven’t forgotten.  Aran knitting orignated in the Aran Isles six miles west of the Ireland coast.

Map of Aran Isles from MSN Encarta

The Aran Isles are comprised of several islands, the largest being Inis Mor (Inishmore), the middle island is Inis Meain (Inishmaan), and the smallest is Inis Orr (Inisheer).  I have provided a larger map, with Galway to the North and Ireland to the east.  The Aran Isles, also known as Arana Naomh, is situated at the mouth of the Galway Bay, about thirty miles off the coast.  The islands are part of the county Galway, where fishing is the main industry.

Tradition has it that the original Aran sweaters incorporated patterns that could identify a drowned fisherman if lost at sea.  The patterns were indeed handed down generation to generation and many incorporated these traditional patterns into the knitted sweaters that the men wore.  However, this legend is from the play,  Riders to the Sea, by J.M Synge’s, where the sister of a drowned man recognizes him by the dropped stitches in the socks he is wearing.

The most distinctive features of Aran knitting are the heavily embossed stitches and the intricate patterns, and usually knit in the natural off white yarn.  The sweaters were knit with wool that was partially scoured (washed), the wool retained much of the natural oil, or lanolin and made the sweaters more water resistant.  The the traditional name for the Aran wool is ‘bainin’, pronounced ‘bawneen’, and is the Irish word for undyed wool.  The original sweaters were knit with a wide range of natural colors, and although the word for the wool describes the texture of the wool, rather than the shade, today we regard the cream as the authentic color and most popular color for all types of Aran garments.  The lighter color, especially the cream, shows the stitches off in the greatest detail.

The Aran stitches are very distinctive and traditionally Aran sweaters will incorporate as many as eight patterns in a sweater.  The stitches have a symbolic meaning, and the most noted authority on teh mystery of the symbols is the eminent knitting historian, Heinz Edgar Kiewe.  I was able to find a couple of examples of the Aran stitches and their meaning online.  Meaning of Aran stitches and Aran Sweaters and stitch patterns have displayed some of the more popular Aran knitting stitches and their meanings.

If you are a member on Ravelry, you can find the Inishmore pattern and see the projects tab on this page to see all the versions of this pattern done by knitters all over the world.  If you aren’t a member of Ravelry, I’d like to invite you to join.  For more information about Aran knitting or pattern designs, here are a few books that are either in my library, I’ve had the pleasure of reviewing through interlibrary loan or seen multiple references to.

Fisherman's Sweaters by Alice Starmore

Fisherman's Sweaters by Alice Starmore

Traditional Aran Knitting by Shelagh Hollingworth

Traditional Aran Knitting by Shelagh Hollingworth

220 Aran Stitches by The Harmony Guides

220 Aran Stitches by The Harmony Guides

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