Aesthetically speaking, the jumpers which originated on the Aran Islands in the 17th century, are intricate pieces of craftwork. The traditional jumpers are all hand-knitted in one piece, taking up to 50-100 hours to complete and comprise up to 60,000 individual stitches. Muireann Quill of Quill Woollen Mills explains that the jumpers each have individual patterns which belonged to a different clan on the Aran Islands and thus each one has a different symbolic meaning. The motif most associated with Aran is the honeycomb stitch, which appears as a hexagon pattern in the center panel. For the farmers and fishermen of Aran, the honeycomb was said to signify plenty and bring a good catch. There are however up to two hundred known clan stitches. Murieann’s own favorites are the ‘ladder of life’ stitch, which symbolizes the pilgrim’s path to salvation and the moss stitch, which fills the panels between large diamond stitches and signifies abundance and growth. Diamonds meanwhile signify wealth and success.
Not just aesthetically beautiful and traditionally meaningful, the jumpers were inherently practical as well. Made from sheep’s wool, they are warm, and insulating, providing protection from Atlantic winds and winter cold as well as the formidable Irish rain. They are great for repelling water- rather than becoming soggy, they can hold up to 30% of their own weight of water without it actually coming through to the body.
The classic knits have a dark and tragic history- toiled over for hours by wives and mothers, they were originally created with a mournful intent. As wives of fishermen stitched the family patterns into the jumpers, they knew they might be making the last thing their husbands and sons ever wore. Whole families of men risked their lives as they set out for the dangerous but fish-rich waters of the Atlantic each day in order to provide for their families. When boats capsized and sunk, there was little chance of survival. As the bodies of the dead washed up on shore, sometimes days or weeks later, and in an unrecognizable state, the beautiful stitches of their woollen sweaters would help islanders identify the ill-fated men.
The jumpers not only helped the women find the men who had died, they also even functioned to help the men die. Faced with being capsized at sea with little chance of survival, fishermen not only faced death, but a particularly difficult death by hypothermia which could be agonizingly slow and painful. The warm jumpers offered some insulation on entering the water, but as the jumper became immersed it became so heavy that it helped the ill-fated fishermen drown much faster, by pulling them down and quelling their attempts to fight it. As Muireann explains ‘it was their life-vest in a way, a life-vest to save them from one angle of dying but help them along in a faster, easier death when there was no hope for safety out there’.
These jumpers were love letters in wool.
The heart-rending story behind the Aran jumper is what Quill thinks is making it such a popular fashion staple. ‘The reason it takes off so much is the history behind it. There is a story there and that is why it sells so much, especially to people who have Irish ancestry’. Quill’s Woollen Mills has been selling Aran Jumpers since 1938 when Muireann’s grandfather began to sell the jumpers his wife made at local markets, eventually growing into the family business it is today. When The Clancy Brothers appeared on the Ed Sullivan Show decked out in matching Arans their mother had sent over to help them brave the cold New York winter, it propelled them to fame amongst the American diaspora. Since then, Muireann has had popular New York designers contact her about how to make the traditional garments. Quill’s Woollen Mills employs 194 local knitters, often retired women who grew up making the jumpers, and each jumper is hand-knitted over approximately 100 hours. ‘There’s definitely been a boost in sales recently. Last year we had an increase in business of nearly 15% and this year again it is 9% up so far’. When asked what she thinks of the Aran jumper becoming the latest must-have, Muireann says ‘I’m absolutely delighted. I think it was always well recognized, but even in our own family, seeing it get this recognition is fantastic. We love being a part of thetradition and being able to speak about what we knew all along, telling all our stories based around them and making people more aware of the history behind them.’
Muireann Quill is a co-owner and manager of Quill’s Woollen Market
Words by Rachel Lavin @RachelLavin