Aran knitting is not an art that stretches back centuries, the people of the Aran Islands neither made nor wore what we now call Aran sweaters before about the mid-20th century and the stitches are not ancient and symbolic. So how did these myths become as widely accepted as facts?
Perhaps surprisingly it’s largely the work of one man – Heinz Kiewe.
In the 1930′s Murial Gahan, who owned a restaurant and craft shop in Dublin, visited the Islands and took some samples of the knitting she found there to sell in her Dublin shop. These were not Aran sweaters as we know them now, but an earlier form of patterned knit. There they were ‘discovered’ by a German visitor, Heinz Kiewe and that was the beginning of decades of misinformation.
Kiewe developed a theory, based on little more than his own intuition, that the sweaters had been knit for generations on the islands, that the patterns used were ancient Celtic ones and that there were images of Aran clothing in the Book of Kells. Although Kiewe had never been to Aran, he attributed meanings to the various stitches based on what he perceived or imagined to be the Aran lifestyle.
In 1967 he published a book, “The Sacred History of Knitting“, in which he expanded on his ideas, although remarkably he had still never visited the islands. This book expanded in great detail on his ideas, creating an elaborate history of knitting stretching back centuries, describing and attributing ancient significance to patterns and generally telling a story that was compelling and fascinating.
The problem is that none of it was based on fact, historical or otherwise. That trivial detail didn’t stop other authors assuming it was true and spreading it as fact, and the book was widely used as a source by people writing about Aran knitting. That nobody in Ireland or on the Aran Islands ever went to great lengths to correct the inaccuracies is, if you think about it, unsurprising – it truly was a marketers dream!
Reclaiming the Truth about Aran
The two people are most responsible for getting back to the truth about Aran are Scottish knitting writer Alice Starmore, who dug beneath the widely-believed myths and winkled out the truth for her book “Aran Knitting“, and Richard Rutt whose book “A History of Hand Knitting” was first published in 1987.
This is how it really came about.
The first known patterned sweater from Aran dates to about 1930 and is in the National Museum in Dublin. It’s not quite what we know to-day as Aran knitting, but you can see the relationship. This sweater resembles those created on the Scottish isles in many respects and it is possible that around this time at least one skilled knitter from Scotland was on the islands, perhaps working in the fish industry there, and brought a basic knowledge of stitch patterns to the Island women.
By 1946 sweaters knit in a style and construction that is more distinctively Aran had started to appear, as shown in a sweater from this period in the National Museum. The Islands by this time had become quite well known for their style of knitting, but it was produced only on a very small scale.
In the 1950s and 1960s, in an effort to provide a source of income for isolated Aran Islanders, commercial hand knitting was encouraged. It was seen that the Island women, who had little prospect of other employment, could produce a product readily saleable on the mainland. Knitting was taught to children in schools and to groups of women on the Island.
By the early 1960s the sweaters had fully evolved into the distinct and recognizable form familiar today and began to be widely produced and sold.
So, how Irish is Aran Knitting?
Completely Irish and it there is no dispute about its origin in the Aran Islands. Some people have expressed dismay that something they believed was an ancient traditional craft was in fact of recent origin and always commercial in nature. They shouldn’t.
It is immensely to the credit of the women living on the remote Islands of Aran in the mid-20th century that they developed and created an original style of knitting with such wide appeal. Their lives were as different as it is possible to imagine from those of their customers in Dublin, London, New York and other far flung places in the world. And yet they responded to the needs of their markets, conceived a myriad of beautiful and original knitting stitches and brought tremendous skill to bear in the creation of sweaters that were treasured for decades by their eventual owners.
It does no justice to these remarkable women to belittle their achievement or their creativity or to devalue their sweaters just because they, and not their forebears, came up with the style of knitting.