The Truth About Irish Wool Sweaters

Irish wool sweater

There is a common belief that Irish wool sweaters have distinct individual patterns for every Irish clan. This is not true.

OK, now that I have your attention, first a little history about Irish sweaters.

First things first. Irish family groups are called Septs not Clans. Clans are for the Scots. There, now that I have that off my chest I can continue. (I can't help it. It's the amateur genealogist in me.)

The Aran Islands

Inishmore Island, Ireland

The Aran Islands are located in the mouth of Galway Bay in western Ireland. These islands are the birthplace of the now world famous Aran Irish wool sweater. There are three Aran Islands. They are called Inisheer, the smallest island; Inishmaan. the middle sized island, and Inishmore the largest island.

At right is a picture of the houses and fields separated by stonewalls near Kilronan on Inishmore Island.

Knitting on the Islands

irish wool sweater

Knitting has a long history on the islands. It was introduced in the 17th century, but it was for the knitting of socks not sweaters. They were made by fisherman's wives to keep their husbands feet warm.

It wasn't until about the 1930's that the knitting of sweaters became common on the islands. This was taught to the local women and to schoolchildren as a way to earn a second income. Raising sheep and fishing were the two main sources of income before this on the isolated islands.

It wasn't until the 1940's and 1950's that the popularity of the Irish sweater really took off. The Aran women came up with many original and ornate knit patterns. These patterns were first published in the 1940's. The sweaters were sold in Dublin and London.

In the 1950's Vogue magazine published a series of articles about Aran Irish wool sweaters. This is when their popularity soared in America.

Back in those days the sweaters were mostly hand knit. Now they are mostly machine made. But it is still possible now days to find hand knit sweaters, but you will pay for the better quality. Hand knit sweaters is a cottage industry that is still very much alive on the islands and along the west coast of Ireland.

The Myth about Aran Clan Sweaters

The myth says that every Irish Clan (Sept) has its own unique design. This is carried out further by another myth that a drowned Irish fisherman was once identified by his wife by the unique family knit design of his sweater.

The drowned fisherman story came from an early 1900's play by J.M. Synge called "Riders to the Sea". In the play a fisherman was identified by his sister because she recognized a dropped stitch in the socks she made for him. The myth turned it into a sweater and a true story.

This myth about Aran Clan sweaters is a very successful marketing tool. There is even a place on Inishmore Island called the Aran Sweater Museum, that is really a store, that keeps the myth alive about every clan having their own pattern.

Irish wool sweater

Are Aran Irish Wool Sweaters Really Irish?

Irish wool sweater

Most definitely Yes. Just because they're not old traditional Irish doesn't make them any less Irish. You have to give the Aran women credit for inventing a unique style of knitting in the mid 20th century that has become so popular the world over. Popular and most definitely and completely Irish.

If you are in the market for a high quality Irish wool sweater go for it. Don't get hung up on a family name. Pick a pattern you like and buy that pattern. If you happen to like the pattern attached to your family name so much the better. You can tell your friends the myth as truth. What will they know? (wink, wink)

What this all boils down to is Irish wool sweaters are a nice piece of Ireland to take home with you and they look cool too.

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