University of Minnesota
minnesota writing project
center for writing

Minnesota Writing Project.Center for Writing's home page.

Jimmy Dreese


readingThe Myth of the Aran Sweater

Over the surface of the sweater, ropes of fine, cream stitching wind, twist, and interlock. These cables curve gracefully across the fabric, braid and spiral themselves, wrap around one another, chase back and forth without cease, form lattices and flowing waves, and truly inject the sweater with some hint of life.

This style of knitting is called Aran, and it is one of the great established ethnic knitting styles popular today in the United States. Aran knitting begins with cables, one of the most exuberant decorations in the craft, a technique sure to make the non-initiate exclaim, “How do they do that?”

The cables of Aran knitting also serve a practical purpose: historically, the Aran sweater is a fisherman’s garment. The people of the Aran Islands, a harsh, rocky, weather-beaten archipelago off Ireland’s west cost, made their lives chiefly from the ocean. As these fierce seafarers rowed the treacherous waters, hauled their nets through the frigid spray, and braved the tempest each day to find their dinner, the sweater with its thick patterning provided the best homemade defense against the elements. As the story goes, the real Aran fisherman’s sweater could be so thick with cabling that it could actually stand up on its own, more like a suit of armor than a comfort garment.

I’ve always wanted to knit Aran, to get inside that tradition, put it on like a sweater, really wear it, feel its itchy stitches from the inside. I set myself, therefore, an ambitious plan: I would be spending the summer in Ireland with my college, studying Irish literature in a variety of locations—I planned to use my free time to delve into the rich tradition of Irish knitting. I would seek out local knitters, trace the yarn to its source on the Aran Islands, acquire authentic, traditional materials, and encapsulate all of these experiences in a cabled Aran sweater I would design myself.

I began my travels in County Mayo on Ireland’s west coast. The West immediately captivated me. Roads never went straight but wound around hills and crags like sweater cables. Every field seemed to contain sheep, shorn small for the summer. The land was rocky and harsh, and it was common to see farms bordered with low stone walls that had been built without mortar out of the rocks of the land, stone piled in place upon stone.

The people of the West felt satisfyingly Irish. Many spoke with strong accents, and we passed through areas of the Gaeltacht, where Irish remains the native language. Since the English invasion of Ireland in 1069, the Irish language has been declining in use. The English, based in Dublin, had most of their influence in the East. Today, about two percent of the Irish population live in a smattering of Gaeltacht across the western counties. Though Irish appears alongside English on road signs throughout the Republic of Ireland, and though the language is taught in schools, the majority of Irish life is conducted in English.

We spent a week and a half reading poetry and memoir and visiting cultural sites. As we toured Mayo and the nearby counties, I kept alert for knitting inspiration. At Ballintubber Abbey, I journaled about the stained glass windows, gradients of deep brown near the bottom to yellow-white at the apex. I sketched the iconic Celtic knots engraved on old stone buildings. Visiting the Loughcrew passage tombs, I sketched the concentric circles I saw carved into rock 5000 years ago.


Knitting as a craft has a rich tradition beyond and before Ireland. Current theories of textile history place its origin around 800 years ago in Egypt. Knitting spread throughout the Muslim world, crossing the Straits of Gibraltar where two thirteenth-century knitted cushions were found adorning the tomb of Castilian royals. By 1600, knitting had achieved something of a vogue in the British Isles: Queen Elizabeth reportedly commissioned pairs of stockings, knit of silk. England quickly became the lead exporter of knitted stockings to continental Europe.

At some point in its meandering path, knitting reached the Aran Islands. I wondered, how did it grow into the Aran sweaters of today?


I stared up from the deck of the ferry at the steep rock and tough grass of Inishmore, the largest of the Aran Islands. The halcyon sky softened the image, but the island itself stood sharp, gray, and barren. My classmates and I disembarked and ascended a flight of stairs up to a narrow street. Tourists strolled over the uneven pavement, clutching bike helmets and zipping their jackets.

We rented bicycles and took helmets from a large metal bin, then walked our bikes along the road. There stood a group of buildings—restaurants and shops. A sign above one read, “Traditional Aran Sweaters.” Initially, I felt disgust. This was clearly a tourists’ shop, whereas I wanted to find the folk craft. But, needing to start somewhere, and pulled along by my eager classmates, I entered.

Inside, plush stacks of sweaters lay folded on tables or adorned a few nondescript mannequins. All the sweaters bore earth tones of brown, gray, forest green, and the cream I was most accustomed to seeing. Running my hand over one of the sweaters, I felt the satisfying ridges of a cable. I followed its course through the garment hem to collar, entranced by its unbroken path.

I reached into the neck and found a sewn-in cotton tag. “Traditional Aran Sweater: Made in Ireland.” Peering closely at the inside fabric, I searched for signs that it might have been hand-knit. Likely, with such a volume of sweaters in one shop, it hadn’t been. Though a few of my classmates rushed to buy sweaters from the shop, I left them.

We spent a glorious day biking over the hills of Inishmore, stopping every so often to stare out at the endless sea. The island stretched high into the air, its southern coast a wall of sheer cliffs. Stone dominated the land. The low rock walls that I’d seen occasionally on the mainland stretched for miles over the scraggly grass of Inishmore, boxing in hundreds of uncultivated plots. I wondered if these had been cropland or grazing pens in the past. There was no clear sign now.

The island seemed to be peopled almost entirely by tourists. We passed a few houses on our bicycles, but much of the land seemed abandoned to the elements, and even in the face of the beautiful sun, Inishmore received no respite from the beating ocean wind.

Two thirds of the way through our bicycle circuit of Inishmore, my classmates and I arrived at the ruins of Dún Aonghasa, a pre-Christian stronghold built at the top of the cliffs. Iron Age inhabitants of the island had fortified the location for perhaps religious purposes. Dún Aonghasa consists of three concentric stone walls that surround fourteen acres of land. The land inside the walls ends in cliffs.

Entering through a narrow stone archway in the series of three thick stone walls, I stared out to the glimmering sea. For a moment, I wondered who else, how many generations before me, had stared out at the same cliff edge, water, and sky. What language had they spoken? What had the builders of Dún Aonghasa known, dreamed, feared, and loved? Though I now walked the same piece of land they had, there was no way to grasp who they were.

Returning down the winding trail that led to Dún Aonghasa, I had a lucky find. In the tourists’ gift shop; I spied a basket of yarn. The yarn consisted of a base color (which varied from skein to skein) flecked with bits of other hues. Questioning the shop attendant, I learned the yarn was called Donegal Tweed. I knew Donegal to be a county in Northern Ireland. Though I would have preferred to find yarn from the Aran Islands for my sweater, I was pleased to have at least found real Irish yarn. I bought four skeins in various colors and left the shop smiling.


My first remembered encounter with the Aran sweater had come many years before when I had attended a high school production of Martin McDonagh’s The Cripple of Inishmaan. The play, set on one of the smaller Aran Islands in the 1930s, had captured the stark beauty of the place in its grim but romantic story.

The entire cast had worn Aran sweaters and spoken with affected Irish accents. As I think back on it, I wonder if it was this play that established the west of Ireland as such an image of the bucolic ideal to me, symbolized by the intricate Aran sweater.

The Cripple of Inishmaan had itself been based around another attempt to represent the Aran Islands in art. The play takes place during the filming of the 1934 documentary of traditional life, Man of Aran.

Man of Aran, directed by American filmmaker Robert Flaherty for a British film studio, found success: it grossed 50,000 pounds, earned the top award for a foreign film at the Venice Film Festival, and, interestingly, received accolades from Nazi Germany, which praised its depiction of the strength of man.

Two years after that summer in Ireland I tracked down a copy of Man of Aran. The grainy film jumped and wavered. Errant lines scratched over the screen. But the mediocre quality of the film didn’t deter me: contained within these frames, I hoped to find clues into the tradition of that place I still thought of so often and so fondly.

The silent film opens with this powerful caption:

The Aran islands lie off Western Ireland. All three are small… wastes of rock… without trees… without soil… In winter storms they are almost smothered by the sea… which, because of the peculiar shelving of the coastline, piles up into one of the most gigantic seas in the world. In this desperate environment the Man of Aran, because his independence is the most precious privilege he can win from life, fights for his existence, bare though it may be. It is a fight from which he will have no respite until the end of his indomitable days or until he meets his master—

Flaherty’s film depicted in brutal detail this struggle for survival: I watched a huddled figure gathering seaweed amid a gale, a strapping youth fishing from a cliff top, a crew of brave islanders chasing and harpooning a shark, and a small boat battling against ferocious waves. The life of the islanders seemed as grim as could be imagined.

As Man of Aran came to a close, it occurred to me that I hadn’t noticed any cabled sweaters on its cast. But, of course, the film quality was likely too grainy to have seen for sure.


A few days after our visit to Inishmore, we left the West for Dublin. The Pale, the country surrounding Dublin that represented the area of heaviest British influence during the centuries-long invasion, is still recognizable in Ireland today. As we approached the capitol city, I saw a distinct change come over the land: The rocky fields, rough and hilly, gradually gave way to even, carefully tended plots. The wild gardens to which I’d grown accustomed in the West became manicured rows of flowers. It seemed the English had affected even the land of the island they had overtaken.

Despite my initial feelings of distaste at the city’s history as an English outpost and the source of True Irishness’s death knell, I quickly fell in love with its winding streets, beautiful churches, and, above all, friendly, welcoming people. I settled into a dorm at Trinity College in the heart of the city and spent my days exploring and reading James Joyce’s Ulysses.

During my first few evenings in Dublin, I devoted some time to designing cable patterns based on the images I had collected in the West. I developed three patterns: a Celtic knot, an interwoven, curving lattice, and an attempt to represent the concentric circles carved into stone in the Loughcrew passage tomb. Then one afternoon about a week into our month-long stay in the capitol city, I packed my knitting needles, sketchpad, and skeins of Donegal Tweed and strolled down Grafton Street to the address I’d found listed online as the site of a Dublin knitting group.

Feeling shy, yet aware that my purpose required me to be bold, I approached a circle of about ten women in the otherwise empty coffee shop on the ground floor of an American-style shopping mall. They sat loosely around a couple of tables, chatting quietly with one another, most with knitting needles clicking before them.

I came closer, and one of the women glanced up at me. She appeared to be in her mid-thirties with long, dark hair. Instead of knitting needles, this woman held a drop spindle, an implement for spinning one’s own yarn. A bundle of silky, pink-dyed wool sat on the table before her, waiting to be spun.

“Hi,” I said, clutching my knitting bag, “Can I join you?”

“Sure,” said the dark-haired woman. She gestured casually with her spindle at the empty café. “Find a chair.”

My heart thumping, I found a gap in the circle, opposite the spinner. I sat and extracted from by bag a simple hat, blue, in moss stitch and half finished.

A woman next to me, knitting an intricate lace shawl, spoke to me: “What brings you here?” She spoke with a distinctly Eastern European accent. She looked older, perhaps fifty. Her delicate hands flashed over her work. I saw that she held the yarn in her right hand and used a quick motion of her index finger to guide each stitch into place: the Continental style of knitting. My own British style technique, holding the yarn in my left hand and releasing the left needle with every stitch to wrap the right, was much slower.

“I’m here this summer at Trinity,” I said, focusing on my knitting. “I’m doing a study abroad program studying Irish literature, but I’m also doing an independent project on knitting in Ireland.”

“Wow,” the woman said, “This sounds like quite an adventure.”

I smiled. “I’m hoping to talk to some Irish knitters and find out what I can about knitting here,” I explained.

Across the circle, the woman with the dark hair spoke up. “Well, we’re not very Irish here. See, I’m Canadian.” She laughed. “The Irish don’t knit in public.”

The group, it transpired, was almost entirely international: three Canadians, two Americans, one English woman, and Liubov, the Continental knitter next to me, who had emigrated from Russia twenty years before.

Only one woman identified herself as Irish, a linguistics professor at University College Dublin. She explained to me what the spinner had meant about the Irish “not knitting in public.”

“In North America,” she said, “knitting is a kind of art.” She gestured around at the kaleidoscope of colors, patterns, and novelty yarns her fellows worked with. “But until quite recently, knitting in Ireland was more about saving money. It was far cheaper to make your own clothes than to buy.” The knitters of Ireland, she explained, regarded their craft as a kind of household chore: not an artistic leisure to be shared with friends, but as necessary work.

The linguistics professor, Liubov, and I spoke for a while, and then the woman with the dark hair across the table interjected once again: “You’re looking to find out about Irish knitting,” she said. “Have you heard about the myth of the Aran sweater?”

I looked up at her, staring as a few of the other ladies chuckled into their knitting. “I’ve heard of Aran sweaters,” I said. “What do you mean by ‘the myth’?”

As she spoke, the woman’s spindle twirled before her, transforming the pile of pink wool to a fine, even strand of yarn. “There are all these stories out there, how the fisherman’s sweater was based on family patterns, that each family had its own patterns, and how if a fisherman’s body washed up on shore they could identify who he was by those cable patterns.”

The spindle dropped as she pulled fresh wool from the mass before her. Instantly, the gyre twisted the loose fibers into a tight strand. “The thing is,” she continued, eyes on me, hands deftly pulling and twisting, “it’s all invented. It’s a story they make up for tourists. The Aran sweaters were actually invented by Americans just in the 1920s. They’re not really Irish at all.”


When Robert Flaherty’s film crew arrived in Galway in 1932 to begin shooting Man of Aran, they found an island of distinctly uninteresting people. The residents of Inishmore lived in modern houses and imported much of their food from the mainland. No one had harpooned a shark there for at least fifty years, and some anthropologists even argue that shark hunting was never a custom on Inishmore. The traditional islanders he sought, steeped in their primitive traditions, had already faded into the sea of the past.

The filmmakers paid a few photogenic islanders each five pounds and a keg of porter to don coarse, old-fashioned clothing, gather seaweed to be used as fertilizer, and row an ill-fitted boat out into a squall. Because no one on the island knew how to hunt sharks, Flaherty hired a team of Scotsmen to teach the actors the necessary skills.

Today, Man of Aran is praised for its cinematography, and for its romantic imagination. The ethnographic content, however, was blatantly falsified.


A little research into the spinner’s tale corroborated much of what she had said, though it proved slightly more authentically Irish than she had suggested. In 1906, Margaret Dirrane and Maggie O’Toole of Inishmore had traveled to America. Outside of Boston, the women met another European immigrant who taught them basic cabled knitting. Dirrane and O’Toole returned to Inishmore in 1908 and began making cabled sweaters. The ancient, traditional folk craft I sought was barely one hundred years old.


I stared at the swatches of cable patterns I’d designed, the skeins of Donegal Tweed strewn over the floor, my open sketchbook, the pages slightly wrinkled from how many times I had grabbed it from my bag in inspiration. A waste. I found I’d been chasing not a tradition, but a tourist’s souvenir.

The irony of my search for a kind of Irish authenticity ending in two women’s trip to my home country embittered me, and for a while apathy reigned. I put away my knitting, buried it in my suitcase, and tried to immerse myself in Ulysses. Funnily, I found my own fruitless search faintly echoed in Harold Bloom’s scramble through the Dublin streets, never grasping the truth he seeks.

A few days after my visit to the knitting group, I sat on the steps of the Trinity library, talking with Susan, the professor leading my program. Susan had been interested in my knitting research during our time in the West. Now I told her that all had come to naught.

Susan seemed to find the story I told her fascinating. “You say the two women began making these sweaters in 1908?” she asked.

“Yeah,” I mumbled.

“Do you remember what else was happening in Ireland around that time?”

I stewed the ground with my foot. “Wasn’t that around when Irish Home Rule started, when Ireland got independence?”

“Yes, very close to it,” Susan said. “In around 1910. But nationalism and the push for home rule had been growing for about a hundred years before that. And an essential part of that movement involved establishing a cohesive national cultural identity.” She paused and widened her eyes as if to say, “You see where I’m going with this?”


Was the Aran sweater a driver of Irish nationalism, spurring the country on towards its hard-won independence? This idea, the story of a reclaimed identity, sustained me in the years after my return from Ireland, through the final design and construction of my own Aran sweater, and nearly to today.

Only after I began writing this piece, I sought out Rohana Darlington’s 1991 book Irish Knitting, cited as the definitive text on the history of the Aran sweater. Like me, Darlington began her search with legends of an ancient tradition of Aran knitting, though her investigations far surpassed mine. She interviewed the curators of museum textile collections, examined the Sears-Roebuck-style catalogs that listed what items a well-to-do Dubliner might purchase from the Aran cottage industry, and combed though archives of old documents describing the Aran Islands, searching for scraps of information on local dress and craft.

By the nineteenth century, she found, knitting had become an established cottage industry throughout rural Ireland. However, as late as 1908, the only widespread knitting on Inishmore was hosiery. In the late 1800s, companies had paid low but sustainable wages to knitters on the island, but these wages dwindled, and by 1908 had completely vanished.

Into this economic vacuum, Margaret Dirrane and Maggie O’Toole had brought the Aran Sweater. After their return to Inishmore in 1908, they gradually developed their skills: they began with simple cables and diamonds, over the years adding more complex lattice and honeycomb patterns. In the next decades, several small family businesses began knitting and selling Aran sweaters. By 1936, the first such garment had appeared in a Dublin textile museum.

Yet no reference could I find that supported Susan’s speculation that the sweaters had become a rallying point for Irish nationalism. Truly, the Irish Free State had existed for nearly a decade before Aran knitting became widely known beyond the rocky shore of Inishmore. The Aran sweater itself seemed to teeter on the edge of oblivion near mid-century—knitting researcher Gladys Thompson bewailed their obsolescence in 1955: “some record must be kept before they become a forgotten craft.” If the Aran sweater had any connection to Irish nationalism, it was as a fizzling result rather than a robust cause.


Where does this leave me? I have traced this thread far deeper than I’d imagined I could. Yet, the results of my search leave me feeling somehow empty, still yearning for something. The story of the Aran sweater feels as much a lie as Man of Aran. I realize now that I sought in the Aran sweater a connection to a romantic past, to a heritage, to a longstanding tradition that, in America, has often felt beyond my grasp.

But maybe therein lies the first lesson I need to learn.

In my mind, I imagine a low roof, a scrubbed table, a door shut against the harsh island wind. At the table sit Margaret Dirrane and Maggie O’Toole, returned from Boston, hard at work. They hold pairs of clacking knitting needles and pull long strands of wool from balls rolling at their feet.

I cautiously approach the table, clutching my garishly colored knitting bag and four skeins of Donegal Tweed. “Can I join you?” I cautiously ask.

Maggie looks up. “The Irish don’t knit in public,” she says, then cracks a smile. “Joke!” And both women laugh.

“Of course ye can,” says Margaret, and she reaches over to pull out a straight-backed chair for me.

I sit and remove my swatches from the bag. I spread them before me on the table, then take up the one I am knitting and focus on my work. The women begin talking to one another, and after a few minutes I have calmed down enough to look up at them. Margaret is working panels of interlocking cables, a tree-of-life pattern displayed in the center. Maggie is shaking her head as she puzzles over a complex lattice of slender, twisting cords.

The women seem to sense me watching them and look up at the same time. Startled, I say, “Can I ask you something?”

Maggie rolls her eyes at me. “Why else would you be here?”

And so I swallow and ask them: “What does this all mean? What is the point of these sweaters? Don’t you want to knit in an authentic tradition? They’re beautiful, but are they really Aran sweaters?” I feel myself rising. There’s a strange anger that I can’t stop. I’m sure I’m offending the women, but the words keep coming. “I wanted something real! I wanted the real Ireland!”

Margaret leans forward. Her eyes show concern. She looks about to speak, but Maggie begins first: “This is the real Ireland,” she says, and returns, fuming, to her knitting. The needles begin flying before her.

“Maggie,” her friend scolds. Then Margaret turns to me. “What she means is, we are only people here on Inishmore, just like you. We aren’t trying to spur nationalism or influence politics. We’re just knitting. We’re just doing something we enjoy, and something that will earn money for our families.”

I consider this. “But that isn’t what I wanted to find.” I feel like a petulant child.

Maggie breaks in again: “I know it isn’t what you wanted. We are ordinary. We don’t hunt sharks, and we don’t all have fancy lilting accents. These sweaters aren’t the outgrowth of centuries. Our parents didn’t even wear sweaters like this, and we don’t typically identify corpses by their sweater patterns either. People aren’t usually thinking about developing culture when they do their art.”

Margaret says, “But that doesn’t mean what we’re doing’s not Irish. Culture is just people. And that is true of Maggie and me, and that is true of you too.”

We return to our work. I examine the patterns before me. There are the concentric circles of the Loughcrew passage tombs, weaving in and out across a tight central braid that, to me, represents time. There is the Celtic knot, curving gracefully over the fabric, and an intricate lattice—to me, the interconnection, the weaving lines of history, people, Ireland, America, past, present, culture, romantic visions of shark hunts, wild, rocky coasts, English occupation, poverty-driven work, a spinner of pink wool, Home Rule, the halcyon sky, the tourist shops, the fire of inspiration, Flaherty’s vision, the creation of an imaginary past, the two women sitting before me, just people.