Hand knitting was introduced to Ireland in the 17th century. The fishermen cable knit sweaters or Aarn sweaters refer to Irish handmade sweaters. The Aarn Islands are located west of Ireland off Galway Bay. Reports from 1893 suggest that the only knitted items at that time were socks knitted by the women for their families. Around 1900, the first Aarn sweaters have been knitted by the fishermen’s wives. Some of the younger fishermen had adopted to wear the fishermen sweaters worn by their British and Scottish colleagues.
The people of these islands made their living by farming and fishing, which both involved long exposure to wet stormy weather. Wool sweaters from untreated (undyed) yarn have still the natural lanolin oils that make the knitted sweaters very water repellent and hence protect the wearer from both rain and sea-spray.
The Aarn sweaters feature cable knit patterns. There exist various different pattern and explanation thereof. Typically Aarn sweaters have up to eight different pattern. Some sources state that the pattern are related to the family clans of the wearer and served to identify the fisherman in case he drowned. These sources suggest that the pattern are handed down from one generation to the next. Other sources relate the pattern to symbolic. According to that the cable pattern symbolizes robes and hints at the profession of fishermen. It represents hope and also should bring luck and fruitful fishing. The most common pattern is the honeycomb design, which stands for the hardworking bee. The zig-zag pattern is said to remind of the up and downs of marriage.
I am leaning towards the latter interpretation for various reasons. However, the most striking ones are that there are only so many possibilities from a theoretical point of view, that with the strong currents around the Aarn Islands the likelihood that a drowned men would be stranded on an Island where they know his clan’s pattern is pretty low, and last but not least that since 1900 there have been five generations at most.
But as with many handmade items I am pretty sure that insiders can distinguish styles and even identify who designed/knitted the pattern. When I recall my teenage years, my sister’s knitting was always one small pattern allover a sweater, while I always made big ones, and they only repeated when mirroring the pattern required it. But then it was fully mirrored.
In the 20s of the last century, cable knit sweaters became popular for little boys as Sunday’s best, either as sweater or cardigan. The fishermen sweaters became a men’s wardrobe staple early before the mid of the last century. In the US, the fisherman cable knit sweaters became very popular when the Kennedy brothers wore them playing football. Via the way of men’s wear the cable knit sweaters became also a favorite in women’s wear. Recall I got mine from my husband’s drawer.
In 1940, Patons of England were the first to publish an Aarn pattern supplied by a store in Galway. Vogue published one in 1956. In response to the growing demand for Aarn sweaters as a souvenir for Ireland tourists as well as a statement item for modern fashion forward men and women, knitting by hand and machine has become its own economic leg on the Aarn Islands besides farming, fishing, and tourism. Today the famous Aarn cable knit sweaters are also knitted from cashmere, alpaca, silk, cotton and other yarns. You name it. And of course, there are many “mock” fishermen or cable knit sweaters that just have the knitting technique in common with the Aarn fishermen cable knit sweater and never saw the Aarn Islands.
The photo below shows one of these mock cable knit sweaters. I wish I could afford a real Aarn cable knit sweater, but I am allergic to wool 😉 . Other examples how to still this style of sweater are here, here and here.
Photos: G. Kramm (2014)
Copyright: N. Moelders