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The fashion history of the cable knit sweater. Read about its tales and origin, and learn what to look for to avoid cheap mockups that lack the comfort and properties of the original.


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The Origin of Knitting Cable Sweater

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.

zoom-in on cable knit patternr
Details of the cable knit pattern


woman featuring an original cable knit sweater
Orvis Irish cable-knit sweater with Oliveo leather shorts, GNW black tights, Double H lace-up booties, Festina watch and carved pendent and lamp beads necklace on caribou hide



A Variety of Knit Patterns Exist in an Aarn Sweater

What is an Aarn sweater? 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.


example of a mock version of a cable knit sweater
Mock cable knit sweater with white leather pants, heeled ducks



My Opinion on the Fairy Tale

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.


When Did the Cable Knit Sweater Become Popular?

In the 1920s, 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.


Who Published the Aarn Patterns?

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 for all genders, 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.


Mock Aarn Sweaters and Other Cable Knits

The photo above 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 😉 . You can find other examples of how to style a cable knit sweater in general (guide), and  how to wear a long leather skirt with it and how to wear shorts with it at these links.

Hint: Whenever the color is not a natural color of sheep wool, it’s a mock version or a fashion statement piece.

Here are some other beautiful mock version.

Photos of me: G. Kramm

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