Thousands of miles away from where I sit in Austin, brine laps up onto the shores of Inishmaan, Inishmore and Inisheer. Located off the coast of County Galway, the Aran Islands (or Oileáin Árann) are famous for the feeling that they are lost in time: where the Irish language and traditions still thrive. But they’re also famous for their sweaters. Aran sweaters are distinctive: off-white, with cable patterns, a ribbon-like texture, across the body and arms. Mythos has it that each family has their own unique pattern so that one could recognize the washed-up bodies of fishermen.
Standing on my uncle’s boat, I almost believe it. We’re on our way to Clare Island — next stop, America. For beyond the cliffs of this island is nothing but the push and pull of the raging Atlantic. Islands off the west coast of Ireland have never been known as fair and temperate; these are places of wild, lashing rain and singing wind. This is the world my grandfather was born in, and it’s these forces that still weave through the days of many: my uncle rises early, and doesn’t come back into town until late at night after a long day out on the bay.
Aran jumpers aren’t Ireland’s only contribution to needlework. Irish crochet is still incredibly popular, and Irish lace was once extremely coveted.
The popularity of these crafts in a country like Ireland isn’t at all surprising, given the weather. Winter in Westport, my mother’s hometown, is miserable. As can be autumn, and spring, and parts of summer. This isn’t sunny Texas — there is a reason the Emerald Isle is so green.
Then there’s the vast abundance of sheep — far more sheep than people. You don’t have to live on a farm to see them. I can sit outside a pub and watch them roam the green hills across the way. Or I can lounge on the beach, attempting to soak up the sun, and watch them just meters away. When the label in the store my mother grew up next to assures me this wool comes from a local farm, I do not doubt it. In fact, I probably met the fella.
But Aran jumpers and Irish lace grew out of much more than the cold and the fuzzy creatures that dot the landscape. They grew out of poverty.
Unfortunately, the Irish people are no stranger to poverty. England invaded and eventually colonized Ireland for a good 700 years — it is no small wonder many ended up impoverished.
Lace was not a thing for the common people. Even when crocheted or knitted, lace takes a long time to make. But the finest lace, and most early Irish lace is made from other methods — needlepoint and bobbin. Bobbins are small spindles around which fine thread is wrapped, and lace is made from intricately weaving many bobbins over and around each other in specific patterns. This is long, painstaking work.
During times of hardship, women often took up ways to support their husbands, and lace-making required relatively easy-to-acquire materials, which lent to its proliferation. Several different schools were established across the country, each with a slightly different style, from Kenmare lace to Limerick Tambour.
And the harder the times got, the more women took it up. This was especially true during the Great Famine, or An Gorta Mór (literally, the Big Hunger), a period of mass starvation during the 1840s. The Great Famine was a watershed moment in Irish history; it changed the Irish population, culture and memory forever. Even today, it is a source of debate, with some historians going as far as to call the British’s actions during that period genocide. In these dire times, even more Irish women turned to their needlework to produce the fine fabrics.
And thus this turbulent period of time left a mark on the world of textiles. The prevalence of Irish poverty however, did not end with the Famine or with the start of the 20th century (lace-making, however, did drop, and the once-famous schools of Irish lace no longer truly exist). And this lends itself to the creation of Aran jumpers: the now-famous ganseys also resulted from a poverty-relieving scheme.
In 1891, the Congested Districts Board was created as part of a larger set of British policies that aimed to quash feelings of rebellion through public-works schemes. The Congested Districts Board set to ease the extreme poverty and crowded living conditions common in the north west of the country at the time. In the case of the Aran Islands, this meant reviving the fishing industry.
In order to do so, the boards brought fisherman and their families from various regions in the British Isles to the Aran Islands, so they might share their unique knowledge with the Irish fishermen. Many of these fishermans’ wives were in the habit of knitting guernseys for their husbands. Guernseys are knitted seaman’s sweaters made of fine wool containing detailed patterns, though usually only on the neck and shoulders.
The mná glic, or wise women, of the Oileán Árann began adapting these designs for their own use. First, unable to find fine wool, they used bainín. Next began an adaptation of construction. By the 1940s knitting patterns for these designs first became commercially available, and by the ‘50s they were even featured in Vogue. Around this period of time, select groups began importing sweaters to the United States, relying on groups of hundreds of knitters, serving as a source of income for women all across the country.
Unlike Irish lace, Aran jumpers are still in heavy production today. Like most knitted garments of the modern period, however, they are rarely hand-knit. The majority of items are knitted by machine or using a hand-loom. These machine-knit items are knit with finer wool, and do not have the traditional look, as knitting machines are often unable to reproduce the distinctive Aran designs. Those jumpers that are hand-knit tend to be of a higher price range — but are also more durable, longer lasting and truer to the original design.
Knitting, needlepoint, bobbin-lace and crochet aren’t the common skills they once were. We live in an age far removed from the production of the clothes that we wear, where our jeans are made with machines and our tank tops sewn by those working in sweatshops seemingly worlds away.
I once compared knitting to time. Each day is pretty much the same; we get up, eat breakfast, go to class, eat lunch, etc. And most every day passes like nothing special. Nothing different, nothing unusual. It isn’t until we view these days side by side, until we look back on the past week or month or year, that we truly see the patterns, the growth and the change.
Knitting is very much the same. Each stitch is made in a similar way. They pass, one by one, without much difference or notice. It isn’t until the final stitch that a beautiful pattern is revealed to have unfolded.
Nuair a chniothas mé — when I knit — I am doing much more than looping yarn over itself. And I’m doing much more than making a scarf. Those who crochet or make lace are doing so much more than making something that’d look pretty in a gúna or dress.
When I knit I’m doing the same thing my mother did to pass the time. I’m doing the same thing my grandmother did, even when tending the bar. The Ó Máille family motto is powerful on land and sea — and on land many women knitted before me, to fight poverty, to fight the wind and to fight the sea that rocked their husbands to and fro and crashed against the shores of the islands they lived on and the bays they lived in.
Living in the US, I often feel alienated from my mother’s home. But as I knit the yarn I wrap around my needles is also a yarn of time and of story, weaving through the epochs and around the beaches, the cobblestoned streets and the mighty Croagh Patrick that looks down on me.
According to late Irish singer Frank Harte, “those in power write the history, while those who suffer write the songs.” This is true of Irish history — those who suffer wrote the songs, but they also told the stories, created the dances and knitted the sweaters. •
by: Sarah O’Malley Graham
Photography by: Tanvi Sehgal
Models: Daniela Briones and Jamie Roy
HMUA by: Amber Bray and Anna Strother
Stylist by: Megan Schuetz
Closed pulled from: Blue Elephant and Austin Pets Alive Thrift