By Francine Cunningham
On a rainswept, wind-buffeted visit to Inis Mór, the largest of the Aran Islands off Ireland’s west coast in mid-July, I couldn’t resist the urge to buy a handknitted Aran jumper. This water-repellent knit was definitely more of a necessity than style statement for the farmers and fishermen who have inhabited the islands for centuries, on the edge of the world and the mercy of the Atlantic ocean. It is said that an Aran jumper can absorb 30 per cent of its weight in water before feeling wet.
Each clan on the islands had its own particular pattern. Historic patterns now being archived include the diamond stitch said to represent the small fields on the island bordered by stone walls, the moss stitch said to depict the seaweed used to fertilise the rocky ground and the zig zag stitch, resembling the twisting paths along the cliff tops of the island. More sombre, these unique patterns were also used to help identify the bodies of fishermen washed ashore in this unforgiving climate.
The Aran sweater may be iconic, but it has taken decades for me to bring myself to wear one again. I had too many memories of itchy, uncomfortable sweaters worn during tedious school assemblies at the convent grammar school I attended in small town Northern Ireland. The nuns invariably wore black Aran cardigans, along with their habits and veils. There were stories that those who knitted black Aran would inevitably go blind due to the strain on their eyes. I was prepared to believe it. My Auntie Bridie also used to wear a cream Aran cardigan with dark brown leather buttons, with a cream blouse and sensible camel skirt.
There was nothing less sexy than the Aran jumper and corduroy jeans I was obliged to wear as a child. So, it has taken me forty years in recovery before trying on one of those sweaters again. I discovered that you can now buy them long or cropped, with turtlenecks, polo or cowl necks, not to mention ponchos, capes, wraps, snoods, fingerless mittens and even Aran leggings(!) What’s more, they are available in every colour, from pastels to purple heather and pillar box red.
I settled for a chunky, cream cable knit with a zip instead of buttons. A nod to the past and the present. It will stay now in the bottom of my wardrobe until I take a notion some blustery day in winter, when I want to go for a walk down Dun Laoghaire pier in south Dublin.
A week later, I pick up the newspaper and see that Taylor Swift has taken everyone by surprise with a new album. Even more unexpectedly, she appears in her publicity shots in a cream, roll-neck Aran jumper which is now apparently hipster chic. Auntie Bridie would have approved.