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The Aran Sweater


Michael F. McGuffin


Coveted by fishermen and copied by fashion designers, the Aran Island sweater has become an Irish icon. Originated on three storm-wracked lumps of limestone off Irelandís western coast, the exuberantly patterned Aran sweater demonstrates how beauty often emerges from hardship.

Aran sweaters are available in nearly every knickknack shack and tourist trap from Dublin to Galway, so buyer beware. Authentic Arans are knit by hand using undyed wool resulting in a tight, weatherproof garment available in only three colors: white, oatmeal and dark brown. A handknit sweater is a time consuming original work, so buy from an established shop, and expect to pay north of a hundred dollars. More affordable versions are loomed on machines, but donít be fooled, hand loomed does not mean handknit.

An Irish yarn tells how drowned Aran fishermen have been identified by the heraldic patterns knit into their sweaters. Though romantic, the story is untrue; it probably originated in an Irish play where a woman recognizes her dead brother by his handknit socks.

Ireland is in the midst of an unprecedented economic boom, and the cottage industry of hand knitting sweaters for a buck or two an hour is, to say the least, threatened. So if youíre planning a trip to the Emerald Isle leave room in your suitcase for a vanishing symbol of ye olde Ireland: a handknit Aran sweater.