The Aran is a style of jumper, or sweater that takes its name from the Aran Islands off the West Coast of Ireland. The sweaters are distinguished by their use of complex textured stitch patterns, several of which are combined in the creation of a single garment. The word choice of "jumper" or "sweater", or indeed other options such as "pullover and "jersey", is largely determined by the regional version of English being spoken. In the case of Ireland and Britain "jumper" is the standard word with "sweater" mainly found in tourist shops. The word used in Irish is geansaí, a gaelicization of guernsey which has been re-Anglicised to gansey in Hiberno-English.
Originally the jumpers were knitted using unscoured wool which retained its natural oils or lanolin making the garments water resistant and meant they remained wearable even when wet. It was primarily the wives of Island fishermen who knitted the jumpers.
Some stitch patterns have a traditional interpretation often of religious significance. The honeycomb is a symbol of the hard working bee. The cable, an integral part of the fisherman's daily life, is said to be a wish for safety and good luck when fishing. Thediamond is a wish of success wealth and treasure. The basket stitch
represents the fisherman's basket, a hope for a plentiful catch.
Aran jumpers are often sold as a "fisherman sweater", suggesting the jumper was traditionally used by the islands' famous fishermen. It is sometimes said each fisherman (or their family) had a jumper with a unique design, so if he drowned and was found weeks later onthe beach, his body could be identified. There is no record of any such event ever taking place, nor is there any evidence to support there being a systematic tradition of family patterns.
This misconception may have originated with J.M. Synge's 1904 play Riders to the Sea, in which the body of a dead fisherman is identified by the hand-knitted stitches on one of his garments. However, even in the play there is no reference to any decorative or Aran type pattern. The garment referred to is a plain stocking and it is identified by the number of stitches, the quote being "it's the second one of the third pair I knitted, and I put up three score stitches, and I dropped four of them".
Misconception, or not, I find the romantic notion of the family patterns very charming. I'm sure some Irish wives and mothers were partial to certain patterns, and therefore particular sweaters were, indeed, associated with family groups.
I especially like this poem on the subject by Shirley GravesCochrane.
"Ladies and gentlemen--
the sweaters of old Ireland!"
and down the runway come
Maeve and Erin and the other Dublin models
hips switching, eyes scorning
and Maurice, sheepish in his cowl.
"Each household had its special pattern--
you could tell a family sweater anywhere."
Aye--even at the bottom of the sea;
for grannies knit the shrouds of grandson
fishermen who never learned to swim
(to keep the agony of drowning short).
And long after the eyes were gone
and fish explored the geography of skull
the sweaters held and told us who they were--
Cormac and Tom and even Donovan.
See how the stitches knit the bones together.
info from Wikipedia
photo from Flickr