Irish “Ganseys”

Even a hint of chilly weather gets me excited about sweaters, scarves, and sumptuous socks—the woolier, the better. Wool, of course, leads me to thoughts of knitting, and I find myself hankering for a blustery day beside the fire with a lap full of yarn and a warm cup of tea.

Somewhere in world right now, I know there are women actually living my daydream, and I suspect that place might be Ireland.  And given I have Irish blood from my father’s side of the family, it’s a country that tugs hard at my heart strings. Someday I’ll go there, but for now …

Aran Islands. Photo courtesy of Wikipedia. Photo by Pixie.

Out on the windswept Aran Islands at the mouth of western Ireland’s Galway Bay, there are women who really know wool.

For centuries, fisherman’s wives have knitted socks, caps, and sweaters (or “ganseys” as Aran islanders call them) to help shield their husbands from cold, wet days on the North Sea. Originally, these sweaters were knitted with unscoured wool so that they would retain the fiber’s naturally water-repellent oils, keeping the fishermen dry.

Starting to Build, Inisheer, Aran Islands. Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons. GeographBot.

One of my favorite things about the traditional fisherman’s sweater is that some of the knitted patterns represent blessings stitched right into each garment. The cable pattern is a prayer for safe journeys at sea. Honeycomb patterns symbolize hard work (you know, like honeybees and worker-bee sisters). Diamonds wish the wearer success and wealth, and the basket stitch imbues hope for a bountiful catch.

Aran Islands cardigan sweater. Photo courtesy of Wikipedia, Lisa Dusseault.

While many Irish knits are machine-made these days, you can still track down the real McCoy at places like An Púcán Craft Shop, which sells sweaters that are hand-knitted by Aran women in their own homes.

Learn How to Identify Authentic Hand-Knit Aran Sweaters

Learn Aran Knitting by the Book

Plan a Visit to the Aran Islands

  1. Meg – During 2 different recent trips to Ireland, I have some self portraits of myself on the Aran Island of Inishmore – I’m wearing both local gansey and also an Aran sweater my adorable mother knit for me prior to our 2nd trip. I’d like to send the photos to you if you’d like to see…
    I left my Mother in the “Aran Sweater Market” one day when I went for an Irish “walkabout” the island alone. She was in knitters heaven and did not miss me one bit. When I got back to collect her later that day, she had been offered a job. Hilarious!

  2. Meg says:

    Karen~ How marvelous to have actually been there! I am not quite so talented as your momma but I love to knit and I love a good sweater. This cooler fall weather makes me so excited for sweater season!

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