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The Aran Knit: A Humble Masterpiece

By Fran Osborne


What comes to mind when you think of the place where art and fashion meet? The sartorial elegance of a diaphanous Dior chiffon dress? Or the eye-catching shapes and colours of traditional Japanese kimonos? Or the perfect voluminous drapery of Indian saris? Perhaps not a modest cream-coloured jumper from the westernmost corner of Europe. But in 2017 MOMA did just that.


Items: Is Fashion Modern? was a sequel to the 1944 MOMA exhibition: Are Clothes Modern? curated by Bernard Rudofsky, who argued that the study of clothing provides us with great anthropological insights. As in their 1944 exhibition, MOMA were keen to showcase the accessible worn by ordinary people as well as the inaccessible worn by a select few. Alongside commercial fashion heavyweights like Converse, the ubiquitous Breton shirt and the Wonderbra, the Aran jumper was given a prominent position. Why though? What about this humble garment caught the imagination of MOMA’s curators?


Installation view of the exhibition: Items: Is Fashion Modern?, October 2017-18. Museum of Modern Art (MOMA), photographed by Martin Seck.


The Aran knit — or Geansaí Áraan in Irish — has a surprisingly allusive and contested history. The knit emerged during a time of Irish Renaissance and Celtic revival; a time in which nationalism was romantic and the untouched nature of the West Coast was a source of inspiration. Myth and legend attribute the design to humble fishermen’s wives, creating protective stitching across the ages to keep their menfolk safe at sea. More prosaically there is evidence to suggest that the now canonical Aran was invented in the 1890s as a cross pollination of British fishermen’s ganseys and Irish natural motifs. But there were a few external reasons for its domestic success that ultimately led to its status as a global fashion icon.


Jumper with patterns inspired by guernsey and aran designs, Artwork - Gottelier Ltd., 1991, London. Museum no. T.384-2001, photograph courtesy Victoria and Albert Museum, London.


While the Aran sweater’s success as a garment hinges on its undoubted ability to keep the wearer cosy in a cold damp winter, its success as an icon arguably hinges on the idea of rural purity from whence it came. In the 1900s, against the backdrop of the Celtic revival, celebrated Irish writer J.M. Synge visited a tiny archipelago off the west coast of Ireland and wrote his travel journal The Aran Islands. The islands’ untouched rugged beauty was a central theme. Synge’s fellowwriter and friend William Butler Yeats had told him: “Go to the Aran Islands. Live there as if you were one of the people themselves; express a life that has never found expression.” To Synge’s romantic imagination these wind-swept and sea-battered islands were as ‘primitive’ as Europe could get and the heart of a non-anglicised Ireland. This narrative of heritage, tradition and primitivism was (so to speak) knitted into the Aran sweater’s migration to the rest of the country in the 1930s.


The first British troops are deployed in Northern Ireland, August 1969: Soldiers and army vehicles in the Protestant Shankhill Road, Belfast, photograph courtesy Imperial War Museum.


The partition of Ireland in 1921 created two countries, each searching for the new cultural signifiers that would enable them to forge their identities and distinguish themselves from one another. The Irish culture of the new “Free State,” so long suppressed under British rule, became filled with symbols of Irish nationhood and authenticity. Activists like Muriel François Gahan sought to encourage economic growth through rural cottage industries; she was the first to commission and sell the iconic soft Aran jumpers in her Dublin fair-trade outlet in 1932. Muriel’s jumpers were no longer the darkly coloured and oiled weather-resistant ganseys of the past, but intricately crafted fashion garments that incidentally offered a powerful, if warm and woolly, statement of Irish independence and identity.


This is a thread—pun intended—that has run through the Aran sweater’s domestic history. As the late 1960s erupted into decades of sectarian violence in the North (euphemistically known as the Troubles), the Aran jumper once again became a visual signifier of nationality and fervent republicanism. Journalist Ed Curran recalls first meeting Martin McGuinness, second in command of the IRA’s Derry Brigade, in 1972 as ‘a young, curly-haired man, dressed in a soiled Aran sweater’. The garment was well chosen as it allowed Irish republicans to present themselves as authentic men of the people in contrast to the flat-ironed-collared suit wearing bureaucrats of the British establishment. In a political climate of violence and division, it was important for those branded as terrorists by the British government to appear comfortable and approachable — a way of illustrating their Irishness on first glance. At this point the Aran jumper had been subsumed by a narrative of lineage, ancestry, and independence, and wearing one could be read as an act of defiance against the British government.


Geansaí, Rita Duffy, 1996. Arts Council Ireland, Critical Voices, Guthaana Criticiúla.


Artist Rita Duffy explores this theme in her work Geansaí. It is a painting that not only illustrates the unspoken power of an item of clothing, but also the quiet resistance of female homemakers; for her this garment was inherently political and inextricably tied to her identity as a republican Irish woman. In an essay for Critical Voices she writes: ‘Summer holidays were an escape from “marching season” and my mother knitted ferociously in woolly defiance. Her looming deadline was our annual family holiday down south… Ivory, white cabled Geansaí that reeled us back to where we belonged. A permissible, and unmissable, feminist act of cultural construct, under the neighbours’ gaze.’


Perhaps the simplicity of the life that the design alludes to is what has captured minds around the world for the past century. Its global success was in large part founded on the knitting tradition of American women; in the 1950s American Vogue released Aran knitting patterns taking the twisted cable, basket weaved classic into American homes. Until this point, the jumpers had largely been an Irish novelty, something you could purchase in an Irish souvenir shop, or knitted by Irish grandmothers, mothers and girlfriends. Whilst celebrities like Grace Kelly had been photographed wearing the jumper (and the wealthy American Kellys were notably proud of their Irish heritage), it was not until the Clancy Brothers and Tommy Makem wore the jumpers knitted by their mothers on the Ed Sullivan show in 1961 that the design became a desirable fashion icon.


Tommy Makem and the Clancy Brothers on the Ed Sullivan Show in 1961.


Though a little kitschy, suddenly celebrities, politicians and artists alike could be seen wearing one — perhaps most memorably Steve McQueen in The Thomas Crown Affair. In the same spirit in which ardent republicans had deployed the Aran knit, the humble jumper gave the suggestion of approachability and accessibility to the celebrities that wore them.


Steve McQueen and Norman Jewison speaking between takes on the set of the Thomas Crown Affair in 1968.


But the Aran sweater’s appeal was always broader than politics and celebrity. Ordinary people were also seduced by this narrative of tradition and cultural practice. The Irish half of my family were no exception; my great-grandmother knitted my mother a thick cream-white Aran jumper for her 16th birthday—a jumper that would keep her warm through cold nights at university in London in the 1980s. This knit provided a little emblem of home, both through the hands that made it and the stitches that linked back to the homeland. My mother herself knitted an Aran inspired design with thick Aran wool for her university boyfriend. For many in Ireland and the diaspora, the Aran jumper has come to have some sort of personal significance. Though raised in London, and despite knowing its history as a more recent invention, I feel a little nod to my ancestors as I put mine on.


My dad wearing an aran-inspired jumper knitted by my mum in the 1980s, family photograph.


In the 21st century the Aran Jumper has become a shorthand for Irish identity. In the 2022 box office success The Banshees of Inisherin, the knitwear is practically a character in its own right, as crucial to the identity of the Aran Islands as the bleak inhospitable weather. Haute couture has returned to the design over and over again, with the likes of Simone Rocha and Ralph Lauren. And celebrities continue to don the infamous sweater, often blending cool, casual and cottagecore with elegance and chic. Its genesis, although significant, is not the most important thing. It is a garment whose origin story was in effect false, marketed as an ancient traditional Irish craft to invigorate an impoverished rural economy, that has now become an emblem of heritage and nationalism irrespective of its authenticity. The authenticity of the Aran sweater lies in its hundred-year history. It is women’s work that has transcended a mother knitting for her child, both political and apolitical at the same time, with the ability to cross political and sectarian divides.


In 1944 Bernard Rudofksy set out with MOMA to explore the inseparable relationship between the clothes that are worn and the people that wear them in any given moment in history; he believed that they could tell a story of a people. The Aran jumper has taken on a number of guises over the last century, at times purely aesthetic and at others a symbol of liberation and freedom. It is for this reason that MOMA were absolutely right when they dubbed the design ‘a humble masterpiece.'


Recommended reading:

• Siún Carden, ‘Cable Crossing: The Aran Jumper as Myth and Merchandise’ in Costume, Volume 48, Issue 2, 2014.

• What were the Troubles that ravaged Northern Ireland? Erin Blakemore, National Geographic: https://www.nationalgeographic.com/history/article/the-troubles-of-northern-ireland-history

• Items: Is Fashion Modern? MOMA Exhibition web-page: https://www.moma.org/calendar/exhibitions/1638

• Are Clothes Modern? 1944 MOMA Exhibition web-page: https://www.moma.org/calendar/exhibitions/3159

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