When Taylor Swift released her surprise album Folklore on 24 July, she wrote a note alongside: “It started with imagery,” she said. Among the various scenes she invoked was “a cardigan that still bears the scent of loss 20 years later.”
This visual approach to the album—songs built through imagined scenarios and well-spun stories—was reflected in the promotional photos, too. Grainy woodland scenes featuring Swift clad in check, lace, loose layers and snug sweaters felt not just atmospheric, but intensely suited to this moment: one in which we have been seeking the twin salves of comfort and escapism. That memory-holding cardigan featured too, with a merchandise version, complete with album patch sewn onto the left chest, available for fans to buy via Swift’s website.
Let’s return to the sweater though. In one close-up of Swift, with her fringe falling across her eyes and her knees pulled to her chest, she’s wearing a specific style of knitwear: the Aran knit. It was perhaps an apt choice, given the knit’s complex history and mythology. Originating from the three small islands of Inishmore (or Inis Mór), Inishmaan (Inis Meáin) and Inisheer (Inis Oírr) off the coast of Galway in western Ireland, the Aran is immediately recognisable. Traditionally made from undyed báinín—sheep’s wool, typically cream-coloured—it often incorporates patterns including cable, basket and diamond stitch. These patterns are said to be imbued with different symbolic meanings ranging from luck with fishing to hopes for future wealth.
Knitting enthusiast and needlework shop owner Heinz Edgar Kiewe claimed that such patterns could be traced all the way to Celtic knotwork, suggesting a tradition dating back more than a 1,000 years. In reality, it seems that the Aran sweater has its roots in much more recent history; its current iteration potentially developed in the late Victorian era and becoming commercially successful in the early to mid-20th century when designs were sold in Dublin and further afield, quickly finding favour among tourists and those who wished to support locally produced garments.The rise of the Aran knit
Chris Evans in Knives Out, 2019.
© Photography Claire Folger
The Aran knit has seen something of a renaissance in recent years, thanks to both a spate of high-profile media appearances (see the internet falling over themselves for Chris Evans’ slightly unkempt Aran knit in Knives Out last year) and a growing consumer desire for those difficult-to-pin-down qualities such as authenticity, craftsmanship and cosy gratification akin to the feeling of being cocooned.
“There’s a clear parallel in the localism found in the organic and ‘slow-food’ movement now seen [in] knitting,” Esther Rutter, author of knitting history book This Golden Fleece tells Vogue. “People want to get away from fast fashion, learn new skills, embrace social (and women’s) history—and wear unique handmade things that just can’t be bought.”
It has also infiltrated the realms of high fashion, where it can be bought. A number of labels including Celine, Thom Browne and Raf Simons are currently offering Aran knits, while they formed the centrepiece in Simone Rocha’s atmospheric AW20 collection inspired by the rituals and narratives of the Aran Islands.
Thom Browne Autumn/Winter 2020
© Photography Go Runway
“I have found the Aran Islands inspiring since I was a student, when the mourning traditions influenced my graduation collection. The mourning women used to dye their petticoats and wear them on their heads as veils,” Rocha tells Vogue. “[With] this particular AW20 collection, I was thinking of the sea and how it can take from the land. I was influenced by the JM Synge play Riders to the Sea, taking fishermen from families… I wanted to explore hand-knit Aran and almost create ‘life jackets’ out of the Aran knit and knitted chains.” Her results are breathtaking, with deconstructed cardigans and scarves overlaying pale layers of cotton and satin.
Synge’s text has also held an influential sway over the stories that surround the Aran knit. The myth that fishermen who were drowned at sea could be identified by the unique patterning and stitching of their Aran sweaters is usually attributed to this 1904 play, in which a character is recognised by the dropped stitch in his socks knitted for him by his sister. Like many aspects of the Aran knit, it’s a perfect example of the mingling of history, folklore, and deep social significance.Keeping tradition alive
Rocha is part of a new generation of designers returning to the significance of old techniques. “The tradition and craftsmanship in Ireland is the backbone of the country’s creativity,” she reflects. “It is interesting to pay respect to traditions, but to look at them in a way for today and how they can be translated and feel present.”
Simone Rocha Autumn/Winter 2020
© Photography Go Runway
Others have been devoted to keeping these methods alive for decades. Anne Ó’Máille owns Ó’Máille, a shop in Galway selling hand-knitted Aran sweaters that was a favourite of actors John Wayne and Maureen O’Hara. “For the past 82 years, the Ó’Máille family has developed a thriving business… working closely with the knitters who spend long hours knitting at home, putting finishing touches to their unique garments,” she tells Vogue. “I have been fortunate to meet and greet my knitters personally, praise their hard work and attention to detail. Our family business has been intertwined with the lives of generations of skilled Irish knitters. Now the last generation, sadly.”
As Ó’Máille points out, many garments described as Aran knit are now often machine-made, made of any number of different types of yarns. As with so many descriptions applied to clothing, over the decades, the definition has expanded and become more diffused. There is currently significant worry among those upholding the original, much more painstaking craft though. In light of the pandemic and its drastic knock-on effect for the tourism industry, companies such as Ó’Máille have suffered greatly as customer numbers have depleted. One hope is that as figures like Swift turn to the Aran knit, any consequent rise in popularity will be felt among these smaller businesses too.Also read:
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