This is the time of year to sit in front of a warm fire and knit. Knitting is a passion that occasionally overtakes me, so I trot down to the store to pick up yarns in beautiful colors, just to see what sort of patterns and textures I can knit with them. The Irish cable knits with those chevrons and repeated diamonds within diamond patterns are my favorite ones to knit, as they look gorgeous, and they aren’t boring to do. A stockinet stitch, or a simple knit one row, pearl the next, leaves me cold. Machines can do that faster and neater. But those patterns that take thought and imagination to create are the ones that mean a lot, both to the people who knit them and to the people who may receive them as gifts.
While it is an interesting story, there is no such thing as an Irish Clan Knit Sweater. Knitting sweaters, or jumpers, as a way to earn money, started in the Aran Islands in the 1940s. The land on those three islands off the coast of Ireland was fit for little more than raising sheep, so some benevolent societies encouraged the women of those islands to earn money by knitting the wool from their sheep.
Those women got together in each others homes, in the time honored way that quilt-makers have gathered together to hand sew quilts. They traded designs and they learned from each other, and they were not afraid to experiment to see what sorts of patterns worked well with the natural wools they had on hand. By the 1950s, their Aran Fisherman Sweaters were in demand all over the world. They were so beautiful and warm that it is no wonder they were and are popular.
Knitting is a wonderful hobby for the person who likes to sit and meditate while she slowly creates something that could be beautiful. This is good, because it can take more than sixty days for an experienced knitter to fashion an Irish Fisherman Sweater. It is not the sort of project you can pick up and expect instant results.
I learned how to knit years ago, while picking apart the stitches in an Irish Fisherman Sweater that was moth-eaten and too worn out to wear. I looked to see which direction the stitches went, and how they fit together. Then, I got a few skeins of yarn and practiced knitting the patterns that I liked. My next project was to knit a scarf for a friend, using patterns that pleased me. It was a complicated piece, overlapping diamonds on a basic checkerboard background. Making it was a matter of carefully keeping count of each row of stitches, and it took several months to complete. In all that time, I never learned how to read a knitting pattern.
That, I imagine, is the way many of the women on the Aran Islands began to knit their sweaters; by experimenting to see what textured pattern combinations would best show off the soft colored wools they were using. Writing the patterns out in a more or less universal code so that other people could knit the same sweaters would have been an afterthought. But that is the way a work of art evolves, and the hand made Irish Fisherman Sweaters are definitely works of art.