Sitting in a suburban backyard on a sweltering summer afternoon, the only thing on my mind isn’t the intoxicatingly sweet air, but a pullover cable-knit sweater sitting in my drawer back home. A sweater much the same as Irish fishermen wore back in the fifties, yes just the fifties, because while we all assume that those cream colored cable-knits are some sort of ancient Irish tradition, they’re nothing less than modern.
Truth be told, they don’t even root back to Ireland proper, but actually the Aran Islands off the western coast of Ireland. For centuries families across Ireland and Scotland had been knitting in cable formations, with each having their own unique design that was passed down through the generations. And then during World War One, the fledgling fishing industry on the Aran Islands became short-staffed. With all their workers away, the island community turned to young women from across Ireland and Scotland to fill the gaps.
These girls made a living picking guts and bones out of the daily haul but at night they sat in dimly lit rooms and knit while they told stories of their childhood homes. After a while they began sharing their respective designs with each other, joining together all of their various styles of cable-knits into one sweater with many patterns. Named after the Aran Islands, the sweaters were made from thick, neutral wools that were quick and easy to weave together. The girls soon realized that their knits were an industry all their own, setting up shop around the Aran Islands, selling the sweaters and building their reputation.
Eventually the sweaters jumped the Atlantic Ocean and became popular across America and oddly enough it was only then that Irish fishermen began wearing the sweaters. The tight cable patterns could not only withstand the blustery sea winds but had the ability to become soaked without the fishermen even noticing. It was for these same reasons that the sweaters caught on in the New England yacht community, as evidenced by icons such as JFK and Steve McQueen (yes those names again) who could be seen proudly wearing an Aran sweater out on the water. On dry land, the sweaters have remained an icon in their own right, a clever way to break up the monotony of a solid layer. Traddy but not traditional.