Knitting My (Irish) Heritage

My father tends to refer to my ancestry as “European mutt”, but there are a few nations of origin that stand out more than others. The one people tend to guess most often (I suppose because of the red hair and freckles) is Ireland. I’ve always had an interest in genealogy and in culture, which luckily go together nicely. For this post and maybe a few more, I’ve decided to combine them with my other great love – fiber! Below, a bit of the history and cultural background of fiber arts in Ireland:

Cliffs of Moher

Tucked away in Galway Bay, not far from the Cliffs of Moher, is perhaps the most iconic symbol of Irish fiber arts – the Aran Islands. The rough, rocky trio of islands are a difficult place to grow crops and raise livestock, so traditionally the locals made their living fishing and raising hardy species like sheep. Life on a cold, windy island necessitates warm, dry clothing, but counter to common belief, the Aran people did not turn to sweaters until the early 20th century.  Ganseys had grown popular in Britain and the Aran islanders decided to adapt them to their own needs and fashions.  So the Aran sweater was born. Aran sweaters are traditionally heavily cabled, which creates a thicker fabric and traps pockets of air for extra warmth. They are traditionally also undyed and retain some of their natural oils, which makes them slightly water resistant – perfect for life as a fisherman. The intricate and often varied combinations of cables are also a way for knitters and wearers to show family and cultural pride, and differentiate themselves from “the pack”.

Pattern “Aran Sweater” by Suzanna Bascuchea

Other parts of the western seaboard (more rural than its eastern counterpart) have also maintained their shepherding and fiber arts traditions. The west is where most of Ireland’s cottage industries call home. In addition to knitting, you’ll find cottage industries for weaving, spinning, and of course the world-famous (and traditionally crocheted) Irish lace. Irish lace developed as a rather ingenious response to the loss of many Irish livelihoods during the Potato Famine. Inspired by equally famous Venetian laces, literally crafty women began creating and marketing “Irish lace” as a way to earn money and feed their families until the potato crop recovered. Irish linen is also popular for those who can’t or don’t use wool. Linen is particularly dear to many an Irish history lover because it is a truly Irish fiber which the English tried and failed to control the use of in the 16th century.

Blarney Castle

Modern Ireland has maintained it’s respect for handcrafts and while it still hosts many small cottage industries, it is also known for its larger, more industrial mills like Blarney Woollen Mills. In the last century most Irish mills have transitioned from simply mass-producing textiles to serving as brick and mortar temptations for tourists and major exporters of all things traditionally Irish. In case you’re curious, the wool in the above sweater was my particular irresistible temptation when I visited. 😉

In the next Knitting My Heritage post…knitting in Germany!


7 responses to this post.

  1. As a history lover, I’m excited to see this series of posts. Fun!


  2. Posted by Mairead on December 9, 2012 at 12:26 pm

    Wow — as another knitter with Irish heritage, this is insanely interesting. I did not know the bit about the lace insdustry taking off in response to the famine, but it makes absolute sense. Thanks! Now, off to add about 8000000 more patterns to the queue.


  3. […] my last Knitting History post, we talked about the history and culture of knitting in Ireland. In addition […]


  4. […] long it’s been since I did a Knitting History post! Here are my previous heritage posts on Ireland and Germany, for those (not so) new to the […]


  5. […] to pinch you?” Day, as my students seem to think of it. As you’ve probably seen in my previous posts, I have plenty of Irish heritage. However, St. Patrick’s Day in the U.S. is arguably not much […]


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