A Visit with Ireland and Aran Sweaters

Last fall, we took a family field trip to the Textile Center in Minneapolis, Minnesota; arranged by the Lakes & Prairies Smockers chapter of the Smocking Arts Guild of America.

This was a perfect opportunity for us. I love exposing my kids to the many facets of the needle arts. For us, it’s about learning. It’s a simple appreciation for the beauty of the needle arts that quickly blossoms into lessons in geography, history, art, and so on.

The Textile Center hosts a wonderful library of books and other publications related to needle arts. They also have a “sale” area, as any library does. One of my daughters found and desired to purchase the book, The Complete Book of Traditional Aran Knitting, by Shelagh Hollingworth. We greatly enjoyed reading and learning about the three islands that are located to the west of Galway Bay. The book has lovely pictures of traditional Aran sweaters, and it is loaded with information on how to create such a traditional sweater.


The traditional sweater was originally made of a hand spun yarn in the color called “bainin” (pronounced bawneen). According to Hollingworth, this yarn was a 4-ply wool that was somewhat thicker than double knitting (DK) weight.

One of the benefits of “blogging” is the connection with people you might not otherwise meet. I have had the pleasure of communicating with Micheál Mac Donnchadha, who commented on my blog last fall, and is Irish. His grandfather is from the island of Inis Mór (Inishmore) and his great-grandmother used to spin her own wool. Micheál shared, “One of my mother’s possessions is blankets they had woven for them in the 1950s. At the time, you would bring raw wool to the mill and be paid for it in kind i.e. in blankets. Báinín is the Irish (Gaelic) for “little white” and it was used for any article made from the undyed wool, and a type of jacket with no buttons or lapels that was worn by farmers, fishermen and labourers here. For me a báinín yarn would be a 3-ply (3-strands twisted) in an undyed white, which is sort of creamy and flecked.”

Micheál kindly sent a length of the bainín yarn as well as some of the navy worsted 5-ply Guernsey yarn that he mentioned in his comment in September.  Along with the yarn, Micheál shared a few websites with very lovely examples of items hand knitted on Inis Meáin by the islanders:

Inis Meáin

He noted there are three (maybe three and a half) wool spinners left in Ireland:

Studio Donegal
Kerry Woollen Mills
Donegal Yarns

Regarding the difference between woollen and worsted yarn, Micheál explained “it’s a trade-off of warmth for durability. The worsted yarn is quite fine and strong, but is not as soft, warm or hairy as woollen spun yarns.”

“For 5-ply worsted, there are three spinners of worsted Guernsey yarn in the U.K. There’s Wendy which is part of the Ramsden group, who sells through RE Dickie Ltd. and Blacker Yarns Ltd.

Traditionally, the Aran sweater was knitted in parts: a front, back, two sleeves, and even broken down further into panels in the many beautiful Aran stitches. However, eventually it was knitted in one piece on circular needles.

“The terms jersey, gansey, geansaí (in Irish) and other languages (French, Spanish etc.) all come from Guernsey and the Channel Islands that developed that style of knitting,” said Micheál. “The great thing about the Guernsey is that it has a gusset under the arms so that the side of the jumper doesn’t pull up when you’re wearing it; it’s also knitted on a circular needle so there are no seams; it’s all knitted as one piece making it quite strong.” Jumper is another name for sweater.

From Micheál, I learned of the O’Mailles, who have been selling hand knitted Aran sweaters for 70 years. The sweaters are knitted by women on the islands and in the main land of Ireland. O’Maille’s also sells Aran yarn.

We learned that John Wayne and Maureen O’Hara starred in the movie Quiet Man in 1951, filmed at the Ashford Castle. The kids and I looked up the movie and were delighted to find Quiet Man on Youtube. We enjoyed the visit to Ireland for a time.


One thought on “A Visit with Ireland and Aran Sweaters

  1. Pingback: Sam’s Aran Jumper | Blumenkinder Heirlooms

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