The Madigan Aran Collection
Breathing New Life into A Classic
We at Madigan are proud to introduce our new 100% cashmere Aran sweater, a stunning piece that puts a luxurious spin on this icon of Irish design.
But what is it about these beautiful, intricately-patterned sweaters that gives them such long-standing appeal? It may have something to do with their history, which is intrinsically tied to the remote islands where they originated, and the lives of the people who first made them. We’ll delve a little deeper into the history of the Aran sweater, and show how we’ve combined the traditional elements of this beloved garment with our own signature style to create something truly special.
Born of Necessity
Aran sweaters are named for the Aran Islands, a group of three small islands which lie six miles from the mouth of Galway Bay on Ireland’s west coast.
Life on these islands could be challenging, and their isolated location and unpredictable climate meant that the islanders had to be resourceful and largely self-sufficient. In a landscape where the weather can change in an instant, and where most people supported themselves by fishing and raising sheep, staying warm and dry was of paramount importance.
Aran sweaters were the perfect solution to this problem. Most families on the islands already kept a few sheep for meat, and the sheep’s fleece revealed itself to be ideally suited to fending off the worst that the local climate could throw at them. The cream-coloured wool is coarse and rich in natural oils, so a jumper knitted with the spun yarn provided the fishermen and farmers of Aran with protection from rain, seawater and the constant strong winds that blow into the islands from across the Atlantic ocean.
Soon, knitting sweaters became an important communal activity for the women of the island. As each hand-knitted Aran sweater can take up to 50 hours to complete, it’s hardly surprising that the act of making them became woven into the social fabric of island life, and created strong community ties for people who were otherwise cut off from life on the Irish mainland.
While making these sweaters was a group activity, that didn’t mean that everyone was turning out an identical end product. Far from it - every Aran sweater was unique, with families sometimes using their own patterns or combinations of stitches. The supposed reason for this is another reminder of the often harsh reality of island life - if a man was lost at sea, the pattern on his sweater could be used to identify his remains.
A Wider Audience
Aran designs started to spread into the fashion mainstream in the middle of the 20th century, when Patons, an English company, published the first commercially-available Aran knitting patterns in the 1940s. A decade later, a Galway-based firm called Standun began to export ready-made sweaters to the USA, and a series of articles in Vogue further fanned the flames of the Aran’s popularity. Finally, a few celebrity endorsements helped cement the Aran sweater’s transition from rustic, homemade workwear to fashion statement - Grace Kelly and Steve McQueen were both photographed wearing theirs, and the Clancy Brothers never took to the stage without their trademark Aran knits!
The increased demand for sweaters allowed the Aran islanders to turn their skills into an industry, and provided them with an important source of income. Knitters were received formal training, and they adapted their patterns to fit with international sizing standards. They were also joined by new recruits from across Ireland, and at one point Standun had more than 700 craftspeople on their payroll!
Despite this wild popularity, and the more recent development of machines which are able to recreate some (but not all) of the traditional Aran stitches, the enduring appeal of the Aran sweater has probably come from the close ties it retains with its roots. The patterns used are largely unchanged, and have developed meanings that draw on their island origin - the stunning landscape, and the livelihoods, hopes and aspirations of the people who live there.
The Language of Aran Patterns
The tree of life, moss stitch, marriage lines… Even the names of the classic Aran knitting stitches are evocative! For the Madigan Aran range, we have created our own unique combinations using a selection of these timeless designs.
For instance, our Siofra collared sweater features blocks of the blackberry and lobster claw stitches, both of which represent the natural riches of the islands - the plentiful blackberries and the lobsters which would frequently turn up in the catch of the local fishermen. The diamond design in the centre is more aspirational - this is associated with the hope of wealth in the future. On the arms, a plait references similar designs that feature on Celtic stone crosses, while the honeycomb stitch brings to mind the bee, and symbolises hard work. Finally, panels of moss stitch on the arms and around the diamonds represent the carrageen moss which grows abundantly in the cracks of the traditional dry stone walls which border the islands’ fields and roads.
And since every Madigan Aran sweater is individually knitted by hand, you’ll notice that each element has a definition and fullness that simply can’t be found in mass-produced, machine-knitted sweaters.
Finally, we’ve made this design truly our own by recreating the Aran sweater in the material we know best - luxurious, soft 100% cashmere. We’re sure you’ll agree that this is the perfect way to celebrate the storied past of this iconic sweater, and move it forward into the future! Why not take a look for yourself?