A Close Knit: The Aran Sweater

Style expert Josh Sims explores the roots of the Aran sweater and explains how Sunspel’s contemporary version is designed for style and comfort

Steve McQueen

Elvis Presley was, bar none, the most unlikely exponent of the Aran sweater. Busting some presumably rather sweaty moves in Jailhouse Rock, somehow he simultaneously looked cool and ready to go pull in the nets, all the better for his next filet-o-fish. But then he hasn’t been the only stylish man to appreciate the fisherman’s friend – Steve McQueen wore an ecru Aran sweater in The Thomas Crown Affair in best millionaire-at-play mode, racing beach buggies by the sea without actually going out into it.

More recently, it’s suited Chris Evans in Knives Out and Adam Driver in the forthcoming House of Gucci. Indeed, as Sunspel’s contemporary version also suggests, scratch the dense woollen surface and the Aran sweater transcends its somewhat pipe-by-the-fireside ‘catalogue model’ image as the go-to choice for those seeking instant masculine cosiness. You can trust a man in an Aran sweater, it seems to say. Cuddle up.

Elvis Presley
The Sunspel cable knit jumper

It all somewhat belies the style’s much hardier back-story. Originating on the Aran Islands, off the coast of Galway, the Aran sweater was, like its historic forebear the Guernsey, designed to be an utterly functional garment. It was tighter at the neck and cuffs to keep the water out, shorter in the sleeves to ensure they didn’t get doused in fish oil or caught in the winches, and came thicker than thick to keep the winter winds out.

Even the seemingly fanciful knitting had a purpose. The story goes that, like a Guernsey, the carefully considered patterns that ran through an Aran sweater – the cable knit that gave the style its other name – were typically specific to the clan village where it was made. Somewhat gruesomely, this made it all the better for identifying a fisherman’s body if ever recovered from the sea.

But the Aran is fanciful in other ways too. Actually it only dates to the turn of the 20th century, and was likely first knitted to try and capitalise on the Guernsey’s big sales appeal well beyond the Channel Islands. Indeed, Aran sweaters were typically made for export, which makes sense – after all, the Aran Islands have a freakishly temperate climate given their northerly latitude. You don’t need a seriously protective garment like this there that often – not unless you’re in a folk band.

At least land-lubbers can now enjoy how the solid 3D-ness of the rope, honeycomb or lattice-effect knit plays pleasingly with light and shadow without thinking of men going overboard to their doom. Besides, like The King and the Cooler King both before, you’d never want to actually get your Aran wet anyway, especially not Sunspel’s lux merino wool version.

Each of these stylish, comfy pieces is handmade at specialist knitters in Leicester, England, a town, which, peculiarly, is about as far from the sea as you can get in the UK. The yarn at least has crossed the ocean, all the way from Peru. Why so? Because Sunspel has selected it specially for its feel ­– this merino manages to be comfortable while also having a slight, perceptible texture, which adds to the sense of substance that each sweater has and, naturally, gives it some extra ruggedness. The aesthetic appeal of the cable knit lies in the interest of the pattern, of course, and the classic version comes in cream. Sunspel has this covered, but also offers models in nutmeg, battleship grey and navy.

Wear yours with a big beard and gruff expression, accessorised with calloused hands for full effect. On second thoughts, best to let that idea slip back into the water.

Josh Sims is the author of Icons of Men’s Style, and The Details: Iconic Men’s Accessories. He. is editor of social trends journal Viewpoint and contributes to the Financial Times, The Independent, Wallpaper and Esquire.

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