History in the Making

The History of Cable Knit Sweaters

Well, we are returning to cooler temperatures here in the Northern Hemisphere. While we still have fairly warm temperatures where I am, I expect cooler temperatures will be on their way soon. And with autumn comes some of my favourite clothing- scarves, socks, and sweaters. For the last few years, people have been rather obsessed with cable-knit sweaters (aka jumpers). People flock to buy them, memes of celebrities wearing them circulate, and the life cycle continues. So, this Style File Friday is exploring the history of cable knit sweaters and why we love them so much!

History of Cable knit sweaters

What is a Cable Knit Sweater?

A cable knit sweater is a sweater that is knitted into a cabled pattern- cables are raised patterns that look like ropes or graids. They are also known as Aran sweaters, because they originated in the Aran Islands off the west coast of Ireland. 

You can see more of the Aran Islands here!

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The Myth of the Cable Knit Sweater

So if you’ve ever looked into buying a cable knit sweater or have even googled them, you were probably met with this myth. The story goes that fishermen in the Aran Islands would wear these cable knit sweaters with specific patterns on them- a pattern for each clan or family. If any of the fishermen happened to fall overboard, they could be identified via the cable pattern. 

Except like many tales of Ireland, this is simply a myth and doesn’t have any basis in history. (No matter what random person from Ireland told you…) Yes, it’s a romantic story, but simply a story. 

Road on Inishmore, one of the Aran Islands

A More Practical History 

The cable knit sweater is actually less than 150 years old- it’s quite a new fashion phenomenon. As the V&A explains, “In 1891, the government set up the Congested Districts Board to help poor families survive unemployment and food shortages. The Board encouraged local people to weave and knit garments to sell. By the 20th century, this cottage industry began to take off and the Board trained knitters to create complex patterns.” Luckily for all of us, they switched from oiled wool typically used for fisherman to a softer, undyed yarn. 

I have to say, I would argue that needing to create these sweaters to avoid starving to death or losing your home is still a fairly sad history, but less so than dead fisherman washing up on shore. 

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The Favourite Sweater

 Cable knit sweaters are still a booming business today. Every major city and nearly every town in Ireland will have a shop selling these sweaters. While visitors often wince at the hefty price-tags, these sweaters are still typically knitted by hand rather than machine. And even the most experienced knitter will still take several hours of labour to make one of these cosy sweaters. 

You can also find these designs at most major clothing retailers, and every fall they reappear as the temperatures drop. However, the big difference is that these are most likely created by a machine rather than a person. And it is unlikely that you are getting a pure wool sweater if you are only paying $25. (We all have different budgets and make do with what we have, but that is the reality of a lower price point.)

If there is a “preppy fall fashion” round up, I can guarantee you that cable knit sweaters will be on it, along with some sort of puffy vest. 

Fair Isle and Cable Knit Sweaters

Chris Evans and Cable Knit Sweaters?

When researching the history of cable knit sweaters, I was inundated with pictures of Chris Evans. I couldn’t figure out why Captain America was pulling for that search term… until I figured out that it instead references Knives Out from 2019. His character wears a cable knit sweater for part of the movie, and apparently people were big fans. (It being Chris Evans probably didn’t hurt?) While I admit that I didn’t notice it because I was attempting to be Agatha Christie and solve the mystery, a lot of people did notice. To the extent that the Knives Out Twitter account changed its name at one point to “Chris Evans’ Sweater Stan Account” and gave away one hundred of the sweaters to dedicated fans. 

Were you familiar with the history of cable knit sweaters? And are you a fan, or do you pass?

The Historian
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