The cable knit sweater is, beyond a shadow of a doubt, one of the most essential menswear classics you can own.
Whether draped over the shoulders or worn alone, this sweater has been worn countless ways and seems to transcend both time and fashion. So it’s hard to believe you may have been reffering to this preppy staple by the wrong name. That's exactly how I felt on my recent trip to its island birthplace. But, before we get to that, let’s break down exactly what a cable knit sweater is, why it’s so loved, and the various titles it has adopted over the years.
When you picture a cable knit sweater, some typical images that might come to mind are the Kennedy family, sailing around Hyannis Port with the effortless elegance that so defined the America’s classiest First Family; or, possibly, that iconic photo of Steve McQueen smoking a cigar and wearing a baseball cap, casually disregarding the photographer as if to say “get that camera out of my face.”
If you’re a menswear aficionado like me, these photographs are etched in your mind as the quintessence of “cool.” So it's no surprise that countless preppy labels like Ralph Lauren and Perry Ellis adopted the cream-coloured cable-knit sweater as their own. However, as these major American brands adopted the pullover, they also adopted the right to rename it for everyone on the Western Hemisphere.
But the question remains: how did this cozy, ornate wool sweater make it into the wardrobes of the stylish elite? And how did we start calling this historic piece of menswear by its bastardized, ex-patriot designation?
To answer that, we’ll have to take a trip to its birthplace: the island of Éire, more commonly known as Ireland.
Ireland, the nation of green, grain, and Guinness—or so I naively thought. I was brought to the Emerald Isle to explore the fashion of the nation. You might be thinking, “Ireland isn’t a hotbed for fashion and style.” Well, from the outside, it may appear that you’re right. That is, until you discover the country’s rich heritage of textile manufacturing and, especially, knitting.
It’s said that it’s a rite of passage for many to learn to knit in Ireland. If you Google “knitting in Ireland,” you can literally book a lesson from anywhere in the world to learn from masterful Irish women descended from those who have trained in the craft since the beginning of the 20th century and beyond. You may also notice that the vast majority of these experiences are based near a trio of islands situated about nine kilometres from the mainland on the west coast. They’re called the Aran Islands and they are the true birthplace of the cable knit sweater.
To learn more of how these beautiful wool sweaters came to be, I chatted with some of Ireland's most storied manufacturers and mills: Aran Woollen mills, Irelands Eye Knitwear, and Magee 1866. Here’s what I learned:
Inishmore is the largest of the islands followed by Inishmaan and Inisheer, the smallest. Due to the lack of resources in the area, many of the residents have historically been fishermen. The islander women would knit sweaters for the working men of their families as a protective outer layer. The wool, sourced from local island sheep, is water repellent, keeping the fishermen dry on the rainy Atlantic. In fact, they can absorb 30% of their weight in water before they begin to feel wet. The natural wool fibre is also breathable, drawing water vapour away from the skin and releasing it into the air, helping the body to maintain an ideal temperature. This is why one of the various names rightfully adopted for this piece is the “fisherman sweater.”
An Aran sweater contains approximately 100,000 carefully-constructed stitches, taking the knitter up to 60 days to complete. Some of the stitches used are reflective of Celtic art, and comparisons have been drawn between the stitches and patterns found at Celtic burial sites. It’s even been said that the stitches resemble the rocky terrain of the island. But most frequently I heard that each stitch represents something more than art.
At that time of the sweater’s origin, each stitch pattern had its own symbolism and particular significance. Below are the meanings associated with some of the most popular Aran stitches.
Honeycomb: The symbol of the hard-working bee. Industry and efficiency were important values for the Islanders.
Cable: A tribute to fishermen’s ropes. A prayer for safety and good luck while fishing.
Diamond: A wish for health and success to the wearer.
Basket: A symbol of the fisherman’s basket, representing the hope of a plentiful catch.
The order that the stitch patterns were woven also represented what family the wearer was from on the island, similar to a Scottish tartan. In the past, it became increasingly important to be able to identify each fisherman, as some men would never make it home alive. If they were found washed up on the shoreline, their sweater would help identify to which family the unfortunate fisherman belonged.
The Aran sweater. As we now know, it’s the official name for a piece that has functionality, bravery, and spirituality woven right in. And every man who owns one, from the Irish fishermen of yesteryear, to the heights of Hollywood royalty, to the Mr Cavaliere reader, can carry that legacy with style.