A winning combination of icy northern climates and large populations of sheep has produced the perfect winter artifact: warm wool sweaters. Each country that boasts these elements has produced its own distinctive design solution. From the rainy west coast of Ireland comes the Aran or Irish “fisherman’s” sweater. Norway has its traditional black and white Lusekofte sweater. Sheep from the Shetland Isles provide wool for both the Shetland sweater and the colorful Fair Isle sweater. And there is the Lopapeysa sweater from Iceland.
A classic Aran sweater is knit from un-dyed, cream-colored yarn called bainin in Gaelic. Traditionally the wool is unwashed, so all the naturally occurring, water-repellent lanolin oil is still present. Aran sweaters are easily recognized by the deep-textured cable patterns on the chest; one sweater will use 4 to 6 complex textured stitch patterns. Many of these patterns are symbolic: diamonds are for success, honeycombs for hard work, and the iconic cable is a wish for fishermen’s safety and good luck. It is said that in the 19th century, Aran sweater knit patterns, like accents, could be used to identify the region or even village that the wearer came from. At the very least, it was traditional to knit the initials of the owner into the hem.
The Lusekofte of Norway dates back to the 1800s also. It is sometimes also called a setesdalsgenser, or sweater from the Setesdal region. The name translates as “lice jacket” after its black and white diagonal check pattern. The black, grey and white color scheme uses un-dyed sheep wool; recently other colors have been incorporated through ribbon woven into the neck and front opening. It is a casual sweater, worn traditionally by men. Although the lice-check pattern is usually present, other symbolic patterns such as mountains, flowers, and snowflakes may appear as well. The author Annemor Sundbo is an expert on the history and cultural significance of Norwegian sweaters; two of her books have been translated into English “Setesdal Sweaters: the history of the Norwegian lice pattern” and “Invisible Threads in Knitting”. Sundbo uses old photographs, newspapers and folk legend to tell the stories behind these traditional sweater patterns.
A wool sweater can be so much more than just a fashion statement or a warm winter layer; it can tell the story of its making, and be a symbol of identity, history, and tradition.