Sheep shortage threat to 'Aran' jumpers
LARA BRADLEY IT IS the iconic fashion item that has made the Aran Islands famous the world over. But now there are no sheep left on the windswept Western isles and wool is being imported from as far afield as South America and Australia to make Aran jumpers.
Young islanders have turned their backs on sheep farming in favour of the much more profitable tourism business, but bewildered holiday-makers are increasingly asking how genuine their souvenir jumpers are, given that there are no sheep to be seen on the islands.
Aran Sweater Market MD Colm McCarthy said: "It is similar to the debate that has raged in the EU parliament about what makes a genuine Cheddar cheese or a Parma ham. Is an Aran jumper an Aran jumper because of where it originated or because of where the design wascreated?
"There are no sheep that I know of on the islands and even in other parts of the country, the drop in subsidies means the numbers of sheep aren't what they used to be.
"But even if we had sheep on the islands, they could never produce enough wool to keep up with demand."
Mr McCarthy's shop on Inis Mor boasts "the world's largest collection of Aran jumpers" as it stocks thousands of variations on the classic sweater. The vast majority of the jumpers are machine-made on the mainland from imported wool.
He said: "Hand knitters now are few and far between. A very small proportion of our hand-knit jumpers is made on the island. Knitting is coming back as a hobby in the States, but the younger people here just aren't interested. Most of our hand knitters are older ladies in Donegal who would knit about three or four jumpers a year."
The original Aran jumper was waterproof as it was made from unscoured wool that retained its natural oils.The patterns have special significance and the designs were unique to each family so that if a fisherman was lost at sea, he could be identified by his jumper.
Celebrity endorsement from the likes of Sarah Jessica Parker and Sharon Stone has ensured the Aran jumper has maintained its worldwide popularity, but the modern customer has a more delicate constitution than hardy Aran fishermen. Mr McCarthy said: "We do have some jumpers that are the genuine heavy-oiled hand knit, but most people now find them a bit coarse. The trend now is for softer wools and Merino is particularly popular.
"The Aran jumper was big in the 1970s and had a come back in the 1990s. These things go in cycles andthe fashion people tell me another revival is due thisautumn."