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I would love to have the following explained once and for all:

What's the difference between sweater types:

Aran, Celtic, gansey, and fishermen's sweaters??

Thank you,

Ah! (rubs hands together) I love this question!


A FISHERMAN'S SWEATER is, to put it simply, any sweater a fisherman would wear. It might come from Scotland, from the north lands, from Newfoundland - anywhere people knitted and fished, men at sea wore sweaters knit with their own hands and by those of their women at home.

A GANSEY, or GUERNSEY, is a particular type of fisherman's jumper with origins in the Britsh Channel Isles. Most prominent during the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, it takes its name, of course, from the island of Guernsey.


The most familiar form of the gansey is a very thick, densely knit sweater with a plain welt and a yoke patterned with geometric knit/purl patterns and simple rope cables in vertical and horizontal arrangements. Patterns and construction methods were borrowed and changed, improved and corrupted, in port villages all around the North Sea as boats (and the knitters on board) followed the fish. There are patterns peculiar to tiny communities, passed along from family to family - motifs of anchor and rope, nets and weather signs. Eminent practicality distinguishes the gansey as much as distinctive styling does: most ganseys are constructed for speed and ease of making up, and durability and utility during wear. The welt is knit as one piece in the round, then split at the armscye to work the back and front flat. There may or may not be a shoulder strap. Sleeves are picked up and worked down to the cuff, for a garment that may be made quickly, all in one piece, with no seams to unravel or burst.

The traditional yarn is a deep indigo 5-ply mill-spun, round and firm, knit very tightly for water-proofness and warmth. The cuffs often end well above the wrists, to keep out of the wet - knitting the sleeves top-down allows a worn-through elbow or cuff to be unraveled and reknit as often as necessary. The drop-shoulder shape, with a diamond-shaped gusset at the underarm, allows for the full range of motion a fisherman needs. The back and front neck are even, to allow for a completely reversible garment. All in all - a really wonderful example of human ingenuity, of the instinct to make what is utilitarian beautiful as well.

The ARAN SWEATER is a garment densely patterned with cables and traveling lines, most often arranged in vertical columns mirrored out from a wide center pattern.

It's not really a traditional Irish garment, any more than the fortune cookie is a traditional Chinese food. It seems to be a natural progression from the simple cables of the gansey, but the laborious (and less durable) seamed construction and lack of gussets in even the earliest museum pieces suggest that the "Aran sweater" was never meant as a functional piece for Aran fishermen, but rather a sale good, a product for export. There is no evidence that the "traditional" patterns are clan symbols, or have any time-shrouded meaning associated with them at all - they are simply beautiful patterns developed by skilled production knitters during the last two centuries. And that balderdash about patterns being used to identify bodies recovered from the sea? Is just that, romantic legend, since these sweaters were never worn by real fishermen at all (many sources point to J. M. Synge's play, Riders From the Sea, as the source of this story - a dropped stitch in a stocking identifies a drowned man).

The hallmarks of the Aran sweater are seamed construction (there are a couple reasons to this - first, most cable patterns alternate plain and patterned rows, easier to keep track of with back-and-forth knitting; second, the twisted stitches often seen in traveling lines and ribs must not be twisted in the same direction every row, or the whole tube will bias), dropped shoulders, and sleeves knit flat with a saddle or strap extension at the top. The standardized construction and pattern arrangement makes the Aran one of the easiest sweaters to "design" - this motif may be swapped for that one, that cable for this - and only a little math is required for a completely new-looking sweater. At the same time, the infinite variations on the cable patterns that may be used - split cables, ribbed cables, braided panels in all kinds of arrangements - make Aran sweater knitting one of the most satisfying creative exercises in knitting.

CELTIC motifs are just motifs inspired by the beautiful, intricate knots and braids of Celtic metalwork and art.

With a little patience and graph paper in hand, any knot can be expressed in cabled lines - I charted the motif above based on a beautiful knot glimpsed in a modern piece. The infinite line techniques taught by Alice Starmore in her book Aran Knitting come in handy here.

So there - sweaters debunked, demystified, and hopefully shown to be even more beautiful and inspiring for it.

unraveling is an advice column for knitters, with fresh content every Wednesday and Friday. Send your questions, signed with your name, blog url, or psuedonym to unraveling@eunnyjang.com. Your question may be edited for style and space.


I finally got the needles I needed to work on the Norwegian Jacket:

Much better. I'd been using 3.00mm needles before, for the colorwork - hate that quirky European needle sizing - because they were the only wooden needles readily available to me, and I have the patience of, say, a 4-year-old. "Oh," I thought, "that quarter millimeter doesn't matter. I'm sure the slight compression stranding causes will compensate for it, and it'll be just like I knit it on a 2.75 mm needle."

Um, not so, of course. It was just wishful thinking - the colorwork looked sloppy and ugly, and my row gauge was disastrously off. So, doing what for me is harder than bearding a lion in its den - waiting - I ordered a Crystal Palace bamboo needle, the only wooden circular needle in existence that comes in 2.75 mm. The result is even, pretty fabric with a readable pattern and a nicely sturdy hand. Maybe there's a lesson to be learned here.

Probably not.

I've started working on a pretty pair of socks, too, with the yarn I got from Spirit Trail at Sheep & Wool, and the Embossed Leaves sock pattern from the winter IK:

And then, I've been thinking about this whole spinning thing.

"I should," says I, "I should spin some yarn, and use it for something. I should use it for something interesting, something nice enough to keep me spinning - maybe a pair of Norwegian mittens. A pair of Norwegian mittens in two colors. In two colors, grey and red. Red I should dye myself. I should dye and then spin 400 yards of fingering-weight wool on a drop spindle for colorwork mittens."

These are the conversations I have with myself.

I'm thinking this justifies it, though:

That beautiful garnet came from Kool-Aid, if you can believe it (I know, I know, I should use real dye - but remember what I said about the whole waiting thing?), the result of dyeing grey Shetland fiber. The fiber feels different after dyeing, though - it's not felted in the least, but it feels coarse and scratchy, the way Shetland wool should feel. The undyed top is silky and ridiculously soft, but the dyed top is suddenly crimpy and hairy. I wish I knew enough about fiber to know what I've done to it...right now, I'm thinking that the individual hairs are just going in different directions, no longer in the alignment the top's been combed into, but I don't know. It spins just fine, so I'm not going to stress about it.

The little sample I made shows that there are darker hairs scattered throughout, almost black, giving a wonderful depth to the finished yarn:

All this maybe isn't the best project for a very new spinner to jump into right away...but the goal is winter wear, so there's plenty of time to decide whether or not all this is moonstruck madness.


The heat of dyeing can change the texture of wool (and remove luster, although Shetland generally isn't a luster breed). The undyed stuff likely has some carding oil in it that affects how it feels, too. Crimp always "wakes up" when fibers get wet, and this is particularly noticeable when you are working with commercially combed fibers.

Thanks so much for the tutorial on pullovers, and I think I know what my next socks will be!

June's comment confirms that my own thought was on the right track. That thought was this -- perhaps it's the wetting and heating in the dyeing process, not the dye itself, that effected the change in texture, and a useful experiment to confirm whether this is so would be to subject a small portion of the undyed top to the same process with plain water (and perhaps a second piece with plain water plus vinegar, in case the acid is a significant component), but no dye, to see if the same change occurred.

Eunny, says I, had I known that you had that green yarn from Spirit Trail, I'dve tried to trade with you for something else, or I would've knocked you down and taken it and run.

Eunny, I think it's a fine project for a new spinner to jump into. The first item I made out of my early handspun was a fair-isle style tam, in brown and white.

What a great tutorial :-)
I have some wonderful old ( 1900's) photographs of my father's grandfather known in the family as "Old Daniel" wearing his work clothes.The photographs are so sharp that you can see the darns in his Guernsey.

Next thing you know you'll be raising and breeding sheep for just the perfect consistency of wool too! You are truly a woman possessed with your knitting... and that is a good thing. My daughter did a mordant dye test as part of a science fair experiment. And although the yarn was pre-spun, we found that the Kool-Aid vinegar combination was actually softer than the yarn dyed with the Kool-Aid and Alum. Then again, we might have just done something wrong while dyeing too!

Love it love it!
I can't wait to see how your spinning turns out. I want to learn on a drop spindle too, mostly because it's portable, and oh yeah, it's $20, when a wheel would run me like $800. And since I want to learn to spin so I can spin the perfect cotton sock yarn, I think mittens are a completely doable project.

Your beginning-spinner yarn puts my been-spinning-for-five-years yarn to shame. It's gorgeous - I love how fine you got it. Shetland is lovely stuff to spin & knit with, isn't it?

That is an amazing Celtic knot you made. Clearly I need to get my hands on Aran Knitting, stat!

I love the questions and your answers, and your site in general! I found it recently when trying to chart my own cable pattern. Your tutorial was very helpful and I love seeing all your incredible work!

Just wondering how row gauge can be "disastrously off" when you're designing the garment yourself. Off what?

Thanks so much for another great lesson! I've always wondered what the difference between sweaters types was!

Just last night I saw your mention in Amy Singer's column in the current IK!! Congrats!

How do you spin like that when you are JUST STARTING??? How do you do it? You are just too amazing for words. Can I be you in my next life?

What do you mean, you couldn't wait for "real" dye? KoolAid dyed your fiber, didn't it? It's not what purists use, but it works. I have things I dyed with KoolAid ten years ago that are still the same color I dyed them. No fading. No washing out. And as you saw with your red, dyeing over greys rather than white gives wonderful colors.

The green sock yarn is really pretty. And your koolaid dying is really beautiful. I also wanted to say that I thought the mention of your lace work tutorials in the Summer IK was really nice. And exciting. I was like, wow, I read her blog.

European needle sizes are great! You can choose between 2.00 mm, 2.25, 2.50, 2.75 and 3.00 mm - all the way up and down the scale. (Well, until around 7 mm well the gradations decrease to half a mm). So many options! So many opportunities for head-scratching, changing your mind, changing it back again, altering the number of stitches...

What 'flavour' (hee!) Koolaid did you use for the garnet? It's beautiful!

The Kool-Aid works well and has the added benefit of being non-toxic and safe. Chemicals freak me out so I like dying with food stuffs. Plus you don't need special equipment designated for dying. I look at it as a modern version of the plant dyes that were the only thing available once upon a time. Love the color!

Philippa just asked my question... what flavor koolaid for the garnet color?


Wow, wonderful explanation and your Norwegian design is just awesome!

I'm about to start those socks too! I love the dark green!

The jacket looks beautiful. It was so sad to see it frogged, but it does look better with the smaller needles.....

Oh - and thanks for the sweater explanation. I have been wondering that too!!

Your blog is one of the best ones out there. I appreciate the wealth of information you provide. The new Unravelings column is the best. I love reading it. The difference between gansey/guernsey, aran sweaters and fisherman's sweaters was a question I'd often pondered, but never really thought about asking. It was just one of those things. It's great to know and I really loved all the information you provided to the answers.

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