The Gift of an Aran Jumper

Me, wearing one of my grandmother’s Aran jumpers

My brother has been doing some research into our family history. It seems that both my mother’s parents had forebears who came from the north coast of Devon. In the nineteenth century members of their respective families crossed the Bristol Channel to Swansea, where they met and married.

Coincidentally, we recently took a family holiday in north Devon. During a visit to the village of Clovelly, I wandered down the impossibly steep, cobbled main street and ducked into a whitewashed house near the old fishing harbour. Here a talk was in progress on the esoteric subject of Aran jumpers. A local was telling us that each village along this coast once had its own style of heavy woollen jumper. I assumed the design on these garments was simply decorative. How quaint that each village should associate itself with a knitted pattern. Forget quaint. It turned out that part of the reason fishermen wore these jumpers was as a means of identification, so that if they drowned at sea, there was a chance they could be taken home.

Later, after doing some background reading, it seemed that the Clovelly local might have dramatised a little for the sake of tourists. You can’t say there was an official policy of wearing Aran jumpers as means of identification in case of drowning. What you can say is that, in an instinctive kind of way, these articles of clothing made by local women to similar patterns, were a powerful link with home. This was true figuratively, and perhaps even literally in the event of disaster.

Lynton, Devon, home to ancestors of my grandparents

The thing is, when my two brothers and I were young, my grandmother supplied us with a steady stream of beautifully made Aran jumpers. I now wonder whether they might have represented a tradition handed down from north Devon ancestors. My grandmother was following in the footsteps of women who tried to protect their menfolk, even when they were out at sea. Their work kept the men warm on a dangerous journey, and also acted as a candle in a window, which would continue to offer guidance back, even if the worst were to happen. Why would I decide, leaving for university, to take two of my grandmother’s jumpers with me? I suppose they reminded me of home. Who knew that the home they recalled went all the way back to a Devon cottage on a stormy night.

Although I took those jumpers to university with me, it saddens me that I did not fully appreciate their gesture of love, not only from my grandmother, but also from generations of women who came before her. The world has changed and nowadays women as well as men have a better chance of putting to sea, but it still moves me to feel that even as I was heading out of harbour, someone was trying to keep me warm and guide me home.

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