Fashion: No sweater is an island: The traditional aran fisherman's jumper has been trawled for haute couture. Tamsin Blanchard investigates

Aran wool is not a fabric one would normally associate with ballgowns. It is the knitwear of fishermen and aran knit patterns are thought to date back over 3,000 years.

Aran sweaters originated in the Aran Islands, off the west coast of Ireland, where they are still made. The intricate patterns were not written down, but were passed from generation to generation, differing from family to family, with stitches inspired by rope and fishing tackle found on the beach. But the purpose of this knitted family fingerprint was more than decorative - when a fisherman drowned out at sea, the only way of identifying him might be by his sweater.

Strange then, that aran has been chosen as the basis for an haute couture gown of chenille, ribbon, wool and golden yarn and white gold silk by Christian Lacroix. Lacroix has paid tribute to the humble seafaring aran and given it a grandeur it has never known before. The price, presumably sky-high, is a secret except to customers.

Lacroix is not the only designer with fancy ideas for aran. The French couture house Rochas has embroidered it with sparkly diamante. The result sells at the unworldly price of pounds 1,400.

The British Designer of the Year, John Rocha - who is based in Dublin - has an affinity with all things Celtic. 'I like Celtic traditions,' he says. 'I have tried to make aran contemporary in shape, but have kept its traditional stitches and wool so as not to lose its context.'

Aran jumpers should perhaps be sold with the message: an aran is for life, not just for Christmas. Sarah Ratty, of the Conscious Earthwear design label, makes good use of abandoned Oxfam- reject aran sweaters. These she cuts up, overlocks and then sews into coats, jumpers, hats and skirts. Affluent followers of fashion might opt for the Lacroix. Meanwhile, for the fashionable fisherman, a Conscious Earthwear aran knit hat sells for pounds 32.

(Photographs omitted)