Inis Meáin Knitting Co. is as much a story about a small island’s rich tradition in knitwear as it is about one man’s resolve to save an island.
The middle island of the Aran chain, Inis Meáin is often overlooked, receiving just a small fraction of the Arans’ tourism. Herein lies its charm. So undiscovered over the past century, the island and its customary way of life are incredibly well preserved. The islanders, unable to rely on tourism, must still support themselves by farming the island’s rich soil, raising lamb and cattle that graze the island’s abundant grassy fields, and fishing the treacherous seas that buffet the island’s ancient limestone walls.
Channeling his love for and advocacy of their fading culture, founder and creative head of Inis Meáin Knitting Co., Tarlach de Blacam, set out to support the local economy and share the island’s rich tradition of impeccable knitwear with the world. In every way, the sweaters of Inis Meáin Knitting Co. are a representation of the island. Every collection is inspired by Inis Meáin itself, its natural colors and unique topography. Contemporary styles are born from traditional knitting methods and designs. Each sweater is meticulously looked after and hand finished by the very women-many quite old and whom only speak Gaelic-that learned the tradition of hand knitting from their mothers as small girls in the 1950s and ‘60s.
Tarlach was driven to the island in University by a professor to study Gaelic. At that time, being groomed for academia, Tarlach encountered Inis Meáin as the mecca of old world Ireland — the most well-preserved Gaelic community and traditional Irish way of life. The mosaic of fields divided by hand-built rock walls were still worked. Islanders lived by the natural rhythm of sunrise and sunset. And the entire island continued to speak its traditional language of Gaelic, creating one of the most valuable and well-preserved Gaelic communities in the world. Determining that academia was not his destiny, yet yielding to his love of the language and the island culture, Tarlach committed to settling on Inis Meáin with his wife Ana in the 1970s. At first he took odd jobs around the community. But after experiencing first-hand the struggle of islanders to support themselves economically and to preserve their unique heritage in the 20th Century, Tarlach knew that something had to be done to provide additional employment and keep the locals from leaving.
Leveraging their strong and very deep tradition in knitwear, Tarlach organized with others to establish Inis Meáin Knitting Co. Since the very beginning, the company was purely an employment scheme, a way to make the island sustainable. Tarlach set out learning the craft and the business of trade and export. The beginning of the company is more about Tarlach’s desire to preserve the island’s way of life and provide the global ground for their rich tradition of knitting to survive the 20th Century. Tarlach knew they could never compete with low quality and pricing, as was common amongst others in the area supplying the local tourist shops. He knew they had to focus on the highest-quality, hand-made, design-oriented knitwear that could be exported to the finest stores around the world. Competing on price or scale against large factories that could turn out in a day what they produced in an entire year was inconceivable.
Inis Meáin Knitting Co. began with just four hand knitters and Tarlach as the traveling salesman. As Tarlach journeyed meeting with menswear buyers, the Inis Meáin product and story were well received. It was not long before Inis Meáin purchased its first industrial knitting machine and began to distribute all over the world.
After forty years of business, the brand is thriving in a world that is now experiencing a “rebound to quality” because of the internet’s ability to bring the best products to light. So, when you purchase a sweater from Inis Meáin Knitting Co., not only are you acquiring one of the finest, hand-finished sweaters obtainable, you are supporting a fading but treasured way of life and one of the most culturally-rich Gaelic communities in Ireland. You are providing employment that is able to attract young people back to the island, to prevent their emigration, and allow this now-rare way of life to survive the 21st Century.