The story of knitwear from Inis Meáin is really a story of two traditions: that of practical knitwear crafted by a wife for her husband to wear while working and that of highly decorative, “celebratory” sweaters worn by children at their first communion and on special occasions.
Traditionally, the men of Inis Meáin wore very functional sweaters that were simple to make. The climate of the island demanded that the clothing be tough and warm enough for working outside. From fishing the sea to hauling boulders for the construction of the island’s iconic stone walls, men required practical and durable knitwear. The family was the workforce in the community and women were responsible for producing clothing for the entire family as well as for export. Everything was done by hand, spinning the yarn, weaving as well as knitting. Women did not generally have time to embellish these workwear sweaters with the highly decorative cables and diamonds most commonly associated with Inis Meáin. The reserved, workwear sweater was knitted in what the islanders called “Bull’s Wool.” It was the cheapest, harshest wool left over after exporting all of the finer wool from their sheep. Perfect for a fisherman’s sweater – tough, warm, and durable – rarely were they decorated. The sweaters were always done in dark colors or the natural colors of the wool (a mixture of charcoal and brown). A red dye was produced from the madder on the roads and indigo was often imported, but the sweaters were always dark.
But then there is the story of the island’s celebration knits, surely where a wife or mother put her pride. These “Sunday best” sweaters were normally knitted from finer wools, either white or natural in color, and worn by children during their first communion and by husbands on special occasions. They served as the canvas for the island’s women to indulge in and showcase their passion for knitting. Highly complex, decorative cables emerged from this tradition, leveraging any new stitches the women had learnt and identifying the family in the same way as Scottish Tweed. Soon a cottage industry arose from this tradition, mothers and daughters in most houses supplemented the family income by making sweaters for the growing Irish tourist industry. Patterns varied from knitter to knitter with each individual having her own combination of diamonds, cables and trellis, tree of life and moss motifs. But the basic formula of highly decorated classic shapes was maintained.
Today Inis Meáin focuses primarily on “celebration knits” with their intricate cables, as this is what is most associated with the island, and now, the brand. The company’s knitwear is assembled using the finest natural fibers of wool, cashmere, cotton, and linen in order to produce an incredibly soft garment that feels good against the skin. All of the cables that adorn Inis Meáin knitwear are inspired by old photographs of islanders and their sweaters. Knitted by the hands of the daughter of one of the island’s oldest and most highly regarded knitters still alive, these designs then find their way into the company’s collections and show up to the world as valuable and beautiful works of traditional Aran art.