Inis Meáin is one of the three Aran Islands that lie on the far edge of Europe, thirty miles off the western shore of Ireland.
It’s a place of wild and rugged beauty that has enchanted many a visitor. But to make a living on the island has always called for a spirit of independence, resourcefulness and innovation.
For centuries, the fishermen’s garments have been designed, knitted and woven by the women of the island. Stitches that have evolved through the generations reflect the unique island environment: turbulent, amazing seas and skies, wild flora and labyrinths of stone walls. They are all echoed in the diamonds, cables, tree of life, moss and other patterns.
The Aran Sweater
—How a Local Craft went Global
The great Anglo Irish and Gaelic literary revival of the early 20th century brought many to Inis Meáin in search of the authentic spoken Gaelic language and folk traditions. Among them, playwright J. M. Synge, Douglas Hyde – the first President of Ireland and Lady Augusta Gregory – patron of the arts and mentor to W. B. Yeats.
The new flow of visitors led to a growing appreciation of the creativity of the handcrafted garments and the unique style of the islanders. A cottage industry was born and by the mid-20th century most island women were supplementing the family income through their knitting work.
Merchants supplying tourist shops around Ireland and Irish interest stores in the USA contracted home-based knitters to supply a growing market. Patterns varied from knitter to knitter – each using their individual stitch combinations. Some of the commissioning merchants introduced innovations such as the use of cashmere and silk yarns, but the basic formula of highly decorated classic shapes was maintained.
Inis Meáin Knitting Company
Inis Meáin Knitting Company was founded on the island in 1976 by Tarlach de Blácam and Áine Ní Chonghaile, inspired by the unique spirit, environment and heritage of the place.
Tarlach was a graduate in Celtic Languages from Trinity College Dublin and had gone to Inis Meáin in the late sixties like the previous scholars to immerse himself in the language and culture of the island; Áine was a native of Inis Meáin working as a teacher in Dublin in the early ‘70s. When the pair married in 1973, they were determined to make their home on the island. The only question was how to make a living there.