With its distinctive, intricately decorative stitches, the Aran sweater – more commonly known as a fisherman's sweater – has become a sartorial symbol for Ireland, revered as an example of workwear being adopted by broader society. But the decorative cream jumper, popularised by the likes of Steve McQueen, Elvis Presley and Marilyn Monroe, wasn’t commonly worn by actual workingmen. “That garment became stereotyped, and people don’t realise that,” says Tarlach de Blácam, co-founder of knitwear brand Inis Meáin. “They call it a fisherman’s sweater, but in fact, it’s not a fisherman sweater, it’s very much Sunday best – made for little boys and girls for the first communion or confirmation.” What the workers wore was much more subdued, in dark grey, navy or black and in a more restrained design – crew necks knitted with plain stitches.
Through its designs, Inis Meáin is showing the world that there’s more to Ireland’s knitwear than this very limited yet widely recognised design. “We were trying to explain to people that (what we were creating) was just as authentic, and we’d take out old photographs and we’d pull out stuff from the archives,” says de Blácam. “Right up to today, the philosophy behind it has been something special, something new, something different, but still coming from the tradition, the archives, the authentic knits of the Islanders, but done in a new and different way.”
Tarlach started the company with his wife Áine Ní Chonghaile, essentially as an excuse to be able to live permanently on the remote island of Inis Meáin, one of the three rocky isles that make up the Arans, which are off the west coast of Ireland. When they first set up home there in the 1970s, there was no electricity or running water, and the Islanders earned their livelihoods through a modest cottage industry. “We came to write poetry and literature, and we ended up getting involved in community development,” says Tarlach. “We got electricity and water for the island and improved the ferry service, and one of the things we did was set up a little employment scheme, looking around for what kind of natural resources we had, which was very limited.” One of the main assets that the island already had in abundance was knitters – thanks to the tourist trade supplying America with those aforementioned decorative sweaters – and so the duo set about creating the business.