It’s been said that Irish eyes tend to smile, but check again, and you may see that it’s only the result of a particularly cozy sweater. Or at least that’s likely to be the case if the owner of those happy peepers finds himself swathed in a sweater from Inis Meáin—our current obsession, which is handcrafted on the Emerald Isle. Hailing from the island of the same name (though in English rather than Gaelic, it’s more commonly known as Inishmaan), Inis Meáin harnesses the rich tradition of weaving and knitting found in the Aran Islands, but modernizes it with new techniques and designs. These innovations are on full display with their latest release, a Barneys-exclusive update to the classic Irish fisherman’s sweater, which the brand has created in conjunction with Sphere One and commemorated with the above video.
Though Irish fisherman’s sweaters have been popular globally for decades, Inis Meáin founder Tarlach de Blácam tells us that their history is a much more intimate one. “Fisherman’s wives and daughters have been making sweaters for their families for centuries,” he tells us. “Literally every stitch of clothes that islanders wore until the last 40 or 50 years was made here locally, and the women had a huge repertoire of stitching, weaving, and knitting. We wanted to show that the range of these women’s skills went far beyond what has been stereotyped as the Aran sweater.”
That repertoire does include the fancifully stitched and intricate cable knit pieces that people have come to call Irish fisherman’s sweaters, but de Blácam stresses that those styles were traditionally reserved for special occasions rather than for workday use by fishermen. “Those were Sunday best for little boys and girls, for their Confirmation or first Communion, always in angelic white,” he says. “Look back through old photographs and you’ll see that fisherman were wearing dark navy or the natural grey and black of the sheep, executed in much more restrained designs. The families were very large, so they needed to be simpler designs.”
This ethos was the focus when it came time to reimagine the fisherman’s sweater for the way people live today. Crafted of cashmere, merino wool, and the traditional lanolin-rich wool yarns typical of the Aran Islands, the latest version was created in conjunction with another Irish knitwear label, Sphere One. As de Blácam tells us, “We asked the brand’s Dublin-based designer Lucy Downes, ‘What would a modern fisherman’s partner make for him or her, in terms of today’s knitting techniques?’ She came up with this beautiful idea as a result.”
Gussets of cashmere run up and down the sides of the sweater and the plush material also lines the back of the neck. Built-in ventilation has been provided under the arms, to allow for easy air transfer. The ribbed knitting on the body of the sweater mirrors the waves of the sea. Finally, patches of the almost-waterproof lanolin-soaked wool adorn the top of the back and the underside of the arms, the areas most likely to be dampened by sea spray or by leaning against the rain-wet railing of a fishing boat. But even with these updates to the classic design, each sweater is still finished in the traditional Irish way: by hand.
It’s that combination of old-world techniques and modern technology that makes each handcrafted Inis Meáin piece so unique. In addition to the wealth of archival material available from the island’s long history of knitters, de Blácam says that much of the brand’s inspiration is drawn from the diversity of wildflowers found there and its almost mind-boggling number of stone walls—an estimated 1,500 miles of locally mined stone walls crisscross the island of less an four square miles. Pair that with knitting machines that are reset up to four times per day to create unique, small-run batches of styles, and you have the best of yesterday joined with a forward looking mentality.
“Without a past, we don’t have a future,” de Blácam says. “The aim is not to be enslaved by the past or to copy it, but to let it seep in and to reproduce it in a new and different way. Move it on a bit. That’s what it’s all about tor me.”