The World’s Most Remote Fashion Label
On a tiny island off the west coast of Ireland, Inis Meáin draws on landscape and tradition to create clothing beloved from New York to Tokyo
You don’t just stumble upon Inis Meáin, the middle-most of the Aran Islands. Located 20km off the west coast of Ireland, and sandwiched in between its neighbours, Inis Mór and Inis Oírr, it’s accessible via a ferry from Ros a’ Mhíl in Co Galway or Doolin in Co Clare (it takes around 45 minutes, depending on where you leave from) or a five-minute flight from Connemara. This latter trip, by the way, is made in perhaps the tiniest passenger plane you are likely to come across, with just enough room for eight passengers (and that’s a bit of a squeeze, to be honest).
The official timetable says there are three flights a day, but as with so many things here, it’s best to ask a local. Hopefully, you’ll find someone who speaks fluent English, but this is far from guaranteed: thanks to the islands’ physical remoteness, the traditional way of life has lingered longer here than on the mainland. Whether your first steps on Inis Meáin are made from the airstrip (which only got emergency landing lights in 1991 – before, they lined up tractors and switched on the lights) or from the pier (where, at low tide, you might see a bottlenose dolphin), they’re likely to be accompanied by the sounds of conversation in Irish, still the first language of most of the older residents.
Though the island, as something of a world apart, has drawn many creatives to its shores over the past 150 years, from Irish Literary Revival playwright Mr John Millington Synge and contemporary artist Mr Sean Scully to novelist Mr Colm Tóibín and cartographer and local historian Mr Tim Robinson, it’s not exactly the first place you might think to launch a clothing brand. Yet, with a certain amount of incredulity, this is what you will find here. Established in 1976 by Mr Tarlach de Blácam and his wife Ms Áine Ní Chonghaile, the Inis Meáin Knitting Company has achieved the remarkable feat of transforming a local cottage industry – and in this case, those words are literal – into a fashion label that’s stocked at specialist retailers as far afield as New York and Tokyo.
Combining the kind of old-fashioned, artisanal know-how that could only survive in a place as sequestered as this, with a strident approach to colour, texture and design that’s as forward-looking as many of its continental peers, it’s a highly unusual and, for that reason, special business that produces short runs of equally special knitted garments. The singularity of it is all the more pronounced if you’ve actually been to Inis Meáin, population circa 180, and stared out to sea from its dramatic limestone cliffs, the waves churning below and asked: how on earth did this happen?
To answer that question, you need to go back quite a few years, says Mr de Blácam, after taking MR PORTER on a whistle-stop tour of the island’s considerable sights. In fact, he says, knitting has been a way of life on Inis Meáin since the late 19th century, when Ireland’s Congested Districts Board – set up to tackle poverty in the areas of overpopulation, caused by the great land clearances of the 17th and 18th centuries in the west of the country – brought in knitters from as far afield as Scotland and the Channel Islands to kick-start a small craft industry.
“It became a thing for the whole family,” says Mr de Blácam. “Not just the housewife knitting sweaters for her husband. All the women in each house learnt to knit from a very early age at their mother’s knee.”
Ms Ní Chonghaile, who grew up on the island, powerfully recalls what this meant for one’s personal wardrobe. “Everything was handmade,” she says. “The only thing you bought in Galway was material, if you wanted to make a dress or something. But it was all hand-sewn, and all the sweaters were hand-made, hand-knitted, to your size.”
Mr de Blácam himself first arrived on Inis Meáin in the late 1960s, while studying Celtic languages at Trinity College, Dublin. He came to learn Irish Gaelic, but immediately fell in love with the place, and more importantly, as he puts it, “the philosophy of the older people… their independence and their way of life.” He and Ms Ní Chonghaile, a native of Inis Meáin who had been working in Dublin, moved to the island shortly after. At that time, it was “a very difficult lifestyle”, he says. “There was no electricity, no running water. Everything was rowed ashore by currach [a traditional type of boat].” Quickly observing that, without any trappings of a modern lifestyle, there was, “no chance that young people were going to stay and live here,” he and Ms Ní Chonghaile resolved to create a business that would provide satisfying employment for locals and reverse the tide of emigration. Neither of them had any expertise in the garment trade, but knitting, as Inis Meáin’s most developed industry beside farming and fishing, seemed a good place to start.
At that point, the knitting business on Inis Meáin was geared towards a certain thing: the so-called Aran knit sweater. “The women knitted a specific, highly decorated kind of sweater for little boys and girls for their First Communion and Confirmation,” says Mr De Blácam. “It was usually highly intricate [with cabled designs], and angelic white wool.”
In the mid-20th century, merchants from overseas came to the island, demanding such pieces in luxury fabrics to be sold in the US, which meant that the style eventually made it into the wardrobes of Hollywood stars. “In the 1950s and 1960s, you had Steve McQueen and Marilyn Monroe sporting Aran sweaters in fast cars and in movies. The story of the Aran sweater became more important.”
At the same time, though, says Mr De Blácam, it became “stereotyped” – he wanted the new Inis Meáin knitwear to be more modern, more everyday wear as opposed to Sunday best. Working with local experts such as Ms Máirín Ni Dhomhnaill – an Inis Meáin knitter whose skills are so renowned as to have earned her a place on an Irish postage stamp in 1983 – Mr de Blácam began to identify design elements within the classic Aran Isles knitwear that he thought could be developed into more restrained and contemporary pieces. He became interested not just in the idiosyncratic stitches and patterns – which, according to the local lore, are said to bear the signature of each individual knitter – but also the practical knitted workwear that was worn by the island’s fishermen. These were pieces that incorporated panels and patches to help them withstand the rigours of life working on the ocean.
“Every season, we’d be moving this workwear story on a little bit,” says Mr De Blácam, explaining how he slowly incorporated new shapes and silhouettes into the Inis Meáin range, often taking inspiration from old, black-and-white photographs of local men standing on the seafront, or particularly special hand-knitted garments that had been handed down through local families. This ongoing strand of research has resulted in some pleasingly unusual garments, such as the so-called “Pub Jacket”, a blazer-like cardigan that seems particularly aptly named, or, more recently, a new, reimagined fisherman’s sweater with cashmere inserts at the neck and under the arms (for warmth) and lanolin-soaked knitted patches on the back for reinforcement.
Over the years, the brand has also experimented with colour, inspired partly by the demands of the brand’s international clients and partly by the shades of the island itself, where vast expanses of grey limestone rock are offset by lush grassy greens and shocks of vibrant wildflowers in pink and yellow. “I’m very careful about using colours that are drawn from the landscape,” says Mr De Blácam. “I would be careful using pastels – I don’t think you see too many pastels in the winter landscape in Inis Meáin. Colour here is a bit more vibrant.”
It’s clear that, since 1976, Inis Meáin has not only proven intrepid when it comes to design, but also in getting its products out there. Strolling through the stock room at the brand’s workshop, it’s striking that every box of colourful garments seems to be going to a different, far-off country, to a different achingly hip specialist boutique (yes, MR PORTER is pleased to be one of them).
Yet, though the brand ships far and wide and sources quality yarns from abroad (the traditional craft of spinning is one that, sadly, has not proven as resilient as knitting), all its products are still made from start to finish here, on the island. In the manufacturing space, young graduates from the Limerick College of Art and Design and interns from the University of Ulster work on high-tech Japanese knitting machines to produce intricately cabled knit panels from premium yarns, such as cashmere, silk and linen – the mixes provide tactile, liquid textures. On the other side of the room, expert hand-knitters who have been learning the craft since birth, manually link the panels together to seamlessly finish the garments, before applying additional patches and details as required. In an industry where, typically, a garment might be sent to a different factory for each stage of its creation, it’s a rare thing to see a product coming together from scratch in a single space.
The variety of garments is also noteworthy – Inis Meáin works in an agile manner, producing short runs of clothing in a wide range of styles (Mr De Blácam estimates about 50 each season). The machines can be reprogrammed quickly to adapt to the current need, meaning the output of the factory changes day by day.
Of course, though it’s hard not to be impressed by the sheer industriousness on display here, Inis Meáin is also, still, a rather quiet and peaceful place, a small town with a single pub, shop, church and post office, and two schools attended by little more than a handful of students. When you broach the subject, as you eventually must, of what everyone is planning to do for the weekend, many of the staff and craftspeople in the factory admit they’ll be heading out to the mainland for shopping. If the knitting company has slowed the pace of emigration, it doesn’t seem to have stopped it entirely.
But as a visitor, striding round the cliffs with Mr De Blácam, listening to stories about the dry stone walls that raggedly criss-cross the island (built without cement, by balancing well-picked stones on top of each other – another traditional local craft), or how the scuba diving here is the best in Europe, you do start to wonder whether it wouldn’t be nice to just linger a little bit longer. It’s especially tempting in light of the latest addition to the family business portfolio – a high-end, ultra-locavore restaurant with guest rooms, also named Inis Meáin, that was launched by Mr De Blácam’s chef son Ruairí with his wife Marie-Thérèse in 2007. Here, everything you eat – from freshly caught whelks, lobster and crab to beetroot carpaccio and bitter leaves from the surrounding gardens – is sourced metres, if not feet, away. It’s hard to imagine, too, how you’d get tired with the view from the dining table: the sun setting over a wide limestone shoreline; the wide-open sea beyond.
For Mr De Blácam, there continues to be more to discover here, despite the island’s diminutive size. “I’m always walking,” he says. “I think as you get on in life you begin to realise things that you’d sort of scoot past maybe when you were younger. [But] more and more nowadays I seem to be seeing things that I didn’t see before.”
Inis Meáin Shawl-Collar Donegal Merino Wool and Cashmere-Blend Cardigan
Inis Meáin Donegal Merino Wool and Cashmere-Blend Sweater
Inis Meáin Two-Tone Textured Baby Alpaca and Silk-Blend Sweater
Inis Meáin Donegal Merino Wool and Cashmere-Blend Rollneck Sweater
Inis Meáin Two-Tone Ribbed Merino Wool Sweater
Inis Meáin Donegal Merino Wool and Cashmere-Blend Rollneck Sweater