While international fashion brands are busy appropriating our Aran sweater traditions, knitwear designed and made in Ireland is becoming more exciting every season. Look no further than these shores when choosing your trophy sweater. Deirdre McQuillan finds the best …
There is magic in Irish needles this season. Knitwear designed and (mostly) made in Ireland is having a fashion moment as the appeal of the Aran sweater, emblematic and tenacious symbol of this country, continues to reverberate internationally. It will notch up more recognition this month when the new movie, House of Gucci opens and a chunky white cable-knit sweater will have a starring part. Worn by Adam Driver in the title role, it is likely to have same impact as the one sported by Chris Evans in Knives Out in 2019, which went viral to the point where the word “sweater”, whispered, became a term of endearment.
Last year, Taylor Swift’s pristine white jumper on her new album cover further upped the traditional geansaí’s cool status and sent sales soaring. Khaite’s Monet knit (over €5,000 on Net-A-Porter), Vince’s “Donegal” knit and chic Marseille store Maison Empereur’s “pull irlandais” with shamrock detail, all drive home the Aran’s usually unacknowledged Irish provenance. Brunello Cucinelli’s cabled white cashmere turtle-neck pictured recently on tennis star Jack Draper (€2,690 on www.mytheresa.com) again referenced the Irish original.
The real star of the show is Inis Meáin Knitwear, located on the outer edge of Europe. It continues to wow the world of international menswear with a design philosophy that is modern and sophisticated but draws from its heritage of island life and traditions. Its sweaters, jackets and coats in carefully tailored shapes come in restrained patterns and landscape shades. One popular item, for example, is the Reverse Carpenter’s Jacket based on an old one found in a local house, reimagined with inside details outside.
Also targeting the menswear luxury market from Ireland is Edmund McNulty in Drogheda whose alpaca hoodies and merino jackets in subtle textures have earned him a devoted following in Japan. Elsewhere in rural Monaghan, where all his pieces are made to measure, Fintan Mulholland’s unusual constructions have earned a name for experimental knitwear using sustainably certified yarns.
Needles remain busy on the Aran Islands and elsewhere with several small craft operators clicking away. The new bright red or yellow Aran knits – some with fringing – from The Tweed Project in Galway, recently styled on TV presenter Angela Scanlon, are knitted by hand on Inis Oírr from Aran wool and made to order. Other classic white Aran handknits include Stable of Ireland’s version with blackberry stitch down the front (which cannot be replicated on a machine) or the handknit Oileán pullover by Elaine McBride, for sale in Cleo on Dublin’s Kildare Street, part of a range that also includes a handsome Skellig pullover by Mary Moriarty with intricate diamond, cable and trellis patterns and Trinity stitches.
Going back, the white Arans, a rich and dense composition of stitches in native báinín wool from Galway sheep as we know them, first made their appearance in the 1930s on the Aran Islands as ceremonial Communion wear for little boys. Later, larger versions for the local menfolk with their rugged look of muscular masculinity proved popular with everyone from Irish musicians to Hollywood stars. An original from the 1930s, maker unknown, was one of 100 objects considered the most powerful and enduring of 20th-century clothing in New York’s Museum of Modern Art exhibition “Is Fashion Modern?” in 2017.
Contrast embroidery Aran knit cardigan, Faye Dinsmore X Ciara Harrison, €750; www.fayedinsmore.com
With such a heritage from which to draw, it is no surprise that a thriving part of Irish fashion design is knitwear in all its variations, from new takes on the traditional Aran by Faye Dinsmore, knitted by hand in Donegal but with embroidered embellishment by textile designer Ciara Harrison, to the bold, avant garde hand and crochet knits from Galway designer Colin Burke. Burke’s beautiful, amplified shapes attract a lot of attention as do the jazzy, oversize jumbo-stitched cardigans of Hope McAuley in Portstewart that make such a strong visual impact on social media. In Donegal, Moss & Cable sources locally made yarns for contemporary takes on the traditional while Katie Ann McGuigan’s recent collection included Cliffs of Moher Arans and novel knits with gingham patterns.
Then there are the Irish cashmere queens, crowned famously by Lainey Keogh who wowed the world with her sexy cobwebby creations and Lucy Downes’ Sphere One’s “whisper-weight” cashmeres whose current muted tones are informed by the Wicklow landscape and whose outwardly simple shapes belie complicated techniques. Irish designers like Buffy Reid of &Daughter and Tim Ryan shine in London, both with very different aesthetics. Reid inherited her father Columba’s eye and vast knowledge of wool and her memories of growing up with handknits that improved with age informed her design approach. Her stylish first collection was snapped up by Netaporter. Self-taught Tipperary designer Tim Ryan carves his own niche with glamorous pieces that cross boundaries between jewelled decor, fringing, sequins and knit.
Lavender cashmere dress, €660; cardigan (tied around waist), €540; Polka cashmere sweater (draped on shoulders), €585; www.rosduke.com.
Streamlined separates are also a feature of the sleek cashmere offerings from Elaine Madigan (whose knits impressed US buyers in New York recently), Lucy Nagle, Ros Duke and Sian Jacobs, their comfort and style aimed at busy metropolitans for work or leisure wear. Pearl Reddington’s unisex cardigans and sweaters are cuffed with her signature neon stripes. Laura Chambers’ latest range, hand-loomed in Dublin, introduces silk velvet trousers to her rainbow-coloured off-the-shoulder knits for 1970s disco glamour. There’s a bit of rock ‘n’ roll too in Zoe Jordan’s graphic sweaters and boyish cashmere bomber jackets this season, no doubt inspired by a lifetime’s immersion in motorsports.
Such a buoyant and diverse variety of Irish knitwear is continually being refreshed by newcomers. From Kildare, Gabrielle Malone’s debut collection celebrating Irish heritage and craft in contemporary ways was part of Create 2021 at Brown Thomas. Louth sisters Ruth and Jane Flanagan, both of whom worked in lingerie, bring a particular lightness to their Style Ignite soft cotton knits. Margot Ferwerda, a Dutch weaver in Kerry who sells exclusively in Cleo, mixes wool and silk in handknits that are utterly original in their graphic and intricate patterns – she works entirely at her own pace.
Seashell Thistle cable-knit cardigan, €139.95; www.irelandseyeknitwear.com
The real heavyweights, though not in a literal sense, are the big Irish manufacturers like Fisherman Out of Ireland in Donegal, IrelandsEye in Dublin (where designer Aisling Duffy is certainly making her mark with a collection called Kindred) and Aran Woollen Mills in Westport who export all over the world. Increasingly, foreign buyers are looking for authenticity and quality pieces and export figures have grown in double digits. Young people, many influenced by Taylor Swift, wear their Irish sweaters proudly, often more so if hand-me-downs, in order to display their sustainability and slow fashion credentials.
Some knitwear operations like the Ekotree Craft and Visitor Centre in Doolin, part of the Burren Tourism Network, have become tourist destinations. Owner Diarmuid Neilan, an environmental scientist, offers tours where visitors can learn the history of Irish knitwear and browse what is made on site from responsibly sourced cashmere, superfine alpaca, lambswool, merino, mohair, linen and organic cotton. In Tuamgraney, birthplace of Edna O’Brien in east Clare, McKernans’ Woollen Mills provides tours of their studio and workshop in a former RIC barracks where some of the country’s zaniest scarves and shawls are knitted on machines or woven on old Hattersley looms. In Killaloe, Co Clare, McConnells exports knitwear all over the world.
The objects we make describe without words who we are. The wealth of talent in this country, so evident in the extent and diversity of our skills, our freewheeling creativity and ability to transform threads and yarns into covetable clothing, means Ireland has a lot to say. As winter closes in, we need look no further than our native shores for the comfort, softness and cocooning that knitwear brings. Being easy, elegant and timeless, there are desirable versions to flatter all shapes and suit all pockets.
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