Meet the Maker: Inis Meáin

Yes, Inis Meáin may not be the most pronunciation-friendly name for a clothing label, but to go by any other title would defeat the company’s purpose. The maker of hand-finished Irish sweaters was founded in 1976 on the island of the same name, with the express mission of preserving a uniquely Irish art.

Inis Meáin is the middle of the three Aran islands (indeed, its name means “middle island” in Gaelic) that sit some 30 miles from Ireland’s West Coat. Historically, it was the least accessible of the already remote island chain and was only reachable by rowboat for most of the 20th century. This preserved its traditional culture from outside influence, and earned it visitations from W.B. Yeats, J.M. Synge and other Irish Literary Revival figures in search of authentic Gaelic language and folk traditions.

However, the same isolation that conserved its culture had made it economically stagnate, leading to outward migration that threatened its survival as a community. Tarlach de Blácam, who’d studied Celtic Languages at Trinity College in Dublin before moving to the island in 1973 with his wife Áine Ní Chonghaile, saw an opportunity to create jobs and preserve local traditions at once.

As its rocky terrain made it unsuitable for agriculture, Inis Meáin’s residents had long relied on fishing as a food source. And due to the harsh conditions of the North Atlantic Ocean, these fishermen required workwear that was warm and durable. In a time before performance fabrics and wide-spread industrialization, that meant handknit sweaters, often made by the fishermen’s wives at home. With a mind to harness this tradition and bring it to the outside world, Blácam set up a small factory with a half-dozen knitting machines, and the Inis Meáin Knitting Company was born.

45 years later, Inis Meáin is still making its hand-finished sweaters on the island, and selling them to some of the world’s top men’s clothing shops and websites in the world (including this one). We’re proud to stock a variety of Inis Meáin sweaters, including a number of pieces we’ve produced in collaboration with the maker.

These include its popular Carpenter’s Jacket in a Donegal-flecked merino-cashmere blend (yes, it’s a bit softer and more lux that what the Aran Islands carpenters of yore might have worn, but based on a vintage piece) and its ever-popular Mairtin Beag sweater. Named after a local who Blácam says was “about the best dressed man on the island” thanks to his wife’s impressive knitting skills, the piece is modeled after an actual sweater worn by Beag and marked by an impressive range of decoration above the chest but plain and clean below. 

The original Martin Beag

Blácam is also quick to dispel longstanding myths surrounding the Aran sweater, chiefly that fishermen were taking to the seas in snow-white sweaters marked with elaborately knit cables, diamonds, trellises and other patterns. Indeed, such beautifully designed sweaters were—and through Inis Meáin, continue— to be made on the island, but inhabitants wore such knits as their “Sunday Best,” not their fishing clothes.

“The fishermen were wearing something totally different and that’s been ignored until we started to delve into the archives and find all of these more restrained knits that were made for personal use,” Blácam says.

Inis Meáin might be steeped in the past—and consults a considerable archive of vintage sweaters when creating new designs—but it isn’t against innovation. In particular, Blácam has been working more cashmere into their recent collections, creating pieces that may be workwear-inspired but “feel absolutely glorious.” 

After close to 50 years of business, it’s safe to say that Inis Meáin succeeded, but not by doing things the easy way. And if Blácam’s to be taken at his word, it seems a smart bet that the company will see another 50, still operating on the remote island that gives its clothing meaning.

“I preach design and quality in this factory every day,” Blácam says. “We’re not doing massive product, we’re not doing tons of anything, we’re doing something that’s special.”

Style is synonymus with originality-how you transmute the things you've seen into something you haven't.

Jay Fielden