One of Ire­land’s great­est ex­ports, the Aran sweater, is hav­ing a mo­ment

The Globe and Mail (BC Edition) - - PURSUITS -

The sweater of the sea­son is the Aran knit. But, as Jeremy Freed notes, the Ir­ish jumper has been pop­u­lar for more than a cen­tury

The Aran Is­lands are a trio of rocky out­crop­pings in the mouth of Gal­way Bay whose high cliffs and slate-coloured skies present a pic­ture-post­card vi­sion of rugged Ir­ish beauty. With barely a thou­sand res­i­dents, these re­mote isles carry more than their share of cul­tural heft, fea­tur­ing promi­nently in the work of nov­el­ists, po­ets and play­wrights such as James Joyce, Sea­mus Heaney and Martin McDon­agh. The is­lands’ most fa­mous achieve­ment, how­ever, is some­thing far more pedes­trian: a sweater.

Knit from heavy-gauge yarn in a wide range of elab­o­rate stitches and pat­terns, the Aran sweater is ideally suited for the cool, damp cli­mate of the Isles, and is as un­mis­tak­ably Ir­ish as Guin­ness and lamb stew. While sev­eral North­ern Euro­pean is­lands have their own sig­na­ture pullover – the Fair Isles, the Shet­lands, Ice­land – the long-stand­ing pop­u­lar­ity and cul­tural im­pact of the Aran sweater eclipses them all. From Steve McQueen to Alexan­der McQueen, from Mar­i­lyn Mon­roe to Michael Kors, this hum­ble jumper has held its place as a fash­ion­able wardrobe sta­ple for the bet­ter part of a cen­tury.

“It all started way back over 100 years ago,” says Tar­lach de Bla­cam, the founder and cre­ative di­rec­tor of Inis Meain, a com­pany named for the Aran is­land on which it makes its tra­di­tional sweaters. Fol­low­ing the Ir­ish famine of the 1840s, the Bri­tish at­tempted to help hard-hit com­mu­ni­ties in­clud­ing the Aran Is­lands move away from sub­sis­tence farm­ing and into cot­tage in­dus­tries such as fish­ing and knit­ting. “Right through the begin­ning of the 20th cen­tury, all of the women in the fam­ily knit­ted,” says de Bla­cam, who started Inis Meain in 1976 as a means to cre­ate much-needed em­ploy­ment on the is­land and pre­serve its rich tex­tile tra­di­tion.

While Inis Meain’s sweaters are knit on ma­chines, de Bla­cam still re­lies heav­ily on ex­per­tise passed down through gen­era- tions of Aran knit­ters to in­spire his de­signs. “Fifty years ago, 90 per cent of what the is­lan­ders wore would have been home­made,” he says. “I’m amazed at the stuff the knit­ters here can dig up and show me.”

De­spite the fact that the iconic cream-coloured ca­ble knit re­mains one of their most pop­u­lar of­fer­ings, Inis Meain’s col­lec­tions are con­stantly evolv­ing to in­clude a wide range of colours, de­signs and fi­bres, in­clud­ing a hand­some “pub jacket” cardi­gan in soft linen yarn and a beair­tini crew­neck in a re­peat­ing pat­tern rem­i­nis­cent of tiny bun­dles of wheat. “Au­then­tic­ity is ev­ery­thing,” de Bla­cam says. “We delve into the archives and use stitches in new and dif­fer­ent ways, but the au­then­tic­ity is hugely im­por­tant to us.”

This com­bi­na­tion of tra­di­tional de­sign and mod­ern sen­si­bil­ity has earned Inis Meain a place on the racks of fash­ion­able re­tail­ers from Todd Sny­der in New York to Beams in Tokyo, but they’re by no means the only ones cap­i­tal­iz­ing on the pop­u­lar­ity of the Aran sweater. Across the pond, Amer­i­can brands such as L.L. Bean and Ralph Lau­ren both con­sis­tently of­fer mul­ti­ple vari­a­tions of ca­bled knits in their col­lec­tions. Thom Browne, mean­while, rein­ter­preted the Aran sweater in a wide, boxy sil­hou­ette for fall/win­ter 2018, us­ing the same ca­ble stitch on cozy hats and scarves.

“I’ve al­ways been drawn to Arans,” says Mar­cus Wain­wright, the founder and de­signer of New York-based brand Rag & Bone, who also em­braced the Aran this sea­son. “I grew up wear­ing them, and I like heavy itchy sweaters.” While Wain­wright grew up in Eng­land, his brand was built on high-qual­ity, mod­ern ver­sions of Amer­i­can clas­sics such as jeans and T-shirts. As with those pieces, he says, the chal­lenge is keep­ing its spirit in­tact while up­dat­ing it for mod­ern tastes. “We’re not in the busi­ness of mak­ing repli­cas of things,” he says. “We’ve al­ways thought you can take an iconic gar­ment and make it bet­ter for 2018.”

The re­sult of Wain­wright’s up­date is Rag & Bone’s Trevor Aran Crew, which, with its loose knit, ivory-coloured wool, looks very much like its tra­di­tional fore­bears at a glance. To set his cre­ation apart, Wain­wright added polyester to the blend for soft­ness and slimmed down the sil­hou­ette, then wove in a sub­tle thread of re­flec­tive ma­te­rial. “Rag & Bone is of­ten about the de­tails that you dis­cover af­ter the fact,” he says of this un­usual ad­di­tion. “You can’t see the re­flec­tive stitch with the naked eye, but if you take a pic­ture of it with a flash or a phone it’s re­ally bright. It’s a nice tech­ni­cal de­tail.”

Rag & Bone’s un­tra­di­tional take pro­vides a clue to the Aran’s longevity in fash­ion. Like jeans and T-shirts, the Aran sweater is a sim­ple, func­tional piece of work­wear that lends it­self to in­fi­nite vari­a­tion and in­ter­pre­ta­tions. By con­stantly adapt­ing to chang­ing tastes and tech­nolo­gies, it al­ways has some­thing new to of­fer in ad­di­tion to warmth. This is as true on the streets of New York as it is on the rocky shores of Inis Meain. “When they come to the Aran is­lands peo­ple ex­pect to find a tra­di­tional eth­nic gar­ment,” de Bla­cam says. “We try to ex­plain that we still have it, but we’ve moved on quite a bit.”

PHO­TOS COUR­TESY OF INIS MEAIN, RAG & BONE

Top and above right: Inis Meain, a com­pany named for the Aran is­land on which its tra­di­tional sweaters are made, knits gar­ments on ma­chines, but draws de­signs from the tra­di­tions of Aran knit­ters. Above: Rag & Bone of­fers an un­tra­di­tional take on the Aran art.

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