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 generations 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.”