Inis Meain and Inishmaan Island

At the end of the 19th century, Irish playwright John Millington Synge made a number of trips to the Aran islands. He was encouraged by his friend William Butler Yeats, who told him to “Live there as one of the people themselves express a life that has never found expression.” Synge spent his first summer there in 1897, after being diagnosed with Hodgkin’s disease, and died seven years after his final visit in 1902. Before passing, he documented his trips in a book simply titled The Aran Islands.

The Aran Islands is not a dry read. Much of it is dedicated to describing the wet climate and desolate environment the islanders face. “Grey floods of water” sweep over the limestone, “making at times wild torrents on the road,” which wrap over the low hills. Throughout the book, the reader feels waterlogged and deafened by the ever-roaring sea. Despite these harsh conditions, life seems peaceful and idyllic. Synge describes the fashion on Inishmaan (the middle of the three islands) as having a simplicity that helped elevate the local air of beauty. “The women wear red petticoats and jackets of the island wool stained with madder,” he writes, “to which they usually add a plaid shawl twisted around their chests and tied at the back.”

It’s this island that knitwear brand Inis Meáin inhabits and represents. For example, basketweave sweaters are inspired by the ancient stonewalls used to divide the land for agricultural purposes, and their undyed, natural yarns are reminiscent of those imposing limestone cliffs that Synge described over a hundred years ago. Certain details – such open plackets cut into crewnecks – are directly borrowed from old sweaters pulled out of sheds and cottages.

Many have lamented that the world is being homogenized through globalization. The main Aran island, Inishmore, for example, has a large knitwear industry with sweaters that are nearly indistinguishable from any mall brand’s. Inishmaan, on the other hand, seems to have been spared this, being so isolated and difficult to access (there are no safe, natural harbors, and the island is populated by less than 200 people). As such, it’s been able to preserve its own unique, regional ways of doing things - ways described in John Millington Synge’s mesmerizing book and preserved in Inis Meáin’s beautiful knitwear.

Quality content, like quality clothing, ages well. This article first appeared on the No Man blog in August 2013. 

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