Aran Island outpost with designs on global knitwear market
The Inis Meáin Knitting Company supplies top stores but is planning to expand further
Tarlach de Blácam of the Inis Meáin Knitting Company: “There’s huge potential for us in online sales but we need decent broadband and, like others in rural Ireland, we feel neglected”
“Being a small country on the edge of Europe it was hard enough, but being based on an island on the edge of Ireland presented even greater challenges,” says de Blácam.
Back then, de Blácam spent a lot of time going round with a suitcase full of product. He went to New York and London with garments made with rough Irish wool.
“The quality of the average Irish yarn was rough and tough and really more suited to making carpets than garments,” he says. “The first thing we were told by the top-end retailers was that we needed to source softer yarns.”
The company duly began to source its raw materials abroad: alpaca wool from South America and the finest cashmere yarns from Italy.
The company’s location in the Aran Islands with the Atlantic crashing at its back door and the heritage of the island’s knitting make for a good marketing yarn, but the sourcing of quality fibres and the focus on design is a methodology that has stood Inis Meáin in good stead.
“It doesn’t matter about the background story: if the product is not right, the product won’t sell,” says de Blácam.
“In the early days it was difficult for us to stick to our guns and not go down the volume route when we needed to fill the order book and keep people working. We always stuck to our guns with the attitude that we had a special product that had to be in an area that is of higher value.”
These days, the company’s products are stocked in more than 150 stores worldwide, including Barneys in New York, Isetan Mitsukoshi in Tokyo and Anderson & Sheppard in London.
Recent consumer demand for authenticity and origin has worked in the company’s favour.
“Provenance is now very important in the garment industry,” says de Blácam. “Everybody wants something made in the UK, Ireland and Scotland. Also there is the rise of menswear fashion which has been seeing huge leaps – young men are really looking at what they’re wearing and are willing to spend on it too.”
While he may have begun by lugging a suitcase around, de Blácam now shows Inis Meáin products at one of the world’s leading menswear expos, Pitti Uomo in Florence, alongside brands such as Aquascutum, Cerutti, Grenson and Gant.
“We focus mainly on menswear,” says de Blácam. “We are the only Irish company that participates in Pitti Uomo where we showcase twice a year. It’s a huge exercise for us where we meet European, Japanese and US clients from the very best stores.
“It’s probably quite a surprise to people that we create such a sophisticated product. Most people expect to come to a location like this and find something very rustic and rural. We go against the grain of what the rest of the Irish knitwear market has been doing whereby a lot of the ‘Irish’ knitwear is actually imported.”
Establishing the business was a steep learning curve for the couple, neither of whom came from design backgrounds.
De Blácam’s wife and co-founder Áine Ní Chonghaile is a native of Inis Meáin. She worked as a teacher in Dublin in the 1970s while de Blácam was a Celtic Language scholar at Trinity College. The couple married in 1973 and moved to the island.
At the time, they received government support establish the business which would keep employment on the island and stem the flow of emigration. The couple purchased some knitting machines and began to examine ways to interpret the knitting and design culture of the island for a new consumer.
Despite drawing on an ancient heritage the company is very much a modern one. De Blácam says they are on their third generation of electronically controlled automatic knitting machines – sophisticated pieces of kit that require great skill to operate.
“We do 60 to 100 styles per season and every size within that style requires a different programme so there’s a huge amount of programming work involved,” he says.
Inis Meáin employs 18 staff – a number which has been fairly consistent over the years – with at least three employees working there since the 1970s.
One reason the company is so popular is that it has bespoke designs that can be custom-made to suit the individual retailer.
“If you buy a piece of Inis Meáin knitwear, you won’t find that design anywhere else,” says de Blácam who has successfully challenged the use of his trademark logo – three men carrying a currach – by other garment manufacturers.
The designs themselves are “inspired by tradition but not in awe of it, not slavishly reproducing it”.
“There is a lot more to the repertoire of the local knitters here than the typical Aran sweater which was, in fact, not the fisherman sweater everyone thinks it is. It was more for Sunday best and for kids for their Communion or Confirmation.”
As they are located on Inis Meáin, challenges such as transport and communications have always been an issue. A subsequently cancelled tender last year sought to replace the current fixed-wing aircraft service with helicopters. The tender was pulled following strong lobbying from islanders and a new tender is currently seeking expressions of interest before June.
“The air service here was threatened last year and that would impact hugely on our business,” says de Blácam. “In the winter we rely on the air service to move personnel, machinery parts, samples and bulk shipments by air to the mainland where we then work with UPS or DHL on their five-day service to Europe and North America.”
Broadband or rather the lack of a powerful internet connection is a further challenge to the company which communicates with shops worldwide and which hopes to grow its online business still further.
“The big issue for us is the fact that the broadband is so poor. I don’t know what has happened to the National Broadband Plan. There’s huge potential for us in terms of online sales but we really need decent broadband and, like others in rural Ireland, we feel very neglected,” he says.
Over a 35-year period, de Blácam has built up close relationships with many of his retail stockists. The Inis Meáin label represents one of the best-selling products in the menswear section of Barneys in New York. “Our business there has grown substantially and the company is just opening a new store in the Meatpacking District where I first met one of the founding members of the Pressman family 35 years ago,” he says.
The company also enjoys a good relationship with the University of Ulster, particularly with its fashion and knitwear department and lecturer Alison Gault. A steady trickle of innovative and enthusiastic design students have interned and worked at the company.
Twenty-five or 30 years ago, there wasn’t really a market in Ireland for the products of Inis Meáin but now small retailers here are starting to buy the product which is aimed at a consumer with a higher disposable income; Michael Barrie and Scout in Dublin, Galvin’s Menswear in Mullingar and The Bureau in Belfast are just some of the retailers whose clients are purchasing its products.
The future of the business will see an increased focus on online sales and on exclusivity. “I see the business growing nicely into the future through higher value rather than higher volume,” says de Blácam. “It’s about higher value, higher quality and more expensive fibres.”