How to wear a woollen work of art

Knitwear designers have moved on from the traditional Aran sweater

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With a sheep population in Ireland almost as great as the human one, we should know a lot about wool. Though the traditional and familiar emblem of Ireland is the Aran sweater, today’s cosmopolitan knits are a far cry from their rural origins on the west coast. Young Irish knitwear designers draw from this deeply embedded craft heritage today in new and imaginative ways, as the recent Showcase knitwear project at the RDS in Ballsbridge highlighted

Two recent arrivals on the Irish knitwear scene are designers Ros Duke and Liadan Aiken – each in their own way creating collections that use both machine and handknitting skills and different aesthetic approaches.

Duke graduated from the National College of Art & Design with a knitwear collection and went on to complete a course in innovative pattern cutting at Central St Martins in London. Following periods with designers Lucy Downes and Lainey Keogh, she worked with John Rocha for 10 years as a pattern maker on his intricate craft-based collections.

She left to concentrate on her growing family, but the need to remain creative has been foremost, and last year she launched her first collection at Create in Brown Thomas. It was fresh and colourful, shaped and contoured in luxury yarns.

Her new collection, in a fine gauge cashmere, is made in Lucan and is dependent on the colours she can source in such slender yarns and the demands that it makes on the knitters. “I am asking them to go as far as they can,” she says.

Like Duke, Liadain Aiken wants to grow organically and slowly. From Ardee, Co Louth, she learned to knit at the age of six, and uses a Knitmaster machine to create her little bobble hats in merino (sold in Scout on Essex Street), along with landscape sweaters, bottle warmers and baby blankets.

She has always been interested in sustainability, and her career has taken her from designing kitchens in Ireland to living in New Zealand, then completing a course in dressmaking in New York and later in the Grafton Academy under the tutelage of Sarah Foy.

“I have always been interested in texture and landscape,” she says.

A 10-week knitwear course in Brighton helped her to master different techniques and she followed this with a two-month internship with luxury knitwear label Leutton Postle in the UK. Their design approach, embracing colour, unusual surface texture and rich pattern, was a big influence.

Back in Ireland in 2013, she started selling in the Christmas markets and worked on mastering the intarsia technique. “Each row is torture, it is so pernickety”, she says.

For the past two years she has combined knitting with working on costume with Joan Bergin on the Viking series, as well as teaching at The Constant Knitter in Francis Street.

She supplies Scout with lambswool hats and baby blankets, but is ready to take her work to another level, making to order and producing limited runs. Her Poolbeg stacks, for instance, cost €250 framed, her landscape sweaters are €300 and baby blankets with intarsia thrush image from €200 upwards.

Ros Duke’s spring summer collection in 100 per cent cashmere from Loro Piana in Italy is available at Clothes Peg in Sutton, Dublin. Some pieces from her previous collection are on sale at the new So Collective in Kildare Village. See rosduke.com

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