Aran Woollen Mills – A Stitch Back in Time

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Aran Islands – A Stitch Back in Time

On a visit to Ireland last May, we made it to the lovely town of Westport, situated along the Wild Atlantic Way in County Mayo. This town, with its stone bridges and tree-lined streets, and in the shadows of Croagh Patrick, is a must see if you are in the north west coast of Ireland. It also happens to be the home of one of our sweater suppliers, Aran Woollen Mills (formerly Carraig Donn). The sales director, Kieran Costello, was more than a gracious host in giving us a tour of the impressive facility, as well as treating us to a delicious lunch in town, along with owner Vincent Hughes and his daughter.

The beginnings of Aran Woollen Mills actually go back more than 50 years to the nearby Aran Islands (see our previous blog: Aran Islands – The Right Choice ). Vincent is part of a large family, and his parents, looking to keep the children occupied while on the Aran Islands over the summer break, put them to work selling their homemade sweaters to the throngs of tourists. Since those humble beginnings in 1965, the family has grown Aran Woollen Mills into Ireland’s largest home-based knitwear manufacturer.

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The Town of Westport in County Mayo

A walk through the manufacturing facility gives one a great appreciation for the amount of work that goes into making the sweaters we sell.  Each piece is a testimony to the skill and craftsmanship associated with the entire process, from the design team to the quality control inspector. Working almost exclusively with natural materials, the three designers on staff don’t have to travel far for their ideas. Westport is surrounded by some of the most stunning scenery imaginable and provides an unlimited source of inspiration to the team.

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Craogh Patrick – Inspiration closeby

While the sweaters themselves are no longer knitted by hand (machines knit the six to eight individual sections of the sweater), Carraig Blog5we were amazed at how many craftspeople are actually involved in the process. About 15 workers play a major role in producing one sweater — from a sizer, to the people assembling each individual section that comes off the machine into a wearable garment, to creating the neck line, to putting on the zipper and/or buttons, to sewing on the label, and finally to the packaging.

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Lest I forget, there are at least three to four quality control stations along the production process, where each garment is set on a light board. The background light allows specially trained workers to detect even a minor flaw, in which case the sweater is pulled from the process for repair or discard. Carraig Blog4When I say specially trained workers, some who have been there for decades, I am not joking. We looked at a piece as it was placed on the light board and, to our untrained eye, everything looked perfect. To our surprise, a minute flaw was pointed out, and the sweater was flagged for further work.

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A literal Stitch Back in Time

While lunch afforded us the opportunity to hear family stories from a generation ago, our tour gave us an even greater appreciation for the amount of work that is required to produce even one sweater to sell. Not only are there many sets of eyes looking at and many hands touching each one, every stitch is steeped in symbolism from the surrounding countryside, from the fisherman’s cable (representing safety and good luck) to the honeycomb (a just reward for hard work).

And you, our customer, are the beneficiary of that hard work. Please check out our different styles of Aran sweaters, both for women and men, and the next time you put on a genuine Aran Woollen Mills sweater, you’ll appreciate the large team of craftsmen who literally had a hand in it.

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Aran Woollen Mills One-Button Classic

Enjoy a Classic,

Doug

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Aran Islands – The Right Choice

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There are many sightseeing options when visiting the central western side of the Emerald Isle. The Cliffs of Moher, The Burren, and Connemara National Park are all on a must-see list. If you can squeeze it in, a visit to one of the Aran Islands should also be high on the list. It is a full-day commitment due to the fact that it is accessible only by ferry (or small plane), but it is a special day, where you step back in time to a different era.

The Aran Islands are three rocky isles guarding the mouth of Galway Bay. We visited the largest island, Inishmore, mainly because it was the most convenient to get to, and it is also home to the prehistoric fort of Dún Aonghasa, perched on top of a high cliff. After a 30-minute car ride from Galway to the ferry terminal, and a 30-minute ferry ride, we arrived at the small village of Kilronan. Inishmore is inhabited by less than 1,000 residents, very few of whom speak English. The signs are all in Irish, but that only adds to its charm and fun. While you can hire a taxi or horse-drawn carriage to travel around the island, we rented bikes for the day, which was an enjoyable way to tour this small island.

aran-island-blog-1.jpgBiking the island can be strenuous, but it allows an intimate introduction to the Aran Islands. You can stop and say hello to the animals. We were fortunate enough to come across a foal and its mother, the afterbirth not far away, indicating that this baby horse was probably less than 12 hours old. Aran-Island-Blog-2

Biking also allowed us to visit and explore the craggy shore line. The island is an extension of the Burren. The terrain of the island is composed of limestone pavements with crisscrossing cracks known as “grikes,” leaving isolated rocks called “clints.” A tough and challenging walk for sure, but fun for discovering small ocean life.Aran-Island-Blog-3

Biking also allowed us to view close up the famous stone walls that permeate the entire island, and give rise to the patterns found on the Aran Island sweaters. Of course, it is also fun to see the many thatched roof cottages that dot the island as well.Aran-Island-Blog12
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The highlight of our day was a visit to Fort Dún Aonghasa. No bikes are allowed at the fort; the uphill pedal probably would have been impossible anyway. A 14-acre site, the remains of the fort consist of three terraced walls perched on the edge of a 300 foot-high cliff. The views from it are breathtakingly spectacular. Excavations indicate that people had been living at the hill top from about 1500 BC.
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One fact I found amusing was that there was a fence that prevented a person from wondering off the fort property onto neighboring farm land, but no barrier that prevented someone from falling 3oo feet straight down into the ocean! Aran-Island-Blog-6Not far from the fort, people actually do dive off the cliffs into the Worm Hole, a naturally formed, rectangular-shaped pool which hosts several cliff diving competitions. Not for the faint of heart, but it would be fun to watch.Aran-Island-Blog13

As there is only one return ferry to the mainland at the end of the day, a leisurely bike ride can get a little more harried as the day progresses. Heading back to the harbor, we quickly stopped at the medieval ruins of the Seven Churches, Aran-Islands-Blog14took more pictures of the stone walls and cottages, and of course had to see the some of the residents making the most famous export of the island, the famous Aran knit sweaters. In fact, one of our sweater suppliers, Carraig Donn, got its start right here on Inishmore, but I will tell that story in my next blog. Of course, if you can’t visit the island personally, you can always check out our selection of Aran sweaters (men’s and women’s) as they are made in and come directly from Ireland.Aran-Islands-Blog15

After arriving back in our hotel after an exhausting yet exhilarating day on Inishmore, we knew we had made the right choice. A day on the Aran Islands is truly a special day.

 

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Doug