Irish knitwear is not just about warmth. It’s about contemporary chic too. Modern designers are turning the cozy into the classy with contemporary twists on traditional designs.
Marilyn Monroe and Grace Kelly were Irish knitwear’s first international clothes horses. Now it’s Captain America’s Chris Evans (in “Knives Out”) and Taylor Swift, who wore an authentic Irish jumper on the cover of her “Folklore” album.
Irish knitwear is a very close-knit community with well-established family businesses supplying major international fashion houses and selling worldwide. Ireland Eye, name after the island of Dublin, is run by the O’Sullivan family.
Its sales and marketing manager is Kate O’Sullivan. “My paternal grandparents, James and Bernie, started the company in the garage of their home in 1988, and it’s now run by my father and uncle,” Kate explains. “James was an engineer, and during the 1980s, when there were a lot of knitting factories in Ireland, he worked for an organization similar to today’s government agency, Enterprise Ireland. He traveled all over the country, fixing knitting machines and training workers how to use them.
“Then one day, he thought: How about a knitting factory of my own? I’m one of thirteen grandchildren, and most of us have worked at Ireland Eye during our summer holidays.”
The company specializes in soft, hand-finished women’s and men’s collections that blend Ireland’s traditional knitwear heritage with contemporary styling. The key creator is Aisling Duff. “Most of our knitwear is made from 100 percent Merino wool, though we do some pieces blending Merino with five percent cashmere or cotton.”
Kate O’Sullivan studied microbiology at Trinity College. “I had a huge interest in science and ended up spending two years in medical sales. I enjoyed the work; I was always drawn to the family business.
Ireland Eye’s collection features playful riffs on traditional Irish craftsmanship, including loungewear leggings and a Biker jacket cardigan. Their Kilcoole Coatigan is a best-seller, proving that Irish knitwear is not just for deep winter. Dress it up or down, simply with a pair of trousers or denim or dress up and go from day to night with a skirt and boots. Coatigans are the perfect transitional wardrobe staple that will double up as a coat throughout cooler autumn days.
Dom Byrne set up The Sweater Shop in 1986 with his sister Breege. The shop was originally situated on Dublin’s Wicklow Street. Son, Paul, worked in finance in London, Melbourne, and Dublin before joining the family business. His sister, Laura, worked for Coca-Cola before returning to the family business. Dom’s two daughters-in-law, Katie and Eileen, are involved as well as his niece Alva who runs the two Galways outlets.
The shops’ stocks scarves, snoods, capes, throws, and ladies’ capes (162 Euros) from old mills like John Hanly & Co from Ballyartella on the river Nenagh, Co Tipperary. The family business goes back to 1893, and the mill was formerly a flour mill. Says Brian Hanly: “I am the fourth generation. My eldest son John is returning from working in Australia to join the company making him the first of the 5th generation to join us. My sister Sarah is our agent in London and looks after the U.K. market for us.
“We are a heritage brand and have been weaving for over a century. To succeed with such a brand in a consistent and evolving manner is a direct result of the dedication and ability of all our staff, past and present.
“Contemporary creativity is the lifeblood of John Hanly – and we constantly reinvent and add to our range, creating new color-ways with every season. Whether it’s our luxurious bedroom collection or our baby blanket range – there’s always something new to discover.” Hanly & Son offers free worldwide delivery on all orders.
“West End Knitwear,” based in Monasterevin in the Co. Kildare was originally established by Molly Cullen in 1957, after creating Aran designs with her mother and grandmother. Molly is the granddaughter of Kate O’Shea, who, in 1856, was the first craftswoman in Ireland to commercially market hand-knitted woolens.
Keeping the tradition alive, West End Knitwear Ltd has continued under Molly’s sons Paul and John and her grandsons, Niall and Barry Cullen. The Aran Crafts and Nua collections are manufactured to the highest standards using the finest quality materials Ireland can offer.