In August 2013, Ryan O’Rourke from The Wild Geese interviewed Anne about her passion and determination to see the genuine hand-knit Aran sweater survive. The transcript is below, but audio and more images can be viewed here.
The Wild Geese: Anne, give us a concise history on the rich tradition of Aran-style knitting.
Anne Ó Máille: I would say that the origins of the Aran knitting as we know it are quite recent. In the late 19th century when farm holdings were being divided up by the British government and being given back to the Irish tenants, they introduced a scheme called The Congested Districts Board. This was a worthwhile venture which set out to improve the condition of the land, to improve the conditions in the fisheries where the fishermen would have better boats and better fishing techniques and better nets. To advise them on the fishing, they encouraged skilled fishermen from Scotland to come to Ireland. These Scottish fishermen were accompanied by their wives, and in addition to the good nets and fish-curing techniques (and they were experts in that area), the women then passed on their expertise in cabled knitting to Irish women. The Irish women took that on-board, and it developed from there. As a whole, the Irish women were very good knitters, and they created an even more intricate set of stitches than we had ever seen before.
The commercial side of the business began in the late 1920s when a woman called Ida Grehan set up the country markets in Dublin and promoted the sale of the Aran sweater. It took off from there. There was interest in our sweaters from the United States and from Japan. One man, called Pádraig Ó Síocháin, developed markets in the United States, Canada, and Japan. He encouraged women to knit for him.
In March 1938 when the Ó Máille family founded the family business in Dominick Street here in Galway, they made contact with women who could knit. For the past 75 years, we have had women working for our family. We source the wool — mainly in Donegal — spun especially for us. Some of it is also spun in Kerry, by Kerry Woolen Mills, and we give out the yarn to our knitters. For the most part, I ask the knitters to knit sweaters that they like knitting — crew neck sweaters from size extra-small to size XXXL. They will go away and do that, then either post the sweaters back to me, or they will come in personally and hand them over; and then we start all over again — more yarn, more knitting. And that goes on all year long … we never stop. As a result, we fill our shelves with wonderful sweaters for everyone, and we have the largest collection of hand-knit sweaters in the country.
The Wild Geese: What makes the Aran knitting technique and the Aran sweater unique from any other?
Anne Ó Máille: I think the Aran knitting as we have developed it here is extremely complex. My knitters always amaze me, because they could knit some simple stitches, but they don’t. They knit only the highly technical, the highly complex. It’s not that they’re showing off or being ostentatious about it. … It’s just that they are remarkably good knitters and they can do it. The more difficult the cable, the greater the challenge for them. I’m a knitter myself, and I simply marvel at what they do and at their talent.
The Wild Geese: Ó Máille’s Original House of Style is famous for its association with the filming of the 1952 John Wayne classic, The Quiet Man, and I see the priceless photos from that time hung about the shop. How did the Ó Máille family get hooked up with the production crew?
Anne Ó Máille: By the time the film’s director, John Ford, came here to make the film in 1951, the Ó Máilles were very well established in Dominick Street as tailors and seamstresses. They also had acquired a very large collection of hand-woven tweed from Donegal. Pádraig Ó Máille was great at sourcing tweed and keeping that collection together. So they were ready to make the clothes when they were asked to do so by John Ford. Here in the shop we still have the sewing machine on which “Auntie Sis” (as she was known) — Máire Ni Mháille — made all of Maureen O’Hara’s outfits for the film. She was transported to Ashford Castle by Rolls Royce, where the main filming took place, to do all the fittings for Maureen O’Hara, but she made absolutely no fuss about it — she actually told no one where she had been or what she was doing. And then some of our tailors — most importantly, Paddy O’Connor and John Small — made clothes for the other members of the cast. John Small made a waistcoat for John Wayne. Paddy O’Connor made a lovely jacket for John Wayne, which he wore all the time he was in Ireland. And that’s the jacket which is featured here in the photo here in the shop. The jacket was made from a very, very fine “pepper and salt” cloth woven in Donegal. It’s an unusual jacket. At the back there’s a half-belt like a Norfolk jacket, but towards the front there is no belt, and there are two great pockets called “bellows pockets.” The tailoring was magnificent, and Paddy O’Connor was very proud of it. It’s still a talking point.
The Wild Geese: Is genuine Aran knitting a dying art?
Anne Ó Máille: I’m very worried about the future. As my knitters grow older, I realize that only two people under the age of 60 are knitting for me, and then there’s one magical girl who’s maybe 40. Everyone else is older than 60. Many of them are in their 70s, and I know that many of them are in their 80s. We don’t talk about age very much, because it’s not polite; but I’m just so happy that they continue to knit into their 80s. But, I do not have any knitting force of talented women coming up to fill their places. And that tells its own story.
The Wild Geese: How many knitters of the true old Aran style would you estimate Ireland has at this moment?
Anne Ó Máille: I think there are hundreds of women still doing that, and I’m particularly lucky with the group that I know, because they never stray from the very elaborate, highly technical Aran style. The way in which they finish their garments is absolutely remarkable. They take such pride in every buttonhole that’s made, every detail, and the casting on and casting off. They are artists in their own right.
The Wild Geese: Is there room for innovation within the Aran style, or is it locked into an established standard?
Anne Ó Máille: Over the years, we have seen designers take an interest in the Aran sweater and try to redesign it. I have never liked that concept. I tried once or twice and took some pieces from a designer, but they didn’t sell well for me. People were saying, “What we really want are the old-fashioned sweaters with the old-fashioned ‘honeycomb’ and ‘tree of life’ stitches.” They like them to be made in a certain way where the sleeves are set in a raglan sleeve. They want a traditional jacket with pockets. My customers don’t want me to change.
The Wild Geese: Approximately how long would it take to complete a hand-knit sweater? How many stitches would go into the average Aran sweater?
Anne Ó Máille: It’s very difficult to say because most of my knitters will knit only for a couple hours every day. It’s tiring. It’s stressful on the shoulder muscles and on the arms. They will knit, and then they’ll stop and take a rest. In terms of the number of stitches, someone might have 150 stitches on their needles, knitting that over and back, changing the pattern all the time. That’s the test of a knitter. How do you manage that? It’s a big undertaking. And then by the time the knitter is knitting the neckline, they are sitting with two and one-half pounds of yarn in their hands. We’re talking thousands upon thousands of stitches in every sweater. But, I never deal with the subject in terms of time. I have two or three knitters who can knit one sweater every ten days. That is amazing. Everyone else takes longer. They take weeks, and that is fine. A perfect garment comes to me and to my customers after that. That’s the most important thing.
The Wild Geese: Can you foresee a time when there are no more knitters of the true Aran style?
Anne Ó Máille: I’m afraid so. I’ve been teaching knitting, and teaching people how to knit the individual stitches. My aim is to leave the knowledge there for future generations. With changes in Irish society, young women are going to college and getting great jobs if they’re lucky. They’re out in the world, and many of them have great social lives. But they don’t have the time to devote to the knitting of a serious sweater. Their mothers and their aunts who did knit at home did not have those educational opportunities. They were family women … they raised their families, they stayed at home. And just to make a little bit of extra money, they sat down and knitted at night. That’s all changed now, and we have to face up to the fact that society is different.
We’re talking about a matter of years. I’ve been saying for a long time, “Oh, this is it. There’s about five years left.” Now, I’ve extended that several time, but there will come a time. That being said, I’ve noticed some changes on the (Aran) islands. Some of the young women who have been away have now come back, and they’re settled now. They’re married and they have children, and they’re making their livelihoods there on the islands. I’m hoping that they will be able to keep some of the tradition going.