Family skill survives hi-tech knitting age

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The Independent Online
Kathleen Breslin's mother Elizabeth died this year at 92. For 82 of those years she knitted intricately fashioned and much- prized Aran fishermen's sweaters, a tradition carried on by five of her daughters.

Now, the small local firm, which, since the late 1950s, has exported these quintessentially cottage-industry products to Europe, the United States, Australia and the Far East, has brought the world's most sophisticated computer-knitting technology to its remote rural home on the Atlantic coast of Donegal.

John Molloy & Co, of Ardmura, turn out 1,100 fine- stitched linen and cotton sweaters a week, working from the designs on a three-inch disc, using four computer-controlled Japanese knitting machines costing IR pounds 320,000 ( pounds 304,000). These are sent to the high-fashion women's markets in the US and Germany.

Molloy's, with a full-time workforce in-house of 48, has retained the two earlier stages of knitting technology - hand knitting and hand-loom - in response to demand, increasingly from Continental Europeans, for the traditional heavy Aran.

The firm, established by John Molloy, grew on export sales to the US, where the Irish folk singers the Clancy Brothers and others made the Aran fashionable. Now run by John Molloy's sons Michael and Brendan, the business exports 70 per cent of production. Every autumn, John travels to Japan where they have been building up sales of Irish woollens gradually for the past 20 years.

More hybrid designs are available from other manufacturers, but Molloy's has chosen to specialise in classic designs in near-white and charcoal grey. The best have a 'good firm feel', Michael said, in contrast to the looser knit of cheaper examples. The highest quality hand-knits typically cost around IR pounds 75 ( pounds 71), compared with IR pounds 35 ( pounds 33) for the machine-made versions.

The Molloys' supply comes from 1,200 home knitters scattered across Donegal, Derry and Tyrone. The most skilful take roughly 40 hours to knit a sweater, each normally making one size only, supplied in separate panels, which the company assembles with its own technique to ensure durable joins. 'Any one of our knitters can pick her own garment out. Every family had their own stitch, or deviation in the stitching,' Michael Molloy said. This factor, as much as the pattern, has enabled West of Ireland families down the centuries to identify a fisherman's body that has been in the sea for a long time.

Michael Molloy maintains: 'There's no limitation to what you can do with hand knits.' The drawback is that because of the knitting time required, output cannot be suddenly lifted to meet demand. 'It's the one industry you cannot switch on and off,' he said.

Among Molloy's suppliers are two men, a reminder of an earlier period when men knitted with goose quills, and women's handiwork was only recognised as far as making fishing nets.

'We had a blind man once used to knit for us,' Michael Molloy said. 'He was stitch perfect.'

(Photograph omitted)