As they say, lockdown has brought us back to basics, and one of the basics that has soared in popularity since the pandemic began has been the art of knitting.
According to Forbes, the global sales for wool kits from Spanish-based company, We Are Knitters, grew more than 75% weekly when the pandemic began last year. Their Instagram followers doubled to more than 600,000, while Wool and the Gang, which sells similar beginner to intermediate knitting kits saw a similar spike, with nearly half a million followers on their Instagram page alone.
Joan Lucey of Vibes and Scribes fabric shop in Cork city says that she has noticed a huge increase in wool sales since the pandemic began here in Ireland, with many suppliers struggling to keep stock in.
“People have been ordering a lot more fabric online since lockdown, but wool has been enormous, especially since Christmas. People have gone absolutely crazy with it. There isn’t a house in Ireland where people aren’t knitting at the moment,” she says.
“There has been a natural increase in knitting over the last 10 or 15 years but it has really exploded since March. We had people ringing and emailing saying they wanted to start knitting again and wondering where to start, people who had the basic skills and were getting back into it, and also people who had never knitted before.”
Joan has especially noticed the amount of younger people taking up the practice, many for the first time, and an increase of interest in Irish wool.
“A lot of younger people have started knitting and are starting with chunkier wool because you can knit a scarf so easily with it,” she says. “Young people will knit a scarf and then move on to a hat and then the more experienced knitters are knitting the shawls and jumpers."
"It’s relaxing, they’re learning something new. It’s a lovely present for somebody if you make someone a scarf or you can help knit for charity. You don’t have to be very experienced to get a bit of a kick out of it.”
While knitting has become one of the many ways we’ve begun to fill our time, soothing frayed nerves with every purl and plain stitch, since the revival of cosy knitwear in international fashion, knitters can now make money off their creations too.
A quick search on Etsy, the shopping platform dedicated to handmade crafts, for an Aran style jumper currently leads you to over 5000 results, with some creations going for more than €500 apiece.
Triona Lillis of The Tweed Project says that their online sales have massively increased since the pandemic began.
“People are waking up to needing less, obviously because they are not going out as much, but I can see people want to invest in key pieces that will last a lifetime too,” Triona says.
“It's the perfect time for budding knitters to get a business off the ground. Look at that Harry styles jumper, which was the most replicated jumper online last year. It looked like something your granny made in the ’80s. The timing couldn’t be more perfect."
Said jumper, a chunky-knit cardigan worn by Styles during a televised performance in the US last year, inspired more than 1.5 million fans to video themselves knitting their own version of the trusty button up.
JW Anderson, the designer of the piece, retailed the cardigan for $1,500-plus. Recreators have been earning upwards of €170 for their versions online.
The former One Direction star isn’t the only one bringing the trusty knitted jumper back into high fashion. From Kate Middleton and Chris Evans to Taylor swift, a host of celebrities have been helping to repopularise knitwear, especially our hometown favorite, the Aran jumper.
Swift, who donned a full wardrobe of oversized knits for her recently released Folklore and Evermore albums, can especially be thanked for the newfound popularity of our grandfathers' trusty Sunday sweater.
The singer, who has previously been styled by Kerry-born Don O’ Neill and spent Christmas in Limerick in 2019, is a big fan of the humble Irish knit, and it seems many of her 143 million Instagram followers are now too.
Data from Google Trends shows that when Folklore was released last July, the searches for ‘Aran sweaters’ jumped in popularity. When her Evermore album was released last month, the search term spiked in popularity for the year, and the search term ‘Aran sweater pattern’ grew by 100% in the US.
Even the Irish Embassy across the pond is helping to promote the jumper's fame, tweeting a picture of Swift in her high neck last July.
“It’s iconic and it’s a classic style that will never age,” Triona says of the Aran jumper. “It conjures up images of a wild place. Wrapped up against the elements our Aran fishermen went out to sea wearing these jumpers emblazoned with beautiful stitches that told tales of their families.
“The beautiful stitching is an art form. The fact that it’s been placed in the met museum as one of 111 pieces of iconic fashion history has cemented it in people's minds as a covetable piece of clothing.”
As interest in Irish knitwear continues to ride high, some companies can’t keep up with demand, with one Cork company turning to local knitters to take part in helping to knit a large order of Aran jumpers, hats, and scarves for a US company.
Triona says that they aren’t alone in reaching out for skilled hand-knitters and anyone looking to turn their hobby into a career would be a welcome addition to the industry.
“I’m delighted to hear there’s been a resurgence with knitting. I’m sure this has to do with the lockdown and people looking to take up new interests to keep them busy,” she says.
“But from our perspective, we have a long waiting list for our hand-knit Arans as there are so few professional knitters left in the country. We are very concerned that the art of Aran hand knitting is a dying craft and it's one we are passionate about trying to keep alive.”
As what many fear is the last generation of skilled Irish knitters begins to die out, more and more 'Aran' garments are being made by machines rather than handmade with traditional báinín wool.
Ateliers designing knit pieces using materials like Donegal or merino wool, such as The Tweed Project, Inis Meáin Knitting Company, and Edel Macbride Knitwear, are becoming fewer and far between. Many are hoping that the current trend, along with some help from stars and celebs, will help keep the art of Irish hand knitting thriving.
If you're looking to try your hand at knitting, you don't need to set sail West, however, with plenty of courses available from places like Vibes and Scribes, who are starting an online crocheting series in the coming weeks, as well Marino college and This is Knit knitwear specialists in Dublin. Or, order a beginner's kit from an online supplier.
All you need is a pair of needles, a roll of good wool, and maybe some Taylor Swift background music for inspiration.