I'm after an authentic knitted sweater on my Irish travels. Where should I head to? Travel to Aran, or rather the Aran islands - ‘the three stepping stones out of Europe’, as the poet Seamus Heaney once described them. Inishmore, Inishmaan and Inisheer, a trio of terraced limestone teeth scattered across the mouth of Galway Bay on the west coast of Ireland. Not to be confused with the Isle of Arran in Scotland. And make sure you get a genuine Aran sweater.
What do you mean by genuine? Well, "Aran knitwear" covers a multitude of sins, from baggy synthetic jumpers to bland bobble hats, and there's a lot of tourist tat to sort through before you get to the real thing. It is the same problem as Cheddar cheese.
What? As with Cheddar, the quality of knitwear has suffered because Aran is a cover-all name for a style as well as a local speciality.
Understood, no cheesy jumpers. So how do I get to these Irish "stepping stones"? The best way is on an Aer Arann flight from Connemara airport. Although the five-minute hop feels more like a fairground ride than a scheduled flight, it's worth it for the front-row introduction to the islands. If you don't fancy the intimacy of a six-seater plane or the idea of being weighed along with your luggage, you could take a regular ferry from Rossaveal.
Then straight to the shop? From Kilronan harbour, on the main island of Inishmore, it is almost unavoidable. After the bicycle-hire shop and the tourist office you come to the largest shop in the harbour, the Aran Sweater Market, selling mountains of knitwear of every shape, size and colour.
Well, that must be the easiest sourcing ever. Hold on just a second. The souvenir shop is a good way to introduce yourself to Aran knitting. Most of its stuff is made somewhere in Ireland and it does sell hand-knitted garments with a range of individual family stitch styles - but don't let the diddly-dee of the taped fiddle music cloud your judgement.
Family stitch styles? So can I buy a personalised sweater? Not quite, although judging by the list of Irish names on offer, most of the people in the Dublin telephone book must originate from Aran. To get a less romanticised idea of life on the island you should take a trip to Aran's heritage centre, Ionad Arann.
Do I have to, it's rather cosy here? The smell of lanolin and all the soft textures are very comforting, I know, but Ionad Arann is only round the corner and has a fine display of knitting styles, fascinating photographs, artefacts and daily showings of Robert Flaherty's renowned 1934 film Man of Aran.
And it sells jumpers? No, in order to get to the true Aran sweater you will have to catch a small boat to the middle island of Inishmaan. It's just a 20-minute trip on the Doolin ferry. You'll be in for a treat because Inishmaan has an innocence and raw beauty that is sometimes hard to find amid the shops and herds of visitors on the other two islands.
What about transport on the island? Do we need a taxi for our shopping? Hardly, the island is only one mile wide by three miles long with just one pub and three shops catering for a population of 220. If you haven't got a pony or a bicycle, the best way to get around is on foot, and then it's a 10-minute stroll up the hill to the knitting nirvana of the Inis Meáin (the Irish name for the island) Knitting Company. On the first floor there's a factory shop with tremendous ocean views and a chic interior that wouldn't be out of place in a Bond Street boutique.
So what does this craft shop sell? Even though it is in a field surrounded by a honeycomb of stonewalls and grazing cows this is the headquarters of an international fashion business that shows its collections in Paris, Milan and New York. Tarlach de Blacam, the designer and owner, produces knitted garments of the highest quality on Japanese computerised looms.
It sounds a far cry from the heritage centre, with its Aran woollies knitted on goose feathers. Actually, the clothes produced at Inis Meáin Knitting Co are truer to the spirit and traditions of the islands than the souvenir sweaters. The iconic white Aran jumper is a 20th-century invention; Tarlach draws from a wider and older tradition. He makes knitwear for the modern market while taking his inspiration from the distinctive natural beauty of Inishmaan.
Using the vivid colours of wild flowers, lichen, mosses and seaweed set against the subtle greys of the limestone and the sapphire blue of the islands' shallow waters, he borrows styles from the traditional handmade clothes of Aran, looks at old photographs and makes use of local know-how.
They must look lovely, but aren't they a little itchy for fashionistas in Milan? Just the opposite, because his garments are made from super-soft alpacas, winter cashmeres, merino lambswool and linen-silk mixes. The result is informally elegant knitwear that's more Gucci than Grimsby trawler.
O K, that's the sophisticated sweater sorted, although I still want to take home a thick winter woolly like those my granny used to knit. Then head to the ancient stone fortress of Dun Aonghus on Inishmore, where you will find a few outlets selling chunky handknitted jumpers. An Tuirne, run by the islander Rosemary Faherty, is recommended for the quality and distinctive bold stitch technique of its garments.
And are they the real thing? One hundred per cent genuine Aran sweaters and fantastic value, too. Where else could you buy a hand-produced piece of artistry and history that will you keep you warm in a hurricane for less than £100? Each garment can take up to six weeks to make and, with a little looking after, will last a lifetime. Be sure to get the colour, style and size right as it will probably outlive you. As the island saying goes, " Go maire tú is go gcaithe tú é".
Which means? “May you live long to wear it.”
Look out for Inis Meáin Knitting Co classics from old collections on sale at greatly reduced prices in the factory shop. Its garments can be recognised by their distinctive logo of three men carrying an upturned currach (boat) on their heads - a guarantee that the sweater is designed and made on the island.
To get the best from your sweater wash it as you would your hair - by hand in lukewarm water, using shampoo and a little conditioner. Place it flat to dry, away from direct heat or sunlight, and remember heated spin drying is an absolute no-no.
An Tuirne can produce made-to-measure jumpers ready for your visit. They need to know your chest size and length of arm and back and be given a few weeks' notice: An Tuirne, Kilmurvey, Inishmore 00353 99 61387, email@example.com
Inis Meáin Knitting Company, Inishmaan 00353 99 73009, inismeain.ie is open seven days a week from June to September, five days a week for the rest of the year. If the shop isn't open, try knocking on the door of the studio or factory.
Further information on holidays: 0800 039 7000, discoverireland.com.