We interrupt our regular proceedings with this cable. This is just to let readers of The Knitter know that I’ve a piece in the most recent issue of the magazine (no.13) — about the history and future of cable knitting. In the feature, I talk about Gladys Thompson, an old favourite inspiration of mine, and Lynne Barr, a confirmed new favourite. Barr’s Reversible Knitting is the most interesting and innovative knitting book I’ve encountered in an aeon, and I’m very pleased to say that I’ll soon have the honour of hosting Lynne here, as part of her Reversible Knitting blog tour. (Watch this space!)
While I was working on the cables piece, I became fascinated with the (now) familiar myths surrounding the Irish Aran sweater. What I found most interesting was how far those myths are associated with loss. I refer, of course, to the apocryphal idea that drowned Irish fishermen were identified by particular cables. It is no coincidence that this myth’s origin is in the 1930s (not way back in the mists of time) — the moment when the Aran sweater was first successfully marketed to North America. Since I wrote the piece, I’ve been doing some more research about Paddy Ó Síocháin (the canny businessman whose Galway Bay Company became one of most successful exporters of Aran sweaters to the US and Canada) and Muriel Gahan (the inspiring doyenne of the Irish Crafts Council, the Congested Districts Board, and the Irish Countrywomen’s Association). From the mid ’30s, Gahan helped to break the punishing cycle of debt in which the craftswomen of western Ireland were bound (a similar situation to that of the knitters of Shetland) by promoting their work, and paying them fairly for it. Gahan’s most successfully promoted product was the now-iconic cabled sweater worked in undyed báinín, (rather than the dark blue or grey wool in which fishermen’s ganseys — including those of Ireland — were traditionally knitted). While Gahan encouraged the talented knitters of rural Ireland in their creation of elaborate báinín ganseys, Ó Síocháin invented myths of ancient origin for the sweaters in his publications about the Aran Islands. In his book Aran: Islands of Legend , for example, Ó Síocháin footnotes the misleading idea that “the Aran gansey has always been an unfailing source of identification of Islandmen lost at sea” with a reference to his own company “full particulars regarding the handcraft products of the Islands can be obtained from Galway Bay Products, Ltd.”
To the Irish diaspora in North America, these sweaters were indeed powerful symbols of loss — not in the way that Ó Síocháin suggested, but rather in the imagined sense of a lost identity: old family connections, tribal belongings, a national heritage, the sense of place. Much like Robert Flaherty’s Man of Aran, then, the Aran sweater (as we now think of it) is an embodiment of something already lost, a material confection born out of absence, a singularly modern fantasy of what an ‘ancient’, ‘primitive’, ‘simpler’ way of life might look like.*
Knitters are fond of myths-of-origin, particularly those associated with family and place, and no matter how many times these ideas surrounding the báinín Aran sweater are debunked, the notion that a corpse might be identified by a stitch pattern carries a persuasive power beyond truth or fiction.** Today, you can still buy into the myth by purchasing an Aran sweater that claims direct clan associations and the comparison with the marketing of Scottish highland heritage is really an instructive one: whether or not one agrees with everything Hugh Trevor Roper says about tartan, he does bring home the way that textiles are singularly resonant “inventors of tradition”.*** I am still thinking about the way that Aran sweaters are “read” today, and may have more to say about this another time.
I also wanted to say a brief thanks to those of you who have sent me your good wishes, realising that something was amiss. At some point, I’ll find the wherewithal to write about what’s been happening, but at the moment am finding keeping blog business-as-usual really reassuring. Cheers, everyone.
*On Flaherty’s Man of Aran, See Lance Pettitt, Screening Ireland: Film and Television Representation (Manchester, U.K.: Manchester University Press, 1999).
**See Richard Rutt’s History of Handknitting, for a thorough debunking. The ‘myth’ still appears as ‘truth’ in many places, for example Debbie Stoller’s Son of Stitch and Bitch (2007)
*** Hugh Trevor Roper, “The Invention of Tradition: The Highland Tradition of Scotland,” in Eric Hobsbawm and Terence Ranger, eds, The Invention of Tradition (Canto, 1983)