knitwear and cultural relativism


One of the issues I’ve found myself thinking about an awful lot while writing my book is how knitwear “traditions” are never completely national or regional in origin, but are always interwoven and interconnected. Knitting is a fluid and mobile medium in so many senses, traveling around the ocean on the backs of seafaring men, copied and innovated upon by enterprising women. In 1953, a Norwegian designer working in London saw a photograph of the Danish Royal Family wearing Greenland national dress. Inspired by this photograph she went on to create the “Eskimo” sweater, now regarded as an icon of Norwegian knitwear design – but how ‘national’ a design could this sweater, in fact, be said to be? Equally, the large star motifs routinely described as “Shetland” or even “Fair Isle” are actually the legacy of Shetland’s important Norwegian connections during the second world war (when thousands of Norwegians escaped occupation on the Shetland Bus). As my research has progressed, I’ve come to realise that all of the national or regional knitting styles I’m interested in have a relatively short history, and all are connected, in one way or another, to each other. I have started to think it is more useful to speak of of a fluid set of Nordic regional textile practices rather than national “traditions” (many of which really are “invented traditions” in the sense that Hobsbawm and Ranger famously described).

And yet, something in me instinctively reacts when I see this sweater on Toast’s website, described as “Icelandic Fair Isle.” This sweater is knitted up in Irish yarn, produced in a non-specified EU location, and is marketed here in reference to two distinct regional textile “traditions,” associated with different kinds of wool, sheep breed, and terroir neither of which are those of Kilcarra (Donegal) tweed. To my eyes, this raglan garment with its large colourwork motifs is neither “Icelandic”, nor is it “Fair Isle”. I’m not even sure how “Irish” it could said to be either, and I feel in my gut that the fuzzy descriptors that are being used to sell it imply a certain amount of disrespect to the specificity of particular regional practices of textile production, knitting and design. But can I have it both ways? If I want to ditch narrow nationalist associations in favour of a more diverse and fluid and culturally relative idea of knitting and design, why does this sweater still inspire in me a sensation of mild offence?

I need to get to grips with this conundrum in order to write a conclusion for my book. Any of your thoughts will be much appreciated.