Welcome to our Wednesday My Place post! All of the My Place designs feature Milarrochy Tweed – a yarn that’s spun for us in Donegal and which is, in so many ways, a “typical” Irish tweed with its characteristic neps and flecks. Here at KDD, we feel particularly close to our Irish friends, in both personal and business terms, and so we were all very happy when super-talented Irish designer Eimear Earley submitted not one, but two designs to the competition: Sos and Cas.
The KDD team loved Eimear’s designs so much we found it hard to choose between them (indeed some of us have plans to knit both shawls) but in the end we settled on Cas, as it is so beautifully expressive of Eimear’s distinctive situatedness and creativity, as a multi-talented Irish artist.
Speaking personally, I have to say how very pleased I am to be able to celebrate Eimear’s work here on the KDD blog. And that’s because I’ve admired Eimear’s knitting since the very first time I encountered it ten years ago, upon opening a surprise package which had been kindly sent to me, after my stroke, by a group of Irish women I’d never met. The package contained a beautiful blanket, comprised of intricately patterned Aran strips, each of which was the work of one individual knitter. This thoughtful, collective gift was one of the most lovely and heartening things I received in those difficult post-stroke months, and it still makes me very happy (and moves me) when I see my wonderful Aran blanket (which is still in regular use, ten years later, in our camper van and summer shed). I’ve seen many examples of Eimear’s knitting and design work since, and have always admired what she does: she is an amazingly skilled knitter (believe me, I’ve seen her at it). And, as a designer of knitted things, Eimear has a very distinctive way of working with pattern which pares complexity down into essentials, with often something a wee bit mischievous in the technical tricks she plays. These qualities are definitely in evidence in Cas, a shawl which, as you’ll see, is as technically nifty to knit as it is truly gorgeous to look at. Anyway, enough of my gushing: Here’s Eimear, to tell you about her design, and her place.
For as long as I can remember, I’ve been fascinated with anonymous artefacts found here in Ireland. I say that I enjoy history, but can’t remember dates or names. I suppose what I most enjoy about Ireland’s rich history is looking at material objects, reading about, and imagining the tools, method and motivation that went into making those objects. I also enjoy speculating about the communities and culture that supported making such things, and trying to interpret their uses, functions, and meanings.
Cas (pronounced ‘kos’, meaning to twist in Irish), is my tribute to the National Museum of Ireland, and the inspiring objects in the collection from early Medieval / Christian Ireland, with my own knitterly nod to more recent Aran “traditions” ( developed during the 20th Century).
Cas is a bottom-up triangular shawl, worked in two colours. It features interlacing cable motifs, worked in both shades, over a background of single-row garter stitch stripes. Knitting this shawl requires some attention and focus: the single row stripes are achieved by working two right-side rows, rearranging the stitches on your circular needle in between the rows. Then the knitting is turned and two wrong side rows are worked. Cables are worked in both colours, using one shade per cable strand. The cable stitches are slipped when working a row with the ‘other’ shade. Cable crossings are worked both with right side and wrong side facing, and some stitches are elongated to prevent the cable pulling in the fabric. The shawl is finished with an applied i-cord bind off and edging.
Some of Ireland’s most spectacular anonymous artefacts are housed in the archaeological collection of the National Museum, housed in the Dublin Kildare Street branch . In recent years, I’ve found that I’ve been repeatedly inspired by the notion of translating precious, delicate, ceremonial items from my local museum – my place – into everyday knitwear, worked in beautiful, humble wool. This process of translation is essentially how Cas came about.
The building itself, opened to the public in 1890, is a welcome respite from the hustle and bustle of busy city centre streets, and the occasional protest at Government buildings next door. The building feels solid, and permanent, compared to the ever-changing shop fronts in the nearby Grafton Street area. After walking inside the main entrance, I feel insulated from the outside world, and soothed by a reverential hush (occasionally broken by a bit of chat & banter from the security guards & staff). After passing through the Rotunda entrance and into the centre court display area, visitors may notice the glow of reflected golden light from prehistoric artefacts displayed in the main hall. Finely worked gold pieces show impressive construction, decorated with simple, yet meticulous motifs, created through a variety of techniques.
A little more exploration takes visitors into the Treasury Galleries, which house incredibly beautiful works of art dating from the Iron Age to the Viking Age, representing a Golden Age of Irish art. Cas was inspired, in particular, by a number of pieces produced during the 7th & 8th Century in Ireland, after the introduction of Christianity, which display incredible metalwork skills.
Each item on display in the Treasury Galleries is made with precious metals, and decorated with complex designs that display a variety of metalworking techniques executed by skilled makers. Panels of interlacing filigree worked in gold and silver wires, studs of multicoloured glass and amber, delicate engraving, enamel and highly polished silver surfaces; if you are like me, you could spend hours studying the intricate details on these pieces.
(these links takes you to the museum page with images and information about each artefact)
There are obvious similarities between the motifs used on these precious metal artefacts and objects made in other materials, and at varying scales: for example, the high crosses carved in stone, that are scattered throughout Ireland. Displayed at sites of Christian significance, high crosses are often decorated with panels, depicting biblical scenes or abstract interlacing ribbons, which echo the filigree designs of metalwork pieces.
Plaster of Paris replicas of these crosses were displayed at National Museum of Ireland (Kildare St) in the early 20th Century, and more recently as part of a temporary exhibition at National Museum’ s Decorative Arts branch at Collins Barracks. Copies have also been shipped abroad for display in various locations, including the United States, Japan and Australia. High crosses have also been used as inspiration for headstones, with Glasnevin Cemetery in Dublin having many examples erected during the mid 20th Century.
(The links take you to Megalithic Ireland, where you can explore the decorative features of the crosses in incredible detail)
Illuminated manuscripts, housed in Trinity College Library (just a short stroll here in Dublin from the National Museum) also show similar artwork. Produced in the 8th and 9th Century in unknown locations, (theories include monastic sites in Ireland, Scotland and England) these books were kept in Irish monasteries before they made their way to Dublin. Made of vellum, and using a wide variety of pigments, the illustrations contained within have come to define what is thought of as ‘Celtic’ Art. Religious text is decorated with stylised animals, human figures, and panels of interlacing ribbons. The latter, again, is remarkably similar to the interlacing filigree displayed on metalwork items, and panels of interlacing ribbons on the carved high crosses.
All of the items I’ve mentioned have features in common. They show incredibly dense and complex areas of decoration, in particular interlacing ribbons, contained within small panels. Such features also bear a striking resemblance to Aran Knitting.
Traditional Aran knitting, typically depicted as a pullover, worked in báinín (‘baw-neen’ – white or naturally-coloured wool) and all-over cable patterning, achieved international popularity between the 1930s & 1950s. Many myths were invented about the origins and use of Aran Knitting; that it was an ancient tradition used for centuries in the Aran Islands (off the west coast of Ireland); that drowned fishermen could be identified by the family stitch patterns on their Aran garments; and that the book of Kells contains illustrations of Aran Knitting. These myths certainly sold large quantities of knitwear, but had little basis in truth
The work of Alice Starmore and, more recently Vawn Corrigan has thoroughly discredited such myths through careful documentary evidence: written accounts and photography from Galway & the Aran Islands from the early twentieth century. The photographic evidence shows the locals wearing ganseys, in dark colours, and with patterning restricted to the yoke area, similar to fishermen’s ganseys found through other islands scattered about neighbouring Great Britain. A light coloured garment with all-over patterning is certainly a striking garment, but would not be a practical choice for working people being both hard to clean, and difficult to repair.
So, although there is certainly much to admire about 20th century Aran Sweater designs from an aesthetic and creative perspective, the clever marketing myths and legends that have long accompanied and dogged the garment are just that: myths. More likely theories about the emergence and popularity of Aran knitting suggest that such sweaters might have been inspired by white báinín garments worn by children receiving their first communion, combined with stitch patterns brought home by travelling Aran Islanders, during the early 20th century.
However, the similarities between the motifs used on twentieth-century Aran sweaters and those of Ireland’s early Medieval / Christian artefacts are as undeniable as they are remarkable. And I personally just adore the notion of translating highly ornate, ceremonial and imposing items from our past into wearable and accessible woollen items, intended to bring warmth and comfort. Using such motifs on a piece like Cas makes me feel I am creating something both ordinary, and precious: something that connects me to ‘my place’ as well as being inspired by it.
At the time of writing, Irish museums are closed to visitors due to Covid 19 restrictions.
I’ve been making do with poring over my books, and browsing websites – here are a few titles and links you might enjoy:
Fintan O’ Toole, A History of Ireland in 100 Objects (book and exhibition)
Patrick F. Wallace & Raghnall O’Floinn, Treasures of the National Museum of Ireland (2002)
Peter Harbison, Ireland’s Treasures. 5000 Years of Artistic Expression (2004)
Alice Starmore, Aran Knitting (new ed, 2010)
Vawn Corrigan, Irish Aran: History, Tradition, Fashion (2019)
Thank you so much, Eimear, for taking us to your place with this beautiful design!