cable

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!)


(“folded cables” pattern from Reversible Knitting)

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.”


(Paddy Ó Síocháin resplendent in Aran — I really love this cardigan!)

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.*


(Man of Aran. Another misleading 1930s fantasy of Ireland successfully marketed in North America. Note that, like all other men of Aran, the kid wears a dark gansey, not a báinín sweater)

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)

31 responses

  1. Your blogs are always of great interest;your photography so artistic. I am in love with knitting again and have just finished an owl sweater for my daughter (Christmas suprise gift). Today yarn has arrived from Skye; some new Addi’s from Laughing Hens and the buttons have already arrived from Ebay (vintage glass;lovely idea) How I am waiting for Manu pattern. Any idea when it will be published?

  2. Thank you for this entry – it’s much appreciated in this house when someone speaks the truth about the fabricated (sic!) Aran/Gansey myth which is so popular and hence hard to rectify.
    When I was still employed by a knitting mag, I suggested a feature about this precise phenomenon and was told by the ed-in-chief it was “a pity there’s only so little to tell about Aran sweaters” and the feature was cancelled. It was revived very recenty – *with* all the romantic legends, natch. I guess this is more appealing to the readers and will increase the sales…
    As for the good wishes – here’s some more (can never have enough of those) and a heads up for something that may or may not arrive at your doorstep before Xmas. Or maybe shortly after – depending on the corgi catering schedule etc.

    Hugs,

    Viv xx

  3. Many thanks for a fascinating post! I actually first encountered the idea of identifying a drowned fisherman in some John Millington Synge plays from the 1900s–so interesting (as your blog always is!) to hear about the evolution of the myth.

    • indeed yes — the incident is in Synge’s Riders to the Sea, I think, and involves a stocking, rather than a sweater. Richard Rutt credits Synge as the ‘origin’ of the myth – though the first gansey / corpse references I’ve found are from the mid ’30s. I’ve been re-reading Synge’s Aran Islands to see what he says about textiles . . .

      • Ahh, I’d confused the socks and the gansey! Good to know about Synge as the potential origin of the myth–I’ll do a better time next time I teach him! Thank you!

  4. What a great article. I had somehow heard that myth and thought it was true.

    I really love The Knitter ~ congratulations on having a piece in that lovely magazine!

    • Hi – I meant the truck system that existed on the Aran Islands before the intervention of the Congested Districts Board — just as Shetland knitters were only paid for their work in tea or yarn, so Aran women were bound to the unfair credit systems of particular shops and merchants, and repeatedly exploited by the gombeen-man. There’s lots to read about this — for example, Ciara Breathnach, “The Role of Women in the Economy of the West of Ireland, 1891-1923″ New Hibernia Review 8:1 (2004), 80-92.

  5. Oh, I hadn’t realised that the piece on cables was yours! I would have devoured it immediately if I had!

    I will send some good vibes from the tasting of Christmas beers I’m going to tonight – I’m sure there will be plenty to go around and then some, Christmas brews being on the strong side. (I’m sure none will have Golden Syrup as an ingredient, though.)

  6. The reference in *Riders to the Sea* is constantly mined for justification of the family pattern. What Nora recognises, though, isn’t a pattern at all, but a mistake: “It’s the second one of the third pair I knitted, and I put up three score stitches, and I dropped four of them.” Taking this as a reference to a distinctive cable pattern is as much of a stretch as the sock must have been.

  7. Really interesting piece – as the daughter of a kiltmaker who *revels* in the whole tartanry scene (to my horror), and the daughter-in-law of an Irishwoman who recoils at the similar scene in Ireland.
    (Reversible Knitting is a fabulous book, too!)

  8. Super fascinating–as you can well imagine, the (stereo)typical Irish-American is usually quite gags re: his/her Irishness, so the fact that this could be capitalized on and marketed to is no surprise.

  9. Sorry, do not mean to be blog-stalking you today (by that I mean commenting twice in one day, it seems slightly obsessive…. ), but just wanted to say on a marginally unrelated note – I saw Man of Aran during the summer at the Green Man Festival with a live performance of British Sea Power’s specially composed soundtrack. The overall effect was slightly awe inspiring (without any thought to historical accuracy or knitting legends) and you can now buy the film with the British Sea Power soundtrack I think, on DVD. Anyway, thanks for reminding me of that, an unexpected happy moment to my day.

    P.S. Did kind of feel the film should have been called ‘Woman of Aran’ by the end of it though. ‘Man’ did not really feature and ‘Woman’ was the soul of he film – but there you go!

  10. It is marvellous to read your wise words surrounding the myth of the Aran sweater, and your insights as to the seductive, persuasive powers of that myth, must lay my hands on a copy of The Knitter to read your article myself! x

  11. Sorry for more posting, but got a bit over excited about British Sea Power/Man of Aran thing and found this clip of the last five minutes on YouTube:

    Thanks again for the post!

  12. I’m embarrassed to say I completely bought into the Aran jumper myth when writing my guidebook to Ireland. Thanks for enlightening me…a revision is required. :}

  13. Oh, one more thought though…in Synge’s play Riders to the Sea one of the characters recognizes her drowned brother’s clothing because there’s a dropped stitch in his sock, and she remembers dropping it herself. So maybe this myth is older than the 1930s?

  14. Love the article in The Knitter,and eve more the extra info in your blog today.
    Since discovering you earlier in the year through Ravelry and the Paper Dolls patten(just finishing the fourth and last), I have been haunting your blog and find it really inspiring. I was sorry to hear you were having a difficult time so please know I am sending you good will wishes and hoping things improve for you soon. Looking forward to Manu and more good things in the New Year.
    Jan

  15. Embarassingly, I had NO IDEA that the aran myth was a complete fabrication, and I’ve PLAYED the Vaughn Williams opera (operetta?)References to the dropped stitches are sung as written.

  16. I am so sorry that something is ‘amiss’ for you. Of all the knitting blogs, yours – with its academic/ historic bent – is my favourite. And you just reminded me that I must buy a copy of Rutt’s book (I borrowed it from the library some time ago, but simply adore it).

  17. Thanks for a very informative article. What do you know about the history of reversible cables?
    I have a hat that I purchased at a folk fair in the 1970′s. It was hand-spun and hand knit in Mexico. The hat is completely reversible with cables that appear to be in ribbing. I also have a child’s sweater that has reversible cables. Such cables seem to first appear in our literature in the late 1980′s, but yet these garments were made in the 1970′s.

  18. I do wonder if there is some basis for truth in the myth. It’s a powerful idea. I’m working on an installation art piece using cable knits in all their meaning and wonderful textures! Love it!

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