toastsweater

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.

123 thoughts on “knitwear and cultural relativism

  1. Hi Kate, I’m not sure how a thinking person can come to terms with Toast’s mash-up of traditions. In a nutshell (emphasis on the nut) this is fashion today. It is all about the story and the story is spun out of associations built over time. Selling is the only point. Much to my dismay this is a Fast Culture kind of a thing

    What you do is teach us how to be great garment detectives–to knit true and thoughtfully. The more of us out there the harder a ghost of a garment is to sell. I’m looking forward to the Yoke collection. I will be an even smarter knitter then!

    PS. Want to extend that indignation to another manufacturer? Here’s how Mickey Drexler re-spun a brand…

    http://www.buzzfeed.com/dannosowitz/how-madewell-bought-and-sold-my-familys-history#1cpwzps

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  2. I think others have said it better than I can – but it is the lack of care and thought that irk in the description of the Toast jumper – whereas someone who respects knitting traditions and has an understanding of how they work and how they can be fluid will create/describe differently.

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  3. Hi Kate. I fully agree with the sentiment of your post and many of the comments. I know some people may see this as a minor detail over which we are being pedantic but I don’t agree. I think its important that if you are going to consciously use cultural references in the name of a product and in its associated description you should take the time to get it right.

    But now that we have spotted this problem what do we do? Has anyone contacted Toast about this and pointed out their error? Should we?

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  4. I love your articles Kate and the thoughts they provoke, particularly your musings on knitting and national traditions. Knitting has changed so much just over the past 20 years with the introduction of the internet and, in my mind, is becoming increasingly globalised.

    In my teens, my grandmother and a small selection of books from my tiny local library were the entirety of my knitting world.

    Today, using something like Ravelry, I can download a pattern from anywhere in the world, view what someone has knitted on the opposite side of the globe and discuss / get tips from knitters 1000 of miles away from me. It is probably not surprising that the lines between traditions is blurring as we take inspiration from our expanded world and it is probably knitting’s ability to evolve which makes it so beautiful, interesting and enduring.

    Having said that, I would hate to lose our knitting heritage and love looking at historical patterns and knits. Getting the balance right isn’t easy, but hopefully the tools at our disposal today will also help us as a knitting community to keep those traditions alive for future generations. For me, the Toast sweater doesn’t show any balance and is a piece of mindless marketing, but I have no issue with designers such as yourself taking beautiful traditional patterns/ techniques and adapting them for the modern market to keep them alive.

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  5. Iceland/Icelandic is ‘in’, Fair Isle is ‘insider in’, traditional = Toast – it all adds up to more mindless lifestyle sales. Money: what’s authenticity got to do with it? That’s a whole different world sometimes glimpsed whizzing by.

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  6. Personally, I wouldn’t waste the energy to be offended. Just because a company makes fashion doesn’t mean they understand craft or textiles – sadly. Ignorance and laziness. Of course it wants marketing, so they invent the mood they want to sell, they all do it and no customer is the worse for it – unless it is somebody who is a crafter and thereby an interested party to the history, geography, textile detail, cultural references and so on because we actually know how and where these garments developed and have taken the time and trouble to become informed about the processes involved. Two different worlds and honestly, I don’t think they mix happily. Until textile crafters rule the fashion world, it won’t happen. Sad, but true. And on reflection, I’d rather keep out of the fashion world – I increasingly feel it is far from reality or sanity, no matter whether you’re 18 like my daughter, 50 like me or 98 like my granny!
    So, if I wanted to use Irish wool to make a jumper with Icelandic and Fair Isle inspired motifs – would you still feel offended? I think not. I cite my example of Peruvian wool I used to make a shawl designed by a Scottish woman using Shetland-style lace patterns but inspired by Floridian sand-dollars for a Swiss recipient – personally, that for me is the positive side globalisation!
    Having read most of the comments, something else actually grates – why is it ok to declare flatly that a garment is +/-? Surely that is subjective. I have no objection to the fact that many commenters like or dislike the sweater or think it’s ok, or not. I only wish they would write “I think” or similar – tastes vary and there are actually, believe it or not, no rules or police on this.

    As for “traditional” or “authentic”, I like the idea of being a purist. However, as a German-British national who grew up in French-speaking Switzerland and then moved to German-speaking Switzerland (a language of its own) I am perhaps more aware than some of what “real” is or isn’t. I speak the dialect like a local but am not – am I fake? In bad taste? Do I condemn a German who tries to speak the dialect because it’s a “sort of” German, though it hurts my ears?! Or do I give them the benefit of the doubt for trying to integrate? Hm.
    In fact, I came across something today, claiming that the Swiss dessert of muesli is high calorie and yet we think it’s healthy… In fact, “Birchermüesli”, to give it its correct name, was the invention of one particular health nut and consisted of freshly ground soaked wheat, lemon juice and grated apple, not cream, yoghurt, berries, nuts, raisins or whatever else may sometimes be used, and the name just means Dr. Bircher’s mash or slurry. Also it is not a dessert, or even a breakfast, but eaten as an evening meal in many Swiss families. So do we need to argue about all that because it’s marketed so differently everywhere else (including in Switzerland)? I wonder!!

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  7. I think your perspective on regional practices is important, and one might even think in terms of macro regions, sub regions etc.

    Toast certainly won’t win the award for truth in advertising. This jumper is a hybrid impostor and does a disservice to the Irish wool that went into it. A simple acknowledgement of Nordic influences would have sufficed.

    By the way, I remember the garments worn by the three Danish princesses as beaded garments, not knitted. Am I right?

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  8. Quite a few comments. Seems to have hit a nerve. It’s the nerve called “marketing is the root of all evil”.

    Marketing, self promotion, we all need to do it to survive. Isn’t’ that what your sock pattern is about – creating a revenue stream? I like your sock pattern and my introduction to Shetland Heritage yarn. It fills a need and it’s not a bad product.

    There is line between promoting the things in which we believe and predatory marketing, often aimed at children, the uneducated, the elderly. But where is the line and who draws it?

    Thought of you when I saw the sign promoting “Spinach Artichoke Bagel Supreme” in Dunkin Donuts this morning.

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  9. I am sorry but I just cannot read through all the comments to see if what I say has already been said. Outside of the fact that this is one unfortunate looking sweater, I see no connection between a fine handknitting tradition of whatever country and a piece of mass marketed clothing. The copy was probably written by a 20 year old copywriter who got shown the garment along with many others and was told cheerily that this was going to be in the next catalog. Mass marketed goods will never be able to be used to educate anyone on a tradition of knitting and I think that as a writer, Kate, you should not get tied into knots about what is shown in a catalog. I don’t even think that the garment stands for some sort of amalgamation of knitting traditions or anything at all actually. Knowledgeable knitters should not waste their breath trying to correct misinformation like this because, in the end, the marketers and the public don’t care. No one who wears that sweater will say to their friends: “Look at this great Irish Fair Isle sweater I got!” It is just a piece of clothing one wears for a season and then gets chucked in the back of a closet.

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  10. To take it off knitting for a sec, there’s maybe something here about the different ways we store information and conceive of classification in the so-called Internet Age. I’m very conscious of my own propensity to treat the internet as a big exo-brain: I assume that I will be able to find whatever information I want with a few strings of keywords. It doesn’t matter what order they come in, or if they even make sense; if I don’t get the results I want, I change them till I do. Compare that to searching in a book, say, an encyclopedia: for the latter you have to have a better idea of how the information you want might relate to other information. Basically, in the age of the codex, you need some facility with taxonomies in order to acquire knowledge, because everything has to have its sequential place – from the paragraph on the page, to the chapter in the book, to the section of the library. But the keyword search string phenomenon removes (or gives the illusion of removing) any need for taxonomies.

    This doesn’t just affect the consumers of content, the keyword searchers, but some creators too: depending on what you’re trying to do, you might be able to lump together a bunch of information on a page without ordering it too carefully, because people are going to search for nuggets of information to save, not for complex, many-layered arguments. The designer or marketer at Toast, piling up feelgood words about a woolly sweater, are obvious examples, but “proper” journalists do it too (BBC News articles are just strings of sentences, with barely any coordinating conjunctions to connect them – nothing like a traditional journalistic “story”.) Even though I am a professional historian in a very well-respected university and so have to write books which organize information in the “traditional” codex/taxonomic way, I find it relatively hard to force myself to think in that way as I go about my work – if I’m missing bits of information, I assume I can fill it in later; if I see a reference that looks interesting, I might not write it down because I assume I’ll come across it again “somehow” (and yeah, what usually happens is that I just forget completely).

    I’m not defending the keyword way of thinking at all, just trying to indicate how pervasive it is. As a historian, I’m – unsurprisingly – completely with you on the need for accurate, subtle understandings of how phenomena relate to one another. Your “fluid set of Nordic regional textile practices” is a world away from Toast’s ungainly pile of keywords and much, much to be preferred. But they are two completely different kinds of speaking belonging in two, sadly all-too-divergent worlds, and I’m (depressingly) not sure your (historical) world has much change of influencing their (marketing) world. There’s a significant premium on “authenticity” and “tradition” in marketing, but not much of a premium on the authentic identification of traditions and their historical relation either to one another or to the product being marketed.

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  11. Fuzzy categories are still categories… they have associated meaning, convention, even lore. Acceptable usage still plays a role when we attempt to remove some of the notions based on purity and hard boundaries.

    National identity works exactly this way, as does cultural history, word etymology, cuisines. Nothing comes from just one place, free of influences. The current state is a contradictory collection of contacts and features, but that doesn’t render it meaningless.

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  12. I wanted to add to my comment and endorse what Nicole and JMH say so eloquently about piety and about the privileges of being a handknitter. We enjoy a standard of living which affords us the resources and the leisure to be able to knit.

    Some years ago I was working with a Cameroonian who wanted to develop policies for art and sustainable tourism in northern Cameroon. It was a matter of keeping indigenous cultures for producing art living and moving within a region which needs tourism for survival. When we were about visiting villages we came across an anthropologist from the UK who had ‘gone native’ in order to get as close as possible to what he thought was authentic pre-modern culture. He deplored my colleagues’s project. Yet as any Cameroonian knows the impact of imperialism and its successor globalisation make authenticity deeply problematic, and to fail to negotiate modernity is to condemn a whole population to debilitating poverty. For me, this is a really difficult issue and one we have to think through when we debate traditions and legacies.

    I had a terrible time posting anything yesterday and didnt get my comment accepted until this morning :(

    And so far no success today either

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  13. This reminds me of LL Bean Norwegian style sweaters–LL Bean is a retailer from New England–the part of the US I’m from. I have a bunch of thrifted/gifted/inherited versions of this sweater from different time periods of LL Bean Norwegian sweaters, as I’d imagine many New Englanders do.

    Bean’s Norwegian Sweater was popularized as a preppie wardrobe staple in the 1980s cultural satire The Preppie Handbook. A vintage ad:The 1980s version sweater was listed in the catalog as knit from 80 percent unscoured wool/20 percent rayon blend and the provenance was unspecified. Although I bet, with a little research to confirm, the 1980s sweaters were machine knit somewhere in Maine, based on company practices at the time–

    The present day sweater reboot as part of LL Bean’s Heritage line is billed as “expertly knit and handfinished in Noway from 100% wool”–provenance unspecified. http://www.llbean.com/llb/shop/60845?feat=66590-pprrright

    Beans also sells The Manitincus Rock sweater under it’s Signature line–targeted at younger consumers–a different lice patterned sweater from their back catalog in Shetland wool, knitting location unspecified. http://www.llbean.com/llb/shop/66590?feat=60845-pprrright

    Granted, the rebooted sweaters are part of the company’s Heritage and Signature lines–higher price point, premium items targeted at a different type of consumer for the company, and banking on brand nostalgia. But it’s interesting to see the manufacturing and copywriting changes the company has made as time has passed and marketing approaches and customers have changed.

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  14. The people marketing this sweater simply have little to no grasp of knitting traditions and terminology. They don’t see Fair Isle and Norwegian as what they truly are, and just see them as a “style”, erroneously using the terms in the same way so many knee-length skirts are now known as “midi” – entirely wrong if we look back to the fifties description of midi as being mid-calf. It is just a shallow description used by low- to mid level designers and/or marketers, who have no background or knowledge of knitting and knitting design. I imagine even the knitwear designer sighed at it being called both Norwegian AND Fair Isle, as I imagine they very rarely get to name or give input on the marketing of their design.

    Having spent a few years in clothing retail, I can say that I’m entirely used to just seeing straight through the marketing and labels that are applied to such clothes, both by companies and the general public. I don’t think it’s a deliberate mislabeling, just lack of knowledge and understanding. Unfortunately, I doubt this will change within most companies.

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  15. I’m not sure if anyone else has mentioned this, since I haven’t managed to read all the comments and should get back to RealJob. However, I believe that Toast was originally set up by J and J Seaton who were knitwear designers at one time. If they are still involved withToast that makes the confused mishmash sadder because they ought to know better. I’m with you Kate, and love that so many people are so passionate about this issue. I look forward to reading the rest of the comments tonight.

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  16. I tend to disagree with a lot of comments above. Having it both ways does not work. It seems to me that the purpose of this company and the purpose of hand knitters selling to a market is similar–develop a brand to get known and sell their product. The brand of ‘fair isle’ or ‘icelandic’ may represent historical truths, half-truths or no truths at all about the origin, construction, materials used or design of the garment, but is this a problem or an offence to “national” knitting traditions? If you look at it from a historical and cultural point of view, carefully tracing the paths, dialogues, trades, and adaptations of how ‘national’ traditions have come to be (named) then such labels, or brands, seem inaccurate given conventional understandings of ‘fair isle’ or ‘icelandic’. But conventional accuracy is not necessarily why such labels and brands were developed and are now being deployed –such labels and brands serve different functions depending on the context in which they are used. I would not vilify companies for using such terms for marketing purposes, since they are part of the current set of actors shaping the meaning and interpretation of these terms. It is perhaps the reason for which they deploy the label that offends you (using cultural knitting traditions to sell their garments when they may not belong to any of these traditions). Nevertheless, how they are using these labels illustrates your point about the fluidity of ‘national’ traditions quite well. One may ask how this TOAST will affect the path, meaning and interpretation of these knitting terms? Will their branding reinforce conventional stereotypes or serve to provide a contemporary example of how the blending of ‘national’ traditions is an ongoing process, shaped by the actors involved in producing knitwear–and their different objectives.

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  17. I love access to information and the fact that I can read your podcast and communicate with you easily.

    In this sweater story, I think the richness, depth and texture of layers of history my have been replaced with a flatness. Access to information via the internet has created a “mashup” of styles. Global production has reduced the expectation for cottage industry quality construction of products.

    It’s both good and bad. And it’s very difficult for rigorous researchers to come to terms with this lack of history.

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  18. Your post, Kate, has made me think of a few things, so talking out loud…

    In my view, the issue is one of evolution. I think that understanding how something came to be, eg the knitted yoke, leads to an appreciation of particular traditions and a greater knowledge of why knitters used certain patterns or styles or even colours, and how these may have been influenced by conditions, such as environmental, political, social, economical. One may even discover that a couple of different regions had similar traditions but with slightly different interpretations or that there may even not be a distinct ownership of particular styles or clear delineation between regions but a blurring of traditions occurred. One would naturally expect an evolution of sorts would be seen over time, newer colours, different motifs, varied shapes; all of these still paying homage to where they’ve come from, without pretending to be anything more or less. For me, that jumper is purporting to be part of that traditional world, but, in my view it lacks credentials, almost a denigration of these traditions it speaks of. But that is a personal opinion as it is not what I envisage the traditional forms would give nor what an evolution of these forms could give, but may well be what someone else thinks of. This has nothing to do with whether it is pretty or will sell well. In my opinion, I think it is important to recognise that evolution will result in new forms but that there should be a retention of some of the original from which the new has evolved. To me, the beauty of knitting is in that evolution and reinterpretation of the traditional, but still that sense of respect for what has been remains within the new work, able to be viewed as part of that fabric that keeps us all connected.

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  19. Well, at least it’s 100% wool, as opposed to “wool” that turns out to be composed of mostly acrylic or other synthetics. (I’m thinking of some of your blog posts in the past here.) But it’s not a very nice sweater tbh, whatever it wants to call itself.

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  20. Mary says much the same as I was going to say, so I won’t repeat it. I don’t much like the sweater shown, but I was interested in your ideas about a ‘fluid set of Nordic regional practices rather than national traditions’. I think if we allow ourselves to become too purist about the origins of a particular style, there is a danger that nobody will dare to innovate.

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  21. Anyone buying this sweater for £145 is unlikely to be a knitter and therefore may be ignorant of knitting traditions. I confess to holding rather generalised ideas of what comprises each “traditional” style of sweater, tending to associate weight of wool with a specific design type. For example I always think of Icelandic sweaters as being knitted with thick yarn whereas Fair Isle uses a much lighter weight to achieve much more intricate patterns. Any interaction between national styles has to take account of the difference in yarn weight and patterns are adapted accordingly. Perhaps the addition of the word “style” although still inaccurate would have made the description of the sweater less offensive although I have to say that I would never label it as Fair Isle under any circumstances.

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  22. But you could see “colourwork” or “stranded colourwork” knitting as a wider regional tradition of the countries around the North Sea? I don’t know whether that means that you can “pic’n’mix” different elements of it at will though?

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  23. I just love that you constantly inquire in this way, so I guess the way I see it right now is this ~

    We live in a world where people are continually doing crazy and amazing things that we may or may not agree with or like ~ so it has to be both ways really because everyone is likely going to keep on doing their thing whether we like it or not!

    So to my mind, the only way to be in the world and maintain one’s sanity ;) is to keep expressing yourself in the way you feel most speaks your heart ~ I think your massive love and respect for everything you write about, the fact that you care so deeply about all these topics and creations and processes, the fact that you want to do everything justice in the best way possible, says so much more about you than anything else ~

    So I guess for me, I would express that passion and care and love for all these things in the way that feels best to you and know how inspiring it is to put those carefully and respectfully crafted thoughts and feelings out there, and that way if people are ready and willing to be inspired by such deep respect and live differently, they will, and if they aren’t, at least you know you are being authentic and heartfelt in all you do and how you do it and adding your greatest contribution to an ever~changing world ;)

    I just think you are totally fantastic and often just come to soak up your amazing creativity and depth (and drool over the photos ;) ) ~ so thank you Kate ~ I enjoy everything you share and create so much, and look forward to so much more!

    Loads of love and respect for all you share,

    Sara ♡

    Ooh P.S. Congratulations on the driving ~ so brilliant!

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  24. When I was at primary school I remember our teacher telling us that we needed to understand the rules of grammar, spelling and punctuation, so that if we broke them, we knew that we were breaking them for a reason, to create a particular effect, not simply at random. That jumper made me think of what she had said. It is one thing to know that you are mixing a tradition associated with Iceland with one associated with Shetland or Fair Isle and to play with those ideas. But it is another to plonk the two together with a sleeve style that belongs to neither in a sloppy, lazy manner and slap a couple of “traditional” names on it, together, without thought.

    We do not want to get too hidebound about tradition and try to fix it in one place, but in order to try to move with traditional styles and create our own designs, we need to understand how they work and where they come from and respect the people who came before us who helped evolve and develop these designs.

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  25. The description is indeed both inaccurate and ridiculous, but most people searching for clothes would search by ‘jumper’ or ‘sweater’ plus perhaps a descriptor like ‘Icelandic’ or ‘fair isle’ and look at the images to make their decision so would barely notice the heading. They are just looking for a jumper to keep them warm!
    The description is just an example of the lowest level of fashion industry journalism and its intention is simply to sell a product, and is therefore no more anything to do with an attempt to understand or interpret the cultural history of clothing or the skills associated with its production than a child running round with their arms outstretched and shouting ‘supersonic!’ is anything to do with the technology that was required to build Concorde! On the positive side, the fact that loads of people who know nothing of costume history and traditions recognise terms like ‘icelandic’ and ‘fair isle’, and know they are types of knitted garment, even if not understanding what they actually mean, is an interesting fact in itself, don’t you think? I sometimes read academic history, but I also enjoy historical fiction, which is not always historically accurate: I am aware of the difference but it doesn’t necessarily interfere with my enjoyment of the latter…
    That aside, I think this particular jumper is an especially horrible garment! Clumsy patterns, dull colour scheme and with no apparent attempt at all even to match the raglan seams! Yuck. I am an enthusiastic but by no means a highly skilled knitter, but I would be embarrassed to give someone this monstrosity…

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  26. What I find interesting is that the Seatons – who own Toast – have worked in knitwear design themselves – working with Rowan in the early 90s. The eye seems to have been taken off the ball somewhere.

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  27. That is a hideous sweater any way one looks at it. I think your readers have expertly analysed why. In a related train of thought to your post, you may find this book quite interesting as additional reference material (not for YOKES, just as general interest): “A Dictionary of Lace” by Pat Earnshaw (maybe you have already seen it). I found it to be quite an eye opener in terms of the general history of lace textiles and the context of lace knitting in the history of the industry. Knitting features very little in this book and is only scantily addressed. It’s supposed to be a dictionary but I found the subjects to be fascinating wee snippets of knowledge.

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  28. These kinds of cultural mishmashes and borrowings are common in consumerism. There is an upmarket village near where I live which carefully guards its English picturesque. One of the restaurants has a sign ‘authentic Thai cuisine’ in a font called ‘old English script’.

    There’s an issue about globalisation. How do we analyse the cult of fairisle knitting in Japan? Given that those of us who handmake textiles are producing luxury objects how do we make that a sustainable practice which contributes to local, or perhaps we should call that glocal economies and cultures? How do we avoid fossilising so-called traditional knitting patterns so they remain living dynamic practices?

    I’m sorry to differ but we knitters also have responsibilities.

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  29. A design might get introduced as a marketing ploy and, for a time, have no validity at all. But if enough people are intrigued by it to use it as a starting point for their creative projects, and if it has enough aesthetic integrity for those creative projects to share some common look, feel, technique–whatever–it may grow into something that is called “traditional.” Time plus repetition plus affection equals tradition, though perhaps not of the type named in the original marketing copy.

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  30. I’m in agreement with Barbara and Dawn, they say it so well! The companies are not interested in being accurate, they are simply using whatever it is that will fill their pockets with money. So, many consumers will fall for the descriptions used in marketing. Perhaps the companies want to appeal to the romance in us.
    Congrats on the driving test and I can’t wait for your book!

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  31. I think Barbara and Sandra have said it best. Yes, it’s just a marketing ploy to get people to buy an item. I did look up the sweater, and guess what? When I opened my computer this time, there was a whole ad for this company with all their sweaters and dresses. So, they have found me all the way over here!!

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  32. I quibble with the use of the word ‘traditional’ in Toast’s product description, but other than this I think this sort of thing comes with the territory of mass produced knitwear. Seeing as the design is not particularly well balanced or true to its name it’s clear that the aura of the name and the immediate feeling this evokes is more important than its historical accuracy, and they do a fine job of outlining its other details – simply, their main concern is selling. The average consumer might not know or care about the regional knitting practices or notice the messy situation at the seams. I certainly don’t advocate this, but unfortunately they’ve figured that this is the best way to make sales.

    From your perspective as a knitwear designer and historian I can see how you would feel offended at this, but I think the two situations you describe in your post are different beasts, and in this I somewhat agree with JMH’s comment about ‘good’. It is so interesting that time, migration, and creativity all contribute to the complexity of origins and styles, and the idea of being ‘purist’ is misplaced, but sadly this particular instance of mashing up is merely carelessness. Perhaps some of these regions could take to what France has done with the use of the name ‘champagne’ and make these words more meaningful.

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  33. I think the key element here is one of respect The description of the Toast jumper is one that shows little respect to/knowledge of any of the traditions either mentioned explicitly in the description or inherent in the yarn used etc. I would argue that a fluid and culturally diverse relativist conception of knitting and design represents a nuanced understanding and acknowledgement of all the voices/histories of knitting. The Toast description however is a non-authored melange of marketing keywords. So, in my view, and as always, it’s about who is speaking and from what position. Legitimising voices and everything wrapped up in the concept.

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  34. Hi Kate and all,
    I agree with previous comments about the lack of care and knowledge this represents. From a music perspective this would be like calling Hildegard of Bingen’s music Gregorian chant, which it wasn’t, and this matters because of all the cultural and performance resonances. ( if you try to sing Hildegarde pieces like gregorian chant they go wrong! They are too complex to sing for thesame meditative purposes). In Australia if I used motifs from our indigenous traditions in my artwork and passed them off either as my own or calling them ‘Canberran’ if they weren’t from here, I would rightly be criticised by those people the motifs belonged to: partly because I don’t have access to the cultural background, and partly because the right to use them to support myself still belongs to that culture. This isn’t to say those traditions aren’t changing, or that the people making that art are keeping it static, but the right to claim art belonging to place is important and should be at least understood, and the knowledge expanded. For people trying to support themselves from their cultural background with authenticity it stinks when others steal their work and pass it off as their own.

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  35. I understand what you mean. It’s great to see different “traditions” mixed together to form new designs. But marketing an item as Icelandic Fair Isle seams to be misleading to the public.

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  36. It seems to me that you have recognised that there is something wrong with the naming of that jumper. Could it be that you are unsettled by the commercialism of it? That it is up to knitters to name or rename a style, or to evolve it into something new, not up to some clothing company that’s adopted a style and (sorry gentle readers) bastardised it. Toast is not honouring knitters’ history, but churning out sweaters the cheapest way it can and throwing out a few phrases that might lure someone in to thinking it’s better than it is. Rather in the way that homewares stores sell handmade quilts made in third world countries at a cheap price. Every quilter I’ve ever known has looked at those quilts and been horrified by the poor workmanship, cheap fabric and low price. And the non-quilters instantly devalue the work of local quilters. They ask why should they pay $1,000 for a locally made quilt when they can go to KMart and buy one for $100. Now its the turn of knitters.

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  37. Is knitting a rowan fair isle pattern ‘authentic’? Tastes change. I bought a second hand shetland fair isle knit kit ‘Bella Knits’ which must have been from the ’80’s. Having looked at the pattern, it feels old and outdated, but re-aligned into more modern stranded knitting designs, like Orkney, with more modern coloured yarns to compliment, it is great. So hybrid – and something I will wear, not truly authentic, but i learned the techniques. Hey, 20 years time, circle comes round. Admittedly, Toast Jumper is absolute pants, but then , once, they used to be so good…

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  38. Could be the copywriter’s go-to idea of “Icelandic sweater” is “loose sweater made with undyed, rustic yarn and some kind of patterning at the top,” and it does hit that mark. But just because I’m white and most of Iceland is white doesn’t make me Icelandic. That sweater is about as Icelandic as I am, and I’m a native Californian!

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  39. I quibble with the use of the word ‘traditional’ in Toast’s product description, but other than this I think this sort of thing comes with the territory of mass produced knitwear. Seeing as the design is not particularly well balanced or true to its name it’s clear that the aura of the name and the immediate feeling this evokes is more important than its historical accuracy, and they do a fine job of outlining its other details – simply, their main concern is selling. The average consumer might not know or care about the regional knitting practices or notice the messy situation at the seams. I certainly don’t advocate this, but unfortunately they’ve figured that this is the best way to make sales.

    From your perspective as a knitwear designer and historian I can see how you would feel offended at this, but I think the two situations you describe in your post are different beasts, and in this I somewhat agree with JMH’s comment about ‘good’. It is so interesting that time, migration, and creativity all contribute to the complexity of origins and styles, and the idea of being ‘purist’ is misplaced, but sadly this particular instance of mashing up is merely carelessness. Perhaps some of these regions could take to what France has done with the use of the name ‘champagne’ and make these words more meaningful.

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  40. The range of responses to the “Icelandic Fair Isle” issue are fascinating—so fascinating, in fact, that I want to post again. Many of the comments focus on the issues of marketing and consumerism, noting that those who write copy for a company such as Toast might not know anything about knitwear and are impelled by the profit motive. This is most likely correct. However, it is quite likely that the buyer of our sweater might also not know much about knitting and is concerned about, well, if not profit, then cost. For those of us who do know something about wool and knitting traditions, we might lament what we are a witness to, but perhaps we should ask ourselves if our lamentations are shading over into self-righteousness. Is it incumbent on a seller and/or a consumer to be fully informed about the deep history of an item for sale? There is a danger of snobbery when we (legitimately) rejoice at finely made items but at the same time distain cheaper imitations. I am hugely grateful that I can afford to buy lovely wool, possess the skills necessary to make fine knitwear, and have had the time and interest to learn about different knitting traditions. I am very privileged. But I recognize that not everyone has the time, interest, or money when making a knitwear purchase. And that’s just fine.

    Also, should we not be careful about how we use the term “authentic”? As I noted in my earlier comment, the provenance and history of an item are often hard to determine with absolute certainty. Yes, we can identify traditions, but these are always in the process of evolving (as is language and the names we have for things). As knitters, we love trying out new things, playing with elements of one style and blending them with another. How many times have we described what we have made as a “sort of Aran-y brioche” or whatever mad combination! I bet some of us may even have said “Well, I knit a Fair Isle design with Lopi yarn, so I guess it is an Icelandic Fair Isle”?

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    1. I don’t think a seller needs to be fully informed about the deep history of knitting, but he/she might be more carefull with labelling his products then. As a knitter myself, though not thát familiar with tradition, this sweater seems odd somehow, and I can see why it inspires a sense of offense. A seller might have done something as simple as google images, on both fairisle knitting and icelandic knitting, and have found out that this particular sweater just doesn’t seem to fit in either of those.

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  41. I bought an Ally Capellino bag thinking I was supporting a British manufacturer. The website has lovely pictures of a leather workshop in the East End of London and even says British manufacturing on the About us page. It’s a large leather tote bag and was expensive. I rooted out the label – tiny and right inside at the bottom – I needed a torch to read it as the bag doesn’t easily turn inside out. Guess what? Made in China.

    I was looking for a modern watch and googled Scandinavian design and watches. I found some convincing looking ones made by Skagen. Turns out they are made by Fossil – an American company but the website says Skagen Denmark.

    I guess what I’m trying to say is that it’s hard to find culturally authentic stuff and people like Toast and Fossil and Ally Capellino are clever at pulling the wool over our eyes.

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  42. In my eyes we have here the same discourse as – for example – in food: you can have pasta or spring rolls all over the world (with a lot of wrong ingredients and condiments, perhaps … ;-)), but only a few people know the “real” (in this case: the regional) story behind every dish and can tell and teach you how to make your pasta the right way.
    It’s true, that the “pure” tradition doesn’t exist, neither in knitting nor in cooking, but I think it is important that some people try to “fix” the regional/local knowledge or heritage – in knitting or in cooking – in an archeological/scientific sense of conservation and collection etc. by writing a cookbook or a book on yokes, to make sure that not only the marketing guys define what we eat or knit.

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  43. I looked at this jumper in the Toast catalogue (which I get more for the photography than anything else), and my first thought was you can’t get Icelandic Fairisle! It’s like saying Stilton Parmesan! But I also noted that it was made of EU wool in the EU which at least has union representation and standards for how its workers and animals should be treated, which is more than you can say than for some other mass production. The rest is marketing which is infuriating to knitters and any historians and people who care about words, but due to Northern knitting traditions being influenced by each other and cross-pollination it might be better to celebrate the interconnectedness of knitting styles rather than seek a Domination d’Origin for jumpers. DOC itself being a marketing ploy, selling to those of us who value “authenticity” even if we knit it.
    It makes me think of the kilt. What a highlander wore in the 17thC is not what Scotsmen now wear at weddings. They’re both still kilts. Knitting evolves. And I think what is annoying you, Kate, (if you allow me to put words in your mouth) is classification error rather than cultural vandalism.

    Sorry if this is rambling or blunt, tiring day.

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  44. Oh wow. I am so happy you are addressing this but I don’t at all envy you at trying to resolve these questions – maybe it is impossible. Naturally, cultural and ethnic ideas and informations are merging and evolving all the time. I think of how here in early Canadian history, European settlers influenced and prompted the evolution of some Aboriginal craft/art, with the importation of glass beads, for example, that in some Nations replaced the more “traditional” use of dyed porcupine quills. And yet, today, we still look upon this craft as distinctly First Nations. Or what about the west coast Salish tradition of making Cowichan sweaters? Knitting was a craft introduced by European settlers (notably the Fair Isle technique) along with knitting needles and sheep for wool (that eventually replaced the goat and dog hair already being spun for weaving) and yet this particular style of knitting is distinctly connected to the Salish people.
    I can’t help but wonder if a cultural or ethnic tradition isn’t deeply rooted in a sense of (self) identity, something people wore(folk craft) or made (think cottage industry craft) that was/is distinct to that region. I think this touches upon why this Toast sweater makes some of us bristle – it doesn’t seem to holistically represent the name, this “Icelandic” identity, that Toast has bestowed upon it with the assumed intention of making a pretty profit from a consumer tendency towards cultural materialism (which isn’t to say producing a book or a garment etc., is materialistic or self-gaining if it is produced in a spirit of honour, education, celebration and preservation of the traditional craft being represented). Whew, I sure hope that made a little sense :)
    I really cannot wait to read what conclusions you make as I have already so enjoyed reading all the thoughtful comments and perspectives shared here today. Thank you.

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  45. Catalogs are notoriously inaccurate–it drives me nuts all the time. If you, catalog writer, are trying to evoke some kind of romance from these associations, please make sure to call up the right ones.
    But beyond that, I think that borrowing goes so deep between the British Isles and Scandinavia (I’m thinking of “Celtic” motifs in manuscripts that are derived from Scandinavian designs) that we have to accept a certain amount of inaccuracy or incompleteness in our descriptive terms. It would be lovely if every knitter could knit “Fair Isle” or “Norwegian” sweaters with an understanding of the design’s complex history, but it would be hard to cram this history into garment names.

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  46. A topic similar to this I have been thinking about recently. I create hand knit, naturally dyed items with locally sourced wool. I was frustrated with trying to show the difference between what I do compared to cheap items imported from a foreign factory. I decided education was key. I now indicate exactly where the wool is from, where it is milled, the material dyed in, and the influence for the style of knitting . I think if all small makers take on the project of educating the public, that the consumer will spot something that is not quite right. I think as knitters we have to be sensitive as to our inspiration , for instance I will say “colors inspired by Cowichan knit items” rather than saying an item is a Cowichan knit item. I think it is fine to break down the elements of inspiration, and perhaps that is the fluidity of what you discuss in your post. There is so much more I could say, but posting from the phone is less than fun (LOL).

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  47. I think what is disturbing here is the use of certain terms, which have specific meanings, strictly for the purpose of selling a product. I myself struggle with marketing and the willful manipulation a company may use in order to sway an uneducated public. This description strips the meaning from the words “Icelandic” and “Fair Isle”, and look at the product itself–stripped of identity, not connected in any way to any places or traditions, even in spirit. This kind of attitude is what causes the loss of cultural identity, which is very different than the growth of an identity by absorbing and incorporating aspects of other cultural traditions. This ad would maybe read differently, to me, if the word “style” were employed….it would still be egregious, but at least it’d be an attempt by the company to address the fact that the sweater is not Icelandic or truly Fair Isle in nature.
    I happen to believe that words still have meaning. It drives me crazy to see an item marketed as woven when in fact it’s been knitted, or knit when it has been crocheted. Some things do indeed change over time, but not to the point that these terms should be used incorrectly. I don’t know what the broader solution is to this, except for me in my own life to make the most educated choices I can about purchasing (either made goods or the materials to create), making, and passing information along to others.

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  48. OH SO TRUE (sadly), AND SO ANNOYING!!!
    please sent these words to toast – and if they answer you, let us know.
    finding so-called ‘icelandig’ sweater at h&m (for example) is terrible. but it’s more annoying when a a company give themselve an image of passing over ‘traditions’, ‘heritage’ or ‘quality’ when in fact the only thing they want to do is making money – just like h&m.

    i have always enjoyed your thoughts and writings, and was a bit sad that textisles hasn’t been continued. therefore i’m really happy that there will be a book soon, already very excited.

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  49. I suspect keyword cramming might be at play here, too. Much like everything on ebay is a LOLITA GOTH STEAMPUNK SHABBY CHIC HIPSTER ANTHROPOLOGIE AUTHENTIC VINTAGE DRESS, the more terms packed into a listing, the more eyes it will attract. Probably, Toast’s copywriters figured that people interested in this style of sweater might be searching on terms like “Icelandic,” “Fair Isle” or “Irish.”

    With a target audience of consumers, not those with an archival interest in regional knitwear, Toast is probably more concerned with casting a wide net than with specifically accurate descriptors.

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  50. Hi Kate…I think the bottom line is that you know about what you knit, the tradtions, real wool , heritage…there are a lot of us out here who know too…there will always be people out there who dont, who bend the truth or just are not aware, or dont want to know. ..like those who buy mushy veg in the grocery store because they dont know what a garden veg is like

    You have to aim for those of us who do, some will learn, others not

    That is the world…cant wait till I have your book…pat j

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  51. It’s like “fusion” cooking. On the one hand, it’s depressing that distinct cultural traditions are being lost. On the other hand, people are seizing the opportunity to creatively combine old elements to form new items. We celebrate successful creations. Maybe your reactions to this sweater is in part due to the fact that it’s not an inspired design.

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  52. Kate, I think that you wrote your conclusion right here. You share the truth, as unfortunate as it is, and the truth needs to be shared. Perhaps your thoughts and the doubts you have will open good discussion and more awareness, as it has in these intelligent and compassionate comments and responses.
    We need to know and understand, so, as knitters, we can pass the word around…and we will!
    Thank you for writing this.

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  53. It implies a superficiality of engagement with the actual traditions and crafts and trades on the associations that we have with Scotland/Ireland/Iceland as whatever: windswept? snowy? ancestral? I am sure you can think of more.

    It also reminds me a little of etsy sellers tagging their vintage fabric with “ethnic” or similar, despite the fact that that sort of usage of the term ethnic is problematic at best, as well as implying certain things about “culture” (ie white, western, middle class) versus others (who are “ethnic”) that I always find disturbing.

    Congrats on the driving test and all the best with your book!

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  54. Loving words and mourning the passing of some over the years (what’s up with all the slang making it to the dictionaries?), I have to agree with you that there seems to be a disregard for the actual meaning of terms.

    I understand that marketing has it’s purpose (the search for the almighty dollar), but this type of loose terminology just underscores one of the many reasons I watch UK movies and series rather than American ones and read more books written in the UK or before the 1950s. That was when words were used and pronounced correctly!

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  55. It is offensive, as others have said, due to its blindly imported nature. It is mass produced. The aim of mass producing is to make money. Its producers, ‘designer’ and sellers don’t care where the wool (is it wool?) came from. The marketing description is just sheer lack of knowledge.

    The other extreme is what’s created by artists like you, who do care. It’s the fact that you care about being honest, knowing where your wool comes from and knowing your design intimately that causes this, somewhat faceless, jumper to offend you.

    On the bright side, a small number of people who wear the faceless jumper may start to love it sufficiently that it becomes a vehicle to take them on a journey, where they begin to delve deeper in to the world of knitting/knitwear/textiles…

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  56. the construction of a national myth seems to be an important post-WW2 practice (though germany began in the 19th century, and set the standards for the practice). the best-documented case, in my experience, of a single statesman making the decision to do so, for political reasons independent of any actual national myth, is ben gurion’s deciding to turn from the traditional zionist scorn for european jewry, assimilated jewry, religion, and survivors of the nazi genocide, whom israel had repelled and vilified. after the eichmann trial in the early 1960s was televised, to enormous effect, ben gurion realized the political power the nazi genocide had as a national myth, and founded israel’s new national myth on that event. this book is the playbook for those moves and that process: i’m sure that’s part of what the danish royal family was doing. i’d wager royal families actual talk and think about this.

    http://www.amazon.com/Israels-Holocaust-Politics-Nationhood-Cambridge/dp/0521616468

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    1. I would say that this process of defining identity, fighting over the past and construction of your national myth has gone on throughout history. The Roman Empire sought a national myth and identity through stories like Aeneas’ escape from Troy to found Rome, medieval kings used the past to define who they were – like Charlemagne calling himself “Holy Roman Emperor” to suggest he was the inheritor of the western Roman Empire, an image his successors were to bicker over for centuries. The nineteenth century did see a lot of this national myth making and returns to the past e.g. the English Gothic Revival and the British Houses of Parliament, which reek of the history of Britain from a very Whig standpoint of “how did we get so great” and you see it in the renewed passion across Europe for national dress. History has always been important politically and important in how a people sees itself.

      You could say that it is equally important to the knitting community as we seek to define who we are, where what we do comes from and which elements of our craft are “traditional” and which new.

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  57. My first reaction to reading that descriptiion was “Say what?”
    Icelandic Fair Isle sweater in Irish wool, to me, is a whole mouthful of concern. Moreover, the fact that ‘traditional’ is thrown in there is also worrying – do they mean pattern, or construction, or knitting method, or what? None seem tradional in any sense of that melting pot description.
    We are lucky that we can look at an item like this and say it is none of the above, but I am hugely concerned that fashion is selling a garment with a (hefty) tag of culture and heritage that is incorrect or non existent. It crosses too into the boundaries of ownership and origin too and there are arguments within that. We know how loosely Fair Isle is used and that is acceptable to an extent, but there is a danger in losing identity when it goes wrong. It doesn’t have to come from Iceland, or Fair Isle (or Aran, or Guernsey, or Jersey) to be recognised as being an item in made in those styles – it doesn’t even have to be made in a wool traditional to that style (see Shetland Museum for early 20thC Fair Isle garments made is cotton, silk and rayon) but for my money I would like it to be consistent with that style/construction/etc to give it that tag.

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  58. I agree with the other commenters. In addition, I think the sweater is poorly presented. From the picture, it looks narrow at the shoulder, wide at the lower body. In addition, it is described as “fitted” – using chunky yarn. I think you are reacting to poor design as well as presentation. I can’t imagine wearing the sweater unless the temperature was arctic.

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  59. Money/marketing/lies it’s all about profit as they use words to sell/describe a product that in fact isn’t what it is but it is easier to ask more money for it, using their good brand/shop name the customers might not care reading all the information and think they got an authentic sweater, it’s probably the reason you are (mildly) offended.

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  60. Maybe it’s the use of the word “Traditional” in the blurb hat is the problem. I note that they use the words Fair Isle and fairisle to mean simply “Stranded with more than one colour” but perhaps they think that is a more generally understood term. In fact it is a bit like an Icelandic LOPI – bt then there are the Norwegian-looking lice on the body…

    It’s quite an attractive jumper in a good yarn, so for the non-knitter it would be appealing, leaving aside the description.

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  61. I think that the discomfort here might stem from the lack of care and respect for the origin and the wool itself. It seems like catchy labels are being thrown around to enhance marketing appeal. There’s a difference between getting inspired by other knitting and textile traditions, and doing a mass-produced version that takes them all and rolls them into an amorphous blob, and treats them like they’re interchangeable and not unique. Because all knitting traditions are unique, even if inspired by others.

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  62. My first response to the sweater was aggravation. I wasn’t certain why I felt that way. As I read and reflected on your post it came to me. In the quilting world, which I am more familiar with than knitting, there has been a resurgence since the 1970’s or so here in the US in people sharing their quilting family history, traditions, and renewing the sport as it were. After that resurgence many companies, some with good intentions and some only profit, took the quilting idea to third world countries where they were able to have reproductions made very cheaply. The marketing that followed this process took my breath away. I think it is the marketing that is getting to my sense of accuracy and rightness here too. They are representing something as if they know what it is, and obviously do not, and then they have the gaul to expect us to swallow that inaccuracy while paying them a fine profit for something that is not what they say it is. Although as you mention there are more regionalities within the traditions of knitting than nationalities I think there is more wrong with this product than just the reference to the pattern style. As you comment about the type of fiber used to produce the sweater and the place of production that would relate to a “true” traditional product it becomes a personal history ripped from us and taken over by corporations. Many high end fashion designers win court cases over the copying of their own designs by others with the expectation that they “own” them via copyright law. This doesn’t reflect that same level of legality but rankles no less. I strongly feel the same aggravation and anger at this pop up history and tradition that you do. Thank you as always for sharing this with us.

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  63. I think it’s confusing. If somebody said “I am knitting a fair isle icelandic sweater” what would you expect them to produce? Even from a basic uneducated fashion point of view, a fair isle sweater is what you tuck into your trousers like Nick Heyward or you wear to go punting like Anthony Andrews.

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  64. For me, the thing that chafes is how little knowledge is expected/assumed from either the consumer or the designers. Yes, these traditions are all intertwined, but successful clothing designers who are drawing from those traditions should have a notion of *how* they are intertwined, instead of using motifs and nationalities as interchangeable marketing buzzwords. I don’t expect the average shopper to distinguish different influences or material sources, but, it would be great if we lived in a world where we could have that level of textile literacy.
    Designers are in a unique position to educate consumers, so, a sweater like this seems like a lost opportunity.

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    1. I completely agree with Huelo… My first thought when I saw that sweater was a bit incredulous and quite a lot of annoyance for how sloppy their marketing was. Being from the US, I am quite familiar with “truthiness”.

      My second thought was that a sweater such as the Toast sweater now becomes the “reference” for a fair-isle OR icelandic sweater for those who buy or admire it, while it is barely relatable to the characteristics that are associated with those design approaches. So there should be an expectation that the textile industry/designers should up their game a bit, since you would think of them as professionals in their field and should know the difference between the design terms used to describe the sweater they have designed.

      Over the years as I have become more and more interested in knitted textile origins and history and have learned a lot (especially from your blog, Kate!) that there is a continuum or fluidity of regional design origins. However, the reason why those regional terms do stick is because that specific culture has taken a design, style, motif, technique, etc.from another place and has made it their own.

      I think it is the “truthiness” aspect of the marketing for this sweater that really rankles me. In order to acknowledge that there is a continuum or fluidity to regional textile design, you would first need to know that there are regional specific designs that the majority of people associate with a particular place and time and what the characteristics of those designs ARE.

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  65. I am fascinated by the whole question of “authenticity” (and associated concepts) beyond knitwear, even, and especially how it relates to consumer products. I relate your issue to the concept of terroir in viniculture–and the toast sweater is a box wine, perfectly drinkable, but without the complex web of connections to place. Terroir, I think, allows for the kind of rich cross-influences you are talking about: varieties of grapes, grown outside their native lands, produce different products in interaction with the growing conditions and the wine-making traditions of their new homes, and those products *can* have a legitimacy that an industrially produced wine does not. Why that legitimacy is meaningful is the question I wrestle with.

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  66. The difficulty you are facing is, first of all, essentially one of competing typologies. For example, with regard to the Toast sweater, you are attempting to classify it according to geography, source of yarn, and style of design, but because you are unable to lock the garment into any one category, you feel unease. This is not a new problem, and although we might desire that a classification system—such as the Linnaean mode of classifying organisms—will make everything clear, it seldom does.

    Second, your unease is—possibly—further deepened by the idea that we can with sufficient certainty pinpoint the beginning of a knitting tradition with a particular period, place, and people. While historical research may lead us to say there is something we designate “Fairisle” knitting, which originated at time “t”, we may be wrong; for example, this style of knitting might have been imported from elsewhere.

    Third, from these considerations also comes the specter of the purist mentality—that a Gansey, say, can only be a Gansey if it is x and y. But while the idea of a “purebred” has appeal (despite the difficulties I have already described in verifying an object’s history), it stands against the fundamentally messy operation of the creative act that rejoices in mixing and reshaping.

    I suspect that part of your concern stems from the awareness that while you endorse the creative act—and thus the mixing of things—there are limits to what you consider appropriate in the mixing: so a Gansey made of acrylic seems wrong. Perhaps a better way to think, then, is from a basis of an idea of the “good.” Let me give an example of what I mean: If I want a hammer for heavy-duty nails, a hammer made of brittle plastic would not be a good item; if I wanted a cardigan for warmer climate, thick Icelandic wool would be a poor choice. Therefore, what is “good” is what best serves the purpose or use of the item. Presumably, for Toast, the combination of yarn and pattern best serves the (good) purpose of selling the sweater and making a profit; for you, the “good” is construed differently. However, I do think if you focus on “goods” rather than origins and typologies, things will be clearer.

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  67. I agree with Barbara comment. I really think people in general are not aware of their lack of knowledge. Perhaps, the organizations who produce this kind of products should be more pro-active defending the rigor of the product information in order to add more value.

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  68. I am inclined to agree with your feelings of “mild offence” regarding the practice of describing things (in this case, knitwear) in whatever way will help sell the product, even if the description in NO WAY whatsoever is a true description of the item! This is not just a knitwear phenomenon. All over in western society everything is being described in terms that suit the describer for his own agenda. Unfortunately, words don’t seem to mean much anymore. If I want something to look or be a certain way to suit me, then I will say it “is” that way. Whether you agree with me or not is “your problem”. Truth just doesn’t matter. I would suggest, you be one of the few in this world who speak truth for your book. Stick to what really came from where and why. That will have much more meaning for those who care about the subject. And if I may allowed to hop on the soapbox again, I think we should do the same for all areas of life. Thank you.

    PS: That is one thing I love about your blog, that you care about the meaning of words!

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  69. I recently attended a conference on Nordic knitting. The most interesting part of this conference was just as you have observed the migrations from country to country of the populations shared many designs and styles now recognized as either Shetland or Nordic more by the number of colors used in the designed rows than by the actual designs. The way we knit and what regional designs are chosen are shared by many different cultures from the Vikings to the Estonians and Latvians to the people of Shetland. While none of these shared styles were natural to the native cultures in the Americas we have adopted these beautiful designs and made them a part of our own culture as well. Check out the Cowician sweaters knitted in northwestern Canada by the native tribes. Those sweaters may use native symbols and a very heavy yarn but it’s origins were the sailors that settled and influenced the the native tribes not even two hundred years ago.

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  70. I can see that you might have no objection to the actual sweater, but tons to its claims to tradition. Rather than celebrating it as a modern garment, it is marketed erroneously as a traditional style of sweater. I don’t like that inaccuracy either, but I like that it is made of real wool though.

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  71. Kate, Your post makes me feel a bit better about the lack of regional identity I have as a self-taught American knitter. Recently, I have undertaken a long-term project where I am knitting an item in honor of each of my great-grandparents. They came from all over the world, and my hope is that I will create my own personal “tradition” from what I learn through working with Czech, Canadian, Estonian, etc. wools, motifs, and patterns. Perhaps, intentially or not, this is what knitters all over the world are doing today.

    Regarding the sweater that you showed, I find the most unappealing thing about it is the disregard for the source of the wool. It looks very warm and pretty, but the magic that comes from a connection between the wearer and the land.

    Best wishes.

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    1. Correction: It looks very warm and pretty, but the magic that comes from a connection between the wearer and the land is missing.

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  72. From a very uneducated standpoint, maybe we recognize that designers still see beauty in all the variety of style and wool available in the northern part of the world? As you point out, sharing ideas seems to be common with this style of sweater. Perhaps we can celebrate the world’s eyes being opened to even more history and design with something as ubiquitous as a sweater.

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    1. I’m surprised to see another Gretchen among your readership. Hmm. . . perhaps it’s time for me to adopt a new, unique username for comments here.

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  73. Just my opinion but I think you are reacting to the marketing aspect. The people responsible are trying to call up a feeling associated with the object which is separate from the appeal it has for its own aesthetics. It is clearly not authentic and they don’t care about that at all, while it is actually important to you.

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  74. Kate and Barbara,

    I think it’s not only the ignorance that rankles (after all, they know _something_, or the words ‘fair isle’ would never occur to someone looking for a name for a colourwork jumper) but the reduction of a complex tradition to a simple label: ‘Fair Isle’ = ‘any stranded colourwork’ and ‘Icelandic’ = ‘some sort of concentric pattern around the neck’ (or possibly ‘uses thick yarn’ – can’t see from here…). Possibly it’s this, plus the awareness that both are being used as words-that-are-fashionable (and therefore words-that-sell) rather than as useful description, that rankles.

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  75. I think all retail descriptions should be read in the voice of the above ^^ 25 year old design assistant as a kinda ‘Icelandic’ ‘fairisle’ sweater. It’s not a historical, specific to a region description, it’s a feel or maybe even a homage to the type of sweater they are thinking of. A whisper.

    what irks me is the crappy raglan, flat knit and the shoddy way it’s been joined. Give me a yoke!

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  76. My immediate response when I viewed the sweater was to cringe. Your post comes at an interesting moment for me as I await delivery of an order of LéttLopi, Álafoss Lopi and Plutolopi wool from Iceland. There is also a pair of Norwegian Star fingerless gloves on my pins at the moment. I do not pretend to consider myself an elite knitter, having only just succeeded in knitting your Tea Jenny a few weeks ago. However, I do prefer to give credit where credit is due and so it becomes disconcerting when all things that are stranded colourwork are then lumped into the Fair Isle category. With the world becoming more homogenised it is important for me personally to understand where a tradition originated. However, as you wrote about the odyssey of the Eskimo sweater, it does turn out that what many of us esteem dearly as time-honoured cultural traditions turn out to not come from the pure origins we thought. (The Lopapeysa being an example for me as it has only been part of Icelandic culture for a couple of decades and not centuries.) Regardless, I still want Norwegian style to remain Norwegian, Shetland to remain Shetland, etc. But then I will find myself using the term Scandinavian to encompass all knitting that I assume originated from that part of the world. Go figure. Perhaps what it all boils down to is that at our core we need to feel and know roots, perhaps more than ever with the world becoming smaller and more blended. But since the world has been blended for so long now are there any truly unique traditions or are they all an amalgamation? Conundrum, indeed!

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  77. My two cents…

    I don’t find the notions you cite as being at odds with each other, rather just the nature of knitting!

    It seems a local “tradition” of knitting is essentially a temporary practice held until the next financial, social or technical influence sways the purpose and/or product of the knitters efforts. These varying influences feed this “mash up” of ideas/designs/materials, which can lead to the development of the next “tradition”. Each tradition being less a permanent state than a snapshot of a point on a continuum.

    The TOAST sweater exemplifies this moment in time when marketers see the value in selling the ideas of hand crafted quality and traditional design – even if they don’t exist in the item they’re marketing.

    In so doing, I believe they elevate, in the minds of the public, the value of authentic hand crafted knitted items, which likely supports the ultimate interest in the essence from whence such ideas have come, i.e.historic knitting traditions – our treasured “snapshots” of the knitting past and for those of us lucky enough to embrace such traditions in our lives today, modern knitting as well.

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  78. I agree that the descriptors are being used to sell the garment. I think the terms “Fairisle” and “Icelandic” are used to infer a stranded knitting technique, and nothing else. This could appeal to people who have no idea what the difference is between the two. The sweater description doesn’t say that it is hand-made either, so I wonder if it machine knit? The fact that it does not specify where in the EU it was made, makes me think it was not in the UK or some nordic country, but maybe from eastern Europe. As a knitter, this sweater is a little offensive for all the reasons you’ve mentioned. But, if I were to imagine that I knew nothing about knitting, this sweater would seem like a lovely, warm, hand-knit sweater from Europe, which would be infinitely better than a machine-knit, mass-produced item of dubious quality from China.

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  79. Reblogged this on small blue pearls and commented:
    I think is post has a lot to say about yoga despite it being about a knitting offense.

    The notion of ‘traditional’ is something we Ashtangis wrestle with constantly, how authentic is the yoga we practice? Was it developed in the early part of the last century as exercises for young boys or is it older than that? Would we even want to practice the kind of yoga the ‘real’ yogis practiced anyway? How do we explain the differences between how it was taught 30 years ago with how it is taught today? How long does it take for something to be worthy of being called traditional?

    The forces of marketing seep into everything, creating a mashup to help sell and popularize knitwear and spiritual practices alike.

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  80. I do not think that the idea of fluent regional textile practices and your reaction to the “Toast-sweater” contradict each other.
    The large stars in Fair Isle knitting might have come from Norway, but through a whole lot of use in knitting designs from Shetland and some passing of time they became something recognizable as “Fair Isle”. The “Eskimo” sweater might not have started out as particularly Norwegian, but because of its popularity in Norway it became Norwegian with time.
    I feel that if I were to use archaeological typology both the stars and the “Eskimo” design would be categorized as “Fair Isle” or Norwegian respectively. Simply because they are present in knitwear made or worn in a certain area (much more than once). I believe the passing of time is a key factor in this – the “Eskimo” sweater for example, probably would not have been considered very Norwegian in 1953.
    The “Toast-sweater” however has neither a look that one could identify as Icelandic or Fair Isle “type” nor does it come from said places. The lack of a recognizable connection certainly makes the labeling as “Icelandic Fair Isle” irritating.

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  81. This is indeed thorny. ‘Traditional’ anything must be considered suspect. I practice knitting and yoga, and in yoga we wrestle with the notion of traditional all the time. The type of yoga I practice is considered quite traditional (Ashtanga) and yet it can easily be argued that it is only 100 years old and drawn from several other ‘traditional’ practices. Sorry to clog up your knitting blog with yoga but there are lots of us deeply involved with both. I may need to re blog this and carry these thoughts further elsewhere :)

    Marketing being what it is however, this sort of mashup is inevitable. It isn’t even a very nice sweater.

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  82. Dear Kate,
    Interesting question you posed – I guess knitting is a relative thing highly dependent on fashion within the community. What most people, even knitters would approve as a correct and traditional Setesdalkofte in Norway would have thumbs down as wrong or not good looking from purists in Setesdal.

    I had to show you my worst moment of “traditional” Norwegian star design, attached. Happy reindeer and sculls in a happy mix. The sweater hangs on a gangsta’ kind of guy on a very cool isakaya (bar) in Tokyo, the place used as model for Kill Bill. So the man is immensely cool but I can hardly hold my breath. The two hats didn’t make it much better (cap wrong way around with a trulby on top). The picture was taken 23 December 2012 so he was all dressed up for a happy Christmas.

    And it was probably all acrylic-

    Best regards
    Ingeborg

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  83. Kate, I’m sorry to say that after 20 years in the fashion industry, I can assure you that the people who wrote this copy for the Icelandic Fairisle Sweater have no idea what a “traditional” sweater- be it Icelandic, Fairisle, or Bohus would be. I understand your reaction. It’s hard to believe that those who are in charge of selling clothes to the masses could come from such an uneducated perspective. In many cases, the marketing department asked the design department for a catchy description and the 25 year old designer, who doesn’t knit and has no interest in the history of hand knits, made something up. The 25 year old was hired because she works for less money than the designer who trained her, and she can stay late every night since she has no family to go home to. Her job is to buy ready made knit inspiration swatches from a knit dealer who sells hundreds of swatches. She sends the swatch to the factory with a picture and measurements of the finished sweater and that’s pretty much all the design that went into it.

    I’m sorry to sound so cynical. We do this for love. For them, it’s usually just a job.

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      1. I also agree. Sometimes though I find it best to let it go and move on. Otherwise I can get too bogged down in all the things that are wrong and get nothing done. I am also a longtime textile industry veteran and handknitter too.

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    1. I agree too. And wonder if the descriptors are put there with the intention of google finding this item in a search for either of those terms? So if Joanna Public wants to buy a colourwork sweater, she might use either of those search terms and be delighted to come up with this sweater which “looks nice” – its cultural heritage not being of any interest to your average shopper with £150 to spend on a sweater…?

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  84. Hi Kate. I feel very strongly about this, having studied both consumer studies and marketing and also having further studied manufacturing methods in clothing and indeed worked in industry. I believe this unfortunate garment epitomises the worst form of mass produced knitwear. Neither fine knits for wearing with tailoring nor the good honest handknits for wearing on their own as the focal point of any wardrobe which we handknitters revere.

    In my view, the rise of consumerism and fast cheap mass production has created an artificial market for knitwear. Knits which have been developed to be quickly mass produced and which make maximum use of flat pieces: the method known as “Cut and sew”. It stands out on the Toast sweater to me as of course the pattern does not match, no self respecting handknitter would make an “Icelandic” style sweater without a circular yoke let alone not in the lofty lopi Icelandic yarn which is afterall very quick to knit. The design with only two colours per row and stranded yarns can technically be called fairisle as this refers to the aforementioned technical details, not the origins. I really don’t like this development either. In fact as Toast is founded by two superb knitwear designers, Jamie and Jessie Smeaton, it is highly regretable fo me that this sweater has found its way into their collection.

    In my view, the EU would do well to work to protect and honour local traditions, celebrate the differences and copyright their individuality instead of allowing such misleading product descriptions. All the details are there it is just the overarching description which ranckles. Proper regional knits made from locally produced yarns and made using traditional techniques have a bouyant market and are snapped up by tourists.

    Good luck in completing your new book. I look forward to owning a copy immensely and to knitting yokes for the pure joy of it. Oh, and many congrats on passing the dreaded driving test. Happy motoring. You will never run out of wool/tea to drink when knitting now!

    >

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  85. Hi, I certainly agree with you about the muddle of this jumper that has been called Icelandic.  I think the ‘marketer’ has egg on their face as it is SO not Icelandic, however the pictures in the brochure which featured the jumper are beautiful pictures of Iceland. And by association that jumper picks up some of that beauty. Presumably anyone who buys it doesnt really care about the authenticity of the design or wool.  I do like distinguishing the various ‘traditions’ even if they are relatively recent.  I particularly like (and remember) Alice Starmore’s first books on Scandinavian and Baltic knitwear.  Her transformation of Delsbo etc patterns into modern garments by playing with size, colour and materials enhances those traditional designs rather than detract from the tradition.

    ________________________________

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  86. Why not think of them as regional styles rather than traditions? If you do that, then the errors in Toast’s description are immediately easy to categorise.

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  87. There is a need for a taxonomy. Retail catalog writers are, of course, exempt from taxonomy because they are about the story. I always hope for the facts (size, length, etc) but often there is just a story.

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  88. Hi Kate,

    I once bought something from Toast and have since received their catalogues, which I don’t want but keep for the occasionally very nice images in them, which I use to make cards and cd covers. I digress. I got the most recent catalogue, in which this sweater appears, and it’s obvious that the catalogue (and current collection) is being marketed in a way that uses a generic touristic version of Iceland as a ‘hook’ – there are some beautiful photos of what I take to be Iceland. There are no photo credits in the booklet so I guess it could be somewhere else. This lack of information about the photo is entirely in keeping with what you say about the lazy ascription of the sweater above – all the separate traditions and places are subsumed into a generic ‘Scandi-folksy’ exotic which is unconcerned about details or about specific traditions. Rather it’s the blend of all of them that is the selling point (and it probably works, for people who neither know nor care about individual regions’ knitting traditions!).

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  89. Not disrespect I think, more just ignorance.
    One of my (Norwegian) mother’s cousins ran the Shetland Bus, rowing – yes, I think I’m right, rowing – backwards and forwards to help people escape occupation.

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  90. it makes me think of this….in our “american melting pot”, despite people’s most mixed heritages and the diversity of their genealogy, we still try to identify ourselves with one or more specific identities. my husband’s family is polish and czech and swedish. but to hear them talk and see the traditions they practice, specifically on the holidays, you’d think they were 100% polish without a drop of anything else to their heritage. yet, you see my husband and there’s no doubt of his mixed background. you don’t often see a 6’2″ blond, blue eyed polish guy. the challenge i face with my children is to make sure that they don’t forget their mixed background, the rich diversity of their ancestors – the polish, the czech, the swedish, the irish, german, english, native american and possibly french. it’s that richness in our ancestory that led to us, led to them and their unique qualities and characteristics.

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    1. Yes, I immediately thought of my own mixed ethnicity when I read Kate’s thoughtful post. I am an American with lots of German ancestry on both sides, but also Scottish, Norwegian and Hungarian…that I know of. If I am asked to state my ethnicity, I usually check the “White-non-Hispanic” box. Once I was asked that question over the phone by someone at a university needing to check a box. I paused, and then said, “Well, mostly northern European mongrel, I guess.” The person asking the question laughed.

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  91. It’s none of the above, it’s a stranded knitted design,I worked in a yarn shop in the hay day of Icelandic sweaters (70’s) nobody cared what they were called, they wanted to knit one!
    Every thing has to have a name, I recently saw a knitting teacher touting her Sami mitten class, they’re not really traditional Sami mittens, & it grates on my nerves!
    As they say anything for a buck!

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  92. I could probably forgive it, except for the description of it as a “traditional” fair isle jumper. If it had said, “you know what, this is a snuggly wool jumper that’s going to keep you warm and is inspired by some lovely Icelandic and fair isle designs”, that would feel more honest.

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    1. I’m with Saffi, it’s trying to use keywords that will also rank it more highly with google searches. It is disingenuine (sp) in it’s intent.

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  93. Perhaps it’s a form of the “uncanny valley” effect — applied to the difference in comfort between the pattern one expected to see and the one that is offered by the thing in view. If the viewed pattern is close, but not close *enough* to the unconscious expectation, there’s a sense of discomfort or even revulsion. We have evolved to perceive patterns!

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  94. Gadzooks. That’s bad. I think I’m offended most by the bad pattern matching, particularly on the size the model is wearing. But the cultural mixing is appalling too. I think that knitting can be culturally fluid, as long as the original traditions used are acknowledged, and treated with respect – that is, not messed together like the above.

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  95. Interesting topic. That Toast sweater does appear to be a bit of a mongrel. I think anyone who has any degree of familiarity with Icelandic lopapeysa would not describe that sweater as Icelandic. If however you were not familiar with Icelandic knitting – you probably would be none the wiser as to it’s authenticity. Is a sweater icelandic if it’s not knit with lopi? I like Kilcarra yarn but in general I think it’s a poor choice for colourwork as the flecks in the yarn can interfere with the intended pattern. The sweater is also described as ‘neat fitting’ which it doesn’t appear to be in either photograph!

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  96. I see what you mean, the patterns have been travelling around, and it’s not easy to say something is a national tradition. Still, there are some typical traits for each tradition. If you look at a specific pattern piece, like the star, it’s hard to say it’s Norwegian or fair isle, but if you look at sevaral samples from the Norwegian and Fair Isle tradition, you will easily recognize which is which. And I get the same feeling as you about the so called “Icelandic Fair Isle” sweater.

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  97. You’re absolutely correct in your thinking. The marketers of this sweater ( and other sweaters as well) are uninformed and just plain incorrect in their descriptions.

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  98. When I saw the picture and before reading your paper I said “why does she show us this picture? This is not Icelandic and this is not really fair-isle”. They are probably using the words Icelandic and Fair-isle to make the sweater more popular and sell more !
    I agree with you about the fact that all the Nordic traditions are connected together and influence each other. I was surprised to discover a few years ago that the sweater “Greenland ” which looks like an Icelandic sweater doesn’t come from iceland ;)

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  99. Hi Kate
    I hate seeing these derivational garments, loosely tagged, with lousy fiber (the ones I shudder at most are synthetic!) and large corporations making money from them but that’s the way it is. All we can do is keep knitting quality garments and sharing the original traditions. Here is a post I did a couple of years ago with some words at the end on the shipping and how these traditions were passed around in the northern hemisphere temperate zone around Scandinavia, the UK, and Ireland…

    http://spinsjal.blogspot.com/2010/09/norwegian-sweater-story-this-is-my.html

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  100. To me it smacks of the same disrespect shown when fashion writers use the terms “knitting” and “crochet” interchangeably. Unaccountably, The Guardian has not yet taken me up on my kind offer to proofread when either of these terms Is used in an article BEFORE it is published, rather than leaving me to correspond irately after the offence. I think what you may be feeling discomfort about is the aim to sell something through random association as opposed to genuinely understanding techniques/patterns and their application in various cultures, which are closely related. Seeing connections is an historian’s job after all. It is more and more apparent that the seas are a highway, and not a barrier, culturally.

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  101. “Irish” here represents thoughtless appropriation of a culture to create an adjective to differentiate this jumper from all the others that Toast sells. When the stylist decided to call it “Irish” they want me to believe that if I buy it it’ll come with flowing red hair, misty fields across which I’ll stride in my gumboots to my charming quaint cottage where I’ll nestle in next to a peat fire with a charming tweedy chap with a honey brogue… Etc etc etc.

    You put a lot of thought into making your adjectives accurate reflections of fact and knowledge. Toast didn’t. Hence, you’re offended?

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