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"Just be who you are, calm and clear and bright." - Richard Bach, Illusions: The Adventures of a Reluctant Messiah

the Aran sweater myth

(Teach Synge, Inis Meáin.)

I’m always embarrassed to discover a mistake in my guidebook. I may be well traveled in Ireland but I’m certainly no expert, and I am aching to get back to work on the revision so I can correct all the gaffes I’ve found so far. (Alas, it’s been postponed indefinitely because of the economy.)

The latest error concerns the Aran sweater myth, which is so pervasive that it was even included in some of the cultural history books I used for reference. I propagated it thusly on page 339:

In John Millington Synge’s heart-wrenching one-act play set on the Aran Islands, Riders to the Sea, a young woman realizes that the clothes of a drowned fisherman (found on the shores of Donegal, and buried there) are those of her missing brother when she notices the stitch she herself dropped while knitting his socks. Art imitates life on these islands, for each family used a unique pattern when knitting pullovers (called báinín, “baw-NEEN”) for their fishermen in the all-too-likely event that one should be lost at sea.

You probably won’t see any shawls, crios (woolen belts), mairtíní (stockings sans feet), or other traditional garb outside the Aran museum, though the scarves and gloves sold in the shops are no less cozy for their lack of authenticity. Of course, the most popular seller remains the fisherman’s sweater, knit in the traditional unbleached wool or a variety of jewel-toned yarns, but you have to wonder if the sweater pattern used by Sarah Flaherty and other speedy native knitters is one designed specially for the tourists.

Otherwise, as Pat Boran wryly notes, Aran jerseys are “now worn almost exclusively by German hippies, University College Dublin science students, and on RTE soap operas.”

This story (about cable patterns being used to identify drowned fishermen) was circulated by the head of an Aran knitwear company in the 1930s. Kate Davies, the very talented knitwear designer and textile historian, has enlightened me here. (The distinction must also be made between a family cable pattern (false) and identifying one’s own handiwork.)

1 Comment to the Aran sweater myth

  1. Kate's Gravatar Kate
    December 11, 2009 at 4:55 pm | Permalink

    It is kind of a romantic (or clever) idea to use sweaters to identify the dead before you could use teeth and what not. Of course you have to wonder if this had been true: if the body was so badly deteriorated you couldn't tell who it was, how would the sweater have managed to stay in recognizable form?

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Hi! I'm Camille. I only write stories that could never ever happen in real life, though I do believe in real-life magic. If we were in the same room I'd fix you a cup of tea, but for now we'll have to settle for a virtual connection. I'm really glad you're here.