Saturday, July 28, 2007

Irish Dance Embroidery and Aran Sweaters

Through various (though extremely limited) sources, I have become very interested in the history of hand embroidery on Irish dance dresses. I have posed questions in a few places and have gotten a few questionnaires back. (It is not too late for more contributors!) The pics that have been sent are incredible. Like this gorgeous one from Anita:

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Takes me awhile to assimilate everything in my head so that I can write about it, but I am really looking forward to it.

A message posted on the IDDressmaking board, and a couple of corroborating responses, got me thinking about a similarity between the use of ID embroidery and Aran sweater stitch patterns. The writers of the posts talked about having heard that:

#1) the hand embroidered dresses were added to as the dancer rose in the ranks (Very interesting...anyone else have info in that vein?), and

#2) (here I quote the message): "My understanding was that the patterns and stitches were somewhat regional (Fascinating idea about the ID embroidery...again, anyone else have a perspective on this?)- like the old tradition of aran sweaters having a family/town/county connections strong enough to tell where the sweater was made. Of course, the rationale for that one was more macabre: It had to do with identification and fish's preference for eating faces and extremities on drowned fisherman. Presumably, the dress designs were used to identify dancers from a distance."

The idea that the stitches and patterns might be regional was all very fascinating, and set me to researching. I had also read/heard about the Aran sweater stitch pattern serving a purpose as a family/regional identification, so I wanted to explore this first to establish a frame of reference for myself. I went first to my books and found that they really did not in fact say much of anything about the use of Aran stitch patterns as family identification. I wonder where I got that idea, where did I hear that? So I went to my trusty research tool - the internet...only to learn that this is knitting myth! I was so disappointed!!! Everything I found crushed my obviously naive and misguided idea...OH, the intellectual pain!!! (And I am truly making fun of myself here, not the IDD poster, ok?!)

I found a great bit of sleuthing on a blog. The following was found here at The Knitting Curmudgeon and written in 2004. I am copying it here because she says it all so well!

Heinz Edgar Kiewe--Crackpot or Historian?
Well, something of a crackpot, to be honest. Kiewe (1906-1986) was a Prussian-born self-styled "textile journalist" who ran a needlework/yarn shop called Art Needlework Industries Ltd. in Oxford, England from about 1940 until the late '60s. He also published several books about needlework--Charted Peasant Designs from Saxon Transylvania is still available from Dover, I think.

However, Kiewe's dubious place in knitting history may be that of Promulgator of the Great Aran Sweater Myth. Kiewe actually purchased one of the first commercially available Aran sweaters in 1936, loaned it to Mary Thomas for her book, and then proceeded to cook up a fairytale theory about the Irish knitting these sweaters for centuries. Richard Rutt goes into great detail about Kiewe's theory in The History of Hand Knitting:

Heinz Kiewe perceived a connection between Aran knitted designs and ancient Irish art. He never claimed that this was a scholarly theory: he accepted it as an intuitive perception...So he began to describe Aran knitted patterns in terms of the 'white shirt of monotheistic cultures.' Before long, publicists for wool spinners were crediting Aran knitting with thousands of years of history...

Much of this nutsy nonsense comes from a book Kiewe wrote in 1967, The Sacred History of Knitting. In the early '80s, when I was knitting editor for MacKnit, a machine knitting magazine, I spent a good deal of time researching Aran knitting history, to the extent that anyone can research knitting history in this country. I met up with an English machine knitter and historian, Kathleen Kinder, who was the first to challenge the notion that Aran patterns were symbolic and that the Irish had been knitting these sweaters from time immemorial. Kathleen had done an enormous amount of research and I suspect that Richard Rutt used many of Kathleen's theories as a jumping-off point.

I own an autographed copy of this bizarre book, found in a used bookstore 20 years ago. And it is most bizarre. Some of the chapters: Discover of the knitted priestly Ephod on Cyprus; Jerusalem Knitting; Sculpture in Convex Stripes--did it signify knitting?

You get the picture. Here's Kiewe at his looniest, verbatim:

Are the Aran patterns a sign, a witness of the revelations of the Holy Book?
Yes, indeed we confirm them to be ornaments of religion--symbols of the divine "geometrical speculations" of the Near East. What was the importance of the symbol of interlacing? The bond of Man with God and Religion (from re-ligare--to bind "the religious"--person bound by monastic vows, etc.).
The plait? The Holy three stands of hair ribbon or straw, the plaited holy-bread of the Old Testament, they are symbols of a devout family bound up with God.
Do we need now to explain the deep religious meaning of the names of the Aran patterns?

Enough on Kiewe. The book does have some interesting info on Jersey and Guernsey knitting, due to Kiewe's friendship with Gladys Thompson, author of Patterns for Guernseys and Jerseys. And here's an interesting article I found, if you don't know too much about Aran knitting. However, I would highly recommend Rutt's book, recently back in print. It's a fascinating read.

If you click on that article link, you will find more interesting info. And, I found another nicely written article here ...this author almost seems as disappointed as I feel!

So much for that line of thinking in for the embroidery. Anybody?

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