You Should Be Reading: Significant Sweaters

This week, as much of the U.S. was hit with an arctic blast, I found myself drawn to readings on sweaters. Sifting through the hundreds of stories on the prominence of the non-ironic “ugly Christmas sweater,” I was pleased to find several recent journal articles on truly iconic knitwear, sweaters that are culturally and nationally significant in their construction and patterns. In the most recent issue of Costume, the history and legend of the Aran jumper or Irish fisherman’s sweater, is investigated; a 2011 article in Formakademisk examines the Icelandic sweater, one that has its origins in the twentieth century but that is often believed to be traditional; and an in-depth 2013 article in Material Culture Review discusses the Cowichan sweater of the Pacific Northwest Coast Salish peoples, recently designated historically significant by the Canadian government.

1. Carden, S. (2014). Cable Crossings: The Aran Jumper as Myth and Merchandise. Costume, 48(2), 260-275.

The article presents an anthropological study of the Aran jumper, an Irish garment made of wool which is also known as the fisherman’s sweater, with a focus on the sweater’s representation of Irish national identity. Topics include the jumper’s myth of origin involving a fisherman lost at sea in the Aran Islands of Ireland who was identified by his sweater, Irish emigration, and symbolism in the designs of the jumpers. Irish folk art and demand for jumpers by Irish Americans are also mentioned. – Full Article Abstract

2. Helgadottir, Gudrun. (2011). Nation in a Sheep’s Coat: The Icelandic Sweater. FORMakademisk, 4(2), 59-68.

The Icelandic sweater is presented and received as being traditional–even ancient–authentically Icelandic and hand made by Icelandic women from the wool of Icelandic sheep. Even so, the sweater type, the so-called ‘Icelandic sweater’ in English, only dates back to the mid-20th century and is not necessarily made in Iceland nor from indigenous wool. Nevertheless, the sweater is a successful invention of a tradition (Hobsbawm & Ranger, 1983), popular among Icelanders and tourists alike since its introduction in the mid-20th century. It has gained ground as a national symbol, particularly in times of crisis for example in the reconstruction of values in the aftermath of the Icelandic bank collapse of 2008. I traced the development of the discourse about wool and the origins of the Icelandic sweater by looking at publications of the Icelandic National Craft Association, current design discourse in Iceland and its effect on the development of the wool industry. I then tied these factors to notions of tradition, authenticity, national culture, image and souvenirs. – Full Article Abstract

3. Stopp, Marianne P. (2013). The Coast Salish Knitters and the Cowichan Sweater: An Event of National Historic Significance. Material Culture Review 76, 9-29.

Long before the arrival of Europeans, the Coast Salish First Nations of southwestern Vancouver Island turned mountain goat wool, dog hair and plant fibres into woven textiles of great value among the peoples of the Pacific Northwest. Around 1860, Coast Salish women in the Cowichan Valley were introduced to European two-needle and multiple-needle knitting and began to produce what came to be known as the Cowichan sweater. Preparation combined ancient fibre processing and spinning techniques with European knitting to produce a high-quality, iconic garment. Profit margins for the knitters were minimal, but knitting provided an economic foothold in a new and challenging market- based economy. In 2011, the Government of Canada designated the Coast Salish Knitters and the Cowichan Sweater as an event of national historic significance on the advice of the Historic Sites and Monuments Board of Canada. – Full Article Abstract

Image credit: Jean Seberg in an Aran jumper, via Irelandseye.

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