Alice Starmore and thoughts about Aran knitting


In the last few days I have been re-reading Alice Starmore’s book, Aran Knitting (Dover new edition version, 2010). What prompted this reading was a pattern from Vogue Knitting’s Stitchionary 2 (Sixth&Spring Books, 2006) called Aztec.

Looking at my finished swatch I found myself questioning its place within the Aran tradition – which led me to Starmore and her book.

Aran patterns according to Starmore:

can be more accurately described as a concept, rather than a fixed body of set images. Although commercial forces have imposed a relatedly small group of patterns on the mass-produced Aran sweater, the dynamic nature of the concept allows the creation of variations and new patterns at will.’ (p52)

I do like her use of the word ‘concept’. It seems to me that what passes today as an Aran pattern, in part, holds firm on ‘traditions’ but allows for new ideas to emerge. With its use of diamond, moss stitch and cables, the Aztec design is, I think, an example of the fluidity existing between tradition and new ideas.  On a wider scale, one only has to look at Norah Gaughan’s Knitted Cable Sourcebook (Abrams, 2016) to see how far this fluidity has come.

In the development of the Aran tradition Starmore lists three historical facts.

The Aran sweater was developed from the Scottish fisher gansey

The technical and conceptual basis for Aran knitting patterns was present and part of daily life in Aran by 1910

An experimental period of about two decades brought forth the commercial Aran sweater that went on to conquer the world in the 1950s

I find the history of Aran knitting fascinating not only because it is knitting but also because it links my historical interest in bringing women’s lives out from of the shadows.

Yet, in many ways, Starmore suggests the historical aspect of the art is overshadowed by myths and legends that have grown up around it. ‘Stories about Aran knitting, from the hackneyed to the ridiculous, have found their way into print, and what is more they have been read and given credence’ (p10) she writes.

In part, this has been brought about by what she sees as knitting in general being ‘so unvalued as an academic subject that even those with scant knowledge feel qualified to pronounce on it – and frequently do.’ (p10)

If nothing, Starmore is quite blunt and unforgiving.

As a historian, I applaud her use of primary sources – in this case, the Aran garments held in the collection of the National Museum of Ireland but I do question her almost brutal lack of tact in regards to other writers and their ability to sort fact from fiction.

Moreover, in the ten years since the publication of the book there has been a significant increase and interest in knitting as an academic subject. Behind this, I think is the sustained growth in the numbers of knitters, the development of social media for exploring and sharing ideas as well as the number of scholars interested in bringing social history, and women’s history in particular, out of the shadows.  Indeed, in the last few months, I have been interviewed by one scholar as part of her PhD thesis on the role of Ravelry and social media in 21st century knitting practice.

Re-reading Alice Starmore’s book has piqued my interest in learning more about the history of Aran knitting – the designs, women’s lives, the myths and legends, how commercial interests took over and a host more.

It will be a fascinating journey.

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