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Of Ireland, Identity, and Fibre



I have always thought of knitting and sewing as inherently narrative and autobiographical. Maybe not as obviously so, as a picture that tells a story. But in subtle and hidden ways they embody the maker's point of view, offer clues about their lives.

This is something I've been thinking about a lot after meeting Marta Kocon at the Flax Fest two weeks ago. A Belfast-based artist originally from Poland, she sews using a combination of Irish linen and traditional Polish fabrics. You can recognise the cultural references immediately in her project bags, pinafores, and shawls. It's all very, very pretty. And it also makes me think about ethnicity and the fibre arts, particularly in Ireland.

I'd be hard pressed to name all the foreign-born fibre artists who reside on the Emerald Isle, but indeed there are surprisingly many of us. The best known to knitters is probably Beata Jezek of Hedgehog Fibres, in Cork. Among the countless fans of her yarn, not so many realise that jezek actually means 'hedgehog' in her native Slovak language.


My collaborator Jenny Lienhard of Appleoak Fibre Works is originally from Germany, though I don't see a German-influenced narrative in her dyeing work, or aesthetic. The story I see her yarn tell, is that of someone experiencing Ireland with the fresh wonder of ongoing discovery. Perhaps one reason we work so well together, is that I can relate to this viewpoint.


While a few of the makers I know from abroad were already practicing their craft before coming here, more often it was after the move that their practice began. This I also find fascinating. 


It can be that a longing for our birthplace, or the migratory experience itself, inspires creativity in this new homeland. But I think there is also something about Ireland specifically that ignites it. Rich in its own myths and legends, and covered in swathes of mossy-heathery-rainbowy natural beauty, the lush island seems to draw creative energy as it soothes and heals old traumas. 


Often, when I look at a piece of knitting or sewing I can guess the maker's background. It's a game that's becoming trickier now that social media platforms have ushered in a certain stylistic globalisation. But at times it is still possible. Is the maker Scandinavian, learned to knit from grandma at age 3? A North American minimalist with a background in marketing? I can often tell when a knitter is mainly a spinner. Or when they come from a sewing background. I can recognise Russian knitting in a split second, without even being able to pinpoint any obvious features that define it. 

My own background is hard to summarise in one succinct descriptive phrase. I grew up in a multi-ethnic, multi-lingual household, with Russian, Austrian, Romanian and Jewish cultural influences. I lived in several different countries as a child, before my family moved to the US. I then continued moving around as an adult, living in England and Austria through most of my 20s and early 30s, but feeling as unsettled there as I had in the US. The move to Ireland was unintentional (a topic for another time!), but once here I immediately felt settled and at peace in a way I cannot remember feeling anywhere previously. For the first two years here, I felt a strange kind of thawing, as if layers of anxiety over identity, purpose, or who knows what else, were melting away in the fresh, moist, bog-scented air... And then my creative work - which had felt stifled and frozen for years - began to flow. I do not know where it is flowing to, but I enjoy the flow itself, and the feeling that somehow I can be myself here whatever that 'self' is. 

Can people who look at my knitting read all this in it, I sometimes wonder?

Maybe, at least on some unconscious level, we get to know each other this way even when the words aren't there.