The news scarf mystery: A true story of fashion and coincidence
When Jana G. Pruden found a Chinese-made scarf with her name – and a newspaper story she had written years ago – printed on it, the riddle of how it got there was hard to unravel
The scarf is filmy and soft, with a blurred newspaper pattern and a wispy fringe on all sides. I have it in two colours, one blobbed blue like watered ink, the other smeared coral like an old lady's blush. It is 65 per cent polyester and 35 per cent viscose, according to its tag, and it is made in China. Machine wash cold, don't bleach.
I came across it in Edmonton at TRENDS, "the biggest and best apparel show in the country," where my friend Lisa was looking at things for her store. I wouldn't have been at a fashion trade show except that I was procrastinating, and I wouldn't have looked at the scarf except that I was bored. It was the very end of the day and my eyes were so bleary I could barely focus. But as I flicked at the scarf, something within its folds caught my eye.
"Holy [expletive]!" I said. In retrospect, I wish I'd said something much wittier, or at least more printable, but unfortunately that's not how it happened. So, "Holy [expletive]!" I said. "That's my byline! One of my stories is on this scarf!"
Trade shows don't usually sell items on the spot, but when I asked the woman at the booth if I could buy the scarf, she shrugged, as if helpless in the face of such a strange coincidence.
"It has your name on it," she said. "I think I have to sell it to you."
I hope it doesn't sound like bragging when I say that the headline on my story is the largest and most readable on the entire news scarf. It says: 'Mad cow' case may have Saudi link. The sub-headline reads: Chances man got brain disease in Canada 'just about zero,' officials say.
I wrote the story in April, 2011, when I was a reporter at the Edmonton Journal. You can see the blur of my name at the beginning of the story, the smudge of my e-mail address at the end. If you squint your eyes, you can find certain words in the text. Canadian beef, brain, Creutzfeldt-Jakob. Of all the stories I've written through the years, a piece about a fatal degenerative brain disease seems a particularly odd choice to wind up on a piece of clothing.
I posted pictures of the scarf on Twitter and Facebook, and told my friends and family. My friend Alex said, "Is the scarf … trying to tell you something?" My friend Diana asked, "What does this mean??!??" A few people told me to buy a lottery ticket, but others pointed out I'd already used up my chance to defy the odds; I'd won the much more obscure – but significantly less profitable – lottery of finding myself on a scarf. Several people said it was a sign, but no one was quite sure of what.
I kept trying to wrap my head around the chances of one of my stories being printed on a scarf, and then me finding it. How many news stories are printed every day, around the world? How did I even see it, one small part of a scarf in one booth among 1,500 manufacturers, in a place I would never normally be? And why would a scarf made in China have a story from Edmonton on it at all, never mind one about mad cow disease?
I phoned and e-mailed the woman from the trade show, hoping to find out more about where the scarf came from and how it was designed. Not wanting her to think I was planning a copyright suit, I tried to keep my messages sounding upbeat and non-money-seeking, saying things like: "I'm just really interested!" and "I'm so curious!" While I waited for a response, I looked endlessly at newsprint fabric online, searching for any clues to the strange story of my story.
The first use of newsprint in modern fashion dates back to the spring of 1902, 114 years before I found the news scarf, to the very month. It was then that Minnie Biglin, a young newspaper reporter at the Alta Vista Journal in Wabaunsee County, Kan., convinced her editor to print an edition of the paper on fabric so she could go to a masquerade dance as "Miss Newspaper." The editor agreed, and the result was a fetching newspaper dress and matching hat printed with a repeating pattern of the March 28, 1902, edition. The stories on her dress included assassination attempts by anarchists, jokes about sleazy politicians, crop woes, and the arrival of a worrying new technology, photography, that was making portrait painters increasingly nervous.
There was also a high-toned and vaguely threatening brief on the front page reminding readers of the importance of the newspaper to their community and lives. "[T]he newspaper is your friend in spite of your criticism. It helps to build up the community in which you live, and from which you obtain your support," it read. "When the day comes that newspapers are dead, you will find the people at the edge of the grave with no one to write their epitaph."
It somehow makes me feel good to know that before newspapers even really got started, newspaper people were already fearing their end. Minnie, meanwhile, won one of the awards for best costume at the dance, and her dress is still on display in a museum in Kansas.
Newsprint hit the big time with Elsa Schiaparelli's haute couture silk scarves in the 1930s. In a 1935 story in Harper's Bazaar, the avant garde designer described the moment she approached the "most daring of textile men" and told him she wanted material printed like a newspaper.
"But it will never sell," the man said. She told him: "I think it will." And it did.
Today, there are newsprint backpacks and newsprint bow ties, newsprint dog collars and newsprint diapers, newsprint g-strings and newsprint stilettos, newsprint suitcases and newsprint hijabs ("Offers a new spin on the term 'hijab in the media,'" as the ad reads.)
At the National Newspaper Awards in Edmonton, I spent half the dinner eyeing up a woman in a newsprint shirt, then bee-lined toward her at the reception to take a closer look. "Ooh, interesting," I said, examining a headline on her shoulder, before digging down her back to see the tag.
Though newsprint fabrics look basically the same from a distance, close up they are actually quite different. The most common design is a splayed jumble of headlines and text, sometimes with vaguely glamorous-sounding words like "money" or "San Francisco" catching the eye, but no real identifiable stories or bylines. Other prints are made especially for the design, like John Galliano's newsprint, which is comprised primarily of the word "Galliano," with some fashion-type words sprinkled around.
For pet lovers, there are both Canine and Kitty Chronicle newsprint patterns, and for quilters, The Sewing Daily, which prominently features a rather sinister story about a quilter's husband being smothered in an avalanche of cloth. I can tell you the editorial content of Playboy's Bunny Bugle and Playboy Times fabric is extremely questionable.
Other prints are actually just blurs of black and white intended to give the impression of a newspaper, or mishmashes of English-looking gibberish, with headlines that say things like "LOOKTHROUGH ALEGNED."
Very rarely is there a full story or a readable byline, so I was excited to come across a Korean-made sewing material printed with a story by New York Times reporter Eric Lichtblau about the United States seizing money from foreign banks to stop the cash flow to terrorists. (I e-mailed Mr. Lichtblau about it, and he wrote back, "Cool." Apparently some reporters don't get excited about this kind of stuff.)
My news scarf, it turns out, is somewhat of an anomaly in the newsprint-fabric world. It's not a pile of clippings or an assemblage of fake news, but real news stories all pieced together, like the page of a newspaper. Its stories have no discernible message or theme. Not that I was expecting as clear an editorial mandate as, say, The Kitty Chronicle or The Sewing Daily, but even Eric Lichtblau's fabric seemed to have a loose international-Korea-security motif. The stories on my scarf seem somehow too intentional to be random, yet too random to be intentional.
I hung the scarf on the wall of my office and printed out a big picture of it, which I divided into colour-coded sections. The scarf is blurry and hard to read, but I found if I looked long enough, it would start to become clear. I put words and phrases into search engines and databases, trying different combinations, looking for clues and patterns. My husband said I looked like a movie cop hunting a serial killer.
The scarf is composed of 13 distinct pieces, including full stories, a few briefs and some classified ads. I was able to track down nine. They span a period of 107 years, and are from papers in five countries – Canada, the United States, the U.K., France, and Singapore. Four of the stories are written in French. The earliest is from Hawaii's Hilo Tribune in 1905, about a volcano. The most recent are a 2013 story about a singer in a paper called La Voix Acadienne – a Francophone weekly from P.E.I. – and a strip of classified ads from Horse Cave, Ky.
There are also briefs from the Bruxelles-Belgique edition of Canadian Forces newspaper The Maple Leaf in 1944, and a 2010 story about water testing from the Straits Times in Singapore. There is a 2005 story from The Independent about the property rental market in the U.K., and a 1996 story from Le Monde in France about Federico Borrell Garcia, the Spanish Civil War militiaman whose death is believed to have been captured in Robert Capa's famous photo. And there is my story, about mad cow disease.
The stories aren't all in the same databases, not findable through simple Google searches. They ran on different days of the week, different pages. Some took me considerable time and effort to locate, and I never could find certain stories laid out the way they appeared on the scarf. There are signs of clear design choices in the way the scarf is put together. The beginning of one story is used in repeating strips to fill a gap down one edge. An ad for a rehab centre that always ran upside down in the Hart County News-Herald has been turned right side up on the scarf.
I contacted other people who are on the scarf, but they didn't have any more insight than I did. We were just a bunch of people, somehow united on a piece of cloth.
"It's profoundly weird to me that such a random story of mine would end up on a scarf, formatting and all," said Grace Chua, who wrote the story on water testing when she worked as a reporter in Singapore, and is now based in Boston.
Ontario singer Jeanette Arsenault was almost speechless when I called to tell her a story about her new album was on the scarf. Later she told me she and her daughter laughed about it all day. She texted me, "Life can be so interesting and fun from the most unexpected places."
From France, author Matthieu Dhennin told me about his book on a Serbian film director, which is the subject of a 2006 story printed on the scarf.
He also told me about the novel that inspired his work, Dictionary of the Khazars by Serbian writer Milorad Pavic.
"It's a book about random, believing in the impossible, coercing time, people meeting other people in dreams, and accepting the most unlikely…," he wrote, in an e-mail. "A bit like what's happening with the scarf, and the different people gathered with their articles."
He e-mailed again, three days later.
"I've been thinking about it, but I see no meaning whatsoever about this scarf," he said. "I'm not a publicly known person and not a famous writer at all… I like the idea of a pure random process."
I sent them scarves. Matthieu mailed me a book, and Jeanette sent some of her CDs. We became friends on Facebook, followed each other on Twitter. We started calling each other scarf friends.
According to its website, Only Accessories is a "household name in the accessory market" and, maybe even more importantly to Canada's fashion foundation, the exclusive distributor of Spanx undergarments. It is also the company that brought my news scarf into Canada, and sold it to the wholesaler in Alberta.
"It's just the bizarrest thing," said the founder's daughter, Stephanie Paikin, as soon as we were on the phone. She was obviously already apprised on the news scarf situation, and told me it sold very well, which made me feel strangely proud. She also agreed to pass on a note to the American distributor who sold her the scarf but she wouldn't give me the person's name or contact information, which added an air of mystery to the whole thing. I got an e-mail back from her the next day.
"Just heard from my vendor and they just found it at the China market – they don't know how the creation came about," she wrote.
"Is there any other detail about what market?" I wrote back. "Or even what city? Or any other avenues you think I could try?"
She responded: "I have exhausted all my sources and unfortunately cannot offer any more assistance."
I couldn't help feeling that, in the world of international newsprint fashion import, my strange coincidence was someone else's headache.
"Ooh, a detective story," said Robert Ott. "That's fascinating."
Mr. Ott is chair of Ryerson's School of Fashion, and is working on a doctorate around the designing and making of bespoke clothing. He immediately began talking through the process that may have been involved in the design and manufacture of the scarf, or, as he called it, "the low-end artifact."
Based on the RA registration number on its tag, Mr. Ott said the scarf was likely manufactured for sale in the United States, and was probably never intended for sale in Canada.
In the absence of an identifiable theme to the stories, he said the scarf likely arose simply out of "pure aesthetic inspiration."
"They say, 'We love the idea of doing a newsprint scarf,' and arbitrarily pick these things," he said. "Is it legal? Yeah. Is it ethical? Yeah, I can pick up a newspaper and wallpaper my dining room with it.
"Is it good design?" He paused. "Debatable."
He used the registration number to direct me to Laon Fashion Corp in New York. Laon was the importer who brought the scarf from China into the United States, and then sold it to Only Accessories. I called immediately, and left a message for Michael Jang.
The Chinese clothing market is almost unfathomably vast. China is the largest exporter of clothing and accessories in the world, and shipped $163-billion worth of clothing in 2015 alone. By one estimate, the country produced almost six billion meters of clothing the month I found the news scarf.
The scarf is 183 centimetres long, not counting the fringe. Even if they made thousands, it is just a tiny speck of newsprint in a flood of Chinese-made fabric.
Given the scope of that marketplace, I knew Mr. Jang was probably my only chance to find out how the scarf came to be, to find out who made and designed it, and why they used the stories they did.
I imagined flying to China to meet the person, and getting an answer that explained it all. We would become the ultimate scarf friends. Instead, Mr. Jang called me back later that afternoon. "I have no idea why your article is in there," he said.
He told me his buyers go to markets in more than 10 cities in China, and that his company brings in newspaper print items every season because they always sell well. He said he didn't know which market, even which city, the scarf came from. There is so much merchandise. He said it wasn't just hard to track down, it was impossible.
"I couldn't even believe you could actually read it. It's really hard to read," Mr. Jang said. "It wasn't meant to read. It's just print. It just looks like newspaper."
Dr. Bernard Beitman loves coincidences. He loves them so much that he has, not coincidentally, even authored a book called Connecting with Coincidence about his studies. He's a psychiatrist, and ascribes to some ideas of coincidence he admits can sound a bit "woo-woo" – an impression not exactly helped by him repeatedly quacking like a duck to make a point during our conversation. But he also called me Lois Lane and referred to me as "a brave reporter from a great metropolitan newspaper," so I was obviously prone to like him. Very much.
Even as a connoisseur of coincidences, Dr. Beitman had to admit mine was first-rate. Not only because of the improbability of my story being on the scarf and me finding it, but, as he observed, "It's weird, anyway, to have newspaper articles on scarves."
In Dr. Beitman's way of thinking, I found the scarf through what he calls "human GPS," whereby my subconscious somehow knew it was there and led me to it. "It's almost like you could scan your environment unconsciously and find that scarf," he told me.
He encouraged me to look for meanings in the stories and their subjects, to think about what mad cow meant in my life (not much), what was going on in 2011 (nothing really notable), and what the stories told me when taken all together (nothing I could discern).
I tried for a while to put it together, but I never could make it fit in a way that felt right. The problem with looking for meaning, I discovered, is that soon you start to find it everywhere, and it really does start to sound a bit woo-woo. Dr. Beitman suggested I may want to go see a psychic and for a while I was tempted, but in the end I never did.
My news scarf is on the Shopping Channel now, $20.88 plus shipping. There are a lot of news scarves in the world, but I recognize it on sight as mine. I understand all its words and blurs. I know the far-flung times and places they come from, the stories they represent.
In a video, the Shopping Channel hosts talk about how fun the news scarf is, and how good it looks with the orange jacket on feature. "Newspapers are almost going to be a thing of the past," one of them says, then quickly adds, "Please let it not be, because my son is a journalist and he needs a job."
I have three news scarves sitting in their plastic packages in my closet, but after watching the video, I'm almost tempted to order another.
Dr. Beitman told me coincidences make us wonder how things happen, and alert us to "the mysterious in plain sight." "Is it just humans looking for patterns?" he said. Then added, "Maybe, but I don't know."
In the end, I decided to give the scarf my own meaning about where a story can go, and the strange and surprising ways we are connected. About words and newspapers, and how, if you look closely enough at something, you just might find yourself.
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