The Icelandic Knitting Tradition
By Hélène Magnússon
Hélène was born in France in 1969. After working for a time as a lawyer in Paris she moved to Iceland in 1995, where she studied art and design. She worked as a farm hand, a cook and a mountain guide. She now works as a freelance designer and author.
Iceland is an endless source of inspiration for Hélène, who interprets old Icelandic handiwork heritage with great respect and in refreshingly innovative ways.
Knitting is intrinsically related to the life of the Icelandic people. Iceland was populated in the late 9th century by political refugees and fugitives from Norway. However it was not introduced to knitting until the 16th century by travelling English, German and Dutch merchants. At this point though a whole nation started to knit: Men, women, children - all knitted.
Everyone, even the youngest, was expected to produce a specified amount of knitted goods over a certain period. Families would gather around the fireplace and knit, sometimes two together around the same sweater, while listening to one person reading the psalms and old sagas. The speed of the knitting would be decided by the reader - set by the tempo of his voice. People knitted everywhere - In the darkness of the small Icelandic turf houses, where the poor light made them improve their knitting skills, or even, especially the men, while walking around on the farm.
Iceland's economy was based on fishing but hand knitting was the main home based industry and very quickly became important as a trade for groceries, fishing equipment and other products that were in short supply on the island.
At that time, Iceland had entered its so-called "Long Night", which lasted from the end of the 14th century until the middle of the 19th century. It had become a province of the Danish Kingdom. Geographically and economically isolated, one could say it was more or less abandoned. Owing its existence to a very active hot spot at the boundary between the American and the Eurasian plates, it is hard to say how it managed to survive natural catastrophes such as earthquakes and volcanic eruptions that regularly ravaged the country, killing the animals and engendering famines and misery, not to mention epidemics like the Plague. By the 18th century, the Icelandic population had dropped dramatically to under 40,000 inhabitants. Foreigners who travelled to Iceland were terrified by what they saw and the awful living conditions the islanders endured.
It is in this context that the Icelandic knitted tradition developed. But of the many thousands of knitted items - sweaters, mittens, socks - that were exported, none have survived. Today, we barely know what they looked like. However, this is not that surprising, as they were most likely rather rough, single-coloured garments intended for the working classes in Europe, and would be recycled as they became damaged or wore out. It is important to mention the unique characteristics of Icelandic wool which is both highly warm and water-repellent but still extremely light.
Knitted articles for domestic use were probably more refined with everything knitted, from head to toe - stockings, trousers, jackets, skothúfa (literally traditional cap), undergarments, shoes and suspenders, shawls, to name just a few examples. Knitted material was a substitute for fabrics. Pillows and even tents were knitted.
In the 19th century knitting was worked almost exclusively in the round on fine needles, less than 1 mm in diameter, and then often felted for extra strength and warmth. Garments were most commonly knitted in stocking stitch with edges in rib or garter stitch. The sweaters, especially the women's jackets, were knitted to shape in a clever and rather intricate manner, now sadly forgotten. Little is known about the colour work but there are Icelandic manuscript pattern books with squared designs partly intended for knitting. Considering the tradition, it is surprising that there are so few sources that refer to Icelandic knitting. It is also surprising that the most prominent representative of Icelandic knitting today should be the famous Icelandic sweater (lopapeysa), which is only a little more than a half century old. A thorough study of Old Icelandic knitting has yet to be undertaken.
What characterises traditional Icelandic knitting are the highly skilled techniques and the attention to detail that show for example, in the amazing shaping of a jacket. There also appeared to be an instinctive understanding of the nature of the wool and the fabric it created.
A characteristic of the Icelandic knitter was the ability to do a lot with very little - Icelanders had few resources, so there is no luxury or showing off in Icelandic knitting and no big masterpieces to marvel at, instead rather small, practical yet stunning items, like mittens delicately cross-stitched or beautifully knitted, patterned inserts all made from leftover yarn. The inserts were the subject of my book,
Early in the 20th century, big changes started to occur in Iceland. Political independence was finally gained. New techniques revolutionized the Icelandic way of life more possibly, than in any other country. In just a few decades, living conditions became not only unrecognisably better, but among the best in the world. Hand knitting started to decline as a home industry, men stopped knitting and, towards the end of the century, it had completely disappeared. Women continued to knit beautifully, but mainly as a hobby. As we move forward into the 21st century, these knitting skills so unique to Iceland are being lost and knitting is losing its ground, despite still being taught at school. However, when it comes to knitting, it doesn't matter whom you address, a nurse, a lawyer, your best friend or old uncle, a sailer or the President of Iceland, there will always be a grand-mother, a relative, a knitting experience, a teacher or a friend for every Icelander to relate to or tell stories about.
Today at the beginning of the 21st century, Iceland has been dramatically touched by the collapse of the financial sector and the Icelandic people have started to knit again, but whether knitting will regain its place in icelandic homes remains to be seen.
You can also knit your own Icelandic Crocus sweater designed by Hélène
Search Press are offering knitonthenet readers the chance to purchase Hélène's book Icelandic Knitting using Rose Patterns at a special offer price of £10.99 (Saving £2.00).
Call Search Press on Telephone: 01892 510850
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You can find out more about Hélène's life and work at www.helenemagnusson.com
Elsa E. Guðjóinsson, Notes on knitting in Iceland, 7th edition, Reykjavík,1990
Fríður Ólafsdóttir, Íslensk karlmannaföt 1740-1850, Reykjavík 1999
Hélène Magnússon, Icelandic Knitting using Rose Patterns, 3rd edition, London 2008
Black and white pictures courtesy Sigfús Eymundsson and Bjarni K. Eyjólfsson.