Made things

turfhouses

Since returning from Iceland, and absorbing myself in the novels of Halldór Laxness, I have found myself constantly musing on the resourcefulness and ingenuity of the Icelandic people. In contemporary terms, geothermal energy might lead us to regard Iceland as relatively resource-rich, but until recently it has been in many other respects, incredibly resource-poor. Growing seasons are short and few crops thrive in cool summers. In many parts of Iceland, the weather can be pretty wild; the landscape does unpredictable things — such as divide and erupt — and there are few trees, which meant that wood could rarely be used for either building material or fuel. I love vernacular architecture – to me it is the ultimate expression of the human sense of place, saying so much about the relationship between human bodies and the landscapes that surround them. Iceland’s vernacular architecture is particularly distinctive and expressive.

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These are Icelandic turf houses, of which we saw a handful of extant examples, and several careful reconstructions at the museums of Árbæjarsafn and Skógar, both of which I highly recommend. They have some similarities with the Hebridean black houses with which I’m familiar, but differ from their Scottish counterparts in that turf not only forms the roof, but is also used as a building material for the walls, being packed into the cavities left by dry stone work to further insulate the building. Having been inside a couple on a very wild day, I can confirm that turf houses are incredibly cosy and impervious to the elements – which would of course be just what their inhabitants required. But they are also relatively high-maintenance constructions, as the turf cladding requires care and renewal every couple of decades or so. This may account for their relative rarity, as may the poor regard in which they are apparently held by some Icelanders. Again, I was reminded of the Hebrides, where black houses might be thought of as shameful, peasant dwellings, and were condemned by eighteenth- and nineteenth-century “improvers” as signs of island backwardness and barbarity, rather than what they actually are: that is, an ingenious human adaptation to the requirements of life in a specific landscape. In Eighteenth-Century Iceland, the traditional stone-and-turf construction was modernised with wooden gable ends and these burstabær – which were still constructed and maintained up until the 1940s and 50s – are the most commonly seen examples extant today.

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Like their counterparts in the Hebrides, Icelandic turf houses really speak both to and of the landscapes from which they emerge, and indeed into which they meld. I very much enjoyed exploring them.

Here is another distinctively Icelandic made thing which I can’t stop thinking about.

Askur
(image reproduced from here)

This beautiful object is an Askur – an Icelandic food bowl.

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(Askur in the Skógar museum)

The barrel-like section was designed to hold soup or porridge, while the lid flipped out and might be used as a plate. This ingenious dual-purpose construction made the askur ideal for consuming food on one’s knees, rather than a table, as would have been common in many Icelandic homes. These are objects with a purpose, built for a specific use, in a specific environment, but they are also incredibly beautiful, personally-prized decorative objects. Askur might be hand-carved with intricate designs, and decorated with their owner’s initials.

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They are mostly carved from driftwood and the fact that their designers transformed a found object into a made one makes them even more beautiful to me. These are practical, ordinary items built for the practical, ordinary business of feeding oneself. But they are also unique ornaments, carved from a rare and precious resource. I’d take an Askur over a Faberge Egg any day.

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Both of our guides at Árbæjarsafn and Skógar spoke of the fact that Askur are still regarded by many Icelanders as objects of shame: the signature of a culture lacking the kind of developed industry which might have produced porcelain crockery. But to my mind the Askur should be regarded with great reverence and pride: an ingenious every-day object, a signature of a nation’s resourcefulness and creativity, as well as a testament to the skill of its individual maker.

Yesterday I read these typically thoughtful words on one of my favourite blogs:

“Craft work can be seen as preserving time. Hand made items preserve time in the same way that fruit is preserved as jam, not as the unchanged strawberry or plum fresh plucked, but as something cooked and processed to preserve the taste of summer. Hand made items embody both the hours of making (time) and memories and feelings of people (the times) within the construction of the object . . .a true cultural artefact.”

This is one of the many reasons I love making and reflecting on making, and why I found the Icelandic Askur an impressive and important and deeply moving cultural artefact. I’ll leave you with some other Icelandic made things I also found moving and inspiring: beautifully carved, and just as beautifully knitted, embroidered, crocheted, and woven driftwood chairs and cushions from Skógar.

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If anyone has recommendations for further reading about Icelandic vernacular architecture, or traditions of driftwood-carving and askur-making I would be very grateful!

Tenebrae

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I have more posts to come from Iceland, but today I wanted to briefly mention one of those interesting cross-connections which are one of the many reasons I enjoy writing this blog. During a trip to Shetland in September, 2012, I took this photograph of a boat moored near Norwick beach in Unst. I later included the photo in this blog post, where it was seen by Oxfordshire artist, Jim Kelso. Jim then contacted me to ask if he might produce a painting based on my photograph; I happily agreed, and his painting, Tenebrae, is below.

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Tenebrae recently sold, and by way of thanks, Jim has now made a donation in my name to Chest Heart, and Stroke, Scotland. You may remember that it was this charity that funded the home-support of a dedicated stroke nurse for me after I left hospital. The work they do in the community is really important, but often overlooked, and I am always happy to support them in whatever way I can.

Congratulations on your painting, Jim!

Þingvellir

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About 30 miles North East of Reykjavik is Þingvellir National Park. Here there are many visible signs of volcanic activity within the past two millenia.

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The park crosses a rift valley separating the Continental plates of Europe and America. These tectonic plates are now steadily pulling apart, at a rate of about an inch a year.

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But this is not only a spectacular spot, of immense geological significance. Þingvellir is the locale of Iceland’s ancient parliament – the AlÞing, or plains of the people – one of the world’s oldest extant political institutions.

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Here Iceland’s settlers established what is known as the “Old Commonwealth” in 930, and the commonwealth’s general assemblies (which anyone could attend) were held at Þingvellir annually between then and 1262. Indeed, through all of Iceland’s constitutional changes during the Middle Ages and Early Modern period, Þingvellir remained the official space of assembly for the Icelandic people until 1798. I confess to being something of a Commonwealth nerd: much of my Phd research and first book explored women’s attachment to this noble political ideal from the English Republic to the early years of the American Revolution. I also have a thing for outdoor assembly spaces: indeed, my favourite spot on earth is one. I found Þingvellir an incredibly impressive and deeply moving place to be.

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Here there are no monuments, no palaces, no relics of individual wealth or power. Across the valley stands a modest church, similar in form to many Icelandic churches.

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The power here derives from the landscape itself, and from the knowledge that this is a place that for over a thousand years, has played an important role in the lives of all Icelandic people. During the first Commonwealth, Þingvellir was not only the spot where political decisions were made and laws passed, but also a locale of celebration and festival for the majority of ordinary folk. Centrally located to be accessed by a ride of no more than a couple of weeks, scattered family members met once a year; friends shared the news from their respective regions; and young men and women might lay eyes on future partners. Þingvellir has always played a central role in the cultural life of the Icelandic nation.

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(celebrating Þingvellir’s thousandth anniversary in 1930)
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(celebrating independence at Þingvellir in 1944)

There are many things I found vaguely utopian about Iceland: it is certainly a paradise for anyone who loves knitting or the great outdoors; a recent World Economic Foundation report ranked it top of all nations for gender equality and here LGBT couples are accorded the same rights to marriage, surrogacy, and adoption as their straight counterparts. But for me this site of ancient democracy — a rift in the earth where an entire nation might gather in a spirit of collective self-determination — is the most utopian thing of all.

LANDSCAPE

Ístex

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This is Álafoss — foss being Icelandic for waterfall. Álafoss is situated on the river Varmá in the small town of Mosfellsbær, a short bus ride from Reykjavik. In 1896, an enterprising farmer imported some machinery, and harnessed the power of Álafoss to operate it. From that day to this, Icelandic wool has always been processed in Mosfellsbær.

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Ístex is an abbreviated form of Íslenskur Textiliðnaður (Icelandic Textile Industry). Ístex was formed in 1995 when the old Álafoss company was threatened, like so many other yarn-producing businesses at that time, with bankruptcy. The business was bought out by five employees, together with a group of sheep farmers, and the company now thrives under this associative structure (during our visit, we ran into one of the company directors, who still plays a very hands-on role in the mill’s daily operations). Ístex employs 50 people and is responsible for the purchasing and processing of 80% of Iceland’s annual wool clip directly from the nation’s farmers. I was very struck by the similarities with Shetland: my friends at Jamieson and Smith purchase around the same percentage of Shetland’s annual clip, and like Ístex, they also ensure that crofters are able to get a return on their wool whatever its quality. Both companies use the lower grades for products such as carpeting and insulation, so that nothing is wasted, while the finer grades are retained to be processed into hand-knitting yarns. Ístex sort and scour their wool in Blönduós, and all other processes are carried out vertically at Mosfellsbær – which is now the only yarn-producing mill in Iceland.

Under the guidance of Hulda Hákonardóttir, we were able to see many different stages of yarn production.

Dyeing . . .

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and blending.

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The Scotch feed at the top right of this photo . . .

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. . . processes the roving to tape condensers, where sliver is then processed into unspun forms, such as plötulopi, which will be familiar to many knitters.

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Other yarns, such as Álafoss lopi, Lett Lopi, and Einband, are then spun-up here . . .

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. . . before being hanked, coned, or balled. While many of the processes and some of the machines at Ístex were familiar to me from other mill visits, I have never before seen a yarn-baller in action. Cones were transformed into neat packs of yarn with fascinating efficiency.

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The end result. Yum.

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We learned a lot about Icelandic wool and its unique properties from Hulda, who also kindly showed us many of the different wool products that Ístex has developed over the past 19 years, from beautiful traditional blankets to contemporary neon yarns. And it has to be said that the tales you hear of Lopi being everywhere in Iceland are completely true: yarn really is available to buy in supermarkets, hardware stores, clothing shops, garages. You would certainly never be short of yarn for a project in Iceland. I was very struck by the number of people who said to us on our trip that “everyone is knitting”– a fact borne out by the fascinating statistic that Iceland has proportionately more Ravelry members than any other nation (1 in 10). Though we saw a handful of familiar imported yarns in one shop, its very clear that Iceland’s knitters are, by and large, knitting with Lopi: with the wonderful dual-coated light and airy fleeces that are grown by the nation’s resourceful and hardy sheep; that are shorn and sold by Iceland’s farmers; then sorted, scoured, dyed, and spun by Ístex in the mill at Mosfellsbær. I personally find this kind of readable continuity from sheep to sweater very inspiring.

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Thankyou for a very enjoyable tour of the Ístex mill, Hulda!

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I am home! I sort of knew I would like Iceland, but I was not prepared to be totally blown away. Due to my annoying health issues, we did not quite accomplish everything we’d set out to, but we met some lovely people, learned much more about Icelandic wool and textiles, and gained a taste of a truly incredible landscape and culture that makes me immediately want to return. I think I might have to do just that. I’m processing my photographs and will show you more very soon!

away . . . to Iceland

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It has been an intensely busy few weeks around here, and I’m really rather looking forward to spending a few days away . . . in Iceland! I have just completed the second of two new designs for my forthcoming YOKES! book, and Mel and I are very excited to have the opportunity to photograph them in the country where their wool was raised.

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You know, it is the first time I have designed or indeed knit with Lopi . . .seriously, what have I been doing all these years? So light, so airy, such rich and saturated colours, but so gloriously woolly and so very warm! I now have an intense desire to knit forever with the stuff, and the minute I bound off a YOKE on Friday evening, found myself casting on a random hat to match.

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Mel and I have a great trip planned, and I’ll be sure to tell you all about it when we return.

And some housekeeping: I won’t be available to answer queries this week, and any orders placed in the shop from today will be shipped on or after April 7th.

Bless bless!

Interview with Jen Arnall-Culliford

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(Jen Arnall-Culliford in her Puffin Apple hat design)

As part of our Cross-Country collaboration, Jen and I thought it would be interesting to interview each other about our different approaches to producing our different designs. (You can read Jen’s interview with me over on her blog today.) Jen is a sharp, focused and highly professional tech editor. In this capacity, she has worked with me on many projects, including Colours of Shetland. But she’s also an accomplished designer, though for some bizarre reason she doesn’t really think of herself as such. This is something that I think needs to change, because Jen designs beautiful, well-thought out patterns, and has, I think, a genuine feel for the structure and behaviour of textured stitches. She has a real knack of bringing a classic design to life with a well-thought out, well-placed motif, such as that which you can see on her Puffin Apple hat above, or the Bruton Hoody (below) that she designed for Cross-Country Knitting. Jen, you are a talented designer, and must keep on designing! (Anyway, you can’t stop now as there are already plans afoot for Cross-Country Knitting Volume Two! ho ho.)

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(Bruton Hoody)

I should also mention that, as well as being available via Ravelry as an ebook, Cross Country Knitting, Volume One is now also available as a beautifully-produced 20 page booklet, which you can order in print from Magcloud.

So here’s Jen’s interview.

Where did you start, Jen, when planning this design?
When we hatched the Cross-Country Knitting plan, I had pretty much hung up my designer hat, and decided to concentrate on editing. I am constantly faced with the temptation of casting on the projects that I edit, and I’m lucky enough to edit many of my favourite designers, so I was generally feeling as if I didn’t have much to add to the vast number of stunning patterns that are already out there. And then something like this came along, and tempted me out of “retirement”. The opportunity of publishing an eBook with you was too much to resist, you temptress! There are also situations where I want an item, and I just can’t find the right pattern out there. I design for pragmatic reasons, rather than because I have a constant supply of inspiration just welling up within me. In many ways, I see myself as a reluctant designer, with enormously encouraging friends within the industry.
Anyway, when I do decide to design, different designs take me in different ways! This time I knew that I wanted to design something for Jim. I knew that it couldn’t be too fussy, but I wanted some knitting interest as well.
Inspiration came from a number of places…
* Jim wears lots of zipped cardigans and hoodies.
* I had a vague memory of a T-shirt he once loved that had a trio of stripes down the left side.
* Maria Erlbacher’s Twisted-Stitch Knitting is one of my favourite stitch pattern collections.
* Editing Nick Atkinson patterns for The Knitter had shown me some clever ways of knitting strips within a piece without having to break off yarns.
*Over a period of days, these different strands came together in my head to create a hoody with interesting construction and a twisted stitch panel on one side.

How did you go about choosing yarn for the design? How much did you swatch?

Ever since I used Excelana 4ply for my Snawheid, I have wanted to use Excelana (from Susan Crawford and John Arbon Textiles) for a garment. It was SO pleasurable to knit with. I’ve had some in my stash for ages, and cracked open a ball for swatching. I tried both the DK and the 4ply weights in good-sized swatches (this is unusual for me – I’m usually a lax-swatcher who will get away with a micro-swatch whenever possible – naughty Jen!). The yarn is perfect for texture work. It’s a lovely balance of great stitch definition, springy woolliness and softness. The Persian Grey shade was also spot on for Jim’s clothes palette, but not too dark to hide the cable panel. The hoody would also be gorgeous in the Cornflower Blue shade, or Ruby Red perhaps!

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(Jen’s Snawheid, knit in Excelana)

Is knitting your design an essential part of the process for you?

Again, it very much depends on the design. Some designs evolve during the knitting (Puffin Apple with its many rips and reknits stands out here!), and others are so well-formed in my head that I can start with writing the pattern straight away. I’m lucky enough to work very closely with Kim Hobley, who does a lot of sample knitting for me. She often helps me to create a design in a reasonable timescale that would otherwise have been impossible. For Bruton, I was working on a smaller-scale version (which is currently in hibernation). I needed to knit the technique so that I could explain the construction clearly in the written instructions, but in this case Kim knitted the full-size sample. We see each other regularly, so she can let me know quickly if anything isn’t going to plan, and I can check on progress too. As a technical editor I’m very used to imagining through the steps of a project and ensuring that the instructions are clear, without actually knitting it myself. I’m also happy to make calculations from the swatch and write up the whole thing from that point.
In the end I have chosen the DK weight for Bruton, as I knew I would be more likely to knit a man’s hoody in DK rather than 4ply, and the swatch has a satisfying weight and drape to it.

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(Jen’s swatches for the Bruton Hoody)

What are your aims when you write up the pattern?

I go with the same principle I used when I wrote up my Chemistry PhD thesis! Someone should be able to easily follow my instructions and get the exact same results. They shouldn’t be left wondering whether I did it one way or another. I aim for as consistent a pattern writing style as possible, with a balance between including lots of detail, but not over-complicating things. You can’t account for everyone’s pattern preferences, but I aim for a set of instructions where the information is presented as logically as possible. You and I have fairly similar pattern writing styles, so we were able to make a few minor changes on each side and ended up with something which works for both of us. I lost the cast off/bind off battle (it wasn’t really a battle!), but in return I was able to capitalise your abbreviations. Compromise being an essential part of teamwork.
(Kate says: ho ho, next time everything will be lowercase)

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(Jen’s thesis!)

Were there any challenges that were specific to designing a man’s garment?

Getting the balance of designing something that Jim would wear, but that knitters would not be bored to tears by was tricky! I’m happy with the finished garment, and Jim has been wearing it non-stop for the last 12 months, so I’m guessing he is happy with the outcome as well. I’ve been holding myself back from stealing it for my wardrobe too!

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(Jim is happy in his hoody)

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(Jen is happy in Jim’s hoody)

Thankyou, Jen!

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