Today I want to share with you a conversation I recently had with Margret Linda Gunnlaugsdóttir and Ásdís Birgisdóttir – two of Iceland’s most important and influential designers of hand-knits. I knew of Ásdís and Linda’s work with the 1990s Icelandic magazine Lopi & Band, and was fascinated with their designs, which seemed really distinctive and innovative. I was particularly interested in Ásdís’s innovations with integrated yoke shaping (a design technique I was experimenting with at the time) and from Hélène‘s website I learned that, together with Linda, she’d recently revived the magazine. As designers working across several decades I felt that Ásdís and Linda’s perspective on hand-knitting in Iceland was sure to be incredibly interesting, so I got in touch with them while I was working on Yokes, with hope of including an interview in the book. What with one thing and another (largely my own very tight publication deadlines) we didn’t get a chance to include our conversation, but I’m really happy to be able to bring it to you here instead. For those of you who are unfamiliar with Ásdís and Linda’s work, might I suggest that you nip over to Lopi & Band (you can view the site in English, Danish or Icelandic) and then come right back here to read what they have to say.
KD: Hi Ásdis and Linda! Could you start by telling us when and how you both learned to knit?
Ásdis: I learned to knit at an early age, when I was about 4 years old, with my mother and grandmother. In Iceland children generally learn to knit in school from the age of 8 but my family (mother, grandmother and aunt) are professional textile enthusiasts, so knitting, sewing, spinning and weaving were always present in my childhood.
Linda: I learned knitting techniques in school when I was 8 years old because it was mandatory for girls to learn how to knit.
(four-year-old Ásdís, learning to knit with her mother)
KD: Were the women (and men) in your family members knitters or craftspeople? Do any of your family members knit now?
Ásdis: Yes my mothers family background is farmers and craftspeople. My mother’s mother and sister (born 1898 and 1903) were a deep influence on my childhood with their handcrafts – knitting, sewing, and weaving. My maternal great-grandfather was a farmer and weaver for the farming community in the north of Iceland and his daughters (my grandmother and aunt) worked the wool, had it spun in the local spinning mill and plant-dyed it for futher use). Today I knit as well as my sister and my daughter (who is 12 years old).
Linda: My mother was an art teacher in primary school. She knew how to knit but I only remember one sweater that she knitted when she was ill and had to stay in bed for some time. My two daughters both knit quite a lot. I taught my eldest granddaughter to knit when she was 5 years old and very quickly she was able to knit with fairly complicated techniques such as double stranded and cable patterns. Today she is 13 and has taught her mother to knit, who then has then gone on to teach her friends to knit as well.
KD: Can you tell me about your education and interest in textiles, and how you both came to work in the Icelandic textile industry?
Ásdis: I studied textile art and design at the College of Arts and Crafts in Reykjavík, with a further year of project design focusing on working with Icelandic wool. Since 1991 when I graduated I started working professionally with the medium of hand-knitting. But from when I was in high school, I had hand-knitted sweaters and clothing for myself and family members, so knitting came very naturally to me as a way to express myself. The years around 1990 were difficult for the Icelandic textile industry, the export of wools had greatly decreased due to less demand from the international market. Many factories producing machine woven and machine knitted fabrics as well as carpets went bankrupt, and the machinery was sold abroad or sometimes simply sold for scrap metal. So during the ’90´s it was considered very out of date and unfashionable to work with Icelandic wool as a medium, either as an artist or designer. But in spite of this (indeed, perhaps because of it, as a form of reaction) there was a growth in the local handcrafts industry. Many rural craftspeople and galleries began making items for the tourist and travel industry, and were thankfully supported by government funding. The Handcrafts Association gained more members during this period, and The Crafts and Design Centre was also founded.
So, then I started designing on a regular basis but began as a freelance designer only. At the same time I began working for the Handcrafts Association as general manager of both the Association and its shop. There I worked from 1994-2008, managing the association (which is primarily a voluntary and amateur organisation founded on the goal of preserving old traditional Icelandic handcrafts and techniques and lending them a modern context). After a period of 14 years I was offered the position of manager for the Icelandic Textile Centre where I stayed for 3 years, working on many projects involving textile art and design. During this time I was also president of the Icelandic Textile Guild. Therefore my main work during these years was a managerial and organisational role within the field of Icelandic textiles, generating connections and projects with other Nordic countries. On the side, I worked as a freelance designer, creating small exclusive projects for magazines, private individuals and exhibitions.
Linda: In primrary school we were supposed to knit specific things with specific colours. I didn’t enjoy that, so I always got a bad grade in textile classes. But when I was a teenager in high school, I drew a pattern on grid paper in a maths class and showed it to my textile teacher who allowed me to knit a baby sweater with my pattern, and I haven’t stopped since. I then went on to study textile art and design at the College of Arts and Crafts in Reykjavík. At first I only designed items for my family. A yarn store owner saw a sweater I made from the yarn she had imported and insisted on getting the pattern to publish in a magazine. The woman who started Lopi & Band saw that issue and contacted me and asked me to design/work for her magazine, which I then did for many years to come.
(Ásdis and Linda!)
KD: I think the period when you both worked together in the magazine Lopi & Band – saw some very interesting changes in Icelandic knitting and design. I wonder if you could reflect on how you fee hand-knitting and design shifted in Iceland during this period? And how it has once again changed today, enabling the revival of your wonderful magazine and designs?
Ásdis: There have been highs and lows in the interest for knitting in Iceland. The years from 1980 to 1990 were a general low despite a certain interest in local hand-knitting (as we explained above). The magazine Lopi & Band was in many ways a optimistic project started by a local lady who was interested in knitting. Initially, the magazine was not particularly successful, and went between a number of editors, until it was finally bought by a small printer. The owner of the company hired Linda who quite successfully edited the magazine with mainly her own and some other designs (mine included). We became friends in 1994 when I began designing for her on a regular basis. By that time, the magazine had become quite popular, with some editions even selling out and being reprinted. Despite the flood of fleece materials and synthetic sweaters on the market, there was a sudden revival in hand-knitting. The patterns we produced in Lopi & Band were diverse and colorful, with fresh approaches to traditional sweater design. Unfortunately in 1997 the owner of the printing press died, his company was liquidated, and at that time Lopi & Band ceased production as well.
The revival of hand-knitting in Iceland is due in a large way to the economic crash in early October 2008. One consequence of the feeling of national tension and hopelessness was that that many people turned to knitting. I believe it was a form of self-help and self-sufficiency – a return to something real, in reaction to the artificial nature of the predicament we were in. It was also a way of expressing a certain kind of nationalism, an attachment to things that are distinctively Icelandic. For example an affluent lawyer friend of mine that had not touched her needles since high school, was suddenly maniacally knitting all her Christmas presents in 2008! Many others looked inwards towards our culture and heritage, which has affected so many things in our society since. Today, people are much more active in exploring Iceland, hiking and traveling inside the country than before. Also, textile artists and designers, such as Farmer’s Market and 66North, are using our heritage as inspiration for fashion and design .
From that time there has been a huge revival in knitting. I believe it has panned out a bit now, but is certainly still more apparent than it was pre- 2008 and is hopefully here to stay.
From 2009 on, there has been an increase in the market of knitting patterns and books in Icelandic, many are translated but a large number are Icelandic designs. Unfortunately the quality is in general not very good, as there is no distinction made by publishers between those that are producing designs and have a background in textiles and those that are hobby-ists which in my opinion directly reflects on the quality of the design work. There are just a few designers working in the field of hand-knitting that have such training, but fortunately Istex employed (c. 2000 – 2012) a very good designer (Vedis Jonsdottir) that took responsibility for their knitting patterns and colour palettes so the range of available knitting patterns and shades was at least above average.
We decided to jump in with so many others in 2011, and try our hand at marketing our own knitting magazine with the revival of Lopi & Band. The magazine has been very well received but unfortunately the market is rather small so we can not rely on it as a main source of income. But we do at least have an outlet for our passion for knitting design and have a measure of creative freedom and control over what designs we produce.
(Hringana – a design by Linda)
KD: My particular interest is yoked sweaters, and I’m fascinated in how they have been regarded, designed and marketed in Iceland, and how perceptions of them have changed. How do you think Icelandic perceptions of yoked sweaters have shifted over time?
Ásdis: The Icelandic traditional yoked sweater was designed for the market in the 1950´s. During that time my aforementioned grandmother was working for Íslensk Ull, a wholesale company that was working on promoting Icelandic Woollens. She was one of the individuals that developed and designed hand-knitted items for the commercial market, both for tourists in Iceland, and for Icelanders themselves.
The traditional yoked sweater gained immediate popularity as it has the very direct reference to Nordic patterns and designs as well as being extremely easy to make. When the final stitch is cast off you basically have a finished item. Quite early on, the yoke became a symbol of Icelandic woollen work and was quickly internationally know as such. Over the past few decades, countless catwalk collections have made reference to the Icelandic yoke sweater, either directly or indirectly.
The yoke sweater became one of the most important sales items in the Icelandic Handcrafts Centre from the time it opened in the 1960´s until it closed in 1997. Then, in the late ’90s, following the crash of the woollen market, it became very unfashionable amongst the general public in Iceland. But in recent years it has certainly become much more popular, partly because of some young designers, that have featured it in their collections, with their own modern twist. From the traditional rather bulky Lopapeysa (3 ply Lopi or Alafoss Lopi) yoke sweaters are now made of 2 or 1 ply Lett Lopi or Lopi Light and have become very fashionable among Icelanders of all ages.
In its early years of development in the 1950s, the yokes were mainly designed in natural colors and those shades still remain the most popular. But during the early 2000´s yokes began to appear in many different shades that had been dyed specifically for the Icelandic market and yokes are always popular with tourists in a range of pinks and light blues.
So the yoked sweater remains the most popular ‘Icelandic’ design, and we’ve certainly come across this in our design practice. We are often asked if we will design more of the “traditional” sort of yoke, but we find that the market has plenty of those and we prefer to show the consumer that it is also possible to make sweaters of traditional wool, with traditional colours, but in a variety of patterns and forms.
(Dagrenning – a design by Linda)
KD: Could you tell me more about how you feel the unique Icelandic landscape, with its equally unique history of wool and textiles, inspires you and your work?
Ásdis: The nature and the history of textiles in Iceland do inspire our work to a great extent. The ever-changing weather and the extreme versatility of the landscape offer endless means of inspiration. The exceptional colors of the Icelandic landscape are perhaps the most inspirational of all! Icelandic textile history, and particularly weaving and embroidery patterns, have inspired designs for both of us. Local techniques such as Icelandic intarsia knitting – which is knitted back and forth in garter stitch – has been an inspiration in one of my favorite designs.
Icelandic costume history, especially from the middle ages, has inspired me with both techniques and shaping. A exhibition I did played on designs and coloring from that period, the shaping nodded to medieval clothing while the wool was plant dyed either before or after the garment had been knitted up. My design Valkyrja draws on this inspiration.
Linda: When I quit as editor of the magazine Lopi & Band in 1997 I was part of a group that participated in a research project on Icelandic clothing from the period 1750-1850. The costumes we researched are part of the collection of the National museum of Iceland. During that period I made 4 costumes, replicating national costumes from the era. Through this I became interested in the life people lead so long ago. I then studied folklore at the University of Iceland and graduated with a BA degree. Of course the research and my studies appear in my designs to a degree.
(Peysufatapeysa – a design by Linda )
One of the replicas I made was of an old costume called Peysuföt (peysa = sweater, föt = clothing). Traditionally the sweater part of the costume was knitted on 1.5 mm needles and then felted! The sweater I made was a modernized replica of this original, but on 5mm needles. Since then I have used various inspirations such as turf walls and traditional embroidery patterns.
(Turf sweaters – designed by Linda )
Our most famous painter, Kjarval (1885-1972) has also inspired my designs.
(Linda’s Kjarval-inspired sweaters, including Fornar Slóðir )
. . . and I very much enjoy experimenting with shapes and patterns other than those of the traditional yoke.
(Hum – a design by Linda)
KD: What I find most interesting about your design work is how incredibly innovative it is, with beautiful, and sometimes unexpected uses of texture and shaping. I particularly admire your yoke designs – such as Fletta – in which the shaping does not interrupt the pattern, but remains continuous and integral to it. These continuous yokes are one of the real signatures of your work and to my mind are one of the most significant developments in yoke design over the past few decades. Can you tell me more about your development of these beautiful integrated patterns and how they came about?
Ásdis: When I started designing shortly after finishing the College of Arts and Crafts, my background in the handcrafts tradition ispired me to continue working with the yoke concept that had been so characteristic of the Icelandic woollen sweater. I wanted to do yoke patterns that had a different concept – the continuous pattern but not bands of pattern intercepted with single colored rows. The single colored rows have the function of incorporating the decreases in the yoke necessary for the shaping. I wanted to go the more difficult way … incorporating the decreases into the design for the pattern to flow from beginning to end. This means of course a greater challenge in the design with intricate math and drawing for the pattern to be continuous. The Fletta was one of my first designs and probably the most successful so far. I looked to the traditional Icelandic woodcarvings with their flow of latticework for inspiration.
With Fletta (a braid or “intertwining“) a lattice of pattern is on a background of the base colors of the sweater. With another design – Myrarfletta (bog braid) – the lattice itself becomes the multicolored surface for the play of colours (depicting the bright yellow and green mosses in the Icelandic interior growing around the small streams in the desert).
KD: I wonder if you could tell me about one of your favourite yoke designs, and why you feel it is special / important?
Ásdis: Fletta is my favorite design. I think it is one of the best results I had with the lattice work design, simple yet intricate and very eye catching. It offers a variety of possibilities with color combinations which makes it a very fluid design. I have had it made up to suit individuals coloring (often earthy natural colors), also in graphic color combinations and even bright colorful combinations. All seem to work and provide very different effects.
Linda: My favourite yoke design is the one I made from the Kjarval painting Fornar slóðir because it was challenging to capture the mood of the painting and transfer it to a pattern. And also because no one has done it before as far as I know.
KD: Thanks so much for sharing your thoughts, Ásdis and Linda!
You can find out more about Lopi & Band here.
(Stallar – a design by Ásdis)
Have you been to Sanquhar? I am ashamed to say that I hadn’t — until Saturday.
At the workshop May MacCormick, who has knitted literally hundreds of pairs of Sanquhar gloves, was demonstrating her considerable skills.
I was particularly intrigued by the finger gussets, which, as I understand it, are a unique feature of these gloves.
My comrade-in-wool Tom of Holland, gave a great talk about Sanquhar patterns and the many different ways in which they have inspired him, from the creation of swiss-darned socks to pencil case patterns
Then over at the Tolbooth Museum we were introduced to many intriguing items from the collection. I particularly liked the selection of gloves that had been commissioned by a local cyclist to match her different outfits. She possessed gloves in Sanquhar patterns knitted in wonderful shades of russet and gold, and must have cut a very striking figure as she zipped about on her bike.
Her beautiful gloves were evidently much loved and used, as is apparent from their very visible mends.
One thing that particularly intrigues me about the Sanquhar story is the relationship between the local carpet industry, and domestic hand knitting.
Woven rugs and carpets, with geometric monochrome patterns similar to those that characterise the gloves, were created in the homes of Sanquhar folk. The gloves were knitted from the strong yarns used to weave these rugs, as well as from the drugget threads that were used in John McQueen’s Mill, a carpet and blanket manufacturer formerly situated in Crawick, near Sanquhar.
It was a day which brought much knitterly food for thought.
Thanks to the dedicated efforts of the folk at A’ The Airts, many exciting projects are underfoot: projects that will assure a bright future for the distinctive knitting styles of Sanquhar. I thought A’ the Airts was a very inspiring place: one of those exemplary, welcoming community arts centres which local folk really feel part of and proud of – and with reason. When you have an opportunity, I suggest you go and visit the centre and the Tolbooth Museum, and make sure you leave time to have lunch in the cafe, and enjoy some of Norma Simmon’s fantastic locally produced and home-cooked food.
Thanks to Glasgow University and A’the Airts for a great day.
There have been some interesting questions in the comments on my previous posts about the Great Scottish Tapestry. Elaine and Deborah asked what materials had been used in the creation of the tapestry – well, the stitchers used Peter Grieg linen and Appletons crewel wool throughout. Terry asked why it was called a tapestry at all, given that strictly speaking it isn’t, which is an interesting question. I couldn’t find a direct answer to this, but speaking personally, my sense of it is that for the majority of folk who are not involved in craft, design, or the fibre arts, the word tapestry immediately suggests the Bayeux Tapestry, which is not woven either, but is similarly embroidered, from similar materials, in a similarly collaborative fashion. Perhaps its the public, narrative connotations of the word “tapestry”, derived from its associations with Bayeux, that have lead the project to be so described? Those who have been directly involved might like to add their thoughts in the comments below. And yes, I am aware of the Prestonpans and Diaspora projects, and am very much looking forward to seeing them both.
As I continue through my photographs of the tapestry, I find myself vaguely frustrated that there are things that I missed, or failed to record with a photograph, particularly in the eighteenth-century sections. . . but I suppose the tapestry’s richness, its inexhaustive nature, is one of the most wonderful things about it. Plus, I fully intend to spend time with it again when it comes to New Lanark in October. Regarding panel 64, which you can see at the top of this post, one of my academic interests many moons ago was the development of what we now know as sign language out of the “natural” philosophy of the Scottish Enlightenment. I was particularly pleased to see a panel recording the pioneering work of Thomas Braidwood, who established the first school for signing in Edinburgh in 1760.
So here are some more tapestry highlights . . from my favourite period in Scottish history.
Panel 75: Smoked fish I love how the figure of the fisher lass merges in with the landscape in this panel – that’s her striped skirt you can see in the photo. Finnan Haddies, Arbroath Smokies . . . nom.
Panel 78: New Lanark Loved the Falls of Clyde, the silent monitor (I have one on my desk) and the way the figures of the dancing children echo their depiction in contemporary prints of the period. (In the eighteenth-century panels, I often noticed Crummy’s designs directly referencing contemporary prints and paintings.)
On Sunday I finally got to see the Great Tapestry of Scotland. I was completely blown away by the vision of Alistair Moffat (who produced the tapestry’s historical content and context), Andrew Crummy (the superb artist who designed these 160 panels) and perhaps especially by the skill and beauty of the work of the thousand Scottish women and men who stitched it. It was displayed in the singularly fitting surroundings of the Anchor Mill in Paisley. The atmosphere in this wonderful space was electric. There were people of all ages there, and everyone was completely transfixed by the tapestry, and were clearly enjoying it tremendously. I heard several exclamations of delight at particular details, as well as folk sharing personal recollections in front of individual panels. Some of the panels moved me to tears, others made me laugh out loud and viewing this terrific work was a truly incredible experience.
The Great Tapestry of Scotland has a monunmental name, and it is certainly a monumental thing – but importantly, it is not in the least pompous or in any way up itself. Rather than telling the story of a nation through a top-down celebratory narrative of kings and queens and battles, it tells that story from the bottom up, in pleasingly piecemeal fashion, allowing many different identities, and many regional and linguistic differences to be included and represented. Scotland here is the sum of many different parts, and historical change is an uneven, and often deeply conflicted process. And this is a history where the folk who worked to build a bridge might be celebrated in the same terms as the engineer who designed it; where a can of Irn Bru and the King James bible might both share status as national icons. The tapestry’s 160 panels are alive with the colours of the landscape, with cultural invention, with the power of the imagination, with the emotive movement of time, with joy, wit, terror and sadness. That the panels sing so is testament both to Andrew Crummy’s wonderful designs as well as the skill and creativity of the stitchers, and I was deeply moved by the beauty and energy of the embroidery. The story of the people who stitched it is stitched up in this incredible thing, and that is certainly part of what makes it so terrific. So I think it was the tapestry’s sheer sense of shared endeavour that killed me most: that this was the best kind of collective history, created collectively. Craft and design have, I think, a unique power to bring people together in the expression and sharing of their creativity and cultural identity. In all honesty, this tapestry is the best example I’ve ever seen of how this might be so.
This blog serves several functions, one of which is as my own diary. I have thought quite hard about how to represent the tapestry to you, and to myself as well, so that, in the future, I can remember what I felt when I first saw it. I decided that the best way was, over several posts, to show you some of the details that really struck me. If you are interested in finding out more about the Great Tapestry of Scotland, two super books have been published about it. The first, a paperback by Susan Mansfield and Alistair Moffat, tells the story of the tapestry’s creation, together with the stories of the thousand Scottish women and men who were involved in its creation. The second book is a handsome (yet very reasonably priced volume) which carefully illustrates each of the tapestry’s individual panels, alongside more detailed and thorough historical information. I heartily recommend both books. And if you’d just like to look at each of the tapestry’s panels, you’ll find a wee slideshow here.
So here are some of the details I enjoyed from panels 1 through 23
Panel 9: Pytheas the Greek visits Calanais. I was particularly struck by the way the Isle of Lewis stitchers had carefully rendered the colours and textures of the banded gneiss and lichen of the Calanais stones.
Panel 20: Macbeth. Each of the tapestry’s panels includes the ‘signature’ of the stitchers who created it at the bottom right. This one, a small sampler of every stitch and every colour used in the panel was particularly striking. The panel was stitched by Sandra and Glennie Leith, Ingrid McGown, Paddy McGruer and Rhea Scott.
More to come . . .
I have a new pattern out today! This is A Hap for Harriet.
I recently heard that my friend, former colleague, and doctoral supervisor, Professor Harriet Guest, was about to retire, and I thought it might be nice to produce and name a design in her honour. Before I began, I had some discussion with Harriet’s husband, John, about colours. Through a cunning ruse, John discerned that “a muted, not too intense green, jadeish but a tiny bit duskier” would be one of Harriet’s preferences. I immediately thought of this:
This is a lovely Shetland 2 ply, dyed up in inimitable fashion by my friend Lilith, in her Bitterbug shade. It’s a heavy laceweight, with 800 yards to the 100g skein. It is worsted-spun, both soft and lofty, and blocks out beautifully to create a fabric that is amazingly light and warm. It was the perfect yarn for the hap or wrap I had in mind.
The hap features a garter stitch centre and a Shetland openwork edging which creates a series of sweeping points. The construction is very simple: it is knit from side to side, the edging and centre are worked simultaneously, and some shaping is added to create a long, shallow triangle.
The result is a simple, dramatic and extremely versatile wrap that can be worn in many different ways.
I designed this hap to make the most of a special skein of yarn: simply weigh your skein and follow the percentage instructions in the pattern (the pictured hap measures just over two metres in length). As well as information about how to adjust the hap’s dimensions, the pattern also includes two full sets of instructions: the first for knitters who like to knit from charts, and the second for those who prefer written instructions.
Today, at the University of York (where I studied, and later worked for many years) there is a colloquium celebrating Harriet’s important work and influence. The hap will be presented to Harriet today, and is my contribution to that celebration. Many moons ago, Harriet supervised both my Masters and Doctoral theses. She had a profound influence on my thinking and writing, and I know I am better at both because of the happy evenings I spent with her discussing matters Eighteenth Century and otherwise over a pint (or two) at the Minster Inn. When I later returned to York to work as a lecturer, Harriet and I established a Master’s degree in Women’s Writing at the Centre for Eighteenth Century Studies, and together we edited Charlotte Smith’s important 1790s novel Marchmont for Pickering and Chatto – a project of which I am still proud. A few days after my stroke in 2010, Harriet appeared in Edinburgh, arms full of vintage detective fiction, which we both enjoy. To me, Harriet has been inspirational teacher, supportive colleague and a true friend. It was often (somewhat dismissively) asked of eighteenth-century women intellectuals whether they could make a pudding as well as translate Epictetus, or write the History of England. Well, I can tell you that as well as changing the way the world thinks about Eighteenth Century literature and culture, Harriet can make a pudding, knit a cardigan, cultivate a garden, sing any tune you like from the Cole Porter song book, and make you laugh out loud.
Congratulations, Harriet. Hope to see you soon in Herefordshire.
(Hélène, Hiking and Knitting between Fire and Ice, against the spectacular backdrop of Eyjafjallajökull.)
When I visited Iceland I had the very great pleasure of finally meeting Hélène Magnusson, whose research and designs I have admired for many years. I visited Hélène in her lovely home in Reykjavik, where we drank tea, ate some delicious smoked lamb, and talked about things cultural, culinary, and woolly for several hours. We had such a good time chatting, I thought it might be fun to continue the conversation here . . .
1. I know you are French . . . can you tell us a little more about your background? Where did you grow up?
I have both the Icelandic and French nationality but was brought up in France. There I studied law and worked as a barrister for some years in Paris until I moved to Iceland. Law was interesting but I was never passionate about it, if not simply bored! Knitting however has always been something truly enjoyable. I was 7 when I learned to knit from my mother, as well as from books and I have been knitting ever since, whenever and where ever, making my own or following recipes, changing them, or not. It certainly made the law courses pass quicker!
2. And how and when did you come to relocate to Iceland?
Iceland has been on my mind from a pretty young age. My paternal grand-father from Normandy, a very tall man, with high cheeks, grey eyes and a little nose, kept telling me that we were descendants of the Vikings. I dreamt of Iceland with “Icelandic fisherman”, a book by Pierre Loti (I lived in a street that had the name of the author at age 3 to 5, and it has always been a favorite book at home). Because of my father’s job, we were moving constantly from one harbor to the other, and I felt a bit rootless. When I went hiking in Iceland for the first time in 1995 on a holiday, I immediately and finally felt home. The rest was easy: I came back to Paris, resigned from the bar, quit my job and 3 months later, I was installed in Iceland where I later met my husband, started studying mountaineering and textiles, worked as a cook during the winter and a mountain guide during the summer, had three daughters, bought a house, took my driving licence, … I enjoy a lot going on holiday to Normandy in the family house but Iceland is my home and where I want to die (at a very old age!)!
3. The landscape of Iceland is unique and truly magical. Even having only spent a few days there, I already want to come back and explore further. Is there a favorite place you like to be in Iceland? Can you tell us a little about it?
I love everything about Iceland. I love its roughness and emptiness, I love its harshness, how life is fighting so hard to survive. There are many beautiful places I have traveled to around the world but none has ever moved me as deeply than Iceland. Still after all this time, the landscape makes me extremely emotional.
I also love the fact that it is an island and that sea is all around, and you can still see it and smell it from the mountains, even from the top of Hvannadalshnjúkur, the highest peak in Iceland.
Nowadays we often know rather little where a product really comes from – we talked a bit together about the misleading ways yarn can be labeled, and all the unsaid information and hypocrisy that can go behind something that is described on the label as 100% wool, from a specific country. So yes, having worked with sheep, knowing how they are brought up, how they behave, how the wool is behaving and evolving on the living animal, how farmers are considering the wool and the sheep, what process it follows before it comes into perfectly wound skeins in the knitters hands, all this has certainly influenced my designs, trying to find the best use for the wool and to take advantages of its intrinsic qualities or defects. And then working with sheep and wool was certainly an excellent preparation for me to begin producing my own yarn! Of course I had not the slightest idea that this would be the case at the time!
Icelandic shoe inserts, whose unique history and designs are explored by Hélène in Icelandic Knitting: Using Rose Patterns
5. Icelandic knitted shoe inserts are a wonderful example of how decorative textiles played a crucial role in the everyday lives of ordinary people. What first drew you to these remarkable objects?
In the sheep farm where I worked I was first given a little pair of shoes with tiny inserts inside. Later while studying textiles, I was asked to make a presentation about design in a particular research exercise, and I chose to work with knitting. I knew I wanted to explore something really typically Icelandic and remembered the inserts in the little shoes. I then asked the National Museum to open for me their shoe-inserts cabinet, and I fell in love with them – – so colorful, joyful, beautiful and also so graphic. I also think there is a modern aesthetic in the shoe inserts that immediately drew me to them. But they were worn to barely be seen, hidden under the foot. I want to think it made people feel good to be wearing something pretty even if the wearers were the only ones to know. It came as a surprise to me to find out how little opinion old people had on the shoe-inserts – souvenirs of harsh centuries of poverty and dependency – and how very little young people knew about them, if anything at all.
Icelandic soft shoes and shoe inserts from Icelandic Handknits
6. Your first book – Icelandic Knitting: Using Rose Patterns – is a tour-de-force of scholarly research combined with truly original knitwear designs. Can you tell us about the process of producing it?
In the research I carried out, I first presented the inserts not as utilitarian objects but as a collection of motifs that I classified by colors and patterns. This really impressed Guðmundur Oddur Magnússon (Goddur), the head graphic designer professor and he is the one who encouraged me to write my graduation essay about them. (He was actually the only academic who was interested in this aspect of my work — the Fashion department didn’t see the inserts with a very sympathetic eye). With his encouragement, I continued to explore further research on the subject. Having previously studied law was tremendously helpful when trying to locate scarce information on shoe-inserts somewhere in a pile of hand-written ramblings about how life was in the Old Days! But if I had to do it all over again – or if I had the time to return to student life – I’d much rather study textile history than law: I’m a bit envious of your skills! I then got a grant from the Student Innovation Fund to make new designs based on the inserts. My graduation fashion collection (despite the reluctance mentioned above) was inspired by the shoe-inserts. I kind of got completely obsessed with the shoe-inserts!
(Hammer Rose Vest from Icelandic Knitting: Using Rose Patterns)
What was crucial to me during the whole process was to show Iceland’s past and its traditions a lot of respect. First I wanted to record the traditions like they were and like they had evolved, so they wouldn’t get lost, but then I also wanted people to continue knitting after them, otherwise, they would simply die out! To this end, in the second part of the book, I designed garments and accessories all based on the inserts, using the techniques, working from the shape of the inserts or the shape of the motifs, keeping the colors like they were, playing with concepts, or the old sayings and stories that surrounded the inserts.
(Hélène wearing the Skautbuningur cardigan from Icelandic Handknits)
7 .My favourite design in your important second book – Icelandic Handknits: 25 Heirloom Techniques and Projects – is probably the Skautbuningur cardigan. To me this design encompasses many of the signature elements of your work: it combines a thoughtful interpretation of traditional costume, with the construction of the modern Icelandic yoked sweater; involves a really nifty technical trick for finishing the front bands and facings and is also a wonderfully wearable garment. Do you have a favourite design in this book?
Thank you Kate! That is always a tough question! There are designs I liked at the time but feel I could improve today, then there are designs that I enjoyed designing because there was an interesting construction or a solution to find or a concept to work around but that are not necessarily outstanding as such and finally there are the designs that I would like to knit for myself and wear! I actually do wear quite many of my handknits: I have the chance that Icelandic wool ages really well so even worn they are still presentable at tradeshows!
Klukka skirt from Icelandic Handknits
8. I love knitted undergarments and dresses and your Klukka- inspired design is another beautiful pattern in Icelandic Handknits. Could you tell us more about Icelandic Klukka and how they were made?
The klukka was a knitted slip, made of wool of course, worn by women under their clothes to keep warm. The body was often knitted with ribbing with and the skirt had an easy undulating lace pattern with stripes of colors enhancing the undulations. They could be handknitted but by the end of the 19th century/beginning of 20th century, many homes, where all the clothing was made, had knitting machines (like the one we saw in the fisherman’s house at the open Air Museum in Árbær). Klukka were, however often finished by hands with a little picot edge, which was crocheted or knitted.
9. And I understand that beautiful Icelandic lace dresses are the subject of your next book?
Yes, it was too bad you just missed by a couple of days the exhibition at the National Museum about the book process that I held for Design March!
While during researches on Icelandic knitting, I had come across a one article about an Icelandic woman who had been knitting lace dresses inspired by the traditional Klukka but much more intricate. It was always on the back of my mind to find out more about her and many years later, I decided to investigate and looked for the woman: she appeared to still be alive and accepted to meet me for an interview. After a couple of meetings, I thought that she and her work were so remarkable that I decided to write a whole book about her! It would be a terrible shame if her knowledge and expertise simply disappeared… She made one-of-a-kind dresses, but I include in the book patterns of some of her dresses and coats in multiple sizes. I’ve been working on it for a few years now. The most challenging part appeared to be the wool: the yarn she was using didn’t exist anymore and was much finer than the Einband from Istex, which is the only mill and the only Icelandic lace weight available (it’s close to fingering actually). Of course, I found some suitable yarns to knit the dresses, such as Shetland Supreme Lace 2 ply from Jamieson and Smith that you know well, but, without wanting to sound too dogmatic, I feel I OUGHT to use Icelandic wool as well!
(Hélène’s Halldora design, from Icelandic Handknits, knitted with Love Story Artisanal 1 ply)
10. In conjunction with your research into Icelandic lace, I know you have been developing some very special laceweight yarn. Can you tell us more about your yarn experiments?
Yes, since there was no suitable Icelandic yarn for the dresses, I decided to make my own! I started making trials in a mini-mill in Belgium (there is no such thing as a mini-mill in Iceland so I sent selected wool abroad) and this is how Love Story Artisanal 1 ply was born. It is a beautiful fine lace-weight yarn made of high quality Icelandic wool, and very soft for an Icelandic yarn. Although it’s made by a machine, it is closer however to a handspun yarn. Because in a minimill you can work with small quantities at a time, I’m able to offer for sale many different shades of the natural Icelandic sheep colors as well as some plant-dyed colors. This artisanal production was very well received, and disappears very quickly. I find that I’m regularly out of stock and at the moment, I only have brown, black and white available… I can’t even imagine the complicated issues that would be involved with publishing a book recommending a yarn and not being able to keep up with the demand… So I’m heading for a bigger production for Love Story Artisanal 1 ply and that is easier to say than to do! Again I have turned to mills abroad since Ístex doesn’t have the capacity to make a finer lace. First there were many administrative obstacles to go through, one being that, despite all the campaigns for wool, unwashed wool is actually considered as an animal by-product by the EEC and goes by the same rules that meat carcass for shipping and handling… Then, it was not easy to find a mill that would be able to spin the Icelandic wool: it’s a very difficult wool to spin because of the mix of long and short hairs and a little challenging to make it into a fine regular lace. I sent wool here and there and was finally lucky to find a mill in Italy that had the confidence to make it: for the first trial, we made a one-ply but then decided to ply it so it would be more regular. . .
. . .and this is how my other yarn – called Grýla – was born: it’s a 2-ply yarn (Tvíband in Icelandic), made of 100% pure Icelandic wool, and is very sturdy and hardwearing (perfect for fine mittens for example!). It comes in 9 shades (that was the fun part for me choosing colors!) To go with it, I also made a Grýla Artisanal 2-ply in natural sheep colors: it’s spun at the mini-mill in Belgium with Icelandic lambswool and is really very soft. Grýla however is about the same weight as Ístex’s Einband so it is not terribly suitable for the lace dresses themselves (in fact that’s why it got the name of Grýla) but on its own terms it is a really lovely yarn! I knit my Icelandic Spring Shawl with it and it came out beautifully – I’ve also been working on a wee Grýla pattern collection that I will release in a few months.
. . . and now, I’m working on Love Story 2 ply, a yarn made of 100% Icelandic lambswool that will be absolutely perfect for the lace dresses! The lambswool being finer, it will be easier to make a finer yarn, also it’s much softer! I select high quality lambswool directly at Ístex washing station in Blönduós which is where the vast majority of farmers send their wool. I wanted first to buy it directly from the farmers but, though Ístex has been extremely cooperative and supportive of this project of mine, I still ran into many obstacles. As we speak, the wool is on its way to the mill in Italy: both white lambswool but also natural sheep colors, grey, brown and black. I can’t wait to see the end result but it will take a little while so we’ll all have to be patient!
11. You have a wonderful personal sense of style, Hélène, and I know that fashion was one of your previous scholarly interests. How (if at all) does contemporary fashion influence your current work?
Thank you Kate! I had two of my daughters while studying Textile design at the Iceland Academy of the Arts. While I was away on maternity leave for two years in a row (there’s only 16 months between them), the school undertook lots of changes and the Textile section was changed into a Fashion and Textile design section where the focus is on making a fashion line collection. So for this last year at school everything was new for me – it was a bit difficult with two babies a great learning experience for conveying ideas and make a coherent collection. During this last year at school, I also took all the basics courses in patterning, sewing, etc… I can’t say however I’m very much into following fashion at all! It all goes in a circle anyway… Still I’m probably influenced by my surroundings without noticing it!
(Hélène in a stunning flowerpot coat of her own design)
12. With your tours, you are now introducing knitters all over the world to the landscape and culture of Iceland, as well as its textile history. Can you tell us about some of the locales and traditions you will be exploring on your tours in 2014?
I organise the knitting tours with Icelandic Mountain Guides-Iceland Rovers, a tour operator that I had already worked with as a mountain guide until I had my daughters (I had the 3 of them in just 4 years so there was no time then for guiding!). I design the tours and Mountain Guides see to all the practicalities (such as booking etc). My interest in Icelandic knitting heritage and my strong desire to share it and keep it alive, together with my experience as a mountain guide provides the impetus for these tours: they are designed to give an insight into Icelandic Culture and Knitting Traditions. Knitting is still today intrinsic to Icelandic culture, so discovering Iceland through the knitting will give you an immediate and really interesting insight into Icelandic Culture. The tours mix knitting with beautiful natural surroundings: we visit local museums and meet local people, knitters, spinners, dyers, designers, farmers. Each tour has its own way of exploring Icelandic knitting heritage, whether it´s by hiking, trekking or by short walks on a discovery adventure. The tours are also timed to coincide with the natural rhythms of the farming year, and explore several different themes associated with Icelandic culture and knitting.
For example, the Hiking and Knitting with the Elves tour in late June takes for its theme Icelandic lace and is takes place among the fjords of East Iceland where the queen of the Elves herself resides. Elven women were told to pass down from the Elven world to the by stepping onto their lace shawl that they laid down over a swamp. The interesting and distinctive characteristics of Icelandic lace often derive from the subtle colors, tones and shades that we can also see in the landscapes that we are crossing during the tour. June is also the season of flowering in Iceland, a perfect tine to collect plants for dying the delicate lace yarns. The tour includes a plant-dying workshop, we meet with an amazing local lace knitter and discover different types of lace made for example from handyed reindeer skin (reindeer live solely in east Iceland).
By contrast, The Enchanting North tour in July takes us through North Iceland to the fjord of Skagafjörður, the Textile Museum and the beautiful region of Mývatn. The hikes for this tour are pretty easy and accessible to the vast majority of participants and the tour gives a good overview of Icelandic landscape and knitting traditions. Additionally, we explore in some depth the Mittens traditions of Skagafjörður, which are distinctively and beautifully embroidered with and Old Icelandic cross-stitch.
After this, in August, one of my popular tours – Hiking and knitting between Fire and Ice – goes through the Fimmvörðuháls mountain pass, still hot after an eruption, at the foot of the now famous Eyjafjallajökull. This is probably the most challenging tour for the legs and feet and the theme of the tour is Icelandic footwear, especially the tradition of Icelandic shoe-inserts and Icelandic intarsia. Then in September the Spinning and knitting the Icelandic wool tour takes place. This is the time when sheep are gathered from the mountains (where they graze freely all summer), and sorted between farmers during round-ups. The tour take us through the whole process of working with Icelandic wool: rounding up and sorting the sheep, shearing, cleaning, combing, spinning, plant dying and finally knitting with the yarn that we create spun. We also visit the Istex mill factory and local spinners and dyers. Finally, in late October there is the last tour of the year: Knitting in the Magical Icelandic Night: the sheep are in the farm and the shearing season is beginning, we are knitting in cozyness of a turf farm guesthouse. It’s the beginning of winter and through this experience we get to understand how Icelandic wool kept the nation warm for centuries. At this time of the year, the sun hardly rises above the horizon, and the light is completely amazing. A bath in a hot spring, northern lights and colorful mittens are also on the program.
I also have a few custom tours made especially for groups of knitters or travel agencies and I’m already working on the program for 2015!
13. In one way or another, you have been working with textiles and design in Iceland for almost fifteen years. Can you tell us something about the cultural shifts and changes you have observed in this field during this time?
I can clearly see a return to the roots and the prejudice against the past fade with the new generations. We talked a bit about it when you were here, regarding especially the turf houses, and you wrote an insightful post about it.
First there was the setting of Iceland Academy of the Arts and the construction of a Design and Architecture section. Although it may be still a bit early to tell, a definitive Icelandic design flair has emerged, bright and colorful and most of all full of energy.
The financial crisis is also a turning point to me. You can pretty much talk in terms of “before the crisis” and “after the crisis” to define an architecture design style. The before crisis being much show-off, a bit pretentious, expensive and big, often out of scale!
14. You seem to me to be a natural designer and craftswoman: someone who simply has to be making something. If you had unlimited time (and resources) what would you most like to design and make?
Yes I pretty much feel I’m losing my time when I don’t make something with my hands! If I had enough time, first, it would not have taken me WEEKS to answer your interview questions! I would certainly spent more time on other crafts and show my daughters much more than I do now – I would also long be done with the Icelandic costume I’m making for myself at the Handicraft Association of Iceland! I would definitively publish more designs: I have patterns that have been ready to be published for 6 months or more and never seem to see the light. Would I produce more designs? Certainly, it’s not the ideas that are missing! – BUT in a way the limitation is also a garde-fou and forces you to make choices, to eliminate, to refine and keep only the essential. Still, a few hours more per day would do me only good!
Thank you so much for taking the time to tell us about your work and life, Hélène!
Writing of the worn and mended Fair Isle sweater that Shetland knitter, Doris Hunter created for her fiancé, Ralph Patterson, who spent four years in a Japanese POW camp during the Second World War, editor Sarah Laurenson states: “Ralph’s sweater is much more than a physical object. It is a site of personal and political meanings containing traces of world events and the lives of individuals.” Sarah’s astute remarks on this incredible piece of knitwear speak much more broadly to the content of the wonderful book she has recently produced with the Shetland Museum and Archives. In Shetland Textiles: 800 BC to the Present we discover the intriguing stories of creative, enterprising, and brave Shetlanders like Doris and Ralph within the many cultural and economic contexts that make Shetland textiles so unique. Drawing on the knowledge of curatorial staff of the Shetland Museum, academics and researchers from several Scottish Universities, as well as a wealth of local expertise, this book is an important testimony to the significance and impact of Shetland textiles worldwide.
The crucial factor shaping the production of Shetland textiles from the Mesolithic to today is of course, the wool grown by its native sheep. A fabulous piece by Elizabeth Johnston introduces us to some of Shetland’s earliest examples of woollen textiles, while other sections of the book explore the the effects of the landscape on the development of the breed, alongside the realities of keeping a flock, and working with wool in Shetland.
We learn that there are 57 names in Norn “specific to colours and patterns in sheep,” and gain insights into what makes Shetland “oo”, as a fibre, so very distinctive. Other things make “Shetland” distinctive too. Unlike, say, “Harris” tweed, (which refers to cloth woven on the island of Harris, but whose provenance is yarn spun from the fleeces of many different breeds and crosses, who may be raised in many different locales), “Shetland” is unique in its breadth of reference: to a particular group of islands; to the name of a particular breed of sheep; to the fibre those sheep produce; to the yarn spun from that fibre; and to the cloth, knitwear, and other manufactured products that are created from that yarn. Unlike “Harris” (an island ‘brand’ now famously trademarked and protected by national regulatory bodies), the broader resonances of “Shetland” ironically meant that it failed to gain the same protection. According to Sarah Dearlove in her important chapter on Shetland tweed, “the word “Shetland” and its use in the woollen industry in general has been the islands’ achillles heel.”
And yet, although the cachet of terms such as “Shetland” and “Fair Isle” means that they are frequently exploited, in some senses that very exploitation has also ensured their continued prominence and visibility within the textile industry. As Sarah Laurenson puts it: “histories of Fair Isle knitwear have to a large extent been shaped by marketing stories which do not necessarily fit with with the ideas and identities of people in Fair Isle and throughout Shetland. However, these stories have driven the commercial success of the style. Without them, there would be no Fair Isle knitwear.”
Shetland textiles are truly spectacular, and the book includes discussion of many important pieces, now housed in the collections of the Shetland Museum and Archives. There’s a great discussion of the incredible lace garments created by enterprising Lerwick hairdresser, Ethel Brown, and anyone who has seen Jeannie Jarmson’s prize-winning rayon tank top (depicted above on the book’s front cover) will not be surprised to learn that she hurt her hands in its making. Yet though these showstoppers are breathtaking examples of what makes Shetland textiles so special, it is also refreshing to read chapters focusing on the everyday. This is the forté of Carol Christiansen (curator of textiles at the Shetland Museum and Archives) and her sections in the book are genuinely illuminating. You’ll learn about the careful reconstruction of the woollen garments worn by the “Gunnister Man” by Carol and her team, revealling “crucial evidence for how early modern clothing was made, worn, and mended.” And while we are all familiar with the beauty of Shetland lace and colourwork, few are perhaps aware of the unique graphic appeal of the “taatit rugs”, which Shetlanders created as bedcovers and wedding gifts from the Eighteenth-Century onwards.
Building on the book’s wealth of original research is Ros Chapman’s piece about Shetland Lace. Her chapter effortlessly mingles intriguing documentary evidence with tantalising anecdote: “there was even an exhibition of Shetland knitting held in a Philadelphia department store containing a reconstructed croft around which knitters, ponies and sheep exhibited their uniqueness.” Ros’s lively chapter is merely the tip of the iceberg of a wonderfully thorough research project into the history, significance, and practice of Shetland Lace knitting. She is clearly going to produce an important book which I’m already looking forward to reading.
Shetland’s knitters are, of course, at the heart of this book, and form the focus of Brian Smith’s and Lynn Abram’s contributions.
As Brian Smith puts it:
“It is important to remember, and easy to forget, that the people who knitted those tens of thousands of stockings and mittens, as well as performing other chores in and out of the home were Shetland women. It was an “honest man’s daughter” who came to Bressay Sound in 1613 with her knitting and got assaulted in the process; it was women who knitted the “Zetland hose and night caps” that Dutchmen were still buying there two centuries later; Shetland’s land rent was being paid from the women’s hosiery in 1797; they created the stockings and gloves presented to the Queen and Duchess of Kent in 1837; the “hose, half hose, gloves, mittens, under waistcoats, drawers, petticoats, night caps, shawls &c &c” in Standen’s Shetland and Scotch warehouse in 1847; and the Shetland goods on show in the Great Exhibition in 1851. And little cash they got for their pains.”
Brian and Lynn’s chapters unfold carefully researched, well-written, and nuanced narratives about the economic realities of Shetland women’s lives, and the part that knitting has played in shaping them. All of us who enjoy our knitting as a stimulating or relaxing leisure pastime should read these chapters to gain insight into what it really meant to be a knitter in Shetland.
Brian’s chapters unpack the truck system (by which Shetland knitters were paid in goods rather than cash), which lingered on in Shetland well into the twentieth century. His account of the effect of collective action by the Shetland Hand Knitters Association, which was developed under the same post-war influences as the British Welfare State, is particularly interesting (and heartening).
Lynn’s piece reveals the wide variety of ways in which Shetland knitters used their own enterprise to support their families in response to extremely challenging social and economic conditions. “We were more or less financially secure” recalled crofter Agnes Leask after purchasing a knitting machine in the early 1960s, “as long as I could churn out about a dozen jumpers a week.” Lynn’s chapter (as much of her work) is extremely important in the way that it suggests the public and social resonances of a craft which is too often regarded in narrowly private contexts. “Hand knitting,” writes Lynn “was far from a domestic activity undertaken by women in the privacy of their own homes. In fact Shetland knitting created social networks and . . . relationships which aided women’s survival in the face of economic crises, personal loss, and the vagaries of living in these islands.”
As well as providing a rich overview of Shetland textiles and the history of their production, the book also introduces us to some of Shetland’s most talented contemporary makers and artists – Hazel Tindall, Emma Blain, Ella Gordon, and Donna Smith – all of whom are experts in their fields. These interviews suggest how Shetland textiles not only have an inspiring present, but a very bright future, a fact celebrated by Jimmy Moncrieff in his foreword to the volume.
I suppose I should mention by way of a disclaimer that the people mentioned in this post, who created and contributed to this wonderful book, are my good friends, colleagues and acquaintances. You would perhaps be very surprised if I didn’t like this book. But then I would be very surprised if you didn’t like it either.
If you buy one book about textiles this year, make it this one.
Sarah Laurenson, ed., Shetland Textiles: 800 BC to the Present (Lerwick: Shetland Heritage Publications, 2013)
All images in this post are the copyrighted property of the Shetland Museum and Archives and are reproduced with their permission.