You may think that knitting in the Nordic has been a tradition since the age of the Viking (800 AD - 1066 AD), but in fact, it was one of the last knitting countries in Europe. The first knitted pieces were camisoles knitted with fine silk yarn. (My kind of lingerie!) Before knitting, hands and feet were wrapped with strips of hide or cloth to protect them from the cold.
Nordic countries are a geographical and cultural region located in Northern Europe and the North Atlantic.
The Nordic Council countries consists of:
- Aland Islands
- Faroe Islands
These countries share the same way of life, history, language and social structures. Politically, these countries and islands come together to form the Nordic Council.
Knitting needles and silk yarn were expensive, so the first Nordic knitters were hobbyists made up from the higher social classes. With cotton becoming more accessible, knitting became more popular and was accepted by other social groups who used it to earn a living.
In the 1600s, mittens, stockings/socks and camisoles were the preferred projects. As Knitting became more popular in the mid-19th century, the first two-colored sweaters, we associate with Nordic knitting were made.
In the 1800s, wool sweaters where knitted and found in more rural areas. Sweaters were knit with thin wool yarn in one color. Color was only used at the yoke.
Knitting in Denmark:
Knitting probably got its start in Denmark during the famine after the Thirty Years' War (1618-1648). By the middle of the 17th century, hand knits were being exported.
The small sheep of Denmark who grazed on the moors had inferior wool. It was said that the sheep were so small, that a woman could carry two under each arm. It’s understandable that the yearly wool yield wasn’t enough for the needs of the people. So, wool was imported, and…
Dog hair was blended with the wool to strengthen the yarn used for socks and was considered protection against gout. But, dog hair socks were prickly and attracted dogs, which sniffed and sometimes urinated on the poor souls who were unfortunate enough to wear them. To stretch the yarn budget, people also used human hair to blend with wool. Socks and mittens made of dog or human hair blended with wool were popular with fishermen. Yuck.
The garments most knitted were simple, one-color wool stockings, mittens, sweaters, and underclothes. The men wore knitted underpants, and the women wore knitted underskirts. The quality of these garments was often poor, the stitches were still large and loose after being felted in warm, soapy water or fish broth. Fish broth??? Well, it was a fishing community.
King Christian IV (ruled: 1863 to 1906) once outlawed knitting. He claimed it made women too ‘dreamy’, probably because of knitting’s meditative qualities. His own mother would sneak out of the castle with one of her ladies in waiting and row a boat to her private island to knit in secret. Now that’s just a damned shame. She should have taken him over her knee.
Knitting in Finland:
Hand Knits in Finland were more colorful than anywhere else in the Nordic Council. You probably remember the Finnish snowboarding coach knitting during the 2018 Olympics who knit during the events
During the eighteenth century, knitting was so popular in one Finnish town, that city officials forbade knitting in public places—it was considered shameful. Can you believe it?
Traditionally, before marrying, a Finnish girl had to knit enough pairs of stockings to last 20 years. These stockings were saved in a wooden dowry chest for their marriage home. Some of the girls became so fast and skillful at making stockings, that they knit enough to last a lifetime.
The Icelandic sweater, identified by its yoke design, only dates back to the 1950s (according to Bergthora Gudnadottir, from the Farmers Market, an Icelandic design company). Rumor has it that the wife of a Nobel prize-winner (Halldór Laxness) brought a version of the sweater back from Greenland and replicated it in the late 1940s.
The Icelandic name for the circular yoke sweater is “lopapeysa.” (“Lopi” is the name of the yarn traditionally used in it's making, and “peysa” means sweater). The Icelandic sweater became a heritage symbol for Iceland when Iceland gained its independence from Denmark in 1944.
The yarn from Icelandic sheep is unique because this particular breed has been isolated from other breeds of sheep for centuries. All those years of exposure to sub-Arctic temperatures has produced wool with two distinctive features; the warm, soft, insulating fiber close to the body called ‘þel’ and the longer, water repellent fibers on the surface is called ‘tog’.
The density of the wool explains why people can wear an Icelandic sweater without a coat or jacket and still keep warm. Well, isn’t THAT interesting.
Icelandic sheep produce wool in natural colors such as:
Did you know that Norway was actually one of the last European countries to adopt knitting?
The earliest pieces of Norwegian knitting are from the 1600s. Knitted fragments found in Norwegian graves were dated around 1500. It’s been said that knitting came to Norway from Denmark.
Knitting didn’t really become common in Norway until the mid-1800s, when it became part of a growing movement toward nationalism. This is also when the first ‘traditional’ two-color pattern, that we associate with Norwegian knitting began to appear. Knitting as a national symbol: Awesome!
After Norway separated from Sweden in 1905, there was a serious push to develop a national identity, and this included national styles of dress. Norwegians began to borrow and modify ideas from other cultures. Take the border commonly found in Norwegian knitting; it was inspired by the Greek Key interlocking pattern, and became a distinctly southwestern Norway creation from the 1940s.
In 1956 Dale of Norway created the iconic sweaters for the Norwegian winter Olympic teams, which really cemented the idea of ‘Norwegian style knitting’. It also transformed knitting in Norway from a rural tradition to a nationwide fashion statement.
Faroe Island Knitting:
Wool was considered gold for the Faroe Island economy, now 95% of its export is fish. The islands sit in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean, due north of Scotland, roughly halfway between Iceland and Norway.
Faroe sweaters are hand knitted with lanolin rich, thick, wool. The patterns can be found in ‘Føroysk Bindingarmynstur’, the definitive Faroese pattern book. Because different islands, towns and villages all had their own patterns, two men collected patterns during the 1920s and 30s before they could disappear from memory and put them in a book.
Faroese sheep have been bred over centuries to be hardy. Their wool from is exceptionally warm and water-resistant. These sheep live on rain-soaked mountain sides for months and it’s the lanolin that makes their wool waterproof.
Sheep still roam the mountains in small flocks and are sheared by hand. The fleece is graded by color, spun, and sometimes dyed.
Thanks to Sarah Lund in ‘The Killing’, traditional patterns of the Faroese fisherman's jumper have had their moment in the fashion spotlight. Faroe sweaters have been known to be passed down through three or more generations, they become family heirlooms.
In the 1900s, the warm, insulating Faroe Island sweaters were so popular that an agreement was made so that all Danish army soldiers could have one as part of their uniform.
Knitting in Greenland:
Greenland is the world’s largest island and has a young knitting tradition. Mariane Petersen of the National Museum in Nuuk believes that mitten knitting began some time during the 1850s.
The women of Greenland learned to knit from Danish women when they worked for them as maids. Yarn was imported and available at Danish controlled shops.
Erik the Red and other Vikings from Iceland came to Greenland before A.D. 1000, bringing sheep, with them. About 500 years later, the Vikings and their animals disappeared from Greenland— no one knows how or why. The Greenland Mysteries would make a good Viking documentary.
In 1906, Rev. Jens Chemnitz brought in 12 sheep from the Faroe Islands. That’s when sheep breeding was taken seriously in Greenland. Later, sheep were imported from Iceland and a royal sheep station was started in southern Greenland. Today's Greenland sheep are descendants of those Icelandic and Faroese sheep.
Because of Greenland’s harsh climate, the sheep’s outer coat is long and lustrous. While the undercoat is soft and fine. Spinning both together makes a soft and strong yarn. Since Greenland doesn’t have their own wool processing facility, their wool is washed and spun in Denmark.
Greenland's knitters don't usually use patterns. The first pattern booklet came out in 1983, when an Icelandic pattern was translated for the women's college. "Patterns should come from one's head," Greenlanders say, but many knitters do work from pictures.
Interest in knitting has increased and there’s a lot of experimentation, including knitting with Polar Bear fur. Musk ox wool is popular for children's sweaters but it is difficult to come by. Knitting with rabbit fur is also popular. Ummm. What do you think about knitting with Polar Bear fur?
Greenland is famous for it's glass beaded collars and they may have been the inspiration for the yokes of Norwegian and Icelandic sweaters, but no one is saying for sure. Beaded wrist warmers, called ‘tajarutit’, were knitted in wool. These wrist warmers, which are the only knitted part of the national costume, originally came from Denmark sometime during the nineteenth century.
As you can see, the Nordic Council has a rich and diverse knitting tradition that centers around yoke designs. I hope this encourages your love of knitting history and tradition and inspires your designs. If you want 15 more powerful ways to be inspired, fill out the form below to get your FREE Inspiration Guidebook.
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Sticks & String,