Sunday, November 7, 2010

Knitting in Iceland

Gwen Bjarnson, the main character of The Sweater Curse, is Scottish/Icelandic-Canadian. I too have roots in Iceland.
Iceland's flag
My Icelandic-Canadian Grandma taught me to knit. The craft has been handed down in my family for generations. Traveling to Iceland is very expensive so my ancestors left never expecting to return. Most Icelandic emigrates left with few belongs as space on the ship was severely limited. I imagine one of the things my great grandmother brought with her were her knitting needles. It has taken my family 150 years to return but on September 4th, 2007 I did. Now that I am back in Canada I would like to share my experiences with you.

View of Iceland
Iceland has had a significant influence on knitting. Lopi yarn and the Icelandic sweater are fine examples of this influence. This is impressive, indeed, when you realize that these adaptations have come from such a tiny island --Iceland's population is only 306, 000.
I stand in front of the Textile Museum
Icelanders were introduced to knitting in the 16th century. Traditionally, both girls and boys were instructed in the craft. Their needles soared through many projects. Two examples I saw in the Textile Museum in Blondous were a woolen undershirt and fishermen's leggings. These leggings were worn over pants and encased the leg from the toe to upper thigh. The scratchy undershirt was worn next to the skin. My husband thought the itching would drive him crazy but had to agree it would keep him warm.
I saw an example of traditional Icelandic mitts while at the Icelandic Emigration Centre at Hofsos. Traditional Icelandic mitts had two thumbs, one on either side of the fingers.
The design adaptation prolonged the life of the mitt Icelanders knew that the first part of a mitt to wear out was the thumb. By knitting a second thumb, fishermen could go on working simply by turning the mitt around. Now that's Icelandic ingenuity.

I stand in front of the National Museum
Upon a visit to the National Museum, I was surprised to discover that traditional Icelandic sweaters did not arrive on the fashion scene until the 1940s. A recent adaptation of the Icelandic sweater features detachable sleeves.

Beautiful Hofsos,
in the foreground one of the three buildings
that house the Icelandic Emigration Centre
I spent most of my time visiting with relatives in Hofsos. Hofsos is a small town with a population of 170. This meant sacrificing big town charm for an opportunity to be with family. For most of our stay we had no car and the buses only ran three times a week from Hofsos. Not for me the opportunity to roam through yarn shop after yarn shop. Which would you choose --family or wool?

One day our host, my husband and I walked into Hofsos' convenience store. There among the brown bread and hardfish I saw it --six shelves of yarn. Our host and my husband left me to engage my senses. The information on the yarn bands was written in Icelandic so I had to speculate as to the fiber content. I could tell by touch that the majority of the skeins were wool --Lopi and the like. Also present were acrylic and cotton blends. The experience left me intoxicated.
Eventually, we did visit larger towns, which meant more yarn and even knitting magazines, but unfortunately still no yarn shops. Although I am told they do exist in Iceland. In a Blondous department store our host pointed out the book section. There among shelves upon shelves of magazines I saw them --knitting magazines. There were knitting magazines from Sweden, Britain, and one form Iceland. I bought the Icelandic knitting magazine. Flipping through its pages I noticed large and small projects --much eye candy. The magazine is organized similar to a North American knitting magazine --glossy pictures in the front with black and white instructions in the back. I was surprised to see no schematics.
While in Hofsos, I had an interesting conversation with a graduate of the Icelandic school system --Rosa Tryvadottir. She informed me that the equivalent of the North American grade school only goes to grade ten in Iceland. Upon reaching this level of education students have the opportunity to enroll in the studies of their choice. Rosa elected to enroll in a school that offered needlecraft classes. She took quilting, embroidery and knitwear design. After two years of study she had the opportunity to choose one of these needlecraft's and further her study in university. She said that some of her friends had chosen knitwear design. Upon university graduation her friends banded together to form an association that sold their knitwear designs --much like the Handknitting Association of Iceland.
While in Iceland I heard about Snorri Plus. Snorri Plus is a unique program offered to Vestur Islendingur. (Vestur Islendingur is an expression used by Icelanders to describe Icelandic-Canadian and Icelandic-Americans. It means Western Icelanders.) This program is much like the original Snorri program. However, were as Snorri participants are from 18 to 28 years old Snorri Plus attracts participants who are over the age of thirty. Snorri Plus participants spend fifteen days living and working (or hobbying) with their Icelandic relatives while they tour Iceland. What an opportunity for a knitwear designer or knitter!

Tomorrow: Meet a sheep farmer.

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