I’d like to welcome Hélène Magnúson to Sheep to Shawl, as we talk about her latest book, Icelandic Handknits. Its 25 patterns are inspired by a collection in the Textile Museum in Blönduós, Iceland. She also covers important techniques, Icelandic folklore and culture, and even includes recipes. The beautiful photography and detailed list of resources will spark your knitting imagination!

DD: Icelandic Handknits is so inspiring, I have had a hard time not carrying it around with me everywhere! I’ve gone through it several times, mostly looking at the pictures. I am so looking forward to a weekend trip that’s coming up, so I can bring the book for my travel reading. I know I will read every word, cover to cover! Thank you so much for talking with us about your experience creating Icelandic Handknits.

I love when tradition and popular trends match up and the Margrét Triangular Shawl on the cover of your new book, Icelandic Handknits, is a perfect example of what happens when this works out perfectly. Can you tell us about your inspiration for this design? 

HM: Some designs from the book are modern reproductions of old items and some are completely new designs inspired by the old ones. The Margrét shawl belongs to the first category. I stayed very closed to the original artifact and made few changes. I modernized the cast on start and adapted the colorwork to the modern yarns. The original one is knitted with very fine thel yarn (the softest undercoat of Icelandic wool) handspun by Margrét herself and the color grading is much more subtle but I’m happy with the result achieved from the many colors available in the Eiband-Lodband range. As much as I believe it’s important to research and preserve traditions, I don’t think we necessarily have to repeat them exactly as they are. It’s good to know how to do it but I think it’s just as important to continue the traditions and let them evolve in new directions and contexts, thus giving them new life. 

DD: Did you choose the projects because they seemed to be on track with current trends on sites like Ravelry? Or did you choose them because you love the historical stories behind the knitting?

HM: No, I haven’t tried to be trendy (lol)! Of course I may be influenced by my time without knowing it, but mainly I tried to choose a great variety of items from the Museum that would represent effectively the many aspects of Icelandic knitting. A lot of people seem to know little more but the lopi sweater, which is a pretty recent invention. I know some knitters are surprised to see only one lopi sweater in the book and there is a very good reason why I called it “The missing lopi sweater”: there are no such things as lopi sweaters in Museums in Iceland, the “‘tradition” is that young! So I hope the book will broaden the perception people have of Icelandic knitting and help preserve and continue the traditions.

 DD: I can’t pick a favorite section from the book’s four main chapters: Inspired by Mittens, Inspired by Traditional Costumes, Inspired by Footwear, and Inspired by Lace, but I am intrigued by chapter 2 because in many countries, little traditional costume is made with knitting. Can you tell us about the types of garments that inspired this section? 

HM: When knitting came to Iceland in the 16th century, it was an instant hit! You can pick up your needles and a string of yarn whenever, you can carry your projects anywhere with you, it doesn’t take much space! So much more convenient than weaving on a loom! Everything was knitted in Iceland, the jackets and trousers and suspenders, even tents were knitted! Weaving always stayed a strong tradition; however, that may be a clue why costumes were knitted. Another clue is that knitting is more efficient use of wool: you only use what you need and there is no leftovers of fabric like when cutting into a piece of woven fabric.

When knitting developed, Iceland was in the middle of its so-called “Dark ages” and nothing could be wasted. That said, the knitted costumes were quite hard work. They were knitted on tiny needles (demanding a cast on, for example, 840 stitches for a man’s jacket…) and required quite advanced skills in shaping. So in fact, by the end of the 19th century, costumes were sewn rather than knitted and most costumes in the Museum are sewn out of fabric. Some of those costumes called Skautbuningur have inspired a cardigan and capelet I designed: those are my interpretations of the festive costume and I borrowed both for the lopi sweater and a knitted jacket.

There are indeed a few rare pieces in the Museum: a woman’s knitted jacket that very few will notice is knitted unless they are told. And a man’s jacket: it has a very interesting and unusual construction similar to the one described by Skúli Magnússon, first bailif of Iceland, of the “perfect man’s sweater,” sometime between 1760 and 1770. Hence the name of child’s sweater design in the book, called “A perfect little Icelandic sweater”: it looks very simple at first glance but I hope knitters will enjoy it as a curiosity with the body knitted upward and the arms from the top down and the shaping features (bent elbows and back shaping). I will probably make more out of this construction in future designs but I didn’t feel this particular book was yet the place for it.

 DD: Socks seem to be a perpetual trend for knitters these days. In the section, “Inspired by Footwear” you’ve included two pairs of socks plus several other projects. I’m especially intrigued by the Sock Band Socks. I think these will be a huge hit. How did you come up with the design for the way the bands weave around the sock in such a fluid pattern? 

 HM: Thank you! I hope so too! As all sock knitters know, handknitted socks tend to roll down the ankles. Today we have elastic, but in those times when elasthane and Lycra didn’t exist, socks were held in place with woven bands braided around the leg. The idea was to recreate visually a ribbon woven around the leg and I did that with the help of a few short rows.

DD: I’ve lived in different parts of the United States, and have never felt completely attached to one place. I am always interested in artists who are so connected to the landscape that it influences every part of their work. Can you tell us a bit about how Iceland influences you?

HM: I’m not sure what it is about Iceland but I have always felt home there. When I was little we were moving constantly, every three years, and I felt quite rootless. When I’m in the Icelandic mountains, I feel completely insignificant but still part of a whole. I don’t experience that in the Alps or anywhere else. It is so harsh and bare; you can see, feel, hear and smell the earth in formation. It’s such an emotional landscape to quote singer Björk. I’m trying to share this intensity with the knitters who come to my knitting tours and it’s not unusual that we shed a few tears especially during the hiking and knitting tours!

And now for a couple of bread-and-butter questions:

DD: What makes Icelandic wool special to you? Is it the sheep or the properties of the wool? (I love how, even though it may feel scratchy when you are knitting with it, it blooms and softens when blocked. I also love that it “sticks” so it’s almost impossible to drop stitches!)

HM: The answer is in your question; it is the sheep, it is the wool. 

It is the sheep, a ancient breed almost unchanged (I know there are some romantic stories going on about the Icelandic sheep that stayed pure for more than 1000 years – it is pure up to 80% and one of, if not the purest breed existing but it’s been blended in the past with not much success and today it’s simply forbidden to mix it): as much as it is important to preserve the knitting traditions, it is essential to preserve the sheep and its wool in many natural colors. Without it there would not be any knitting anyway. 

And then it’s the wool. It’s a blend of long glossy rough hair called tog and short fine warm hair called þel (thel). It makes wool that is both extremely light and warm, insulating. It is water-repellent which means also dirt-repellent. It ages very well and I’m a happy designer who can wear her samples and without fearing they will get spoiled at trade shows (lol!). It blocks marvelously, has an excellent memory and is perfect for lace.

One lace design, the Halldora long shawl, uses my own Icelandic yarn label: Love Story. It is a finer lace yarn and it really makes the difference for this shawl, very light and airy. Love Story is pure Icelandic wool and it’s not scratchy at all, it’s quite soft on the contrary (don’t misunderstand me: it’s not alpaca, it’s still a rustic yarn!). It’s made of pure virgin Icelandic wool specially selected and handled very gently with no harsh treatment, no bleaching. The natural colors are not dyed but the true colors of the sheep. You would love it! I feel again that it is important to preserve the old ways of working with the wool and the natural sheep colors: the yarns that were used to knit certainly give Icelandic knitting its characteristics.  

DD: For those readers who aren’t in the EU, Can all of the projects be made with yarns that are readily available in North America today?

HM: The Icelandic wool is available maybe not widely but in many places in the US through Westminster Fibers distributor and School House Press. It is also possible to order it directly from Iceland from the many online shops, including mine! My beautiful Love Story yarn lace is only available online on my website and in a few selected shops in Europe but not (yet?) in the US. 

Many projects use Léttlopi which is a pretty common weight: I’ve had much success for example using instead Cascade 220 in one of my latest Icelandic sweater design Fimmvörðurháls.

DD: If readers only learn one new thing in the Special Techniques section, what would you suggest that they try?

HM: The steek. With Icelandic wool it’s really a piece of cake, you barely have to reinforce them. No need for any  “Black Death” (the Icelandic vodka!) If you are using a less sticky wool, you can sew twice to be on the safe side. I have also some useful steek tutorials on my website.

DD: Is there anything you’d like to tell us about that I haven’t mentioned?

HM: Every summer, the Textile Museum in Blönduós has temporary exhibitions: works after artist Hildur Bjarnadóttir or fashion designer Steinunn have been for example exhibited in the past. Needless to say, I’m very proud that the designs in the book will be exhibited at the Museum this year. The opening will be on May 26 and I’m even more excited than usual to be taking knitters to the Museum during my knitting tours, telling them about the traditions as seen in the book and the designs they inspired. 

DD: I’m so glad you stopped by. Thanks for sharing your creative process with me and my readers. I know they’ll be as inspired as I am.

Hélène Magnúson has extensively researched Icelandic knitting and is the author of many books on Icelandic knitting and traditions. She is the founder of the first Icelandic online knitting magazine, and leads hiking and knitting tours with the Icelandic Mountain Guides. For more information visit her website at icelandicknitter.com