by Donna Druchunas
Originally published in Black Purl Magazine, Summer 2007
When you think of Norwegian knitting do you think of ski sweaters and mittens with snowflake designs on them? If you do, you’re not alone. Several of today’s popular knitting designs originated in Norway in the 19th century and became popular around the world when Dale of Norway started creating spectacular sweaters for the Norwegian Winter Olympics teams in 1956. Today the company sells both sweaters and knitting yarns and patterns in both traditional and contemporary styles, and is also supplies sweaters to the U.S. Olympic ski team.
The hand knit sweaters that we all love today weren’t always popular in Norway, however. When rural knitters first started making them, people from the towns and cities looked down on these garments as peasant clothes. Farmers didn’t care much about fashion, and since wool was readily available in rural areas, it was put to use to keep bodies warm in cold winter weather, regardless of what the city-slickers thought. Soon enough, however, the designs spread in popularity until they eventually became symbols of Norway known throughout the world.
The Norwegian sweaters we think of today—with snowflake motifs and lice patterning—originated in the Setesdal region of Norway. The lice pattern, with single stitches of a contrasting color worked over a solid background, is much easier and faster to knit than complicated color patterns, but it still adds extra warmth to a garment. You can see why it would have been popular on sweaters knitted by rural women who worked from dawn to dusk on housework and helping out on the farm, and still needed time to make clothes for their families. The oldest designs Setesdal sweaters were made as undershirts, and only later did people start wearing their warm woolies on the outside. Once sweaters changed from underwear to outerwear, more embellishments were added and the black-and-white designs were decorated with brightly colored embroidery at the neckline and cuffs.
When I think of Norway, the first thing that comes to my mind after sweaters is mittens. A while back I went through a mitten knitting phase and made nothing but mittens for two years. I still have a huge basket full of mittens, even though I gave a pair to everyone who visited my house during that time and mailed packages of mittens out to all of my friends and relatives at Christmas. I loved making mittens because they are small projects that make it fun to try out new stitches and techniques without committing yourself to the months—or even years—of knitting that go into making a sweater. My favorite mittens to knit were in the Norwegian style, with the pointed finger tips and two-color patterns that fit neatly onto the shape of the hand. In her new book, Selbuvotter: Biography of a Knitting Tradition, Terri Shea explains how the classic black-and-white snowflake mitten was created in the Selbu district of Norway by an intrepid knitter named Marit Guldseth. Marit had seen a friend knit a simple two color pattern into a pair of stockings, and she wanted to try it out on mittens. After a summer of experimentation, when she was just sixteen years old, Marit made a pair of snowflake patterned mittens and wore them to church on the first cold Sunday of the winter. The rest, as they say, is history.
When I was reading through a couple of new books on Norwegian Knitting that I bought recently, I noticed that there were many charts and patterns that did not fit into the traditional designs that I thought of as Norwegian. I saw patterns of animal motifs, birds, flowers, and even pictures of dancing men and women. I’d seen reindeer patterns from Scandinavia before, but never squirrels, sparrows, dogs, or spiders. These lesser-known Norwegian motifs are charming and folksy looking. They would make wonderful sweaters for children and cute accessories. I used a rabbit motif that I found in Invisible Threads in Knitting by Annemor Sundbø on a headband, as a quick project to try out a new design. Now I want to make a sweater with the same bunny motifs for one of my nieces… or maybe two for the twins!