Scandinavian Knitting

and the Sarah Lund effect.


      In the beginning there was a sock. A woollen sock recovered at Coppergate was made using a technique called nålebinding; or single needle knitting. which creates a meshwork of interlocking loops, and could be used to make not only socks, but mittens, hats and bags. Bone needles found in the excavations could have been used for this type of knitting, but the sock is the only example of nålebinding ever to have been found in England, so it seems more likely that is was brought to York on the foot of a settler or trader, having been made in Scandinavia. 


      It was inevitable that, given the climate in Northern Europe, there would be a deep and abiding interest in keeping your bits warm! And being seafaring nations the Scandinavian countries exported more than vikings and northern place names to these shores but became culturally and craftily entwined as well. After all, the areas in which they most made their presence felt had much in common; chilblains, land which was poor enough to only support the hardiest and heaviest coated of sheep, and long periods with poor light and with any agricultural land too cold to work, when making warm winter gear was a good idea waiting to happen. 


      Because of the interaction between nations it is hard to be very specific about scandi knitting traditions. We do know however that from the 19th century onwards the ‘lusekofte’ otherwise known as a Norwegian sweater started to be worn, though it is thought that the original ‘setesdalsgenser’ containing a more simple black and white design came first. And then of course more colour was introduced with intricate patterns and delicate shapes of snowflakes, reindeers, diamonds and other shapes decorating what started out as a simply decorated jumper. Originally the theory is that patterns were local to a particular village, or even family, to make it easier to identify the bodies of drowned sailors, a bit grim I know, but people were practical souls in those harder times so perhaps not so far fetched. 


      Many  think of scandi-knits only in terms  of Sara Lund's striking and cosy faroese sweater from the first series, but the need for warmth created at least two strikingly different styles of knitting (in addition to some fine lace knits which remind me of the Shetland Isles wedding-ring shawls.) The multi-coloured version of which we are all aware varies in its traditional designs through a simple and ubiquitous pattern now used more as a 'filler' for large areas where two colours alternate along a row, and then are offset from each other in the next, to large complex motifs of which the large eight pointed flower or star is the most common and easily recognised. It began with just two colours but as it became more popular from the victorians onwards with the development of winter sports and monied scandinavian tourists taking their ski fashions to Western Europe's increasingly glamorous mountainous resorts, then more complex patterns and multiple additional colours became the trend.


      The Selbu mitten and its history are a clear example of this progression. The history of the Selbu mitten with two strands of different colours, generally in black and white, is more than 150 years old. However, this knitting technique dates back even ea rlier in Scandinavia and in Norway as well. For instance in Telemark and in the south-western part of Norway this technique was already well known when the mitten production started in Selbu. Nevertheless – it is the Selbu mitten with the eight-point star that is considered the national mitten in Norway. In Selbu this pattern is called the star-rose. The Selbu mitten soon became “the national symbol” of Norway. It spread rapidly all over the country and about 1900 Selbu knitting became a very important export article all over Europe, America and Canada as well. Today, mittens for sale, are standardized and stereotypical, mostly knitted with two eight-point stars. However, in times past, the mittens used a wider range of design, more elaborate and vividly coloured than now.


      The second and less well known method is called Twined knitting which makes stiff fabric good for embroidery, often self coloured. Twined knitting is sometimes called two ended knitting because it uses two ends of yarn from the same ball for self coloured work,( and when using two colours sometimes involves popping the contrast yarn into the centre of the main yarn 'doughnut'), and they are twisted between stitches which create a close and fairly stable fabric, with far less stretch than ordinary stocking stitch knitting. Because of this stability it makes a great fabric for wear and warmth and as a base for embroidery stitches for decoration and yet an extra 'layer'.

Find out about the history and technique of two-ended knitting from thiis fascinating interview.
      We often think of traditional scandinavian knitwear as being traditional to Christmas, understandable when so many motifs reflected the wintry conditions of the countries of origin, but it was actually a very different cultural celebration which embedded the complex Scandinavian knits in their communities. In an era where every girl was expected to be a competent knitter by the age of ten, the scandinavian wedding was a real focus for the craft and a way for a community to showcase its skills. Once again Selbu started as a hub for what became a very widespread practice. As in many other places, knitting took a particular part in the wedding traditions in Selbu. In earlier days, it was not at all simple for a girl to find a partner, and knitting  was an important skill to have in your arsenal, so a betrothal was a busy time for all the women in a community. The bride had to knit magnificent  stockings for the groom and the other men in his family as well as the godchildren. The mother and sisters-in-law had to have be given gifts of fabric for dresses and blouses; to afford these the bride traded her knitting for the material in the local stores. Women guests also knitted mittens for the male guests, which were displayed before and during the event, and in the case of married women it was considered bad form for the bride not to ensure that the husband got the mittens his own wife had produced!


Wedding loft with display of Selbu Knitting

      So finally back to Sara Lund. Sophie Grabal picked that very first iconic sweater herself when developing her character. She thought that it reflected the direction she wanted to take with her character. It was practical, sturdy, could be worn over different tops for days even weeks at a time, and was very much not a sexy garment. It stressed that Sophie wanted her character to be judged by her work and not her wardrobe or female physical attributes. It all tied in well with the lack of make-up and the hair which was not so much styled as yanked into a pony-tail most of the time. Sophie herself had an affection for the style of sweater because it had been practically a uniform for the rather hippy community in which she was raised; asexual, warm and practical. For her it embodied family and community and she was probably more surprised than anyone when she found herself handing a cardigan in the same design to Camilla Parker-Bowles, a huge fan of the program! If you are a fan as well (of the knitwear, not just the series), you will find several links in the Resource List on the first page of the newsletter which willl give you more information on the history and techniques as well as pattern sources.

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