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Snowy Scandinavia

The word Scandinavian conjures images of snow; skiing; reindeer; long, cold winters; warm knit sweaters and mittens; and stories by Astrid Lindgren. It is unclear which Scandinavian country first held the tradition for knitting. Historians believe that it was introduced to the region around the fifteenth or sixteenth century when workers were brought to knit silk stockings for the royalty and wealthy. Later, the common people adapted knitting to wool for simple and perfunctory garments. As with many regions where there is a lot of snow and it is frequently cold, garments were made to keep the wearer warm rather than decorative. Later as knitting became more of an art, different regions and cities began to identify themselves with particular patterns and knitters would express their individuality and personality through their work.


Blue and white colorwork showing Seblu star pattern on top of a map of Scandinavia.

Norway

The Seblu star, also known as the eight-pointed star or rose, is often seen as synonymous with Norwegian and Scandinavian knitting and is frequently found on garments today. However, this motif is traditionally found in many regions of the world, not just Scandinavia. In 1814 Norway became independent of Denmark and Norwegians strived to create an independent identity that was uniquely Norwegian. At about this same time, a young woman named Marit Guldserbrua Emstad knit a pair of black and white mittens featuring the eight-pointed star and wore them to church. A new folk tradition was born, and the eight-pointed star became forever synonymous with Seblu and Norwegian knitting. It became a tradition for women of the region, to knit highly personal and intricate colorwork mittens as gifts for the male attendants at weddings. These mittens were presented to the bride and displayed until the day of the wedding. It was the bride’s job to distribute the mittens to the correct recipient. As with many handiwork traditions, a cottage industry was formed around the demand from the outside world for similar knit items. It allowed women of that era to contribute to the household income, while still tending to their traditional duties at home.


Denmark

Blue yarn knit in a damask style Seblu star pattern.

While colorful stranded knitting patterns first come to mind when thinking of knitting from Scandinavia, Denmark is also known for its damask style of knitting. The damask style uses purl stitches on a plain knit background to create a textured pattern. It is typically knit in neutral wool and then dyed green, red, blue, or black according to the town’s or region’s traditions. Checks, birds, and stars were all popular patterns. This was a new style of knitting to me. I love how the patterns’ composition is both simple and intricate. Being solely created with knits and purls, the construction is simple and does not require a lot of technical expertise, however, the effect produces an intricate although subtle pattern.


Sweden and Finland

The Swedish and Norwegian traditions of knitting are very similar. Knitting was brought to Sweden and Finland during the seventeenth century, where men, women, and children were all taught to knit. While Norwegians favored two-colored knitting, the Swedes often used more colors but with similar patterning. One of the main distinctions between the two is that the Swedes often knit dates and the initials of the wearer into their sweaters. In Finland, the tradition of Nalbinding (see more about Nalbinding here) was prevalent for a longer period of time. However, here too, knitting eventually became an important way to create warm clothing items for the populace. As was the previous pattern in other regions, stockings, hats, mittens, and wrist warmers were the most common garments in both countries. While sweaters and closefitting jackets eventually gained popularity as well.


Iceland

Knitting was a family affair in Iceland. It was highly utilitarian, with children learning to knit stripped shoe inserts at a young age, but also an important cottage industry. It was so important to the people of Iceland that “…knitting needles were stored in special boxes carved with the owner’s name.” (Knitting Around the World, p133).

Throughout Scandinavia, knitting was an important industry, as well as, a necessary skill for people to keep warm. Next month, I will continue exploring the history of knitting in Western Europe with a look at the British Isles and Ireland.


Sources

Knitting Around the World: A multistranded history of a time-honored tradition by Lela Nargi


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