Notes on the Icelandic knitting heritage

There is more to Icelandic knitting than the famous lopi yoke sweater, which is, in fact, barely older than half a century. Here are a few notes gathered by Hélène Magnússon about the Icelandic knitting tradition.

Back to Issue 01 – Autumn 2010


woman knitting in iceland

The Icelandic knitting tradition

Knitting is intrinsically related to the life of the Icelandic people. Having been populated in the late 9th century by political refugees and fugitives from Norway, Iceland didn’t come into contact with knitting through its Nordic neighbors though, but through English, German or Dutch merchants. This didn’t happen until the 16thcentury but when it did, knitting quickly spread throughout the country.

"A whole nation started to knit"

The most obvious reason for Iceland’s fast engagement with the craft is the versatility and practicality of knitting compared to the heavy work, material and space required to produce material by weaving. Another reason, also quite obvious, is the abundance of raw material to work with: the wool provided by the numerous Icelandic sheep, a rustic Northern Europe breed that settled in the country at the same time as humans and has remained almost pure until today.

A whole nation started to knit: men, women, children, everyone was knitting. Everyone, even the youngest, was expected to produce a specified amount of knit goods over a certain period of time. An Old Icelandic poem gives insight into the attitudes toward work, and towards knitting in particular, in centuries past:

Fyrst þú ert kominn á fjórða ár
fara áttu að vinna.
Það er að læra listir þrjár
lesa, prjóna og spinna.

In English:

"Since you are almost four years old
it’s about time you were put to work.
That is to learn the three arts
to read, knit and spin"

This poem may be a bit of an exaggeration, but from the age of eight years old, a child was expected to knit at least one pair of socks per week

The context in which the knitting tradition developed may explain certain aspects of it. As knitting began to spread through the country, Iceland had entered its so-called “Long Night”, which lasted from the end of the 14th century until the middle of the 19th century. It had become a province of the Danish Kingdom, was geographically and economically isolated and one could argue that it was more or less abandoned. Life was extremely harsh and foreigners who traveled to Iceland were terrified by what they saw and the awful living conditions. Owing its existence to a very active geothermal hot spot at the boundary between the American and the Eurasian plates, the country was regularly ravaged by natural catastrophes such as earthquakes and volcanic eruptions that killed the animals and engendered famines and misery. It’s hard to say how the inhabitants managed to survive some of those events but by the 18th century, the Icelandic population had dramatically dropped to under 40.000 inhabitants, or knitters I should say

People knitted whenever they could and everywhere: in the darkness of the small Icelandic turf houses or outside while walking. In the houses, the knitting took place in the main room, the baðstofa, where families gathered around the fireplace and knit, while listening to one person reading the psalms and old Sagas; the speed of the knitting would be determined by the speed of the reading.

"almost like a speed knitting competition"

Windows were very small and the poor lighting provided by small fish oil lamps meant that people had to be able to knit without looking. Garments were knitted almost exclusively in the round using long double pointed needles and sometimes two people would collaborate and knit the same sweater in tandem, facing each other. Sock knitting took place mostly after the slaughtering season; the wool was processed during the day and the socks had to be completed during the evening. This was almost like a speed knitting competition: people even used little sticks to keep their eyelids open and avoid falling asleep. The men knitted while walking around the farm, doing other jobs, so that no time was lost to the knitting. They usually completed 4 or 5 pairs of socks per week.

"hand knitted goods very soon became important trade items"

The reason why people knitted so much, beside to meet their own needs, was that the export of hand knitted garments was the main domestic industry: in 1624 for example, 72.230 pairs of socks and 12.232 pairs of mittens were exported. While Iceland’s economy was based on fishing, hand knitted goods very soon became important trade items and were traded for groceries, fishing equipment and other products that were desperately missing on the island.

Of the vast amount of knitted material or garments that were exported, of the many thousands of thousands of sweaters, mittens and socks, we barely know what any of them looked like as none have survived. It’s not surprising though: these were most likely rather rough, single-coloured garments intended for the working classes in Europe, and would be recycled as they would tear and wear out. The unique characteristics of the Icelandic wool probably contributed to the popularity of these garments abroad: it is both highly warm and water-repellent but still extremely light.

"everything was knitted"

Knitted articles for domestic use were probably more refined than those that were exported. Everything people wore was knitted, from head to toe: stockings, trousers, jackets, skotthúfa (cap with a tasseled tail), undergarments, shoes and suspenders and shawls, just to name a few examples. Knitted material was a substitute for other fabrics.

"a man’s sweater required to cast on 800 stitches..."

Pillows and even tents were knitted. Knitted fabric was worked almost exclusively in the round on fine needles, less than 1 mm in diameter in the 19th century, and then often felted for extra strength and warmth. A man’s sweater would, for example, require the knitter to cast on 800 stitches at the hem…

Garments were commonly knitted in stocking stitch with edges in rib or garter stitch and were shaped to fit the body of the wearer perfectly. However, because of the small needles and the felting process, it is difficult to figure out exactly what techniques were used for shaping. The women’s jackets were especially cleverly shaped, but unfortunately very little is known about how this was achieved. Not much is known about color work in previous centuries, but Icelandic manuscript pattern books with squared designs do exist, and are thought to have been partly intended for knitting

In my opinion, the highly skilled techniques and the attention to detail, demonstrated for example in the amazing shaping of a jacket, is what characterize the Icelandic knitting tradition.

"the ability to do a lot with scarcely anything"

The understanding of Icelandic wool and its abilities was also at an extremely high level that we are unable to reproduce today, and the best possible use was made of all the different natural colours of the sheep. Another characteristic of Icelandic knitting is the ability to do a lot with scarcely anything: Icelanders had scarcely anything to work with, so there is no luxury or showing-off in Icelandic knitting and there are no big masterpieces to marvel at. Rather, Icelandic knitting is comprised of small but stunning practical items such as mittens delicately cross-stitched with bits of colours or beautiful knitted patterned inserts made of yarn leftovers in Icelandic motif knitting, a tradition unknown outside Iceland.

It is surprising however, considering the tradition, that the most prominent representative of Icelandic knitting today should be the famous Icelandic sweater (lopapeysa), which is only a little more than half a century old. The unspun lopi with which it is knitted is also a rather recent invention that dates back to the early 1900’s when “lazy” women began to experiment with knitting without spinning the wool into yarn first.

Early on, in the 20th century, big social changes started to occur in Iceland. Political independence was finally gained. New technologies revolutionized the Icelandic way of life more than in any other country. In just a few decades, living conditions became unrecognizably better. Hand knitting began to decline as a home industry, men stopped knitting and toward the end of the century, hand knitting as a home industry had all but completely disappeared. Women continued to knit beautifully but mainly as a hobby. As we advance in time, many of the special knitting skills have been lost and knitting has been losing its ground for a long time, although it’s still routinely taught in school, as part of the children’s curriculum

Today, at the beginning of the 21st century, knitting is gaining firmer ground once more. It probably never fully went away.

Main references :

Elsa E. Guðjónsson, Notes on knitting in Iceland, 7th edition, Reykjavík,1990
Fríður Ólafsdóttir, Íslensk karlmannaföt 1740-1850, Reykjavík 1999
Hélène Magnússon, Icelandic Knitting using Rose Patterns, 3rd edition, London 2008
Jónas Jónasson, Íslenskir þjóðhættir, Reykjavík 1961