The Icelandic Turf House and the Knitter

Sitting on the roof of the Old Turf Farmhouse
Sitting on the roof of the Old Turf Farmhouse

Icelandic Turf Houses are filled with history and, as a knitter, there are few places where I love to knit more than in the baðstofa – the main living house where you would work, spin, knit, eat, sleep, eventually be born and die -, surrounded by memories of ancient times and recalling Old knitting traditions and tales. During my knitting tours, I have often taken knitters to the exceptionally well preserved Turf Farm Austur-Meðalholt in the South of Iceland where one of my relative, artist Hannes Larússon, grew up until the age of 9.

One hundred years ago were to be found in Iceland about 100 000 Turf Farmhouses. Despite their primitive appearance, those buildings, made out of the materials available on hand, turf, sod and unshaped rocks but carefully chosen, were given a meticulous thought on how to integrate them perfectly with the landscape so that their inhabitants would be protected from the climate and harsh environment. Few constructions achieve such an harmony with nature. The first structures gradually developed into clever and organic clusters made of many turf houses – sometimes more than 20 – interrelated to one another, making it possible for example to feed the animals or go to the loo without having to step outside in the cold. The name bær in Icelandic means both farm and village, hamlet.

Today, less than 100 Turf Farmhouses remain all over the country. In other words, 99,9 % have simply disappeared… This may account to the modernization and the poor regard in which they were – and are still – held by some Icelanders. Associated with poverty and harsh times, shamefully perceived by some, those relatively high-maintenance constructions were, once abandoned, condemned to destruction, earthquakes and natural disasters being quick to erase them completely from the surface of the earth.

Passionate and committed, Hannes and his wife Kristín have dedicated their life to the preservation of the Icelandic Turf House Heritage. After years of struggle and hard work, they have turned the site of the Old Turf Farmhouse into a remarkable cultural institution,  Íslenski Bærinn – The Turf House. Both an exhibition site and informational center, this ambitious Institute encourages exploration of the building practices, origin, cultural context and contemporary significance of the Icelandic Turf House. It is puzzling that such an important project of global value should be initiated by private people and I have a profound admiration for Hannes and Kristín. The Institute was formally opened to the public this past week-end, when a permanent exhibition of photographs showing the beauty and economy of the Turf House was unveiled. The exhibition takes place in a sustainable house built by Hannes from recycled materials and following precepts of Icelandic Turf House construction. 

If you have the occasion, I cannot recommend you enough to visit this dazzling and peaceful place. You may find me there sometimes, knitting in the coziness of the Old Turf Farmhouse with a group of other passionate knitters…

Typical Turf Cluster and forgotten vocabulary
Typical Turf Cluster and forgotten vocabulary
The diversity of Turf Houses
The diversity of the Turf Houses
Exhibition Hall
Exhibition Hall: take a breath!
Hannes
Hannes
That would be not far from Harpa Concert Hall!
That would be not far from Harpa Concert Hall !
Exhibition Hall: through the window
Exhibition Hall: through the window
Before - After
Before – After
Sustainable construction
Sustainable construction
Exhibition Hall: stools and table made by Hannes
Exhibition Hall: stools and table made by Hannes
Kristín
Kristín
Photography: the Turf Farm at the bottom looks so little and fragile!
Photography: the Turf Farm at the bottom looks so little and fragile!
Carved spoons by Hannes - Artwork
Carved spoons by Hannes – Artwork
Comparable constructions around the world
Comparable constructions around the world
Old Farmhouse today
The Old Farmhouse of Meðalholt evolved continuously through the centuries: this is what it looks like today
Old tools to work the turf, recreated by Hannes
Old tools to work the turf, recreated by Hannes
baðstofa
baðstofa
Falling into a landscape of þúfur
Turf House falling into a landscape of þúfur
The Chicken House!
The Chicken House!
Icelandic Intarsia
Icelandic Intarsia
A guest wearing the National Costume
A guest wearing the National Costume
The Blue room
The Blue room

  See you soon!

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