Norway’s Recent “Knitting War” of Words

Editor’s note: After noticing the huge number of posts and comments on Facebook that followed a book review in Morgenbladet newspaper in December by Espen Søbye, I asked Annemor Sundbø to explain the furor.  A translation of the original review follows her overview.

DEN NORSKE STRIKKEKRIGEN – The Norwegian Knitting war

by Annemor Sundbø

Lately, Norwegian newspapers have been publishing long articles in defense of knitting, after a noted philosopher, author, biographer, and award-winning critic, Espen Søbye, reviewed a selection of the year’s knitting books that were in the holiday book section of Morgenbladet, a national newspaper.   A debate on equality exploded.  It was a controversial review that unleashed a spirited debate on women’s’ roles and women’s’ ideals. Was it a defeat for equality and the fight for women’s’ liberation? Or is the current popularity of knitting a purposeful renaissance of women’s’ traditional skills?

The collection of books that were chosen were richly illustrated books with many patterns.  The reviewer felt they promoted an outdated feminine ideal and he wondered whether they actually encouraged women to be obedient and subservient to men.  He emphasized that he was not attacking knitters, but he was attacking the books. He felt that the books idealized, and that the models were not representative of those the knitters knit for. The reviewer belittled knitters and they became, in a way, laughable.

But the reaction was strong because modern women don’t want their accomplishments and concerns to be regarded as something archaic, even if knitting has traditions tied to the home and housework. It can appear old-fashioned, laughable, and comic.  Many family values are tied to that which is old-fashioned, while a career is something that is modern.  Women’s hobbies, magazine-reading, and TV series, along with knitting, are often seen as domestic, and less important than men’s interests like wood-chopping, hunting, fishing, and beer-making, even if those are also nostalgic activities with roots in the old days.

Many newspaper pieces defend knitting as connected to women’s mental health, something that satire programs on TV try to exploit.

Gradually ”the Norwegian knitting war” took on enormous proportions; it was difficult to survey all the news coverage.  Many of the pieces didn’t have much to do with the original topic. They merely defended knitting and its popularity. The critic, Espen Søbye, actually criticized the quality of a small selection of the year’s knitting books and gave his opinion on knitting as a phenomenon.

(Translated by Robbie LaFleur)

Between Knit and Purl

by Espen Søbye

Originally published as “Mellom rett og vrangt,” Morgenbladet, December 24, 2015

When looking at this year’s big sellers, knitting books, one can see a formidable battle over what kind of feminine ideal matters in today’s Norway.

How to explain the flood of knitting books? Many people buy these books because they like to knit. Is it necessary to make it more difficult than that? But why has the interest in knitting gained ground just now? To get to the bottom of this burning question, we confront nine of this year’s approximately 50 knitting books: four from Cappelen Damm, three from Gyldendal, one from Pax and one from J. M. Stenersen Company. In order to investigate them, it was necessary to put to use those parts of the consciousness that Freud felt that the super ego had forbidden.   An investigation reveals that knitting books comprise a major component in a formidable battle over what kind of feminine ideal will matter in Norway as we approach the second decade of the 21st century.

klompelompeBetween family and weeklies. According to the bestseller list for nonfiction, the book published by the venerable J. M. Stenersen Company—now a subsidiary of Kagge—is the most-purchased, indeed, it is among autumn’s overall bestsellers. For many of us, it is entirely unfathomable that a book with a title that is painful merely to spell, Klompelompe, has been chosen by so many. Is this the nickname parents use for their beloved little ones nowadays?

All of the knitting books are written by and for women.   Even so, it would be wrong to characterize them as part of a powerful political-feminist movement. Quite the opposite, these books pass on the very matters that are valued as traditionally feminine: the love of ornamental handwork, the desire to dress children well, the joy of homemaking—completely traditional values that we assumed were gone for good.

Maximalism is the style of choice in general in the forewords of these knitting books, and there is no lack of such big words as “spirit”, “love”, “harmony”, “nature.” Nearly every author emphasizes that knitting is a tradition, that they learned it from their mother or grandmother, and that it is a skill that is passed on in a family from one generation of women to the next. This is presented as something positive and desirable, and it gives knitting a value of its own—as a valuable and genuine activity.

Not one of the authors addresses the evident contradiction that these books contribute to and continue the idea that knitting belongs to women’s culture, but really doesn’t, or why would these books be necessary? How is it possible to sell tens of thousands of knitting books every year that tell the buyer that she should have learned the craft elsewhere?

A person asks whether illustrated weekly magazines—whose circulation numbers are in free fall—have been a more important mediator regarding knitting skills than idealized, trans generational women’s culture, and whether the knitting books are simply a continuation of weekly magazines with other resources.

Therapy in the web shop. A therapeutic argument recurs throughout these books: Through handwork, the knitter comes into contact with something natural and true. It is often emphasized what a lovely and relaxing break it is from being logged into the internet all the time. After having finished the sections that throw dirt on social media because it is improper to waste time on that sort of thing, the knitting book authors boast without restraint about their own Facebook pages, with their ten thousand members who share patterns and experiences. Most of the authors have web shops that sell various knitting-related products. Books are only one part of the whole business.

trendy-strikk“We love good yarn and a good chat,” it says in the one translated book, Katherine Poulton’s Trendy strikk. 30 luer, skjerf og votter [Trendy Knitting : 30 Caps, Scarves, and Mittens. Original title: A Good Yarn]. Here lies a gentle and cautious, but nonetheless a clear, undertone of an alternative movement, and anti-commercialism: to buy a piece of clothing is alienating and impersonal. Of course, the book comes from the US, where new commercial successes are created just exactly like alternative movements. How critical of the system is it to buy yarn and patterns online instead of swinging by Hennes & Mauritz?

Coded language. The authors urge the reader to use her imagination. How odd. After all, how creative can it be to follow a detailed pattern? It undoubtedly requires precision and patience, but doesn’t this more closely resemble submission and obedience than independence? In this respect, the knitting books remind one of the coloring books for young adults that have become so popular. Is following a pattern a kind of intellectual bondage, or is it a coded message that shy Norwegian women send to the first man they meet that they could imagine themselves for a brief moment to be Anastasia Steele (the female protagonist in Fifty Shades of Grey)?

Knitting patterns are largely given as abbreviations, r standing for rett [knitted] and vr for vrang [purl], p for pinne [knitting needle], etc. The abbreviation “2i1” [2 in 1] ought to be a favorite with self-respecting quizmasters. To translate the abbreviation “3 r sm” feels like divulging the murderer’s name in a crime novel. Some things are, in spite of it all, most fun to find out for yourself.

rettResistance against knitting. One of the books, Rett på tråden [Right on the Thread] differs from the others, not only with its slightly impudent title. In the introduction, sisters Birte and Margareth Sandvik quote the exchange of lines in A Doll’s House, where Torvald Helmer advises Mrs. Linde to set aside her knitting and take up embroidery instead, because knitting “can never be anything but ugly, “ “there’s something Chinese about it.”

Knitting has had several vocal opponents since Ibsen’s Torvald. In their book Crisis in the Population Question (1934), the married couple Alva and Gunnar Myrdal—both tone-setting Swedish social democrats, she winning the Nobel Peace Prize, he the Nobel prize for economics—were angered by the exaggerated petit bourgeois habits that had spread among the working class and minor civil servants. Family life in these classes was, according to the Myrdals, characterized by a fussy desire to entertain, an overly-ambitious interest in food and homemaking, with a penchant for public display. But it was, above all, women’s handwork that paid the price: “All this embroidery, this knitting, sewing, and lacemaking that has filled the walls and sofas, tables and shelves.”

Knitting became equated with a confined active mind and connected to married women’s having no right to work and the two-child family having become the norm.

Staying home with one or two children resulted in women’s having lots of free time—and presto, this is how Alva and Gunnar Myrdal explained the then-current knitting wave: Knitting and crochet were enterprise gone wrong. This energy should be used for something more practical for society and the individual.

At the end of the 20th and beginning of the 21st centuries, women are having even fewer children than did their grandmothers in the 1930s, and men’s and women’s lives have become almost exactly identical. The reduction in the number of childbirths is a major reason why the buxom female with broad hips and heaving breasts is no longer the ideal woman, instead the athletic, androgynous female body that exudes health and sex appeal is. The anorexic, boyish body has become the woman’s dream physiology, and she dresses accordingly.

vakker-strikArne & Carlos. It is equally certain that, in the wake of the Christmas ornaments from Arne & Carlos, brand name for the Norwegian Arne Nerjordet and the Swede Carlos Zachrison, there has sprung up a female image that challenges the black-clad boy-women. Arne & Carlos have given women the courage to challenge unisex fashion and to feminize the classic knitted garments, socks, mittens, caps, pullovers, and cardigans that were so-called gender neutral. In Sidsel J. Høivik’s Vakker strikk [Beautiful Knitting], decorative, colorful, feminine, joyful, and affirming style has its renaissance. Here, feminine forms are in abundance, and the garments don’t hide them but, rather, emphasize them. Just imagine, cardigans with lace collars are launched here. Knitting books predict a reaction to and a break with the unwomanly woman’s image.

The two competing feminine ideals—the androgynous and the buxom–are initiated by male designers, who do not have women as their primary, fascinating objects of desire. Arne & Carlos’s decorative, colorful, joyful and affirming style, where the wearers’ attributes can be both seen and exalted, and where there can be no doubt as to how they can be used, can be called Catholic. Here there is both sin and forgiveness. The image of woman, where the feminine is scraped away, is Protestant Pietistic, and it is this ideal that is challenged in these knitting books.

mer-skappelstrikDorthe’s revenge. The former glamor model, now TV hostess, Dorthe Skappel, doesn’t take part in the battle between the two feminine ideals. She leads another struggle. In Mer Skappelstrikk [More Skappel Knitting], she has—brave as she is—brought her knitting needles and yarn to Sweden, Alva and Gunnar’s homeland of anti-knitting. She spends every summer in a tent, she tells us, and offers herself to us, seasoning her book with photographs of the joys of camp life in the glorious landscape of Nord-Koster. Skappel is the vision in front of the tent, no longer clad in a bathing suit but in a wide, hand knit pullover, surrounded by knitting tools. Sunset over the bays of Hassle on one side, the pattern for a sweater dress with a split hem in the back on the other. A scene that invites us to sin in the summer sun, to saltwater swims and postcoital naps on the warm rocks inspired in Dorthe sweaters that resemble small tents.

The person who finds Mer Skappelstrikk under the Christmas tree or who receives it directly from the man with the white beard can check to see for themselves whether or not Dorthe Skappel’s broad smile shines in triumph. The rest of us will have to rely on Morgonbladet’s reviews. She has every reason to smile. Her poses, sweaters, and socks demonstrate her transformation from Norway’s pinup number one to the country’s queen of knitting, none other than Madam “pins up”, as she is called in the Sandvik sisters’ Rett på tråden: She smiles indulgently at the Myrdals’ thesis, entices young women to dress in baggy sweaters—when she herself preferred tight-fitting swimsuits—all the while Norwegian kroner roll into her bank account for every stitch Norway’s women knit.

(Translated by Edi Thorstensson)



The Knitting War of Words — A Reaction

god-morgenEspen Søbye’s knitting book review in Morgenbladet sparked hundreds of Facebook posts, many letters to the editor in Norwegian newspapers, and a number of editorials.  Inger Merete Hobbelstad wrote in Dagbladet.  “Hvorfor foraktes strikking, men ikke fisking og ølbrygging? Det er kvinnehobbyen strikking som blir kritisert.” (Why is knitting despised, and not fishing or beer-making?  It is a women’s hobby that is criticized. In Norwegian) The television show God Morgen, Norway (Good Morning Norway) asked for responses to the editorial, and 135 people posted.

Heidi Borud responded in Aftenposten on January 12, 2016, and an English translation is provided below.

With the Wrong Side Out

by Heidi Borud


Why is it time for a knitting renaissance? What does the increasing interest in handwork and craft say about the times we live in? Photo: Heidi Borud

Espen Søbye is a philosopher by education, and a book reviewer I regularly read in Mogenbladet.  In a two-page review he took up nine of the 50 knitting books that were published last year.  He clearly demonstrated that he has a big problem grasping the fact that modern, well-educated women play on many strings—that we purchase knitting books, nonfiction, art history, and philosophy.

Søbye lays out a clear disparagement of female forms of expression. How is it possible to rattle off so many hateful remarks in a book review?  Especially against the “Knitting Queen” Dorthe Skappel, but also in general against women who knit. You can hardly call the text a book review, and you would expect a better knowledge of the genre.  Søbye writes for example on Skappel:

Dorthe Skappel's books sell well. That's what bothers some men.

Dorthe Skappel’s books sell well. That’s what bothers some men.

She has every reason to smile.  In her transformation from Norway’s pin-up to the country’s knitting queen, a “womens pin-up, as it is called in The Sandvik sisters’ book, Right on the Thread, she has found her way into all bags and sacks and socks.  She smiles indulgently at Gunnar Myrdal’s thesis, lures young women to dress in sack-like sweaters while she herself prefers tight-fitting bathing suits — all while the money rolls into her bank account for every stitch that Norway’s women knit.

Does this belong in a book review?  Søbye obviously thinks so.

It is more interesting to investigate why knitting and other handcrafts are enjoying a renaissance. What does the increasing interest in handwork and craft reveal about the time we live in?  Handwork is related to both memory and following in the footsteps of the past, on tradition and the transmission of knowledge.  Handwork and craft tell the history of everyday life, of power and status, and continues to be regarded as something primordially female.  To get to the bottom of why women knit we must, like Søbye, seek the answer from the father of psychoanalysis.  Søbye writes,”

In order to investigate them (editor’s note: meaning the knitting books), it was necessary to put to use those parts of the consciousness that Freud felt that the super ego had forbidden.   An investigation reveals that knitting books comprise a major component in a formidable battle over what kind of feminine ideal will matter in Norway as we approach the second decade of the 21st century.

Last year there were several art exhibits that touched on these themes. The author  Vigdis Hjorth showed her own embroidery at Blaafarveværket in Modum, and she opened the large exhibit Nålens øye (The Eye of the Needle) at the Kunstindustrimuseet, which took up contemporary embroidery, both as an artistic expression and a traditional women’s pursuit that has been a form of expression over many generations. Hjorth is interested in the meaning of handwork and in connection with the exhibit she wrote to Aftenposten:

In a very restless and changing world, embroidery is meditative, slow, and permanent–something we need today. Embroidery and sewing, not the least repairing clothing, sewing and mending things together beautifully, is a counterbalance to an extreme consumer culture.  It is recycling.

I think Hjorth is quite correct.  Many authors and feminists have written along the same lines, among others Danish Suzanne Brøgger and Jette Kaarsbøl.  On Thursday the exhibit “Pottery is Back” opens at the Kunstnerforbundet, and the theme is another women’s pursuit: ceramics. This is only a good thing.  The disparagement of traditional women’s forms of expression that Søbye gives voice to is passe.  The women of 2016 know better.

(Translated by Robbie LaFleur)

A Rag Pile, My Lot in Life

By Annemor Sundbø


Annemor Sundbø, from Kristiansand, has written six books, the latest SPELSAU OG SAMSPILL in 2015. All photos in this article: Fædrelandsvennen

Editor’s note:  It’s a good bet that most Norwegian Textile Letter readers are familiar with the work of Annemor Sundbø, as an author, knitting instructor, and promoter of Norwegian textile traditions. Here we are pleased to present a recent in-depth interview with Annemor that appeared in the newspaper Fædrelandsvennet on February 3, 2016, “En fillehaug, mitt lodd i livet.”


“If you’re not good, I’ll sell you to the rag man!”

That was mother’s threat when I was a bit too unruly as a little girl. Even though I didn’t quite believe it was her prophecy coming true when literally tons of rags landed in my lap, I must admit that I have often wondered whether the rag pile I acquired, as part of a factory for recycling wool, was punishment or reward. It is said that arrogance brings its own punishment, but of one thing I am absolutely certain: this enormous amount of remnant thread has been spun into the thread of my own life, and the professional textile network that I have gained entrance to has been the winning ticket to a rewarding life.


Photo: Fædrelandsvennen

Is there such a thing as fate or destiny? Beliefs about predestiny abound. Many cultures have common ideas about powers that are exerted by gods or other elemental forces. In creation myths these powers are personified as a mother goddess or virgins who spin the threads of fate that determine a person’s life on earth. All begin with a timeless dark, a cosmic chaos.

But when night’s mother breaks out of the chaos, the powers of order step in and the world is woven from threads that are spun by three virgins, the Fates. Together they make the threads of life, spinning the destiny of every single person who will be born into existence. The world is a thread system that forms an enormous weaving. One Fate prepares the material by placing the fibers for spinning on a distaff (a stick that holds the prepared fiber for spinning). The second Fate spins and measures out the length, which the third Fate cuts at life’s end. A lifetime was understood to be allotted, unchangeable and predestined, while eternity was unforeseeable and infinite, but it was possible to reach a heavenly state by winning the favor of the gods.

Great grandmother’s spinning wheel

My very first memory of spinning is from the 1960s, when I got down great grandmother’s spinning wheel from the attic. It was put away after she died in 1947. Mother taught me how I should card wool, first into a layer, then into fine rolags. Then she showed me how the thread should go onto the bobbin. She had learned this from her grandmother, who spun two full bobbins every morning until she was 87 years old. I practiced so that I could spin thread as thin and even as the thread that had been left by great grandmother on the bobbin. Father was a butcher, and the butcher’s shop had accepted wool, an Eldorado of qualities and a great variety of natural wool colors.

I am a child of my time, born in the middle of Kristiansand just four years after the Second World War. After I graduated from high school in 1968, an interest in wool and yarn led me to begin an education in the subject of textiles. First I chose sewing and weaving at a husflidskole (handcraft school), then industrial textile design at Bergen Kunsthåndverkskole (Bergen Art Handwork School), followed by further teacher’s training in weaving and drawing at Statens lærersskole i forming (National Teacher’s School in Handcraft) in Oslo. This was during a golden age for modern Norwegian handcraft, textile art and handcraft art. I also taught weaving and spinning for a year in the Faroe Islands.

Annemor with her ragpile exhibit in Ose. Photo: Fædrelandsvennen.

Annemor with her ragpile exhibit in Ose. Photo: Fædrelandsvennen

When I became a student at the handcraft school, it was a huge revelation. Here I was initiated into the art of weaving, learned the different traditional Norwegian yarn qualities, and had my eyes opened to the old Norwegian sheep, the spelsau, that was sacred to the handcraft school. It is the oldest type of sheep in Norway, a primitive breed with a fateful “to be, or not to be” role in the fight for survival.

Our spinning teacher taught us to utilize all the different fiber qualities in a sheep fleece, and to card in the correct manner for the yarn type that was planned. It was important to spin with the right technique and hand placement for all purposes, whether one should knit clothing for an inner or outer layer, or weave wadmal, tapestry, a coverlet or a rya. We received the knowledge that spinning and weaving were, and always have been, possessed of strong powers that could affect favor, status and honor, and we learned to set our spinning wheel against the sun to spin thread, and with the sun to ply thread in order get the best sheen in the yarn.

A goddess of fate and a new dimension

The spring after handcraft school I got the opportunity to take a trip to Paris, and I came by chance into a small side street in the Latin Quarter, Rue de Seine. A loom in a display window drew me into a gallery that proved to be also an academy for various arts. The academy was established by the poet Raymond Duncan (1847–1966). Raymond was the brother of Isadora Duncan, a legendary dancer who was tragically killed when a scarf fluttering around her neck was caught in the back wheel of a Bugatti. (Her life is the subject of a film, with Vanessa Regrave as Isadora.)

Raymond was apparently like a Greek god. In his time he had made the costumes in which Isadora danced. Up until then, I had only thought that clothes should have a beautiful surface, with good form and durability that also protected against weather and wind. But Raymond Duncan’s manner of spinning resulted in a cloth that draped, emphasizing the beauty inherent in movement. This was exciting and totally new for me!

Into the gallery came an older woman in flowing clothes, spinning with a spindle like one of the Greek Fates. It proved to be Madam Aia Bertrand, the widow of Raymond. This was the first time I had seen anyone spin with a drop spindle, a simple little whorl with a stick through the middle. At that time, I thought one had to go back to the Stone Age to find someone who knew how to make thread in this manner, or that the secret lay hidden in the graves of Viking women.

Elated, I asked Aia to show me how to spin with a drop spindle. She answered with a definite: no! If she taught me to spin in her way, she would inevitably influence my yarn and my art in the future. She gave me her drop spindle with the condition that I must find my own manner of spinning, so that the yarn would have my personal character. She emphasized that thread is an artistic medium, a manner of expression like an individual pencil stroke, handwriting or a signature. This opened a new dimension and understanding for me, that each and every person must spin in their own way if they want to make their own artwork.

From sacred yarn to tons of castoff knits


Photo: Fædrelandsvennen

After several years as a weaving and spinning teacher, the thread of my life was abruptly turned upside down. I applied for a six-month practicum at a shoddy mill, Torridal Tweed and Wool-Duvet Factory at Øvre Stai, a woolen mill that recycled wool. The owner, textile engineer Bernhard Konrad Bergersen, presented only one condition for teaching me about the business: I had to buy the factory first! This entailed new challenges, toil and struggle for close to 25 years with almost century-old machines. Customers came daily to the factory with worn out woolens as part payment for wool-filled duvets, mattresses and sleeping bags, or wool blankets, plaid and tweed.

In 1983 I found myself in the possession of the creative work of others in the shape of tons of knitted waste destined to be recycled into used-wool products. From spinning my own thread for artistic work, I now fed others’ woolens into a rag-picking machine. All traces of the purposes these clothes had served disappeared and emerged as a blended grey mass of fiber. Pattern and knitting techniques were swept away. Almost every day I decided the fate of knitted remnants, standing in judgment over which I should transform into used fiber, and which would have meaning for future knitting history and therefore should be spared.

Deep dive in a rag pile, with a trace of soul migration

Out of approximately 16 tons of raw material that lay in storage when I took over the factory, I have chosen a collection of cultural treasures that amounts to nearly a ton. This has been a unique source from which I have been able to ladle out knitting knowledge and share it with others. The woolens came from the everyday lives of everyday people, and have become the basis for a considerable number of exhibitions and lectures, articles, courses and books. The books are also published in English, which has been a springboard for teaching and offering courses internationally.

I met my own spinning goddess by chance in a side street in Paris, which gave me insight into another dimension of working with wool. She taught me that the thread should reflect the spinner’s soul and personal expression. In the book Haandarbeide som skolefag (Handwork as a School Subject), published in 1880, handwork teacher Marie Rosing maintained that in handwork, the hand is simply the servant of the spirit. The wisdom from these women let my thoughts circle around what content the art of spinning really contains.

The expression “to vanish like a spirit in a rag pile” [i.e. quickly and without notice] came to mind, and this triggered my hunter’s instinct. I set myself the goal of conjuring up this spirit. It became a hunt among the rags and into the wool fibers, the threads, the sheep, and the earth mothers’ myth-shrouded past. A number of metaphors in mythology, folk belief and religion are drawn from sheep, wool and thread, and they emerge in different cultures’ understandings about our origins and the spinners of fate; a belief that every tiny component, up to and including the masses of dust that I was surrounded by, should contain a little of the spirit from which it originated. I got the feeling that something of the soul followed these threads that had been formed by hand, a spiritual power. My lectures became empowered as I discovered the kinds of understanding found in cultures older than our own, of life, death and eternity.


Photo: Fædrelandsvennen

Artistic pieces of work often stand out from my collection of remnants. Beauty and eroticism have been twined together with technique and magic, with the spindle and distaff as the magic wand. If “need taught the naked woman to spin,” as the saying goes, so also has vanity contributed, by helping to bring forth the most desirable qualities. Spinners have challenged the spinning material’s furthest reaches, with thread as a blessed implement to attain happiness and, if possible, divine favor in the afterlife. Life has a measured length, eternity is infinite, where one can be set free from the suffering of this earthly life.

In the real world, it is everyday fates that are reflected in my bits of rags, from the fight against wear and tear to the amusingly creative notions that have added zest to life’s toil. I have met a spirit in my rag pile, a spirit that represents all the soul, skill, experience, love, and not least, joy in creation, that is invested in the making of all these tons of clothes, where each one of them has begun with the making of thread from the wool of a sheep. My role has been not only to reuse woolens from these remnants, but to give them an afterlife by passing on the history that the rags tell.


Annemor Sundbø (b. 1949) of Kristiansand, is a Norwegian national grant holder, and the recipient of the Kings Medal of Honor, the Norwegian Handcraft Association’s Medal of Honor in 2004 (for preservation and continuance of cultural values, both domestically and internationally), Aust-Agder County’s Cultural Prize in 1999, Bygland Community’s Cultural Prize in 2004, Sørlandet’s Literature Prize in 2006, and Vest-Agder County’s Cultural Prize in 2015. She ran Torridal Tweed and Wool-Duvet Factory from 1983 to 2006, when the machines were moved to the textile museum at Sjølingstad Woolen Factory, and started Ose Woolens in Setesdal in 1993.
Books published: Kvardagsstrikk 1994, Lusekofta fra Setesdal 1998, Usynlege trådar i strikkekunsten 2005, Norske votter og vanter 2010, Strikking i billedkunsten 2010, Spelsau og Samspill 2015.

(Translated by Katherine Larson)

From Underwear to Everywhere

By Laurann Gilbertson

The sweaters of today have evolved from what was once men’s underwear. Knit garments were originally night shirts, worn when sleeping or beneath outer layers of clothing during the day.

Nightshirts were made in Germany and England in sold in large numbers in Norway in the 17th and 18th centuries. These were usually one color, patterned with purl stitches, and sometimes decorated with embroidery. They were worn under clothes for warmth and for protection. The “night” in nightshirt could also refer to the “eternal sleep” of death so motifs were added for protection, resurrection, and eternal life. Protective symbols included eight-pointed stars (also called eight-petal flowers).

Gausta.193“Rose sweaters” descended from the night shirts. Wool sweaters with eight-petal flowers as the main motif were made (at home on a knitting machine) and sold along the Norwegian coasts and in Oslo. Local handknitters no doubt copied the sweaters and added variations.

There are some differences across Norway, but common to all historical Norwegian sweaters are:

* the sweater is knit with patterns in two or more colors

* the bottom part of the sweater is knit in one color (for about 4-10 inches in length)

* square or rounded neckline

* pullover style, though some had splits down the front

On the coast (from Aust-Agder to Sør-Trøndelag) the neckline and the split had some sort of braid on the outside, and a lining on the inside. The braid could be floral-patterned ribbon or solid-colored fabric. The cuffs were strengthened by two-end knitting or a piece of braid (slindresnor).

Norwegian sweaters were knit in the round. In the early days, knitting the body of a sweater required six or more knitting needles. The first needles were made of wood, hence the name pinne, which means twig in Norwegian. Later knitting needles could be made from steel, brass, and (much later) plastic. In about 1935, the circular needle (rundpinne) was invented and sold.

The process of knitting sweaters was practical. The body and sleeves were knit as tubes. The oldest sweaters were cut it open so that the knitter could make the adjustments for size; the seam would go under the arm. Because the sweater was worn under clothing it needed to fit closely to the body. The knitter could add under-arm gussets (especially in Setesdal), and then add the arms. Arms could be knit from shoulder down or from cuff up.

Patttern-knit sweaters were practical as under layers because they were warm (two layers of yarn) and durable (two layers of yarn). Occasionally we see glimpses of sweaters in old photographs, especially in relaxed settings when some outer garments have been taken off.

Lusekofte – The Setesdal Sweater


Annemor Sundbø wrote a whole book on the popular sweater, “Setesdal Sweaters: The History of the Norwegian Lice Pattern.”

One of the most distinctive and recognizable Norwegian sweater is the lusekofte or “lice-pattern sweater” of Setesdal in southern Norway. The body of the sweater is covered in lice – single stitches of a contrasting color. The kross og kringle (X and O) pattern and zigzag lines are common on the shoulders, wrists, and/or hems. The oldest sweaters had a wide white section at the hem. The X and O and zigzag patterns, as well as the wide white hem, were for protection.

“It is obvious that the latest fashion here is to wear a nightshirt without an outer jacket,” wrote Olaus Olsen from Trondheim after attending a country wedding in Setesdal. The lusekofte became popular in Setesdal beginning in the 1830s. It is possible that in order to wear a sweater on the outside of clothing, it needed patterning to make it decent, taking it from underwear to outerwear, according to Annemor Sundbø.

Many Setesdal sweaters had colorful embroidery on the yoke and cuffs. The freehand embroidery is called løyesaum. Løye is the soft, loosely spun yarn used for the embroidery.

Two important changes to the lusekofte came in the 1930s. The first cardigan styles appeared and women began wearing the sweater. These changes came about after Setesdal men stopped wearing embroidered and bibbed trousers.

Even the earliest knitting books and commercial patterns included Setesdal designs and the sweater soon became popular all over Norway and the world.

Fanatrøye – The Fana Sweater

The body of the classic Fana sweater is made up of stripes with lice in the contrasting color. There are typically flowers on the shoulders and grid or checkerboard patterns at the hem or cuffs. While the sweater originated in and is named for Fana, near Bergen on the west coast, the sweater has been extremely popular in eastern Norway in the years between the two world wars. In eastern Norway it is called the Kleiva sweater for the Rødkleiva ski slope located north of Oslo. Rødkleiva was the site of events during the 1952 Winter Olympic Games, so the Kleiva (or Fana) sweater soon became a global favorite.

Historically in Fana, the striped sweaters were worn by men for every day. Special occasion sweaters were a similar style knit with white wool. Like the striped sweater, the white sweater had ribbon trim, fabric facings, and silver or pewter buttons. The patterning was raised, however, created with purl stitches. Women in Fana wore a green or red sweater (red until about 1900, green until 1930) under a bodice with folk dress.

Islender – Iceland Sweaters

Islender sweater

Islender sweater knit by Ella and Amanda Judén, Oslo, Norway, for Einar Judén, ca. 1940. Ella and Amanda knit the sweater for their brother Einar, who was a member of the Norwegian resistance movement during WWII, 1939-1943. Vesterheim 2003.016.001 – Gift of Jean Judeen Smith

Sweaters with all-over, repeating patterns might have large or small motifs. If a sweater has very small motifs, like single Xs or short stripes of triple lice, it might be an “Iceland” sweater, called Islender in Norway. Iceland sweaters were mass produced in the Faroe Islands (owned by Denmark) and exported by 1800. These were often commercially knit and fulled – perfect for fishermen, trappers, hunters, and even polar explorers. Some Icelandic sweaters were sewn from machine-knit yardage.

The first two firms in Norway to knit Iceland-style sweaters were Devold in Ålesund and Petersen & Dekke near Bergen. Handknitters also created sweaters with small, simple motifs. These were called sponsetrøyer and were reserved for work on land or sea.

Maine-based retailer L.L.Bean imported a style of sweater “long used by Norwegian fisherman who required an unusual degree of durability and warmth in a sweater.” The sweater, with offset tripled lice, were sold from 1965 to early 1990s, when L.L. Bean tried to manufacture their own in China. They discontinued the sweater in 1999 and then in 2009 they once again imported the sweater from Norway. The sweaters have been considered essential for outdoor wear – and for 1980s fashions according to The Official Preppy Handbook.

Regional Patterns and Husfliden

There are relatively few regional sweater patterns, but interest in them led has Husfliden, the national handicraft association, to develop some sweater and knitting patterns based on regional traditions. Their first designs were taken from old sweaters with square necks and all-over patterns. Increasingly, pattern inspiration came from nature and folk arts, such as woodcarving, decorative painting, and weaving. Husfliden has offered both patterns for knitting and handknit sweaters for sale.

Yarn companies have also responded to the interest in regional sweaters by giving some of their designs regional names.

Eskimos – Round Yoke Sweaters

Annichen Sibbern designed “Eskimo,” a sweater with a patterned, round yoke in 1930. Her inspiration was the beaded yokes that are part of the Greenlandic National Costumes. She had seen the costumes in a Norwegian film that year called Eskimo. Her sweater design was soon popular with handknitters and knitters using home knitting machines. The round yoke sweater was revived in the 1950s by designer Unn Søiland Dale.

Since the 1950s, Eskimo-style sweaters have been so popular that even the classic Setesdal and Fana sweaters have been reinterpreted with round yokes.


In the 1950s Sandnes Woolen Mill introduced “Nordkapp,” a square-yoked pattern. This sweater took advantage of the popularity in the 1950s of patterned yokes and Sami motifs. Nordkapp sweaters usually have lice or other small motifs in the body and arms.

Designer Profiles

Unn Søiland Dale modeling her Eskimo Sweater on the cover of the knitting pattern for Sandnes Woolen Mill, 1952. Vesterheim Reference, Ann Swanson Collection

Unn Søiland Dale modeling her Eskimo Sweater on the cover of the knitting pattern for Sandnes Woolen Mill, 1952. Vesterheim Reference, Ann Swanson Collection.

Unn Søiland Dale (1926-2002) started in 1952 as a design consultant for Sandnes Woolen Mill. Her first sweater design for handknitters was a yound-yoked pattern called Eskimo. Round-yoke sweaters had been popular in the 1930s, and she brought the idea back with several variations.

In 1953 she started her own business, Lillunn Sport (now Lillunn Design) in which she organized handknitters to produce sweaters for export. At one time, Lillunn was the largest private knitwear exporter in Norway, employing 800 home knitters.

She went on to design 25 more knitting patterns for Sandnes. There were many popular sweaters, but one design eclipsed them all – the Marius sweater (1954). The sweater, based on Setesdal sweater borders, was named for and modeled by Marius Eriksen, a champion skier. Marius received 300 kroner ($39) for modeling and Unn received 100 kroner ($13) for designing the sweater, though she was also given a special discount on yarn from the factory.

Many Americans first learned about the work of Solveig Hisdal through an article in Interweave Knits in Spring 2000. The magazine featured two sweaters based on a flower painted inside an old trunk at a Lofoten Islands museum. Her book Dikt i Masker / Poetry in Stitches, shows how she studies the fabric patterns and combinations of materials in museum artifacts and brings forward their essences into knit garments for today.

Solveig Hisdal is the award-winning principal designer for Oleana A/S, a sweater company that considers its business to be as much about culture as it is about sweaters. The company was founded in 1992 by Signe Aarhus, Kolbjørn Valestrand, and Hildegunn Møster. For the first year, they used traditional geometric patterns. In 1993 Solveig joined Oleana with her vivid colors and rich floral designs. She often draws on the colors and shapes in the damasks and brocades used in folk costumes, as well as patterns in nature and in the art of other cultures. Often the patterns in her sweaters are traditionally Norwegian even though they aren’t always traditional knitting patterns.

Helping in the United States to spread the joy of Nordic knitting by offering traditional and adapted patterns, and helping to demystify traditional sweater construction are Elizabeth Zimmerman, Meg Swansen, and Ann Swanson to name a few.

From an early age, Arnhild Hillesland was interested in knitting – and in doing things her own way. The rebellion she showed as she learned knitting from her mother and grandmother proved to be an asset when she moved to the U.S. in 1986 and then purchased a yarn shop. She quickly realized that the Norwegian patterns available here were translated by non-knitters making them difficult to understand and use. She jumped into translating Norwegian patterns into English, making her own patterns, and teaching classes in how to knit Norwegian sweaters. She never failed to innovate if it made the product easier to knit or nicer looking. In 2005 she began the wholesale import of Rauma yarns, thus making Norwegian knitting even more available to eager American knitters.

Sue Flanders and Janine Kosel have been designing handknits and teaching knitting in Minnesota for more than twenty years. Authors of Norwegian Handknits and Swedish Handknits, they have visited museum collections and created knitting patterns that are adapted from historic pieces, as well as patterns that take designs to a new level. The Norwegian word flink describes Sue and Janine well. Flink is hard to express in a single English word. It means adroit, clever, creative, ingenious, skillful, resourceful, and gifted. Their joyful and artistic designs honor and celebrate history, tradition, and needleworkers.

Norwegian sweaters became outerwear in the early 1900s. Whether for warmth, beauty, tradition, identity, or art, Norwegian sweaters are now everywhere, for everyone, and for every day. “From Underwear to Everywhere: Norwegian Sweaters” is on view at Vesterheim Norwegian-American Museum in Decorah, Iowa, until April 24, 2016.

Note:  The header photograph features a v-neck sweater knit by Ingrid Skramstad, Vang, Hedmark, Norway, for Olaf Skramstad, Ottertail County, Minnesota,  in the 1920s. Ingrid did not emigrate, but her brother Olaf did in 1910. She sent him care packages of her knitting, including this sweater with his initials.  (Vesterheim 2008.009.001 – Gift of Ingrid Henry)

Laurann Gilbertson is the Chief Curator of the Vesterheim Norwegian-American Museum and a tireless promoter of Scandinavian textiles.
Houses and Chickens by Lila Nelson

Vesterheim Norwegian-American Museum: Building the Collection

By Laurann Gilbertson, Curator, Vesterheim Norwegian American Museum

Now numbering 24,000 objects, the collection that makes up Vesterheim Norwegian-American Museum in Decorah, Iowa, started in 1877 as a study aid for students attending Luther College.  The first donation was a group of birds’ eggs.  In the early years, the college’s collection was an assortment of natural history specimens, ethnographic items brought back by Lutheran missionaries serving around the world, relics of historical events, mementoes of important people, and reproductions of classical artworks.

By 1895 faculty and alumni at Luther College officially resolved that Norwegian immigrant materials should be a stated focus of the collection.  In doing so the museum became a pioneer in the preservation and promotion of America’s cultural diversity.

The first historic building was added to the grounds in 1913, starting the Open Air Division.  No other U.S. museum had collected buildings, though this was already taking place in Scandinavia.

In 1925, in honor of 100 years of emigration, Anders Sandvig (founder of Maihaugen, a major museum in eastern Norway) coordinated a gift of artifacts from Norwegian museums.  “May these objects work,” wrote Sandvig, “so that the Norwegian-ness in you will not die too soon, and the connection with the homeland will because of this be tighter.  Receive this gift as proof that we follow you all in our hearts, even though the big Atlantic parts us.”  The gift took two years to assemble and filled 23 crates.  The museum in Nordmøre sent several clothing items, including two linen shirts with extremely fine whitework embroidery.  They would have no way of knowing that this gift meant the survival of several cultural treasures when their museum would be destroyed during WWII.


Shirt with whitework embroidery from Valset, Nordmøre, ca. 1830. Donated by Kristiansund Museum (now Nordmøre Museum) as part of a group of gifts from Norwegian museums. LC0697.

After the war, director Inga Bredesen Norstog created a national audience through newspapers and magazines and soon the museum was receiving visitors and artifact donations from all over the United States.

The museum became an independent institution in 1964 and adopted the name “Vesterheim,” which was the term that immigrants used to describe America – their western home – when writing letters home to Norway.

Beginning in the 1960s, director Marion Nelson showed visitors there was art in everyday objects and added fine art to the museum’s collection statement.  Today, staff are “refining” the collection – looking to fill gaps to ensure that the objects can tell even more stories of the immigrant experiences.  We are also trying to share many of these stories and artifacts through exhibits at the museum, online, and on the road.  A selection of 119 textiles can be viewed at  The “Online Textiles Collection” includes woven, knit, embroidered, quilted, and sewn items.  Click on the listing of an item to read more about it.  Then click on the photo to see a large full-view and detailed images.


Sjønaleister socks from Hardanger, Norway. This pair is one of 119 textile artifacts on Vesterheim’s Online Collections. LC0298.

In 1967, Vesterheim began an education program to teach traditional handwork skills by bringing instructors from Norway.  The first three instructors taught rosemaling (rose painting).    Since then, Norwegian instructors have taught all kinds of fiber arts, woodworking, and knifemaking, as well as music and dance.  Recent fiber arts teachers have included Marta Kløve Juuhl (warp-weighted loom weaving), Ingebjørg Monsen (pile weave, bunad jacket sewing), Liv Bugge (Norwegian overshot weaves), and Britt Solheim (sheepskin coverlet making).  American and Canadian instructors also teach one- to five-day classes at Vesterheim.  A highlight for many students is the visit to see artifacts in textile storage for information and inspiration.

Three textile symposia have been held at Vesterheim (1997, 2005, 2009).  These have offered opportunities to learn about Norwegian and Norwegian-American textiles, artists, and techniques from both the historical and contemporary perspectives.  Speakers and teachers have been brought from Norway for the symposia.

Another special educational opportunity comes in the form of textile study tours to Norway.  Katherine Larson for Nordic Heritage Museum organized the first trip in 1999 and then Vesterheim has offered six more trips (with the next trip planned for 2015).  The tours combine touring with hands-on learning.  There are visits to museums, presentations by curators, tours of factories, and visits to artists in their studios.  The philosophy behind the study tours is to travel with people who share a passion for textiles, do things that an independent traveler could not do, and learn a lot!  The tours have been popular with people who have seen Norway in a general way before and now want to focus in on textiles.  But many first-time travelers have found the tours to be a great introduction to Norway.  The tours usually attract a mix of people: weavers, knitters, embroiderers, collectors, textile enthusiasts, friends, and spouses.


Margaret Trussell (Maryland) photographs halvfloss (“half” pile) cushion covers and Kay Larson (Washington) views the back of a billedvev (tapestry) cushion cover at Maihaugen in Lillehammer, Norway. The textiles were brought out specially for the Textile Study Tour to Norway and Sweden in 2007.

No history of Vesterheim is complete without a mention of Lila Nelson, who served as Registrar and Curator of Textiles for 27 years.  Lila has had such a significant influence on textile education, collections, research, and outreach at Vesterheim and in the United States that she has received special commendation from the Norwegian government.  The April 2012 issue of the Norwegian Textile Letter is dedicated to Lila Nelson and features some of her weavings.  When Lila retired in 1991 and I began working with the textile collection, many staffers said I had large shoes to fill.  That has been true, but gratefully Lila leaves a clear path of excellence to follow.


“Houses and Chickens” by Lila Nelson. In this small hanging, Lila explored the creative possibilities of dansk brogd, a technique used in southern Norway for coverlets. Lila taught many classes in traditional weaving techniques at Vesterheim. 2011.032.046.

In part two of this article, which will appear in the May, 2014 issue of the Norwegian Textile Letter, take an “armchair” tour of Vesterheim’s textile collection.

Laurann Gilbertson has been Textile Curator at Vesterheim Norwegian-American Museum for 19 years and is now Chief Curator.

lgilbertson (at), 563-382-9681