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).
“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
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
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.
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)