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  The reviewer felt they promoted an outdated feminine ideal and he wondered whether they actually encouraged women to be obedient and subservient to men.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)

The Busserull (Norwegian Work Shirt) Tradition

Editor’s note:  Carol Colburn originally wrote this essay for Ethnic Dress in the United States: A Cultural Encyclopedia, edited by Annette Lynch and Mitchell D. Strauss (Rowman and Littlefield, 2015). For Norwegian Textile Letter readers, the author provided additional photos.

Carol Colburn Nordic Heritage shirt child size in snow copyThe busserull, or Norwegian work shirt, was historically a jacket rather than a shirt. It has been worn as a loose fitting over-shirt, constructed with squares and rectangles cut to allow full range of movement for physical labor. There have been a number of variations in the cut, but most include a band collar, shoulder yoke that extends over the upper arm, and body with a button front closure either ending with a placket to mid-chest or open to the waist. Loose sleeves are attached from the mid-point of the yoke at the shoulder, and greater movement and ease around the body is allowed by inserting square gussets at the underarm. The waist may be either half-belted with an adjustable belt at the back, or on some of the oldest examples opening all the way down the center front, a shorter body ends in a waistband which buttons at the center front. On historical examples, a front opening is closed with simple metal, bone or shell buttons. When used for work, the most common fabric was traditionally striped cotton, and the most typical color was blue with white stripes. Other colors in striped fabrics were used, and plaid or plain fabrics. Plain or twill woven cotton was used for warm weather work wear, where wool shirts with similar cut was used for colder seasons.


Throughout the second half of the nineteenth century the shirts were used functionally in Norway as one layer of protection by many types of workers; railroad workers, lumberjacks, builders, agricultural workers, harbor workers and fishermen. Photographs of the era show the shirt worn as a single garment over the torso, or under or over a woolen vest, and in the coldest weather under another form of heavier woolen jacket. Shirts in Norwegian museum collections show the signs of being well worn and are often patched, or new sections sewn in to replace collars, cuffs, or shirttails. A variety of sturdy wool and half-wool (cotton warp and wool weft) shirts are available for study at the Norsk Skogmuseum (Norwegian Forest Museum) in Elverum, Norway. Anne Holen has written an unpublished study Busserullen på Hedmarken (The Bussarull in Hedmark), for the Norwegian Institute of Bunad and Folk Costume in Fagernes, Norway. Her findings show that historically, a new work shirt could be used for occasions other than work, but this garment was not considered suitable for church on Sunday. Approaching 1900, Norwegian nationalistic sentiment grew for independence from Swedish rule. Rural dress in many forms took on a nationalistic meaning, and the busserull, especially in the colors of the Norwegian flag (red or blue with white stripes) became widely used. These colorful shirts continued to be popular in Norway throughout the twentieth century for leisure activities outdoors, or for occasions such as folk dance or rural folk festivals. As in international fashion in general, rural forms of clothing were revived in the 1960s and 1970s and this was true also of the use of the busserull in Norway.

When Norwegian immigrants settled in America in agricultural areas, they continued sewing work shirts as needed within the family. Photographs from the 1870s in rural Wisconsin by the Norwegian-American photographer Andreas Dahl show men in variations of the busserull; the older generation favoring the shorter version with a band at the waist, and younger men the longer style. The busserull generally went out of favor for agricultural work as farm operations were mechanized. It fell out of use when overalls became the new American workers’ uniform by the 1920s. Instead of continuing as a sturdy shirt for work, in the U.S. the busserull evolved to be worn for outdoor leisure activities, folk dance, and for festival occasions.   They were imported or brought from Norway by tourists as souvenirs, often embellished with decorative pewter buttons.

Work Shirts on the beach-3 copyAmong Norwegian-Americans, these shirts in blue or red striped fabrics are worn today in informal or formal settings. Norwegian-American heritage style weddings might include the busserull for the men’s wear.  Non-Norwegians also wear the shirt; more often if it is produced in fabrics other than the blue or red striped imported Norwegian fabric. Classes in sewing the shirts are popular where traditional folk crafts are taught such as at Vesterheim Norwegian-American Museum in Decorah, Iowa; North House Folk School in Grand Marais, Minnesota. In classes, students can customize their shirts to suit their work or leisure activities with adaptations appropriate for fishing, sailing, gardening, woodworking or building.

Currently busserull style fabric as well as work shirts are manufactured by the Norwegian company Grinakervev, a small factory in Brandbu, located the central agricultural region of Hadeland. These ready-made garments are available via internet to an international market. Grinakervev work shirts are available in a variety of colors and sized for men, women, and children. In addition to the traditional styles, unique models include Pilgrimsskjorte (pilgrim shirt) in dark brown fabric and Statsrådsbusserull (cabinet meeting shirt) appropriate for formal wear in blue fabric with red damask woven bands the front closure, collar, cuffs, and pocket. In America, the current interest in reviving hands-on sustainable skills has created an interest in sewing and wearing these comfortable, adaptable, and natural fiber shirts. Individuals who choose their own fabric and create their own work shirt understand the satisfaction of a custom made garment for work.


Colburn, Carol and Laurann Gilbertson. “At Work: A Study of Norwegian Immigrants and Their Work Clothing” in Norwegian American Studies Volume 36, edited by Todd W. Nichol, 105-124. Northfield, Minnesota: The Norwegian-American Historical Association, 2011

material-cultureColburn, Carol. ‘”Well, I Wondered When I Saw You, What All These New Clothes Meant” in Material Culture and People’s Art Among the Norwegians in America edited by Marion Nelson, 118-156. Northfield, Minnesota: The Norwegian-American Historical Association, 1994. (On the cover photo, two men on the left are wearing busseruller; an older style with a waistband, and the second shirt worn under a vest.)

The Norsk Skogmuseum (The Norwegian Forest Museum) owns many examples of busserull.  To see images, and images of the shirts in other collections, search the Digitaltmuseum at

Vesterheim Norwegian-American Museum, Decorah, Iowa

Carol Ann Colburn is Professor Emerita of Theatre/Costume History and Design at the University of Northern Iowa and lives in Duluth, Minnesota.



The Busserull Tradition Continues

By Carol Colburn

On the shores of Lake Superior at Castle Haven Cabins near Two Harbors, Minnesota, family friend Michael Herriges wears one of the first shirts that Carol made for her son Lewis. The imported Norwegian busserull fabric is twill woven cotton, also traditionally made in light blue and red. This quality fabric is specifically designed and manufactured for constructing these shirts. The stripes make cutting and sewing easier than making a shirt of plain fabric. Photo credit: Meg Anderson

On the shores of Lake Superior at Castle Haven Cabins near Two Harbors, Minnesota, family friend Michael Herriges wears one of the first shirts that Carol made for her son Lewis. The imported Norwegian busserull fabric is twill woven cotton, also traditionally made in light blue and red. This quality fabric is specifically designed and manufactured for constructing these shirts. The stripes make cutting and sewing easier than making a shirt of plain fabric. Photo credit: Meg Anderson

There is growing interest in making and wearing these traditional shirts. Learning the techniques for sewing the classic work shirt aligns with the ‘slow fashion/clothing movement’ where time invested in sewing results in garments that are made to last – perhaps a lifetime. Prior to developing workshops making these shirts, I studied work shirts and fabrics used for them in museums in Norway, Sweden, and in Scandinavian-American Midwestern communities. After studying photographs, remaining shirts, and scraps of fabrics, it is clear that in the 19th and early 20th centuries, there had been a variety of fibers, weave structures, color and patterns incorporated in the sturdy fabrics used. Cut and detailing also varied according to how the shirts were to be used, whether for agriculture, factory work, forestry, or fishing. Bringing this background into the classroom has resulted in creative ideas emerging through combinations of fabric and garment details. Sewing together with a group is a great way to develop skills and new ways to think about traditions.

In workshops taught in a number of settings students are making updated versions of the work shirt that suit our lives today. Starting with ten different sizes of patterns that range from toddler/child sizes to adult XXXL, students can make further pattern adjustments to custom fit their shirts to their size and preferences. Planning their shirts with specific uses in mind is part of the fun. Some make adjustments to their shirts specifically for gardening, woodworking, musical performance, folk dance, work as artists, fishing, sailing, hiking and camping, etc. The workshops almost always have a mix of men and women; they bring a range of sewing experience from beginning to advanced.

Emily Plunkett from Texas and Gina Eckert from Pennsylvania work together at a recent class at John C. Campbell Folk School. Function and placement of pockets, and positioning the back belt is best determined by individual choice. A cooperative classroom makes sewing together a pleasure. Black and white stripe fabric is a plain woven cotton and hemp blend. Gina’s fabric in wide stripes is twill woven cotton, and is a perfect weight for an over-shirt on an early spring day. Photo credit: Carol Colburn

Emily Plunkett from Texas and Gina Eckert from Pennsylvania work together at a recent class at John C. Campbell Folk School. Function and placement of pockets, and positioning the back belt is best determined by individual choice. A cooperative classroom makes sewing together a pleasure. Black and white stripe fabric is a plain woven cotton and hemp blend. Gina’s fabric in wide stripes is twill woven cotton, and is a perfect weight for an over-shirt on an early spring day. Photo credit: Carol Colburn

For about eight years in Busserull/Scandinavian Work Shirt workshops taught at Vesterheim Folk Art School and North House Folk School, students have used commercially available fabric in my workshops, either imported from Norway or purchased from fabric sources in the U.S. Recently, handweavers have become interested in weaving yardage for making Scandinavian work shirts. It is a perfect garment to make from handwoven cloth, because the traditional patterns are based on squares and rectangles, making very efficient use of handwoven fabric which can be made on a variety of looms. The shirt provides an opportunity to showcase fine weaving and sewing techniques together, and results in a comfortable and adaptable addition to a wardrobe for men, women or children. The first handweaver that I worked with came to a class at North House Folk School with cotton yardage already woven for two shirts. Debbie Cooter from Two Harbors, Minnesota made her first custom handwoven shirt of cotton, and has gone on to make further shirts of cotton and wool.

The idea has caught on with more handweavers. Members of the Weaving Study Group at the Duluth Fiber Handcrafters Guild are now weaving yardage and preparing to make Scandinavian work shirts. Barb Dwinnell is leading their weaving and I am coaching the sewing, using my range of Scandinavian work shirt patterns, and incorporating techniques for sewing garments with handwoven cloth. The group meets monthly for new information and demonstrations, and works at home between meetings. The fabrics woven by the study group have the use of natural fiber and warp stripe patterns in common. Cotton, linen, silk, and wool are among the fibers being used in a range of fabric weights and stripe designs, using colors and rhythms that suit the individual weaver’s aesthetics.

Another class for handweavers coming up in the Twin Cities will be sponsored by the Weavers Guild of Minnesota. Kala Exworthy and I are planning to lead a class in Fall 2016 for handweavers to weave their shirt fabric and sew work shirts. There will be two class meetings in September to plan fabric and adjust patterns, and then a three-day workshop later in the Fall for garment construction. For inspiration for the weavers, Kala has designed a very lively set of shirt fabrics, inspired by history and beautifully updated for sewing and wearing today.

Work Shirt Banjo player

Martha Williams from Minnesota made this shirt in a class at North House Folk School of black striped linen twill. Planned for her husband Eric, he uses it for musical performance. Photo credit: Martha Williams

Two more formats for Scandinavian work shirt classes are on my schedule for Spring, 2016. At John C. Campbell Folk School a five-day workshop in making Scandinavian work shirts is scheduled during Scandinavian Heritage Week. In this longer class we use commercial fabric. The class is designed to allow the opportunity for learning more about the background and heritage of the shirt, and incorporating more variations in work shirt construction. With a longer format more fine patterning and sewing details can be incorporated.

At The Nordic Center located in Duluth, Minnesota, a unique streamlined two-day class will be offered in late April, sponsored by a Minnesota State Folk Arts Grant. All students will make child sized shirts from imported Norwegian busserull fabric. The grant funding makes the class affordable by providing fabrics and sewing supplies free for all students. By making small shirts, students will learn all the sewing techniques for work shirt construction before making a personalized adult sized shirt on their own.

John C Campbell Folk School, Brasstown, NC, March 20 – 26, 2016.  Phone 800-365-5724

The Nordic Center, Duluth, MN, April 30-May1, 2016. Phone 218-393-7320, Tom Rebnord

Weavers Guild of Minnesota at the Textile Center of Minnesota, Minneapolis, MN. September 17th-18th, and October 21-23, 2016. Phone 612-436-0463

North House Folk School, Grand Marais, MN. Usually scheduled each Fall season. Phone 888-387-9762

Carol Colburn, Duluth, Minnesota, teaches garment making workshops that incorporate Scandinavian textile traditions along with contemporary craft. Through her travels, she has found inspiration in everyday as well as the festive clothing traditions throughout Scandinavia, with a focus on Norway. Her publications discuss the design, techniques, and meanings behind Scandinavian folk clothing, and in her teaching she seeks to bring new life to time tested design. She taught historical clothing classes, pattern making, and sewing in universities before she began teaching focused heritage workshops in settings such as Vesaas Farm Studio in Telemark, Norway, Vesterheim Museum in Decorah, Iowa, North House Folk School in Grand Marais, Minnesota, John C. Campbell Folk School in North Carolina, and in other cultural settings. Students in her sewing workshops are introduced to an appreciation of traditional techniques while creating contemporary garments with custom fit and including individual detail.

Contact Carol at

Grant Olson from Iowa wears his first work shirt while drafting a pattern for another, using the woodworking tables at North House Folk School. He has planned his light weight linen shirt to feature a longer back shirt tail, perfect for his work on the heritage farm at Seed Savers Exchange in Decorah, Iowa. Photo credit: Carol Colburn


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)