Tongue River Farm 5000 CR 4910, Pomona, MO 65789 (417) 469-1151

 

Icelandic Knitting

By Louise Heite, Page Number 22 Knitters Magazine
This article is published with the permission of Louise Heite and Knitters Magazine. You can reach Heite  by calling 1-800-777-9665

    Iceland and wool have been bound together since the first Vikings settled the island. As much livestock farmers as they were warriors, Iceland's first settlers took their sheep and other animals with them when they sailed to their new homes.
      The Icelandic sheep is the direct descendant of the Viking sheep. Its closest relative is the Norwegian Spelsau, which is descended from the same original stock. The Icelandic sheep's fleece is complex. It consists of a long outer hair called tog in Icelandic, and a short, fine underhair called pel.
      Woolen cloth was an Icelandic trading staple during the Middle Ages. The Sagas tell of young Vikings taking their Inheritance in ells of va6mdl (see Knitters Glossary below) , as they set off to seek their fortunes in the markets of Europe.
      Until mill spinning came to Iceland in the late nineteenth century, most fleeces were separated. The two kinds of wool were used for very different products. Tog, which can be up to fourteen inches long, was combed and drawn (lyppao in Icelandic), and spun into strong cord for sewing, for weaving canvas for bags, and occasionally plied for rope and twine. The finest tog, which is similar to mohair in texture and lustre, was used for knitting lacy shawls, for embroidery. and sometimes for durable household fabrics such as aprons.

      Pel was the fiber of choice for garments. Brown and gray sheep produce the softest pel which was preferred for underwear. Handknit woolen underwear was common in Iceland until after World War 11.
      Sheep were both a boon and a burden for Iceland. At the time of settlement, the island had no native large herbivores. None of the plant life had any defenses against being eaten. When the livestock was set loose to graze, they ate everything. The fragile sub-arctic ecology could not recover from this onslaught of hungry animals. By the end of the Middle Ages, the birch forests which once had covered the island were virtually gone.

     Now you have come to your fourth
year Your work you will begin- That is
learning the three arts:
To read, to knit, to spin. -Icelandic nursery rhyme

      The shortage of wood for fuel and for building houses and ships had a devastating effect on the Icelandic economy. The once-independent island was reduced to being a poor colony of Denmark. Iceland regained its independence only in 1944.
      Knitting did not appear in Iceland until late in the Middle Ages, near the beginning of the sixteenth century. The consensus among Icelandic scholars is that knitting was introduced from England or from northern Europe.
      Knitting spread quickly across the island. Knitted woolens displaced the woven vaomal as Iceland’s principal export. By the eighteenth century, an Icelandic servant girl was expected to be able to produce one long stocking, or to card. spin. and knit a pair of short socks each day. (Sara Bertha Porsteinsd6ttir and Valger6ur, Kristin Sigur6ard6ttir. 'Pij6n,' Hugur og H6nd. 1984 p. 10.)
      Because knitting requires no major investment in equipment, even the poorest Icelanders, outlaws, and people who lived on isolated farms on the fringes of the habitable land, knitted. In folktales the most rural (and often dangerous) characters often wear knitted clothing.
      Knitting needles were treasured possessions. During courtship a young man might present the object of his affections with a long, elaborately carved knitting needle case. called a prj6nastokkur. Today these needle cases are precious heirlooms, as are spinning wheels and other artifacts of the textile trade.
      People knitted constantly. During the evening working hours, the kvoldvakt, one of the household would read aloud, often from the Sagas, while the rest pursued some kind of handwork. Carding, spinning, and knitting filled these hours, for men as well as for women.
      Most Icelandic knitting was strictly utilitarian. Warm socks and mittens, fishermen's sweaters, and snug caps comprised the bulk of the island’s export knitting. Icelandic woolens were traded all over the Atlantic basin. Icelandic socks and sweaters were part of the trade goods that Dutch settlers brought to New York. New Jersey, and Delaware during the early years of American settlement.
      Although knitting and spinning were mostly commercial activities, they also provided a source of creative expression, extra money, and even amusement for people whose lives were spent eking a living out of a demanding and arduous land. Workers on farms kept the goods they produced between Christmas and New Year's. These were sold or bartered for luxuries and services. Sometimes there were knitting contests between farms, or among workers on a farm.
      Some charted patterns for color-stranded knitting survive from the eighteenth century. These patterns were for small squared designs. They were used for men's vests and for shoe insoles. Many of the same designs were used for embroidery. (Elsa E. Gu6j6nssoti. Notes on Knitting in Iceland, 198-5. pp.6-8.)
      Iceland's older knitting tradition involves fine work. Most knitting needles which survive from the nineteenth century were only one or two millimeters thick, and the yarns used were similarly delicate. For warmth and durability, socks and mittens were sometimes knitted about three times their intended size and then felted and shrunk.
      Lace knitting, listapij6n, (literally "artistic knitting"), seems to date from the middle of the nineteenth century. Two kinds of shawls were common, the langsjal, a long rectangle worked in one or several colors, and the triangular prihyrna. The lace figures used in Iceland are similar to the knitted laces that can be found throughout Europe and America-at the time.
      Probably the most Icelandic of Icelandic lace knitting is the klukka. These elegant dresses are derived from women's knitted woolen underwear. The klukka (the name actually means 'clock') is composed of twelve long narrow gores joined with a lace stitch. Today klukkur are knitted with sleeves, in all lengths from tee shirts to long evening dresses. Klukkupjj6n is usually done on size two or three needles, using a fine singles woolen yarn called eingirni. It is common-non to use graded tones of a natural color-either black to gray or brown to tan-in bands at the hem, neck, and sleeves, with a light-colored body.
      Knitting with roving, or lopi, is relatively new. The first documented use of unseen lopi on a knitting frame was published in an Icelandic craft magazine in 1923. Handknitting from lopi is probably no more than about fifty years old. (Gu6j6nsson 1985. pp. 10-13.)
      Icelanders knit with the soft unspun lopi using the Continental technique, which puts much less strain on the yarn than the American technique. Much Icelandic yarn sold in America is plied and slightly twisted to accommodate the American knitter. However, twist is not necessary, to keep an Icelandic sweater together, as the wool's extremely long fibers are longer than a stitch.
      Knitting is still an important part of Icelandic culture. Children as young as seven are taught the rudiments as part of their regular school curriculum. Throughout Iceland people still spend evenings and spare hours knitting the popular yoke sweater, the lopapeysa, mostly for the tourist trade. Every snack stand and gas station in rural Iceland sports a selection of handknit sweaters, mittens, and caps produced by the people in the neighborhood.
      The Icelandic knitting tradition is much deeper than the famous yoke sweater. From delicate lacy klukkur to practical two-thumbed fishermen's mittens, even to lamp shades, knitting has been an integral part of Icelandic culture for 400 years. :)

Knitters GLOSSARY

Term Pronunciation Meaning
eingirni aitn'.gir-ni Fine singles yarn used for lace knitting
hyrnasjil hir'-na-syawl Another name for tri- angular shawl
klukka kluh'-ka Slip, lace knitted dress; also clock
klukkuprj6n kluh'-ka-pryohn The lace figure traditionally used for knitting klukkur
klukkur kluh'-kr Plural of klukka
kvaldvakt kvcald'.vahkt Evening working hours
langsjal langg'-syawl Long shawl, rectangular shawl
listaprj6n list-a-pryohn "Artistic" knitting or lace knitting
lopapoysa loh--pa-pal-sa Sweater knitted of lopi
lopi loh-pi An unspun roving
lyppa lip'-pa

To draw combed wool Into a roving. The word lopi is derived from lypps.

plotulopi ploe-tu-loh-pi Roving in plates, the preferred form in Iceland for bulky sweaters
prj6n pryohn Knitting, also knitting needle
prj6na pryohn' To knit
prj6nastokkur pryohn'-a-stockr Knitting needle case
tog tog The long outer hair ot the Icelandic fleece
vaomal vath'-mawl Partly felted twill- woven Woolen cloth the Viking period
pel thel The short downy underhair in a fleece
prihyrna three'-hir-na Triangle, triangular shawl


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5000 CR 4910
Pomona, MO 65789
(417) 469-1151

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