Norwegian Knitting Culture: Alive and Thriving
A few months ago my family and I visited the Museum of Cultural History just outside Oslo. It's a huge place packed full of buildings from all over Norway and filled with folkart, regional cultures and exciting exhibitions.
In one of the buildings was a exhibition about the importance of knitting in Norwegian culture and I have been waiting for the just the right time to share this with you.
Norway has such a long history of knitting and Norwegian knits and patterns are famous the world over for their high quality and striking designs.
The oldest pieces of knitting in Norway were probably imported and are from the 1400s and early 1500s. Records show that knitted items began to be used at this time. They were things like knitted stockings, silk camisoles and mittens.
The oldest pieces were knitted silk camisoles which were only worn by the most wealthy as was also the case in other European cultures at the same time. They were worn during the day under their clothes. As the years progressed they became something that was worn much more widely from urban areas to rural communities.
Along with stockings, the camisoles were the largest group of knitted goods imported to Norway during the 1600s.
As knitting became more commonplace so people needed something to knit with. There are many beautiful knitting needles preserved from the 1700s. They were expensive and were usually only given as gifts. What it shows us is that knitting was relatively well knowing the higher levels of Norwegian society at this time.
Up until the end of the 1800s knitting patterns were passed around by people who knew one another, by copying knitted clothes or samples. Drawn knitting patterns and pattern books were not invented yet.
Knitted wool sweaters were some of the most decorative rural clothes used in the 1800s. They were knitted in thin wool yarn and were different and far more practical than the thin silk camisoles.
In rural areas women's sweaters were most often in one colour with a damask pattern, whilst men's sweaters were knitted in two or more colours with the lower part in one colour. Some men's seaters were given names from local areas.
From the end of the 1800s a cultural shift happened that had a profound effect on knitted goods. Town people started taking trips into the mountains for hiking and sports and sports clothes began to be inspired by local rural patterns.
Den Norske Husflidsforening was established in 1891 and they opened a shop Husfliden in Kristiania (what Oslo was called back then). The sold knitted clothes from all over Norway. They hired designers, made patterns and taught knitting classes. Sadly sales did not boom and it was not until the 1920s that things started to take of. Lots of books tried to get women to start knitting again but it wasn't until a woman called Annichen Sibbern Bøhn who worked for Husfliden started to travel around the country collecting old knitting patterns that things took a different turn. She published a book called Norske Strikkemønstre in 1929 and thanks to that knitting became popular again.
From the 1930 knitting started to follow fashion trends and especially with the likes of Coco Chanel and Madeleine Vionnet in Europe. Suddenly knitted clothes were haute couture!
Knitting patterns for the Norwegian jumper were published in lots of magazines and pattern leaflets. Some of the patterns were a little bit "out there" to say the least from things like knitted bathing suits to knitted wedding dresses!
By the 1950s more people were knitting that ever before. Homemade clothes were cheaper than buying them in a store and children were taught to knit both at home and at school. The production of patterns and yarns increased and brightly coloured patterns like the Marius became very popular.
In the 1960s mass production brought knitted clothes to everyone and prices dropped making them much more affordable. Because of this handmade knitted items were becoming more expensive. Even so knitting was still taught in schools and the popularity of traditional patterns never waned.
Sadly by the 1990s knitting was no longer compulsory in schools and so the knowledge of knitting that had been passed down was starting to be lost.
There was a surge in revival in 2012 when Norwegian TV celebrity Dorthe Skappel made a very simple sweater and her daughters were photographed in it. Suddenly everyone wanted to knit again! And lots of people discovered they could learn via YouTube
The Marius Pattern
Can we possibly talk about Norwegian knitted sweaters without mentioning the famous Marius pattern?? It's the pattern we are all so familiar with. It's blue, white and red design is instantly recognisable.
The Marius pattern started in a pretty unconventional way though.
Unn Søiland could knit before she could read. After she had studied languages in England in France she took a job as an airline stewardess. However, she didn't remain a stewardess for long as an opportunity arose for her to move to Paris and become a fashion model. In 1952 she became a model for the fashion house Hardy Amies in London. Being a model meant a lot of time waiting around and Unn refused to waste that time and it instead to knit. The things she knitted became popular with her model friends and she started to get orders for sweaters. Her fledging firm, Lillunn Sport A/S was formed in 1953.
Unn's time as a model had given her access to exclusive sports shops and fashion journals in London and Paris. She decided to try to make a go of making hand knitted items based on Norwegian traditions. So she quit her job and went home to Norway. Up until this point everything had been handknitted by Unn herself, but with so much more work she started to recuirut and eventually had 1000 knitters all over Norway and found herself called the first Norwegian "Career Woman".
And so Norwegian sweaters became fashionable and sought after, all thanks to Unn Søiland.
In 1953 Unn Søiland started cooperating with Sandnes Uldvarfabrik. She made 25 patterns for the factory and was paid 100 kroner for each pattern in addition to a monthly consultants fee. This income enabled her to buy yarn wholesale and the finished items were sold by her own company Lillunn Sport A/S. The most popular patterns were Eskimo, Marius, Nordkapp, Finnmark and Snøkrystall. All patterns and designs we are so familiar with today. Many of her designs were inspired by traditional knitting patterns and folk dress but had at the same time innovative cuts and colour combinations. The sweaters became so popular that they were featured in international fashion magazines.
And so to the Marius pattern. The Marius pattern was designed by Unn Søiland in 1953 and since then has been the most popular sweater pattern in Norway. It's been sold more than 5 million times. 5 million times!!!! When Søiland developed the Marius pattern she was inspired by the 1929 book Norske Strikkemønstre and in particular "Lusekofte fra Setesdalen". She redesigned the elements and built them into new and exciting combinations and presented the Marius pattern in red, white and blue, the colours of the Norwegian flag.
The slalom skier and fighter pilot Marius Eriksen had an acting part in the movie "Troll i Ord" (1954) where the leading cast all wore Søiland sweaters. Marius was dashing and attractive dressed his Marius sweater and the film established the sweater as a brand name. The film itself created a knitting hysteria. Everybody knitted the Marius sweater and there was an enormous demand for yarn and patterns and the Marius became the icon we know today. I don't think that knitting hysteria has died out, in fact it seems very much alive and well. Knitting offers a calm comforting hobby that creates beautiful and timeless results that can be enjoyed not only by the knitter but also by their recipients. What's not to love!!!
I hope you've enjoyed this little journey through Norwegian knitting and if you don't knit already maybe you are ready to have go at a hobby that is so cherished in Norway.
Why not head over to the Living a Nordic Life Facebook group. We are members from all over the world who share a love of Nordic living. We'd be delighted to see you there.
Thank you to the Norsk Folkemuseum for the informative history and preserving this wonderful piece of culture.