The Art of Making Norwegian Yarn

By SARAH POLLOCK

Spelsau wool is so strong and versatile that you can create a rough textile by knitting its fibers directly, without first spinning them into thread.

While Nordic sweater patterns are thoroughly identified with the region’s culture, knitting actually came late to Norway.

At first imported from Europe as a luxury item, knitting was not undertaken as a widespread domestic craft until the shortages of the Napoleonic wars in the early 19th century made it necessary. It was then adopted enthusiastically by Norwegian women who had already been weaving with wool for centuries. The sweaters they knit – which incorporated motifs from weaving, carving and imported textiles – eventually became an inextricable part of Norway’s regional folk costumes.

The early patterns, which weren’t written down and were passed from woman to woman, were ephemeral because wool was valuable enough to unravel and reuse once a sweater became too worn to repair. To ferret out some of that early history, textile historian Annemor Sundbø (see main story, “The Norwegian Sweater Detective“) sought depictions from historical paintings, which she says are the only records of some of the earliest Norwegian sweater designs. She also salvaged knitted scraps from rag bins and even from insulation used in 19th century buildings. From these she laboriously re-engineered knitting patterns and created sample garments to demonstrate what was worn by peasants from centuries past.

To show me one afternoon, she ducked into the back storeroom of her Ose textile workshop, which is housed in a wood-frame building that once was the local food cooperative. The workshop is crammed with items as varied as her career. There’s a colorful wall of mittens on one side that catches your eye immediately when you enter, all salvaged from the shoddy mill she owned for several decades in Kristiansand. There are wooden tools and stocking forms jutting from a wooden barrel, spinning wheels, spindles, looms, and cascading loops of hand-dyed yarn that she has prepared for projects. There are books everywhere, some on display for purchase, others shelved for reference. Downstairs, the stone fireplace also contains an old-fashioned bread oven, the kind where you can bake 40 loaves of bread at once, which she did on a recent Saturday when the local community was having a food festival. It also houses two large looms, scattered with various works in progress.

“THE SPIRIT IN THE RAGPILE”

From the back storeroom, Sundbø emerges with a suitcase of sweaters made from dense, heavy wool. A pullover with a blue checked pattern and a white bottom was derived from a deckhand depicted in Carl Sundt-Hansen’s “Burial at Sea.” A blue and white striped design comes from the carpenter depicted in a painting by Adolph Tidemand.

I am here with a photographer, and we persuade his daughter to try on a sweater with a design of a herring worker depicted by a little-known early 19th century painter named Philip Henrich Kriebel, who reproduced daily life with meticulous detail. My husband dons a sweater that Sundbø recreated from a drawing by the 20th century illustrator, Tryge M. Davidsen, captured on a postcard she found in an abandoned house in Setesdal.

Why does Sundbø enjoy making these recreations? “I get into the mind of the one who has made it,” she says. “When I do it exactly the same way as they have done, I come into their way of thinking. I can also feel when they have had a challenge, and I get the same challenge. I come into their life in some way. And of course I also get inspiration.”

Norwegian women who knitted sweaters for their families altered traditional patterns as it suited them; designs varied from hand to hand. This version of one of the most famous sweater patterns, the “Marius,” is made with a turtleneck.

The word inspiration comes from spirit, she points out, and there’s a Norwegian saying about things that vanish, that they disappear like a spirit in the ragpile. “My job here in life is to say, ‘what is really the spirit of this? The ghost?’ It’s all there: love, skill, good thoughts, struggle, the fight against poverty. Everything you can read from these things is the spirit in the ragpile.”

UNBREAKABLE YARN

To understand what it takes to process the wool for any of these sweaters, I visited Sundbø’s workshop in Ose on a late summer day when the heat had broken and the sky was heavy with threats of rain.

After the shearing, the wool is washed, then sorted to separate fine fibers from the rough. It’s heavy lifting to move armloads of wet wool from vat to vat, but she’s sturdy and strong and seems to be tireless. She carries the wool upstairs via steps that are more akin to a ladder, and then spreads it out in huge clouds upon a sheet to dry. (On a fairer day she’d dry it outside.)

Now it’s time to align the fibers through a laborious process called carding. To show me, Sundbø picks up two wooden blocks with spikes that look something like dog brushes. She attaches a puff of clean wool to one block and begins stroking it quickly with the other. She learned to card from her mother, who she says was an expert, and prepared baskets of wool for her grandmother’s spinning wheel. What makes a carder good? To answer me, Sundbø quickly produces puffs of finished wool, called rolags, that are even and uniform, not clumpy or of varied widths.

One of the most distinctive and recognizable Norwegian sweaters is the lusekofte or “lice-pattern sweater” of Setesdal. The oldest sweaters had a wide white section at the hem.

After the carding comes spinning, which can be done either on a spinning wheel or a drop spindle. And the story Sundbø tells of how she learned to use a drop spindle is remarkable. As a youngster, she had already taught herself to spin on her grandmother’s wheel, and was earning a degree in textile weaving and design from the Norwegian Folk Art and Crafts Association. Then, on a trip to Paris in 1969, she was lured into a shop by a loom in the window, and encountered an older woman using a drop spindle. “I thought that was a forgotten technique, hidden in the Viking graves,” she says. When Sundbø asked the woman to teach her, the woman refused, saying that she needed to learn on her own in order to develop a unique artistic signature. This woman, it turned out, was Aia Bertrand, the widowed sister-in-law of the famed dancer Isadora Duncan, whose brother Raymond had made all her clothes. Madame Bertrand proceeded to give Sundbø the drop spindle she was using and told her to teach herself.

Sundbø still has that drop spindle; when I ask her to show me how to use it, she tugs some wool from a rolag, and wraps it around a tool that looks like a wooden stick weighted by a horizontal disc called a whorl. As the spindle hangs, Sundbø begins spinning it, holding the wool from above, and almost immediately a thread emerges, which lengthens as the spindle descends. When the spindle nears the floor, she stops, winds the thread beneath the whorl, and starts the next length. It happens so quickly and so smoothly that it’s impossible to break down the movements. I can’t discern how she manages to pull on the hank of wool non-stop, feeding the spindle, never breaking the thread or losing control of the precise, even thickness of the thread she is creating. Just as smoothly, she doubles the thread back upon itself, gives it a precise twist so that it rolls together, and says, there, now this is two-ply yarn.

“Feel how strong it is,” she says, to underscore toughness of spelsau wool. I tug on it as hard as I can, and there’s not the slightest chance I can break it.

© 2019 Sarah Pollock, all rights reserved. Under exclusive license to Craftsmanship, LLC. Unauthorized copying or republication of this article is prohibited by law.

Published: April 10, 2019