Want an Authentic Norwegian Sweater? Here’s How to Find One
By SARAH POLLOCK
This sidebar is a supplement to The Norwegian Sweater Detective
In my husband’s childhood in Norway, during the 1960s, each of the three boys in his family would get a new sweater every three years. His mother would let him choose a pattern and colors, and she’d then spend all fall knitting that boy’s sweater from wool she bought at the local knitting store. “The sweater selection was always a highlight—to know that, this year it’s my turn,” he recalls. “That was the main thing to keep one warm for six months out of the year.”
If you visit Norway today and long for a traditional sweater, you can now buy one ready-made—but the decisions about how to select a sweater that feels authentic are trickier than they were back in the day.
“Authentically Norwegian is a complex expression,” says Sølvi Westvang, a project leader for Norges Husflidslag, the nonprofit Norwegian Folk Art and Crafts Association. Considered the authority on Norwegian handcrafts, Husflidslag runs small stores all over the country that are reliable sources for Norwegian yarn, knitwear, and traditional costumes. “We all have an idea of what is Norwegian, but our tradition is shaped through centuries of influence by other regions and cultures. This is how tradition always has evolved. It just happens faster now.”
The first question to consider when evaluating a sweater is where the wool was grown and how it was processed. Norwegian wool is considered extraordinary because the sheep graze freely in the wild all summer, are fed no preventative antibiotics, and are genetically bred to produce a wool that is long-lasting, holds its shape, doesn’t pill, takes dye well, and is wind- and water-resistant. But some people find it itchy; many also might not need a big, heavy sweater that protects against wind and snow. As a result, many of the big manufacturers use a mix of softer merino wools and even silk, alpaca, and mohair, none of which are grown on a large scale in Norway.
It can be a challenge to discern where the wool in a sweater comes from, as there’s no national standard for what constitutes a Norwegian woolen garment. A 2012 report by the National Institute for Consumer Research points out that marketing around the origins of the raw material is “rather inadequate and sometimes misleading.” Many manufacturers use icons like mountains, trolls, and Vikings to reinforce their claims to offering Norwegian products, but that doesn’t necessarily mean they are made with Norwegian wool, says Westvang. Even many Norwegians are unaware that their national costumes and woolen underwear are often made from imported merino.
So, if you want a sweater made from 100-percent Norwegian wool in a classic pattern, Westvang recommends a company that dates back to 1927—Rauma Ullvarefabrikk in Veblungsnes, which uses Norwegian wool and Norwegian-spun yarn. She also notes that Devold (which dates to 1853) makes a line called Devold Originals—sweaters from Norwegian wool that replicate patterns that would have been worn by fishermen a century ago.
In terms of design, you should be aware that there’s nothing fixed or static about what constitutes an authentic Norwegian pattern. Like a living language, the patterns are continuously evolving. Many Norwegian sweater manufacturers employ high-end designers who create their own patterns, variations on traditional designs that might be found in a grandparent’s attic. Dale of Norway, for example, produces new, tradition-based patterns and is known internationally for designing the Norwegian Olympic ski team’s official sweaters. Just note: Dale imports some of its wool and was recently acquired by the French outdoor company, Rossignol.
Oleana, a Norwegian sweater company founded in 1992, creates highly regarded original designs, primarily for the women’s market, melding a contemporary aesthetic with traditional motifs. The company imports its merino and alpaca wool but focuses on using ecologically sustainable materials; it also takes pride in the fact that its entire design and production process is done in its factory in Ytre Arna, Norway. “This is normally the most value-adding process in this industry,” says Gerda Sørhus Fuglerud, an Oleana spokeswoman. “When this is done in low-cost countries far away from Norway, under conditions we cannot control to the full, I would not say it is Norwegian made.”
Fuglerud says Oleana has just launched a product made of Norwegian wool and is struggling to find a balance between the benefits of Norwegian wool and the customer’s desire for a softer feel. To that end, the company is working with the Hillesvåg mill near Bergen to find a way to sort Norwegian wool fibers that would create a softer local yarn.
Another reputable manufacturer is Lillun, which was founded in 1953 by the famed Norwegian designer Unn Søiland Dale. Lillun uses Norwegian wool, and says its designs aim “to continue the traditions with a modern take.”
Westvang says that Husflid embraces the creative approach that such designers are using because it authentic. “It is more interesting if it is produced by someone who is familiar with and part of a still-evolving tradition,” she says. “To be inspired from something is OK, but to copy and produce cheaper in other countries is something else.”
At Husflid stores, you can expect any of these sweaters to set you back $200 to $400, depending upon the exchange rate. Some of the brands also have stand-alone stores in the larger cities where you will find a broader selection.
If you are looking for a hand-knitted sweater, you might find one in a pop-up knitting market, or strikkemarked, or strikkernes marked, where both established designers and amateurs showcase and sell their original handmade designs. You can also find vintage and new sweaters via online markets, such as ravelry and etsy. (For links to these and other local sources inside Norway, please see our sidebar, “Resources for Nordic Sweater Lovers.”)
For Norwegians, however, the most common way to get a traditional, hand-knitted sweater is to buy some wool and a pattern, and make it. This tradition yields what is still a popular gift between friends.