The Norwegian Sweater Detective
In a postcard-perfect valley in southern Norway, Annemor Sundbø nurtures her life’s work: old garments, paintings, and other clues to the myths and meaning woven for centuries into Norwegian sweaters. Now she’s trying to bring back the sheep that used to sustain this time-honored craft.
Story by SARAH POLLOCK
Photography by MIKKEL AALAND
Several years ago, my husband and I were traveling south along Norway’s Otra River, heading down from a family cabin in the Setesdal mountains toward the southern city of Kristiansand, when we detoured for groceries at a tiny roadside village called Ose. Lying on a flat valley floor, the village is framed by steep mountains that are often wreathed in clouds and fog. Until the middle of the 19th century, it was the last navigable stop on voyages upriver from the coast; journeys beyond the village could be managed only on a network of trails and footpaths that provided access to the Telemark valley to the east, and Lysefjord and the coast of Norway to the west.
Ose is marked by a century-old hostelry that still accepts overnight guests and a scattering of traditional log storehouse buildings, built on stilts with sod roofs, which are a local signature. In the middle of this tiny complex was a much older building, two stories high and constructed of enormous, ancient logs. A sign said it dated back to the 17th century.
The door was invitingly ajar so I wandered in to explore and discovered a surprising display of ragged Norwegian sweaters. I couldn’t discern the meaning of the unexpected exhibit, which had nothing to explain itself in English, so we wandered next door to a wood-frame building that housed a small crafts shop filled with wool and knitting and myriad wooden tools. In a stroke of luck, the proprietor, Annemor Sundbø, was in her workshop, which is open only intermittently, and she was happy to talk. I left with some books and a nagging desire to understand what this was all about.
Last summer I visited again, and this time I climbed the narrows stairs of the ancient log building, called Storstoga, with Sundbø serving as my guide. On one side, the wall was covered with framed news clippings and advertisements for mid-century Norwegian sweater patterns. There were photos of 19th century locals wearing traditional patterns from the countryside. There were news articles about the famous Marius sweater, derived from the traditional Setesdal pattern and modeled by the skier Marius Eriksen, who wore it in a 1954 film called “Troll i Ord” that catapulted the design into international popularity. (Marius was the brother of the legendary Olympic ski champion Stein Eriksen, who also wore variants of the famous pattern and helped popularize Scandinavian sweaters among skiers worldwide.) There were also articles about Sundbø herself, with photographs taken of her decades ago in the Torridal Tweed factory, which she then owned.
The real treasure, however, were dozens of hand-knit traditional sweaters, organized by pattern so that you could see how they had been modified by individual knitters. Upon close examination, I suddenly noticed details, like how the iconic eight-pointed stars were treated differently sweater by sweater, and valley by valley. “The biggest star, that you got only after confirmation,” she explained. “The star was protecting, the leading star. It should help give you good luck on the way.” This star, which is also known as the Selbu rose and is found in the distinctive mitten pattern from a Norwegian town called Selbu, is an ancient symbol found in numerous cultures. In Norway, Sundbø said, even before the advent of knitting it was frequently woven into coverlets and nightshirts to offer protection in the night.
Hanging on the walls were multiple worn versions of the famous Setesdal sweater, probably the most recognized design within and beyond Norway. It is marked by a distinctive “lice” pattern of white dots knit into a contrasting black background, and a neckline framed in colorful embroidery called løyesaumen and secured with a silver clasp. The Setesdal sweater is one of the Norwegian patterns most closely identified with a particular place and tradition, and Sundbø has become the country’s most respected expert in the cultural history of this design.
Decades ago, Sundbø became locally famous (and eventually was awarded the King’s Medal of Merit in 2013) for having the vision to preserve a tattered collection of mid-century hand-knitted Norwegian sweaters that were destined for the shredder. “Because I was a knitter and a weaver, I could easily see how it was repaired, how it was reused a second time for something else. I could also read the feelings of the person who had made it, and I could read the techniques.”
Sundbø’s rescue of the sweaters launched a lifetime mission to discover, document and preserve the craft of artisanal Norwegian knitting while it is still in living memory. In valuing handmade work when the rest of the world was falling in love with industrialization, she was well ahead of her time. In a sense, she follows in the Norwegian tradition of the 19th century folktale collectors, Peter Christen Asbjørnsen and Jørgen Moe, who preserved local stories and dialects before they vanished, and Johannes Skar, who wrote eight volumes about folk culture in Setesdal, the valley where Sundbø now has her workshop. She has interviewed the oldest women and men she can find in remote Norwegian enclaves to find out what they wore, how they were taught to knit, and how they learned patterns. She has identified symbols that date back to pre-Christian mythology, and which tell stories that even the knitters no longer understand. She is a magpie, ferreting out historical clues in fairy tales, Viking sagas and burial mounds, etymological traditions, old paintings, vintage postcards, and even in the remnants of knitted sweaters used to insulate 19th century houses. She once traveled to the Red River Valley in Minnesota to seek out the descendants of Norwegian emigrants who might have brought and preserved their traditional sweaters.
Sundbø has written six books that document the cultural heritage of Norwegian knitting and textiles. One, “Invisible Threads in Knitting” (2005) won Norway’s Sørlandet Literature prize. A seventh, called “Koftearven, historiske tråder og magiske mønster,” is forthcoming in May from Gyldendal, Oslo. The books do their own share of weaving, bringing together a montage of stories about motifs, symbolism, folk beliefs, historical context, and technical invention. Her work, she says, explores the interaction between spirit, hand, and tools.
The intensity of Sundbø’s obsession is contagious. She is nearly 70, with a short, practical bob of white hair, vivid blue eyes, and a smile that illuminates her face and immediately draws you in. In conversation, and in her writing, Sundbø makes it clear she is undaunted by academic experts, and unfettered by canonical precision. She gathers material widely and makes hypotheses that are radical, but she doesn’t cling to these ideas. She merely points to surprising and unexpected ways of considering a problem, and asks, could it be so? And then she laughs her big laugh.
Today, Sundbø says, we consider crafts like knitting or weaving to be skills, embodying techniques that can be learned. We may even concede that art is involved, by which we mean that the work involves imagination, creativity, and inspiration. But Sundbø argues that even these definitions are missing something. In ancient times, she posits, textiles and the stories woven into them embodied a direct spiritual transmission from the maker to the recipient, a transmission that was both a literal and a figurative form of protection from danger and evil.
A well-spun thread was not only even and strong, it also carried the spinner’s spirit. So, too, with a well-woven garment, which Sundbø believes delivered a blessing encoded in every aspect of its creation, from the gathering, carding, and spinning of the wool to the weaving, knitting, and embroidering of the final garment. Women were the ones who did all of this work; as such, Sundbø argues, they wielded immense power. By the 20th century, most of the designs being knitted by Norwegian women included symbols that reached back to ancient times, but whose meanings had largely been lost. Sundbø has dedicated her life to resurrecting and documenting as much as she can; meanwhile, she does her own spinning, dyeing, weaving, and knitting, deepening her understanding of the possibilities of wool and hoping to inspire others to respect its power.
Decades ago, when she started to study weaving, Sundbø noticed that geese appeared in all kinds of ancient textile patterns. Upon further research, she discovered that in pagan stories, the goddess of spinning was often depicted with the feet of a goose. Another symbol, the goose eye, is also called the wisewoman’s eye and shows up as protection against the evil eye in many cultures. Pre-Christians believed that geese took care of the dead, she says, in particular people who died young and souls that hadn’t yet made it to heaven. Sundbø believes this was a way that women of that period disguised their pagan beliefs. “In Christianity this is not mentioned, but in a lot of mythology, and in pagan religion, the goose has some very, very specific meaning.”
Sundbø has developed similar theories about pre-Christian symbols that once represented protective goddesses, but who today are called “virgins” without reference to their pagan roots. Every Norwegian weaver knows that the bobbin on a spinning wheel is held up by two virgins. Every buttonhole in Setesdal is woven with five protective figures around the opening called the five virgins. But the link between such design traditions and pre-Christian goddesses has long been lost, Sundbø says. “It was a way to hide that you believe that god has a mother.”
Sundbø’s eclectic and daring approach has generated plenty of attention in the knitting world. “She’s the only person to do this work,” says Robbie LaFleur, who publishes the international Norwegian Textile Letter out of Minnesota. A former student, the textile artist Inger Johannes Rasmussen, says Sundbø is a craftswoman with extensive skill “in her fingers.” Yet what impresses Rasmussen most is Sundbø’s detective skills. “If she sees something in Morocco, and she sees something in Turkey, she connects, digging deeper than most people. She has a fantastic ability to follow small clues.
To LaFleur, Sundbø’s combined skills made her a unique researcher. “A Ph.D. could have gone to the Setesdal valley and interviewed 15 people about their pattern designs, but it wouldn’t have been the same,” she says. “She brings this innate technical knowledge to her academic pursuits. She’s a real ambassador for the importance of textiles in people’s lives.”
By this point, Sundbø has taught and lectured all over the world, and many of the sweaters and stockings and undergarments from her rag-pile collection have traveled with her. One sweater graced the cover of a fashion magazine in Japan, and her mittens were shown at the Nordic Heritage museum in Seattle. Another tattered sweater was used for an art project that drew international acclaim, making the British artist Celia Pym a finalist for the 2017 Loewe Craft prize. Twenty-five years ago, the Setesdal museum put on an exhibit of her salvaged sweaters; a comprehensive exhibit of her life’s work will open at the museum in May, which will include her collection from Ose.
As a child, Sundbø could never sit still, so her aunt taught her to knit to settle her down. In those days (the early 1950s) yarn was scarce because Norway was quite poor in the wake of the Nazi occupation, so Sundbø learned to spin by opening up a wool comforter and using the stuffing to make yarn. When she was no more than five, her grandfather started inspiring her with stories about the resourcefulness of people in the stone age, and how weaving developed, and how to dye wool from lichen and other plants. (For more on Norwegian yarn, and Sundbø’s expertise, see our sidebar, “The Art of Making Norwegian Yarn.”)
In her teen years, Sundbø started using her great grandmother’s spinning wheel and a loom made by her grandfather. Over the succeeding decades, she traveled to Paris, where the widow of Isadora Duncan’s brother taught her how to use a drop spindle; to Denmark’s Faroe Islands, where (thanks to a grant) she taught weaving and apprenticed under a farm-woman who was a wool expert; and went on to teach spinning and weaving in China, Scotland’s Outer Hebrides islands, Zambia, Tanzania, and the Kalahari desert. (Before she visited the Kalahari, she said, local tribes had never worked their wool; they had only used sheep for meat and skins.)
When she returned to southern Norway, in 1983, she asked a local mill owner if she could use his machines for six months to learn how to weave on industrial looms. “He told me I’d have to buy the factory,” she laughs. “So I did.”
Torridal Tweed og Ulldynefabrikk was the last shoddy mill standing in Norway, and with it she also acquired 16 tons of cast-off wool sweaters, socks, mittens and underwear destined to be recycled into wool-filled comforters, pillows, and rag rugs. The woolens were 30 to 100 years old, and as she began sorting out those to be thrown away, she realized she was holding in her hands the creative labor of thousands of ordinary women. As she began saving those that offered clues about traditional patterns and their variations, she recognized there was a whole story in ordinary knitting, one likely to be lost because it was considered so mundane.
In ancient times, Sundbø says, it was well understood that a woman wove the destiny of her family, in both a practical and metaphysical way, into the items she made. When a woman knits or weaves, Sundbø says, “she is also affecting the fate of the person who will wear the garment if she does it right. The power is here… what you will be wearing will affect your destiny. Even if this is not a garment, if this is a sail for a Viking ship. If this is not well made, the sail can break and the ship can go wrong.”
The Setesdal valley is an insular enclave of ancient, well preserved folk culture. It’s no surprise, then, that Sundbø’s rag-pile led her to write the definitive history of the Setesdal sweater, a book that has all the hallmarks of Sundbø’s unusual research process.
Originally, the Setesdal sweater was a pullover only worn by men. Sundbø discovered that the cardigan version was created early in the 20th century when she happened to meet Setesdal artist Harald Lund at a dinner party thirty years ago in Kristiansand. Lund, born in 1908, was then in his 80s, and he told her a story about how he’d never particularly wanted to dress in the traditional folk costume but had wanted to use the folk art of Setesdal in his own way. So he designed a cardigan version that he says caused people to stare in astonishment.
Sundbø also tracked down and interviewed the late Jorunn Rysstad Fjermestad, who she had heard was the first woman to ever wear the traditional lice-patterned sweater. (Sundbø acquired a black-and-white photo of Fjermestad from about 1935, in which she’s sitting on the ground high in the Setesdal mountains, wearing a beautifully crafted version of the sweater.) By the 1960s, the sweater was internationally famous and worn happily by both genders. Sundbø remembers school-girls in Kristiansand knitting the sweaters with their hands hidden beneath their desks.
Until the mid-19th century, the løyesaumen – the distinctive embroidery that trims the sweater’s neck and cuffs—was made from soft vegetable dyes, which created rather muted colors. After artificial dyes were invented the embroidery colors became more vivid. Today, you can buy cheap imitations of løyesaumen; Sundbø just wants to be sure you realize the yarn in these commercially manufactured embroidery strips, and the sizes of many pattern elements, are often inauthentic.
In her loft exhibit, Sundbø points to the way that the various sweater designs shifted as different pairs of hands made different garments. “I tried to let the pattern from one sweater go over into the other sweater, so you can see how the tradition is traveling,” she says. She points to a grey sweater, knit in a pattern I recognize from one I own that was knitted by my husband’s mother. “It has been repaired, and it’s not repaired the same on each side,” she explains. “A sweater tells a sort of story, that they have been short of something, and they have changed the design.”
About 25 years ago, Sundbø moved to Ose from Kristiansand. At the time, a local movement to value the region’s unique folk culture was just gaining sway, and a friend thought she would be a good addition to the burgeoning folk-art community. She bought the abandoned grocery store across the street from a workshop where local women sewed and embroidered their bunads. (Bunads are Norwegian costumes with distinctive regional variants that take a year to make by hand. They are worn today as the most formal attire one can display at weddings, funerals and meetings with the King.) Sundbø fell in love with Ose, and with a local farmer, and built a life there, though she still also maintains a studio and home in Kristiansand, the port city at the mouth of the river where she spent her childhood.
Eventually, Sundbø came to believe the move to Ose was part of her life’s destiny. Among other things, she discovered that the Setesdal climate and geography were particularly suited to spelsau sheep, considered the oldest breed in Norway. To Sundbø, this suggested that the Setesdal valley was a likely center for textiles and weaving in Viking times. (Sundbø says the spelsau provided wool that could be woven into an unusually thick fabric, called wadmal, that was so dense an arrow couldn’t pass through. To learn more about the remarkable spelsau, see the sidebar, “Old Norwegian Sheep and Their Durable Wool.”)
In 2011, archaeologists surveying for a road improvement project unearthed a significant Viking-age burial ground in Langeid, just a few kilometers up the river. The 30 graves included an unusual ornate sword, a broad axe, and other weapons. But of more interest to Sundbø, they also contained everyday tools such as textile equipment and spinning wheels. It later became clear that many of the graves belonged to women.
Sundbø describes the burial mounds to me on an overcast morning as summer is slipping into fall. We sit in her basement at a rough-hewn plank table, a fire crackling in the huge fireplace, the air redolent with damp wool, the floors strewn with rag rugs. There’s yet another spinning wheel stashed nearby, and the walls are decorated with display-quality tapestries.
She shows me tiny rug samples she has made by hand-knotting spelsau wool in the same manner of Turkish carpets, and she’s theorizing about all the information embedded in ancient textile patterns that we don’t yet understand. She’s talking about the Icelandic sagas and the Eddas (old Norse mythological tales) and Ragnarök (in which the destruction and rebirth of the world is foretold). And she’s linking all this to etymological associations that may or may not mean that the ancients believed that weaving will be central to the resurrection of the world after the final battle of the gods.
She’s explaining that the nine-cross pattern in tapestries evokes a story about begging for silver and making the smith work for free. And she’s pointing out the striking similarity between a weaving fragment from an old Norwegian tablecloth and the ubiquitous QR codes we use today to identify objects and mail packages.
She muses about why she does what she does, and finds herself circling back to the women buried in Langeid, with whom she feels a deep kinship. “I try to spin my thoughts to the Langeid women because I feel in the same tradition,” she says. She believes she is spinning not only with wool, but also with words, trying to persuade people to value something that is on the cusp of truly being lost. “If no one is interested today,” she says, laughing, “I’d like to be buried like the Viking women in those mounds, bringing it with me. Maybe they’ll dig me up in the next thousand years and say, oh, what they could do in her time. What a skill.”