Viking patterns come alive in yarn, not iron

viking patterns

Rachel Fleet
Seattle, Wash.

Runes. Medallions. Creatures and chains. Plaits and running knots. Stone and metal turned to wool and silk. In Viking Patterns for Knitting: Inspiration and Projects for Today’s Knitter, Elsebeth Lavold creates modern knit clothing with ornamental motifs from Viking artifacts. Lavold, a Swedish designer, is a knitter’s knitter: she follows this thousand-year-old craft as far as it has ever gone, and then gives it a little shove beyond. Viking Patterns, a bestseller in its first edition 15 years ago, is a beautiful milepost in knitting’s development, newly re-released in paperback by Trafalgar Square Publishing.

The solid, glossy book contains patterns for 23 garments, all with color photographs. Each section is devoted to a particular decorative pattern found in multiple Viking treasures. These are depicted in photographs and Lavold’s own pencil drawings. She explains how the motifs were used in ancient ornamentation, and how that informed her designs. For example, in the section “S-Hitches from Ardre,” we find illustrations of a pendant from Hon, Norway, and a stone from Gotland, Sweden, next to a color photo of a magnificent sword-hilt from Finland. They all share the same border design. Lavold draws a simplified diagram showing the fundamentals of that design. Her cable knit swatches of this motif follow, with their charts. Further, she incorporates the cable design into eight garments using increasingly complex variations. You can make a simple watch cap covered in the S-Hitch design (Harald), or you can make a full-length wool tunic emblazoned with an ornate S-Hitch plait down the back (Vigdis). In all, the book contains more than 50 charted motifs. If you are an adventurous knitter like Lavold herself, you can adapt her charts to adorn the garments of your choice.

Photo: Rachel Fleet Lavold’s cabling technique allows for elaborate designs based on Viking patterns. Here you can see swatches of a few of them.

Photo: Rachel Fleet
Lavold’s cabling technique allows for elaborate designs based on Viking patterns. Here you can see swatches of a few of them.

These designs are only possible because Lavold developed a technique for starting cables anywhere on the background fabric. Traditionally, cables were confined to horizontal bands or vertical columns, so that we could adjust for their tugging effect on the rest of the work. Lavold calls her technique “an old technique used in an entirely new way.” Her publisher calls it “a revolutionary knitting innovation.” It’s not revolutionary—it uses lifted directional increases—but it innovatively combines them so that a newly created cable seems to grow from the background fabric without distortion. It’s a significant and valuable development.

I enjoyed learning Lavold’s technique and knitting her cable charts. I’m making the Vebjörg cardigan with a yoke of running knots taken from knife sheaths and shields. It is fabulous, and it won’t be the last project I make from this book.

Due to the many illustrations and photographs, the cable charts are small. I enlarged the ones I needed on a copy machine. This was a small price to pay for the fascinating historical context the illustrations give my project. The charts are clear and easily followed.

Photo: Rachel Fleet

Photo: Rachel Fleet

Less clear is Lavold’s explanation of how to work her unique method of starting cables. In the section “The New Technique: How to Do It,” she describes her technique and illustrates it with line drawings. I recommend you study that section carefully in conjunction with the section “Analyzing Viking Patterns,” paying particular attention to the four variants of the lifted increase. This technique takes practice, so I recommend knitting a swatch before you begin your project.

A gauge swatch is also essential. “Yes, yes,” you say, “I know.” I am tired of the lecture myself, the knitter’s equivalent of the dentist on flossing. But accurate and thorough swatching is crucial here. Never before have I had so much difficulty matching a designer’s gauge. This is not a criticism; every knitter’s tension is different. But just know: her gauge seems particularly small.

Because these designs were originally published in 2000, some of the yarn has been discontinued. If the “Yarn Substitutions” page fails you, Ravelry.com’s advanced yarn search feature may be your friend. Try to match fiber content, weight per skein, yardage per skein, and texture. Alternatively, Ravelry helps you buy discontinued yarns from other members’ stashes.

Knitting is charming partly because it connects us to the past in a personal way. As far as anyone knows, the Vikings did not knit, though they did make socks from yarn using a one-needle process called “nålbinding.” As Lavold writes, “I have tried to manage a cultural heritage by translating old patterns to the newer technique of knitting—the Vikings would certainly have done it themselves if they had knitted—and to make them live again by integrating them into my own language of form, by creating modern, wearable clothing.” I recommend you get Viking Patterns for Knitting and carve some yarn.

For a tutorial on the lifted directional increases for Viking Patterns, watch the author’s video here: www.youtube.com/watch?v=QJdnVncKL70&feature=youtu.be.

Rachel Fleet lives in Seattle, where she knits, studies knitting, and teaches knitting to anyone who lets her. You can find her on Ravelry as twostitchleap, and at her blog www.twostitchleap.com.

This article originally appeared in the Oct. 23, 2015, issue of the Norwegian American Weekly. To subscribe, visit SUBSCRIBE or call us at (206) 784-4617.

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