New book tells story of sweater knitting in Norway
From rags to history
Annemor Sundbø’s story is a “rags to history” one. She’s the author of eight books, all revolving around the art of knitting. Her career started in a shoddy mill in Setesdal, Norway, and turned into a commitment to archiving Norwegian knitting styles on a massive scale.
The mill operation was to make wool tweed from knitted rags and “waste” remnants. The rags included hundreds of pieces of handmade knitwear and eventually Annemor was pulling out more pieces from the “ragpile” than she was recycling.
Sundbø’s new book, Norway’s Knitted Heritage: The History, Surprises, and Legacy of Traditional Nordic Sweater Patterns, goes in depth into her personal history working with textiles and a general history of sweater knitting in Norway.
From a detailed focus on the different words and phrases used to describe a knit sweater (kofte, flange, trøye, kupte, genser, etc.), to a historical tracing of traveling trends as far back as the 17th century, Annemor pulls from documented imagery and advertisements to follow the thread of this history.
Some scraps were from sweater bits and pieces that had ended up in door jambs and other nooks and crannies as a way to insulate older Norwegian homes and cottages. With the remnants she saved, Annemor can physically match historical patterns and pair them with anecdotes, art, and documents to find the source. She often notes using court and prison records to look at folk costumes and work outfits of those photographed.
These are the types of threads that Annemor follows as she traces sweater styles and patterns in this book. Written knitting patterns barely existed before 1900. Meaning that most sweaters made before that time were made with patterns passed orally generation to generation. And Annemor isn’t the only one doing sweater archival work.
One particular visitor to the wool tweed mill confirmed her inclination to save and collect. Karen Bakken visited the shoddy mill in search of Iveland sweaters, a specific pattern developed in the region north of Kristiansand around 1830. “It was Karen who opened my eyes,” Annemor says. “She begged me to take a deep look into my rag pile for cultural treasures.” This group was looking for specific pattern pieces to archive. “When a project group with Karen Bakken in charge came looking for bonings sweaters in my rag pile in 1984, they found a whole newly knitted, unfinished body with a circular needle still in the knitted fabric.”
In the middle of the 19th century, international exhibitions became showcases for patterns and clothing styles. One of the earliest of these “great exhibitions” took place in London at the Great Palace in 1851. Countries most associated with knitting and garment production were the countries with the most sheep. The Shetland Islands became famous for their wool and styles, the origins of “Fair Isle Knitting.”
The biggest boom for Norway’s recognition as a knitting headquarters, followed World War II. After a series of prominent figures both in sports and in European royalty made specific patterns notable, “pattern knitting” became a way to assign recognizable motifs to different regions and to the country as whole on a global scale. Norway was finally free from the neighboring Scandinavian powers and “peasant life” was romanticized nationally. This nationalism wave coincided with a trend of knit clothing, that was originally seen as work wear, becoming in fashion for city dwellers.
One of the most iconic patterns is the famous “lice sweater.” It originated in Setesdal and “has survived every swing of fashion for over 175 years. Lice sweaters have been knitted in such large numbers that they now have a very important significance for our Norwegian culture and identity, not least as a source for the Norwegian textile industry since in the 1950s. The lice sweater became the knitting concept that put Norway on the map.”
A resurgence of popularity for knitwear, especially in the realm of professional skiers, soared through the 1950s and 1960s. From this time period, Norway got the “Marius sweater,” a pattern that has exploded with variations and redesigns that permeate the international marketplace today. The Marius pattern was originally worked by one of the top knitting designers at the time, Birgit “Bitten” Eriksen who designed for Dale Garn og Trikotasje (Dale Yarn). It was a follow-up to her original Cortina Sweater, and named the Cortina II. She made it for her husband, Marius, and sold it in their boutique sports shop. This sweater was based on classic Setesdal motifs, made new again.
Unn Søiland Dale is the name most commonly associated with the Marius design. She designed the Marius II pattern for Sandnes Uldvarefabrik with changes from Bitten’s original design.
Annemor describes Bitten’s contribution: “She had a big part of the honor for laying the groundwork for the popular Marius sweater but had to share the honor with Unn Søiland Dale, the designer who tirelessly marketed this design and saw the potential for using traditional Setesdal panels for her work.”
Unn marketed her designs by using celebrity and film to transform the sweater from practical wear to haute couture. The trademark of this pattern has been contested in Norwegian courts for over 70 years because of its close ties to the Setesdal lice sweaters. An ongoing question, can you trademark a national symbol?
This 400-page history travels to many different regions of the world, following fashion trends, commerce and trading routes, and social movements all surrounding the Norwegian knit sweater. There’s so much to learn within these pages; it’s an incredible collection of documents and photographs. If you want to learn more about the humble history of the knit sweater, this book will offer all of that and more. It might just make you look at your closet a little differently.
You can purchase Annemor Sundbø’s Norway’s Knitted Heritage: The History, Surprises, and Legacy of Traditional Nordic Sweater Patterns at ingebretsens.com and major online booksellers.
Photos printed with permission
This article originally appeared in the January 2024 issue of The Norwegian American.