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The diamonds, snowflakes and zigzags of the traditional Norwegian sweater never fail to bring up images of pine trees, snowy mountains and warm fireplaces. They appear on Icelandic sweaters, Fair Isle sweaters and even our own alpaca sweaters made in Bolivia. The well-known yolk design with its familiar motifs has become the classic Christmas sweater. Surprisingly, these designs are both older and younger than you might think.
As we know from reading the history of the knitted beanie, before knitting there was nalebinding, a form of knitting done with one needle. This technique was used to make wool hats, socks and mittens, often in lively patterns.
But when did sweaters start exploding with the lively patterns we now associate with Nordic sweaters? By the late nineteenth century, the patterns now found in what we usually think of as Scandinavian sweaters had made their way from woven goods into the knitted pullovers worn by men in the Setesdal Valley of Norway, called Setesdalsgenser.
These sweaters featured a band of design at the shoulders, embroidery around the collar and cuffs and often silver buttons or clasps at the neck. Some were more utilitarian, others, like the example shown were refined with embroidery. Below the shoulders was a pattern of black with white dots, known as the “lice” pattern. Other designs that often appear, such as the 8-pointed star known as the selburose, were also used in mittens from the town of Selbu, which came in scores of designs.
Traditionally, these were pullovers, with cardigans only appearing in the early twentieth century. The design really began to take off in the mid-twentieth century, when the traditional Nordic patterns were given new life in chic ski wear of the 30’s, 40s and 50’s.
Stein Eriksen, Norwegian Superstar Skier
Norwegian patterns quickly became part of the international design vocabulary, found everywhere from Hong Kong to Bolivia.
But what about Icelandic wool sweaters? They are actually an invented tradition from the 1950’s, utilizing traditional Norwegian design motifs, they were originally associated with independence from Denmark and "traditional" values. They are no more traditional than the yoked alpaca sweaters still seen in markets in Peru and Bolivia. But, maybe, don't bring that up when you're in Iceland.