Norwegian Sweaters: Origins of a Holiday Classic

by Stuart Cohen on November 18, 2020

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.

CopticSocks, Circa 1000 AD
The first knitted sweaters for men were produced in the Channel Islands of Jersey in the 15th century. Like similar garments produced far to the north in the Shetland Islands, these were generally in solid colors and were worn as tough warm layers by the rugged seafarers and fisherman of these islands. That’s why wool sweaters are still called jerseys, and why the most common plain sweater stitch is called the jersey stitch. The antecedents of today’s beautiful holiday sweaters were actually solid-colored workwear for most of their existence.

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.

Setesdal Norwegian Sweater

Norwegian 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.

Selburose Design

Selbu Mittens

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.

Classic Ski SweatersThe arrival in the United States of Norwegian ski god Stein Eriksen cemented Norwegian-style sweaters as THE iconic ski sweater to the present day. (Side note: the man was throwing front flips on big heavy wooden skis seventy years ago! I'll wear THAT sweater!)

Stein Eriksen Classic Ski Sweater

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.

Freya Norwegian Sweater for Women


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