The colours of Norwegian knitting

Eli’s Festive Yoke Pullover

Today I have the very great pleasure of welcoming Eli Leistad – better known in the knitting world as Skeindeer – to the KDD blog. I’ve admired Eli’s fresh and thoughtful approach to design for several years, and her glorious two-tone colourwork – often inspired by Norwegian design and textile history – offers a feast for the eyes as well as warmth for the body and its extremities. Eli’s annual mitten clubs are extremely popular among my KDD colleagues, and the patterns she has created for this year’s club – taking a knitting journey around several Nordic countries – are particularly inspiring. I was so happy when Eli agreed to write a post for us about the colours of Norwegian knitting. I often find myself thinking about how our perceptions of the past are affected by viewing images in monochrome: a theme which Eli touches on – and much more – in what follows.

Iraida, from Skeindeer’s Nordic Mitten Club

When I left Norway for London over 11 years ago, I quickly started to miss Norwegian knitting. I wanted to make myself a classic Marius jumper in red, white, and blue. The most Norwegian knit garment I could think of. You can probably find one in most Norwegian households. And I made several!

My own version of the Marius sweater. I did not use a pattern for this, but instead borrowed the top-down construction method of my Haldogard cardigan pattern.

This flag-coloured jumper became a huge hit in the 1950s knitting-boom of post-World War II Norway. The country reignited its national identity following a half a decade-long occupation by Nazi Germany. Prior to this oppressive regime, Norway had only enjoyed 35 years of independence from a near century-long union with Sweden and over 4 centuries under Danish rule. Finally, Norway was its own country, and the red, white, and blue Marius jumper fit right into that zeitgeist. These colours have hugely influenced what we think of as Norwegian knitting colours since.

Like much of my own design work, this mid-century knitting-boom was inspired by Norwegian knitting from the 1800s. The Marius jumper itself is derived from the Setesdal lusekofte. But the Setesdalkofte was made in naturally black and white sheep wool.

Much of early Norwegian colourwork knitting was made in natural colours, as dyeing was time and cost prohibitive. Even white yarn was expensive until the introduction of sheep breeds with white fleece at the end of the 1800s.

The Setesdal lusekofte has influenced Norwegian kofter more than any other, and I have taken great inspiration from it myself. One example of this is my Kosekofte cardigan, also made in black and white with a lice pattern.

Nothing has inspired my work more than Selbu mittens. Today these mittens are recognised world-wide for their black and white colourwork. But in the mid-1800s they were central in the wedding rituals in the village of Selbu. Because these were finer stas mittens they could be made with more costly yarn – even dyed yarn.

My latest Selbu Mitten design ‘Aslaug as part of The Nordic Mitten Club.

At the time, red and blue Selbu mittens were not uncommon, although blue dye was particularly expensive. The mittens would often be made in undyed white and black yarn, and then dyed red. Although many think of black and white Selbu Mittens and Lusekofter, or the flag-coloured Marius as typical Norwegian knitting colours, this use of red with a dark colour is to me the true Norwegian knitting palette.

Norwegian knitting was not really a term until Annichen Sibbern Bøhn’s book in 1929. This was the first Norwegian knitting book, featuring both the Setesdal lusekofte as well as Selbu mittens.

The book was hugely influential on the mid-century Norwegian knitting-boom. However, none of the charts or photos had any colours in them.

My Isbre pullover pattern is based on the 52nd chart in Norske Strikkemønstre by Annichen Sibbern Bøhn.

Items of historical Norwegian knitwear are often photographed in greyscale, biasing our perception of Norwegian knitting as colourless as well. My Haldogard pullover and cardigan were greatly inspired by a greyscale photograph of the Haldogard fisherman’s sweater. I used soft plant-dyed colours by Danish G-uld. However, the original Haldogard was actually made in black and bright red.

Haldogard pullover

While it is true that dyed wool was expensive and working with natural colours was widespread, Norwegian knitters still used colour. Especially red. I don’t have a photo of Haldogard in colour, but the Torridalskofte is another great example of how drastically different a red and black colourwork garment can look in grayscale and in full colour. Sometimes dark blue was used instead of black.

It appears I have come around full circle, returning to red, white and blue as characteristic colours of Norwegian knitting. But I think it’s important to note that the preference for these colours goes back much further than the 1800s widespread use of colourwork in knitting, or the introduction of the Norwegian flag in 1921. Although drastically different from the communities I grew up in, Norwegians in the 19th century were a deeply superstitious and god-fearing people.

Clothes weren’t just practical garments, but also spiritual tools. The use of colours in textiles was more than aesthetic choice, and had its foundations both in Christianity and old heathen practices.

  • Black was a colour of sorrow as well as witchcraft and sorcery. Using black and very dark blue was supposed to protect against the dangerous and unknown darkness.
  • White represented virtue, purity, and holiness, and offered the wearer healing, protection, fortune, luck, love and fulfilment.
  • Blue symbolised the sky and the ocean. It was the colour of the Virgin Mary, and considered a precious and distinguished colour as indigo dyeing was rather time and cost prohibitive.
  • Red represented fire, blood, life, suffering and struggle. Despite the cost and time of dyeing yarn, it’s no wonder the use of red was so widespread. The rural Norwegian knitters of the 19th century were highly religious, and red represented the blood, love, and sacrifice of Christ.

Notice how the original men’s jumpers in the illustrations I’ve included in this post were knitted in plain white wool from the waist down. Although previously thought to not waste colourwork on what would be tucked inside the trousers, Annemor Sundbø argues that white wool was too precious to be used that way. More likely, the white was supposed to protect from the darkness in the trousers and keeping symbol-heavy colourwork away from taboo areas of the body.

I love learning about the colour symbolism of historical Norwegian knitting. Because I believe that we must learn the rules so that we can break them. And we must break them so that we can move on and make something new. For instance, in the past, only men wore colourwork garments and colourwork-cuffed Selbu Mittens. But over time, these beautiful handknits have become something that everyone can wear, and this has opened the creative possibilities far and wide.

Festive yoke pullover

So while I don’t adhere to the traditional colour symbolism, I often return to the old black, white, blue, and red colour palette. It’s an aesthetic nostalgia that gives me the warm and fuzzies away from home. And other times I incorporate colours outside of this palette, using favourites like mustard yellow, burgundy purple and bottle green. These are some of the ways I enjoy using colours: drawing upon the old, to create something new. 

Thank you so much, Eli! You can find Eli’s wonderful designs in her Ravelry store, follow her on YouTube and IG, and sign up for her newsletter here

Further Reading

A. Bårdsgård: Selbumønster

A. Bårdsgård: Selbuvotter

A. Kjellberg et al: Strikking i Norge

I.G. Klepp & T.S. Tobiasson: Norsk Strikkehistorie

A. Sibbern: Norsk Strikkemønstre

A. Sundbø: Koftearven

A. Sundbø: Spelsau og Samspill

A. Sundbø: Usynlege Trådar i Strikkekunsten

N.G. Sæther: Norske Strikketradisjoner