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Nation in a sheep´s coat: The Icelandic sweater

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The Icelandic sweater is presented and received as traditional, even ancient, authentically Icelandic and handmade by Icelandic women from the wool of Icelandic sheep. Even so, the sweater type, so-called " Icelandic sweater " in English,
  1 Gudrun Helgadottir Nation in a sheep ‘s  coat: The Icelandic sweater FORMakademisk,  Vol 4, No 2 (2011)  Abstract The Icelandic sweater is presented and received as traditional, even ancient, authentically Icelandic and hand-made by Icelandic women from the wool of Icelandic sheep. Even so, the sweater type, so- called “ Icelandic sweater ”  in English, only dates back to the mid-twentieth century, and is not necessarily made in Iceland and not always from indigenous wool. Nevertheless the sweater is a successful invention of a tradition (Hobsbawm and Ranger, 1983), popular among Icelanders and tourists alike from its introduction in the mid 20th century. It has enjoyed growing popularity over the last few years, and has even gained ground as a national symbol in the aftermath of the Icelandic bank collapse of 2008. I traced development of the discourse about wool, and the srcins of the Icelandic sweater through the publications of the Icelandic National Craft Association, current design discourse in Iceland and its effect on the development of the wool industry. I then tied these factors to notions of tradition, authenticity, national culture, image and souvenirs. Key words:   Lopapeysa / The Icelandic sweater, textiles, souvenir, heritage, image Introduction This paper traces the development of the sweater, its technique, material and style. This historical overview is complemented by a discussion about the role of the sweater in national image making and as a case of invented tradition. For this research, I analysed thematically contributions to the journal of the Icelandic handicraft association, Hugur og hönd [Mind and hand], for 30 years, 1978-2008. I included recent research on Icelandic design and artistic input as it contributes to discourse analysis of the Icelandic sweater, as well as media reports on the popularity of the Icelandic sweater following the 2008 collapse of the Icelandic banks. I begin with a discussion of its theoretical framework. First, there is a difference between the name given to the sweater between Icelandic and other languages. In Icelandic the term is lopapeysa . Lopi is the name of the yarn traditionally used in its making, peysa means sweater so in Icelandic the term literally means sweater made of lopi. In other languages the sweater is named after its perceived country of srcin. The basic feature of the sweater design is a circular yoke with a pattern of at least two colours. The body of the sweater is knitted on circular needles, and the sleeves are picked up onto the needle containing the bodice and the shaping of the shoulders by gradually casting off, is incorporated into the pattern of the yoke. Originally the sweater had a patterned band of at least two colours at the hem, the wrist and the yoke that forms the main pattern across the shoulders. During the 21st century, this changed so that now commonly only the yoke is patterned. The Icelandic sweater as we now know it emerged around the middle of the 20th century and was influenced on one hand by the nature of the material used and on the other hand by folk patterns of neighbouring nations. It soon became so popular that in my childhood in the 60‘s and 70‘s one might say the sweater was the Icelanders' uniform or vernacular national dress. The Icelandic sweater was in tune with the times; it was hand-made from natural fibre, it had  2 folk connotations and almost every Icelandic woman could knit one. For example, I lived out my adolescence in a grey sweater with a pattern based on piano keys. Wearing my favourite sweater in 1974. Photo Elisabet Jökulsdottir Invention of tradition Textiles are an integral part of the human environment and can be traced back to prehistoric times. It is common to strongly associate textiles and garments, both as everyday objects and as symbolic dress to the image of nations and for them to enjoy symbolic status as such. China silk, India cotton and Scottish tartan are but a few examples. (Trevor-Roper, 1983) Knitted sweaters have such place connotations in several cases such as the Aran Islands, Norway, and Cowichan to name a few. Garments such as these can also refer symbolically reference to occupations or roles, for example Luutonen (2008) describes the Finnish Jukka pullover as a gendered statement. In this context the existence of an iconic garment such as the Icelandic sweater fits well. The context of textiles, their production, consumption, commerce and conservation can be viewed through different set of academic lenses. Social, economic, aesthetic, art historical, gendered  –   the list goes on. For the purposes of this study, I set the development the Icelandic sweater and the meanings attached in context of Hobsbawm’s a nd Ranger’s invention of tradition (1983). The invention of tradition can be purposely designed, initiated and staged by agents on a particular occasion, or it can gain ground in a less obvious way within a particular time and space. Tradition here refers to values and symbolic meaning involving repetition and the intention to create something that will last and thereby bond the present with selected aspects of the historic past. (Hobsbawm and Ranger, 1983) Traditions grounded in historical past are not the only form of invented national distinctiveness. Habits, daily life and its environments are even more important for orientation in the landscapes of national culture. Edensor focuses on how nations use objects as national symbols and argues that this usage is not necessarily based on the authenticity of the object. (Edensor, 2004) As I argue below, the Icelandic sweater is traditional, invented and imported. It’s claim for authenticity and  uniqueness rests on reference to the special characteristics of  3 the fleece as the fleece contain two types of fibre and the sheep have several natural colours in a range of shades of white, grey, black and brown. In an earlier paper on the Icelandic sweater I suggest that in the post-2008 recession we will see a resurgent interest in tradition, that by wearing an Icelandic sweater, the Icelanders will use tradition to reaffirm their identity and to boost morale. (Helgadottir, 2008) Even as early as Fall 2008, the Icelandic Homecraft Association could not keep up with the demand for knitting courses where lopi was the chosen material. In Iceland, between September 2008 and January 2009 an estimated 10.000 sweaters were sold in shops specializing in wool; a serious shortage of knitters meant that the demand for sweaters could not be met. (Eiriksdottir, personal communication) It is in times of change, with the erosion of habit that traditions are often invented in an attempt to cope with change. In other words, stakeholders harness tradition to support their claims to status. This became evident in the change of style by politicians and financiers in the aftermath of the Icelandic bank collapse: they exchanged suits for Icelandic sweaters and  jeans. When something harkens back to tradition, however, it suggests that the custom no longer belongs in the realm of everyday life. It only exists as the way in which it is evoked as tradition. (Hobsbawm and Ranger, 1983) Hence the tension is constant between preservation, contemporary roles, and uses of tradition. Gender and textiles The cultural significance of textiles lies both in their utility and in the meaning they carry as art, craft and design. (Lucie-Smith, 1981) As Edensor puts it: We grow up relating to things in changing but familiar object worlds and the presence of these objects and their ordering in space provide material proof of shared ways of living over time that are replete with cultural values and meanings rarely subject to reflexive assessment. (Edensor, 2004: 102) The hand-knitted Icelandic sweater emerges in an era when the importance of hand knitting in Icelandic textile production is rapidly decreasing. It is not a coincidence that it happens in the post WWII era when Iceland is a newly established nation state that an everyday object such as a woollen sweater becomes a distinguishing national symbol. It should be noted that the sweater has had two noticeable popularity peaks with Icelanders. The first lasts from about 1950 to the 1970s and coincides with a period of nation building and confrontation with the outside world for instance in the so called Cod Wars which were altercations between Iceland and UK over fishing rights around Iceland. Iceland declared sovereignty from Denmark in 1944, and the Cod Wars lasted from the fifties to the seventies as Iceland incrementally expanded its territorial waters. The second peak was around the millennium as part of nation branding and designers’ turn to folk traditions in the face of globalization. Following this is a major turn to tradition in the economic and social recession following 2008. Around the millennium Icelandic businesses and financial institutions were expanding abroad in ventures that proved unsustainable and resulted in the collapse of the national banking sector in October 2008, with an ensuing economic, political and social crisis. The popularity of knitting and of the Icelandic sweater demonstrates the importance of tradition in times of crises and reassessment of values much discussed during the political upheaval that followed the collapse of the financial institutions in Iceland. The mundane  4 object has been fore grounded in the political crisis following the bank collapse in Iceland. Popular action against government and the financial sector in the winter of 2008-09 was called the Kitchen utensil uprising because an important action during the demonstrations was to use pots and pans to drum the protest. Knitting sessions were another form of protest. Women were vocal in these protests and the tools of the domestic sphere, kitchen utensils and knitting needles were used as counterpoint to the extravagance of the preceding era. (Petursson, 2009) Anecdotal evidence by women who started knitting again post-2008 to save money suggests an alterna te motive; knitting as a form of doing something personally about “the situation” as people called the period immediately after the bank collapse. Knitting was seen as emotionally healing; the repetitive nature of the technique is soothing while at the same time productive and creative. As Luutonen puts it; „It seems that crafts provide a good way of having something important in life, to experience its highlights, and to strengthen your identity, to leave your fingerprints in the world” (2008: 332). Knitting thus represented a return to the value of hand production, to heritage and national symbolism. The subject matter invites a gendered viewing as textile production is historically and contemporaneously bound up in the female realm. (Bachmann, 1998; Parker, 1986) This holds true in Iceland. As my previous research on crafts education suggest, textile production as the prerogative of women. (Helgadottir, 1997; Helgadottir, 1989) Textiles have been a medium of expression for working people, particularly women. (Bachmann, 1998; Conroy, 1998; Parker, 1986) Knitting is taught as part of the compulsory school subject textile crafts (handmennt or sloyd in the Scandinavian languages). Originally crafts education was part of girls’ sloyd and it is probably accurate to claim that every Icelandic woman over 40 knows how to knit. (Helgadottir, 1997) Icelandic wool and lopi The srcinal material used for the Icelandic sweater was wool from Icelandic sheep. The fleece has two kinds of hair; an inner layer of soft, short hair and an outer layer of longer, coarser hair which acts as a raincoat on top of the insulating inner layer. (Adalsteinsson, 1956; Gudmundsson, 1988; Bjarnadottir, 1966; Gudjonsson, 1985) Before industrialization, while wool was worked exclusively by hand, the two kinds of fibre were separated and used differently for various kinds of textiles. The quality of wool work depended largely on conscientious separation and making the most of the different qualities of tog (long and coarse hair) and þel (short and soft hair). (Bjarnadottir, 1966) Mechanization has never produced a technique to replace the human hand in this process. For decades the discourse about wool production in Iceland problematised the dual quality of the wool, as the coarse outer layer makes the wool coarser than for instance Merino wool and thus not as suitable for fine clothing. Every Icelander knows the sensation of stinging underwear and itchy sweaters, which results from the coarser fibres. Learned papers were published on the possibilities of separating the wool mechanically, but though mechanical solutions were technically possible, they never gained ground. (Palsson, 1944/1978; Palsson and Sigurjonsson, 1969/1978) With the development of a modern wool industry the two kinds of fibre were mixed and the yarns spun consequently coarser.  5 It follows that Lopi, the yarn most commonly used for the Icelandic sweater, includes both the fine and coarse hairs of the fleece. Prior to mechanization, the word lopi meant yarn that had not yet been spun and was not considered a finished product. In the wool factories, the product, between the combing and spinning stage, was also called lopi but it was not used for knitting until the 20th century (Gudjonsson, 1985; Bjarnadottir, 1938). Gudjonsson maintains that lopi did not become popular for hand knitting until around WWII. So the material for the iconic Icelandic sweater is not the product of traditional handicrafts, but the offspring of the industrialization of wool work. Wool production and knitting in Iceland Textile historian Gudjonsson estimates that knitting was introduced to Iceland in the 16th century, and she suggests that the technique soon became an important aspect of the textile traditions. As early as 1584, an important reference appears in the bible published by Gudbrandur Þorlaksson, where the robe of Christ is described as knitted. The image of Icelandic agricultural society of the past is that each household was mainly self sufficient, especially in the production of textiles. Sheep wool was the main resource and when knitting was introduced it became extremely important for the production of clothes. Gudjo nsson puts it succinctly „one m ight say that for over three hundred years the Icelandic nation barely laid down the knitting needles from dawn till dusk, save for the darkest night and perhaps harvest season“.  (Gudjonsson, 1985: 8) This is the received truth about the lives of bygone generations of Icelanders and little has shaken the foundations of this belief in the sheep as fundamental to the survival of the nation. From 1978 to 2008, Icelandic wool was the topic of 15 articles in Hugur og hönd, knitting patterns not included. In 1978, the focus was on traditional wool work especially the separation of coarse and fine fibres, which was seen as a mark of quality and a means of safeguarding of the craft heritage. (Kristjansdottir, 1978; Jonsdottir, 1978) This focus on separating the wool is also evident in papers on the wool industry dating back to the early 20th century e.g., (Palsson, 1944/1978; Stefan Palsson og Sigurjonsson, 1969/1978) The authors argue for the importance of conserving the hand crafting techniques of wool work at a time when the wool industry was developing. This focus is picked up again in articles from 1990-1996, when official emphasis is on supporting handicrafts after the collapse of the wool industry (Gisladottir, 1990; Adalsteinsson, 1990; Björgvinsdottir, 1990; Sigurgeirsson, 1990; Thoroddsen, 1990; Halldorsdottir, 1991; Hafsteinsdottir, 1996). A few authors wrote on the history of wool work and the cultivation of sheep, (e.g., Gudjonsson, 1985; Adalsteinsson, 1986). Two articles promote the need for new design in wool (Josefsdottir, 1986; Kristjansdottir, 1995). Halldorsdottir summarizes the discussions from a conference dedicated to craft design (Halldorsdottir, 1991). In a survey of the status of the wool industry especially the knitting factories and their products, Josefsdottir concluded that in the wool working renaissance at the inner circle of Icelandic crafts, new ideas emerged, especially the call for closer connections between crafts and design such as the rejuvenation of tradition through the design process, design methods. Josefsdottir called for „New life –    new design“  (1986: 25) and asked why the „high flying bird of technology“ ha d not picked up the fine, soft threads her foremothers had at hand (Josefsdottir, 1986: 23) thereby again refering to the issue of separation of coarse from fine hairs in the fleece. Ironically, however,
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