I first realised that Clare Glenister was a fellow scandophile at a rehearsal for Beethoven’s 5th Symphony in Cardiff. The contrabassoon only plays in the last movement, so she had plenty of time to read her Swedish novel. Just like Fiona and me, Clare combines work as a professional musician (she was a member of the BBC Symphony Orchestra until 2010) with a fascination for norse languages and northern lands. She has also been studying for an MA in Photojournalism and Documentary Photography at the London College of Communication. Clare made this documentary project in the summer of 2016 and we are delighted to be able to share it with you. The yarn is Sirri, Snældan, and Navia Tradition.
Gløgt er gestsins eyga – ‘Clear is the guest’s eye’ – is a Faroese saying which suggests that visitors to a place often notice more than the locals do. Knitting the Faroes was a collaborative project designed to explore this phenomenon. The project took place at the Faroese Summer Institute, a language school held at Fróðskaparsetur Føroya (University of the Faroes) in August 2016. International students were commissioned to make pieces of wool work to express their relationships to the Faroes. Their textile interpretations were then paired with my photographic ones, with reference to colour, texture and ideology. Wool work was chosen because of the strong connection between wool and the Faroes. Clare Glenister
When the first two editions of the book, 215 Shawl Designs, sold out, it became a valuable sought-after item – even in the Faroe Islands. The Joensen family would occasionally get calls from town libraries asking whether they had any more books as the library copies had mysteriously disappeared.
So it was a great delight for many that the family of the author, Olivia Joensen, decided to publish a new edition of the book to celebrate what would have been the author’s 100th birthday in 2015.
I had the great pleasure recently to meet the author’s granddaughter – also called Olivia – to discover how much of a family project this had been. Olivia brought samples of her grandmother’s work and was happy to model the Faroese shawls for the photos at the end of this article. She was clearly very fond of her grandmother: she told me of the constant quiet counting, and the comforting sound of the click of knitting needles in her warm home. Young Olivia’s parents went to work very early in the morning, so she would go to her grandmother’s house, get into bed, and witness the daily rituals of knitting and gymnastic exercises to the accompaniment of morning hymns on Faroese radio.
One nice little coincidence for me is that I lived in the village of Leirvík when I worked in the Faroes as a music teacher in the 1990s and little did I know that – a few houses down the road – grandmother Olivia, would have been sitting inside her home, knitting her shawls.
Olivia Joensen (senior) was born in 1915. She had 8 children, and her husband was a fisherman who was away for months on end, sailing in the seas near Greenland. It is hard to imagine that she had time for anything other than caring for all her children, but – as well as knitting clothes for her family – she managed to earn a small extra income by selling knitwear as well. This was quite a common practice at the time as a means of supplementing the family budget.
In the 1970s she turned her attention to Faroese shawls, and began the project of drawing the designs that became the book. Like any living knitting tradition, the designs are a mixture of remembered patterns from her own family history, and inspired creative patterns that grew from her own hands as naturally as the ever-changing variety of branches in a growing tree. Interestingly, she had a fascination with trees – and was one of the first Faroese people to encourage the growing of small plantations. When the family stopped keeping a cow in the 1960s, she persuaded the town council to put up a fence to keep sheep out so that she could grow trees on the land.
All the designs in the book are in Olivia Joensen’s own handwriting, and her granddaughter tells me that the family decided to leave the book unchanged in its new edition – even the cover is the same. Although, this decision perhaps gives the book an old-fashioned appearance, I think it is old-fashioned in a positive way, and emphasises the individuality of the book, which springs from one family in one small place in the Faroe Islands. Even the models in the book’s photographs are family members.
Any visitor to the Faroe Islands today will not have to wait long before they see someone wearing a Faroese shawl – it is such a practical item of clothing. The unique butterfly shape means that the shawl can be worn loose without falling off the shoulders, but it can also be worn with the ends tied, so that the arms are free for work.
The best time to see the greatest variety of shawls is at the national celebrations of Olavsøka at the end of July, when an incredible variety of knitted, woven, and embroidered shawls is on display as part of the national costume. There can’t be many items of clothing that can be so varied and inventive, yet so tied to a special tradition. And that tradition flourishes today, with the help of a book, born in a family home in a small village on the shores of the North Atlantic ocean.
215 Shawl Designs by Olivia Joensen is available on the Island Wool website.
One of the most compelling aspects of the Faroe Islands is the combination of isolation and connection. It is true that the physical isolation of the islands in the middle of the North Atlantic has meant that language, food, and traditions – such as the medieval danced ballads – have survived far longer than might otherwise be expected. But we tend to forget that, like any seafaring nation, the Faroes is a nation of travellers, who have seen the world and brought back the things that they have found and integrated them into their culture. After all, even in Britain, it was only in the nineteenth century with the arrival of the railways, that the quickest way to travel between coastal towns was not by sea.
Now, of course, the Faroe Islands themselves are more connected than ever before: to the world via aeroplanes and the internet, and to each other with an awe-inspiring series of tunnels, both through mountains and beneath the sea, that are making travel between towns and villages much easier.
I have recently returned from a short trip to the Faroes and I managed to visit the Faroe Islands Knitting Festival, where I was struck by how many connections were being explored, both in time – learning about historical ties, and in place – seeing how people from other countries are learning about Faroese knitting and how Faroese knitters are keen to learn about other traditions.
When I got off the bus in the village of Fuglafjørður, I wondered whether I had got the date wrong, as there was hardly anyone around. But I soon realised that this festival was unlike others. Rather than other events where everyone gathers in a large space, this festival mainly takes place in people’s living rooms: 27 of them to be precise.
I visited small workshops where participants were learning carding and spinning techniques, knitting methods and other skills from tutors not just from the Faroes, but also from mainland Scandinavia and Iceland. There were over 400 visitors this year, including some 150 from other countries, including Denmark, Sweden, Norway, Iceland, Germany and the USA.
As well as the workshops in living rooms, there are several knitting cafés scattered around the village – even the bank had been transformed into a cosy café!
And one of the warehouses by the harbour acts as a small marketplace, where visitors can stock up on Faroese yarn and accessories. I met one of the two organisers of the event, Eileen Ejdesgaard, in the town’s impressive cultural house. This building acts as the hub of the festival, and is the only place where everyone does meet up, as tasty communal meals are provided as part of the ticket package. Eileen tells me how the village had been so welcoming to all the guests. The people of Fuglafjørður have literally opened their doors and – as well as welcoming workshops into their living rooms – they have provided 160 nights of bed and breakfast accommodation over the three days of the festival.
Fuglafjørður is one of the major fishing and fish-processing ports in the Faroes and when you visit, you feel that connection with history: the knitting associated with the sea and fishermen still has a living presence.
What’s more, like everywhere in the Faroes, you are never far from the raw material of knitters: sheep. I remember when I lived in the nearby village of Leirvík how the sheep wandered around the village in winter after they had been brought down from the mountains. The sound of soft bleating was a comforting respite from the battering wind of winter storms.
You might have gathered that binding is the Faroese word for knitting and, of course, in English the same Old Norse root gives our word for joining things together. Since I became involved in the yarn and knitting world, I have been struck by the strength of virtual communities across the world, who are keen to share their knowledge and enthusiasms – the internet and social media could have been invented specifically for this purpose, but it was a great thrill to see how one village in the Faroe Islands has started with local craft traditions to build new connections with enthusiasts at home and abroad.
Today I went for a bracing walk in Snowdonia, North Wales. It was a sunny – but still chilly – March day and before I left I automatically grabbed my fleece top. Now this fleece has no connection to a sheep – the word has long been appropriated by the outdoor clothing industry to denote an artificial-fibre garment. But I am staying in Betws-y-Coed and the town is packed with mountain and walking shops, stuffed full of such clothing with hardly a natural fibre to be seen, so it must be the right thing to wear, surely?
After about half an hour of climbing, having already unzipped my top, I took off the fleece to cool down. After a few minutes I decided I needed the top again, so I put it on over my cotton shirt. It was cold and clammy – as much evaporation as perspiration, and I was starting to wish that I had worn my woollen jumper instead.
I have recently re-read The Brendan Voyage by Tim Severin – an account of a successful attempt to recreate the sixth-century voyage of the Irish monk St. Brendan from Ireland to America via the Faroes and Iceland in a boat, built as closely as possible to boats of the time. The building of the boat was half the adventure and involved finding craftsmen who still used some of the techniques that had passed down the generations. Although many people were sceptical that a boat made of ox hides, treated with sheep fat, and stitched together with leather thongs, could survive such a journey, it turned out that the flexibility of these materials helped the boat bend and adapt to the stormy conditions of the North Atlantic. Severin also praised his woollen clothing that helped keep him warm when the whole boat and all its contents got soaked through.
I have also heard a story of a Faroese rower who was part of an attempt to row across the Atlantic. The attempt was almost abandoned as the crew succumbed to cold and exhaustion, until the Faroese oarsman lent his spare woollen underwear to the other rowers and the expedition was saved!
What I am suggesting is not that man-made fibres cannot produce some brilliant technical clothing. I am not a dewy-eyed Luddite (I am writing this on an Apple Mac, not on parchment with a quill pen). But it seems to be perfectly plausible that millions of years of evolution have produced a fibre that is superior in many respects to the results of a few decades of research into petrochemical alternatives.
And surely those 80,000 Faroese sheep can’t be wrong, can they?
As a wool company based in England, we are often looking for the right word to describe a woollen garment, usually favouring “jumper” over “sweater”, but my Shorter Oxford English Dictionary (published 1928) gives the following definition of sweater: “a woollen vest or jersey worn in rowing or other athletic exercise; also worn before or after exercise to prevent taking cold.” So perhaps “sweater” would be the most appropriate English word for the Faroese jumper.
Since the earliest days of viking settlement of the Faroe islands, woollen garments have been literal lifesavers for generations of Faroese rowers and sailors.
The warmth of wool, even when wet, has kept seafarers alive in the most inhospitable conditions of the North Atlantic. And although, wool provided the material for the complete outfit of clothing, including underwear, it is the skipstroyggja or ship’s jumper, that has become the most iconic of Faroese knitted garments.
As the use of the typical repeated motifs of Faroese knitting patterns became more widespread, the practical benefits of this style became apparent: not only did the extra strands of yarn from knitting with more than one colour provide extra insulation, but the diversity of patterns helped sailors to recognise each other more easily in the often difficult conditions of life at sea.
This heritage continues to dominate Faroese knitting and knitwear today, which is perhaps not surprising as life on The Faroe Islands is still so dependant on the sea.
If anything, fashion is even more influenced by traditional styles, as young people celebrate the uniqueness of their national culture. The yarn companies have responded to this trend, not only by continuing to publish knitting patterns using the old motifs, but in producing specific yarns that pay tribute to this history, such as the “new” Tradition yarn from Navia.
For a dyed-in-the wool Faroephile like me, there are numerous things of beauty on the Faroe Islands, but if there are two Faroese design classics that deserve World Heritage status they are the Faroese boat and the Faroese jumper (or sweater… or jersey?).
The names of the twenty colours of Snældan yarn are all inspired by things that can be seen by any visitor to the Faroe Islands. Here are some of them.
There are very few trees on the Faroe Islands – a combination of too much sea salt in the air and a large population of hungry sheep, so wood for building and manufacture had to be either imported or collected from the seashore.
Peat was once the most important fuel in Faroese households and the land around the villages still shows the markings formed by centuries of peat cutting. These crates in Klaksvík Museum were once used to carry the peat home. (Note the woollen straps added to ease the load.)
Silver was the most common precious metal in Viking times, but the richest chieftains were able to display their wealth with small quantities of gold. This 9th-century gold ingot was discovered in farmland in Northern Ireland only last year.
Rhubarb is one of the few fruits or vegetables that grow really well in the Faroes, and is a staple ingredient in desserts, as shown on this stamp image of typical Faroese cuisine (along with with cod heads and stuffed puffins).
The colours of Merkið – the national flag, celebrated on 25 April every year, in commemoration of the day in 1940 when the British Government instructed Faroese vessels to fly their own flag, following the German occupation of Denmark.
Sheep’s Sorrel (Romex Acetosellu) is one of the many moorland flowers that flourish on the Faroese fells.
The colour Turquoise, from the French for Turkish, was named after the country from where the gem stones were first imported to Europe. The connection here is with the history of pirate raids on the Faroes, including a documented raid in 1620 when a pirate ship of Ottoman Corsairs arrived from the Barbary coast of Africa.
Grass turf is the traditional roofing material on Faroese buildings, and there are still some modern homes constructed in this way. As well as being an abundant material, it has many advantages in the North Atlantic climate: it adds a very good layer of insulation, and can withstand the batterings of winter storms. From personal experience, I can also vouch for turf roofs as a superb way of silencing heavy rainfall. (Try sleeping under a metal roof in the Faroes and you will know what I mean.)
This colour is seen during those amazing times when the clouds clear and the sea and sky take on an iridescent blue.
Often on a walk in the Faroese fells there is a magical moment when you hear the deep croak of this majestic bird and then see it as it tumbles in the sky. The raven played an important role in Norse mythology, especially in the form of Odin’s two birds, Hugin and Munin (Thought and Memory) who bring the god news from the world of humans.
“Life is my work of art:Yes, I paint every day.Even if I live to be a hundredIt will never be finished”
Lyrics/Melody: Steintór Rasmussen Arranger/Conductor: Sigrið Sivertsen Choir: Xperiment Mix: Henrik Birk Aaboe Video Production: Polar Films
The chain breaks to let you in. You link arms with the person either side; join in with the steps – two to the left, one to the right. The skipari (leader or “skipper”) intones the tale, verse by verse, and everyone else joins in the refrain, and as much as the rest as you can trawl from memory. As the number of dancers increases, the ring becomes a snake, coiling and rippling around the room. You watch the faces opposite as they slowly pass – young, old – male, female: all full of concentration and unity of purpose. You get warmer and warmer, as the mesmerising rhythms of purposeful steps on the wooden floor blend with the repetitive music of the ballad. After a while, you lose your sense of time, but not your sense of place. You are on the Faroe Islands, but this could be 2014 or it could be 1420. You have become a link in a chain.
Every time I have taken part in a traditional Faroese dance – whether on the tiny northern island of Fugloy nearly 20 years ago, or in Tórshavn at last summer’s Ólavsøka celebrations – I have found it difficult to remember exactly what happened. The experiences have been vivid, but afterwards it almost feels as though I have dreamt the whole thing. Participating in a Faroese dance induces a type of trance, although you are fully aware of what is going on, and there is nothing quite like it for feeling a part of living history.
So what exactly is Faroese dance? It is, in fact, not just a dance, but dance combined with song and poetry, and although it can be watched by spectators, this art form only really makes sense if you take part in it.
The origins are unclear, but it is quite likely that they go back to before the settlement of the Faroes over a thousand years ago, to the time before Christianity took root in Scandinavia. The ballads (kvæðir) deal with historical events from Northern Europe, as well as fictional heroes and Norse mythology. This video is of Regin Smiður, part of the story of Sigurd the Dragon Slayer – the legendary hero from Norse mythology. Regin the Smith forges Sigurd’s sword.
Grani bar gullið av heiði,
brá hann sínum brandi av reiði,
Sjúrður vann av orminum,
Grani bar gullið av heiði.
Grane bore the gold of glory,
He drew his sword of wrath,
Sigurd slew the dragon,
Grane bore the gold of glory.
[Grane = Sigurd’s horse]
The Faroese dance has had varied fortunes over the centuries, but the geographical isolation of the Faroes, combined with the fact that the oral culture has been so strong (the Faroese language was only written down in the nineteenth century) has meant that the Faroese dance has survived as a thriving form. Some of the country’s leading writers have added to the wealth of texts over the years, and nowadays, children learn their national ballads at school.
The dance has inspired Faroese musicians and artists, as here in this work from 1944 by the great Faroese painter, Sámal Joensen-Mikines:
Here is an example of how this motif has been used:
The stories themselves have also found there way into knitting patterns, as here, with this dragon design:
It is possible to find many parallels between Faroese dancing and knitting. They both involve a repetitive action, resulting in a whole that is greater than the parts, where repeated motifs combine to form a larger design. Both activities can be rhythmically meditative for the participant. And it is perhaps not stretching the point too far to suggest that knitters are also collaborating in a culture over time, literally connecting links in a chain with their needles, passing something on to future generations, and becoming themselves links in the story of knitting.