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.