Guest Blog – Lisbet Clements

What inspires a design?

When Fiona and Daniel first invited me to contribute a piece on what inspires my knitting, I was at a loss – my first answer was an impossible “everything”. I was tempted to say “everything I see”, but it’s much more than just the visual.

Going for a walk provides the space and time for ideas to come, and lots of things tend to happen at once, involving all the senses. The impressions get stored away for later use, sketches and jottings kept in a notebook.

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I have some favourite techniques (steeks), and there are some things I’ll go to almost any length to avoid (colour-work knitted back and forth).

The real starting point is very often the yarn. When I handle skeins of yarn, they seem full of possibilities – they don’t want to stay as skeins, they want to join with other friendly yarns and be worked into something lovely. And when the finished garment is finally washed, the yarn “relaxes” into position, “getting comfortable”.

Yarn texture points in the general direction. Hands create a garment to be worn, so the feel and drape of the fabric, both finished and unfinished, are part of it. Colour is of course very important, evoking memory of location and time, sometimes far apart from the here and now. Sometimes a new technique needs to be tried out or combined with an old favourite. Sometimes a location or place name suggests a particular shape. And I always have in my mind a person who would like to wear the finished piece.

The process is often frustratingly slow. Lots of ideas bubble away, and imaginary test knits using different techniques end up in technical dead ends; even before the knitting starts, there is a lot of unravelling. But, oh, the satisfaction when suddenly the solution is there, the mathematics works out, and the knitting has been done – when the yarn finally sighs, “now I’m comfortable”.

 

Designing the Haytor cardigan: conker trees, yellow leaves – and steeks

There is something quite wonderful about conkers – their shiny newness is irresistible and they invite touch. At the end of a walk, I have conkers for both hands. Some of the leaves are on the ground, some are still clinging to the tree. The colours around me are brown, earthy and strong, with the occasional zing of bright yellow.

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Autumn is the time for warm knitted jumpers – for knitting warm jumpers – and the design for the Haytor cardigan grew from the colours of conker trees and a fascination with the myriad variations that can be created using simple, small colour-work patterns. Knitted in Sirri yarn, the small pattern has a big impact, and big needles mean that the cardigan is soon done.

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But the steek is the best thing. I love steeking. (If you haven’t tried it, I would encourage you to have a go!) No variable tension issues. No more slow purl rows of colour-work, reading the chart backwards, with working yarns in all the wrong places. Just knit. And finally, it’s two lines of crochet, then snip-snip-snip, and, magically – with the right yarn – everything tucks itself into place ready for finishing. And Sirri is the right yarn: it’s pure wool, with all those wonderful grippy bits; it’s light; and it’s amazingly warm.

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I’m ready for autumn!

Lisbet

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Minuets, wool, & Faroese history

Along with fish, wool, and tourism, music is now one of the Faroe Islands’ growing export areas. This summer we have made a small contribution to this by releasing an album of tunes from Faroese history:

 

When we are not running The Island Wool Company, Fiona and I are musicians (horn and clarinet) and a few years ago we joined with two of our Faroese friends (Angelika Nielsen – violin, and Olavur Jakobsen – guitar) to form a folk/classical group called Svabonio.

If we ever worry that we have too many different interests in our busy lives, we just have to turn for inspiration to the man who provided the music for our project: Jens Christian Svabo (1754-1824). He was an accomplished violinist (and artist, as you will see), but his scholarly work covered every aspect of Faroese society. He wrote the first Faroese dictionary (before the language had an agreed written form); he made collections of the old Faroese ballads; he wrote a geographical and ethnographical study of the islands; and he came up with many practical solutions to improve the lives of the Faroese population.

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Svabo’s sketch of Tórshavn’s fort (1780’s). Note the British navy ships.

Despite all these accomplishments, Svabo’s work was not recognised in his own lifetime. After many years of struggle in Copenhagen, he returned to his home town of Tórshavn to live out the rest of his life with the help of a meagre pension and the kindness of friends and family. His handwritten notebook of dance tunes (dated 1775) was not found until 1928 when an old house in Tórshavn was being renovated. Hence the title of our album, Lost and Found.

Svabo’s treatise on every aspect of Faroese nature, society and economy (Reports from Travels in the Faroe Islands, 1781 and 1782) contains some fascinating information about the use of wool in the 18th century. It is notable how little has changed since then in the way that sheep are reared in the outfields and mountains.

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Svabo’s drawings of some of the ear-markings used to identify sheep.

Svabo even went as far as providing recipes for dyeing wool and when the book was first published in the 1950s, the editors recreated samples:

So although the natural wool colours – white, greys, browns, and black – have been the basis of Faroese woollen clothes for centuries, there is a long tradition of colour dyeing – especially yellows and reds.

There are a couple of drawings in the book, which initially might look like wool sorting and spinning, but they actually show the production of fishing line from hemp:

Svabo’s range of knowledge is quite breathtaking. He was even up-to-date with the latest scientific work of the Swedish naturalist Linnaeus who had only given the Latin name to to the Red-necked Phalarope a few years earlier in 1758:

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In the music on our new album, we have been similarly stimulated by seeking connections between the old and the new and between different places. The accepted history of Faroese music has been that is was exclusively vocal: either hymns or sung ballads for dancing. But Svabo himself wrote,

At notable weddings and celebrations, especially in Tórshavn, the Faroese dance is very much starting to fall out of fashion, and in its place, minuets, Polish, English, Scottish dances, reels and contradances, are being introduced.

Luckily, the Faroese dance is still very much alive today. And contemporary music of all genres in the Faroes today is rooted in history, but influenced by a kaleidoscope of sources.

Note: If you would like to explore Faroese music further, a good place to start is at the website of the music label, TUTL.

Gallery

Knitting the Faroes

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

anastasia

© Clare Glenister 2016

anita

© Clare Glenister 2016

ashkhen

© Clare Glenister 2016

laurel

© Clare Glenister 2016

louise

© Clare Glenister 2016

lovisa

© Clare Glenister 2016

raquel

© Clare Glenister 2016

maxine

© Clare Glenister 2016

sabine

© Clare Glenister 2016

sissal

© Clare Glenister 2016

ty

© Clare Glenister 2016

olesya

© Clare Glenister 2016

the-knitters

© Clare Glenister 2016

Faroese shawls – a family story

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.

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Olivia Joensen

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.

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The village of Leirvík. The trees on the right of the picture are the edge of the plantation started by Olivia Joensen.

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.

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Child’s Faroese shawl, designed and knit by Olivia Joensen

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.

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Faroese shawl, designed and knit by Olivia Joensen.

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.

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A milkmaid knitting on the go. This picture – taken in the time just before Olivia Joensen was born – shows the practicality of the woollen Faroese shawl.

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.

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Faroese shawls at Olavsøka

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.

 

 

 

 

Binding together

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.

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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.

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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.

 

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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.

 

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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!

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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.

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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.

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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.

 

 

 

 

 

Wearing Wool (Part 1)

Technical Fleece

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.

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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?

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Boats and Sweaters (or Jumpers)

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.

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Faroese fishermen off the coast of Iceland.

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.

Ship's crew, 1938.

Ship’s crew, 1938.

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.

Photo from Klaksvík Museum.

Photo from Klaksvík Museum.

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.

Faroese boat with Navia warehouse and shop behind.

Faroese boat with Navia warehouse and shop behind.

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.

Design by Oddvör Jacobsen for G!Festival using Navia Tradition.

Design by Oddvör Jacobsen for G!Festival using Navia Tradition.

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?).

Faroese boats, Gøta.

Faroese boats, Gøta.

Colours of Snældan

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.

Mist/Cloud

mistMist and cloud are the key to the ever-changing landscapes and seascapes of the Faroes.
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Basalt

YD15This volcanic rock forms the islands themselves and can be seen virtually wherever you look.

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Driftwood

YD16There 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.

19th-century cheese mould from Hvannasund (Klaksvík Museum)

19th-century cheese mould from Hvannasund (Klaksvík Museum)

 

Peat

peatPeat 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.)

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Viking Gold

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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.

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Rhubarb

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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).

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Flag Red & Flag Blue

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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.

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Sorrel Red

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Sheep’s Sorrel (Romex Acetosellu) is one of the many moorland flowers that flourish on the Faroese fells.

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Turkish Blue

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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.

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Turf

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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.)

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Atlantic Blue

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This colour is seen during those amazing times when the clouds clear and the sea and sky take on an iridescent blue.

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Raven Black

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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.

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Video

Life as a Work of Art

 

“Life is my work of art:
Yes, I paint every day.
Even if I live to be a hundred
It will never be finished”
This song –  Lívsmynd – is an arrangement for choir of a song by the Faroese musician, Steintór Rasmussen from the Klaksvík-based band, Frændur.
There will be plenty more about Faroese music on this blog in the future, but this video is an ideal taster – and a great combination of music, knitwear, and landscape.
Lyrics/Melody: Steintór Rasmussen
Arranger/Conductor: Sigrið Sivertsen
Choir: Xperiment
Mix: Henrik Birk Aaboe
Video Production: Polar Films