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.


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.


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:


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.


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


© Clare Glenister 2016


© Clare Glenister 2016


© Clare Glenister 2016


© Clare Glenister 2016


© Clare Glenister 2016


© Clare Glenister 2016


© Clare Glenister 2016


© Clare Glenister 2016


© Clare Glenister 2016


© Clare Glenister 2016


© Clare Glenister 2016


© Clare Glenister 2016


© 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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.





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.


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.


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


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




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)



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.)



Viking Gold


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).



Flag Red & Flag Blue



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.



Sorrel Red


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



Turkish Blue


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.)


Atlantic Blue

YD328 copy

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



Raven Black


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 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

Links in a Chain

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:

S J Mikines, Faroese danceThe dancers motif was one of the knitting patterns collected by Hans M. Debes in his book, Føroysk Bindingarmynster (Faroese Knitting Patterns), published in 1932:


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.

William Morris visits the Faroes

I discovered only recently that William Morris had visited the Faroe Islands. Morris – the great Arts and Crafts designer, artist, writer, and political thinker – had a fascination with the Old Norse world, an obsession ignited by his study of the sagas. This led him to go on a pilgrimage to Iceland in the summer of 1871 aboard the Danish mail boat. As is still the case, boats to Iceland often had a stopover in the Faroes, and – just like present-day cruise passengers – Morris had a brief taste of the islands. He kept a diary of his journey, and what struck me as I read it was how vivid his descriptions are of places I know well, and also how little changed are many of the scenes he describes. It occurred to me that I have taken photographs during our last couple of trips, which could act as illustrations of his diary. So what follows are excerpts from Morris’s journal alongside these photographs. Morris had a craftsman’s eye for detail combined with a writer’s ability to turn his observations into succinct prose, but I hope that these photos might add something of interest, especially for those readers who have not visited the Faroes.


I woke up later than usual, about half-past six, and went on deck in a hurry, because I remembered the mate had promised that we should be at Thorshaven in the Faroes by then, and that we should have sighted the south islands of them long before: and now we were sure enough, steaming up the smooth water of a narrow firth with the shore close on either board: I confess I shuddered at my first sight of a really northern land in the grey of a coldish morning.

The firth opened out on one side and showed wild strange hills and narrow sounds P1010986between the islands, that had something, I don’t know what of poetic and attractive about them; and on one side was sign of population in the patches of bright green that showed the home-fields of farms on the hillsides…


Olavsøka 2013

These old fellows, like most (or all) of the men, wore an odd sort of Phrygian cap, stockings and knee-breeches, loose at the knee, and a coat like a knight’s “just-au-corps”, only buttoning in front, and generally open.

P1010668The boats are built high stem and stern, with the keel-rib running up into an ornament at each end and cannot have changed in the least since the times of the Sagas.


The houses were all of wood, high-roofed with little white casements, the rest of the walls being mostly done over with Stockholm tar; every roof was of turf, and fine crops of flowery grass grew on some of them. The houses were pitched down with little order enough, and in fact the whole town was like a toy Dutch town of my childhood’s days.


We hastened down, along the high mowing-grass of the home-field, full of buttercups and marsh-marigolds… it affected me strangely to see all the familiar flowers growing in a place so different to anything one had ever imagined, and withal (it had grown a very bright fresh day by now) there was real beauty about the place of a kind I can’t describe.

P1000902I was most deeply impressed with it all, yet can scarcely tell you why; it was like nothing I had ever seen, but strangely like my old imaginations of places for sea-wanderers to come to: the day was quite a hot summer day now, and there was no cloud in the sky, and the atmosphere was very, very clear, but a little pillowy cloud kept dragging and always changing yet always there, over the top of the little rocky islet. All the islands, whether sloping or sheer rocks, went right into the sea without a hand’s breadth of beach anywhere; and, little thing as that seems, I suppose it is this which gives the air of romanticism to these strange islands.

Close by the sea lay the many gables (black wood with green turf-roofs) of the farm of Kirkjubae (Kirkby), a little white-washed church being the nearest to the sea…

Kirkjubøur church & farm

Kirkjubøur church & farm

The evening was very fine still, the sea quite smooth and the tide in our favour; so the captain told us we were going to thread the islands by the sound called the Westmanna-firth, instead of going round them; so, as it turned out, we had the best sight of the Faroes yet to see…

P1020022[The sound] was quite smooth, clear and green, and not a furlong across; the coasts were most wonderful on either side; pierced rocks running out from the cliffs under which a brig might have sailed;P1020004 caves that the water ran up into, how far we could not tell; smooth walls of rock with streams flowing over them right into the sea; or these would sink down into green slopes with farms on them; P1020016or be cleft into deep valleys over which would show crater-like or pyramidal mountains; or they would be splintered into jagged spires; P1020020one of which, single and huge, just at the point of the last ness before we entered this narrow sound, is named the Trolls-finger…

I have seen nothing out of a dream so strange as our coming out of the last narrow sound into the Atlantic, and leaving the huge wall of  rocks astern in the shadowless midnight twilight: nothing I have ever seen has impressed me so much.