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.