Annemor Sundbø charmed the crowd at the well-attended monthly meeting of the Minnesota Weaver’s Guild on February 18. My notes can only touch on a few points; her talk was dense with stories and anecdotes.
Annemor uses her newest book, Knitting in Art, to tell the history of knitting as revealed by artists’ paintbrushes. For the earliest depictions of sweaters and knitting, paintings have an advantage over the documentary photos of the 1800s – color. Inspired by the sweaters worn in paintings, Annemor drafted modern reconstructions. Old becomes new and cool.
In describing the need for researching the traditional work of women, she noted that history books are filled with the exploits of men. “If men were knocking each other down, and eating a half-cow, they got their names in the history books.” But the women who knitted sweaters in patterns that have become world-famous haven’t received the same attention.
There was a surge of knitting development in Norway as a result of the Napoleonic wars. Shipments of fine goods from Europe were embargoed, resulting in beautiful home-grown alternatives. Festive embroidery mimicked printed silks from abroad.
Norway was far north, but not as isolated in the 1800s as many think. Artists from Norway worked throughout Europe. National Romantic artists painted peasants in everyday activities, yet dressed in national costumes. It wasn’t likely these people would be wearing those clothes in everyday scenes; they were referred to as “Sunday-farmers.” Her research turned up many men wearing the same variety of blue-and-white striped sweater. “I don’t know if it was perhaps all the same sweater,” she joked. After all, many of the painters knew one another.
As Norwegian merchants sold their products abroad – like cod oil, sardines, and fishballs – they used images of colorful textiles and folk costumes for advertising. This prompted wide interest in Norwegian knitting. Just think, Annemor said, in the tiny village of Selbu thousands and thousands of sweaters and mittens were knitted for a broad market. Norwegian knitting patterns spread around the world.
Many older Norweigan sweaters have a wide white border along the bottom. Is it because the white part was hidden in the overall-type wool trousers worn by men? Annemor showed an 1800s photo with a man proudly wearing a sweater with the white part on the outside – so that can’t be true. Others thought it was because the white wool was cheaper – but it wasn’t. Sheep came in several colors and white wool was less common, most prized. Annemor feels the white wool was holy, and is was the color worn closest to the body. After all, monks and nuns only wear white under their religious outer garments.
Annemor briefly described the shoddy factory she owned in Kristiansand. A real treasure in the factory turned out to be the rags, a mountain of worn-out sweaters, mittens, and other woolen goods that served as a history of knitting patterns in Norway. Her research based on these textiles is related in an earlier book, Everyday Knitting. There are many photos of mittens and sweaters from the ragpile on her Flickr site.
Annemor said when she was a child her mother told her, “If you aren’t good, I’m selling you to the ragman.” Later, sitting on a 16 ton ragpile, she had to consider, “Was this my punishment, or was this my fate?” She looked for the spirit in the ragpile. She imparted a good deal of her continuing spirit of research into knitting and folk culture in her lecture.
Annemor Sundbø’s books can be purchased through Unicorn Books and Crafts (see this part of the author index), or Schoolhouse Press (here’s the Knitting in Art entry in the New Books section).
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