Iceland Would Not Have Survived Without Sheep
The 2011 Vesterheim Textile Tour began in Iceland for two days before moving on to Bergen, Norway. While in Rekjavik, we visited the Icelandic National Museum. Our guide did a great job of pointing out textile-related items in the collection, and her humor was dry. That wasn’t difficult, since the Icelandic export economy was largely based on wool, until fishing gained more importance. At one point the guide pointed out an upright warp-weighted loom with a portion of woolen cloth completed. Forty-five meters of cloth was worth one cow. At another time the guide mentioned that a woman was expected to knit a pair of socks a day, which brought an audible gasp from several of the knitters in our group.
The guild explained that Icelanders are the descendants of Norwegian men – and some Irish women, too. “They made a stop.” Not only Icelandic people have forbears in Ireland; cats may have made the voyage. The Icelandic cat has Celtic bloodlines.
There were many carved wooden objects. Wood was scarce; maybe that’s why the guide said with a wave of her hand at the gallery walls, “Icelandics were carving on everything.” There were carved covered wooden food dishes of different sizes, larger ones for working men, smaller ones from women and children. They were never washed, and some people who thought it was OK to let their dogs lick their bowls contracted worms.
One case held several pairs of thin, ballet-slipper-like, fish-skin shoes. Icelanders wore them with knitted or felted insoles, often with beautiful designs. Earlier that day a few friends bought more modern leather shoes of the same type, for which the same inserts are knitted, at the Icelandic Handcraft shop. Of course that made me sorry I hadn’t bought a pair when I had the chance, if only to have them as beautiful historical objects. At another point in the tour, the guide pointed out a pair of rubber boots and said that some Icelanders call them the best invention of the 20th century. They weren’t common until WWII, when they were made of rubber tires. Before rubber boots, people wore leather shoes, and one long trip trip on a wet day might require three pair. I think we take our modern shoes and boots for granted!