Annemor Sundbø: Stitches in Time
Eighteenth-century paintings artfully intertwine with knitted history…
By Lela Nargi
In the last ten years knitters have been considering our craft with a certain amount of reverence: knitting is couture; knitting is an artist’s medium; knitting expands our understanding of ancient cultures. But 150 years ago in Scandinavia, knitting served a more utilitarian purpose: workaday wear that was darned until there was more hole than sweater, then repurposed as insulation. Both uses blocked out the winds of winter—just a bit more externally the second time around.
Into this breech between mindsets steps the ever-erudite Norwegian designer Annemor Sundbø. In 1983, Sundbø, a self-taught expert on Norwegian knitting history, purchased the Torridal Tweed and Wool Comforter Mill located near Kristiansand. The mill once served as a “shoddy factory,” a place where garment remnants (16 tons of them at the time Sundbø took over) were recycled into mattress filler and other useful odds and ends. In the years since, the factory has proved an endless source of exploration and knowledge for Sundbø. Some of that history is recounted in her recently released Knitting in Art (Torridal Tweed), a strange, fascinating volume in which Sundbø uses the factory’s "rag pile” as a means to exploring various facets of historical knitting. (Similar fragments snaked through the European folk patterns in Sundbø’s previous book, Invisible Threads in Knitting (2007) as did Scandinavian knitting traditions in Everyday Knitting (2000) and the lice pattern in Setesdal Sweaters (2001).
This time around, Sundbø is out to tackle both Norwegian sweater designs at large, and the question of when they entered her country’s knitting vernacular. Motifs from her rag piles were a natural leaping-off point. “Most knitting is connected to myths,” Sundbø says, referring to the frequently far-fetched stories that have arisen to explain the emergence of certain knit designs. “I tried with this [latest] book to bring evidence.” A supremely delightful kind of evidence: documents of everyday domestic life as recorded by artists—mostly the so-called “Sunday Painters” of the National Romantic period post -1814, when Norway split from Denmark, engendering a nationalistic fervor (helped along by a blockade) that spread to regional costume.
Traveling to museums and archives all over the world, Sundbø kept her eyes open for “every single detail that gave a clue to knitting history.” She amassed a grouping of paintings that provided compelling clues, and then set about comparing those to newer remnants from her rag pile. Her aim was not simply to compile a compendium of her findings. Rather, with the paintings and fabric relics as her guide, she recreated about fourteen sweaters, giving history a spin in a whole new era. (You can re-recreate them for yourself; Knitting in Art includes a knitting guide, along with simple charts, for the objects of Sundbø’s fascination.)
The first painter Sundbø considers is Adolph Tideman (1814-1876), the foremost painter of his time and type. Blue-and-white horizontally striped sweaters abound in his work, and Sundbø postulates that the earliest of these were pan-European: machine-made in Denmark, France and Belgium, before beginning to worm their way into Norwegian fashion in the nineteenth century. They eventually achieved iconic status as the Fana sweater we associate with Norway today, evolving from plain stripes to stripes with checkerboards at the hems and cuffs and eight-pointed stars at the shoulders.
The sweater Sundbø recreates is inspired by the garb worn by a secondary subject (a carpenter) in Tideman’s The Orphan (1872). Both Tideman’s painted and Sundbø’s recreated garments hold a subtle surprise: eight-pointed stars at the cuffs. “I have never seen this detail outside Norway,” says Sundbø. In fact, she’s stumbled upon a sweater in transition—no longer the plain Euro-stripe, but not yet a whole-hearted Fana.
Christian Arne Eggen (1859-1927) captured an unusual sweater in An Old Fisherman (thought to have been painted in Trondheim in 1887), which in turn caught Sundbø’s eye on a visit to the Vesterhaim Museum in Iowa. Worn by a fisherman, it combines stripes of light and dark beige with brown and red checker boarding at the shoulders.
Fana wasn’t quite Fana when Eggen painted this sweater; checkerboards were scarce with stripes, if they existed at all; and blue and white was de rigueur. “Surprisingly,” says Sundbø, “Eggen has observed…a twist on the [quintessential] striped sweater of the day.” And since she contends that Eggen must have depicted the sweater “exactly as he saw it,” he unwittingly shows how the striped sweater style developed in different colorways when left to the devises of creative individual handknitters. Sundbø knits up her version with a white lower body, which was common for many sweaters of the day, as they were frequently worn tucked into trousers. Why waste colored yarn and patterning on what is ostensibly invisible? On a contemporary sweater, it comes off as a quirky, compelling design element.
A host of regional sweaters appear in the paintings of Carl Sundt-Hansen (1841-1907). The first, worn by a deckhand in Burial at Sea (1890) might be a decedent of the sponse sweater, or spotted frock. In Everyday Knitting, Sundbø describes a sponse pattern as three white stitches, followed by three black stitches over three rounds, then swapping out black and white. In her recreation she copies the dark blue on light blue of the painting, but gives the sweater patterning more of a windowpane treatment than a checkerboarding. “I had to compromise a little bit on my version,” says Sundbø, since she wanted the design to be knittable both by hand and machine.
“The Deckhand” meticulously follows the patterning of a sweater in Carl Sundt-Hansen's Burial at Sea (1890).
Boy from Setesdal (1904) depicts an unusual grey-and-white Setesdal sweater, with the further odd detail of an absence of lice patterning on the main body, a detail to which Sundbø remains true in her own version. (The louse is the smallest pattern stitch in knitting, composed of a single stitch in a contrasting color.) “It is uncommon that a Setesdal sweater would be without lice by that time,” she writes, “but I would argue that the artist who paints so precisely would not have removed them.”
Lice turn up in abundance in Hansen’s The Eagle Hunters (1907). The pattern is depicted on a more traditional Setesdal sweater with such precision that Sundbø had no difficulty in copying it exactly. With one small difference: “The painting shows an [embroidered] fabric cuff. Small motifs were often knitted under the cloth cuff on the old sweaters. I chose to do likewise.” (This change in detail will no doubt come as a relief to knitters thinking to stitch this pattern up.)
German-born Philip Heinrich Kriebel (1771-1846) immigrated to Norway and became a painter of local folk life. His naïvely charming Herring Rush (1840), though scorned by his contemporaries, renders several knitted sweater styles of interest to Sundbø. Perhaps the most intriguing is an oddball specimen of red and blue floating blocks on a white background, the likes of which Sundbø had never before seen in paintings of the period. “I think this might be a variation of the sweaters called Faroe Island nightshirts,” she muses. She was able to assemble a number of rag pile scraps with similar colors and patterning from later, machine-knit garments. Her version omits white edging at the bottom, as well as the traditional button at the split neck, which she replaces with ties.
“I have tried to make my designs as close as possible to what I regard as historically correct,” says Sundbø. “But because all sweaters in Norway were individually made, there is not one that is the ‘most right.’ [Even back then], we had fashion, and style, and a lot of variations.” Enough, indeed, to spawn a whole new generation of knitting inspiration.
Lela Nargi is the author of the upcoming books Knitting Around the World (featuring Annemor Sundbø), and Astounding Knits, both to be published by Voyageur Press. Visit her at lelanargi.com