Knitting has a bad rap. Everyone seems to think it’s the stuff of grannies, moms-to-be, and boring people who haven’t yet discovered the joys of television. But it’s hardly an insignificant craft, and it should certainly not be synonymous with old age and domesticity. Knitting was invented out of necessity for us to not freeze our butts off and has become, over the past 18 centuries or so, an art form that is the carrier of culturally specific techniques, tools, and traditions. The classic patterns that we know, love, and wear are rooted in the history of places from all over the world, and they’re some of the most practical and beautiful displays of culture out there. Check out these classic knitting patterns from around the world you can tackle this winter for some armchair traveling.
1. Lopapeysa, Iceland
With the incredible tourism boom Iceland has been experiencing over the past few years, it only makes sense that outsiders have become familiar with some of its unique cultural features, be it fermented shark, electronic music, or sweaters.
Icelandic sweaters, or lopapeysur as they are known in Iceland, are extremely popular with travelers to the country, but few visitors actually know the origin of the lopapeysa and what it really looks like.
The Icelandic sweater is not an ancestral tradition. Its popularity started in the 1950s and the garment has come in and out of fashion throughout the 20th century, but it was always used by locals as outdoor work outfits. The motifs that have made the sweater a symbol of national identity were inspired by the designs found on old mittens or were made-up patterns inspired by the natural landscape.
For a sweater to be awarded the term “lopapeysa,” the garment needs to meet strict criteria. First, real lopapeysur are hand knitted from unspun Icelandic wool (lopi), i.e. wool harvested from Icelandic sheep, a unique breed that has been in Iceland since the Norsemen settled in ninth and 10th centuries. Lopi is rustic but cheap, light, and a great insulator. Second, traditional Icelandic sweaters have no front or back — they are made of three tubes (the body and the two sleeves) knitted in the round and later grafted together. Third, the motifs that make the lopapeysa so recognizable are to be found in the round yoke (around the collar), at the wrists, and at the bottom of the sweater on the hips. Traditionally, lopapeysa are knitted in two or three natural colors (no dye), such as white, grey, beige, black, brown.
If you want to learn more about the art of knitting in Iceland, join traditional Icelandic knitter Hélène Magnusson’s hiking and knitting tours — you’ll exercise, learn about deep cultural tradition, and be creative all in one day. If knitting isn’t your thing but you still admire the craft of the lopapeysa, Hélène suggests that you seek them out for purchase at the Handknitting Association of Iceland, craft shops, or second-hand shops — and remember to keep an eye on the tag that displays the name of the knitter.
2. Fair Isle knitting, Scotland
In this part of the world, knitting is a centuries-old tradition — the poor weather in the subarctic archipelago and the abundance of sheep help us understand why — but the Fair Isle motif that consists in horizontal bands of colorful and small geometrical designs repeated over many rows supposedly did not appear before the 1850s or so and was probably influenced by the knitting of Scandinavia and the Baltic states.
There are several motifs encompassed in the broad term “Fair Isle knitting,” including the Norwegian inspired star pattern, but one characteristic remains: Only two colors are used per row. That said, the color arrangement is so intricate in Fair Isle knitting that a garment often gives the impression to be containing just about every shade available out there.
According to Ann Feitelson in The Art of the Fair Isle Knitting, the traditional technique used for Fair Isle sweaters is unusual. Instead of using multiple needles to knit in the round (no circular needles back then), knitters would use only three of them: They’d have the stitches for the front of the sweater on one needle, the stitches for the back of the sweater on another one, and would use a third needle to knit. That said, if you use a circular needle or five double-pointed needles to make your sweater, nobody will accuse you of heresy.
Although Fair Isle knitting was an economic necessity for the Shetland islands in the early 20th century, it’s also an art form that requires patience and an eye for colors. If you want to learn more about Fair Isle knitting and the traditions behind the craft, think about attending Shetland Wool Week in the Shetland Islands in the fall. The annual event is one of the most popular knitting festivals in the world, and you’ll be sure to meet experts on the amazing Fair Isle tradition.
3. Cowichan sweater, Canada
Every self-respecting British Columbian either owns, plans to own, or can recognize a Cowichan sweater from miles away — this is an iconic garment of this part of Canada.
Cowichan sweaters are the craft of the Cowichan people, a First Nation people from British Columbia. Cowichan people have inhabited the southeastern part of Vancouver Island known as the Cowichan Valley for millennia, and they are today the largest First Nation band in British Columbia.
Cowichan sweaters are the result of a mix of ancestral Cowichan knowledge about textile art and the introduction of the technique of knitting with needles brought to the Cowichan Valley by European settlers — especially nuns who taught knitting in schools — in the second part of the 19th century.
Cowichan sweaters are hand knitted with bulky, handspun yarn of natural colors (white, black, grey, beige, brown) on double-pointed needles. The designs are often geometric, with star motifs for example, and feature representations of the fauna and flora of the Cowichan territory such as eagles, trees, bear, orcas, etc. The most common iteration of the Cowichan sweater is a cardigan with a zipper and a shawl collar. Cowichan sweaters are warm and waterproof; they can and will last a lifetime if you don’t stick them in the washing machine on a hot cycle.
4. Lusekofte, Norway
If a country like Norway has a traditional sweater, you know that the thing must be very warm. The lusekofte is that and more — it’s also beautiful and durable.
The Lusekofte is also known as the “Setesdal sweater” as they originated from the Setesdal Valley in southern Norway in the 19th century when knitting became common in the country. Lusekofte translates literally to “flea sweater” as one of the motifs used throughout the garment are little bug-like dots. The sweater also features bands of geometrical designs, and stars (only two colors are used in lusekofte, usually white and a darker color). What makes lusekofte very distinguishable from other sweaters are the unusual, embroidered cuffs and neckline. The neckline has metal clasps to close it shut. Lusekofte can be found as pullovers or cardigans with the embroidered neckline and the clasps going all the way down the front of the garment.
The Lusekofte is an all-purpose garment. It is used as an outdoor work outfit, skiing sweater, and day-to-day clothing item (although young Norwegians may think of it as old-fashioned). It is also very popular with tourists in search of a special souvenir.
5. Aran sweater, Ireland
If you heard stories of Irish knit sweaters being made for fishermen in specific patterns with the purpose of identifying them if they died at sea and washed up to shore later, you’re in for a disappointment — this is a myth invented to sell more knits.
There’s no such thing as Irish knit family patterns, but the beautiful sweaters are real and many fishermen wore them, indeed. Irish knit sweaters are more specifically called Aran sweaters as they originate from the Aran Islands located off the west coast of Ireland. The Aran sweaters are a 20th-century creation. According to Priscilla Gibson-Roberts in Knitting in the Old Way and The Irish Times, The story goes that two young Irish women emigrated to Boston in the early 20th century and learned new knitting techniques from an Austrian immigrant. Upon returning home to the Aran Islands, they elaborated on what they had learned to create what we now know as the Irish knit sweater.
Traditional Irish knit sweaters are knitted from cream-colored natural wool. They are chunky and adorned with cables, honeycombs, diamonds, and interlacements among other stitches. There are a lot of machine-knitted Irish sweaters out there, but it’s still possible to find hand-knitted ones in Ireland — just dig a little and be ready to pay through the nose, or get knitting.