Traditional Scandinavian Knitting

Traditional Scandinavian Knitting

by Sheila McGregor


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An expert on traditional Scandinavian knitting explains the distinctive craft's origins, its various types, and knitting techniques in this classic guide. Sheila McGregor's in-depth treatment ranges from the regional styles of Norway, Sweden, and Denmark to those of the North Atlantic Islands of Faeroe and Iceland. Vibrant patterns for an array of garments include jerseys, gloves and mittens, stockings, and caps.
Illustrated with 191 black-and-white and 20 color pictures, this volume is well known and prized among longtime practitioners of the craft. Its return to print will delight a new generation of knitting enthusiasts.

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780486433004
Publisher: Dover Publications
Publication date: 07/23/2004
Series: Dover Knitting, Crochet, Tatting, Lace
Pages: 176
Sales rank: 701,342
Product dimensions: 8.30(w) x 10.86(h) x 0.31(d)

Read an Excerpt

Tradional Scandinavian Knitting

By Sheila McGregor

Dover Publications, Inc.

Copyright © 1984 Sheila McGregor
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-486-13416-1


Origins of knitting in Scandinavia

There is some argument as to whether knitting first developed in Denmark or southern Sweden. It is unlikely that this will ever be resolved as we just will never know enough about the earliest days. However, the general picture for every country is very similar. First came exotic imported silk knitwear, hose, gloves and the marvellous silk jackets. If the technique was practised locally much before the seventeenth century (which is certainly possible), we know nothing about it. We do find local copies of these very elegant and well-made jackets knitted in wool in Denmark in the seventeenth century. Indeed, it was one of the greatest surprises of my recent researches to find that virtually identical jackets were knitted and worn by country women right into the early days of the twentieth century.

The well-documented history of folk costume in the rest of Scandinavia fills in the picture and also gives us a framework and dating reference lacking in Britain where folk costume seems to have disappeared earlier and have been less studied while it was still possible to get authentic information. Thus we can find similar jackets to the Danish jackets in both Norway and Sweden, but only in museum collections. A changeover to a Fair Isle type of pattern took place in a great number of places around 1840, perhaps as early as 1820, but often within the memory of old people still living when folk costume was researched earlier this century. In other cases, the very individual who started a new fashion in stranded knitting could be identified—the first knitter of the now world-famous, black-and-white patterns from Selbu in Norway lived on until 1929. Before her there may have been much local knitting in Selbu, but it can only have been of plain stockings and plain mittens. Such stories are repeated in several places and confirm that Fair Isle-type patterns are not very ancient; it was a new folk fashion in mid-nineteenth century, perhaps from further east in the Baltic, perhaps a local inspiration spreading more by word of mouth than by the actual movement of designs. Indeed, the knitted jackets of the nineteenth century vary so greatly that some local development seems likely. It ties in very neatly with the story of Fair Isle knitting which I tried to unravel in my previous book (The Complete Book of Traditional Fair Isle Knitting, Batsford 1981), picking a cautious way between the assorted myths of Viking and Spanish origins and claims of great antiquity.

Another intriguing link-up is between British fishermen's 'gansies' and the early textured Danish jackets. Although the gansies are now worn only by men, and the Danish jackets only by women, this was probably not the case when they were a new fashion, and there are so many similarities of style that a common origin seems possible. Were gansies copied from Danish jackets, or do they go right back, as the jackets do, to the finely crafted knitted shirts of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries? The wider horizons opened up by looking at the knitting of these countries linked to us by the North Sea have been very illuminating and thought provoking.

Not only is the history of this relatively young craft illuminated by a look at Scandinavian knitting—the basic techniques which each country takes for granted also benefit very much from comparison. Here, my visit was certainly too short. It is one thing to recognise a technique but quite another to imitate it and come up with the same effect. My versions of the double purl stitch, for example, are not quite right, even though one has been copied from a Finnish publication. What did the Danish knitters do to avoid a rather unseemly bump? Was it only that their yarn was heavier and firmer and their knitting tighter? Or is there some further refinement still to be learned? Anyone who has tried to analyse the course of a knitted thread through its convolutions in old, possibly felted, and even fragile knitting will know how difficult this can be. But, in knitting, there is often more than one way of achieving an effect and a good knitter in this century will not necessarily work in the same way as a good knitter several hundred years ago.

I have tried to include only what I know to be authentic and representative examples of Scandinavian knitting. To make complete technical analyses of old stockings and caps would be tedious and not very instructive, and so many of the more unusual items, while still very interesting, have been mentioned only in passing. We in the twentieth century also have our contribution to make to the development of the craft. It would be nice to see a return to a finer and more craftsman like approach; very thick wool and needles like fence-posts are certainly quick and can be most effective, but delicate, textured work done on fine needles with silk yarn, or one of the silk-and-wool mixtures available, has a lasting charm and gives great scope for expert knitting. If this book can inspire a few good knitters to rediscover fine knitting it will have served a useful purpose. But I believe it has a very general appeal and wish my readers as much pleasure in reading it as I have had in researching and writing it.


Types of knitting traditionally used in Scandinavia

The earliest knitting in Scandinavia was probably knitted entirely in stocking stitch from white wool, and coloured, if at all, by boiling up in a dye vat once it was completed. The earliest piece to survive, in Denmark, has the addition of a simple pattern in purl stitch. This style seems to have survived right into the twentieth century and, indeed, was the only style known until early in the nineteenth century. It was around 1840 or 1850 that a great knitting revolution took place in country places. Folk costumes, by definition, identify the wearer as coming from a particular region—a parish, a village, a valley, a fishing town. Many costumes began to contain patterned jackets, patterned stockings, caps with stars and other borders knitted in, and so on to differentiate them from those of a neighbouring area. Local knitting traditions grew up, each one being completely, and often remarkably, different from every other. This is the main reason why this part of the world is so rich in inspiration, both for the student of knitting history and for the practical knitter who carries on this sympathetic craft today.

Did all the different traditional techniques serve a useful purpose? Or were decorations just added for the sake of it, or for good luck, or because things had always been done that way? Fashion certainly has played its part in folk knitting, as elsewhere; nevertheless, peasants are essentially practical people and it is often possible to work out why things were done one way and not another. In some cases we know why from stories that have been passed down and from our own commonsense. We know, for example, that a purl pattern in a large expanse of plain stocking stitch will make it slightly thicker, and hence more resistant and warmer, and that a stranded pattern will virtually double the thickness of the fabric, as will the earlier, two-stranded technique. The complex small cables and twisted stitches found in many Norwegian stockings, both men's and women's, added greatly to their weight and warmth.

Some of the less common variations were used for a purely decorative effect; 'poor man's braid', found in Norway on coastal jerseys and Setesdal socks for example, is a slow, tedious and technically clumsy process, but imitates very effectively woven braid—why this had to be imitated in this laborious way we cannot say. Perhaps they normally bought supplies from a pedlar who failed to arrive one year; perhaps their loom broke down and some replacement was needed - who knows? But behind every stitch and every variation on every stitch lies some such small story of local ingenuity meeting local need. It is this contact with the original knitter that makes study of old knitting so exciting and satisfying; the person who held the needles often seems very close, not kept apart by a large and complicated piece of machinery, like a loom, but revealed in every single stitch.


This type of single-colour knitting, sometimes known as 'damask' knitting, was originally particularly popular in Denmark and jerseys with textured patterns were worn by most of the population for hundreds of years. A few jackets in the same technique are also known to have come from Norway, Sweden, Finland and Estonia and then, in the nineteenth century, this type of knitting reached its height when the Norwegians in Setesdal began to make cabled stockings. The original jersey pattern was usually only purl-on-plain, though travelling stitches and small cables were also used here and there. All the variations—moss stitch, larger purl-on-plain patterns, twisted stitches, small cables, travelling stitches and the double purl stitch—have the desirable effect (when your jersey is your main protection against the elements) of making plain stocking stitch thicker, stronger and firmer. This fact was known as far back as the seventeenth century when textured silk jackets using the same purl-and-plain, all-over patterns were imported to Scandinavia, perhaps from England, perhaps from Italy. In the Norwegian cabled stockings, known as krotasokkar, every stitch is either twisted or purled or cabled (or both twisted and cabled). A popular pattern has vertical lines of twisted plain stitches alternating with purl stitches. This gives a very strong, tight rib. To prevent it pulling too tightly together, purl and plain stitches are alternated every few rows to give a form of moss stitch and, indeed, several variations. Setesdal cables are very small, involving only two stitches. Larger cables, requiring cable needles, were used in Telemark in Norway and travelling stitches are quite common.


These make surface patterns on plain or purl knitting by moving diagonally from row to row. They are always in plain knitting and lie entirely on top of the normal fabric which is therefore double at that point. They should not count in calculation of tension, etc., in making up the width of the fabric. To keep the tension correct it is necessary to create a new stitch for every travelling stitch used and to reduce the same number at the end of the section. This surface decoration is used all over Scandinavia and in Finland and the Baltic States (see page 141).


To cross two right: knit into the second stitch on the left-hand needle through the front of the loop, and then immediately into the first stitch on the left-hand needle through the front of the loop. Drop off both stitches from left-hand needle.

To cross two left: go behind the first stitch on the left-hand needle and knit into the front or the back of the second stitch on that needle and then into the first stitch. Let both drop off the left-hand needle.


Double purl is something of a mystery stitch. It is described in a Finnish knitting book as being used for a double effect in 'quick' knitting; this almost certainly compares single-strand knitting (the normal method for us today) with two-strand knitting which is rather slower. In Danish women's jackets and elsewhere a double stitch can be recognised—it is a purl stitch, but has an extra bar below it which also appears on the back. This can be achieved by moving the stitch to be purled from left-hand to right- hand needle without working it, passing the yarn between the needles and moving the stitch back before working it. The yarn is wound once right round the base of the stitch. However, in practice, this does not seem to add much to the effect of a purl stitch, which may explain its lack of popularity.

Other ways of emphasising a purl stitch have been used, for example by alternating purl stitches and twisted plain stitches from row to row. Also, when knitting a purl stitch, it is the top of the loop of the preceding stitch which actually shows (i.e., the corresponding stitch in the previous round). A double purl can then be achieved by knitting a double plain stitch in the row or round below (see also page 23).


These patterns are from Danish, Swedish and Norwegian textured jerseys and the sampler was knitted in Jaeger Wool/Silk on 2 mm (U.K. 13; U.S. I) needles to give a fairly close texture.

Symbols used:

* Plain stitch • Purl stitch s Twisted plain stitch * Chain stitch

a Large border pattern (see chart).

b Row of holes (First row: knit 2 together, make I by passing wool over needle; repeat. Second row: stocking stitch).

c Small two-and-two check (see chart).

d Row of small 'double plain' knots — the only stitch not traditional to Scandinavia, as far as I know, but certainly inspired by the old 'double purl' stitch and so effective I decided to include it. The knots are made as follows: the yarn is passed to the right side as though to purl; the next stitch on the left-hand needle is transferred unknitted to the right-hand needle; the yarn is passed between the needles; the stitch is moved back to the left-hand needle and knitted; repeat.

e Pyramid pattern (see chart).

f Border pattern of vertical rows of twisted plain and purl stitches (see chart). This pulls together very closely and gives a neat edge.

g A row of double purl stitches, recorded in Finland but formerly known more widely and certainly worth knowing for its neat relief effect. In Finland they call it the 'quick' (or lazy) method of working a double purl. It makes a good alternative when worked in a row to the double purled winding stripe used in the Norwegian jacket (see Fig. 2). It is similar in working to the double plain knots described above under (d). With the yarn on the right side of the work, as though to purl, the next stitch to be worked is transferred from the left-hand to the right-hand needle (without being knitted); the yarn is passed between the points of the two needles, the stitch is moved back and purled. This gives an extra strand of wool on the right side of the work and a good imitation of a double purl twist.

h Typical Danish star (see Fig. 102).

i Double zig-zag (see Fig. 101)

j Star from Danish nattrøje with travelling stitch (see Fig. 102). k Armhole (or other) border (see chart).

l Single purl row.

m Small star in double diamond (see chart).

n A front edge pattern from a Norwegian jacket (see chart). It combines purl-and-plain with vertical rows of purl and twisted plain stitches.

o Complete border pattern from Norwegian jacket (see Fig. 2). The centre pattern is shown in the chart. The two outer rows are worked as follows: an extra strand of the same yarn is joined in at the beginning of the row. It is looped along on the right side of the work and the stitches are alternately knitted with the original yarn and purled with the second strand.

p A picot hem worked as an alternative to a single-textured welt (see page 35).

Two more tips: an alternation of single purl and plain stitches often stands out better than a solid purl pattern; and, for a more prominent purl effect, knit the stitch immediately below it (in the previous row) as a twisted plain stitch.


The simplest type of stranded knitting (knitting with more than one yarn in each row, and with the yarn not in use stranded from one stitch to the next) is still practised in Sweden and consists simply of one dark stitch and one light stitch repeated, so that the final effect is of vertical dark and light stripes. This seems to be a version of two-strand knitting (see page 22 ) which is more usually done with both ends of one ball of yarn, hence its other name of two-end knitting. However, it is possible to see a connection between the light-and-dark, striped pattern and more elaborate knitted patterns, particularly the optical-effect type of pattern found in Finland, Estonia and also in the north of Sweden. The chart on page 19 shows this possible development and if this connection does exist, these are the only knitting patterns in the stranded tradition derived directly from a knitting technique and not copied from some other source.

Most stranded patterns in use today seem to copy embroidered or woven originals. The link with embroidery is clear in Estonia, a country whose knitting greatly influenced Baltic knitting and even Fair Isle knitting. Gloves are found in Estonia with the same patterns embroidered on some and knitted into others. From Estonia, the stranded technique and many patterns were copied by the Swedish women living on the islands in the Gulf of Riga and from there, or perhaps directly from Estonia, the patterns went to Gotland, on to Sweden and eventually were taken up by most countries around the North Sea. A cap with an Estonian pattern can be found in the Shetland Museum in Lerwick, and Estonian gloves in a Copenhagen collection. Other patterns were copied locally from weaving charts, printed materials, cross-stitch patterns, woven rugs and wall hangings. Behind all these patterns (quite literally) lies extra warmth; stranded mittens are twice as warm as plain ones.


Excerpted from Tradional Scandinavian Knitting by Sheila McGregor. Copyright © 1984 Sheila McGregor. Excerpted by permission of Dover Publications, Inc..
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents


Title Page,
Copyright Page,
Symbols and abbreviations,
1 - Origins of knitting in Scandinavia,
2 - Types of knitting traditionally used in Scandinavia,
3 - Knitting techniques from Scandinavia,
4 - Norwegian knitting,
5 - Swedish knitting,
6 - Danish knitting,
7 - The North Atlantic Islands: Faeroe and Iceland,
8 - Jerseys,
9 - Gloves and mittens,
10 - Stockings,
11 - Caps,

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