Knitting My “Shield of Norway” Mittens, I Conquered Fair Isle and Remembered My Visit to Trondheim, Norway

“A Cruise of Norway’s Fiords Reveals Scenic Treasures,” an article I wrote for the July 3, 1994 issue of The Columbus Dispatch, sums up the highlights of my August 1993 vacation in Norway.

Edvard Grieg's Troldhaugen, Bergen, Norway

Edvard Grieg’s Troldhaugen, Bergen, Norway

In Lillehammer, I rode the lifts that would transport the world-class skiers who would be competing in the 1994 Winter Olympics. In Oslo, I saw the Holmenkollen ski jump; the Kon-Tiki Museum, containing Thor Heyerdahl’s original balsa raft from his 1947 expedition from Peru to Polynesia; and Frogner Park, filled with more than 200 of Gustav Vigeland’s sculptures of human figures. After traveling by train across Norway to Bergen, I made a pilgrimage to Troldhaugen, the home of composer Edvard Grieg, where I saw the stained-glass rose window that inspired my Dale of Norway “Nina Grieg” sweater.

Then, I boarded the MS Kong Harald for Hurtigruten’s Norwegian Coastal Express, a six-day, 1,380-mile voyage along Norway’s western coast to the town of Kirkenes. During the journey, the ship sailed through fjords, passed maelstroms and crossed the Arctic Circle. It also made 36 short stops in coastal ports to deliver passengers, mail and cargo. One of those stops was at Trondheim, the home of Nidaros Cathedral, the largest church in Scandinavia.

While I relished the 22 hours of continuous daylight during a Norwegian summer, I wasn’t expecting it to be quite so cold. So, after wandering around the cathedral, I squeezed in some emergency shopping for a sweater at Trondheim’s Husfliden store before I had to return to the ship.

Since 1891, Norway’s spectacular Husfliden shops have offered fine handmade goods, such as rosemåling (Norwegian decorative painting), sølge (Norwegian traditional silver jewelry), bunad (Norwegian folk costume), and quintessentially Norwegian woolen ski sweaters.

I emerged with a classic pullover from the Setesdal district of southern Norway, hand-knitted in the traditional black-and-white Lusekofta, or “lice” pattern, embellished with pewter clasps and trimmed in embroidered wool bands reminiscent of a rosemåling design.My Setesdal pullover from the Husfliden in Trondheim, Norway

I also couldn’t resist a miniature hat and mittens hand-knitted in the Norwegian Selbu rose style, characterized by a white background and a black pattern that is a variation on the eight-pointed star. Originating in the district of Selbu, an hour east of Trondheim, Selbuvotter mittens have one pattern on the back of the hand, another pattern on the palm, and a pointed fingertip and thumb. My tiny Selbuvotter mittens and hat from the Husfliden in Trondheim, NorwayFor the rest of my voyage – and during every winter since then — I’ve loved wearing my sweater and pinning my tiny ski togs on my coat.

Nidaros Cathedral, Trondheim, Norway.  St. Olav is in the middle row, fourth from the left, holding an axe.

Nidaros Cathedral, Trondheim, Norway. St. Olav is in the middle row, fourth from the left, holding an ax.

Last November, I came across knitwear designer Cynthia Wasner’s post about her visit to Nidaros Cathedral in Trondheim and Saint Olav on her blog, Norsk Needlework: at Home. (You can read the post here.) I learned how King Olav II, who brought Christianity to Norway, was killed in battle in 1030 and was buried somewhere around the place where the cathedral’s altar now stands. Since the saint and king suffered three wounds, one from a battle ax, the shield of Norway features an ax, as well as a crown and a lion. To celebrate the 200th anniversary of the Norwegian Constitution on May 17, 2014, Cynthia created knitting patterns for “Shield of Norway” mittens and a matching “Saint Olav” pullover. (Click here to see these two designs, as well as Cynthia’s other knitting patterns.)

Those mittens were such an appealing reminder of my visit to Trondheim that I made my first New Year’s resolution. In 2013, I was going to learn the right way to knit with two colors of yarn, and these mittens were going to be my first project.

In February, I took a two-session class on Fair Isle, the traditional art of stranded colorwork, and steeking, used in Fair Isle garments to form necklines and armholes. During the first session, we would learn how to knit in the round using two colors. The following week, we would practice working steeks in the swatch that we created the week before. “Steek,” a Scottish word meaning “to fasten or close,” is a technique that allows you to continue knitting in the round without interruptions for an opening, such as for the front of a cardigan or an armhole. Working a handful of extra stitches at the desired opening allows for the steek and picked-up stitches around it. When the knitting is finished, these extra stitches are cut down the center with scissors, creating an opening where the knitter can attach a sleeve or a button band.

The first class was a high-stress disaster. My fire-red face and my blotchy neck and chest belied my daily aggressive rosacea-controlling regimen. I couldn’t figure out how to pick, throw and wrap two colors of yarn at the same time, let alone keep track of quickly alternating stitches in each row. It was a nightmare. What had I gotten myself into?

Determined to solve this problem on my own, I watched a couple of Fair Isle tutorial videos on my iPad before I went to bed. The next day, I went to the library and brought home an armful of books and started teaching myself Fair Isle knitting. Besides mastering the technique, I picked up plenty of interesting facts about its fascinating history.

Fair Isle is the most southerly island of the Shetland Islands, just three miles long by two miles wide. Originally Norwegian, the Shetland Isles are now part of Scotland and are home to a hardy breed of sheep with fleece in 11 different colors, including white, reddish brown, gray, brown and black.

Yarn spun from Shetland sheep is the perfect choice for stranded knitting. Indigo, madder and yellow dyed colors of yarn are used in the bright, vibrant combinations of traditional Fair Isle knitting, which is thought to have started there around 1850.

Fair Isle knitting is characterized by horizontal bands of geometric patterns, arranged in an alternating sequence of small and large repeating pattern motifs in bright colors. There are three different types of patterns in Fair Isle knitting. “Peerie” is the Shetland dialect word for small, and peerie patterns are made in one to seven rows of knitting. Border patterns have between 8 and 15 rows. Large patterns have more than 15 rows.

Traditionally, Fair Isle knitting is done in the round, using circular or double-pointed needles, with the right side always facing, in only knit stitches. No more than two colors (a background color and a pattern color) are used in one round, or circular row, of knitting. The yarn not being used is carried across the back of the work, which is why it is called stranded knitting. Since the resulting knitted fabric has a double thickness, Fair Isle garments and accessories are very warm.

For the next several evenings, I concentrated in total silence, holding one color of yarn in my right hand and another in my left hand, slowly working my way around my circular needles, counting each stitch on each line of the pattern, and wrapping the unused yarn to create short strands on the back of my work. It was a little puckered, but it worked! I arrived at the second class with my completed swatch and managed to cut the steek without everything unraveling.

With that class out of the way, I was hot to get started on my mittens. I called Ingebretsen’s, my favorite source for all things Scandinavian, to order skeins of Rauma Finullgarn, a Norwegian fingering weight yarn for which the pattern called.

My mittens, knitted from Cynthia Wasner's Shield of Norway patternWhen the Ingebretsen’s box arrived, I sequestered myself and cast on for my project. Whipping out the easy ribbed cuff, I changed to larger double-pointed needles and slowly started tackling the cuff diagram for the right mitten. A nifty twisted border came next, followed by the pattern for the back and palm of the hand. I increased for the thumb, using a modified steek. Reaching the decrease row, I started shaping the mitten’s pointed top. I finished with the thumb, matching up the pattern on the inside of the thumb with the pattern on the palm. It worked! Knitting the left mitten went much faster. Soon, I had a not-too-puckered pair of mittens that fit perfectly, all ready to wear next season!

The books I checked out to teach myself Fair Isle knitting and learn about its history were: The Very Easy Guide to Fair Isle Knitting, by Lynne Watterson; Alice Starmore’s Book of Fair Isle Knitting; 200 Fair Isle Motifs: A Knitter’s Directory and Fair Isle Style: 20 Fresh Designs for a Classic Technique, both by Mary Jane Muckelstone; Michael Pearson’s Traditional Knitting: Aran, Fair Isle and Fisher Ganseys; Scottish Knits: Colorwork & Cables with a Twist and Nordic Knits: 25 Stylish, Small Projects, both by Martin Storey; and Northern Knits Gifts: Thoughtful Projects Inspired by Folk Traditions, by Lucinda Guy. Selbuvotter: Biography of a Knitting Tradition, by Terri Shea, was another great resource. A Knit Picks tutorial called “Fair Isle or Stranded Knitting” and “Fair Isle 102: Securing Long Floats,” a post on the Osborn Fiber Studio blog, are bookmarked on my iPad.

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3 Responses to Knitting My “Shield of Norway” Mittens, I Conquered Fair Isle and Remembered My Visit to Trondheim, Norway

  1. I’m heading to Norway next week. It has always been a lifelong dream to travel to that beautiful country. Your expedition sounds fantastic! We will be doing some of the same things 🙂

  2. Cecilia says:

    Simply beautiful!

  3. Betsy, I love this article and have shared it, just with my friends, on Face Book. Hope
    you don’t mind. I am so happy you have mastered stranded knitting. It is very addictive,
    should warn you! If you google “Cap for a Lesson in Learning Stranded Knitting” you
    will find my free pattern on Ravelry with some more hints. Plus you would love the
    book”Knitting With Two Colors” Meg Swanson and Amy Detjen. It is invaluable.

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