WRAP Magazine, Winter 2012
The end of 2012 saw my second feature for WRAP Magazine published – this time an article about Icelandic knitting!
Once the black sheep of design, Vik Prjonsdottir has designers flocking back to wool.
When Icelandic designers Brynhildur Pálsdóttir, Gudfinna Mjöll Magnúsdóttir and Thuríður Sigurþórsdóttir graduated in 2005, the belief amongst their contemporaries was that there was no future for design in Iceland – production and manufacture were in decline and there were no native materials they could make interesting work with.
Today, business is booming, and Pálsdóttir, Mjöll Magnúsdóttir and Sigurþórsdóttir struggle to secure production slots in the factory because demand is so high. So what changed?
In the 1970s and 1980s at the peak of the woollen industry, there were knitting factories all over Iceland, making traditional products from lopi such as Icelandic Iopapeysa jumpers – as synonymous with cosy Scandinavian knits as Sweden’s classic Bohus Stickning design.
Lopi is made from Icelandic sheep wool, which has unique characteristics due to the lack of cross-breeding since sheep were brought to the island with the first settlers. Their fleece has two coats, a long water-resistant outer coat called tog, and a soft shorter coat called thel. They can be used separately, or combined to make lopi. The original unspun lopi has been used for knitting since 1900.
Due to increased competition from Asia and the declining popularity of traditional knitwear, by 2005, there were just three factories left in the whole country. Contemporary designers just didn’t see the appeal of wool as a material and saw little opportunity for production and manufacture in the country.
Gudfinna Mjöll Magnúsdóttir said: “We felt obliged to do something about this, so that’s the reason we started. It was a sense of responsibility to relieve that situation and show that there was a material that we could do something beautiful and new with. Not much had been going on with wool in the years before, but we need to keep that industry in Iceland – there are quite limited materials here.
“We didn’t even know how to knit. Well, we learnt at school, but I still don’t know how to cast on and cast off, I can just knit in between. We are two product designers and a fashion designer, we’re not professional knitters – we don’t even have a background in textiles.
“But it was a challenge to prove that there were possibilities in production in Iceland.”
They teamed up with one of Iceland’s oldest knitting factories; Víkurprjón Ltd, based in a village called Vík.
Their brand ‘Vik Prjonsdottir’ (‘Vik, the daughter of knitting’) was born; and now makes outlandish knitwear inspired by Iceland’s rich culture of myths and folklore.
Mjöll Magnúsdóttir says: “We think about Vik as a person, what she is interested in, what she is inspired by. We differ as designers, but we can defer to her – although she is interested in things we find interesting!
“In our design process, we start with a story, rather than an aesthetic or by sketching straight away. Either we find the stories, or we make them up, but it helps us to work out the design from a story.”
Their Seal Pelt was inspired by the legend that seals are entrapped humans. The design process started with a story of a man who took a seal pelt from the beach and kept it locked in a closet. He married a beautiful woman he’d found naked and crying on the same beach. One day she found the pelt and returned to the ocean, but was forever torn between land and sea.
Mjöll Magnúsdóttir says: “Once we have the story, we start sketching and brainstorming from that, so that’s when we really start to develop the design. The story gives us a base that all three of us can work from. It’s a dialogue. It goes from one person to the next person and the idea develops in the process.
“Then it’s more collaboration – at this stage with factory. It’s a very low-fi factory. We had no experience in working with wool and knitting when we started, so we wanted to embrace their technical skill and knowledge of the material – we’ve always been in a really important dialogue with them.
“The knitting master takes our hand-drawn pattern, and he puts it onto a cassette like you would listen to music on, with one pattern on the A-side and another on the B-side!”
The cassette is put into a ‘tape deck’ and transferred onto the knitting machine’s computer. When you knit by hand, each stitch is moved individually across the row. The only difference in the way that knitting machines work is that an entire row of loops can be moved at once.
It takes 15 minutes to knit each metre and once complete, the resulting material is brushed, washed and dried. Two people then work together to hand cut the shape using paper templates and weights. The pieces are pegged in place and sewn together using a domestic scale sewing machine – a blanket can take a day to stitch.
Mjöll Magnúsdóttir says: “We have been always trying to stretch the possibilities. We can only usually have two colours. In the Shield of Wings, inspired by an eagle, we have three layers – so we can have six colours. We knew from the beginning that we wouldn’t be working with the latest technology, so we put more emphasis on the story and the origin of the design.”
Vik Prjonsdottir has shown other designers that wool can be used to make interesting contemporary products, and that the factories in Iceland have got life in them yet.
“Now, things have changed so much – we find it difficult getting space in the production schedule! There are still only three factories, but the landscape has completely changed – so many designers are working with wool now.
“We’re really proud that we managed to show new possibilities with Icelandic wool; that we showed that wool is a material you can do interesting things with, if you approach it in a creative way.”
All copy is reproduced here as it was supplied by Katie Treggiden to the client or publication.