Power Patterns

Power Patterns: Discussing the Icelandic Sweater and the Greenlandic Nuilarmiut at the Pitt Rivers Museum
Laurie Bertram

As a researcher specializing in Icelandic-Canadian material culture, walking through the Arctic peoples installation at the Pitt Rivers Museum generated a sense of familiarity. Behind the glass evidence of numerous northern communities, including carefully crafted pieces of clothing, art and technology, spoke to the many populations- and seamstresses that have strived to make life and labour possible in very challenging landscapes. Not surprisingly, I recognized a few particularly effective pieces of material culture that had made their way to Iceland. Looking up at the white komatik sled I was quickly reminded of similar piece used by Icelanders in the northern Húsavík region on display at the regional museum. Peering in at the waterproof anoraks reminded me of the very similar cut of fishermen’s clothing both in Iceland and Icelandic immigrant fishing communities in Canada. Most of all, I recognized the multicoloured Greenlandic nuilarmiut (PRM 1992.29.1.3), a seriously spectacular beaded collar or cape which became the inspiration for the lopapeysa or Icelandic sweater. Hidden behind each of these similarities are long and complex stories about material cultural exchange in the North. As Bruno Latour reminds us, “things do not exist without being full of people.” This is certainly true of the lopapeysa and nuilarmiut, related garments that help illuminate the complexity, diversity and phenomenal impact of Northern women’s expression through clothing. This blog post discusses some of the recent research on the subject and some of the fascinating questions these patterns pose.

“Ladies’ Wear Holiday Collection, 2014.” Old Navy Canada Online Catalogue, December 2014. 

Museum-goers at Pitt Rivers might not recognize the brightly-coloured beaded yoke behind the glass at first, but the nuilarmiut was the inspiration for the yoked Icelandic sweater, or lopapeysa as well as other patterns throughout Europe and North America. Copied and replicated by knitters around the world and appearing on the racks of stores like GAP, Old Navy and H & M, this particular garment has made a big imprint on global clothing and fashion. The Pitt Rivers of nuilarmiut is part of a national Greenlandic women’s outfit made Haldora Davidson between 1991-2 specifically for purchase by the museum. The nuilarmiut is just one element of an intricate and labour intensive costume usually reserved for special occasions in Greenland, including graduations, national holidays and weddings.

Image from Kaladlit Assilialiait; or, Woodcuts drawn and engraved by Greenlanders. Collection of the British Museum. British Library HMNTS 10460.f.19, Godthaab: 1860, p.11.

The national costume is a blend of new and old design, incorporating traditional Western Greenlandic styles and materials with those acquired through trade, including the glass beads used to create the first incarnations of the nuilarmiut (top). More than a simple regional style, Søren Thuesen writes that the costume emerged as a political symbol for the Greenlandic home rule movement in the early 20th century and continues to occupy a critical place in Greenlandic social and political expression. The nuilarmiut and the national costume more broadly reflect the central role of Greenlandic women in the preservation of matematerial traditions of immense cultural and political significance. Creating these garments is no easy feat. As Greenlandic seamstress and needlework instructor Gertrud Kleinschmidt writes, a single nuilarmiut requires 65,000 beads and is an essential component of a labour intensive national costume that would take a single maker up to two years to complete. The use of nuilarmiut and other Greenlandic garments, like traditional kamik (white embroidered seal skin boots), are powerful and hotly contested symbols for many Greenlanders. In one 2009 challenge over the uses and abuses of the Greenlandic national costume, Danish fashion designer Peter Jensen faced protests and even death threats for his appropriation and manipulation of the costume in his fall/winter collection, including his design for high-heeled kamik (below).

Peter Jensen, Fall/Winter Collection, 2009. 

Similar disputes have emerged around the appropriation and marketing of Inuit designs in Canada by non-community members. As Veronica Dewar explains, the appropriation and marketing of Inuit designs by non-community members often distorts the complex meanings of such garments. She urges for more substantive engagement and consultation with northern Indigenous communities in such projects, particularly in relation to the fashion industry and their use of Inuit designs. “We are no longer willing to be treated like artifacts in museums,” she argues, “and that includes our living culture which is embodied in our clothing and other symbols of Inuit culture.”

Alfred Stefansson, “Gertrud in beaded collar.” n.d. Scott Polar Research Institute, P48/16 241.

The relationship between the nuilarmiut and the lopapeysa has a complex history that speaks to larger histories and debates about women’s intellectual property, political expression and conflict in the North. Greenlanders and Icelanders share a long history, shaped in part by their close geographic proximity. Both countries were also once part of the Danish Empire and traditional texts suggest that older medieval Norse colonies in Greenland fostered a range of relationships between Indigenous and Norse-speaking people from both Iceland and Norway between ca. 985 and 1480 CE. The nuilarmiut/lopapeysa connection was fostered by a 20th century Norwegian land claim campaign (with roots in the middle ages) and 20th century handknitting revival movements in both Iceland and Norway.

In their analyses of the rise of this particular yoked sweater, Kate Davis and Harpa Hreinsdóttir write that the first Scandinavian pattern based on the nuilarmiut began to circulate in Norway in the early 1930s amid Norwegian campaigns against Denmark for territorial rights in Greenland. Norwegians claimed that their medieval roots in Norse Greenland trumped Denmark’s claims to the island and its valuable natural resources. Both Davis and Hreinsdóttir argue that Norwegian women expressed their support in the conflict through a kind of nationalist knitting campaign that highlighted the relationship between Norway and Greenland. Norwegian handiwork advocate Annichen Sibbern drafted the first knitting pattern using the beaded nuilarmiut around 1929-30. According to Davis, Sibbern based her pattern on images of the garment from the George Schnéevoigt drama, Eskimo, which appeared in Norwegian movie theatres around this same time. Sibbern named the sweater pattern Eskimo peysa [Eskimo sweater], though it also combined the structure of traditional circularly knit Norwegian sweaters with the design of Greenlandic nuilarmiut.

Annichen Sibbert in “Eskimo peysunni.” Urd. No. 48, 1930. As reproduced in Harpa Hreinsdottir, “Hin eina sanna Eskimó peysa; Í tilefni 80 ára afmælis.” Reykjavik, 2010.

Just as the nuilarmiut acted as part of a symbol of national Greenlandic identity in the 20th century, Davis and Hreinsdóttir argues that the adoption of a Greenlandic pattern by Norwegian women was a deliberate political reference in a conflict over resources and territorial expansion. Sibbern’s sweater pattern offered Norwegian women a venue to show their support through what Davis calls “quietly knitted nationalist sentiment.” The pattern was published in several Norwegian women’s knitting forums and spread throughout the Nordic countries, where women from a range of communities embraced the style and began to experiment with variations. Harpa Hreinsdóttir documents the arrival of the pattern in Iceland through women’s magazines and writes about the roots of the new and different meanings assigned to the sweater by Icelandic producers and wearers.

Until very recently the Greenlandic roots of the Icelandic lopapeysa had been largely forgotten in Iceland. Detatched from the original meanings assigned to it by Greenlandic and Norwegian women, Guðrún Helgadóttir writes that the Icelandic sweater, though originally based on Sibbern’s Eskimo peysa pattern, became part of the Icelandic “uniform or vernacular national dress” in the 1960s and 70s and the cornerstone of the Icelandic handknitting industry. Though the pattern reflects the influence of the nuilarmiut, Icelandic knitters and scholars alike emphasize that it is more the wool than the pattern used to make the Icelandic sweater that is responsible for its symbolic power. Lopi, or the thick, single strand homegrown wool used to knit the sweater, links this particular incarnation of the pattern to the Icelandic wool industry as well as the small island’s rich “sheep culture.” As Helgadóttir explains, wool and sheep have been vital to Icelandic history, culture and endurance in a sometimes challenging landscape that for centuries prohibited for many forms of agriculture. This traditional material continued to occupy an important place in both modern Icelandic culture and its export economy. From the 1960s and 70s onwards, the export of “authentic” Icelandic sweater making patterns, along with real Icelandic lopi helped bolster the wool industry in Iceland, supporting wool prices and processing plants in isolated Icelandic communities dependent on wool and fish for economic survival.

Lopapeysa pattern. Viking Wool. N.d. Courtesy of Cynthia Cooper. 

Just as the nuilarmiut assumed political meaning in campaigns for Greenlandic national recognition, Helgadóttir writes that its wooly cousin the lopapeysa also enjoyed a surge of popularity in Iceland in the period following its own declaration of sovreignty from Denmark and in a series of postwar confrontations over fishing rights around Iceland, including the Cod Wars of the 1950s and 1970s. More recently, the political and economic significance of the sweater was particularly evident during protests following the recent Icelandic banking crisis, during which angry Icelanders at protests brought out their knitting needles to voice their opposition to the government’s management of the crisis. Helgadóttir suggests that in knitting, Icelanders used a traditional economic staple to voice their dissilusionment with modern Icelandic economic culture. Moreover, many Icelanders at the time were returning to their knitting needles to supplement their income in the new uncertain economy. Iceland’s corresponding expansion of its tourist industry in the years following the banking crisis has also meant more lopapeysa sales to tourists and a proliferation of travel advertisements and publications featuring the sweater. Helgadóttir describes the explosion of post-banking crisis lopapeysa production since 2008, a resurrgence that may account in part for the pattern’s most recent return to international fashion, including the racks of stores like Old Navy and Gap.

The questions raised by the relationship between of the nuilarmiut and lopipeysa are complex but the resulting discussion necessarily places the voices and labour of Greenlandic, Icelandic and Norwegian clothing makers at the centre of international political movements, economic change and popular fashion. The remarkable connection between these two garments reveals the important role of women’s clothing-based networks of expression in the circumpolar world. In future posts, I hope to further explore the popularization of this pattern in North America, both through imported Icelandic wool and patterns and through Canadian pattern makers and companies like Mary Maxim, and their role in constructing images of Canadian “northerness.” So doing, I hope to contribute to the existing compelling interdisciplinary discussion about the transnational reach and implications of Northern garments.

Additional readings:

Jessica Bumpus, “A Controversial Fashion.” Vogue (UK) March 2009. Available online. 

Kate Davis, Yokes. Kate Davis Designs, 2014.

Veronica Dewar, “Keynote Address: Our Clothing, our Culture, our Identity.” In Arctic Clothing of North America- Alaska, Canada, and Greenland.  J.C.H. King, Birgit Pauksztat and Robert Storrie, eds. Montreal: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2005, 23-6.

Guðrún Helgadóttir, “Nation in a Sheep’s Coat: The Icelandic Sweater,” FORMakadamisk 4.2 (2011): 59-68. 

Harpa Hreinsdóttir, “Hin eina sanna Eskimó peysa; Í tilefni 80 ára afmælis,” 2010. Available online. 

Gertrud Kleinschmidt, “Formal Clothing: The Greenlandic National Costume.” In Arctic Clothing of North America- Alaska, Canada, and Greenland.  J.C.H. King, Birgit Pauksztat and Robert Storrie, eds. Montreal: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2005, 104-7.

Søren T. Thuesen, ”Dressing Up in Greenland: A Discussion of Change and World Fashion in Early-colonial West Greenland.” In Arctic Clothing of North America- Alaska, Canada, and Greenland.  J.C.H. King, Birgit Pauksztat and Robert Storrie, eds. Montreal: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2005, 100-3.