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  • Writer's pictureEmily

Speaking of tradition...Scandinavian knitting not very traditional?

Updated: Mar 4, 2018

So when I was growing up, it wasn't always easy being a half-white American half-Japanese kid in suburban Japan. It was the 1980s, and there weren't a ton of kids like me. Also, everyone assumed my dad was in the military (and my mom, therefore, must have been a barmaid...). I may have had a bit of an anger management problem as a result (...I may have yelled profanities at Japanese kids when my class was on a field trip at the big zoo in Ueno...maybe?) So one way I coped was to develop an unusual attachment to my Scandinavian heritage.

I am 5th generation Swedish and Danish. I've got a Nels Anderson on my dad's paternal paternal side, and Soren and Loviza Nelson on my dad's maternal paternal side. Pretty Swedish. I had no idea what this meant though. I suppose I imagined that to mean something like this:


In 6th (?) grade, we had to write reports about some kind of historical event or something, as well as create a 3D object to go along with the written report. I did mine on Vikings, and carved a viking ship, complete with a sail and little shields on each side. I managed to slice the side of my thumb with a chisel while working on it at the kitchen table, right in front of my very delicate and blood-averse Japanese grandma. Having been taught the basic rules of using woodworking tools by the time I could walk, I just thought "Oh, stupid, don't hold your tool like that!" but my grandma may have fainted at the sight of my blood. In other words, I was intensely invested in this basically mythical heritage, and had the thick skin to go with it. Flesh wound! I continued carving. It was pretty cool. I still have it!

Actually, an even sillier and funnier episode that illustrates my obsession with being "Swedish" was how, when my mom and I were at the Tsukuba world expo in 1985 (my dad was in a group sculpture show that was held at the same time there and we were killing time), I insisted we visit the Swedish Pavilion. I have this very vague memory of marching up to the lovely very blonde and tall lady greeting visitors at the front entrance and declaring to her in my very American English accent, "I"m Swedish too!"

"I'm Swedish!"

I'm sure you can imagine this poor woman's confusion. But for me, claiming a specifically Swedish identity meant something concrete, something magical, something outside of the dreary existence of life in a suburban condo complex outside Tokyo. And I loved imagining my ancestors as Vikings.

Well, as it turns out, most Vikings aren't what we imagine them to be. The Swedes, in particular, were more traders than pillagers. And even the pillagers were that seasonally.

But...I want to be this lady!!!!

And as it turns out, the history of what we now think of as traditional Scandinavian knitting is pretty shallow as well. I've been doing some research on the different styles of knitting that are associated with different Scandinavian countries (this is what happens when you're a's a curse!...also if you're Stan's daughter...or Stansdottir), and as it turns out, most are as old War American history. Which, if you're a historian, is barely historical at all. (Unless you're an American historian...but the rest of us mock them and their short history!)

Knitting itself has existed in these places since the 16th century. But the multi-colored knitting--stranded knitting--has been common mostly from the 19th century. For instance, the iconic "lice" pattern that is ubiquitous in Norwegian knitting was really popularized as a result of it being adopted by the Norwegian Winter Olympic team in the last few decades. (Of course it existed before then...but not in the way it is now.) The famous Icelandic sweaters and mittens and hats made of different colors of Lopi yarn...have been around since the 1950s. Before that, Icelanders knitted, but mostly in single colors. This is the same for Sweden and Denmark. Patterns were produced through variations in stitches, not in color. And it was really once commercially produced yarn in bright artificial colors were produced that the really colorful stranded sweaters began to be made more typically.

Of course, the image of the Nordic knitter is ubiquitous. Did you hear about the Finnish snowboarding coach who was knitting while his snowboarders were competing in the Olympics?

Knitting away like a good Finn should!

I mean, come on, dude! Self-stereotyping is a thing. It's a thing with Japanese people when they talk about the "soul of Japan that is in touch with nature" (bleh) and it's apparently a thing with Finnish snowboarders. National images are powerful because people in places start to believe the stories countries tell about themselves. And the descendants 4 or 5 generations separated from a place may create their own stories about a place to fulfill their own needs and dreams.

My fascination with Scandinavia runs deep. It gave me something to hold onto when being a mixed race kid in suburban Tokyo was difficult. And it partially feeds my desire to create now. But I try to reach back and find a way to the real place from which my ancestors departed--a place that was most likely less enchanting and fascinating, but no less real, than the place I imagined once upon a time.

By deliberately choosing Scandinavian techniques--some of which, granted, are not that "old"--to create my pieces, I honor the fantastical dreams of that crazy 7 year old kid that confidently declared her Swedishness, just as I honor the flexibility and mutability of the real places and people of Scandinavia.

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