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The Atlantic
The Atlantic
25 Nov 2018
Emma Sarappo

NextImg:The Star of Norwegian Knitwear

When I was a teenager, a friend bought me a pair of socks from Target for Christmas. They were cream and brown, with a symmetrical octagon pattern that looked like a star or snowflake. I brought them with me when I moved to Chicago for college, because they seemed perfect for winter. It took me years to name the pattern that wrapped around the cuff: the selburose.

I’d seen the star plenty of times before I knew what it was. When I was growing up, my house was filled with mittens that my Norwegian bestemor would knit and send—black-and-white mittens with a pointed end, a ribbed cuff, and a white star woven on the back of the hand. My mother told me that the town her father had come from was world-renowned for them.

You’ve surely seen the selburose before, too: It’s knit into sweaters, featured on those mittens, seen at the Olympics, and printed on leggings and drink cozies. It’s shorthand for Scandinavia, if not Norway specifically, and feels at home on winter gear, especially our American faux-Christmas sweaters and earmuffs. Norwegians love it—especially on the famous black-and-white mittens my grandmother used to make. The symbol is one of that country’s proudest cultural exports, thanks to the knitwear on which it is most often emblazoned.

Today the selburose is an emblem of winter, and Christmas, and most of all Norway. But Norwegians didn’t invent it so much as they popularized the pattern. Precursors arose in the ancient Fertile Crescent and evolved over centuries throughout Europe. Then Norway made the symbol fashionable and helped it spread, thanks largely to accidents of industrialism and nationalism—and the clever persistence of the people in the small town for which it is named.

Selbuvotter, the Norwegian name for the mittens, comes from the town of Selbu, in the middle of Norway. It sits next to Lake Selbu, its namesake, in a mountain valley, relatively isolated from the rest of the country. Like most Norwegians, the valley’s inhabitants were traditionally farmers and forest managers. From the 15th century on, Selbu was famous for millstone production, but in the mid–19th century, that quickly changed.

In 1857, a girl named Marit Gulsethbrua Emstad knit three pairs of ambitious black-and-white mittens, with a bold, eight-bladed rose design (åttebladrose) on the back of the hands. She showed them off at church, and the garments became an instant hit. Everyone in Selbu wanted a pair.

Their popularity spread quickly. By 1910, the Norwegian Arts and Craft Club, or Husflidslag, opened its first official chapter in Trondheim, the nearest big city to Selbu. Emstad sold to it, and from there, the mittens exploded across the country. By the 1930s, Selbu townsfolk were knitting 100,000 pairs annually, selling mittens to France, Austria, and the rest of Europe. When machine knitting became feasible, the mittens became popular tourist souvenirs—and the Selbu husfliden logo quickly became shorthand for quality and authenticity. By 1960, a major part of Selbu’s livelihood depended on the production and sale of mittens. Today the two-strand, black-and-white mitten with two roses on the back of the hand, a ribbed cuff, and a pointed top screams “Norway.”

But the design is not authentically Norwegian. In fact, the åttebladrose predates Norwegian knitting and nationalism. Its provenance is so ancient that pinpointing a single origin is almost impossible.

The star first appeared in Norway in the Middle Ages, long before Marit Emstad showed off her pair at church. Annemor Sundbø, a Norwegian knitter and author, has written extensively on the history of the Selbu mittens. “Our country is not … the only one to use this motif,” she writes in her book Invisible Threads in Knitting. Sundbø explains that Latvia also claims the star as its national symbol. But the rose appears elsewhere much earlier, such as on the earliest silk knit garments in Europe and cushions in an ancient grave in Spain; its origins seem to combine Christian and Islamic patterns descended from Coptic and Byzantine art. It can even be seen in Sumerian mother-of-pearl mosaics.

Emstad was not the first person—nor even the first Norwegian—to use the star. It can be found earlier in Norwegian woven tapestries, Hardanger embroidery, and decorative beading. Around the time Emstad knitted her first mittens, the star appears on knit sweaters from western Norway that adapted Danish patterns, such as the famous Fana sweater from Bergen. Other historians have argued that Marit Emstad picked up the pattern from another Marit—Marit Sessenggjerdet, who knit a pair of black-and-white stockings for her husband while working for the same farmer as Emstad, Jo Kjøsnes.

But who invented the selburose is less important than how it became a fixture of Norwegian life. By the time the Marits started knitting the design, the stage was set for its success.

The independent nation of Norway didn’t exist until 1905. After the Black Plague decimated the population in the 14th century, Norway became part of Denmark for centuries—a period popularly called “the 400-year night.”

In 1814, the Treaty of Kiel wrapped up the Scandinavian leg of the Napoleonic Wars, and Denmark ceded Norway to Sweden. The Norwegians were not thrilled by the idea. An assembly gathered in Eidsvoll, where they wrote a modern liberal constitution (full independence would not arrive until 1905).

As nationalism swept across Europe in the mid–19th century, a cultural revolution occurred in Norway. Previously, anyone looking for a rich educational or cultural experience had moved to Copenhagen; even Oslo and Bergen were seen as backwater towns. Norwegians had been made to speak Danish, although many Norwegian dialects sounded nothing like it.

This raised a pressing question: After 400 years of cultural drain, what did it mean to be Norwegian? Intellectuals searched for the suppressed “true spirit” of Norway. A new written language was standardized. Painters created romantic landscapes of the country’s unique beauty—fjords, craggy mountains, grazing goats. Folk songs, traditions, and legends were collected and recorded. Thought leaders encouraged people to celebrate the 1814 constitution’s anniversary on May 17. This new national identity offered a convincing, if fairly manufactured, answer.

So the selbuvotter entered the scene at the perfect time. A young Norwegian girl in a Norwegian town had created something uniquely Norsk—practical and warm, but also bold and recognizable. It’s no wonder that by 1890, when the Husflidslag began preserving Norwegian handicraft, the mittens were already a craze.

In Decorah, Iowa—population 7,700—historic place markers commemorate the town’s Norwegian heritage. The Viking-helmeted flags of Luther College decorate the lampposts. Houses and storefronts have nisse—mythological creatures, traditionally similar to gnomes or other garden fairies, now conflated with Christmas traditions and resembling Santa’s elves—peeking out mischievously with sayings like “Uff da!” painted on them.

Vesterheim Norwegian-American Museum occupies a large brick building on Decorah’s main street. The museum’s mission is to preserve Norwegian-American history for the whole Midwest; it runs folk-art classes, teaching students the basics of crafts like rosemåling (rose painting) and nålbinding (traditional weaving that predates knitting). That’s where I met Kathleen Martinson, a professor emerita of art at Luther, who was once called the “godmother of nålbinding.” Today she teaches nålbinding classes at Vesterheim’s Folk Art School and is a well-known textile expert. The first thing Martinson ever knit was a selburose.

“That symbol, from way back in my mind, is Norway,” she told me. “Or at least it’s Scandinavia. I think we have been marketed that.” Martinson isn’t Norwegian—she grew up in New York State and learned to knit as a young girl in the 1960s. “I wanted to knit that pattern,” she says of an early ski-headband project. “It was snowflakes or roses or whatever. It attracted me, and from that point, I think that shape has meant Scandinavia.”

Norway’s nationalist export worked. Most Americans see the selburose as a snowflake or a star; few know it as a flower or sun motif, which it was for centuries before its Nordic adoption.

Rather than praising the design alone, Martinson praises the women who helped spread it. “Think about how many got made and how far they went,” Martinson said. Norway’s rising nationalism focused on a sometimes idealized folk culture, seeking to preserve traditions and resist full industrialization. Under that system, women were responsible for things like staying at home, tending to livestock, and raising children. But early globalization didn’t make those especially profitable activities.

According to Martinson, the selbuvotter cottage industry helped make traditional farming life economically feasible. “Something that was portable, something that didn’t take a lot of money to get started, something they already knew how to do and could do it while they were walking—you see a lot of equipment from that time so that you could walk, belt loops and bracelets, and so on. They could do it when they were talking. It didn’t necessarily need a lot of light, so you could do it after dark.”

For decades, Selbu’s economic health depended on thousands of women knitting hundreds of thousands of mittens; the home industry supported family farms and allowed for unprecedented independence for women, who were taught to knit the pattern from girlhood (a gift of selbuvotter was customary for a girl’s fiancé and his closest male relatives for their wedding, so good knitting skills were crucial). Beyond that, they could knit and sell their mittens, which were in high demand.

“I think the economics gets you out of that ‘Oh, the old days were so wonderful,’” Martinson said in a singsong voice, “to ‘How am I going to feed my children now that my husband’s died?’ I think that that’s a remarkable part of what was happening then.”

Today the Vesterheim gift shop looks a lot like the souvenir shops of Oslo. It sells rose-shaped cookie cutters, plus rose-covered shirts, leggings, socks, and more, tucked between novelties with sayings such as “Kiss me, I’m Norwegian.” In the back of the shop, authentic Dale of Norway (the Nike of Norwegian sport) sweaters with the pattern carry hefty price tags.

“It does seem to be quite an old motif that came into Norway, as did many motifs over the generations,” said Laurann Gilbertson, a curator at the museum. “But I suppose even if it came from somewhere else, the Norwegians made it theirs and put it on everything.”

That remains the legacy of the selburose. “If you were to scatter out several motifs from Norway’s past for the average American, the one that they would recognize is the eight-petal flower,” Gilbertson said.

Perhaps these gifts and kitsch items sell so well because of that new meaning: roots. “Americans love this idea of connecting even better with their own heritage,” Gilbertson observed. “At least here in the Midwest, where we have an awful lot of people who have been here an awful lot of time.”

Selbuvotter were made possible by centuries of trade down the Silk Road, which introduced both the rose and the art of knitting to Norway. That probably allowed a young Marit Emstad to encounter the pattern in embroidery, weaving, or carving long before she knit her first pair of mittens. Industry and nationalism put the wind in the selburose’s sails, spreading it to the New World and beyond. Even though their famous product wasn’t created in some ahistorical, purely Norwegian bubble, the Selbu Norwegians do deserve a fair share of the credit.

“I think Selbu, what they really have—and I don’t have any heritage stake in this,” began Martinson, “is a strong knitting tradition, independent people, in a place where trade was available. And they took it and ran with it.” Now, when I see it, I point proudly and say my family comes from the town that made it famous. It’s a long story, so I tend to leave out the rest.

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