Sustaining Scandinavian Folk Arts in the Upper Midwest
Immigrants bring their languages, traditions, and skills with them when they move to a new country, adding their histories to the cultural heritage of their new home. The Upper Midwest’s cultural heritage is made up of numerous traditions belonging to the region’s Indigenous peoples, the descendants of immigrants who arrived in the 19th and 20th centuries, and more recent migrants from around the world. It is not only the diversity of these backgrounds which create a rich cultural heritage, but the ways that individuals adapt their practices in concert with others—both locally and with friends and family still in the home country who share how a tradition continues to develop. Thus, practitioners are continuously expanding and developing their skills and techniques in dialogue with the practices of others.
Accomplished knitter, Solveig Nielsen of Mineral Point, Wisconsin, first learned to knit from her father when she was six years old and living in Denmark. She studied knitting in school for two years and after making a pair of ill-proportioned baby socks, decided “that was it for knitting.” She immigrated to the United States as a young adult and does not recall knitting being particularly popular.
I came to this country in ’76. And there were people [who] knitted then but not that many. And the big difference is that the people who knitted back then sort of picked it up, but there wasn’t much available in terms of help, inspiration, instructions, so everything was clunky and ungraceful. The knitting you find out here today will just blow your mind.
As an adult, her daughter Birke taught herself to knit and urged her mother to try the hobby again. With her daughter’s encouragement, Solveig began knitting in retirement. She knits in the Continental style rather than the American (aka English) or Combined knitting styles because it is the technique she first learned and considers it quicker than the others. The types of pieces she knits and other techniques she uses are all done within the Continental style, where the yarn is held on the left hand and the main knitting action is picking the yarn rather than throwing it.
Solveig especially enjoys stranded colorwork knitting, also known as colorwork or stranded knitting. This technique incorporates two colors in the same row and creates very warm pieces because of the added yarn. It is a technique that is especially nice for projects where the back side of the piece can be hidden, such as sweaters.
All I brought is what you call stranded knitting. Which is not to be confused with Shetland knitting, but it does have two colors going across all the way. And the purpose of which is not just to make it look beautiful, but all of a sudden you have two layers of yarn with a lot of air pockets in between. So we get a lot of warmth, without all the bulk.
In this video, Solveig demonstrates how to tie-in when knitting to prevent loose strings.
EMBRACING THE CRAFT
Solveig has since embraced the craft by joining knitting groups and learning new skills. Solveig prefers stranded knitting over other techniques, learning patterns, and drawing inspiration from books, Ravelry, and YouTubers. Ravelry is an online community of knitters and other fiber artists with forums to meet like-minded crafters, browse patterns, and share completed projects.
For each piece, she decides what style of garment she wants to create, considers what yarn she has available, and creates a design in her head. As she works on each piece, she learns new techniques and tricks that she carries with her into other projects. She is the type of knitter who is willing to adapt her plan if something happens rather than unraveling to fix a mistake.
There are two kinds of knitters. And I am the one that is “fly by the seat of your pants.” And then there are others who follow the pattern to the letter. And if they made a mistake down here, they are going to unravel until they get to it. No matter what. Even though usually you can fix it later on. I don’t do that because you’re not going to go anywhere. You’re just going to sit there and unravel over and over and knit the same over and over.
Now, Solveig and her daughter Birke travel the world knitting, learning, and engaging with different communities of knitters—both locally and internationally. Solveig has attended knitting trips to Scandinavia and northern Europe where attendees work on knitting projects while visiting yarnmakers and learning about the local knitting scene. People attend the trips from all over the world and while usually it is a group of 15–20, she has been on trips with as many as 50 knitters. Solveig buys yarn from the local businesses they visit on these trips and often participants are given a kit upon departure with a common knitting project to work on during the trip.
When not traveling abroad, Solveig meets on Wednesdays and Fridays with two different knitting groups near Mineral Point. In fact, she usually has multiple projects in the works,
I always have three projects going. I have one of those “don’t talk to me.” I have one that I can pick up and we can sit and talk and have coffee. And then I have one that’s sort of in between.
CONNECTING & ADAPTING
For Solveig, knitting is a means of social connection as well as something that reminds her of home and the days when everyone wore sweaters knit by their mothers. She has drawn inspiration from Scandinavian knitters online, but also exchanges tips and tricks with friends more locally. Solveig remains drawn to many Scandinavian styles and patterns, but uses them as inspiration rather than a set of rules to follow, allowing her to innovate using older styles and making choices that expand on the skills she first learned as a child. By engaging in different communities of knitters, Solveig broadens her skillset and inspiration for projects, patterns, and designs. One of the positive sides of knitting is that with the help available today, it is easy to dive into a project.
CK: What do you think the future is of knitting?
SN: I think it’s here to stay. Because once you know how, if you have the patience to stick that out… The negative thing is that it takes a while to figure things out. But the good thing is that you can go out and buy kits, so you don’t have to think through that. So you can actually sit and you can knit.
Knitting is a craft that allows an artist to play to their strengths—choosing to either stick close to a pattern or to forge their own path. The range of styles and techniques makes it an expansive hobby with room to grow, once a new knitter masters the basics. Solveig first learned knitting during her childhood in Denmark as a necessity. Decades later in Wisconsin, she picked up the hobby again, this time creating and designing pieces that suit her own style and drawing inspiration from Scandinavian knitters. Knitting is a means of connection for Solveig—to friends in her community, to her roots, to her childhood, and to Denmark.
By Mirva Johnson
Interview, Videography, and Photography by Cortney Kramer
"For many years we played over 150 jobs a year. And I was still teaching school, I don’t know how we did it. But I think, when you’ve got music and rhythm in your system or something, it just kind of works."