Visual language is powerful and few images proclaim “Norwegian heritage!” more clearly than a Selbu Rose design on a mitten or sweater. That’s a Selbu Rose, not a star. “It’s an 8-petaled flower,” says Laurann Gilbertson, Chief Curator at the Vesterheim Museum in Decorah, Iowa. “The Selbu version is now the best known, but the symbol itself is much older.”
The Rose’s ancient roots harken back to when it was a sun symbol, one of many used by Northern European cultures. “It was used in Norway in hopes of channeling the goodness of life and to invoke associations of the growth and greenness and warmth that the sun brought,” says Laurann. Some knitting books simplify this and say the Selbu Rose is a “good luck” symbol, but the feelings it invoked were far richer and nuanced than that.
“Knitting symbols were a lot more than stitches and a needle,” says Laurann. Life in Norway could be difficult – a baby fails to thrive, a family member doesn’t return from the summer farm or from the sea. When a knitter was making a garment, she wanted to make it more than just protection against the cold. “Moving patterns, such as zig zags, were knit to keep evil away,” says Laurann. “The patterns were used near openings – on the neck and on sleeves – where evil might slip in.” The traditional Setesdal sweater designs are an example of this.
The meditative quality of knitting makes it easy to imagine a knitter by the fire, putting her hopes and prayers for a loved one’s safety into each row of a sweater or mitten.
As society changed and the specific meanings of the knitting patterns fell away, the beauty and sense of tradition they represented remained. The Selbu Rose’s new life as a well-loved decorative pattern began in 1857 when Marit Emstad, a 16-year-old, knitted three pairs of black and white 2-stranded mittens with an 8-pointed design in the middle. Marit and her two sisters wore their distinctive mittens to church and immediately caught everyone’s eye and interest.
Starting with that morning in church, the tiny Selbu municipality became a center for designing, knitting, and exporting black and white mittens. The rather extraordinary history of a community of busy, and slightly competitive, home knitters and two astute businessmen is documented on the Selbu government website. The site also has examples of design variations that were registered with the Selbu mitten guild, which was created to ensure quality.
The Selbu Rose pattern has become known as the “national mitten of Norway” and its popularity continues. Ingebretsen’s knitting instructor Kate Running has happy memories of a beloved uncle who wore Selbu Rose mittens. When Kate decided to create a pattern to teach mitten knitting, she thought it was only fitting to create a simplified version of his mittens, hence her class in Uncle Arne’s Mittens, which starts on October 20.
“I visited the Vesterheim Museum and that really sparked my interest in color work,” Kate says. A graphic designer, Kate uses her artistic skills and knowledge of readability to chart out patterns and to make them as user-friendly as possible. “I enjoy the charting and technical portion of pattern design. I procrastinate on the writing portion,” she admits.
Kate also likes the Selbu Rose pattern because it is eye-catching, practical, and because of the stranding, warm. “They’re an awesome mitten,” she says. Laurann Gilbertson agrees. “We no longer assign meaning to the design, but we still need good luck and warmth. We still need beauty.” The Selbu Rose mitten provides all of that.
To register for Kate’s class, call the store at 612.729.9333 and reserve your place with a credit card. If you are not able to attend the class, but would like to try your hand at knitting the Selbu Rose mitten, you can buy Kate’s pattern here.
Laurann Gilbertson is available to speak on the history of Norwegian sweaters and a number of other topics. To learn more about having her speak to a group, click here.