Liz Gill visits these stunningly beautiful islands and discovers that the ancient skill of knitting has evolved into an art form
To say Faroese women are knitting enthusiasts would be an understatement. Fanatics more like. Addicts even. Certainly that’s how Gundy Vang puts it. A food scientist by profession most of her leisure time is consumed by the craft. “If I’m not doing it I feel something is missing,” she says, “so it is a bit like an addiction. Sometimes if I’ve been very busy I feel the need to cancel everything else so there can just be me and the sofa and the knitting. It empties your head of all the problems.”
The Faroese who start at maybe five or six years old can knit incredibly fast on two needles, five needles or on one big circular one: traditionally two women would work on connected circular needles to make a garment together. They can knit a pattern and its reverse at the same time. They can follow incredibly complicated instructions or make it up as they go along. They can knit and watch tv, of course, but they can also knit as they walk: in the old days women did it as they went to milk their cows, buckets slung over their shoulders, fingers clicking away.
They can do it on their own or, more usually, in knitting clubs. There’s even a phrase for the sort of stories spun at these evenings, bindiklubasoga which means if not exactly gossip then certainly a tale that’s grown in the telling.
What began as a practical need to transform the wool of the local sheep into warm clothes to withstand the North Atlantic weather and a way of filling the long dark nights has become ever more creative. And in the last two years it has flowered in the village of Fuglafjordur into a festival aimed at sharing some of these skills with the wider world.
The three day festival is a remarkable achievement for a place with only 1500 souls. Not only are there dozens of workshops including ones on how to make hats, slippers, cuffs, shawls, decorations, turn a heel and use plant dyes but they are all held in either local homes or in the village’s two historic houses.
Inside one of the latter with its grass roof and low ceiling I find a group of women carding wool – separating the coarser outer from the softer inner – and then spinning it. The atmosphere is convivial as it is at another workshop I visit on ‘shadow knitting’ where the pattern only appears at a certain angle. Alexandra whose home it is takes me into her bedroom which is packed floor to ceiling with a fabulous array of the two pieces, dresses and sweaters she has created in her favourite medium, mohair.
Many of the 400 attendees are islanders; others are from Denmark, Sweden and Norway with a sprinkling of Brits and Americans who rely on the Scandinavians’ ability to translate into English and the event’s sisterly and supportive ethos. (Men used to knit here but today it’s almost entirely women.) Foreign visitors will stay in local homes, hospitality also being a theme for a festival in a place with no hotels or regular b and bs.
The non-Faroese-speakers might have to miss the lectures, fascinating though they sound: knitting in art and literature, knitting as psychotherapy, knitting and blogging. One speaker Katrina Geil who is going to talk about making garments fit tells me she is on a personal crusade against baggy sweaters. She’s also keen to see more colour – “going into a yarn shop is like buying sweeties without the calories.”
The traditional Faroese look of regular motifs in cream, black and shades of brown is said to be inspired by the colours and markings of the surroundings and you can certainly see the connection with bare hills, sculptural crags and peaks still snow-covered in April.
I don’t think though that anything had quite prepared me for how astonishingly beautiful the Faroe Islands are. Just when you think you must have seen the best view – a cluster of coloured houses caught between mountain and fjord, maybe – you’ll turn a corner and there’ll be another amazing vista – jaw-droppingly dramatic cliffs plunging to the sea, a tiny white church at the edge of a limpid lake, massive rocks in the water which legend says are giants turned to stone. And all accessorised by the sweet-faced sheep probably bussed in from central casting to give the final picture book touch.
The roads are a brilliantly efficient contrast to all this natural rawness, straight and smooth where they run alongside water – nowhere in this 18 island archipelago is more than three miles from the sea – but with enough hair pin bends, sheer drops and tunnels which cut through hills and even under the sea bed to keep driving an exhilarating challenge.
The capital, Torshavn, home to 20,000 of the islands’ 50,000 population, is one of the world’s smallest but colourful and lively, the seat of the ancient parliament, the Logting – the Faroes are a self governing nation within the Kingdom of Denmark – and the centre of culture with museums, theatre performances, exhibitions and concerts. The islands have a strong musical tradition based on the human voice – there were no instruments here until a couple of hundred years ago – and there are several festivals during the summer months.
The unique Faroes chain dance where participants have to remember a long story as well as the steps is a direct continuation of the mediaeval ring dance which was banned by the Church in much of Europe for being pagan but which lived on in this isolated place.
There are frequent year-round flights from Copenhagen but the easiest and cheapest way from the UK is an hour and 20 minute flight from Edinburgh, arriving late on a Monday and departing early on a Friday. Because the islands, halfway between Norway and Iceland, are only70 miles long and 47 wide and linked by road or ferry you can fit in a lot in a three day visit.
As well as a guided walk of Torshavn I also hiked about five miles across the fells on a path well-marked by cairns to Kirkjubour to see the 12th century St Olav’s church, the ruins of St Magnus Cathedral and a 900 year-old farmhouse said to be the oldest inhabited wooden house in Europe and lived in today by the 17th generation of the same family of farmers.
On my second day I went out on to the hills on an Icelandic horse called Garpur who let me experience the tolt, a gait peculiar to the breed, somewhere between a trot and a canter.
“The horse always has two feet on the ground,” explains Jacklin my guide, “so it’s like sitting on a living sofa.” Sturdy, shaggy coated little Garpur was undoubtedly sure-footed but I had to confess I was a bit scared by the unfamiliar motion and happier when we slowed to a walk, content to simply to drink in the air and the views.
Other adventures on offer include diving, repelling, kayaking and angling. If I’d had longer I’d have loved a bird-themed boat trip – there are over 260 species living on or visiting the islands during the year with puffins being the star attraction of course.
I settled though for browsing the shops including Gudrun and Gudrun, the designers responsible for the sweater made famous in The Killing, who produce exquisite designs but with slightly eye-watering prices. Slightly more affordable are the garments sold in the home industries shop where I fell in love with and bought a fine white filigree shawl, telling myself that although I might have been inspired by the knitting festival I was never going to be able to make anything as lovely myself.
|Liz Gill flew with Atlantic Airways. Twice weekly flights from Edinburgh to Vagar til mid-December from £199 return. Daily flights from Copenhagen from £257 return www.atlantic.fo
She stayed at the hotels Foroyar (double rooms from £180 a night www.hotelforoyar.fo) and Vagar (doubles from £136 www.hotelvager.fo) ) and the Gjogy guesthouse Gjaargardur (doubles from £84 www.gjaargardur.fo).
General information from www.visitfaroeislands.com
Knitting Festival www.visitfaroeislands.com/en/what-to-do/knitting-festival/
Horse riding www.berghestar.com