Buy it now at
Reviewed by Lela Nargi
Chances are you are unaware that the soft-soled fish skin shoe ever existed. You're probably also unaware of the knitted insert (or insole), which was devised to provide warmth and comfort to the shoe wearer. This Icelandic tradition dates back to perhaps the 17th century and incorporated vivid geometric patterns into those inserts meant to be worn (but never seen) for Sunday church outings and other special occasions.
The inserts are thoroughly obsolete and almost wholly forgotten. But thanks to the efforts of designer Hélène Magnússon—a French former-lawyer who has made Iceland her home for the past 12 years until a recent move to Luxembourg—Icelandic insert motif knitting has been reintroduced and reinterpreted.
Hélène explores the history of the knitted insert in her book, Icelandic Knitting: Using Rose Patterns. The book traces the origins of the soft shoe and the hazy beginnings of knitting in Iceland, until the two converge on the knitted insert.
A Little Background
The Icelandic word for "insert" is illepur, and it shows up in a number of unflattering traditional expressions, such as: Hann var mér illepur I annan skó, andskotinn sá arna, delightfully translated as: "For me he was like an insert in one shoe—the devil!" Accompanying the text are photographs of dozens of inserts, football-shaped conundrums that Hélène unearthed in various museums during the course of her research.
The patterns incorporated into the fanciest of the shoe inserts are "joyful and challenging," Hélène says. Four- and eight-pointed roses of several already-familiar varieties (step, hammer, wind), and also checks, diamonds, and flowerpots, were knitted up, intarsia-style, on a garter-stitch background—a combination that is likely unique to Iceland—in cheerful reds and yellows and blues and greens, often with accompanying striped embellishment or band-woven edges. A pair was considered an extravagant gift.
"At the time the inserts were used, they were the only colorful garments in the otherwise somber brown, black, dark blue or grey wardrobes" of hardworking farm and fishing families, continues Hélène. "Everyone liked to own a pair of these inserts; they brought color and joy into extremely difficult lives."
Taking The Insert Out
Hélène's book, though, seeks to do more than merely rekindle a tiny, extinguished facet of Icelandic heritage. Its real intrigue lies in Hélène’s original designs: 26 sweaters, hats, scarves, and mittens in which Hélène refashions for a contemporary audience the striking, complexly wrought motifs of the shoe insert. Together they are bold, fresh, and utterly absent of gloom. For all their intense color block stylings, they are also miraculously elegant and modern.
Hammer rose—with a square at its core and its eight petals ending in bludgeon-like forms—is the template for both a vest and a cardigan sweater. It makes for a compelling repeated pattern because "it is graphic and versatile," says Hélène, "and looks quite different when you render it in different colors." In the first instance: ochre, black, green, red, and violet on a cream-colored background, with eye-boggling results. In the second, the same colors are woven into a green background for a more demure effect.
Hélène favors, too, an eight-petaled wind rose that decorates a long tunic in which the pattern is magnified to a single blown-out rose and a short cowl-necked sweater in which smaller roses repeat. A comparatively subdued black and white checkered insert pattern for a man’s sweater is another of the book’s highlights.
Hélène uses Icelandic materials: Loóband, Álafoss Lopi and Létt-Lopi (all 100% new Icelandic wool from Istex and distributed in the United States by Westminster Fibers); and imported Merino spun and dyed in Iceland (Kambgarn). She’s chosen Icelandic yarns "for the sake of it," she says.
But she also asserts that the glossy outer hair of Icelandic sheep gives their wool a "particular shine that makes the wool very much alive." And she discovered that natural browns and greys worked mysteriously poorly with non-Icelandic yarn, the patterns knitting up completely flat, "like dead."
The brightest, boldest patterns in the book—and there is something here for every sized member of the family—offer a welcome challenge for a knitter who's ready to try something new and vibrant. A select number of them, in English, are available for purchase from Hélène’s website. The full range of Istex yarns is readily available from The Icelandic Handknitting Association and in the United States from Westminster Fibers.
Hélène’s patterns demand, in some instances, Fair Isle knitting-in-the-round and the juggling of multiple bobbins. But any knitter who’s not intimidated by what one reviewer called “real knitting” is urged to knit at least one of these up, wear it, and help usher a bright but hidden heritage into daylight.
About the Author
Lela Nargi lives, writes and knits in Brooklyn, NY with her husband, daughter, and dog. Her latest book about knitting is Knitting Through It: Inspiring Stories for Times of Trouble (Voyageur Press 2008). Visit her blog for an exclusive pattern by Hélène Magnusson, and for updates on lelanargi.com (revising soon!).