NOTE: The photos in this post are stereoscopic and can be viewed in 3D by crossing one’s eyes to merge the two photos together into a central 3D image. For more information on stereoscopic photography follow this link.
Photos often flatten the landscape and shrink the majestic. The other night after the sun had set and was starting to rise again in the northwest, I looked to the east and saw a very large and round silver-golden moon rising in a pink sky above a purple cloud. The moment was fleeting as the purple wisps of the cloud soon knit a curtain for the moon to hide behind. While the moon could still be seen, I sat in awe and shrugged off the urge to grab my phone to take a picture. Some beauty cannot be captured.
Though I often do try.
A trip through the West Fjords, I exhausted myself taking photos. What is this urge to capture and collect?
Mountains and sky, snow and ice, birds and sheep, moss and…
It is all very beautiful: Looking far and wide across the fjords or close to the etchings of lichen on a rock. My senses are together braiding my experience, reaching out all around me to take it in.
Bird song, gurgling water, wind, the smell of snow…
A photo will never fully capture any of this. But it is a trigger to remember these sensations; a doorway through which to someway return.
The idea ofVatnsdæla on a tapestry was born from the vision of Jóhanna E. Pálmadóttir. She was inspired by the Bayeux tapestry, which was created approximately between 1066-1077 and recorded at a Cathedral in Northern France.
In the beginning of this wonderful project, Jóhanna collaborated with the second year students from the graphic design department at the Iceland University of the Arts in Reykjavik, who created the drawings of Vatnsdæla in 2011. They were under the supervision of Kristin Ragna Gunnarsdóttir, a graphic designer, illustrator, writer and teacher at that school. Helga, Jóhanna’s daughter helped with the process of pokingholes on the first drawing in order to transfer the images onto the tapestry. Later on, a group of students from Denmark volunteered to undertake poking holes in the rest of the drawings.
The aim of this project is to revive the Vatnsdæla saga, an old story in Iceland, in a new, exciting way through a textile based community project. Jóhanna, who was on the board of Textilsetur Islands at that time, also collaborated with Landnám Ingimundar gamla, an association that assisted with the historic narrative of Vatnsdæla saga. The saga is the family history of the people of Hof, a farm in Vatnsdalur, not far from Blönduós. It took place from 9th to 11th century and was written in 1270 AD. The story covers themes such as love, fate, honour, perseverance and valiance against enemies.
Jóhanna purchased the yarn for the tapestry from Ístex hf, a spinning mill that produced the yarn from lambs’ wool. The ancient embroidery, which existed in the middle age in Iceland, is introduced again through Vatnsdæla on a tapestry project. The tapestry will be 46 metres long and the names of all those supported this project will get their names in a book which will be displayed alongside the completed tapestry. People can support this project through purchasing an embroidery lesson on site or through donations.
Jóhanna’s vision is to exhibit the finished Vatnsdæla on a tapestry at a location in a farm land, where Þingeyrakirkja, an old stone church, is located and the church was built in 1873. On this farm land, the first monastery in Iceland was built in 1133.
The location of Vatnsdæla on a tapestry is now in Kvennaskólinn, the former women’s school in Blönduós. The opening hours are from 13:00 to 17:00 on weekdays from June 15th to August 15th. During winter months and weekends, the site is closed, however, group visits can be arranged.
As an art therapist in training, I am continuously fascinated and amazed by how art has been used therapeutically throughout history. Even before the Creative Art Therapies was a field in its own right, drama, dance, music, poetry, and visual arts were used by humans as a means of expression and self-regulation (Malchiodi, 2007). Other research has demonstrated that textile art practices impart a considerable number of benefits to their makers (Futterman Collier, Wayment, & Birkett, 2016; Garlock, 2016; Homer, 2015; Pöllänen, 2015; Futterman Collier, 2011). With one year of specialized education under my belt, and many more of clinical and community experience, I came to Iceland with the intention of investigating the relationship between art and mental health in a country with such rich traditional textile practices. In addition, I wanted to learn how men have been implicated in these traditions as literature on the use of textiles with male participants is virtually non-existent.
Throughout my month-long stay in Blönduós, I spoke with local textile artists as well as those traveling from other parts of the world to attempt to narrow in on Iceland’s specific approach. According to the attendants I spoke with at the Textile Museum, knitting and sewing are taught in school at a young age, so children will learn some basic textile techniques regardless of gender or whether the information had been passed down from previous generations. In their cases, both young women had learnt knitting and quilting, among other skills, from their respective grandmothers. This was a pleasant surprise for me, as my Canadian experience of textile work started and almost ended in grade nine home economics class which was entirely populated by girls.
They explained that although men don’t seem to carry on the fibre traditions in the same way that women continue to do, in the days of Halldóra Bjarnadóttir – a teacher, activist, and textile enthusiast born in 1873 – women spun the yarn to be woven by men into fabric (personal communication, June 12, 2018). At the time, these roles were in place as weaving was considered tough labour while spinning required more finesse. When asked if they would likely pass their knowledge of fibres onto future generations, both attendants chuckled and replied no, rationalizing that they simply weren’t “good enough” to teach others.
I also spoke with two textile artists from the UK, Deborah Gray, who is participating in a two-month residency at the Textile Centre in Blönduós, and Louise Harris, who moved from England to Iceland 12 years prior and is currently working in Reykjavik. Deborah has been a practicing fibre artist for the past 40 years, teaching her craft to others for the past 35. Still today she uses knitting daily to unwind, claiming “I don’t know how people cope who don’t have some sort of creative practice” (personal communication, June 3, 2018). Louise’s current work incorporates the process-heavy nature of felting, a technique which she has adopted as an everyday activity. She explained that during her time at Goldsmiths University in London, she used textiles in conjunction with painting in an attempt to disrupt the male-dominated contemporary field of painting.
Again, the role of gender in the art world came up in conversation with Hannele Hentinnen who led a workshop on advanced knitting. She posed the question to our group, “why is it that men come into this female-dominated field and make such waves?”, giving the examples of American fibre artists Kaffe Fassett and Stephen West. One explanation she offered was that since men don’t have as long of a textile history as women, the ideas they bring to the table are more fresh and innovative. This got me thinking, “are men the future of fibre art?” If women, such as the attendants at the Textile Museum, do not perpetuate the cycle of teaching to their female offspring, perhaps there will be a more even playing field for all genders.
Returning to the topic of textile creation and mental health, I had the pleasure of attending a talk by psychologist and editor, Kristín Linda Jónsdóttir, with the opportunity to pick her brain following the presentation. She shared her research relating knitting to happiness and achieving a state of “flow”, a combination of rhythmic creation with just the right amount of cognitive challenge (personal communication, June 8, 2018). This concept has appeared in my research as well, and it felt validating to hear that similar benefits have been found in Icelandic studies. This information was another reassurance that people are acknowledging and understanding the positive psychological effects of art making, leading me to believe that textile handcrafts will continue to be practiced for many years to come.
Futterman Collier, A. (2011). The well-being of women who create with textiles: Implications for art therapy. Art Therapy:Journal of the American Art Therapy Association, 28(3), 104-112. doi:10.1080/07421656.2011.597025
Futterman Collier, A. D., Wayment, H. A. & Birkett, M. (2016). Impact of making textile handcrafts on mood enhancement and inflammatory immune changes. Art Therapy:Journal of the American Art Therapy Association, 33(4), 178-185. doi:10.1080/07421656.2016.1226647
Garlock, L. R. (2016). Stories in the cloth: Art therapy and narrative textiles. Art Therapy:Journal of the American Art Therapy Association, 33(2), 58-66. doi:10.1080/07421656.2016.1164004
Homer, E. S. (2015). Piece work: Fabric collage as a neurodevelopmental approach to trauma treatment. Art Therapy:Journal of the American Art Therapy Association, 32(1), 20-26. doi:10.1080/07421656.2015.992824
Malchiodi, C. A. (2007). What is art therapy? In C. A. Malchiodi (Eds.), The art therapy sourcebook (2nd ed., pp. 1-22). New York: McGraw-Hill.
Pöllänen, S. (2015). Elements of crafts that enhance well-being: Textile craft makers’ descriptions of their leisure activity. Journal of Leisure Research, 47(1), 58-78. Retrieved from https://0-www-scopus-com.mercury.concordia.ca/record/display.uri?eid=2-s2.0-84920396481&origin=inward&txGid=f896b8b82c8fbe9f9db044f586f768be
While I am working in the studios of Kvennaskólinn, I hear the rhythms of the textile instruments me and my colleagues artists are using, these echoes from generations of women making textiles, are playing the stories of the first settlers traveling across the cold sea, adapting to this new land and its specificity. I feel connected to the rhythms of the past by listening to the soundscape created by the vibrant wooden sounds of the spinning wheel, the weaving loom, the shuttles and the bobbins I am using.
Textiles are cultural markers and they contain more stories than most people would think. After having the chance to listen to the presentation of Marianne Tóvinnukonaand Marled Mader, who reproduced a Viking aprons dress during a residency here at the Textílsetur Íslands in Blönduós, I got more intrigued by the specific weave structure used by the first settlers of Iceland. I started to think about the weavings that were created here since the 9th century and I researched the patterns and structures used by the Vikings. In historical readings you can read that the Vikings used the tabby (plain) weave structure for the underdresses and shirts that were mostly woven with linen and hemp fibres and the pants, jackets and apron dresses were woven in wool to protect from the cold, in a broken diamond twill. This asymmetrical diamond shape made me curiousabout the cultural heritage that can be seen throughout the threaded lines of this traditional textile structure.
I researched the origin of the diamond shaped pattern and it took me all the way to Syria… The Vikings traded textiles with the middle eastern country, and took the exotic pattern home to northern Europe. Eventually, the nordic women tried to reproduce the beautiful shape and they adapted the pattern to created a broken diamond twill, whichis, compared to the symmetrical diamond twill, a diamond shaped figure with a one row offset. Why this mutation happened seems to be answered by the loom that was used in the 8th- 11th century by the Vikings. Marta Hoffmann researched the weave structures used in northern Europe and in her book about the Warp-Weighted loom she says that the broken diamond twill was easier to weave on this loom than the diamond twill which was essentially woven on a different loom used by the Romans and in Mesopotamia.
But that is not the end of this interesting story, when I met Ragnheiður Björk Þórsdóttir, textile researcher and textile arts professor in Akureyri, we discussed the mutations of the diamond twill, and she explained that this pattern was also modified by the Icelanders after the first settlers had adapted their warp weighted looms here in Iceland. The Icelandic version of the diamond shaped twill is very specific to the environment encountered here, near the arctic circle. The Icelandic weavers added a tabby line between the pattern to compress the wool into a warm and dense fabric.
There is much more to write and to research on this one simple pattern. I love to read between the warp and weft to find the stories of our ancestors, and I keep on listening to the soundscape of textile art and their rhythms that are humming the stories of the past.
Spinning performance featuring RythÂ Kesselring and Meghan Riley
Growing up I had a good friend whose father worked in film. He was a prop master, and if my memory serves me correctly, he couldn’t get through a film without spotting the flaws, looking for continuity, or catching the odd moment of subtle brilliance. I was never sure if he even enjoyed movies, bonded as he was by his profession to always pay attention to the details.
Many years later, as a mid-career museum educator I sometimes think of him and this experience when I wander through museums on my own time, for pleasure. Without fail, I quickly start to notice the details — details related to accessibility, pedagogy, and inclusivity.
A satisfying visit to a museum can an affective, intellectual, social, or sensory experience. Comfortable places to sit can be as important as a legible wall panel, a new story, opportunities to touch an object, or challenges to think outside the box.
Having made some recent visits to local, regional, and national museums here in Iceland, I took note of what I consider to be some examples of good practice — examples of learning made easier, more interesting, experiential, or active.
I asked myself, what strategies is the museum using to engage its independent visitors in active learning? How are visitors made to feel welcome, seen, and heard in their exhibition spaces? By what means might their curiosity be piqued, their doubts raised, their patience tested, their spirit ignited?
Some of these examples are more novel than others, but demonstratethat strategies with lasting power don’t always need to be new, complex, or high-tech in order to be effective in triggering new ideas or creating connections between people, objects, and narratives. I’ll continue to look for the details in order to find new ideas and validate or challenge existing ones — all part of an ongoing process of reflective museum education practice.
Prior to my arrival here, almost a month ago, I was preparing for this trip by reading extensively. During this this time I came upon an article by Árnason et al. (2015) which focuses primarily on driving and how this form of movement has played a part in the formation of Icelanders’ relationship to the Icelandic landscape. One interesting point that the article argues is that car travel in Iceland is embedded in a national narrative which is continuous with a past identity-relationship to the land as an harsh, rugged climate which formed the centre for a national narrative of communal survival; the completion of the ring road in 1974 was done to coincided with the 1100 year anniversary of settlement and there was a pervasive imperative to tour and experience this country with this new constructed accessibility. What has stuck with me in the last month is this idea that the way we move through a landscape—and the forms of mediation, access and activities which curate our experience of it—plays an important role in the types of subjectivities, privileges and relations we form to the land as something political and economic. In this blog post I hope to muse on a few of the ways in which I’ve engaged with, related to and experienced this new environment .
I came to Iceland not knowing how to spin before, and relatively oblivious to this aspect of textile production. Since working with uncarded fleece and purchasing some carded wool about two weeks ago there has been very few days that have gone by without me spinning and working with this material; though I am not entirely sure where all this yarn will go, the activity compels me. Working from the bulk wool has also given me a bit more of a concrete sense of the material resources and labour that go into the production of wool products which is a symbolic industry in Iceland visible through the omnipresent lopapeysa, as well as the importance of sheep to this commodity. To give a sense of the pervasiveness of this woolly friend a small anecdotal remark might be helpful: a sheep farmer in the Westfjords told us that in that region there are roughly 7000 people and 20 000 sheep.
Alongside the meditative spinning, I’ve also found myself exploring and experimenting with natural dyes. This was prompted by a wonderful workshop which my peers have written about in their blog posts so I would like to highlight another aspect of it: walking and identifying. Part of the activity in experimenting with these dyes involved having to walk in and around Blönduόs in search for dye materials. In doing so I learned how to identify specific plants in the landscape, making me more aware of my surroundings. A good example of this involves a search for cow parsley which can provide a wonderful sea-green with copper. At first I thought it was omnipresent and was about to head out to collect some when I was informed that it is very similar in appearance to hemlock—which is extremely poisonous. After looking up the differences online I came to realise that the abundance of cow parsley which I thought surrounded us was in fact hemlock. It’s interesting to note that once I had a name for a particular plant I started to acknowledge and recognise it more in the landscape. Translating these raw plant materials into dye is also an enlightening experience as you often end up with colours you might not expect and various factors, such as heat and pH value, play a major role. While I came to acquire a palette which comes close to the Icelandic landscape, I acquired these colours in a way which was not immediately intuitive.
Another important activity during my stay has been walking, something which I think all of us have been doing a lot of during our time here. While this goes hand in hand with the dyeing bit, walking also has helped for me to understand my environment in different ways: everything here appears very close, as if I could reach it in an hour’s hike, but as I try I realise that the path is not as direct and flat as it appears. This is something I have also been musing about with the work I have been doing which aims, in part, to play with the flatness that both our own vision from afar and photography places on the landscape, a distortion of sorts which filters our experience of landscape and the complexity of actually being in a space versus being a spectator of the space.
This leads to another anecdote from the Westfjords: a few of us went to hike to the base of Drangajökull, Iceland’s most northern glacier. When we reached the beginning of the hike it looked so close and appeared as though it would be a relatively flat hike. But as we progressed we realised the ground was far from flat and there were hills and mounds which hid the directness of the hike. At one point we thought we were half an hour away, and after walking for an extra half hour, we realised we were still a quite a distance from the base and the road had many more up and downs than expected. All this to say that our sense of sight and the mediums through which these sites are presented can be exceedingly deceiving and there is more to the walk than meets the eye…
To return to the initial article in a way: driving is a popular way of experiencing Iceland as a tourist with many people renting a car and driving on the ring road. It was also a necessary part of many of my experiences here and I would not have made it to the glacier for instance if not for it. But, while driving reveals the landscape, and provides access to many of Iceland’s major tourist spots, other activities are also means of connecting and being in one’s environment. They have also come to reveal aspects I might have otherwise glossed over and have come to understand my surroundings in different ways. How we move through places, whether or not we are permitted movement, and our intentions, or directionality along this movement, plays a major role in the connection we form to places, how we come to understand our environment and the privileges/position we hold in these spaces. And, while I might be trying to balance too many things at the same time, this is a rough attempt at working through and with an entanglement in an unfamiliar place—co-ordinating my feet, hands and eyes to trace multiple strands into one of many threads.
Arnar Árnason, Sigurjón Baldur Hafsteinsson, Tinna Grétarsdóttir,
Kristinn Schram & Katla Kjartansdóttir. (2015). Speeding Towards the Future through the Past: Landscape, Movement and National Identity. In Landscape Research, 40:1, 23-38.
During the open ceremony for the knitting festival in Blönduós (June 8th to 10th) there was a demonstration of the traditional Icelandic costumes collectively known in Icelandic as Þjóðbúningurinn. Aspects of these costumes date as early as the 16th century, although they regained popularity in the 19th century as an essential symbol of Iceland’s independence from the Danish.
Although the opening ceremony demonstration was entirely in Icelandic, it showed the complexity of the various outfits as the women took of their jackets to show the detail on the backs and metal ornamentation. This complexity sparked my interest in doing more research on the national costume and its variety.
A trip to the library led to me a few books (mostly in Icelandic) on these various costumes, showing drawings from around 1680 that show a variant of the headdress faldur (Helgadottir 95).
On June 17th, the Icelandic National Day, we saw more examples of these costumes, such as the Peysuföt (pictured above).
The most informative outing in relation to the Icelandic costume occurred on June 22nd on a fantastic tour of the Textile Museum in Blönduós by museum manager, Elin Sigurdardóttir. She explained in detail the differences between the costumes and the changes that occurred in the 19th century.
The Icelandic costumes can be divided into five different styles:
Falbúningur– dates from the early 18th century. It includes the headdress faldur, embroidered skirt, apron, shirt, bodice, jacket, decorative collar, handkerchief and neckerchief. The silver chains and embellishments were called kvensilfur, and the amount was often in relation to the woman’s wealth and status. The faldur later changed into two forms, the krókfaldur (the curved headdress with a smaller point at the top) and the spaðafaldur (with a splayed top and smaller bottom).
Upphlutur– (18th and 19th century) originally just the name of the bodice underneath the jacket as part of the falbúningur, this eventually evolved into its own popular variation. Elin told us that the upphlutur is the most common of the Icelandic costumes. It is characterized by the white sleeves and the collar. In 1907, the upphlutur became the independent festive costume, dating from a state visit with the Danish King. It is also usually worn with the knitted or velvet cap and tassel.
Peysuföt– became an independent costume at the end of the 18th century. It features a similar skirt apron and cap as the upphlutur. Traditionally this skirt can be made from tog, the long-haired overcoat of Icelandic sheep. The most characteristic aspect of the peysuföt is the large single or double bow, decorated by a brooch. In later versions, the bow is replaced by a silk scarf.
In the 19th century, Sigurður Guðmundsson designed two new costumes that became symbolic of Iceland’s independence, the skautbúningur and the kyrtill.
Skautbúningur- designed in the 19th century as a variant to revive the earlier falbúningur, this costume uses mostly dark fabric, with bright floral embroidery. Elin went on to explain that the lavish headdress, called skautfaldur, was meant to represent the Icelandic landscape; the mountains, glacier and sun.
Kyrtill- designed in 1870, Guðmundsson made this costume much more light-weight using also lighter colours. Later it developed into other darker colours such as black, blue or green. The kyrtill and skautbúningur could also be worn with a möttull, a mantle made from black wool and trimmed with velvet or fur.
These costumes are extremely ornate and beautiful. The detailed embroidery and knitted accessories showed the extensive care to detail that is worthy of great admiration. Thank you, Elin and the textile museum, for your thorough explanation and tour!
Birgisdóttir, Ásdís. Íslenskir Þjóðbúningar Kvenna Og Telpna. Translated by Steinunn J. Ásgeirsdóttir, Icelandic Handicrafts Association, 2004.
I have always been passionate about textiles and their connection to culture and nature. I have worked with silk and cotton before, and have used natural dyes (which is also a passion of mine), but I have never worked with yarn and wool. Hence, my excitement was at its peak. When I first read about the workshop, I knew that it will be both a learning experience and a fun one. Just the mere fact that we were going to learn about ancient dyeing techniques using local Icelandic plants and then dyeing wool was exciting. The instructor for the course is Guðrún Bjarnadóttir, a natural dyer, and author who teaches botany and runs a natural dye workshop Hespuhúsið in Borgarfjörður.
As a group, we went to her home and studio in Borgarfjörður, where she warmly greeted us with her dog Tryggur. The house was warm and beautiful. Guðrún had also generously prepared special homemade food for us. After lunch, we went to her studio located next to her home, where she talked to us about dye pots and told us the story behind the dyeing process and Icelandic traditions. The studio was amazing as it was also warm and full of color. It made the learning process more natural.
It was interesting getting a brief historical background on how the first settlers who came from Norway and the British Isles to Iceland began using plants that they found for multiple uses including dyeing, and how indigo was imported to Iceland in the 18thcentury. After explaining what plant dyeing is and the process, she took us outside to her beautiful garden to show us how to pick the dye plants. She also explained to us what mordants are, how they were used in the old days and how they continue to be used today to set the colors on the fabric. Guðrún also mentioned her favorite plants including lupine, madder root, onion peels, birch, meadowsweet, common bearberry, indigo, cow parsley, cochineal, rhubarb root.
Since I also work with natural dyes, I loved the process and the new information that I gained. I also was elated to receive a book from Guðrún that she had put together called the “The Colors of Iceland”. She also wrote an amazing book “Plants of Iceland: Traditional uses and Folklore” (2018) in Icelandic and English. Guðrún’s passion and talent make the workshop and a visit to her studio a must. It was great hearing her speak and watching her work. I would definitely visit again in the near future to learn more.
Life in Blönduós is slow. It is such a different rythm to what I am used to; it is both marvellous and destabilizing. I have this urge to feel stressed, to be productive. But really, life is so simple here. My daily routine consist mostly of eating, sleeping, walking and going to the pool. There is a lack of stimulation; or rather a lack of over stimulation.
Here I reconnect with naps, with taking my time and breathing in this beautiful place. Bizarrely, I have not been very productive; I haven’t felt the need to create. My head is buzzing with ideas, with projects and how this residency could influence my work in the future. But, I don’t feel the need to make them all come true this instant; with haste before I leave. Like I said, life in Blönduós is slow and we always have time.
I want to bring this slowness back to Montreal and not be swept by a torrent of people and events and the pressure to produce and excel. I wonder if this slowness is a by product of endless days and a short fleeting night? Can this unhurriedness only exist in Iceland ? Time will tell …
For now, lets savour this time, where even when our exhibition and departure dates rapidly approaches, there is always time for a nap.