Exploring the natural colours in Iceland

From Guðrún Bjarnadóttir’s workshop to my natural dyes experiment project at The Icelandic Textile Centre.

On June 7th,  some Concordia students, my professor, Kathleen Vaughan and I attended a natural dyes workshop led by Guðrún Bjarnadóttir, an Icelandic natural dryer and author of Plants of Iceland – Traditional uses and folklore. She warmly greeted all of us at her plant dyeing at Árnes við Andakílsárvirkjun in Borgarnes where the workshop took place.

She put us into groups of twos and then conducted the workshop by first giving demonstrations (e.g. how to cut rhubarb). We then boiled plants as Gudrun gave instructions. She mentioned important rules about dyeing plants i.e. respect the plants, do not take too much; never use the dye pots for cooking food; use as little chemicals as possible. Gudrun is a hands-on workshop leader, very attentive and dynamic, moreover, she loves that her workshop participants learn by doing.

Dominique and I got spruce pine cones, which Gudrun boiled one night before the workshop as it needed more time (4-5 hours) to boil them. The second one that we boiled was rhubarb leaves. It took about an hour or so to boil them. Gudrun mentioned that using rhubarb for dyeing wool is not part of the Icelandic tradition. People imported rhubarb to Iceland as a food plant many centuries ago.

Spruce pine cones. Photo: Avy Loftus, 2018

While waiting for the dyebath to be ready for dyeing, Gudrun offered us home-made food in her house. About one hour later, the dyes were ready and Gudrun took out yarn, which she had already soaked in alum overnight. The yarn was ready to be dyed and she chose white and grey wool (3 of each colour) to be dyed in the dye pots. We put the yarn in pots and waited for a while until the yarn soaked in the dyes.

In the meantime, she told us briefly about the history of plant dyeing in Iceland, icelandic plants she uses and mordants that are used to enhance the colours, such as alum, copper, creme de tartar, ammonium, chrome, iron, tin and vinegar. Copper, chrome and tin should not be used for more than sixty minutes with the yarn, and iron should not be used for more than fifteen minutes. In the old days, cow urine and human urine were used for mordant. Older urine was preferred as its pH level increased and it became more alkaline.

Gudrun, later on, prepared three dye baths for the yarn; alum, copper and ammonium, which all had strong odours. Then, she started putting the yarn into alum, copper and ammonium and asked us to track them all. Our rhubarb leaves gave a deep yellow colour, and with alum, they became bright yellow. The copper and ammonium resulted in a moss green colour.

Rhubarb leaves with alum, became bright yellow. Photo: Avy Loftus, 2018

Making dyes requires time, patience and energy, but the natural beauty of the colours as the result of the workshop was gratifying. Each plant provides an amazing diversity of shades which comes from Icelandic moss, lichen, lupin leaves, lupin flowers, heather, spruce pine cones, rhubarb leaves, rhubarb root, madder, birch, onion skin and cow parsley.

I dyed cotton and silk fabric into the dyebath that was used at the workshop. The results were different from the colours on wool. The colours used on cotton and silk ended up more pastel. Wool and silk have different fibre characteristics; therefore, the result was not the same. It is also impossible to obtain the same colour twice because of reasons such as the pH degree of soil and water, which can vary.

Pastel colours on silk and cotton. Photo: Hannah Grabowecky, 2018

A week after the workshop, I started my natural dyes experiment from lupin flowers and leaves, using rain water and tap water. The variety of colours were produced as the result of my experiment. The dye from lupin flowers is usually greenish, but with alum as the mordant and rain water, it can be greyish. With vinegar as the mordant and rain water, it can be red purpleish. The dye from lupin leaves is usually yellow, but with mordant, it can be a deeper yellow shade.

Lupin flowers. Photo: Avy Loftus, 2018
Lupin flowers after one hour. Photo: Avy Loftus, 2018
Lupin leaves. Photo: Avy Loftus, 2018
Lupin leaves after one hour. Photo: Avy Loftus, 2018

As Gudrun mentioned having difficulties with sappan wood to produce red, I investigated the sappan wood dyeing process with rain water and tap water separately. I found that using rain water to boil sappan wood produced a deeper, clearer red. On the other hand, using tap water produced a more orange colour. With alum as a mordant, it produced a deeper orange. It’s the same case for turmeric. Using rain water to boil the turmeric produced a deeper yellow, without any mordant. Meanwhile, using tap water to boil the turmeric, produces a lighter yellow and with alum as a mordant, it becomes a deeper yellow.

Sappan wood. Photo: Avy Loftus, 2018
Sappan wood with rain water. Photo: Avy Loftus, 2018
Tenderizing turmeric. Photo: Meghan Riley, 2018
Turmeric dye. Photo: Avy Loftus, 2018

A dyer should aim to create new shades, rather than to duplicate others’ results. I created different shades of colours for my artwork and labeled them as follows: lupin leaves (with alum, rain water), lupin leaves (with alum, tap water), lupin leaves (with vinegar, rain water), lupin flowers (with alum, rain water), lupin flowers (with alum, tap water), lupin flowers (with vinegar, rain water), sappan wood (without mordant, tap water), sappan wood (without mordant, rain water), sappan wood (with alum, tap water), sappan wood (with vinegar, rain water), turmeric (with alum, tap water), turmeric (with alum, rain water), indigo + turmeric (with alum, tap water), indigo + lupin leaves (with alum, rain water), sappan wood (with alum, rain water) + lupin leaves (with alum, rain water), sappan wood (with alum, rain water) + indigo.

Different shades of colours for painting. Photo: Avy Loftus, 2018
Different shades of colours on cotton. Photo: Avy Loftus, 2018
Layers of colours from lupin leaves, turmeric and sappan wood dyes. Photo: Avy Loftus, 2018
Layers of colours from lupin leaves, turmeric dyes and a little bit of indigo. Photo: Avy Loftus, 2018
Icelandic motif, using sappan wood and indigo. Photo: Avy Loftus, 2018
All natural colours produced at the dye studio were applied on these paintings. Photo: Avy Loftus, 2018

Plant dyeing deeply resonates with one’s view towards colours. A dyer or an artist cannot guess the exact shade that will be produced through plant dyes but the uncertainty is a key part of the experience. The variables involved make dyeing exciting, as each project will result in new shades and tones. In the end, plant dyeing is gratifying and the end result makes the whole process worthwhile.


beach at night photo: Annik St-Arnaud

I am now back home, in very hot Montreal. A harsh contrast, to the weather I have been experiencing in Iceland, for the pas month.  Hopefully, I will find a suitable pool to help with the transition. Sitting on my balcony, it’s 6am and I am reflecting on the past month. I’m realizing how much music has been a part of my journey. I haven’t read any of the books I brought, but I listened to music everyday; matching moods, matching feelings.

I created a short mixtape that illustrates my time in Iceland; linking them to some of my experiences.

Arriving in Iceland, the plane coming through the clouds and preparing for landing. Realizing it is raining and seeing for the first time, the beautiful colours of the landscape.

The first song to play on my Spotify, when settling for my first night at the residence. I was feeling very much out of place. I sang this song during walks and the pool. I was my first inspiration to work with oranges for my project.

The ocean, the waves, the birds …

A sliver of moon on what felt like one long day.

Walking, walking, walking, all kinds of walks. Around the city, the pier, the beach, around and over the hills.

Being an artist, creating, doubting …

And that concludes my journey, in Iceland!

The West Fjords in 3D

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.

There are more sheep than humans in the West Fjords and they are wild on the land from June until September. Photo: Meghan Riley 2018

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.

Clouds blanketing the sea in the West Fjords. Photo: Meghan Riley 2018
Sunset at the top of the fjord while camping in Heydalur. Not long before sunrise. Photo: Meghan Riley 2018

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…

Flower embroidery on gravel. Drangajökull Photo: Meghan Riley 2018
Drangajökull glacier under blue sky. Photo: Meghan Riley 2018
Meadow rock in Heydalur. Photo: Meghan RIley 2018
Heydalur Photo: Meghan Riley 2018
We spotted steam rising from the ocean as we approached Reykanes. Photo: Meghan Riley 2018
Reykanes Photo: Meghan Riley 2018
Reykanes Photo: Meghan Riley 2018
Valley at Drangajökull glacier. 9pm Photo: Meghan Riley 2018

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…

Bird song. Heydalur Photo: Meghan Riley 2018
The smell of snow and sunshine. Photo: Meghan Riley 2018

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.

Turf house, West Fjords Photo: Meghan Riley 2018


Vatnsdæla á refli

The idea of  Vatnsdæla 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 poking  holes 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.

Part of the drawing. Photo: Avy Loftus, 2018
Transferring the drawing into a transparent paper and poking the holes into the tapestry. Photo: Avy Loftus, 2018
Part of the embroidery on the tapestry. Photo: Avy Loftus, 2018

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. 

Colourful yard used for the embroidery. Photo: Avy Loftus, 2018

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.

Vatnsdæla on a tapestry at Kvennaskolinn. Photo: Avy Loftus, 2018

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. 

Kvennaskólinn, the house for Vatnsdæla on a tapestry now. Photo: Avy Loftus, 2018



Imagining the Future: Textiles and Gender

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.

A woman and man creating together. Detail from Collective Threads: An Icelandic Story. Photo: Hannah Grabowecky

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.

Social knitting. Detail from Collective Threads: An Icelandic Story. Photo: Hannah Grabowecky

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

Icelandic Diamonds

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.

Warping the loom atTextílsetur Íslands  Photo : Ryth Kesselring

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 Tóvinnukona and 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 curious about the cultural heritage that can be seen throughout the threaded lines of this traditional textile structure.

Diamond Twill by Marianne Tóvinnukona and Marled Mader Photo: Ryth kesselring

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, which is, 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.

  Diamond twill                                                Image: www.celticweaving.com
Broken diamond twill                                Image: www.celticweaving.com

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. 

Icelandic Diamond twill
Weaving the Icelandic diamond twill.  Photo: Ryth Kesselring

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 Ryth Kesselring and Meghan Riley

Contact microphone on a spinning wheel Photo: Ryth Kesselring

Online references:





Observing the Details: Notes on Independent Learning in Three Icelandic Museums

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.

Touching objects, even those on display: gloves on offer (Heimilisiðnaðarsafnið – Textile Museum in Blönduós).


Discovering hidden objects: A friendly invitation to visitors to open drawers and look inside (Heimilisiðnaðarsafnið – Textile Museum).

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.

Check yourself out: self-serve period costumes for kids — mirror included (Þjóðminjasafn Íslands – National Museum of Iceland).


Quiet time: a relaxed and cozy place to read about plants and trolls (Þjóðminjasafn Íslands – National Museum of Iceland).

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.

Trust, autonomy, and creative expression: sharp tools go unsupervised within the gallery space itself (Þjóðminjasafn Íslands – National Museum of Iceland).

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.

Take a peak: A religious icon, originally discovered hidden in a wall, is displayed in surroundings familiar to it but unexpected for the visitor (Safnahúsið – Culture House).


Engaging with the theme of Outside: using the window for an observation drawing activity (Safnahúsið – Culture House).

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?

Contextualizing artistic creation: sketchbooks and photos adjacent to a display of paintings (Safnahúsið – Culture House).


Tactile connections: matching objects with their materials (Safnahúsið / Culture House).


Mobility and comfort: Strollers, wheelchairs, and stools on offer (Safnahúsið / Culture House).

Some of these examples are more novel than others, but demonstrate  that 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.

— walking // spinning // dyeing —

A long exposure shot of the landscape leading to Akureyri from Blönduós, taken on the Strætó bus.

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 .   

A first attempt at spinning with some oily fleece!

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.

A selection of hand-spun yarn died with local plant-materials… with the exception of the vibrant purple

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.

The path to Drangajökull appears closer than it is…

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.

Cited Article:

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.

Icelandic Traditional Costumes

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.

The demonstration featured a wide variety of different Icelandic costumes, including the upphlutur for girls. Photo: Avy Loftus
From the book, Faldar og Skart. Photo: Elise Timm-Bottos

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). 

Photo: Elise Timm-Bottos

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).

Photo of Faldbúningur, taken from Íslenskir Þjóðbúningar Kvenna Og Telpna. Photo: Elise Timm-Bottos
Beautiful upphlutur at the Textile Museum. Photo: Elise Timm-Bottos

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.

A doll wearing upphlutur. Photo: Elise Timm-Bottos







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.

Peysuföt with floral embroidery at the Textile Museum. Photo: Elise Timm-Bottos

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.

Two examples of the skautbúningur from the Textile Museum. Photo: Elise Timm-Bottos







The skautfaldur was meant to represent the mountains, glacier and sun (gold headpiece). Photo: Elise Timm-Bottos

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.

Photo of kyrtill (Birgisdóttir 15). Photo: Elise Timm-Bottos

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!

Icelandic National day on June 17th featured traditional Icelandic costumes, including the “Lady of the Mountain” (Fjallkona) pictured on the right. Photo: Elise Timm-Bottos

Works Cited

Birgisdóttir, Ásdís. Íslenskir Þjóðbúningar Kvenna Og Telpna. Translated by Steinunn J. Ásgeirsdóttir, Icelandic Handicrafts Association, 2004.

Helgadottir, Sigrún. Faldar og Skart. Opna, 2013.

Íslenskir Þjóðbúningurinn, buningurinn.is/english/.