I really enjoyed learning how to use the spinning wheel in Jóhanna Pálmadóttir’s workshop! I had been taught to spin once before on a drop spindle several years ago and found it so challenging. Though I still struggled, this time was much easier by comparison. I couldn’t figure out why….until I went to spin with some lovely soft merino roving I brought from Canada. I had initially learned using a similar short merino fibre and realized how lucky we were to be learning on the long and strong Icelandic wool. The mixture of tog and thel makes a hardy fibre that you can still put against your skin, and the lanolin on the single wash wool is what gives it a slick feel as it passes through your attentive hands.
After pulling out some hair I ended up mixing the merino roving (pink) with some Icelandic wool (white and brown) to create a 2 ply yarn inspired by Neapolitan ice cream. I’m not sure how I’ll cope the next time I spin without the help of my trusty Icelandic wool… good thing I brought home a whole bag of it I bought in Reykjavik!
Leaving Blönduós, I was a bit sad I didn’t get to see any sheep close up. I loved getting to pet horses and watch seals dancing in the ocean. But weeks had passed and I had only seen the sheep from the bus or outside farms on roads and hills at a very safe distance from their fences. Then, on the day of my flight back home, I saw some sheep in a farm-zoo across the botanical gardens in Reykjavik. We watched them from afar for a bit until one very fresh lamb ran right towards us! He brushed his little face against my hand and fed him some grass.
When I make a sweater from the yarn I bought and spun in Iceland, I’ll think about the cool breeze of June in Blönduós and the baby sheep that made my day. Thanks to the sheep for all they do for us fibre artists!!
Tiana Atherton, BFA Fibres and Material Practices, Concordia 2022
Did you know that there is only one breed of horses all throughout Iceland? None can be imported and the horses sold can never come back. It is a one-way ticket.
Icelandic horses are know to be short, almost pony size, and to have a double coat for insulation during the though Icelandic winters. They were most probably introduced on the island by Norse settlers around the 9th or 10th century.
They are all very communicative, hardy, and it does not take long for them to come and introduce themselves to people standing by their fences. They are also very photogenic, especially when the wind blows in their mane. I think they know it and move their heads accordingly. But that is just a theory.
I have met a few during my stay and let me introduce them to you. Which one do you think is my favorite?
To be honest, my favorite Icelandic horses do not graze in pastures. They are part of another story that was told to us by Johanna Erla, the Vatnsdaela saga. It is a story full of fights and murders, a story about the pursuit of one’s own destiny, full of marriages, betrayals, treasures, magic mushrooms, and a ring that can jump from mountains to mountain.
“My passion is to introduce textiles to the public, and it is, among other things, the basis for my Vatnsdaela tapestry – an embroidery project that welcomes people from all over Iceland and the world to come and embroider the original saga of our region. As people sew upon the tapestry the story is told and embodied in a new way, but remains true to the old saga and storyline. When completed the tapestry will measure 47 metres in length, at the time of printing [this quote] approximately 1400 people have sewn upon the piece.”
It is a long saga, and so is the tapestry. From designing it, to tracing it on the fabric, to stitching it, they have been meticulously working on the project for 11 years now.
Before I show you my favorite horses, I will tell you a little bit more about the saga which took place in the very region we were staying, and features Johanna’s ancestors.
The Vatnsdaela saga was written during the thirteenth century and tells a family story over a few generations. From what Johanna told us, it is mainly the story of Ingemund who earned the good graces of the King of Norway at the time. One day, even though he did not want to listen to her words, a sorceress told him his fortune. He was told that he had to go Iceland to find a ring and then settle there. Ingemund did not want to do it and even hired assistants to complete the task of finding the ring and bringing it back to him. To their great surprise, the ring – which they were able to locate – kept jumping from hill to hill, making it impossible for them to catch it. Ingemund was left with no other choice than going to Iceland to get it himself.
This is just a short part of the saga, which also tells the story of his descendants and their many adventures. We are talking of swords getting stuck into bed frames, buttocks getting cut off, and even a sorceress who gets defeated by her own magic. Thrills, and twists and turns! Oh, and why not throw in a captured polar bear?
The whole tapestry is stitched using only two types of stitches. A “contour stitch”, like a stem stitch, and the Bayeux stitch, a laid stitch which comes from Norman and English traditions. It was famously used in the Bayeux tapestry, another conquest story that you can read about here. https://www.bayeuxmuseum.com/en/the-bayeux-tapestry/
And here are my favorite Icelandic horses!
They appear in the 31st chapter of the saga entitled: “Long-distance travelers came to Hofsland”. They represent the said travelers. Why they are so special to me is that I was one of the probably 1500 or more people who had a chance to embroider the tapestry. Most of these stitches are my contribution to the tapestry.
I learned the stitches from Stina, who has been so kind to teach them to me, as well as describing the whole process of tracing the blue lines that we need to follow. Basically, the tapestry designs were first printed on long sheets of paper. Then, all (all!) of the lines were perforated with the help of needles. The next step was to place the sheets of paper above the fabric and cover it in blue ink in the hope that the ink would go through every single hole and mark the design lines on the fabric. You can see them on the top left corner.
When embroidering, colors are absolutely non-negotiable. We have to follow the printed cartoons displayed on the wall. The angle of the stitches – and to some extent their length – are up to the person doing the embroidery. “We are the designers after all”, said Stina.
I was not able to finish embroidering the second horse, but I really appreciated the silent companionship in the embroidery room. All of us focused on on single task. Making sure that, stitch by stitch, this tapestry soon gets to be displayed!
When exploring the coast of Iceland, nothing could prepare me for the striking similarities I found between there and my home island of Newfoundland. The craggy shore, the jutting cliffs, and the water that sweeps around you in an endless roar – it all reminded me of the water I grew up on, and the land that sheltered its people from the world beyond. In this post, I decided I will keep it simple and share a variety of photos taken in both Newfoundland and Iceland in order to compare, contrast, and imagine how these landscapes were shaped both simultaneously and thousands of kilometres apart.
I should add: all of these photos were taken completely coincidentally. It was only when I returned home and went through my photos of Iceland did I notice these striking similarities to older photographs I had of Newfoundland.
Daniel Rumbolt (he/him) Student, MFA Fibres and Material Practices
Do add sesame and flax Do choose the top and bottom convection setting on the oven Do stay at the pool too long so that the bread over-proofs Do not leave the dough overnight in the hot foyer Do serve at midnight
Threads of religion, folk tradition and violent transformation to the present…
Despite Danish and Lutheran colonization, folk and magical tradition in Iceland is still very strong. In the modern day, we feel the old merged with the new, and the landscape itself oozes hallowed energy that beckons to swallow you.
For a year now, I’ve been reading Arthur Evan’s Witchcraft in the Gay Counter Culture. I began lapping up the content of the book more and more in Iceland as I realized it’s pertinence to the history of the eradication of folk culture. Witch trials in Europe were a task force for the annihilation of any existence of non conformity, particularly anything pagan or queer. It was the “mass murder of women and gay people“, (Evans). In Iceland the priests who were visiting new Europe brought back all of these ‘forward thinking’ trends with them, but instead built a fear based community bent on snuffing out anything unknown or suggestive of ‘magical’ involvement. Most of the community ‘magic’ that was evidentially happening, however, was based around minor invocations of healing. More interestingly, too, most of the actual victims of corporal punishment were men. In documentation, there is a lot of crossover that can be found in the merging of folk tradition, magic and Lutheranism in Icelandic magic.
What is in the water in Iceland?? I’m even seeing staves in my Tom and Jerry cookies.
Belief in mythology, old gods and folk tradition are historically united. In reading Witchcraft , I came across a passage that almost made me jump out of my chair in excitement, mentioning that in Nordic lands, “Hulla, Huldra or Huldre was regarded as a powerful deity, ruling over the weather, animals, sexuality, spinning, weaving, plant life, and the abode of the dead,” (85, Evans) Oh my! I really feel like these were the most forefront topics of the collective conscious of the field school. It seems we were navigating Huldras curriculum! In translations across Scandanavian countries, there are overlaps indicating that huldrefolk, and huldra mother, were terms translatable to ‘tender folk’ but also ‘hidden’. This coinciding obviously with the huldefolk, ‘hidden people’ or ‘fairies’ of Iceland. Perhaps Huldra is the hidden mother, or elf queen. As I dove into all these fabled connections and chimerical histories, our environment seemed to ripple with phantasmagorical possibility …….
Evans, Arthur. Witchcraft in the Gay Counter Culture, FAG RAG Books. 1978, Boston. Fera Death Coven Clandestinity, ed. 2013.
Skuggi. The Sorcerer’s Screed, Jochum Magnus Eggertsson. The Icelandic Magic Company. 2015.
Lipscomb, Suzannah. The Witches of Iceland, Not Just the Tudors. 38 min, December 20, 2021.