Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Celebrating seventy

I spent considerable time and energy some months ago devising ways of running away from marking my seventieth birthday this year. It's not that I mind getting older - except for the physical aspects of aging, which I resent, I rather like the awareness of history and the diversity of life experiences that come with age. I just didn't want a big fuss about my birthday. The unexpected outcome has been a number of small fusses over some months - a very prolonged birthday celebration that's been very enjoyable. I've had my (birthday) cake, and eaten it too.

Last week I had lunch with some knitting friends after our knitting guild meeting and they absolutely surprised me with the gift of a blanket to which twelve friends had each contributed a knitted strip. Knowing from past experience their need for communication on such projects I can't believe I didn't have an inkling that this project was under way. It was a wonderful surprise.

Chevron blanket

It's made up of chevron stripes in shades of grey with mustard accents. It's a perfect match for my sofa and cushions:

Chevron Blanket with cushions

Grey! stripes! garter stitch! Loft yarn! These are a few of my favourite things...

Chevron blanket folded

My knitting friends clearly know my tastes.

Thanks Ailsa, Alison, Donna, Fee, Jane, Jody, Kris, Kylie, Margaret, Margarita, Sue and Zena. The gift, and the thoughts and work that created it, are greatly appreciated.

Saturday, October 11, 2014

Days of miracles and wonders (to quote Paul Simon)

I hadn’t expected Greenland to be so wonderful. I think I had very few expectations of Greenland; it’s a part of the world I’d rarely thought about. We spent a day cruising through Prince Christian Sound and some of its tributaries.

Greenland Prince Christian Sound

The miracle was the weather – clear, cold, and even some sun. We were told this happens rarely, even during the few summer months in which the Sound is navigable. The wonders just kept coming, as the large ship maneuvered through the Sound with cliffs rising steeply on either side. There were waterfalls around every corner,

Greenland Prince Christian Sound waterfall

several glaciers that tumbled down to the water’s edge

Greenland Prince Christian Sound glacier

and glimmering, bright icebergs.

Greenland Prince Christian Sound iceberg

Greenland has a small population, Fewer than 60,000 live in small towns and villages around the coastline and on islands as the interior isn't habitable. While cruising through the Sound our enormous cruise ship anchored off the tiny settlement of Aappilattoq (population around 130) so that the ship's tender could deliver some supplies of fresh food and pizza to its residents. For much of the year the town is reachable only by helicopter. You can just see the colourful houses of Aappilattoq at the bottom of the picture below:

Greenland Prince Christian Sound Aappilattoq

On each of the two days following our voyage through the Sound we anchored at towns on the southern tip of Greenland. In Nanortalik our cruise passengers more than doubled the local population of around 1500. There was time to stroll and linger on the seats scattered along the local streets and admire the landscape dotted with colourful small houses, and to wonder about people's lives in such a small and isolated community.

Greenland - Nanortallik
Greenland Nanortalik blue house
Greenland - Nanortallik houses

For a small fee (we scrambled to find our leftover Danish kroner) we were admitted to the community hall where the Nanortalik locals had organised coffee and cake as well as a performance by the local choir. The small choir ranged in age from members in their thirties to those in their eighties and the songs and their harmonies were disconcertingly like those of the Tongan church near me in Sydney. I suspect this similarity has more to do with the Nanortalik choir being from the local church than it does with any traditional relationship between Greenland and Tongan music! I particularly liked the two organising women in the choir who had gone to the effort of dressing in local costumes:

Greenland - Nanortallik choir

I imagine someone, somewhere, must have written a thesis, or at least an essay, on the very eclectic elements of this national costume. Some bits seem modern; others quite traditional. Maybe these combinations are just what the Greenlanders like to wear. I didn't notice what the turtleneck collars were made from (I was too overwhelmed by all the other components) but they sit above an elaborate beadwork yoke-like cape that's worn on top of a brightly coloured satin shirt with beadwork cuffs. Below the top is a patterned fabric cummerbund and then seal fur shorts with contrasting leather, fur and leather applique stripes at the front. The shorts are worn over trousers that seem to have several components including bright floral inserts and crocheted panels. The trousers are tucked into sealskin boots that also have intricate leather applique patterns. I found these costumes of many elements fascinating.

Greenland Nanortalik beaded yokeGreenland Nanortalik bootsGreenland Nanortalik leather shortsGreenland Nanortalik leather applique

In comparison with Nanortalik, Qaqortoq, which was our final stop in Greenland, seemed bustling. Its population is around 3,000 and there's a harbour with fishing boats and a fish processing plant (and an iceberg)

Greenland Qaqortoq Harbour

and a supermarket and a modern high school. There are even blocks of apartments where the distinctive compact architectural style and colourful siding of small houses has been carried over to the larger buildings:

Greenland Qaqortoq apartments

Qaqortoq was still charming: it's small enough to walk from place to place and admire some of the older buildings, such as the early twentieth century church, that have been preserved:

Greenland Qaqortoq church

But the greatest pleasure in our visit to Qaqortoq was to see the icebergs that lingered so close to the town:

Greenland - Qaqortoq iceberg

There were no yarn stores in the towns we visited in Greenland, so one would imagine there were no yarn temptations. However, there was a large tourist store at the harbour that was selling moskus garn - otherwise known as quiviut or yarn from musk oxen. This was another of those yarn transactions where if you think too much about the yarn air miles you hesitate to buy; the yarn was harvested from musk oxen in Greenland, processed in Denmark, then flown back to Greenland for the tourists to purchase. I did hesitate, but I did buy a skein.

Greenland quiviut

I was particularly grateful for this glimpse of a country I imagine I will never have the opportunity to visit again. Days of miracles and wonders, indeed.

Greenland Nanortalik children

Friday, October 10, 2014


I'm not being very efficient at blogging retrospectively about my North Atlantic trip, but I'll plod on. As I get older I'm becoming more and more aware of how fragile memories are, and of how valuable the act of recording is in anchoring my recollections. So, Iceland.

I want to go back to Iceland. We had three days in there and it wasn't nearly enough for a slow tourist such as I am. What was so interesting?

1 The landscape. When we anchored in Reykjavik, this was the view from our cabin verandah. Over our three day stay there were varying degrees of mist and clarity, but it was always lovely.

Iceland Rejkjavik Harbour

On one of the days in Iceland we made the well-known Golden Circle tour outside Reykjavik that takes in some of the accessible natural wonders of Iceland. Everything we saw was wonderful (we did have fine and sometimes sunny weather) but it left me longing to see even more, and to see the variations that must occur with the seasons.

Iceland landscape

Even in the brief time we had we glimpsed Iceland's spectacular natural environment. We saw the Gullfoss waterfall where the river plunges into a crevice and seems to disappear in a cloud of mist (this was one of the many occasions on this trip when I realised that my smartphone was an inadequate camera. My prior satisfaction with photos taken with my smart phone was very delusional when it came to photographing something as wonderful as these falls):

Gullfoss 3

We walked through the Hankadalur geothermally active area and laughed with delight at the sudden explosions of the Strokkur geyser that spurts 15 to 20 metres into the air:

Iceland - Geysir

Then there was the breathtaking Thingvellir National Park where the Althingi, Iceland's ancient parliament, met from around 930 to 1798, and where the major tectonic plates of the northern hemisphere meet and are gradually separating:

Iceland Thingvellir National Park
Iceland - Thingvallavatn

We saw all this wonder in a day's short trip. I'm so grateful to have seen this stunning land, but I've been left with a great desire to travel further and see more.

2 Secondly, Reykjavik is charming. It's a small enough city to walk around the centre and admire its modern structures such as the Harpa Concert Hall

Iceland Harpa Concert Hall

and the mid-twentieth century Halgrimmur Lutheran church that dominates the city's skyline (and serves as a useful orientation point for the wandering tourist).

Iceland Hallsgrimur Cathedral

There's great charm in the Tjornin Pond that's a feature of central Reykjavik,

Iceland Reykjavik Tjornin Pond 2

and in the colourful residential areas that surround it.

Iceland Reyjavik colourful houses
Iceland Reykjavik window
Iceland Reykjavik blue house

3 Third, Iceland's history is intriguing - especially for an Australian. Very superficially, there are a number of things that Iceland and Australia have in common. We're both island nations, quite isolated geographically. We're both countries of magnificently fierce and mainly uninhabitable landscapes where small populations cling to the coastal edges. In both Iceland and Australia you have the sense that people inhabit the land uneasily - aware that extremes of climate and the vagaries of the natural world will make human habitation challenging. But there are ways in which we're very different. Iceland has had European settlement, initially from Norway, since at least the ninth century. There were no indigenous settlers in Iceland so that consequently there's an unquestioned sense of ownership of Iceland's history and traditions. Until very recently Iceland's history of settlement and immigration has been almost entirely Northern European and even today it seems to the casual visitor to be culturally homogeneous.

Icelanders document their history with pride. I found the National Museum of Iceland, which recounts Iceland's history since the ninth century through the display of iconic objects and artifacts so engaging that I visited twice. The displays were all interesting, but of course I lingered longest with those that documented Iceland's rich textile history, such as this embroidered altar-frontal whose design could have been made yesterday, but in fact dated from 1694,

Iceland altar frontal 1694

and these nineteenth century sealskin shoes with their knitted inner-soles.

Iceland sealskin shoes knitted insoles

I also managed to visit the Arbaerjarsafn open-air museum, after much grappling with rain squalls, the inscrutable route of the number 12 Reykjavik bus and an opening schedule that had moved to its winter hours on the very day of my visit. Arbaerjarsafn is located in a field on the outskirts of Reykjavik and combines an original farm with 'typical' buildings from past times that have been relocated to this site. As readers of my blog know, this is my favourite kind of museum - one where a combination of architecture, furniture, decor and everyday objects gives you an insight into the lives of people in the past.

Iceland, farmhouse 2, ArbaerjarsafnIceland, Arbaerjarsafn open-air museum

4 Finally, Iceland is a splendid destination for anybody interested in textiles; particularly yarn and knitting. We visited the Istex yarn factory, which is another inspirational business model that supports local wool growers and processors. Istex buys wool directly from farmers across Iceland and then scours, spins and processes the wool locally. Among other woollen products, Istex makes the Lopi yarns in various weights that are knitted into the famous Lopapeysa yoked sweaters.

Iceland, dyed fleece, Istex, MosfellsbaerIceland, Istex factory, Mosfellsbaer

Almost everywhere we turned there was yarn and knitted woollen garments and blankets. At the Alafoss outlet in in an old factory by the Alafoss waterfall in Mosfellsbaer there was a huge range of the Lopi yarns for sale in all weights and colours, as well as handknitted jumpers, cardigans, jackets, hats - everything you can imagine, including the most exquisite small dolls decked out in handknitted traditional Icelandic dress:

Iceland, Lopi sweaters, Alafoss factory shopIcelandic doll

The Handknitting Association of Iceland store in central Reykjavik, that enables customers to buy directly from the knitters, was literally stacked from floor to ceiling with handknitted goods, as well as the Lopi yarns. Lots of lopapeysas:

Iceland, lots of Lopapeysas, Reykjavik

And finally, there was the beautiful Storkurinn yarn store where the owner Gudrun Hannele Henttineu, who is currently writing a book on the tradition and practice of mitten knitting in Iceland, gave us a talk and showed us a dazzling variety of old and new mittens illustrating the patterns and their development. Such a treat.

Iceland - Storkurinn mittens

So what did I buy? Remarkably little considering how much was on offer. I was overwhelmed. I bought only one skein of Lettlopi, the yarn from which the lopapeysa sweaters are usually knitted. I decided I wanted to see how it knitted up and used it in my Lopi class where we knitted a miniature lopapeysa. I also bought four skeins of bright red Lopi Einband (a sturdy laceweight yarn) at Alafoss, and at Storkurinn I bought some Gryla yarn that's a recent project from French-Icelandic knitter Helene Magnusson.

Iceland lopi yarnsIceland gryla yarns

Saturday, October 4, 2014

The Faroe Islands

As our cruise ship left the Norwegian coast, the captain announced that a severe hurricane was moving towards our route and that we needed to scurry at speed to keep ahead of it. This meant altogether missing our scheduled stop in the Shetland Islands, shortening our stay in the Faroes, and spending extra time sheltering in Rejkjavik, Iceland. You can imagine how disappointed our knitting group was, as our time in Lerwick in the Shetland Islands was to be a highlight of our trip, with visits scheduled to Jamieson and Smith and to museums with special interest for knitters. Of course I shared in everybody's disappointment, but I was secretly relieved that it was the Shetlands, and not the Faroe Islands that had been deleted from our trip. When I'd decided to go on this cruise I think it was the prospect of visiting the Faroe Islands, more than anywhere else, that enticed me. There's no significant reason this should be so, though some time ago I'd read 'Far Afield', a novel by Susanna Kaysen about a young anthropologist who spends a year in the Faroes undertaking his fieldwork. Apart from the fact that this subject matter had particular resonance in my family of anthropologists, I was fascinated by what seemed to be such an anachronistic society. The Faroes are a self-governing country, but they're part of the Danish realm; they're halfway between Iceland and Norway and closer to Scotland than to Denmark; they speak Faroese, a language with some relation to Icelandic, but otherwise quite distinct; until recently when there's been an expansion of infrastructure, communication between the islands that make up the Faroe archipelago was limited and the Faroes functioned as a loose confederation of settlements, rather than a country.

How can one not wonder about such a place?

Inevitably, my experience of the Faroes was brief and limited to Thorshavn, capital of the Faroes and, with a population of around 12,000, the largest town in the archipelago. However, Thorshavn was rewardingly charming and made for some delightful wandering in the limited time available. There's a small harbour that for centuries has been the main point of access to the town:

Faroe Islands - Thorshavn Harbour

and next to the harbour there's the old settlement of Tinganes, where some of the still-inhabited turf-roofed houses are reputed to be up to 500 years old:

Faroe Islands - Thorshavn old town 3Faroe Islands - Thorshavn house numberFaroe Islands - Thorshavn old town 2Faroe Islands - Thorshavn old town

I was delighted to see that even some of the more modern houses on blocks of land rather than in the rambling old town had continued with the tradition of turf-roofed houses which must be efficient both for insulation and for protecting the roofs against the high winds that buffet the Islands for most of the year:

Faroe Islands - houses with turf roofs

I'd become aware of the Island Wool Company, an on-line business that promotes and sells Faroese yarns, before I began my cruise and was hoping to be able to see some of the yarns in situ. We were fortunate to be able to visit the Navia shop where the Navia yarns that are one of the Faroese products are sold. (We were fortunate because we visited the Faroes on a Saturday afternoon, and almost all the Faroese shops close early on Saturdays. Navia's owner had kept the shop open for us - probably a wise move considering the amount of yarn purchased by our knitting group.) Navia is another inspiring story about keeping alive the wool and knitting traditions of a society. It began only in 1994 but has expanded to have distributors in many countries around the world. I bought some Navia Uno, a thickish laceweight yarn that's a combination of Faroese and Shetland wool and Australian lambswool:

Navia yarns

I used some of this yarn for my class projects and loved knitting with it.

And at a different shop, in the moments before it closed for the day, I purchased two skeins of Sirri yarn - another of the yarns promoted by the Island Wool Company.

Faroe Islands - Navia yarn

Sirri is 100% organic yarn from Faroese sheep that has not been chemically treated. Its producers describe it as having a 'rich' texture, which you can translate as hairy and sticky, with a high lanolin content. Yet again I bought laceweight (500 metres in a 100gr skein), imagining it knitted up loosely on large needles. We'll see.

It was only after our visit to cosy Thorshavn, when the ship was sailing away from the Faroes, that I had a glimpse of the rugged grandeur for which they are renowned. I need another visit to see more of the Faroe Islands.

Faroe Islands