One winter day, a young woman knit a pair of mittens and wore them to church on Sunday. Sounds like a pretty ordinary event in 19th century Norway—except it wasn’t. You see, those handknit mittens did much more than keep the woman’s hands warm: they sparked a worldwide knitting trend which helped provide economic security for thousands of Norwegian knitters. Thanks to those mittens, you probably recognize the name of Selbu, a small village in north-central Norway, and associate it with an eight-pointed rose design. And it’s all because of a teenaged knitter named Marit Guldserbrua Emstad, credited with knitting the first pair of Selburose mittens.
closeup of selburose motif by Nils R. Barth
Live in a cold climate like Norway’s and inevitably you’ll discover a long tradition of knitting warm items like socks and mittens—and an equally long tradition of adorning these items with decorative or symbolic motifs. Common subjects in Scandinavian knitting included animals (like reindeer and horses), flowers, crosses, branches, hearts, birds, stars, and many others. Norwegian knitting expert Annemor Sundbø explains that in the 19th century, knitting patterns were “highly personal, often including symbols or initials closely associated with the wearer.”
Handknit mittens were intended only for home use or for making presents to give away at weddings. According to Anne Bårdsgård, as part of her wedding preparations, a bride would knit intricately patterned mittens and stockings for the groom. Each male guest also was given a pair of mittens, knit by a female guest. These knitted goods were brought to the bride’s home shortly before the wedding to be displayed on rods or rope as part of the “bridal loft.” After the celebrations, the bride would then match up each pair of mittens with its recipient. Because young women wished to show off their domestic skills, they created elaborate designs, helping develop a rich variety of knitting patterns. Far preferable to Jordan almonds, eh?
Selbu Mittens photo by Kjersti Lie
The eight-pointed motif that Marit used for her famous mittens has been around for a very long time. Its origins are murky; you’ll find similar motifs (sometimes called snowflakes or stars) in older European books, everywhere from Spain to Switzerland to Italy. Less stylized versions of an eight-pointed star are even older and often have mystical or religious associations. Variations can be traced back to Babylonian, Egyptian, Islamic, and Native American cultures, to name a few. Marit, born in 1841, was only a teenager when she decided to incorporate the motif into a pair of mittens.
Mittens with black and white selburose design in the collection of the Nordfjord Folkemuseum
By all accounts, Marit was an avid knitter, collecting patterns and motifs from other crafts like woodworking. Somewhere, sometime—we can’t know for certain—she either saw a rose motif or some similar design that inspired her. (Anne Bårdsgård suggests that Marit first saw the eight-pointed design on a bride’s embroidered headcloth.) She placed the motif on the center back of each mitten. Although Selbu patterns were typically knit using a single color at that time, Marit opted for two, using black and white yarn. After she wore her mittens to church, the two-color rose motif, now known as the “Selburose,” went viral.
sorting selbu knitwear (Photo of Karen Garberg)
By the end of the 19th century, a market had developed for handknit goods such as mittens and socks. In 1897, Emstad was the first to deliver a pair of Selburose mittens to a nearby craft store for sale. The style quickly became popular, creating huge demand for similar mittens all over Norway. The knitters of Selbu got to work. Thirty years later, they were creating 100,000 mittens each year, selling them not only in Norway but throughout Europe and beyond. Several decades later, the mittens were primarily machine-knit and sold to tourists. Today you can find the Selburose motif just about everywhere, in knitted items and on other merchandise as well.
Sweater with all-over Selburose design in the collection of the Vest-Telemark Museum
While the story of Marit Emstad is a charming one—plucky teenage knitter sparks global mitten trend!—it holds much deeper significance in Norway. Remember that Norway has not always been an independent country. During the Middle Ages, Norway and Denmark were ruled by the same king and functioned as a single political unit. In the 16th century, Sweden’s territorial ambitions led to battles and skirmishes between it and Denmark-Norway, culminating in war in 1814. When the dust cleared, Norway had gained at least partial independence. Although the Swedish monarch still ruled foreign policy, Norway maintained its own constitution, judiciary and legal system.
This new Norwegian independence caused a kind of national identity crisis as Norway sought to differentiate itself from its Danish and Swedish neighbors. The nation began to wonder what made Norway truly Norwegian. In the mid-19th century, a movement began to preserve what it viewed as essentially Norwegian culture: fairy tales and folk songs; Norwegian dialects and grammar; rural buildings and art and handcrafts. In Emma Sarappo’s account, Marit Emstad’s Selburose mittens appeared at just the right time: “A young Norwegian girl in a Norwegian town had created something uniquely Norsk—practical and warm, but also bold and recognizable.” The rose motif was viewed as a quintessentially Norwegian symbol and if it was often identified as a snowflake or star, well, that was okay, too, since they evoked images of snowy ski slopes and sparkling Northern Lights.
Hat with Selburose design in the collection of the Nordfjord Folkemuseum
In addition to representing the zeitgeist of a nation, the Selburose mitten created a critical economic opportunity for women. It’s a familiar story: women whose familial responsibilities prevent them from working outside the home turn a craft into a moneymaking venture. Someone had to make all those mittens that tourists were demanding. Generations of Norwegian knitters were able to supplement their family income by creating mittens and selling them to tourists or retail stores—an invaluable Norwegian side hustle.
Portrait of Marit Emstad and Vintage photo of Selbu knitted goods featured above courtesy of Riksarviket/Landbruksdepartementet Heimeyrkekontoret
What I like best about the story of Marit Emstad, though, is what it says about creativity and the human spirit. A crafter sees something—a woven motif in a rug, the petals of a rose, the prongs of a snowflake, or a star in a carved design—and is intrigued. She plays with the motif and eventually creates an item that is useful, but also beautiful because of that motif. This is one of the incredible things about participating in a creative enterprise like knitting, how the old becomes the new and how one person’s vision can touch the hearts of millions of her fellow citizens. The next time you see an eight-pointed rose (or star or snowflake) in a mitten, whisper a quiet “Takk” to Marit Emstad, the mother of Selbu knitting.
Selbu Scenic View by Knute Ove Hillestad courtesy of Nordfjord Folkemuseum
- Everyday Knitting, Annemor Sundbø (Torridal Tweed 2001)
- Selbu Mittens, Anne Bårdsgård (Trafalgar Books 2019)
- Emma Sarappo, “The Star of Norwegian Knitwear,” The Atlantic (Nov. 2018)
MDK receives a commission on books purchased from the link above.