Hélène Magnússon: Fire, Ice, and Wool
I have been lucky to visit Hélène Magnússon in her studio twice during my textile travels to Iceland. She is an expert and an artist with as much energy as the geothermal forces that power the country.
Just look at her impressive career: she has been a lawyer, is an expert in Icelandic textiles, runs adventure knitting retreats, is a knitwear designer, has written several books, has created her own yarn line, is a Knit Stars instructor, and is one of the leading advocates of Icelandic wool.
Nothing prepares you for the passion she has and expresses for Icelandic wool, textile history, and knitting. She follows ideas and techniques from library to museum to farm, updates them for a modern knitter, and presents them in beautiful patterns. You’ll see what I mean when you knit one of her patterns from Field Guide 26 launching on February 9, especially if you choose to use her yarn, Love Story. (Field Guides subscribers, get ready! You’ll get first dibs and a 10% discount.)
I know you have encountered a person like this—a writer, a teacher, or a friend. They effortlessly educate by elevating and connecting ideas, you nod your head yes (inwardly pumping your fist in the air), and in the end you’d happily follow them anywhere.
Hélène was kind enough to answer a few questions for me. I think you can get a hint of the depth of her knowledge and her admiration for Iceland’s history, people, and wool.
What is so special about Icelandic wool?
The Icelandic sheep is an old breed that has stayed more or less the same in Iceland for a thousand years. It developed a dual coat in the northern climate: the þel (thel) are the very fine soft inner fibers, highly insulating.
The outer fibers, called tog, are much longer, coarser, shiny and water-repellent. Tog and þel come from different cell skins and are both considered wool. Today’s machine-made yarns usually have both þel and tog. It makes a yarn that is extremely light and highly insulating.
Why did you decide to make your own yarn?
I created Love Story in the hope it would help to revive the Icelandic lace knitting tradition and give it a new life. It took me more than 10 years, a lot of research, experiments, and failures to create it.
Love Story is the finest Icelandic yarn that exists today. It is the closest in fineness to the old Icelandic handspun yarns made of þel (thel) that were used for knitting the old lace shawls. They were so fine they could be drawn through a golden ring. Love Story was such a technical challenge to create. It is my biggest achievement and the one I’m the most proud of.
What would you like knitters to know about the history (or culture) of Icelandic knitting?
Knitting came to Iceland relatively late, in the 16th century. But when it did, thanks to the presence of the sheep and their wool, it became the main home industry after fishing, and it is still very much a living craft today.
We have a rich knitting heritage, which is worth exploring and/or rediscovering. The iconic Lopi sweater from the ’50s and ’60s and the associated Lopi yarn have more or less become synonymous with Icelandic knitting.
I’m passionate about researching and sharing what existed before and led to the “supremacy” of the Lopi sweater. It is fascinating how, through the history of knitting, you get an insight into Iceland’s politics while unraveling the daily life of its people.