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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

Further Reading

  • 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.

About The Author

Carol J. Sulcoski is an attorney by day and a knitter by night. She’s been part of the knitting industry for over fourteen years, beginning as a blogger in the glory days of the early 2000s. Since then, she’s also been a hand dyer, author, teacher, and designer.

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  • I just received my copy of “Selbu Mittens” in the mail yesterday! What a fabulous book! I’m thinking about knitting my way through the book as my first retirement project, and donating the results. I’ll likely not make my way entirely through the book, but it will be fun to make a start!

    • I just learned about Selbu mittens and thought the same thing; when I retire I, also, plan to knit my way through the patterns.

  • Love this story! So rich and beautiful! Thank you.

  • Heartwarming story. I didn’t know the history of Selbu until I read this.

  • Annemore Sundbø was just interviewed by Arne & Carlos, Norwegian knit designers on their podcast. Great historical information there, too. Thanks for this.

    • Such a fabulous interview!!

      • What a great little history lesson. Thank you for sharing.

    • Yes, I saw it also.

  • That sweater with the Dancers and Prancers running around the yoke…I’m going to have one of those! Thanks for the inspiration.

  • I love this story. My husband is of Norwegian ancestry and will also appreciate the history lesson! This makes me want to knit mittens!

  • For more information about Norwegian craft traditions – including knitting! – and an interview with Annemor Sundbø, Arne and Carlos have just started a video series on YouTube

  • Some of us from our NYC knitting group have been immersing ourselves in Norwegian knitting, starting with Selbu mittens. Now we’re on sweaters. Because of Covid, we have been taking amazing on line classes with Patricia of Knitography Farm in Norway. She’s an American expat who has lived in Norway for decades. Highly recommended.

    • Looked for this site on the internet. Please help me find it.

      • Patricia is Her classes are excellent!

    • Patricia is wonderful!!! Love all of her classes and rich history lessons she gives!

  • I always see a Poinsettia ! I love this story , the universal story of women creating art for all of us to use everyday!

    • I’ve always thought it was a Poinsettia too! This was a very interesting article.

  • My husband and I are part way through a Norwegian detective drama, Outlier on Acorn TV. One of the first things I did was point out the main character’s sweater, and explain to him about Norwegian Stars. So this article is very timely!
    PS I recommend the show, excellent drama with beautiful scenery, and lots of sweaters!

    • Thanks for the Outlier recommendation– I love Nordic noir.

      • I love this history lesson, too. I have knitted this motif into many hats but didn’t realize it was Norwegian until a neighbor of Norse descent told me. Now I want to knit those mittens!! Takk!

  • Wonderful information on the history of Selbu mittens. Many thanks.

  • I grew up wearing Selbu mittens knitted by my Grandma, here in the US, and was sometimes weirded out by people’s comments about my mittens (and hat and sweater…). Now I cherish those few mittens I have left that didn’t get lost or ruined in my childhood! I’m SO grateful that she taught me to knit when I was a kid, so that I can continue her legacy of knitting knowledge within our family.

    • Lucky you! I married into a Norwegian-American family and immediately fell in love with all things Norwegian especially the knitting.

      • My daughter from Calif., USA married a wonderful Norwegian man from Selbu, Norway. That is where they live and are raising their daughter. I love seeing the Selburose adorning sweaters, hats and gloves all the way here in America!

  • I’ve just finished my first pair of Selbu mittens. Having never done this kind of knitting before, it was a challenge but I really enjoyed it and the mittens are lovely. I used a “beginner” level pattern from Skeindeer Knits, Speedy Selbu Mittens. This pattern calls for Aran weight yarn (I used Lopi) which I think made it a bit easier. Now I feel ready to move to her more complicated patterns in fingering.

  • Having lived in Norway for a year as a teenager during one of the coldest winters in their history at that time, I can vouch for both the need for such warm knitted items and for having plenty of time to design and knit them!

  • Such an interesting article. Thank you.

  • This was wonderful! Thank you for sharing the history of Selbu.

  • Such an interesting article! It brought me back to hw so many craft patterns are geometric and can be translated into knitting, crochet, needlepoint, quilting, etc. It also brought me back to how these patterns patterns are ancient. For example, when i first learned hand quilting and piecing, I chose quilting lines for the sashing that were curvy, kind of resembling a basic cable. I think the book where I found it said that it had been an ancient symbol of the sun god. Anyway, imagine my surprise when I saw the same design carved into a church door in Prague! We are all connected, no?

    Unfortunately, I never finished quilting the quilt, as it was destroyed during a move.

  • Tusen takk for this story! I love the Selbu rose, although I always see it as a snowflake.

  • Great article!

  • This also makes me think of certain quilting motifs!

  • ONG, Jordan almonds. It’s a miracle if you don’t break a molar on those things. Bite into a mitten, and no worries!

  • Jordan almonds? Not something with which I am familiar. Used at wedding celebrations?

    • Whole almonds encased in a (usually) pastel covered, rock hard, candy coating. They’re supposedly a slight aphrodisiac which maybe be why a small number of them in little paper containers are given as gifts to each guest at some wedding. The name is a corruption of Jardin, French for garden. The oldy safe way to eat them without risking your dental healthis to suck one until the coating has dissolved and only then bite down.

      • Growing up in an Italian family in Australia, we called sugared almonds ‘confetti’. Imagine my childish confusion at the idea of throwing the things at a bride and groom!

  • Thank you for this great piece on Selbu design and to everyone for their comments. I got into all things Norwegian during Covid isolation. It started with color work mittens with a bird design, then IG photos of Svalbard, then found Arne and Carlos and made some of their Christmas balls, then learning Norwegian on an app. Tusen takk.

  • Last fall, desperate for mental relief from the limitations of the pandemic, I signed up for an online traditional Norwegian Selbu knitting class by Patricia of Knitography. She told told us the history of the Selbu knitting as well as giving us methodical instruction in how to knit the mittens. It was a great joy and I signed up for two more of her classes. A great respite from world events with a beautiful result.

  • What a wonderful and fascinating story!

  • Thank you for the wonderful history of Selbu. My Grandfather came to the US from Norway in about 1908. Now I want to learn to knit the Selburose in honor of that heritage.

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