HISTORY

The amazing history of knitted hosiery in the Faroe Islands

Knitting is a cornerstone of Faroese culture and the sheep and wool have been central to Faroese traditions and identity. An old Faroese adage says, “wool is Faroe gold,” and even a cursory glance at Faroese knitting history confirms this. The export of wool and knitted garments were once the backbone of the Faroese economy. Although fewer than 5,000 people lived on the islands in the 17th and 18th centuries, annual exports of knitted woollen stockings numbered in the hundreds of thousands. And having in mind the harsh weather on the islands, people were knitting woollen garments for themselves as well.

Knitting as we know it today was performed in the Faroe Islands in the 16th century. The earliest references are written sources that refer to the value of stockings as an export product. The prices of goods for export were fixed during a parliamentary session in 1584 and moorit brown stockings fetched five hides, while white stockings were worth four.Knitting as we know it today was performed in the Faroe Islands in the 16th century. The earliest references are written sources that refer to the value of stockings as an export product. The prices of goods for export were fixed during a parliamentary session in 1584 and moorit brown stockings fetched five hides, while white stockings were worth four.

Account books from the 17th century shows records of payment of the rent from the copyholders and white stockings are regularly listed as payment.

The export of woollen stockings was critical to the Faroese economy in the Middle Ages. After the Scottish spinning wheel was introduced to the Faroes in the late 17th century the new technique boosted the production of stockings, and soon overtook vadmal as the prime export product. These changes in production also led to a certain amount of social reform. Not everyone had the equipment or the space to produce woven goods, but anyone who could get some wool could knit stockings to sell. Unfortunately, the increase in production soon led to oversupply; the Faroese were knitting too many stockings. By 1683, it was estimated that it would take three years to sell one year’s supply of stockings. Prices tumbled, and the piles of unsold stockings stored in Copenhagen began to grow. Moths got into these stores, and in the first half of the 18th century, a total of 177,000 pairs had to be destroyed.

However, production continued, and stockings remained the main export product for the Faroes throughout the 18th century. By 1770, over 100,000 pairs of stockings were sold each year, which made up around 98% of all exports from the Faroe Islands. These stockings were sold in northern Europe and were a popular choice for uniforms for soldiers and sailors.

Everyone who needed or wanted a little extra income was knitting stockings, but not everyone owned land or kept sheep. This led to a spike in people traveling through Faroese villages to beg for wool. In order to stamp out this problem, the authorities enacted a new law on bonded labour, which became known as Trælalógin, the Bondage Act. It stipulated that the working classes and the poor had a duty to take on work at farms. Anyone failing to do so would be punished.

Subsequently, the law was altered to bar landless couples from marrying until they’d served on a farm for a period of four years. The farmers, in conjunction with the authorities, alleged that people were needed to farm the land, and the stated aim of the legislation was to curb begging and reduce poverty—but many bonded laborers on farms were ordered to knit instead, because it was so profitable.

The production of stockings fell in the 19th century, and people began to knit sweaters for export instead. By the end of the 19th century, only a few hundred pairs of stockings were exported annually. But the knitting of woollen garments did not stop. With the transition from an agrarian economy to industrial fisheries in the 1880s, the population was booming, and seafarers needed multiple sets of work clothes to take on their fishing expeditions.

How come the Faroese stockings were so popular?

The wool from Faroese sheep has two layers: A soft and smooth underwool, that keeps the sheep warm, and an outer wool with long, coarse and strong fibers that protect the sheep from the harsh weather on the islands. By mixing these two fibers, you get a warm and long lasting garment.