Threads of empowerment

A Faroese knitwear brand is helping to empower women through heritage crafts via a Danish detective and a killer jumper

Knitwear brand Gudrun & Gudrun became famous around the world when one of the company’s distinctive Nordic snowflake jumpers was worn by detective Sarah Lund on the Danish crime series The Killing, which was first screened in the UK in 2010.

Made from so-called Viking yarn, spun from wool taken from the hardy sheep that stalk the unyielding cliffs and windswept hills of the Faroe Islands, the jumper is said to have been personally picked out by actress Sofie Gråbøl. She thought it perfectly encapsulated the character of Sarah – a strong, albeit taciturn, woman who is defined by her mind rather than her sexuality.

But there is much more to this brand than fleeting TV fame. Its roots are deeply embedded in Faroese culture: from designs based on the traditional shapes and family emblems of fishermen’s sweaters, to the fact that the jumpers are still knitted by hand in Faroese living rooms.

The Killing sent sales of patterned knitwear rocketing and visitors have since flocked to Gudrun & Gudrun’s diminutive wooden shop in the Faroese capital Torshavn, perhaps struggling to equate the humble store – set within the turf-roofed houses and tumbling coastlines – with its international celebrity.

The female duo behind the label, Gudrun Ludvig and Gudrun Rógvadóttir, advocate a ‘slow clothing’ policy, in the same way that slow food is valued over fast food. Their knitters work in their own homes, using the work as a way of overcoming the long, dark winters. The founders are fiercely committed to the empowerment of women too, and have established links with women in Jordan – where knitting is also a way of life – helping them to break cycles of poverty and repression.

“Wherever these projects are, a single thread unites them: female wisdom”

Sitting next to a pile of half-finished jumpers against the wood-panelled walls of her cosy workshop, Gudrun Ludvig explains how the project came about: “It was in the autumn five or six years ago when about 40 women attended a workshop in Jordan. We spent two intense days getting to know each other. There was laughter, deep concentration, misunderstandings, translation from Faroese to English to Arabic and a smell of wool. The knitters weren’t used to untreated wool and one of them said it was like having a baby lamb in her arms.

“The idea is to allow these women, who are expected to be at home looking after their children, to be empowered through working with us. We believe that you will be freer as a person if you earn your own money. It is perfect because there is a strong tradition of knitting in Jordan too and the women can do this at home.

We know every one of the knitters by name and our ambition is to always be proud and happy when looking them in the eye.”

The partnership sits perfectly with Gudrun & Gudrun’s ethos. It is ambitious – because the countries are 3,000 miles apart and hugely different – yet pragmatic, and seeks to preserve tradition and heritage as well as being resolutely fresh-thinking. For example, the stars and diamonds that make up the designs on their sweaters echo those on the clothes worn by hardy Faroese fishermen many years ago. They would venture out into the stormy northern Atlantic seas for long stretches at a time – trips which were fraught with danger.

“When the sailors returned, they would stand out on deck while their families waited,” Gudrun explains. “Each family would have their own particular designs and, long before they could see their faces, they could see their sweaters and know their loved ones were alive.”

Empowering women globally

Gudrun & Gudrun’s success is exciting, but it’s not unique. All around the world are examples of women using traditional manufacturing methods to improve their lot and preserve their cultural heritage. In southern Cyprus, the EU-funded Green Village project has been helping women in the villages of Pano Lefkara to preserve the local lacemaking tradition.

By bringing together older women who learned the skill many years ago with local girls and other youngsters from across Europe, the project has helped ensure a place for this beautiful, intricate craft in the modern world. While the practice was once in danger of dying out in favour of contemporary tastes, there are now apprentice lacemakers and young women interested in incorporating the traditional designs into modern garments.

Another project, Empowering Women Through Traditional Crafts, helps women in the Dominican Republic break the cycle of poverty by providing them with training and tools to make handmade jewellery, which is then sold in the US.

Wherever these projects are, a single thread unites them: female wisdom. “There is this old Nordic legend of a beautiful woman called Kraka who the King of the Vikings fell for,” says Gudrun. “He wanted to test her wisdom and so asked her to come to him not dressed and not naked. She came wrapped in her long hair and fishing net. He was overwhelmed and they were later married.

“From time to time, our collections at Gudrun & Gudrun play with the dressed-undressed theme,” she smiles. “But we always believe in female wisdom.”