An Interview With: Óli Kristian á Torkilsheyggi of Navia Yarns

As mentioned in my last post, we spent some time with Óli Kristian á Torkilsheyggi (Kris), the owner of Navia Yarns, in the Faroe Islands this past March. One of the highlights of our time (besides the amazing fresh cod his wife, Paula, made) was finding out more about the history of the Faroe Islands and the family legacy that led him to found Navia. I thought it would be nice to interview him for the blog so we could share that information with you, and our conversation is below. Enjoy!

Kate: Can you tell us a little bit about your family history on the Islands, and what being "Faroese" means to you?

Kris: I can trace my family history all the way back to the Viking Age. My family came to the Faroe Islands in the year 1000. People didn’t begin to write down things about the families until only 150 years ago, but I am a 6th generation farmer on my father’s side, so I can trace my lineage back through the farm. A lot of Faroese families had big families, so we can also trace it back that way.

My mother’s family was very entrepreneurial. Prior to the late 1800s, only the Danish king could have stores, which limited the ability of the Faroese people to have their own businesses and income. In the late 1800s, they changed the rules, and my mothers family immediately started a store.

Kate: What is your connection to wool and yarn?

Kris: In the 1930s, my great grandmother employed about 20 women to knit. Fishing was the main economy on the islands at that time, so many men were out on the sea for half of the year, and the women needed jobs that would allow them to be home to care for their families. My grandmother would send the jumper pattern and yarn to the women and then once finished, the knitters would send them back. The jumpers were then exported to Denmark, Sweden, and Germany. The financial crisis hit us in the 1930s in the same way it hit everyone else, but it caused my grandmother to become more creative and she found great success with the business, and she soon employed 700 women. Branding wasn’t as much of a thing, though, so unfortunately the garments didn’t have tags in them. They were just called “sweaters from Faroe Islands”.

They did use Faroese wool back then, because they couldn’t (and didn’t want to) import the wool onto the islands. Most of the sweaters were heavy seaman’s sweaters in heavy Faroese yarn. The original Tradition was inspired by this yarn. In the 1930s-1950s, people didn’t use much nylon in clothing, and wool was needed to keep warm. The lanolin in the Faroese yarn would make the sweaters waterproof, so they were perfect for work wear.

My grandfather, my mother’s father, opened a spinning mill on the islands in 1961 because my great grandmother was having difficulty finding yarn for the knitters to use. In the late 1970s, he was the 3rd biggest employer on the Faroe islands. His company, Tøting, bought wool from Faroe, but also the Falklands and Australia and did all of the washing and carding, and spinning. He died in 1980, the year before I was born, and my uncle started the business again in 1992, and I began working there when I was 13 - my first job was to put labels on the skeins!

As the years went by, the spinning mill wasn’t running any more, but the company was still producing sweaters. I was very interested by the process and production, but, unfortunately, they only focused on sweaters, not yarn. I considered buying the yarn portion of the company, but it was too small to do anything with, so I decided to start something separate on my own.

Tøting closed in 2008 after a natural process to slow down, and along with yarn, Navia also produces finished garments. We continue the family legacy, in a more modern way.

Kate: You mentioned you also have a history of farming in your family. How did sheep and farming play a role in your day to day?

Kris: My father’s family has had a farm and sheep for six generations. Having the farm and the sheep is a long tradition on the Faroe Islands with the oldest son typically inheriting the farm. It isn’t always like that, though – my father is the youngest and wanted to keep farming, so he inherited the farm and the sheep.

I am the oldest and only boy – I only have sisters – and I really like to farm, so I was happy to be a part of it. We have 200 sheep on the farm, so it isn’t considered to be a big farm, but the farm takes a lot of time out of the general day to day. It is more like a lifestyle, though, as it doesn’t make us enough money to live off of, but when you are sitting in your office all week stressing about delivery times, and starting at a computer, it is so nice to be able to go out on Saturday and spend the day in the field and with the sheep.

All of the wool from our fleece goes into the wool to make Tradition, but most sheep in Faroe are actually used for meat. Part of the role of Navia is to increase the value of the sheep for wool. Previously, the wool was very important, because if you didn’t have the fleece, you didn’t have clothes, and we want to bring back that value.

Kate: How did the idea for Navia Yarns come about?

Kris: With the family connection to yarn, it made sense to be involved in the industry somehow. After finishing college (undergrad), I had to decide whether to buy a portion of my family’s company, or to go to university (graduate school). I chose to go to university and obtained a degree in marketing, entrepreneurship, and economy. When I was in school, we did a project on owning your own company, and I chose to do a project on owning a yarn company. I told myself if I was able to obtain funding and received the best grade for the business plan, I would go for it, and I did! The degree was set up so that we spent one half year in classes and then the other half of the year as an intern. So I started the company in 2004 with $300 US dollars, and became my own intern. In the beginning, there was only Uno, Duo, and Trio in 6 colors.  

For the first few years, we grew slowly and steadily. Back then, the concept of Faroese yarn wasn’t a thing that people really understood. In order to educate the people and support the yarns, we launched books, each year having a book supporting the brand and concept of Froese yarns.

At the time, I was also working at a telephone company as the marketing and sales manager, and I was employing someone to run Navia. In 2009, though, in the middle of the financial crisis, Navia was growing, and I had to choose between the career job or focus on Navia.

Kate: I’m so glad you chose Navia instead of the phone company! What makes the Faroese fleece used to make the Tradition line of yarns so unique and special? 

Kris: The Faroe Islands is called “Sheep Islands” in Viking, so the name “Faroe Islands” is actually called “sheep islands”. The sheep that existed on the islands were very small. We’re not sure exactly what it was, but in 1675 there was an epidemic and a large number of sheep died. Sheep were then imported from Norway to blend with the native Faroese sheep to get a mixture. In the 1960s, because sheep were mostly used for meat, it was popular to import sheep from Scotland so the sheep would be larger. The mixture of native Faroese, Norwegian, and Scottish breeds are the unique Faroese sheep today.

There are two things that make the Faroese wool unique. The wool is divided into two pieces, we call it the “root” (the under layer), and the outer layer. Explaining the wool is explaining the weather; all year round, we can have every season in one day. In order to survive, the sheep need to survive a snow storm, rain, sun, and wind, all in one day. They have evolved to survive the weather due to this crazy climate, and the wool from their fleeces reflects that.  

The under layer of the fleece is very soft, and the over layer is very rough. The over layer and under layer are both very long. The wool contains a lot of lanolin, so even though it rains so much, the sheep are protected form the rain and their skin stays completely dry. The wool is very natural and is grown in a rough environment, which makes the wool very strong and warm and breathable due to the evolution of the climate.

When producing the wool for Tradition, we sort the wool and take the best wool. The first class wool is what we take for the yarns, and the second class is sold to be produced into carpet yarns. We’re also working on using this wool for insulation for housing in order to increase the demand for the wool and reduce waste.

Kate: The designs that you publish to support the yarns are very Scandinavian, but they also look unique to Faroe. What is the Faroe knitting tradition and how does it influence the designs that are published?

Kris: When it comes to Scandinavian designs and patterns, we again look back to the Viking age. In the old days, people came from Norway and Sweden and occupied Faroe, Iceland, and Scotland. The Vikings were weavers, but not knitters, so the patterns were all weaving patterns. In the 1500-1600s, the weavers began to knit, and they used these patterns for knitting. Many of the motifs that came to the islands have been here for over 1,000 years and evolved slightly over time. As Faroese, we can tell by looking at the jumper, where it is from. 

In 1932, Hans Marius Debes published a book, Føroysk Bindingarmynstur, a compilation of Faroese patterns. Today we call this the “Great Pattern Book” and it is used as the foundation for all of our designs. The knitting patterns we publish are produced both for the Faroese market and export. We have a team of 50 women who are excellent knitters, some of them are educated designers and some of them are excellent knitters who design just for us. We have a designer who works in a bakery, one who works in the fish plant, and others are high ranking CEOs. We also have all ages, young and old, who do the designs.

For each collection, we have parameters and encourage the designers to use the local Faroese patterns to help continue and highlight the tradition. We also try to pay attention to the trends, though, so find the balance between the traditional sweaters and the modern.

Kate: Navia is a "family affair" - can you talk about the people you work with and how you're all connected?

 Kris: (laughs). Let’s start with my wife! When you build something from scratch, your family is always around you. Paula, my wife, joined me in 2008. She has been doing all the graphic design and is also the manager of the finished goods production. She designed all the new labels, and everything related to the ads, books, labels, and production sheets. Everything!

I have three sisters. My oldest sister, Erla, she used to manage five bakeries, but she wanted to move back to our village. She now works full time at Navia managing the store in Toftir and the stores that we sell to in the Faroe Islands. She also packs orders.

My middle sister, Beinta, is a photographer. She has a masters degree in London from the UArts there in photography in styling. She owns her own photography company, though, so she does photographs all around the island, not just ours. She was just in Japan taking photos, and today is in Italy!

My youngest sister, Óluva, she began as an intern in August and pursued the same degree as I did in Denmark. She is working on her thesis project now, and will complete her exams and then will work her part time helping with online and markering and other things we need. She does our Instagram and will manage and update the website.

Of course, my mother and father are helping us all the time. Families are close here, and they live right above our house!

Thanks so much to Kris for taking the time to talk with me about his family, the Faroe Islands and the story of Navia yarns. We hope you enjoyed it!

All of the images used in this post are from the Navia Instagram feed and are by Benita á Torkilsheyggi.

An Interview With Pamela Wynne

As I mentioned a bit ago, Pamela Wynne Butler published an ebook, Handsome: Man Sweaters for Every Body, a collection of patterns (AbramElliotJerryKaleRobertRushaan), designed with a wide range of body types and fit options. I wanted to hear more about Pam's motivation behind the collection and how her approach and work has evolved in the years since the release of her insanely popular February Lady Sweater pattern, and she graciously offered to answer my questions. Our interview is below. Enjoy!

JerryL / Narrow shoulders. R / Broad shoulders.

Kate: Thanks so much for taking the time to answer some questions regarding Handsome: Man Sweaters for Every Body. This collection is really unique from other "menswear" collections in that you feature a wide variety of models in terms of body type, gender identity, and size. Why was it important for you publish a collection like this?

Pam: At first, the Handsome project was very personal. I was just designing sweaters for friends and loved ones who'd had difficulty finding menswear styles that fit their bodies, and those folks come in a variety of shapes and sizes and genders. Each of the six designs in the collection was designed with, created for, and named after one of those friends. And then I made a second sample of each design for another friend with a very different body type, to show the sweater on multiple shapes. So that variety was intentional, because I wanted to represent a range of different fit challenges and solutions.

But at my day job, I'm a gender studies professor, so of course I also believe that the personal is political and that representation matters! For the photoshoot, I managed to get all of those folks together for a weekend on a farm in Minnesota. And when I looked out at the whole beautiful crew of them, showing off their new sweaters and admiring everyone else's, I recognized that I'd also created something pretty special in terms of the kinds of bodies and the forms of gender expression we usually see modeling clothing. I think that was a heady moment for all of us.

L / Crew-neck Robert with custom length and "X" shaping. R / Original Robert.

Kate: You discuss some of the additional features in the collection in the lookbook, such as short-row shaping at the belly, wide/narrow shoulder adjustments, and waist shaping. Why did you choose to include these as options, rather than just publish the designs as-is?

Pam: My goal with this collection was to make my designs as accessible as possible to as many people as possible. I want any adult human -- of any size, any shape, any gender -- to be able create their perfect menswear sweater with these patterns. I say in the introduction to Handsome that "clothing that both fits your body and affirms your gender is a luxury and a pleasure." But I don't want that to be a luxury only available to the few. I want to live in a world where that pleasure is universally accessible. We know it's probably not going to happen in corporate fashion, but we have the power to make it happen through DIY fashioning. These custom options were one small way I could participate in building that world.

And of course, even though my personal goal was to outfit myself and my social circle of fellow gender weirdos, expanding access and options benefits everybody. Human bodies are so marvelously diverse! Every person's shape is utterly unique. Why not create knitting patterns that can stretch and shape-shift to embrace that diversity?

L / Pam's February Lady. R / The February pattern from Elizabeth Zimmerman's Knitter's Almanac inspired the sweater.

Kate: Agreed! That is such a beautiful sentiment. 

Changing gears a little but, I think it is pretty safe to say that your name became well known (and closely associated with) the February Lady Sweater when it was released over 9 years ago. Since then, you have published a wide variety of garments and accessories. How does your work now differ from that original pattern? Are there aspects that have stayed the same throughout?

Pam: Oh yeah, sometimes a knitter will recognize me in public and call me "The February Lady!"

I designed the February Lady Sweater just for myself, and then shared a tutorial with my friends on this new little website called I had never designed a sweater pattern before. And then, of course, it was the first pattern to go viral on Ravelry as the site blew up. It is not an example of great knitwear design! So part of me is embarrassed that it's the work people know me by. But most of me is just grateful that so many people have enjoyed it and that it opened up this whole knitting community to me.

My later work was largely determined by what a given yarn company needed -- what design would work best with a particular yarn and with a particular customer base or market in mind. That meant I got to experiment with a wide range of ideas, and a wild variety of yarns (including some challenging ones to design for, like variegated laceweight silk, and super-bulky alpaca), which was a really transformative learning experience.

These days, I get to design whatever I want, so I'm focused on work that is meaningful to me in some way, like Handsome. There are so many hardworking, skilled indie pattern designers out there creating fashion-forward "women's" garments and accessories graded for a wide range of sizes. I don't feel like I have much to contribute to that realm these days. But I'm inspired by design that challenges our ideas about gender, about sizing, about what bodies are. I guess that's the throughline to my work since the February Lady Sweater. Even then, I was interested in the pattern being adaptable to lots of shapes and sizes -- it's just that the only tool I had for that I back then was the top-down seamless raglan!

Lovely details on Eliot. L / A-K's optional lined contrast pockets. R / The original Eliot, with front steeks.

Kate:  When designing, how much does yarn choice play into your approach? Do you plan a garment and then choose a yarn that will work with your design idea, or do you pick a yarn you love and let it guide you into what it wants to be?

Pam: Ooh, I do a lot of both. But yarn choice is always crucial for me. We're so lucky to have great resources for learning about yarn and fiber these days, like Clara Parkes's Knitter's Book of Yarn and Deb Robson's Fleece and Fiber Sourcebook. Of course, some of us also had to learn those things the hard way, for instance by knitting a seamless dress in 2001 out of bulky cotton and then watching it stretch to three times its original length.

For the Handsome collection, I swatched every single American-grown yarn I could get my paws on, plus a few faves like The Fibre Co. Knightsbridge. During my first meeting with each of the folks I designed the sweaters for, I brought a massive pile of swatches for them to fondle, and had a wonderful time matching people and designs with yarn.

Both versions of Abram.

Kate: Wow. That cotton dress must have been quite the....experience. Hah! What is next for Pamela Wynne?

Pam: All this year, I'm focused on promoting and supporting Handsome, and hosting knitalongs where I'm making all six of the sweaters for myself.

After that, I'm letting the knitting world crash my day job! I'm finishing up an academic book on the political history of knitting in the U.S.

Rushaan: The next design in the knitalong!

Kate: Thanks so much for taking the time to talk to us. And that book sounds amazing - I'm excited to hear more about it when it comes out!

For those of you interested in reading more about the knitalongs, make sure to check out Pam's blog, where she is providing additional details, tips and tricks, and information on the garments and their construction. Additionally, you can follow along n the Ravelry group dedicated to the collection.

All images © Caro Sheridan except Pam in her February Lady Sweater and the Knitter's Almanac book.