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.