Of dancing couples and knitting history

The history of knitting is so full of interesting tidbits, and the Dancing Couples cardigan is one of the cutest. Knitting scholar Susan Strawn was contacted by Rechs Ann Pedersen, and American living in Denmark. She asked Susan if she would like to add a baby cardigan to her knitting collection. Rechs Ann sent Susan scans of the sweater, which had red dancing couples encircling the lower border. Susan said, "No one could have found the reply button faster than I to respond with an enthusiastic yes!"

The cardigan with the Dancing Couples pattern knitted by Agnethe Sundby probably in late 1946. Her daughter, Rechs Ann Pedersen, gave the cardigan to Susan Strawn for her collection of knitted articles. (Photograph by Joe Coca)
Susan Strawn's version of the Dancing Couples sweater (Photograph by Joe Coca)

Here's a little history of this pattern, from the March/April 2013 issue of PieceWork magazine:

Dancing Couples: A Nordic Design

Of all the Nordic nations (Norway, Denmark, Sweden, Iceland, Finland, and the Faroe Islands), Norway and the Faroe Islands are the most closely associated with the Dancing Couple pattern. Among the knitting designs documented by textile artist Annichen Sibbern Bøhn in her travels through Norway after the 1905 dissolution with Sweden and published in her Norwegian Knitting Designs are three with dancers: Mitten from Selbu depicts only the girl figure while Stocking from Selbu has dancing couples encircling the upper calf, and Cap (Lue) from Selbu boasts two rows of dancing couples.

Figures have appeared on Norwegian knitted garments for about 200 years according to Norwegian knitting scholar Annemor Sundbø. In Norwegian Mittens and Gloves, she explains that "motifs are an inheritance from a time when not everyone could read so the language of pictures was an important means of communication." The importation of books of embroidery patterns and knitted goods into Norway from Denmark influenced the evolution of those designs.

Sweater with a border and second row across the chest of dancing couples. The sweater, donated by Irene B. Thomas, was knitted circa 1940-1950 by the donor's great aunt, Roxie Whaley McGladrey (born in Waukon, Iowa, in 1866 and died in 1953). Roxie's mother Mary Olson Whaley immigrated to Allamakee County in the 1850s. It is believed that she immigrated with Ole Bull's group and lived in his New Norway Colony for a time. Collection of Vesterheim Norweigan-American Museum, Decorah, Iowa. (1997.005.001). Photograph © Vesterheim Norweigan-American Museum.

Between the World Wars (1914–1918 and 1939–1945), Norwegian home industries exported more than 100,000 pairs of Nordic-design mittens and gloves annually along with thousands of caps, sweaters, and stockings—some with Dancing Couple patterns. As evidence of their popularity, the back of the Sport Mittens from Norway: The Northern Star Design in the January 1933 issue of Needlecraft: The Home Arts Magazine has not only two star motifs but a dancing couple below them. Sundbø's Norwegian Mittens and Gloves includes charts containing hand-holding couples in both Happy Couple and Reassurance Mittens. Writing in Invisible Threads in Knitting, Sundbø also describes dancers found among the discarded knitted garments from her "rag pile" for recycling into mattresses, comforters, and such.

Knitters today can and dancing couples in numerous pattern books. Vibeke Lind describes ways to incorporate dancing couples into handknitting in Knitting in the Nordic Tradition. Alice Starmore depicts the dancing boy and girl posed with flexed muscles in Alice Starmore's Charts for Color Knitting. Sheila McGregor includes the "little dancers . . . knitted in Faeroe" in The Complete Book of Traditional Scandinavian Knitting, commenting that they "epitomize the old Faroese ring dance . . . accompanied by saga-like songs."

—Susan Strawn, PieceWork magazine

Isn't that the cutest little sweater? The dancing couples are so festive; if you enjoy knitting patterns for children, this one's for you! Subscribe to PieceWork today to get the pattern for the Dancing Couples baby sweater and many more historical patterns.


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