Wool on the Prairie
The Norwegian emigration to America started in 1825. A newspaper reports about a bold captain who has sailed a tiny ship across the Atlantic. When the 53 first Norwegian emigrants landed in New York after more than three months at sea, they were a strange sight for the Americans, they were dressed in coarse homemade and old-fashioned clothes. In urban areas, the Norwegian custom was quickly replaced by American fashion. Emigration to America increased, and it peaked during the period from 1875-1925, and one reckons that over 800,000 Norwegian men, women and children packed their America trunks and embarked on the long journey to try their good fortune in America – the Land of Dreams.
Immigrated cotton and emigrated wool
The second half of the 19th century was characterized by great poverty and increasing population in Norway, and many poor people left their villages. At the same time the textile industry flourished in Norway, and thus provided many jobs. Many found their way to the industrial centres, but many took the much longer journey to America to make a better life for themselves there. The immigrants brought the knowledge and skills of handicraft over the Atlantic Ocean, and there adapted them to American material and products. The Norwegian textile industry imported cotton from America, but on the prairie, the settlers wanted Norwegian wool, as they were not satisfied with the American quality, and cotton was not as warm.
Sheep, spinning wheels and knitting
In the middle of the 19th century, the spinning wheel was a just as natural part of the emigrants’ luggage, as the iconic America trunk. It became more common with cotton fabrics and clothes in Norway as the textile industry rapidly grew. However, in areas where the Norwegian immigrants settle, harsh and cold winters made warm clothing essential, and they were used to wool in the home country. They could buy both fabrics and ready-made clothes, but they continued to knit wool garments. Home-made textile production was important in rural and new-settled areas. Many farmers had just a few sheep to have enough wool to make yarn to knit socks, mittens and other garments.
Cotton and quilting
In America, the Norwegian settlers got acquainted with quilting techniques which made it possible to create beautiful and warm blankets, and at the same time utilize worn out garments and leftover materials. In quilts, they could reuse and give new life to cloth holds memories of their life, a Sunday dress from the home country, a shirt worn out from hard work, the children's clothing that had been too small. The quilt also had patterns with names and meanings, such as Log cabin, Wedding ring or Friendship knot. Old fabric could also be cut and sewn together into long strips that could be braided or crocheted to make floor mats. They could weave simple fabrics for blankets or rugs. Wool could also be used directly as batting in the quilts.
Underneath skirts and trousers
Although the settlers dressed in American style, using cotton fabrics and bought garments, they had wool underneath to keep warm. They had long and short knit stockings or whole wool suits, Long Johns, even knitted petticoats. In the towns the modern women used corsets, but the older immigrants kept the Norwegian custom of wrapping a long woollen piece of cloth around their upper body. The underwear itself was usually not visible when people put on their Sunday best to go to the photographer, yet one can, if one knows what to look for, see traces and remnants of Norwegian "accent" in the clothes and the appearance, in the same way as one could hear Norwegian accent in their language. It can be a profile under the dress, a silver brooch in the neck, a braided ribbon in the outfit or in the hair, or the way the beard is cut.
From underwear to outerwear
In the beginning knitted woollen garments were usually underwear, but eventually became outer garment in the form of patterned knitwear. From the union dissolution with Sweden in 1905 and the time towards the centennial of the start of emigration in 1925, Norwegian textiles and garments was to a greater extent worn to emphasize and show their ethnicity. Around WWI was a time of distress and characterized by high immigration in America that led to tightening of immigration laws. The American Melting pot should turn everybody into good and loyal Americans. It was important for the Norwegian immigrants to be proud of their homeland, yet at the same time convey that Norwegian values corresponded with the right American values, and that they thus were good Americans. Modern skiing in America is also closely related to Norwegian knitting, and following the Olympic Games in Lake Placid in 1932, where the Norwegian performers wore knit sweaters, Norwegian knitwear transformed from being warm underwear to fashion outfits. Today many Norwegian-Americans wear them to show their Norwegian heritage and identity together with rose paintings, Harding fiddle and bunad, of folk costumes, at special occasions.