A decade ago Icelandic knits were dismissed by Icelanders, who deemed anything connected to traditional sheep wool as something only their grandmothers were interested in. The Icelandic woollen industry, after having blossomed in the seventies and eighties, became less popular with locals and now only catered to supplying tourist shops with classical woollen goods.
Around fifteen years ago the woollen industry went into severe decline and factories around the country were shut down. In 2005, an established knitting factory, Víkurprjón, based in Vík, south Iceland, joined forces with five designers with a project in mind to form innovative ideas to elevate this declining industry. The designers set out to make use of the natural materials and conditions that exist locally, rather than using imported materials or outsourcing the production. “Our ambition was to show a fresh image of the Icelandic wool industry by developing new products with traditional Icelandic materials,” explains Guðfinna Mjöll Magnúsdottir, one of the five designers. The collaboration was christened Vík Prjónsdóttir, a label set on turning wool into gold.
A return to local products
“When we started, wool wasn’t very trendy,” explains Guðfinna. “But these days wool is making a comeback. Wool is hip and everyone is knitting. People are using local raw material once again and daring to build on tradition. Asked whether this has to do with Iceland’s economic collapse two years ago, Guðfinna replies that she believes this to be is a world-wide tendency. “I think people the world over are building on old foundations and using local products for design, appreciating their own backgrounds and not trying to pretend to be something they’re not.”
The design team went to the wool factory, situated in a small coastal village on the black sands of south Iceland, to get acquainted with the machinery and to using wool as a material. “The Vík factory doesn’t use the latest machinery or knitting technology,” explains Guðfinna. “For example, the knitting machines are run on cassettes that play the patterns, so these cassettes play visuals and not sound. These non-digital circumstances fascinated us but at were a challenge at the same time. The reason that we plunged into this project was the fact that in 1985 there were 52 knitting and sewing factories all over the country but when we started in 2005, there were only three left, including Víkurprjón. The industry was dying even though the raw material was in abundance. We have plenty of wool in Iceland and we thought it would be really tragic if the entire wool industry died out. We aimed for a new target group as well as extensive collaboration between designers and the factory. We thought that it was pretty exciting to use such traditional material to woo a new clientele.
Intrigued by nature’s unpredictability
The resulting designs came together in a unique collection that has gained worthy attention both domestically and abroad. “We started off using the radius around the town of Vík as our design pool. We became inspired by our surroundings, the crazy winds and the raging seas that also feature in local folklore. We often mix together traditional folktales and inject into them our own little stories. For us it was logical to create something new from a base of tradition and nature,” says Guðfinna. She explains the background for the “Black and White” collection as having been inspired by Michael Jackson: “He died when we were working on it.”
The “Hidden World” designs, on the other hand, are a reference to shamanism. “Our inspiration is obviously not purely from Iceland. We’re really fed up with that ‘Iceland is the best in the world’ idea. Vík Prjónsdóttir is very curious and we just look out for stuff that we find really inspiring.” One of the things that the design team found intriguing is the wild behaviour of nature. “Nature can be both romantic and dramatic. Exactly like the ocean that surrounds Iceland, it has a romantic side but also a dramatic and frightening side. The way nature behaves is unpredictable; it can be nurturing or destructive. Think of snow for instance: it’s freezing cold, but if you dig a hole into the snow to seek refuge from a storm then the snow isolates the heat and protects you. A blanket, for example, is a protective object, a mysterious veil that keeps us safe from the elements. A blanket is something in between a piece of clothing and a piece of furniture. It’s the owner who decides how to use it. ”
A seal on the catwalk
The quirky innovativeness of the Vík Prjónsdóttir design team caught the eye of Danish designer Henrik Vibskov two years ago, and he asked them for permission to remix their ‘seal pelt’ design. “This was a very good collaboration and the design became a part of Vibskov’s collection that year, so our seal was on the Paris catwalk that winter,” explains Guðfinna.
Vík Prjónsdóttir has also been a regular subject for the international fashion and interior design press in the past year. “We’ve received great coverage in magazines such as Plaza and Dwell, and this spring we’re set to take part in a design exhibition in Istanbul in collaboration with Icelandbased designer Jet Korine.”
Currently the team are exhibiting their work at a downtown design gallery in Reykjavík called Spark Design Space, at Klapparstígur 33, and the next product to hit stores is a selection of scarves.”We’re pretty much swamped with work; it’s a 24-hour day for us,” explains Guðfinna and adds that all the designers in the group also have other work to attend to such as lecturing at the Iceland Academy of the Arts. “I’d say that our work is mostly based on a vision, an ideal. Now that we’ve done a second collection you could say we’ve built up more of a brand. At the moment we’re focusing on making Vík grow and travel further.”