Essays, Articles & other Longform Texts
commissioned by Objectspace for The Single Object At Home series
published Objectspace journal 2020
All through my childhood, this box of threads sat close at hand. Its designated shelf space was next to the tartan-print biscuit tin filled with buttons, on top of piles of cotton muslin, wool felt, and the rare silvery scrap or two of silk. I don’t remember the exact moment the box became “mine” instead of my mother’s. I never thought about where it came from because it was always there. As I grew older I dipped into it at will, experimenting with stitches, mending rips and tears, reattaching buttons to old shirts; finally taking the box with me when I moved away from home (where it found it a new place on a new shelf).
I only learned recently that before it belonged to me, or to my mother, it belonged to my grandmama, Faith Walker (née Muldoon: she grew up in the prairie of Saskatchewan, Canada, but was very proud of her Irish roots). The threads were a gift from Grandmama’s dressmaker sister Bonnie, via Bonnie’s Scottish mother-in-law. It must have been sometime in the 40s or 50s, after Grandmama’s ocean-crossing between Canada and the UK – the oldest threads inside still all come from Scotland.
On a residency last September, artist and artisan Arielle Walker explored the historic colours and textures of northern Iceland.
I’m in the hum of late afternoon sun, standing in fields of golden grass as rivers of sheep pour down around me from the surrounding hills. The light is surreal, almost too perfect, and I can’t help but feel as though someone has crafted this moment to look exactly like Iceland is supposed to look – as though I’ve stepped into a photograph. For many, Iceland exists on the border of reality and dream, history and myth, but actually standing here now it’s impossible to be anything but present.
September–October is the time of the réttir (sheep round-up) in northern Iceland. Our small group of residents at Textílsetur Íslands – the Icelandic Textile Center – has been invited to join in this annual gathering. It’s a huge part of why I decided to come to Iceland in September, even though the dye plants are starting to fade and harsh winds already picking up in anticipation of the long winter ahead.
Although the concept of the réttir is simple, its complicated execution has been perfected over centuries of tradition. After spending the summer wandering free in the highlands, 20,000 sheep and lambs are gathered in a community effort by local farmers on horseback. The sheep are slowly, slowly brought back down from the mountains, the riders setting pace to ensure the animals don’t become stressed or exhausted. When they finally reach the lowlands, the sheep are herded into rétts (enormous round pens) where the farming families begin the days-long process of sorting out which sheep belong to which farm. I notice many are wearing hand-knit lopapeysur (iconic yoked Icelandic wool sweaters) despite the sunshine – I’ve brought my own partially finished lopapeysa along, still tucked away on cable needles, and wish I’d finished it in time to wear it too. Not that there is much time for knitting during a réttir: my fellow residents and I are attempting to help Jóhanna Pálmadóttir, director of Textílsetur, find her family’s sheep. We are welcomed with laughter and good cheer, even though our clumsy attempts are surely more hindrance than help.