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ISSUE 121 VOL 10 PUBLISHED 12/7/2007

Norwegian sweaters bombard senses

By Erin Kelly
Contributing Writer


Friday, December 7, 2007

It's Christmas time, and I'm locked in my usual battle. I love Christmas, really I do; I look forward to it for months, sneak Christmas music into my iPod way before I should and eagerly hunt down cookie recipes all year long. I love "A Christmas Carol," "The Nutcracker" and claymation TV specials, but I also harbor a small hatred for Christmas; it kind of makes me sick. I'm allergic to evergreens of all kinds and spend the month of December pumped full of allergy medications just so I can walk through Buntrock.

And then there's that other thing: Christmas sweaters. I'm a knitter, and I do love sweaters, but there's something about Christmas sweaters that just isn't right.

To begin with, there are the horrible sweaters your fourth-grade teacher and Great Aunt Edna wear. You know the ones: There's a huge pixilated Santa on the front, often in a blinding red or green. Now, those are so overly cutesy that I swear I can feel my teeth rotting from the sweetness by just looking at them; they're just tacky.

Some Christmas sweaters do serve a purpose; they make old ladies feel festive and are a great party theme (have everybody wear one, then just laugh all night), and while I don't like them, I can tolerate their existence. But then there are these other ones, worse than tacky; they have a whole culture around them, especially here at St. Olaf. They are Norwegian sweaters.

Norwegian sweaters, or Norgis as they are commonly called, are mostly made in Norway, and while the Dale of Norway company describes their sweaters with words like "only," "genuine" and "official," the St. Olaf Bookstore uses Norlander, a different, but still very Norwegian company to design and make the Ole Norgis. The color patterns in Norwegian sweaters come about because the two colors of yarn create a double thickness in the sweater, and this extra thickness is much warmer.

From the simple "lice pattern" (yes, that's actually what it's called  you can't make these things up) consisting of single lighter colored stitches scattered on a dark background, the patterns became more intricate, involving natural motifs like snowflakes and deer. Eventually the sweaters became the complicated sweaters we know and love (or hate) today. The lifetime of a Norwegian sweater often spans at least 30 years, and some sweaters become heirlooms passed down over multiple generations.

Norwegian sweaters are just scary. They are complicated to knit (lots of colors, thin yarn, tiny needles), require a technique called steeking (cutting into the finished fabric to create space for sleeves or neck lines), they're somewhat corny, and they last forever, like some kind of textile zombie. I'm sure the sweaters have some sort of cultural significance, but instead of being understated like a tartan, they are right there in bold, high contrast bi- or tri-colored wool. They may be good in some senses; the knitting is masterly, and they are pretty if your tastes run towards frolicking deer or heraldic lions, but I just can't like them.

It might be the sheer quantity of Norwegian sweaters one sees on campus in the winter time, but come Christmas Fest, St. Olaf turns into a sort of reverse "Where's Waldo": "Who isn't wearing a Norwegian sweater?" They are everywhere, from the backs of Ole Choir members, to professors, to alumni reminiscing about the days of yore. Come Christmas Fest, you can't throw a snowball without hitting someone in a Norwegian sweater.

While tabling in Buntrock during Christmas Fest last year, I counted 170 individual Norwegian sweaters on a single night. I attempted to count while ushering at Christmas Fest last week, but the sheer number of sweaters overwhelmed me. When Christmas Fest is not raging across campus, Norwegian sweaters are less prevalent, but still present. President David Anderson seems to have quite the preference for them; either he has one that he wears all the time, or he has several and rotates, but given the endurance and price of your average Norwegian sweater, I think it's the former.

Meanwhile, it seems to me that, rather than simply investing in a series of St. Olaf hoodies, T-shirts, sweat pants or other paraphernalia, Ole Alums go for the somewhat pricier, but more durable Norwegian sweater as a symbol of their alma mater.

So there you have it, Christmas sweaters: corny, sweet, a conversation piece, but not this writer's favorite form of holiday festivity.





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