Sunday, August 31, 2014

Knud Rasmussen and his Famous Sweater

Some years ago, I become interested in exploration of the Arctic and Greenland. In my casual reading on the subject I learned about Knud Rasmussen (1979-1933).  (If you know that this name is in my family's past…no, he's not a relative!)

Rasmussen was born in Ilulissat Greenland to a Danish father and an Inuit-Danish mother. His father was a missionary. (OF COURSE we all know that at present, Greenland is an autonomous country within the kingdom of Denmark).   Rasmussen learned  Kalaallisut or  the Greenlandic language as a child. He was educated in Denmark. He became a polar explorer and anthropologist after a failed attempt at being an opera singer of all things.  Here is a favorite photo of mine of Knud, wearing a hand knit "Icelander" sweater.  

Ironically and synchronistically, an article came out on polar explorers and their sweaters in the latest issue (July-August 2014) of Piecework magazine. The article was written by Lita Rosing-Schow, who is Danish. The sweater is called an "Icelander," a type of sweater knitted in the Faroe Islands (also part of Denmark, remember? And while we're at it, Iceland was part of Denmark till 1944 as well!) for export. Schow suggests that while these sweaters were and are still available in Denmark, that they may have been purchased in Faroe, where explorers would stop to purchase sled dogs as well.  The two color pattern is of course warmer due to double stranding of the yarn, and these patterns while "traditional" to Faroe, are ubiquitous to this part of the world. 

Later in the trip I came upon this painting while visiting an artist's home in Skagen

The subject resembles Tom Baker more than Knud Rasmussen but he's definitely wearing that Icelander sweater.  I could not identify the artist or the subject.

I myself knit a sweater that could qualify as one. These sweaters would have been summer wear for explorers but mine was too hot for South Carolina even in the winter and it is now a nice pillow on my sofa!

So naturally while we were trip planning, Mom found that Rasmussen's house was now a museum and we included a stop on our trip. His home is in Hundested, there is no website that I can find.

It was a lovely isolated location where Rasmussen worked in between trips. He was a prodigious writer, documenting his trips well.

More on Rasmussen, if you're interested:

In 1910 he and Peter Freuchen established a trading post in Cape York named "Thule Trading Station", on Greenland's west coast. The west coast of Greenland is less accessible than the east as it is iced in more months of the year. A Danish website this one says that "his goal was not to conquer new ground but to meet new people."  One can tell that just from looking at his face!

Rasmussen led seven expeditions around Greenland and the Canadian arctic; the most notable of which was the Fifth Thule expedition (1921-1924), which sought to learn where exactly those "Eskimos" came from (we now know…from Asia). He and his group which included two Inuit hunters went by dogsled from Eastern Canada to Nome Alaska over the Northwest Passage;  he tried to enter Russia but his visa was denied. During this trip the trip members conducted interviews (his version of Kalaallisut was understood by those Inuit he met across the top of the American continent).

A very nice film entitled "The Journals of Knud Rasmussen" explores his journey in the Fifth Thule expedition.  If you are interested, be sure to read "Across Arctic America," available from our friends at Amazon and reprinted by our friends at University of Alaska Press. It was originally 10 volumes, more or less, but in the introduction Vilhjalmur Stephansson assures us that this single volume was personally edited by Knud himself in English.

For more information on Knud, this is a great website. Yep, it's in Danish, but that's what Google Translate is for. 

If you want more visuals on explorer's sweaters,
a recommended miniseries is "The Last Place on Earth" about Amundsen and Scott's race to the south pole. 


  1. Cool story! And that is the most beautiful pillow known to mankind! And PS: I'm planning to be at SAFF, helping out a friend at her booth!

  2. I'm really enjoying catching up with your activities.
    Kathy O

    1. Is that you Kathy Oreilly? If so would love to be in touch!