Breaking the Pattern: Tongues are wagging over Ýr Jóhannsdóttir’s mouthy sweaters
Young textile designer Ýr Jóhannsdóttir, who creates under the name Ýrúrarí, doesn’t have a very favourable view of mass-production or rehashed designs. Her whimsical sweaters, decorated with hand-knitted pieces, take hours to complete. Though her sweaters certainly break from fashion traditions, Ýr’s insistence on crafting by hand takes knitting back to its roots.
“I think I have only once knitted a lopapeysa from a pattern,” Ýr tells me. “I was 8 or 9 when I learned to knit. I didn’t really know how to read patterns, I only knew how to try things.” While the 26-year-old artist learned to knit in school, the craft quickly became a passion. “I was just knitting all the time. I could read Donald Duck comics and knit simultaneously. But I took a break when I was a teenager: it wasn’t really cool to knit.” She picked up her needles again in 2012, during a youth summer programme. “I was supposed to do something else but ended up making three sweaters and everything grew out of that.”
These days, the knitter doesn’t make her eye-catching sweaters from scratch. Instead, she finds second-hand jumpers in vintage shops, then gives them a facelift with hand-made decorations she knits and sews on herself. The most exciting thing about the process, says Ýr, is the impact her creations have on their environment. “The person who is wearing the sweater is like a walking exhibition room. They change the space that they enter. I find that really exciting.”
Ýr’s designs get their fair share of attention in virtual spaces as well, particularly Instagram. “I went from maybe 3,000 followers to 10,000 in like a month. It’s pretty new for artists to be in that kind of environment and have the added pressure of having to satisfy their followers. It’s very strange, and a bit scary too,” she admits. “I try not to make things just to please people. But that’s really hard. You start to think ‘Oh, maybe I’ll post this. I’ll definitely get a lot of likes for this.’ You always have that at the back of your mind.”
Still, Ýr is able to laugh off the absurdity of it all. “I think it’s really interesting, when the sweaters got really famous on Instagram, people were commenting things like ‘That’s not really for me.’ Which is completely true, I didn’t make it for them! But people are used to Instagram trying to please them all the time. And if they see something they don’t like, they feel compelled to say ‘That’s not for me.’”
On the bright side, Ýr says, social media have helped her see the monetary value in her work and start to make a living from her art. It’s also gotten her designs noticed by the likes of Erykah Badu and Miley Cyrus. “It’s been worth it from that point of view.”
Fashion to order
The popularity of her designs has led Ýr to think deeply about sustainability in fashion. “I have one sweater that’s been very popular on social media and everyone is asking where they can buy it. I have so many unanswered messages asking me where the sweater can be bought or whether I can ship to Portugal or Russia or wherever. People are so used to being able to get anything they see online, and that it’s available in any size and can be instantly made in some workshop where people slave away to make it for you.”
Instead of trying to mass-produce her designs, Ýr is instead working on a pattern book that will teach her admirers how to decorate old sweaters themselves. “Gréta Þorkelsdóttir, a friend of mine who is a graphic designer, is helping me make a non-traditional pattern book, with a very visual process and no knitting vocabulary, so you don’t have to be a particularly experienced knitter to figure it out.”
Stitching for herself
Ýr’s creations are not easy to categorise, weaving together the worlds of fine art, craft, and fashion. “I don’t necessarily make things that fit in a museum. But they don’t necessarily belong in a store either.” The artist herself is not too worried about belonging, however. “There are so many rules about so many things and you just have to forget them sometimes. I think you have to just create things without necessarily thinking about where they’ll end up. Try to do something different and not think too much if you’re pleasing everyone.” It seems that for the moment, Ýr is succeeding in both.
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Iceland Review is the longest running English-language magazine, presenting Iceland’s community, culture, and nature since 1963.