The Art of Housekeeping
In a stately building on the west side of Reykjavík, a group of young people, most of them women, get instructions in the ancient art of knitting. In another room, another group is learning how to embroider. Soon, a few of them rise to prepare afternoon tea, a light snack with a side of cake they baked earlier. You might be forgiven for assuming this is a scene from the early 20th century – in fact, this is the 21st century, and these are students at the Reykjavík School of Housekeeping. It sounds like an anachronism, sometimes even looks like one, but considering hipsters around the world have fallen in love with traditional food and hand-made products, as well as a back-to-basics, minimalist lifestyle, maybe learning to make jam and knit your own lopapeysa isn’t such a bad idea.
Margrét Dóróthea Sigfúsdóttir has been the school’s director for 21 years, having previously worked as a teacher. She tells me the school was founded in 1942, following other such institutions opening around the country. At the time, housekeeping schools were a huge improvement to schooling for women and girls, who’d formerly had no access to higher education after learning the basics of reading and writing. “The first women’s schools around the country ran two-year programs where women would learn not only everything to do with the home but also subjects similar to what you would find in secondary schools: English, Danish, math and so on. These schools greatly increased women’s possibilities of getting an education.” The Reykjavík school from the start mostly taught subjects related to housekeeping, but like at all of it sister schools, demand was high.
Today, of course, women have access to all kinds of education, even outnumbering men in Iceland’s universities. Most of the students who attend the school today have finished their secondary education, some even hold university degrees. According to Margrét, they attend because they want to learn the crafts and life skills the school teaches. “They want to know how to make food from scratch, how to knit, how to weave and how to sew themselves beautiful clothes that fit them well, for cheap. Of course, there’s a lot you can learn off the internet nowadays, but it’s different when you get the ingredients and the materials and learn to do it yourself with guidance from someone more experienced.”
The Reykjavík School of Housekeeping is small, and today its budget has to be renegotiated every year with the Ministry of Education, but according to Margrét, it still has a place in today’s world. In fact, she feels that demand ebbs and flows with the country’s economy. “After the banking collapse in 2008, I had so many applications, I had to turn people away. Then a few years ago, when everyone could get a job, I was worried I’d have to close due to lack of attendance. Now, they’re starting to come back.”
When asked if she felt the school was an outdated concept, Margrét replied, “People are so ready to call things outdated, but you see recipes and household tips in the magazines all the time. Some people who write these things need an education in these matters, in my opinion.” She also scoffs at the idea that lack of time is what’s causing lack of respect for housekeeping. “You will see families that almost exclusively eat pizza or hamburgers. And it takes time to pick up a pizza and wait for it, not to mention how expensive it is. And the food is full of fat and salt. Also, how long does it take to boil potatoes and fry some fish? Twenty minutes! And that’s food made from scratch. But people seem to think it’s such a big deal.”
According to Margrét, the benefits of cooking at home also include that the family sits down to eat dinner together. This is something she tries to instill in her students. “We sit down for every meal and eat together, no phones allowed! I tell my students at breakfast that nothing important has happened since yesterday, if there were a volcanic eruption, I would have told them, so put your phones away and have a conversation.”
Most of the school’s students are around 19 or 20 years old, but some are older. Former students include lawyers, doctors and archeologists who wanted to add new skills to their repertoire. The school’s course of study lasts just one semester – the perfect length of time for a little break. “You never know where life takes you,” Margrét says with a smile. Helga Þráinsdóttir was one such student, a working doctor who’d already run her own household for a few years. “I had always wanted to attend the school but never found the time before. I would recommend the school to anyone who wants to run a more efficient household. I particularly enjoyed learning how to make traditional dishes, such as slátur (Icelandic sausages) and gelatin desserts. These are things people used to learn at home but now, the only place to learn is schools like this one,” Helga says.
Even though the school now accepts students of all genders, the student body is still predominantly female. According to Margrét, she enjoys having some men in her group of students and claims it’s a matter of equality. In a recent interview with Fréttablaðið, actor Hilmar Guðjónsson recounted his fond memories of studying at the school circa 2005. According to him, the most important thing he learned was to not be afraid to make his own food, although he did add that being handy with a needle and thread had also been useful through the years.
Margrét tells me that she enjoys the fact that the students in the school are there because they want to be there. “In the past, there’d be some women who were simply here because they’d been sent here by their parents. Girls today don’t let themselves be sent anywhere, they’re here because they want to be.”
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Iceland Review is the longest-running English-language magazine, presenting Iceland’s community, culture, and nature since 1963.