Standing Out in the SF Bay Area

We returned to the U.S. permanently in the early 1960s.  Though we lived in the mild climate of the San Francisco Bay Area, our family was bedecked in Norwegian hand knits.  Most of them were knit by my grandmother.

My mother did her best to ensure a Norwegian home and upbringing though living in the untamed region of California (i.e., the San Francisco Bay Area).  If you were transported into our living room, you might think you were in Norway.  Hardanger, handstitched or woven hangings and coverings everywhere, various rosemåling objets d′art – you get the drift.  Perhaps not surprisingly, she tried to make us children look as if we were transported directly from Norway.

I had a pair of reindeer skin boots – seriously, the ones with curved up toes worn by the Saami (once called Laplanders).  Not only did I have a pair in my closet, I had to wear them to school.

Skiing trips around Lake Tahoe?  My mother insisted I use “good” Norwegian skis, cross-country skis that she had been using since the late 1940s.  (They belonged in a museum.)

Picture days and other special school days I was sent to school wearing a bunad (the Norwegian national costume), complete with a white apron, high neck white blouse secured by a large silver pin, and a blue vest laced with a black cord through pewter closures.  (All I needed was a flock of goats following me to school to complete the picture.)

Over the years, I wore every traditional Norwegian sweater, generally with matching caps, that you could think of.  Each was a gift from my beloved grandmother, so of course I didn’t balk wearing them.  On any given day, however, I must have looked as though I was going to go cross-country skiing.

To complete this picture, when my hair grew long, my mother generally kept in braids.  On special days, however, she pinned the braids across the top of my head.  (Yup, I would have given Heidi a run for her money.)

On family outings, my mother made us all wear Norwegian sweaters.  I guess it made it easier to keep track of us at museums or the zoo.  Here’s a picture of us by Stowe Lake in Golden Gate Park in San Francisco.  Each of us is wearing a traditional Norwegian sweater; my sister is wearing a matching wool cap.

Now I spoke both English and Norwegian perfectly well.  Nonetheless, once people heard my mother’s tortured English, between that and the sweaters, Americans generally assumed we were recent immigrants who didn’t understand English but that shouting at us, slowly and in English, would help.

Though raised and educated in the U.S., the Norwegian-centric upbringing ensured that for the rest of my life I never felt totally American nor totally Norwegian.

I have always felt, however, that knitting brought the two cultures together for me in a beautiful way!


About sweatyknitter

Fiber art devotee, author, and amateur artisan bread baker.
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21 Responses to Standing Out in the SF Bay Area

  1. Yes, my granddaughter wore it too. I hope I have a greatgranddaughter will will wear it as well!


  2. You’re most welcome. I hope the memories they triggered came with smiles. 🙂


  3. Cecelia says:

    Did your granddaughter wear that dress? How wonderful that it is still around, even if she didn’t wear it.


  4. rossteusch says:

    My daughter and I were discussing the “geeky clothes” she and her sister wore as children. I pointed out to her that they weren’t geeky, but the latest fashion according to the German sewing magazine Burda. She insisted they were still geeky since they were always ahead by 2 years from what was worn in the US. However, I drew the line on the girls having long hair and wearing braids on top of their heads. It was enough that I had to when I was a child. I loved your article. Thanks for the memories


  5. Sadly, don’t know what happened to all those sweaters. I have only one of the handknit sweaters from my grandmother. It’s a grey and white sweater my grandmother knit for my 16th birthday. I will dig through my stacks of old photos and see if I can find a picture of me wearing that one and then post it with a picture of the sweater. I don’t have the pattern but can chart out the pattern for interested parties. I also have a beautiful woolen dress knit by my grandmother for my daughter. My granddaughter fit that dress two years ago!


  6. Cecelia says:

    I’m 1/4 Norwegian 1/4 Swedish. I have knit lots of Norwegian sweaters, though not so many from Norwegian patterns. And I am a rosemaler. I embrace my Norwegian heritage, but my mother didn’t speak any Norwegian, so I didn’t feel the heritage until I got interested in it as an adult.
    I would love to see more pictures of you and your siblings in Norwegian sweaters. do you still have some of those hand-knit sweaters?


  7. marjorie says:

    lol! love it!


  8. I don’t think I could have paid my daughter to wear the reindeer boots. I think my grandson might think they were pretty cool, though, especially if he could carry some sort of spear.


  9. marjorie says:

    YES! And I love those reindeer boots! I had a little dress with crosstitch and smocking in second grade. It was a hand-me- down so I never wanted to wear it to school. Years later I found a similar dress in a used clothing store and bought it for my girls. They loved wearing it!


  10. I think every child feels that way! I didn’t figure out the power/joy in being different until much much later in life. 🙂


  11. marjorie says:

    yes i guess as a child I didn’t want to feel different from everyone else. impossible though. kind of wish i’d figured that one out earlier1


  12. I am glad you’re enjoying the blog! Thanks for reading it. I’ve been having fun rooting through my boxes of pictures, magazines, etc. from long ago. I never tried rosemåling, I don’t think I’ve tried nåbinding, and I haven’t worn a bunad in years. 🙂 (I have done Hardanger though. My grandmother used to do a lot of that and taught me long ago.)


  13. I not only felt “alien” (ever read “Stranger in a Strange Land” by Heinlein?), but I found it almost offensive in college when people would “assume” I had no other identity other than “American.” Why? Because I was a blue-eyed blonde! My friends who were Japanese-American – even if they were 5th generation – never experienced that. They got the “When did you learn to speak English” ignorance!


  14. ethgran says:

    I am half Norwegian but wasn’t raised with a Norwegian parent – each were half. My mother’s gorgeous father from Olso died when she was 9 months old but her mother (mostly English heritage) did what she could to keep her departed husband alive for her daughter. Although Grandmother remarried when my mother was ten, Alf Emil was the Love of her life. Of my family’s five kids, I think I was the one that took to being part Norwegian the most. I’ve made myself a Norwegian Sweater (though I live in Florida now and don’t wear it very often) have done Hardanger, done some naabinding, painted some rosemaling and even made myself an bunad. The braids on the head remark made me laugh because I always wanted to wear my hair that way but there just isn’t enough of it to make much of a statement. I am enjoying your blog ever so much!


  15. That’s a really interesting idea, that having a Norwegian-centric upbringing in the US made you feel like you didn’t fit in either. I’m Chinese-American, and spent the first 7 years of my life in a multi-generational extended family household. My grandparents didn’t speak much English, but my parents were born here. There’s no way to hide being Chinese-American! So even dressing like everyone else, I still looked different. But more comfortable being American than Chinese, since I don’t speak Chinese.


  16. But of course the pin was a solje! 🙂 I still have the one I wore as a child (quite beautiful). I have a larger (adult-sized) one but I have few outfits that it really “goes” with. And yes, I saw “I Remember Mama.”


  17. But I’m still scarred by the reindeer boots. Classmates used to look at my feet and say, “What are those? And where are you from?


  18. Yeah – YOU weren’t sent to school wearing reindeer boots! 🙂


  19. Curls & Q says:

    I’m serious – you really need to write a book! I’d buy it and so would Barb. Was the pin a solje? Have you seen the movie “I Remember Mama?”.


  20. marjorie says:

    A beautiful childhood story Karen!


  21. Tina says:

    What a great story !


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