A pair of knit wits: Arne & Carlos are bringing their Christmas kitsch to Britain
The duo left their native Norway in stitches with their folksy baubles.
Sunday 11 December 2011
Picture a fairy-tale Christmas scene and you will probably arrive at an image that is, for the knitwear designers Carlos Zachrison and Arne Nerjordet, an annual reality. "Where we live, in the mountains near Lillehammer in Norway, we don't just have a white Christmas, but a pure white Christmas, because there are no cars or people to mess up the snow," explains Zachrison. "It's a beautiful time of the year here to light candles, decorate the house, go skiing and eat great food."
If you've not yet succumbed to the epidemic of Scandinavian-lifestyle envy, save yourself and look away now – things only get more wholesome from here on. For while "decorating the house" involves, for some of us, unearthing shop-bought ornaments and ratty tinsel, for this duo it means hanging freshly felled spruce with armfuls of impossibly sweet knitted baubles made by their own fair hands.
Emblazoned with snowflakes, reindeer and traditional, folky patterns – all in diminutive, elf-sized dimensions – and rendered in natural wool, these artisanal decorations look for all the world like a Nordic custom dating back as far as the Christmas tree. In fact, they are at the centre of a handicraft craze that Zachrison and Nerjordet kicked off last year in Norway, with the publication of a book of patterns for knitting these julekuler (which translates, somewhat inelegantly, as "Christmas balls"). The book has sold more than 52,000 copies in Norway – a country of five million, where 15,000 would ordinarily qualify a title of its kind as a hit – and topped the bestseller charts.
Recently republished in seven languages, including English (in which it is catchily titled 55 Christmas Balls to Knit), the book is now enjoying similarly remarkable popularity beyond home turf.
When I catch up with Zachrison, 41, and Nerjordet, 48, they are en route to Denmark as part of a promotional tour that has already taken them to the US and around Europe, where they have graced breakfast news and talk shows, and given masterclasses to crowds of fans.
"Everyone we meet is so enthusiastic. It's mainly women," admits Zachrison, "but there are always a few men at our workshops and the age group takes in everyone – eight-year-olds, novices in their twenties, an experienced knitting crowd from 60 up. It's a family activity."
So how did this pair come to be knitting rock stars? Or, rather, when did so many of us become handicraft groupies? Here in the UK, their potential fan base grows ever larger; last month John Lewis experienced a 60 per cent year-on-year increase in knitting-pattern sales. "With clubs such as Stitch'n'Bitch, we're seeing a much younger demographic pick up needles," says the firm's haberdashery buyer, Sam Drysdale. "We're also seeing a trend towards people learning from parents and grandparents, adding a twist to traditional patterns."
Light-hearted tradition with a twist pretty much sums up all Zachrison and Nerjordet do, as fashion aficionados already know thanks to the pair's "Arne & Carlos" knitwear lines (temporarily and literally mothballed due to the success of the book). Launched in 2007, the intricately patterned sweaters and cardigans, featuring witty reworkings of classic Scandinavian motifs (space invaders get equal billing with reindeers), swiftly won the pair a reputation as the kings of contemporary Nordic knitwear.
The official hallmark of cool arrived with an invitation from Rei Kawakubo, of cult label Comme des Garçons, to guest-design a Christmas mini-collection. So thrilled was Kawakubo with their initial offerings that she pressed them for more.
"We always do a Christmas workshop with family and friends – a party, really, with knitting," explains Zachrison. "That year we'd planned to make the balls and when we showed them to her, she placed an order for 400. We thought they would be used as decorations but, when we went to the Paris store, we saw them on sale for €100 a piece. We laughed at the price, but it was a provocation, too. We felt nobody should pay so much for something anybody can make. So we thought, let's write a book giving people all they need to do it themselves."
One publishing contract, 55 patterns ("There are 55 patterns in the book because after 55 is when we decided to stop") and more than 100 hand-knitted balls later, the volume was ready. Full of beautiful photographs of their handiwork shot in their cosy converted railway-station home and interspersed with tales of seasonal local customs, this is the kind of book that you want to flick through regardless of its practical purpose.
But that, of course, would be missing the point, so I tap the guys for tips on getting down to the business of ball-knitting. Nerjordet is the more expert hand-knitter of the two, having learnt from three generations of women in his family, and it was he who knitted all the decorations photographed in the book. He can do three patterned balls in a day, but suggests that – as a near-enough complete beginner – I start with plain ones until I've mastered the basics.
My doing-and-making skills are virtually non-existent; in part, wilfully so. I have watched with unease as friends have thrown themselves into WI-style activities of late, wondering whether – recessionary pretexts aside – there isn't something faintly sinister about the resurgence of the 1950s housewife.
But, two knitted balls later, I'll concede that maybe I've been throwing the baby out with the post-feminist bathwater. The satisfaction of making something even as tiny as this with one's own hands is, I realise, absurd. Admittedly, my own balls turn out a little wonky, but I rather think that adds to the homespun charm.
As a newbie, I can't pretend that my labours were less than considerable. The balls are knitted as a single piece by working around four needles in a square using a fifth working needle. This is unbelievably fiddly, especially in the early stages – no sooner do you stop paying attention to one needle than it endeavours to part with its stitches and scupper the whole thing.
In the end, I enlist the help of my mother (who casts on and keeps an eye on my stitches), YouTube (lots of useful demos of techniques) and a nice lady called Mrs Doyle from my local knitting shop (who makes me five more balls in less than 48 hours, proving it's a doddle when you know what you're doing).
My experience was a long way from Nerjordet's account of settling down with a glass of wine and enjoying the meditative rhythm of the work – there were moments of tearful frustration and more expletives than in a series of Shameless. But there were also small-scale triumphs and, after finishing one, it didn't take me long to decide to do it all over again. It doesn't sound befitting of a fairy-tale Scandinavian Christmas, but somehow it felt very much in keeping with a British one.
'55 Christmas Balls to Knit' is published by Search Press, priced £12.99
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