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Icelanders knit crafty response to global crisis

Could old-fashioned creativity stimulate this crisis-battered island?

By Rabeika MessinaContributor / March 6, 2009

Stitch by stitch: Bryndis Sveinbjornsdottir sells her designs in a newly opened shop.

Rabeika messina

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Along Laugavegur, Reykjavik's main shopping lane, one crafts store is thriving in spite of the economic crisis. Well, not in spite of it – because of it.

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Yarns, threads, needles, and fabric scraps are flying off the shelves at Nalin. The shop already ran out of the Danish materials it usually carries and is now running on locally manufactured wool products.

The financial crisis has dealt Iceland a devastating blow: unemployment is soaring, the króna has collapsed, and banks have been nationalized. In January, the island nation's government buckled under the protests of citizens, who say a measure of prudence might have prevented the economy from overinflating.

Icelanders are hardly sitting idle as their country is slammed by the global financial hurricane. In cutting-edge Reykjavik, many are turning to arts and crafts, both to save money and to make it.

"Those who can't afford to buy presents are making them on their own, and those who can afford them are mostly buying handmade Icelandic items because of the import limitations," says Nalin's owner, Helga Jona.

Take Hildur Yeoman. Before the banking crisis, she could make do with her salary as a sales assistant at Trilogia, a clothing store and gallery. Nowadays, the 20-something makes frequent trips across the street to Nalin to buy supplies for her line of crocheted purses that she sells. Ms. Yeoman also sells self-illustrated greeting cards.

Trilogia specialized in high-end British, French, and Spanish designer pieces. Until lately, it carried little Icelandic work. But because the government has prohibited the depositing of money in foreign accounts – the only imports allowed are necessity items, such as food – the store has been forced to stop ordering merchandise from abroad.

Knitting to the rescue?

Local designers – often one-person brands – have come to the rescue.

Trilogia now features necklaces from Arora Eir, headpieces from Thelma Design, rouched bags from Hidden Goods, and bow scarves from Gudbjorg Jakobsd.

"The well-to-do ladies are still going to shop for exclusive Christmas, birthday, or Valentine's Day presents. It's just that those who used to buy Alexander McQueen are now buying Thelma," Ms. Yeoman says, referring to the big-money British designer, Mr. McQueen, who commands up to $300 for a belt or a scarf and up to $1,200 for a necklace. The local one-of-a-kind accessories cost less than $150 each.

Some craftspeople have arts and design training, while others have non artistic day jobs and just happened to have paid attention when their grandmothers taught them how to knit those ubiquitous rose-patterned wool sweaters.