Updated: Jul 10, 2020
This is a story about my Icelandic National Costume. The second week in May 2010 was going to be a very special week. It was my first Mother’s Day as an Amma (grandma in Icelandic) and a few days later, it was my 50th birthday.
In the previous months, my husband and children discussed what their special gift could be for these two events. My daughter suggested an Icelandic National Costume and the quest began. Fortunately, they had a great adviser Six years earlier, Björk Eiríksdóttir, along with two of her children, left Iceland to join our family by marrying my uncle Curtis Olafson. She has a beautiful Icelandic National Costume and could be of great assistance.
On Mother’s Day, my husband held out a wrapped package and said, “This is for Mother’s Day and for your birthday.” He has a generous heart and has always given me great gifts that he usually manages to keep a secret. I opened the package and inside was a small maroon box containing a gold filigree brooch. With a little bit of a stammer and hesitation, I said, “Thanks so much. I could wear this … um … on my suit.” At the same time, I wondered where I would ever wear such an ornamental and elegant piece of jewelry. It was so intricate and beautiful – certainly not an everyday piece of jewelry. These thoughts brought me guilt … I should be appreciative of his gift that he ordered all the way from Iceland. But would I ever really wear this large, ornamental brooch?
Sandcasted Silver dipped in gold
Jeff quickly said, “If you want to trade it for another style, you can. This is just to get you started.”
With a quizzical look, I said, “How did you get this?”
He replied that Björk had helped him and said, “You will have to talk with the dress-maker, though. I could not get that part done.”
I was confused and did not understand what he meant. “What dress?” I asked.
He replied, “Open up the envelope in the bottom of the box.”
Inside the envelope were two brochures. The first appeared to be from some type of unique jewelry store. The other had antique photos of Icelandic National Costumes. I was still confused. Jeff said, “It is for an Icelandic dress. They will make one for you. This piece of jewelry is just one piece that you need but I want you to pick out what you really want.”
Incredulous and stunned I said, “What?!?!?!” The thoughts swirled around in my head. What he was saying? There was no way I would ever get an Icelandic National Costume. They are too expensive! It cannot be true! Then I started crying ….. tears of shock, joy, gratitude, and love. I hugged him for a long time and thanked him. He pointed out an e-mail address on each brochure. One e-mail was for the goldsmith and the other was for the dress shop.
In the next few days, I contacted Björk to thank her for helping Jeff and sent e-mails (in English) off to Iceland. I studied the patterns and photos at this website by the Icelandic National Costume Board.
The goldsmith, Dóra Jónsdóttir, was a pleasure. Her shop was first owned from 1870-1909 by silversmith, Erlendur Magnússon and then his son, Magnús, ran the company until 1930. Jón Dalmannsson purchased the shop and worked there until his death in 1970 when his daughter, Dóra Guðbjört Jónsdóttir, took over the business. Dóra studied as a goldsmith with her father in Reykjavík, and had further education in Sweden and Germany. She named the company Gullkistán in 1976.
Dóra is an expert on Icelandic costumes and has been a member of the Costume Board since 2001. At the January 2011 ceremony, she was made Knight of the Icelandic Order of the Falcon for her contributions to Icelandic gold and silver. She has a wide range of national costume pieces and other jewelry, too. She has very old patterns that were collected by the first owner, Erlendur. The originals are now in the National Museum but Dóra still follows these patterns and uses sand for casting them.
The jewelry for the upphlutur (which translated means “upper part”) includes an ornate, black, tightly fitted vest that is embroidered with gold thread, goldsmith work, and gold ornaments in the front. I chose a sand-cast antique-looking goldsmith work for it was more sturdy than the filigree type ornaments. The small flat velvet cap is called a skotthúfa (Icelandic tail cap) and has a black silk tassel. There is a long chain that is threaded a certain way to connect the front of the upper part and many hooks to secure the woolen skirt to the vest. There is also a shirt, petticoat, apron, and velvet belt with gold ornaments to match the brooch and vest.
The professional tailor was Oddný Kristjánsdóttir from the shop called Þjóðbúningastofa, which was a shop owned by Oddný and Hildur Rosenkjær. They each have their own shops now. Oddný´s shop, Þjóðbúningastofa 7ÍHÖGGI, remains in the same location in Reykjavík. Hildar‘s shop, Þjóðbúningastofa Hildar, is located in the city of Hafnarfjörður. I was amazed to find out that both have completed master programs in tailoring and are very involved the Icelandic National Costumes Committee. Oddný sent photos by e-mail and we talked about style, fabric, colors, and much more. She sent fabric swatches by mail, too.
Suddenly, there was a change in my summer plans. The weekend after my birthday, our son asked his sweetheart to marry him – which is a romantic and fun story. She had told us years ago that her dream was to get married in Ireland, the lineage of her mother. At the beginning of June, Cody and Caitlin asked me if I would take her to Ireland to find a church for their wedding. Of course, I wanted to help a bride have her dream wedding. I also wanted my only daughter-in-law to be happy. However, I did not want to tread on any Mother-Daughter wedding preparations!
They assured me that her parents did not want to go and said, “You are so good at traveling and know how to figure out these kinds of things. We really need your help. Please do this for us.” Jeff and I talked it over. He insisted that this was a magnificent idea and we should make plans immediately for this Ireland adventure.
Because of various lingering costume questions, I pondered, “Could we have a stop-over in Iceland on our way to Ireland?” Icelandair was very affordable, the stop-over would work, and our plans were taking shape. We were going to Iceland for a few days and then on to Ireland! Wow!
We left Minneapolis on August 10th and arrived in Iceland early the next day. We visited with Almar Grímsson and his lovely wife, Anna Björk. We met with a wonderful friend and genealogist, Hálfdan Helgason. We went to the costume shop where Oddný guided our choices and took measurements. We went to the goldsmith, Dóra, and chose jewelry that was of the antique sand-cast style.
The next day, we visited the Þingvellir National Park. We ended up at the Blue Lagoon where we were treated to dinner by Almar and Anna Björk. Afterward, Caitlin and I soaked in the Blue Lagoon and stayed overnight at the hotel nearby.
Almar, Anna Björk, Caitlin, Sunna
We left early the next morning for Ireland. We enjoyed Iceland and accomplished so much in just two days. Ireland was amazing and we found the perfect spot. However, that story is for another day.
Just a little more than two weeks later, I was back on an Icelandair flight heading to the wedding of Björk’s son on September 11th and for the INL of Iceland convention on September 18th. The day we landed, I went back over to Þjóðbuningastofa for a final fitting. Oddný promised that it would be completed before the convention and it was. The wedding was spectacular and the reception was very fun. The following week flew by with lots of visiting, sight-seeing, events, and the excitement of picking up the completed costume.
The debut of the costume was on Saturday, September 18th at the INL of Iceland convention (Þjóðrænisfélag Íslendinga) where I gave a presentation, “The Icelanders in North Dakota.”
Anna Björk, Sunna, Gail
The convention was very interesting and it was heartwarming to meet so many Icelanders who previously were just e-mail acquaintances. Towards the end of a marvelous social gathering at Almar and Anna Björk’s, I began my three-hour journey to Blönduós. I needed some quick sleep before a scheduled early morning meeting with cousins. They were taking me on the horse roundup called Skrapatungurétt. You can read about that interesting adventure here.
Since September of 2010, I have worn my Icelandic costume about thirty times. If anyone had said four years ago that I would be traveling around giving presentations and working on Icelandic related genealogy, history, culture, and traditions — I would have said, “No way!”
Life is amazing and surprising. I believe that things happen for a reason and this change in my life has been challenging, rewarding, wonderful, and a true blessing. I am so thankful for my family and their gift of this upphlutur. I hope that I can continue to honor our Icelandic ancestors by wearing this costume and that I can continue to share the love of Iceland. Blessings to all of you.