Today the selburose is an emblem of winter, and Christmas, and most of all Norway. But Norwegians didn’t invent it so much as they popularized the pattern. Precursors arose in the ancient Fertile Crescent and evolved over centuries throughout Europe. Then Norway made the symbol fashionable and helped it spread, thanks largely to accidents of industrialism and nationalism—and the clever persistence of the people in the small town for which it is named.
Selbuvotter, the Norwegian name for the mittens, comes from the town of Selbu, in the middle of Norway. It sits next to Lake Selbu, its namesake, in a mountain valley, relatively isolated from the rest of the country. Like most Norwegians, the valley’s inhabitants were traditionally farmers and forest managers. From the 15th century on, Selbu was famous for millstone production, but in the mid–19th century, that quickly changed.
In 1857, a girl named Marit Gulsethbrua Emstad knit three pairs of ambitious black-and-white mittens, with a bold, eight-bladed rose design (åttebladrose) on the back of the hands. She showed them off at church, and the garments became an instant hit. Everyone in Selbu wanted a pair.
Their popularity spread quickly. By 1910, the Norwegian Arts and Craft Club, or Husflidslag, opened its first official chapter in Trondheim, the nearest big city to Selbu. Emstad sold to it, and from there, the mittens exploded across the country. By the 1930s, Selbu townsfolk were knitting 100,000 pairs annually, selling mittens to France, Austria, and the rest of Europe. When machine knitting became feasible, the mittens became popular tourist souvenirs—and the Selbu husfliden logo quickly became shorthand for quality and authenticity. By 1960, a major part of Selbu’s livelihood depended on the production and sale of mittens. Today the two-strand, black-and-white mitten with two roses on the back of the hand, a ribbed cuff, and a pointed top screams “Norway.”
But the design is not authentically Norwegian. In fact, the åttebladrose predates Norwegian knitting and nationalism. Its provenance is so ancient that pinpointing a single origin is almost impossible.
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The star first appeared in Norway in the Middle Ages, long before Marit Emstad showed off her pair at church. Annemor Sundbø, a Norwegian knitter and author, has written extensively on the history of the Selbu mittens. “Our country is not … the only one to use this motif,” she writes in her book Invisible Threads in Knitting. Sundbø explains that Latvia also claims the star as its national symbol. But the rose appears elsewhere much earlier, such as on the earliest silk knit garments in Europe and cushions in an ancient grave in Spain; its origins seem to combine Christian and Islamic patterns descended from Coptic and Byzantine art. It can even be seen in Sumerian mother-of-pearl mosaics.