A Colossal Interview
Ýr Jóhannsdóttir On Her Playful Approach to Design and How Mending Will Shape the Future of Sustainable Fashion
March 22, 2021
Managing editor Grace Ebert spoke with Ýr Jóhannsdóttir, who works under the name Ýrúrarí, via Zoom in February 2021. This conversation has been condensed and edited for clarity. All images © Ýr Jóhannsdóttir, shared with permission
Grace: What are you working on now at the Design Museum?
Ýr: I have an open studio now at the Design Museum in a town called Gardabaer. What I’m doing there is a project of fixing old sweaters that I get from the textile clothing gathering of the Red Cross of Iceland. I’m taking the sweaters that have holes or stains in them—they can’t be sold—and I’m working with them and creating them or changing them into my design and art.
The concept of an open studio is usually that you can go and look at the artist’s work and have a chat maybe, but I wanted to try and open it a bit more so people can also come and take part in my work. I have a stand of sweaters, and people can make this agreement with me that if they try them on, make sure that they will take care of it, use it, and that it fits with their style and closet, then they can take it. I’m getting them for almost nothing from the Red Cross anyway. I just want to trust people and have them make this promise that they will make it last.
At the museum, I will also have some workshops where people can come and fix the sweaters with me. It’s this idea: instead of always buying new things, make the old things last longer because that’s what we have to do right now.
Grace: How did you start revitalizing old garments rather than making something entirely new?
Ýr: I graduated as a machine knit designer four years ago, and I started with making sweaters from scratch. The first bunch of sweaters I made, I just hand-knitted them. It takes quite the time. It’s a lot of work. Then, I started using the knitting machine, but it’s an analog, home knitting machine that they used in the 50s or something, so it also takes a lot of time to create from scratch. When I started my studies, I of course was focusing on all of the textiles and experimenting at school, but as an extra income, I started to decorate old sweaters that I found secondhand. I bought them and decorated them, so I wasn’t really making the sweaters, like the shape of them or necessarily the fabric. It was both me saving up time, and I could also sell them inexpensive to my friends and other students. And then it just ended up as, “oh, of course, I shouldn’t be making sweaters. We have more than enough sweaters.”
This is also my style of working. It evolved into this. It makes sense today, but when it was happening I wasn’t necessarily thinking too much about it.
Grace: Do you think of it now as the main part of your practice?
Ýr: Yeah, it has become a big part of my practice. Before, I was more thinking about making fun sweaters. The most shock I got was when I was a teenager, I couldn’t find fun clothes to buy anymore. They were all serious and boring. So I started making the everyday sweater more fun.
That was the beginning, play with humor, play with the human body. I still do play, but now, after all of my studies and time thinking, the material also really matters.
I’m lucky in that my work fits really well with that concept, so it’s easily adaptable to sustainability. I’m trying to use the platform I have now to get the information out there. For artists and designers, it’s our responsibility to think about it. When you are designing something, it’s your approach. You choose the materials. So it’s also on you to choose sustainable materials.
Grace: There are so many threads there that I want to pull apart. Let’s start with your teenage years. Do you come from a creative family? Were the clothes alterations something you did on your own? How did it all start?
Ýr: In Iceland, we learn to knit in secondary school. When we are nine, we have textile classes, and we have woodworking classes. It’s part of the rules in school here.
I learned to knit, and I really connected with it right away. I don’t really have many artists in my family—my parents are scientists and engineers more than artists—but me and both of my brothers are all artists now, so I don’t know what they did to get that to turn out. I don’t know how that happened.
I grew up in kind of a summer cabin. We had a lot of places to play and a whole forest around our house. I think that might have played into how creative we all ended up. We had the money also to not necessarily have to go straightaway to work, but I think Iceland is quite creative for some reason.
Grace: How do you think you fit into the creative culture there?
Ýr: What I do here is considered really normal, I would think. Of course, my bubble now is really creative, but the thing is, because we’re so small—we have 350,000 in all—it’s really easy to get the space to be creative and be noticed. You don’t have to shout as loud as if you’re in a big city with millions of people. I think it gives you a bit of the confidence of just going with your ideas.
Grace: Coming from somewhere that’s small in comparison, how has it been now that your work has received quite a bit of attention?
Ýr: It has been interesting because it’s so different in its own light. I don’t meet any of these people that have noticed my work. Of course, it’s given me a lot of opportunities I would never have gotten in Iceland because we are so small. It’s really hard to live on your creative work. If you publish a book in Iceland, it’s like 500 people that are going to buy it or something because we are so small. That’s a big thing for me now, to get the other spectrum of people. I think there are like 130,000 people now following me on Instagram? That’s close to half of the population. It’s a fun ride because I would not have expected being a knitter, that that would be the art that would get this popularity. It has been kind of surprising.
Grace: Do you attribute that, in part, to your subject matter and how playful your work is?
Ýr: Yes, and it’s lucky. It doesn’t make my practice better than someone who is working deeply with some material and texture. It’s just that Instagram is a really, really, really good platform for what I am doing. That’s also where I’m lucky. My work is often about humor, colors, and playfulness, and it works well in videos. I do all of those videos and take a lot of photos, so it’s been a lot of extra work in my practice.
Grace: Does that come naturally to you? That promotional or public-facing side?
Ýr: I am quite shy and have to speak more now after all of this year. That’s the nice thing about being on the internet. I don’t have to speak that much myself, and I don’t have to be on the stage with my work. People aren’t necessarily thinking, “what is Ýr doing today?” It’s more that they appreciate what I’m doing.
Grace: I want to talk about the playfulness, humor, and lighthearted nature of your work. How do you connect the body and play?
Ýr: What interests me in doing wearable art is that there are so many possibilities. It’s kind of like a walking gallery every day, what you decide to put on. It can also make creatives into characters with the movements, and it dismantles the view of how our bodies are. I think that’s always been interesting. I was a teenager when I started doing this, and I was very into Cronenberg movies and a lot of sci-fi, weird things, so I think that’s where it comes from. Originally, it was changing the perspective of bodies because they are quite weird.
It’s just where it was taking me.
But, I’ve also been wondering where it comes from myself? In 2018, I was doing those tongues on the sleeves. It’s funny because that’s on your face and not on your sleeve, and a lot of people have connected with it. And when COVID happened, we had those face masks, and everything got canceled that I was doing. I had just gotten a new studio, and I needed to have something to be doing. It was just supposed to be those small sketches that I was going to hang up in my studio as like a fun piece. And then all of a sudden, Vogue is calling!
Grace: Yes, the masks were everywhere! Has COVID affected your work other than that collection?
Ýr: Iceland was fine all summer, so all of the projects I had to stop in the spring just happened in the summer. I have had more time to be home knitting, and the masks blew up without me planning on that. If I just think about my work, it has helped. But it’s an unfortunate thing, of course.
People have been spending more time at home knitting, and I think people have been spending more time slowing down and thinking about sustainability, which is another thing in my practice I’m really focusing on. I made the knitting pattern of the mouths, and during COVID, a lot of people started doing those. I had been selling them for a year I think when COVID happened? Then I really started selling more because people wanted to make them to put on their masks. They also had the time to do it. A lot of people sent me a message saying it was their first knitting project, and they had to ask their grandma to help them out or their mom, so that’s very nice. Or they were putting in an order to their grandma to knit those mouths. It was very fun to see that happening.
Grace: How does teaching and making this art form more accessible inform the way that you think, and how do you see that impacting what you do and take on in the future?
Ýr: This spring, I am finishing my master’s in art education, so that’s how that all started to happen. I haven’t been advertising that a lot—I’m only in my second year—and I’m doing my master’s thesis on this. That’s also why I’m free sharing because I’m writing about all the reactions and seeing what’s happening. I chose the program because the patterns with the tongues got super popular, and people were just like, “I need this! I want to buy it! How can I buy it?” and being a bit aggressive. I was thinking like, “how can I mass-produce it? Or do I want to mass-produce this design?” and of course, I had no idea how to do that. And then I was like,” well, you’d probably have to do a line in a big place.”
The only solution was to make a pattern. I was not going to make hundreds of sweaters in my house because it also takes quite a bit of time to do. I was staying at a residency in New York at the Textile Arts Center, and I produced the pattern. I also did a workshop, and it was so interesting to see all the people come there and work with their hands, chatting. I was more excited about that than going into mass production and just always contributing to stores and promoting stuff to sell, going to the post office all the time. There are so many things that I hate about selling stuff.
I want to make things that people respect rather than just making some product. It’s all coming together. One of the solutions of slow fashion is getting people to mend their things also and have respect for what they buy. —Ýr Jóhannsdóttir
Also, knit your own sweater, and you are going to care more about it than if you buy one of 1,000. That’s the idea. I want to make things that people respect rather than just making some product. It’s all coming together. One of the solutions of slow fashion is getting people to mend their things also and have respect for what they buy. It’s also responsible.
I don’t think that many people or fashion designers have taken this education approach, and they’re just going to be the star designer. It can be seen as a step down to become a teacher. It’s one of the best solutions to spread it out and stretch people to actually do things, rather than just buying the organic cotton that is a bit better than the other cotton. That’s not really a solution. I’m getting more out of sharing my mindset, really getting people involved, and being a part of the process.
But, I’m also in a good situation. I have this platform now. I can sell the sweaters I make by hand, and they are also way more expensive because I make really, really few of them. That’s not a place where very many people are in. I’d rather be doing this than go into mass production. All of the masks I made, all of them are in museum collections.
Grace: Congrats! How did that happen?
Ýr: So many museums contacted me. They were gathering stuff from COVID. I put high prices for the masks because I was like, “I’m not going to make more. So I would rather just cash in on those and not make more unsafe masks. I’d rather just have them be in the museum for people to look at and think about the time.” The first one I sold to the Textile Museum in the Netherlands, one to the Folk Art Museum in Santa Fe, then the Tatter Library in New York, one to Hamburg in Germany, and I just sold the last one now to the National Museum of Scotland.
I will take my salary for it and use my other time for sharing the process. I’m hoping it will keep working that way with my other projects. It also worked really well while I was studying.
Grace: Can you tell me a little about Sweater Sauce and how that came together?
Ýr: It was a project that I made specifically for Design March, an annual design festival, we have here in Reykjavik. It was a collaboration with the Red Cross. I started getting some sweaters from them that they couldn’t sell. It was around ten sweaters that I managed to finish before the design festival. When I went to pick up the sweaters, my friend that works there was telling me like “ugh, we’re just getting too many sweaters here that just have this stain on the front.” And it’s because people are buying two hot dogs, or buying a hot dog in the winter or something, and end up spilling sauce all over themselves. Then they go home, put the sweater away, and it’s just stuck on it. There were a lot of sweaters like that, and it was just such a fun story because we eat a lot of hot dogs here in Iceland. They’re popular, and something I miss after becoming a vegetarian.
It was so funny we chose this theme because then I had to design around it—not all of the sweaters had the hot dog incident, but the hot dog became the theme of the show. I got my friend, Snæfríður Sól, who is a director and stage performer, and together we designed this prevention fashion show where the models were holding the hot dog and showing how to not spill the sauce on your sweater. I think there was one person among the 11 of us who actually ate meat. It kind of ended up as an advertisement for the hot dogs because, after the show, we could see a row (of people) by the hot dog stand next to the building.
Grace: You’ve talked about the stains as part of the narrative. Can you expand on that? Or even what the narrative aspects are in your other works?
Ýr: With the sweaters with the stains on them, with the first one I got, I did a visible mending and worked with the stain. I embroidered it on the white sweater, so you can see the stain really clearly. One had stains (on the arms and chest), but I still covered it with a bit more over the stains, so it’s not just the visible mending of just fixing only the hole, and then it’s fine. Or also just covering the hole and then I work around it. So now I’m doing more of the concept of the whole piece of the sweater. That’s where I am.
You are collaborating with the previous owner because they had some accidents that you just have to work with. But it’s way more fun. You have to stop and think, and new things happen. In a post on Instagram, I had the sweater I’m working on at the museum. It had big holes in it, and I was trying out needle felting. I ended up needle felting what looks like little fires. It was not a deep thought behind it.
I had already learned needle felting, and it’s usually not that fun looking. It was more like, “what can I use needle felting for, and what can look good in needle felting?” I thought of fire because it seemed simple. I never would have thought of doing that on something I made from scratch. It came from seeing the sweater, and what could I do to fix it?
Grace: It sounds like the constraints are helpful to you.
Ýr: Yes. It’s probably what I needed to keep on going forward, getting ideas, and doing things. I always get new sweaters that have new things wrong with them. But most of the spillings or the holes are right up front on the sweater. It’s a tricky place to work. I like working with the arms and the movement most. I can play most within the shape. I’m now figuring out more solutions on what to do with the body of the sweater. I think I’ll find a way.
Grace: Is that the work that you’re doing, then, at the Design Museum?
Ýr: Yes. It’s part of the Sweater Sauce project. In that, I just fixed ten sweaters, showed them, and then I sold them. That was it. I gave those sweaters a longer life and new concept. But there are so many other sweaters that need to be fixed, and I can’t fix them all. That’s the concept that I just have to start spreading out or sharing what I’m thinking and make it interesting. It’s branding the idea of “it’s better to fix your clothes than buy new things.” People love the fire mending, and I did not realize that would be so popular.
The project that I’m doing now is like, “how valuable can I make these trash sweaters?” My friend, Gréta Þorkelsdóttir, the graphic designer, she’s making these price tags that have the agreement on them—the agreement you have to make to get the sweater for free.
And, I have all of these sweaters, and I don’t know their previous stories, so my friend, who writes novels, is going to write the story of who had it before, what happened to it, and how it ended up there. Then I’m going to work on that concept and use it for how I make the sweater. I’m doing experiments on what I can do to make the sweaters have more life in stories.
Then in the middle of May, I have a little show at Design March again. We will have a show at the museum, and that’s when I end my open studio. It’s what I’m working on right now. Experimenting with how I can make more people interested and how I can put the value in and give each and every sweater their space and appreciation.
Grace: I love how you’re making the process collaborative at so many different steps. It’s such an interesting model for sustainability.
Ýr: I think it’s what we need because people are so different, and we need to have a variety of ways. One way is not going to fit everyone. We need to try out as many solutions as we can, and people can choose which one they like.
Grace: Is there something that you think we get wrong about sustainable fashion or sustainable design?
Ýr: I’ve been researching that, for example listening to The Wardrobe Crisis podcast, and I read a book that is called How to Break Up with Fast Fashion that I do recommend. I feel like the most important thing is just to make things last and not always buy a new thing. Of course, the algorithm of Instagram and the internet wants you to buy new things when you can fix things—they don’t get money from that.
I’m hoping that’s the new approach, more sharing knowledge and getting people to come together and fix their things and make them last. And, of course, you can get tired of the sweater you’re wearing right now, but instead of throwing it away, you could spend a little time making it more interesting. It’s more sustainable to buy secondhand than even buying the organic new stuff that they’re making.
There are many ways. Every step in the right direction is good so I’m not going to speak against the organic-thinking stores, but the biggest threat is the really really big companies, Zara and H&M and all that, that just don’t care. If they show any type of care, it’s usually the greenwashing perspective. It’s good for branding because people love to hear it’s sustainable or that there’s something good they’re doing. People need to be a bit more critical and think about what the companies are actually saying.
Grace: And isn’t that a bigger mindset shift? It does seem easier still to buy something new than figure out how to mend or fix something, even though that information is more accessible now in many ways.
Ýr: Yes, and I think things have gotten so cheap that it is easier. If you think about the work hours put into the mending, it’s like no, I’ll just go buy a new sweater rather than doing that. I think it’s something that we have to put in schools more. I’m coming from a country where we learn textiles, but we don’t learn how to mend things in those classes! We just learn how to sew new pajamas or something. It’s something I’d like to change here. And then I’ll take on the rest of the world maybe.
Instagram is also a good platform to at least be sharing this. I’m getting a lot of questions like, “where can I buy this? And when can I buy it?” But to be stricter and be like, “you can not buy this. You have to make this,” I hope that some people have gotten some lesson out of it. If you’re thinking about sustainable solutions, it’s the creative people that will find the right way.
Find more of Jóhannsdóttir’s playful knits and sustainable designs on her site and Instagram.