Monster Sweaters: in conversation with Ýrúrarí

Suzanna Petot was able to speak with Iceland-based Ýr Jóhannsdóttir, a textile designer and artist working under the name Ýrúrarí. Ýr studied textile design at Reykjavík School of Visual Arts and got her BA in textile design from Glasgow School of Art in 2017. She was recently nominated for the Icelandic Design Awards.

Coming together on Zoom, they discussed Ýrúrarí’s mostly knit-based practice– where fragments of humour, body movements and the everyday meet in wool based, wearable objects– sustainability and how not to spill hot dogs all over your clothes.

How did you get into textile design and art? And how did this interest then translate into making wearable objects?

I got into textiles when I was just a child. Here in Iceland, we are taught how to knit in school so I was about nine years old when I learned to knit. I just immediately connected with knitting. I could read and knit at the same time, something I still do today. I changed schools when I was about 10 years old and years later when I met up with people from that school, they remembered me as the girl who was always knitting. When I was around 19 or 20, I started knitting again for a creative summer job in my old hometown. We could work on whatever kind of art project we wanted. I began working on my sweater project, doing wearable art. Of course, fashion in a way can be wearable art too, but this was more a traditional way of knitting, I didn’t go after a pattern, instead experimenting on my own.

The Hamburger Sweater, 2013. Made at Den Skandinaviske Designhøjskole.
Obscure Moment, 2015. 
Six pieces especially made for the exhibition, Feminist Fiber Art, Boston, MA, USA.

You have said that in the past few years, sustainability has become increasingly important to your practice, most evident in your recent series I Would Not Do Something Like That. Can you talk more about these series and any challenges you have faced working this way? 

We don’t learn as much about how polluted the textile industry is and how widespread it’s environmental impact is. For me, it started with “how can I not contribute to this”. Sustainability and resources are now always at the front of my mind. I don’t want to just send a line of designs to production in the Global South, to get them back and spread them out into the world again. When I’m older, this is not something I want to have done in my life, not just making stuff and spreading it in the world, polluting in the same way as fast fashion. Also, I work in just this sweater form and my work has evolved into putting patches and fixing sweaters. I’m not a tailor, I’m not that good with making the base shapes or sowing necessarily. So it’s kind of a perfect way of doing my work to take used sweaters and do my work on these textiles. It saves me a bit of time and I’m not making new sweaters, so it’s a win-win. 

Installation image of I Would Not Do Something Like That (2019) solo exhibition at Gallery Port Reykjavík.

With the series I Would Not Do Something Like That, it started because I always go to second hand stores and charity shops. It’s amazing to see how much stuff there is even though Iceland is a small country. I have friends who work at the Red Cross of Iceland sorting the clothing. They offer to collaborate with me since they get a lot of items that have holes or stains on them. I started getting a lot of these sweaters that had something a bit wrong with them from their former life. From there I got inspired for the exhibition I Would Not Do Something Like That, I could do whatever I wanted with the textiles because they are like trash in a way. I was more like dismantling the clothes, experimenting with how many holes I could put in a sweater and it still be wearable. I also took sports sweaters and sewed them together into a really long, kind of a monster-sweater because when I was a kid, I always dreamed of getting brands like Adidas or Nike. Now, when I go to second hand stores, they are just filled with those brands and they cost hardly anything. The monster sweater was made with one Fila, one Adidas and one Nike, together as if in a collaboration. But it was kind of a joke, like “Oh, I can get this stuff so easily right now. I don’t want them anymore. And no one really wants them”. The title of the show was also an experiment because I knew people would come and say “Why would you do this to this nice sweater?”. People know to respect their things but then they can throw away and get new clothes whenever they want. It’s so easy now, it’s just too easy. Though it’s not their or my fault. It’s just how it has become, and at the same time, not enough is being done to tell people about the pollution. Instead, the media is constantly telling us “you need this, you have to get the newest, nicest dress – throw the old one away.”  We need to educate people about it more.

Installation image of I Would Not Do Something Like That (2019) solo exhibition at Gallery Port Reykjavík.

Peysa Með Öllu or Sweater Sauce (2020)  was shown at DesignMarch in June 2020 and involved a ‘prevention’ fashion show. What is a prevention fashion show? Sounds really interesting!

In Sweater Sauce, I worked with the Red Cross again and most of our collaboration became part of DesignMarch in Reykjavík. The project this time was around a theme: it’s very popular in Iceland to eat hot dogs. One of my friends from the Red Cross store always told me “I can almost see the same mistakes people are making, there are always these stains on the front of the sweater!”. I could just see the scene of people eating a hot dog in the wind or having two hot dogs, one in each hand and not being careful so it ruins their sweater. Then they don’t clean it and it becomes stained. Together with my friend Snæfríður Sól, who is a director and stage artist, we made this a prevention fashion show about how we have to be more careful when we eat hot dogs because they can ruin your clothes. It was a show about how you can hold a hot dog while wearing a sweater and then, at the end of the show, it was a dance of people showing off the sweaters. During the dance, my friend comes in wearing a white sweater and holding a hot dog. He starts spilling it all over himself, getting all messy. The models wearing the other sweaters run away of course because those sweaters know what’s going to happen. It was a show of how to be careful and respectful of clothes. Of course, mistakes always happen, but the show was like a play, rehearsed scenario of spilling stuff over sweaters.

I see your works as living objects, especially after watching your video piece Shark-tears make the sea (2018). You transform ten ‘forgotten’ sweaters into moving, consuming, burping things that swim across the screen and give life to things that others have discarded. What do you hope people feel or think when they see this work or when they are wearing one of your objects? 

It helps to feel like you’re wearing something that’s fun and alive, or more alive than a regular garment. I usually just make garments for grownups. I think that was what influenced me when I was a teenager, I was so annoyed when I couldn’t buy fun children’s clothes anymore. They have way more fun patterns and designs. So the piece was a big take on mostly just making fun sweaters for adults. It’s hard to find these kinds of sweaters for adults. I think it’s important to keep the playfulness going, keep playful in the everyday. 

You began to translate your fantastic style into face masks last year at the beginning of the pandemic, which gathered a lot of attention around the world such as from Vogue, and were collected by the Textiel Museum (The Netherlands), Museum of International Folk Art (Santa Fe, USA) and Museum für Kunst und Gewerbe (Hamburg, Germany). What were your motivations to make these masks and how do you feel about the attention they drew?

I started making the masks because DesignMarch was delayed and I didn’t know when it would happen. I had just gotten a new studio and I was there asking myself, should I be adding to the design materials even though it’s ready, what should I be doing right now? How can I use my time? How can I cope with this situation? I had been making the tongues and faces years before, but I have never put them on my face because it’s always the kind of facial expressions that I have been working with. So it began with the face masks and me just experimenting with this new accessory, yet also now a necessity. The masks were kind of like sketches. I was just trying it out, it was not supposed to become anything special when I started it. It began from looking out the window, seeing what was happening and being inspired; not to make official face masks necessarily, but more because I was looking for something to do and have lots of small curious things around the studio. It was a fun project that turned into a big thing which I was not expecting. So much attention, emails and requests!  In the end I sold most of the masks to museums. The museums were only interested in the masks that had tongues though for some reason.

Masks have now become another way for people to express their individuality and style – as you said, an accessory. They are another opportunity for people to blur the line between fashion, art and design which is the main focus of the issue. What does wearable art mean to you?

Wearable art is more a step away from fashion, especially as fashion has a bad name now; we think of it as something very fast or very high class. Yet, you also don’t want to call wearable art costumes because that is more for the stage or theatre. I have been selling sweaters or doing commissions for artists or musicians who go on stage, like on the edge of fashion and costumes. I think these items though are not necessarily only for on stage, but also for everyday. For example, Erykah Badu, Tierra Wack, and Sheidlina all have crazy amazing styles. I don’t wear my pieces that often. I remember when I was wearing one of the sweaters I made for myself while in Berlin, and this dude shouted “Hey nice sweater! What a cool sweater!”, I don’t like getting this attention. But some people love it and it’s amazing for a garment to get that kind of reaction even from across the street. A wearable art piece is more of a show for that type of person, it suits them to get the attention through the garment. Wearable art is much more approachable, you don’t have to be trendy or follow other people’s tastes like in fashion. It’s more free and experimental. However, like fashion,  wearable art doesn’t have to be practical. There are a lot of crossovers, but in the end, you just have to call whatever it is yourself when you make it or wear it, you decide.

Finally, what are you working on now or have planned for this year?

I have so many sweaters still coming from in the Red Cross and I can’t fix them all on my own. I have just started my open studio at the Design Museum. When you come into the space, it’s set up just like my studio with my sweaters in the corner. I’m working with a graphic designer friend who helped to make a label that is more of an agreement to make you look at the sweater, check what it’s made of, where it was made, and how the fabric feels. You have to try it on, look in the mirror, look at yourself wearing it from the front, back, move your arms around and think about if you like it. If yes, you then have to think of three situations you would use the sweater and think of three other items of clothing you already have in your closet. Next, you have to think of the way you would fix it because the sweaters usually have holes or stains on them. If you can imagine finding a way to fix it, the final agreement is that you promised that you are going to respect this sweater and take care of it so you can just take it since you made this agreement and went through this thought process. Hopefully, I’m also there and can help you with this process. The idea is to help people think about these things every time they go to buy a sweater. People can also come and use my studio with me to fix the sweaters if they want to or they can also bring their own sweaters if they need help mending them. I’m currently working on my MA in Arts Education, and reading about the different creative and visual ways you can approach mending, for example, you don’t have to use the same blue thread as the blue sweater to fix the hole. We’re also thinking about how you don’t have to be an experienced textile designer to do this, there are a lot of easy solutions that you can go with. This open studio is educating people in the sense of how easy it can be to make your clothes last and make them your own, therefore also giving them more worth. The project is for everyone, I’m sharing the patterns for my different designs so people can add tongues to their own sweaters themselves.

Ýrúrarí in her open studio, 2021. Photo: Axel Sigurðsson.

Open studio at Museum of Design and Applied Art in Iceland from January-May 2021.

Find out more about Ýrúrarí and follow her on Instagram.

All photography copyright Ýrúrarí.

Suzanna Petot is a curator and writer for Decorating Dissidence.