Unn Soiland Dale knits all the time. She knits watching television and reading, knits when she is getting ready for a party, knits when she stops for a red light. She even knits when she is driving, when there isn't much traffic and her car is in automatic drive.
"It is amusing to knit," said the knitwear designer at a Norwegian Embassy luncheon in her honor yesterday.
She knits so well that her ponchos and vests show up under the Givenchy label, her suits are sold by Dior and the marvelous blanket coats she develops with Jens J. Jebsen & Co. are among the best things in the collection of Paris designer Jean Charles de Castelbajac.
Dale, 56, who is in Washington for an informal showing of her designs for Lillunn at Garfinckel's today and tomorrow, started knitting as a child. "Everyone knits in Norway," she says, recalling her first completed project, two mittens that were so tightly knit and so stiff they stood up like toy soldiers.
While she was modeling for Christian Dior and Jacques Heim in Paris, she always knitted for other models and their boyfriends.
Her sweaters were always knitted in patterns. "I could only afford to buy a little wool at a time. And since the next batch of wool might be a slightly different color than the one before, I could never make a solid-color sweater," said Dale.
She sold the rights to her most famous pattern, her Marius design which is a scaled-down, typically Norwegian pattern, for 100 krone, the equivalent of $15. "At the time, 30 years ago, it seemed like a lot of money. With the money I could buy a kilo of wood." (The Marius sweater was to be named after Norwegian champion skier Stein Ericksen, but when it was thought that such an honor would affect his status as an amateur it was named after his brother, Marius.)
Norwegian Ambassador to the U.S. H.E. Knut Hedemann said yesterday that he was familiar with the Marius sweater, and so was former astronaut Bill Anders, a luncheon guest who had gotten to know Dale and her designs when he was U.S. ambassador to Norway. "I'm the overbearing kind of husband who makes his wife take everything back, even to Loehmann's," Anders said in a luncheon toast. "But with Unn Dale's designs, for the first time in my life, when my wife brought one home, I said, 'Go back and buy more.' "
Other Dale sweater fans include the late Ingrid Bergman and her family, film director Ingmar Bergman, Luci Nugent and Lynda Johnson Robb, whose mother bought them sweaters years ago. Jimmy and Rosalynn Carter own them. And her sweaters are now one of the gifts for official visitors to Norway.
She now has more than 120 knitters working all over Norway in their homes, making her designs, some so complicated she must visit them to explain how. The most complicated is a diamond-pattern vest she makes for Hubert de Givenchy. "It was my own vest and I was wearing it when I brought my new ideas to his salon," Dale recalled. "He said he must have the coat I was wearing as it was just like a Klee painting." Dale explained it was made from remnants and virtually impossible to duplicate. "That's your problem," Givenchy told her. After scouting the yarn market for days she finally came up with what she needed.
What's more, one of the hats she wore to another meeting with Givenchy prompted the Paris designer to ask her to leave it behind to inspire him. An identical hat showed up in his next collection.
At the Norwegian embassy, Dale was wearing a marvelous knit headband over her gray hair. "You can't go to America without something to cover your old gray hair," teased her daughter before she left home. Her daughter made her a collection of headwraps, not unlike the Vippe, the traditional headband of the Norwegian costume, to go with everything in her suitcase.
"Not often do we have an event like this," said Ambassador Hedemann. "We are more known for fish than fashion."
He was obviously delighted.