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American Birkebeiner: Knitter's patterns honor historic race

Allison Barta models American Birkebeiner knitwear she designed and created as souvenir gear for the famous Wisconsin ski race. Pioneer Photo/Monte Draper

Allison Barta, known for her Irish cable knitting books, has ventured into a new arena of needlework.

Barta designed and knit patterns to commemorate the American Birkebeiner, the ski race that re-enacts the rescue of the toddler, Norway's King Haaken IV.

Birkebeiners were a faction during Norway's 12th-13th century Civil War. They were given the name as a sneer by their opponents who meant to imply that they were so poor they wore birch bark boots. As sometimes happens with pejorative nicknames, the Birkebeiners adopted the title as a badge of honor.

During the winter of 1209, when Haaken the boy king was threatened with assassination, Birkebeiners on skis carried him across the mountains to safety. Norway has held ski races since 1932 to honor that feat.

In 1973, a similar race was organized from Cable to Hayward, Wis. Now, thousands of skiers hit the trails in waves to cover the 50k marathon.

Barta, who has skied three Birkies and nine Kortelopets, said she hopes many skiers will see the Birkebeiner pattern on her website and order unique gear for themselves. The 2011 Birkebeiner and half-distance race, the Kortelopet, will be held Feb. 26.

"In May, I started sketching out the sweater, and then I started knitting," Barta said. "It took me five weeks."

She found the pattern of the two armed Birkebeiners carrying little Haaken on an old race program. She copied the picture square by square onto graph paper and knit the design from the graph. She also paid the American Birkebeiner 501c3 a copyright fee to use the design and obtained a patent on the pattern. Some of the proceeds from the sale of the knitwear will also go the American Birkebeiner.

Other features of the pattern include a topographical map of the trail and figures of a classic and skate on the back.

Barta also wanted to give Kortelopet skiers a chance for some souvenir gear, so she created patterns featuring the design on the race medal.

She sent the prototype sweater to St. Croix Collections, a knitting mill in Winona, Minn. Bemidji Woolen Mills knit blankets with the designs and an Estonian company, Baltic Inspirations, recommended to Barta by Bill Batchelder made the hat, mittens and scarf. Arrow Printing developed the pattern book, which is also for sale at the Woolen Mills.

"I took a trip to Hayward and the Birkie Board of Directors in June approved it for me to make the book," Barta said.

Prices for the Birkie-inspired items are available at the website developed by Barta's son, Brian, a Bemidji State University computer program student. She also gave kudos to her boyfriend, Neil Peterson, who patiently watched her knit throughout the summer.

"He has been so understanding and patient," she said.