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Virgin Tapestries and the Bridal Theme

By Randi Nygaard Lium

Editor’s note: The most-woven motif at the peak of medieval Norwegian tapestry weaving was the biblical story of the Wise and Foolish Virgins.  The two rows of virgins with a highly patterned background are emblematic of Norwegian billedvev (literally, picture-weaving) and recognized by museum-goers worldwide, like this version owned by the Minneapolis Institute of Arts (MIA). Why did this image resonate with weavers of the era?  We are grateful for permission to present this translation of Art Historian Randi Nygaard Lium’s expert analysis, which appeared in her new book, Tekstilkunst i Norge (Textile Art in Norway). 

The most popular Norwegian medieval tapestry motif is, as earlier mentioned, the Five Wise and Five Foolish Virgins. The fundamental basis of the image is a representation of virgins who went out to meet the bridegroom. The background text is from Matthew, Chapter 25, Verses 1-13.  

1 “Then the kingdom of heaven will be comparable to ten virgins, who took their lamps and went out to meet the bridegroom. 2 “Five of them were foolish, and five were prudent. 3 “For when the foolish took their lamps, they took no oil with them, 4 but the prudent took oil in flasks along with their lamps. 5 “Now while the bridegroom was delaying, they all got drowsy and began to sleep. 6 “But at midnight * there was a shout, ‘Behold, the bridegroom! Come out to meet him.’ 7 “Then all those virgins rose and trimmed their lamps. 8 “The foolish said to the prudent, ‘Give us some of your oil, for our lamps are going out.’ 9 “But the prudent answered, ‘No, there will not be enough for us and you too; go instead to the dealers and buy some for yourselves.’ 10 “And while they were going away to make the purchase, the bridegroom came, and those who were ready went in with him to the wedding feast; and the door was shut. 11 “Later the other virgins also came, saying, ‘Lord, lord, open up for us.’ 12 “But he answered, ‘Truly I say to you, I do not know you.’ 13 “Be on the alert then, for you do not know the day nor the hour. (These verses in English are from the New American Standard Bible.)

The motif was used in European visual art in the Middle Ages. When it became popular in Norway, the image spread through prints. In all the tapestries the virgins are woven in two horizontal lines, with the wise virgins uppermost and the foolish virgins below. The wise virgins proudly hold up their lamps. The foolish virgins hold handkerchiefs to dry their tears; their situations were difficult.  They couldn’t have known beforehand how much time it would take for the bridegroom to arrive. This image shows the high demands made of young women. To be pure and innocent when the bridegroom arrived was not enough; they also needed to be alert and vigilant. 

Along with the ten women in long dresses, men are woven in as side characters. It is interesting that the bridegroom is Jesus. In several tapestries the oil seller is placed in the lower right hand corner, and one tapestry even has the inscription “eros kiøbe” (eros purchase). This male figure has associations to something completely apart from virginity and purity.  It is as if to purchase extra oil could be interpreted as having to do with prostitution. Therefore there are many layers of meaning to this theme. The tapestries were used as bedcovers, and as a beautiful covering for the marriage bed it was a reminder of moral demands.  

In the oldest virgin tapestries from around the middle of the 1600s, the women are dressed in festive renaissance dresses, jackets with a high waist, and pleated collars. They often have crowns, and the long dresses are richly detailed, with a center section that resembles an apron. Behind the upper women you see architecture that looks like a city. The women are woven in two horizontal rows, one over the other, with a border between. 

In the tapestries from the 1700s you see stylization and abstraction, which results in figures that are increasingly ornamental in their expression.  The skirts, upper parts of their clothing, faces, and crowns create an ornamental whole. The inscriptions disappear, as well as the extra figures. The architecture behind the row of wise virgins is gone, replaced by decorative elements. The virgins’ lamps and handkerchiefs have disappeared, and with them much of the meaningful symbols of the story. Perhaps the message was forgotten over time, and when weaving a bridal coverlet the weaver perhaps followed a pattern she inherited. 

Three original coverlets from 1760 from Bøverdalen have been preserved.  The weaver was called the “bibelsprengte” weaver (the weaver who broke with the Bible), because she interpreted the motifs in her own style. Her unique tapestries included her rococo tapestry, Kristi forfedre (“Christ’s Ancestors”), and three identical Five Wise and Five Foolish Virgins tapestries, which included a whole row of accompanying figures.  The three virgin tapestries were gifts for three sisters. 

1760, Bøverdalen in Gudbrandsdal. Nordenfjelske Kunstindustrimuseum. Photo: Dino Makridis

 

Above the upper virgins is a whole new row depicting from the left: Joseph, Mary and the Christ Child, and the three Wise Men. On the right is Jesus, the heavenly bridegroom. Beside the virgins Jacob stands to the right in the upper row, and Joseph to the right in the lower row.  The names of Jacob and Joseph are woven in. 

This is an innovation of the virgin motif. The three tapestries from Bøverdalen aren’t rigid in the same manner as the other 1700s coverlets. Now the figures are freer and more lively, and they are clothed in elegant rococo clothing. “Christ’s Ancestors” is quite special, with many elegant men placed in diagonal rows up the tapestry.  They wear a rococo costume with a long, narrow jacket in brocade, knee pants, and knitted stockings. The women have beautiful dresses—narrow in the middle, with a skirt bustling over a form. The weaver was well-acquainted with fashion of the day.  In “Christ’s Ancestors” we find a rhythm and liveliness that is new in tapestries from Gudbrandsdal. Rococo playfulness and feminine elegance have made their marks? 

Tapestries with the virgin motif were woven in the western part of the country, too, but were not as common as in the valleys of eastern Norway.  The western virgin tapestries also had a unique expression, and were seldom the main motif of the tapestry. Virgins were often placed in the center  of the tapestry, surrounded by borders and ornamental designs. The virgin motif was persistent in the area, and was woven all the way to the beginning of the 1800s. 

A west coast virgin tapestry from the collection of the Norsk Folkemuseum. https://digitaltmuseum.no/011023130651/teppe

Virgin tapestries from Valdres and Trøndelag have been preserved, too.  They echo the Gudbrandsdal tapestries, which shows that work from that area was an inspiration for weavers in both Valdres and Trøndelag. Many fine tapestry pillows from the 1700s are also found in Oppdal (in Sør-Trøndelag). 

The virgin tapestries were used as wedding coverlets, and their symbolism signals moral expectations of the bride. That was indisputable and universally known. But it is less known that during that time marriage between a man and a woman was also a symbol of a woman’s bridal relationship to Christ, a marriage with spiritual meaning.

A young, god-fearing woman could enter into a spiritual marriage with Christ, dedicate her life to religion. In this way the purpose of marriage was both earthly and spiritual. Therefore Jesus was the heavenly bridegroom—and woven into the coverlets. The coverlets were religious beyond having just a moral point: they symbolized Christian purity and faith. 

Marriage was holy and formed the basis of the church’s moral requirements. Among other things, there were rules about when a couple could make love. The rules were strict and difficult to abide by, resulting in guilt. The couple were not supposed to have sex on weekends or during holidays, or during pregnancy. The function of sexuality was procreation and furthering your family, not unfettered intimate relations; that was sinful. 

At that time there was often a close relationship between individuals and the parish minister. The worship service was a time away from work and an occasion that helped support people in holding themselves faithful to God. The minister had a double function.  From the pulpit on Sundays he was an authority who admonished those who listened about a Christian life without sin, and at the same time he was a spiritual provider from whom people sought guidance in difficult times. Perhaps it was also the minister a woman might visit to seek consolation when relations with her husband had been too lively or moving toward the forbidden. The guilt was difficult to bear alone, and her husband may not have been the easiest one to confide in under those circumstances. 

Young women also had the opportunity to write a letter to the minister, called a “virgin letter.” However it wasn’t only unmarried women who confided in a minister; in Iceland a written confession is preserved from a young married woman who felt guilty because, according to church rules, she had an overly active sex life with her husband.  The minister learned the most intimate details of the couple’s relationship in this confession. 

Through his presence a minister was a sort of psychologist of that time. He gave penance and forgiveness for sins, and that helped women with issues they struggled with alone. 

When we examine the many preserved coverlets with the virgin motif, we come to understand their meaning is about more than just the requirement to be a virgin when entering marriage. It encompasses also a holy marriage that required one to lead a religious life.

A Wise and Foolish Virgins tapestry owned by the Vesterheim Norwegian-American Museum. http://collections.vesterheim.org/items/show/561

Randi Nygaard Lium is a textile artist, author, and curator. Educated in Denmark, she has a degree in Art History from Aarhus University and studied weaving at Det Jyske Kunstakademi (Jutland Art Academy). She is the Senior Researcher at the Museum for Decorative Arts (Kunstindustrimuseet) in Trondheim, Norway.  She was the Director of the Trondheim Art Museum (Kunstmuseum) from 1998-2011, and the Head Curator at the Museum of Decorative Arts, Trondheim, 1986-88.  She has written several books on textile art, including Tekstilkunst i Norge (2016 and Ny Norsk Billedvev – Et Gjennombrud (1992). Her work has been shown in many exhibits in Norway and other countries, including a solo exhibition at the Design Museum Denmark in Copenhagen (2006). Her work is represented in several museums and in commissioned work in public buildings.

Book excerpt translated by Robbie LaFleur, who constantly runs into more depictions of the Wise and Foolish Virgins.  

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National Exhibition of Weaving in the Norwegian Tradition, 2017: Even More Inspiration

Since The Norwegian Textile Letter is published as an online newsletter, we can include ALL the entries in the annual National Exhibition of Weaving the in the Norwegian Tradition.  Years ago, when print was our only choice, only a few photos of the top ribbon weavers were included.  The non-ribbon winners are of high quality as well! Also, pieces submitted by weavers who have earned a Gold Medal in weaving are not eligible for judging. Enjoy these excellent and varied entries, too. 

Gold Medalist Veronna Capone, from Brookings, SD,  entered “Slowly/Light Grows/Then Closes,” a wall hanging in pick-and-pick technique.

 Jan Mostrom, a Gold Medalist from Chanhassen MN, wove “Crossing Borders,” a wall hanging in Sjonbragd technique.

 Melissa Brown, Decorah IA, wove a table runner in Monk’s Belt Technique.

 Judy Ness, Gold Medalist from Eugene, OR, wove “Intention” bound weave rug.

 Lisa Anne Bauch from Bloomington, MN, wove a rya wall hanging, “Three Little Birds.” 

Meredith Bennett from Free Union VA, wove the rya “Confetti.”

Andrea Myklebust from Stockholm, WI, wove yardage in twill weave. 

 Nancy Ellison from Zumbrota, MN, wove a weavers flag in “Ja Vi Elsker (Yes We Love Wool).” 

“Lars” the sheep was commemorated in Nancy Ellison’s wall hanging with natural fleece rya.  Nancy (and Lars) live in Zumbrota, Minnesota. 

 Rosemary Roehl, a Gold Medalist from St. Cloud MN, wove “Fall,” in figurative bound weave.

Rosemary Roehl, Gold Medalist from St. Cloud, MN, also celebrated “Spring” in figurative bound weave.

See photos of the ribbon winners in this year’s exhibition, here. 

National Exhibition of Folk Art in the Norwegian Tradition, 2017: Award Winners

 

By Laurann Gilbertson, Curator

We have come to expect technical and artistic excellence from weaving entries in the National Exhibition of Folk Art in the Norwegian Tradition at Vesterheim.  And once again, in 2017, we were not disappointed.  The artists provided traditional and contemporary works in a wide range of Norwegian and Scandinavian techniques.  Several artists included some interpretation to go with their works.  Jan Mostrom’s wall hanging was woven entirely from yarn hand dyed with natural dyes, creating surprisingly bright colors. (See detail at left.) She wrote, “Weaving with these natural dyed yarns connected me with weavers of the past as I had to adapt if I ran short of a certain color of yarn. At times I used a different yarn and I occasionally had to change my original plan.”  Nancy Ellison used natural wool locks from from Lars, a white Icelandic-Gotland cross ram in her flock, for a charming handwoven image of the ram himself.  And Andrea Myklebust used flax she had grown and processed.

I had to interpret for one entry in the exhibition, a monksbelt table runner by Laura Demuth. It was displayed near the table where staff were stationed.  When visitors read the label, they looked up at me and raised eyebrows or asked, “Why is it thanks to you?”  Laura didn’t provide any explanation for the public, but I’m happy to share the story here.  As Laura was planning a beginning weaving class for Vesterheim, she came to get ideas from the collection.  She had decided on monksbelt and wondered what we had.  We had several beautiful, but basic monksbelt coverlets, so I pulled a more “advanced” one at the end.  From Lila Nelson’s personal collection, we have a monksbelt coverlet with four-sided border. The weaver changed from green on the edge to red for the center, while making a zigzag line between colors.  It was the perfect challenge for an experienced weaver.  I say thanks to Laura, and all the artists who helped make the 2017 exhibition a beautiful and inspirational show.  

As a Gold Medal weaver, Laura’s piece was not part of the judging.  She was on the other side of the table, serving as a judge for the exhibition, along with Doug Eckheart, Professor of Art (retired) from Luther College, Decorah, IA. Laura’s piece was still in the running for the annual “People’s Choice” award, and she won! 

A blue ribbon was awarded to Corwyn Knutson, Roseville, MN,  for “Nordlys,”  wool Rya wall hanging. It was also awarded BEST OF SHOW. Congratulations, Corwyn. 

 

Donna Laken, from Rockford, IL,won a red ribbon for “Simply Scandinavian,” a rug in bound rosepath. 

A white ribbon was awarded to Kathryn Evans from Lena, IL, for a slit tapestry wall hanging.   Slit tapestry is usually found in narrower bands. Her finishing techniques were original and beautiful, as seen in this detail. 

 

Winnie Johnson received an honorable mention for her boundweave rug. 

Helen Scherer, from Shawnee, KS, received an Honorable Mention for “When I grow up, I want to be like the Døvleteppe!,”  a table runner in Vestfold technique.

Andrea Myklebust, Stockholm, WI, won an Honorable Mention for her linen table runner in block Damask technique.  Andrea should get extra points for also displaying a carved distaff in the exhibition, writing, “I made this distaff for use on one of my spinning wheels. I’ve included a hank of my own hand-spun flax, which is the material used for this tool. It is an arrogant distaff because it is very tall to show off my long line flax.” 

 

See entries from Vesterheim Gold Medal weavers and other entrants in this year’s exhibition, here

 

 

 
 

 

 

Book Review: The Warp-Weighted Loom

book-coverThe Warp-Weighted Loom, by Hildur Hákonardóttir, Elizabeth Johnston, Marta Kløve Juuhl, Edited by Randi Andersen and Atle Ove Martinussen

(This book can be purchased through the bookstore of the Vesterheim Norwegian-American Museum.)

By Wendy Sundquist

I love books that turn out to be more than what you originally expected them to be.  The Warp-Weighted Loom is one of those books.  Over the years I have seen exquisitely fine fabric that Elizabeth Johnston has woven on the standing loom at Old Scatness in Shetland.  I was able to handle the vararfeldur that Marta Kløve Juulh had in her possession on the Vesterheim Textile Tour in 2011.  It was remarkably soft and lightweight, fitting into a cloth shopping bag.  After these experiences, I was really looking forward to this new book.

This interdisciplinary book is a product of the main three authors’ research and weaving in collaboration with the Osterøy Museum and The Museum Center in Hordaland and others. It serves in part as a way to transfer and preserve the skills and knowledge within this traditional craft, which are truly our intangible cultural heritage.

book-spineThe Warp-Weighted Loom is bound in a manner that is reminiscent of a bound book from the Middle Ages, with thick cardboard covers and no spine.  The section-sewn binding makes this book incredibly accessible for reading and as a tool for instruction at the loom.

The book is written primarily in English and is divided into 3 sections.  Part 1 is an introduction to the 1000 year history of the warp-weighted loom told by Hákonardóttir, Johnston and Kløve Juuhl from their individual country’s perspectives of Iceland, Shetland and Norway.  Part 2 is a practical handbook that includes how to make, operate and weave on a standing loom.  This section includes detailed photos, and step-by-step instructions that are written in English, Icelandic and Norwegian.  It also covers some of the textiles traditionally produced on these looms, how to reproduce them, and an overview of spinning.  Part 3 is dedicated to research on a broad range of topics by several different authors.  Topics include The Loom in the Grave, Icelandic Textiles, Finishing Cloth in the Sea, Taatit Rugs, Weaving in the Dark, Safeguarding an Intangible Cultural Heritage and more.

The Warp-Weighted Loom is a remarkable book on so many levels.  It undertakes the preservation of women’s history as it relates to weaving and wadmal production within the North Atlantic cultural heritage.  But more importantly, it recognizes and addresses that the “knowledge of old crafts will be lost, if not maintained; the only way to do so is to conserve them, promote them and teach them.” (Sigridur Sigurdardottir p. 267)

This book is a must have for any serious weaver or student of Nordic textiles.  It is a joy!

Wendy Sundquist is a knitter, spinner, natural dyer, and weaver with a life-long passion for Scandinavian textiles.  She currently shepherds a geriatric flock of Shetland sheep on Whidbey Island in Washington state.

A Synopsis of the History of Norwegian Tapestry – and Some Thoughts about Tapestry Today

Editor’s note:  The text of this article, by noted artist Unn Sønju, first appeared in a special issue of the Norwegian magazine, Lokalhistorisk magasin (Local History Magazine).  The special double issue, 1-2, 2016, was devoted to articles on the theme of “Kunst og Husflid” (“Art and Handcraft”).

By Unn Sønju

Any weave is the interaction between the masculine warp and the feminine weft that create a cross, an ancient symbol for creation. Tapestry is one of the oldest art forms know to man. Unlike other two-dimensional art forms it has the unique property of having the image on both sides of the material. Only the simplest tools are required to weave on short or long lengths of warp.

 The Oseberg tapestry fragments

Norway is fortunate in having tapestries from different periods in its history. Through these we can learn a great deal of social and art history, and last but not least, women’s history. The oldest pictorial weaves were found in the Oseberg Viking ship, buried around 850 and excavated in 1904, near Tønsberg in Vestfold. About this find, Bjørn Hougen wrote in 1940, “Tapestry and woodcarving, in these two words lies the starting point for an entirely new perspective that the Oseberg ship has given to the art history of the Viking Age.”

Oseberg fragment, Universitets Oldsaksamling, Oslo

Oseberg fragment, Universitets Oldsaksamling, Oslo

From the first, the woodcarvings were treated with great respect, while the tapestry fragments received shamefully poor treatment. The tapestry fragments were in poor condition, appearing almost black and encased in clay and feathers, pressed together into lumps. During restoration it appeared that they were between 16 and 32 centimetres in height and thought to have been hung as long strips.

As early as 1916 four volumes of all the Oseberg finds were planned. Three volumes of all the finds, excluding the textiles, came in quick succession; the fourth on textiles took nearly 100 years before it was published in 2006. However in 1992, The Oseberg Queen’s Grave: Our national Treasure in a New Light (Osebergdronningens grav-vår nasjonal skatt i nytt lys) was published. Anne Stina Ingstad wrote that the textiles found in the burial chamber of the Oseberg ship are “without comparison in Nordic pre-history.” She points out that the tapestry fragments are by far the most important examples of the collection. With such a history isn’t it strange that these tapestries have been so overlooked and exhibited so infrequently?

Baldisol Tapestry

Baldishol

Baldishol Tapestry. Image from Wikipedia: https://no.wikipedia.org/wiki/Baldisholteppet

The next outstanding work is the Baldisol tapestry from circa 1200. After the demolition of the Baldisol church in 1887 an auction of the contents of the old church was held. An observant woman bought a dirty roll of textiles that she soon found were something extraordinarily special. With utmost care she washed the textiles, revealing images of two calendar months: May representing a man in a long smock sowing seed, and April as a young warrior in full armour riding a virile stallion. Both are depicted in an archway with a decorative background of birds and spots. The tapestry is torn at either end, indicating it could be part of a larger work, perhaps the whole calendar year. In all likelihood it was a long frieze, a beautiful tapestry in the Romanesque style. What is it that is so amazingly enchanting about the Baldisol tapestry? Its strength and clarity of colour and the total wholeness of its drawing and composition gives us a compelling image. With some knowledge of Romanesque art we can imagine how the other months might have been depicted. If we imagine a tapestry of twelve months length it may have been woven for Hamar Cathedral that was completed around 1200.

The Middle Ages

Adoration of the Magi, signed M.I.D & A.H.D, Gudbrandsdal

“Adoration of the Magi,” signed M.I.D & A.H.D, Gudbrandsdal

Between the Baldisol tapestry and 1550 there exists no evidence of Norwegian tapestries. This was a period of great hardship with 60% of the population dying of the plague, resulting in the collapse of society.

It was in the Middle Ages that many of Europe’s finest tapestries were created. Only long after this great interest for tapestry had reached is zenith there, did it eventually come to Norway, where the golden age of tapestry occurred between 1550 and 1850.

Norway had neither a tradition nor interest for painting and sculpture as in other countries in Europe, but tapestry flowered! Interest and knowledge of tapestry came first to the coastal towns and gradually spread to the rest of the country. In the eastern districts around Kristiania (now Oslo) figurative motifs were common, many from bible stories. On the west coast of Norway tapestry developed abstract and geometric imagery, while north from Trondheim ‘rya’, a tufted weave, was common that was well suited for bedspreads at home and on their fishing vessels. The Sami people had their own ‘grenvev’, literally ‘branch weave’ or weaving over a tree branch, making dynamic striped black and white tapestries.

Because Norway was a poor land that had neither a royal court nor aristocracy, women were given the opportunity to weave in small workshops. In the great tapestry workshops in Europe women were not invited to weave but could spin, tie loose threads and sweep the floors. In Norway it was an opposite situation. It was women who were the weavers, which led to a charming difference as their tapestries became more and more removed from their original prototypes. These female weavers created tapestries where women were the central motif, often derived from biblical sources.

An abstracted version of the Wise and Foolish Virgins woven by an unknown woman in Western Norway between 1750 and 1800. http://samling.nasjonalmuseet.no/no/object/OK-17392

An abstracted version of the Wise and Foolish Virgins woven by an unknown woman in Western Norway between 1750 and 1800. http://samling.nasjonalmuseet.no/no/object/OK-17392

New Flowering for Norwegian Tapestry

After 1850 tapestries were seen as being old fashioned and uninteresting as painting and sculpture became the leading art forms. At the end of the century there was a growing interest in Norwegian nationalism and folk culture renewing interest in the old tapestries. These tapestries were exhibited in museums and galleries at home and abroad and this encouraged a new interest in weaving and tapestry. Weavers who previously were anonymous were now known by their own name and were recognised in society as artists. Frida Hansen was the first who received international recognition, followed by Hannah Ryggen, Synnøve Anker Aurdal, Jan Groth and an increasing number of tapestry artists since the 1970s.

Hannah Ryggen. "Vi Lever på en Stjerne." ("We Live on a Star")

Hannah Ryggen. “Vi Lever på en Stjerne.” (“We Live on a Star”)

Today there are a large number of artists who have chosen tapestry as their prime form of expression. Tapestry is a natural part of the Norwegian and international art scene that becomes continually broader in its scope of media and expression due to education and advances in technology. Today a tapestry can be totally realised from idea to finished product by the use of data programming. A fine example of this is the theatre curtain designed by Pae White in the Opera House in Oslo. Today tapestries are to be found in many public buildings the world over, as indeed are books, showing the work of outstanding tapestry artists. Large group and travelling exhibitions bring to the public the latest ideas and developments in tapestry art. In Norway in the 1960-70s tapestry was much sought after and now, in the past few years, there is renewed and exciting interest.

To renew an old craft is both a challenge and a responsibility. If tapestry no longer mirrors and reflects its contemporary society it soon loses any interest and quickly becomes neglected and indifferent. Tapestry, like all visual art, can be divided into three stages: idea, craft and form/presentation that must work together for a convincing totality. The idea is the springboard and energy, through craft and technique the idea becomes an object, and the form is the final presentation.

Thread on thread, patience and concentration, such is the artist’s wonder and experience in the creation of a tapestry.

Translation of the original article from Lokalhistorisk magasin was provided by the author, Unn Sønju.
Unn Sønju was born in 1938 in Oslo, Norway; she currently lives and works in Oslo and Flesberg, Norway. She was educated at Leeds College of Art, England (1957-59) and the Women’s Industrial School, Norway (1960-62). She was a lecturer in Experimental Textiles in the Department of Fine Art in Leeds from 1965-77, and Tapestry Professor at Oslo University College from 1999-2005. She has been featured in 32 solo exhibitions in Scandinavian and Great Britain, and participated in over 100 group exhibitions worldwide. 39 of her tapestries appear in public spaces.
Learn more about the author’s work in tapestry in another article in this issue:, “Influences in my Art: Reflections,” and at her website, unnsonju.com.

Influences in my Art: Reflections

By Unn Sonju

Oseberg fragment, Universitets Oldsaksamling, Oslo

Oseberg fragment, Universitets Oldsaksamling, Oslo

The tapestry fragments from Oseberg have always been of central interest to my work. They are both mysterious and revealing. The early Vikings wove long, narrow lengths depicting events that were important in their lives. The technique is so antiquated and complicated, the threads being so thin and closely woven that I doubt if anyone could hand weave so finely today. These tapestries are thought to have  decorated the walls in the Viking long houses. Thinking about these tapestries it suddenly occurred to me that weaving long lengths is fundamental to the loom.

This discovery encouraged me to make long, narrow tapestries depicting events central to my life, some being 15 to 20 metres long.

"Running Hare," 1993

“Running Hare,” 1993

baldisholThe Baldishol tapestry is woven in a technique very similar to the way I weave today. The images are bold and clear, one depicting Man and Nature the other Man the Warrior. So much of my work is either gleaned directly from nature or is an outcry against man’s warring violence and destruction.

 

Unn Sønju, "Blood cannot be washed out with blood," 2010. Wool on wool warp, 280 x 250 cm.

Unn Sønju, “Blood cannot be washed out with blood,” 2010. Wool on wool warp, 280 x 250 cm.

My first art education was at Leeds College of Art, England. There I found myself at the centre of an art educational revolution where the emphasis was on an analysis of the constituent parts of art rather than the academic tradition. Here the idea was placed above craft and technique, innovation and imaginative leaps encouraged. It was unconventional thinking about the nature and creation of art that has patterned my thinking, teaching, ideas and actions to the present day.

"Aroma of Marshland," 2017

“Aroma of Marshland,” 2017

After Leeds, by chance I heard on the Norwegian radio a woman speaking about ‘piss blue’, her beloved indigo dye. This was the voice of Hannah Ryggen, an outstanding artist and tapestry weaver. I didn’t know of her, or her art. It was the passion she conveyed in telling about the trials and tribulations suffered in order to make her own ‘indigo blue’ that spurred me on to learn tapestry. In order to do this I enrolled in a course in tapestry at Den Kvinnelige Industriskole (The Womens Industrial School) in Oslo. In contrast to Leeds, here the emphasis was entirely on craft and technique and only the Norwegian tapestry tradition.

The early 60’s found me engaged fulltime with tapestry yet it would take almost 20 years before I really discovered the unique plastic qualities of tapestry. The ‘Eureka’ moment came when I understood that tapestry had two sides! The image was on both sides of the material, one image being the mirror of the other! This opened up a horizon of possibilities in both 2 and 3 dimensions. I found that the tapestry material could be twisted, knotted, turned and could move in any direction, the aim being always to clarify my fundamental visual idea.

"The Sea is Waving," 1989

“The Sea is Waving,” 1989

Unn Sønju, May 17, 2017
Unn Sønju was born in 1938 in Oslo, Norway; she currently lives and works in Oslo and Flesberg, Norway. She was educated at Leeds College of Art, England (1957-59) and the Women’s Industrial School, Norway (1960-62). She was a lecturer in Experimental Textiles in the Department of Fine Art in Leeds from 1965-77, and Tapestry Professor at Oslo University College from 1999-2005. She has been featured in 32 solo exhibitions in Scandinavian and Great Britain, and participated in over 100 group exhibitions worldwide. 39 of her tapestries appear in public spaces.
Enjoy these additional tapestries included below, and learn more about the author’s work at her website, unnsonju.com.
"Unopened Letter," 1981

“Unopened Letter,” 1981

"Sky Pockets," 1996

“Sky Pockets,” 1996

Guantanamo-2009-73x104cm copy

“Guantanamo,” 2009

"Greenhouse," 2007

“Greenhouse,” 2007

"Bathers," 1975

“Bathers,” 1975

Wisdom and Folly: Norwegian Pictorial Textiles

snap-from-haliThis beautifully written and illustrated article on Norwegian billedvev (tapestry) by Jo Nilsson is from the January 1998 issue of HALI Magazine, and reprinted with the permission of the publishers. THANK YOU, HALI Magazine.

The author discusses Norwegian billedvev within the context of European tapestry development, the looms used, and the popular images depicted on the tapestries.  She adds interesting cultural history; for example, she discusses the use of tapestries as coverlets for the bridal bed.

“Troels-Lund’s studies of daily life in the Nordic countries during the 16th century provide us with detailed information about the bridal custom known as “mounting the bed,” in which newlyweds were required to lie on the bridal bed while a speaker delivered a lengthy talk.  The couple would generally lie down fully clad in the bed and draw the coverlet over themselves while the wedding assembly watched.  By the 17th century the practice was modified in many areas, with the couple sitting on the bed while a guest, relative or priest spoke about the ‘Flemish’ coverlet draped over it; presumably the tapestry had a Biblical theme.”

Apparently some Norwegian wives didn’t say, “Kjæreste, pass på teppet (Sweetheart, watch out for the coverlet),” when their husbands laid down for a nap.  Nilsson wrote, “A textile restorer at Maihaugen Museum in Lillehammer noticed worn areas in the same places on many coverlets and suggested that they were caused by husbands taking midday naps on top of the coverlet while wearing knives on their belts.  The coverlets were probably placed on the bed during the day and removed at night.”

Again, we can enjoy the article thanks to the reprint permission from HALI Magazine.

Malin Lonnberg, Assistant Editor at HALI, wrote, “Last year we digitised our whole archive of back issues, meaning that subscribers can now access what we call the HALI Archive online. All the back issues are searchable, which is handy for those with specific textile interests (say Scandinavian textiles). HALI subscribers now get full digital access to the HALI Archive, featuring every HALI since 1978. For only £60/€88/$120, subscribers receive four printed issues of HALI a year and fully searchable access to over 189 editions.  See www.hali.com for more information.”

Download pdf here.

Note: the file is large, but needs to be, for the best representation of the beautiful photographs. Also, the print is quite small.  The original is larger than standard 8-1/2 x 11 paper, so the article is reduced in scale.

Celebrating Tapestry Artist Brita Been

By Karianne H. Sand,  January 14, 2017

Editor’s note: One of the problems with seeing notices on the Web for tempting exhibits of work by Norwegian textile artists is that, well, Norway is far away! Early this year an exhibit of the monumental tapestries of Brita Been opened in Skien, Norway. Karianne H. Sand delivered the welcoming remarks and she shared her talk with us, so we can imagine being there in person. These two photo collages were posted in a blog entry about the opening from the Skien Kunstforening, sponsor of the exhibit. Robbie LaFleur

been-collage-4_orig

collagebeen-3_orig

 

Dear everyone.  Dear Brita.

I wish to congratulate both Brita Been and the Skien Art Association–Brita for her 70 years and for her fantastic exhibit.  This year the professional organization Norwegian Textile Artists celebrates its 40th year, and it is this organization for which I serve as director.  Brita Been, too, is a member, and it is a great honor for me to be allowed to open this year of celebration with a textile celebration in her name.

This exhibit is called Arvestykker [“Heirlooms”], named for one of Brita’s woven series on display.  The exhibit also includes the series Skybragd [“Cloud Pattern”] and Repetisjoner [“Repetitions”].

dsc8504_orig

Rugs in the Repetisjoner series. Photo from the Skien Kunstnerforbundet

The series Repetisjoner is the earliest of the series in this exhibit.  And, where there is weaving, there surely is repetition.  Brita herself says that she creates three to four pieces per year, which speaks to how time consuming the process is.   It is time consuming and filled with repetition—the same motion over and over again.  Weaving is mathematics and geometry, something the works in this series reflect in their images.  Here one sees the repetitions, the mathematics and geometric shapes. Brita’s design language has clear references to the Bauhaus school and functionalism.  She constructs surfaces and creates space using color and design alone.  Patterns have no beginning and no end, like a machine that roars into motion.  But in the midst of all this, Brita sits and weaves with her hands—and with this closeness to her materials, she creates a fantastic energy and pulse in the tapestries.

repetisjon

A detail from the Repetisjoner series, from Britabeen.no

Brita has an impressive curriculum vita, and I shall not even attempt to list the most important places where she has had her work exhibited—yet I feel it revolves around her having had one-woman shows at the Nordenfjeldske Kunstindustrimuseum [the National Museum of Decorative Arts, Trondheim], Kunstnerforbundet [contemporary art gallery, Oslo], Hå gamle Prestegård [Hå old parsonage farm, Jæren, Western Norway, now an art and historical culture center] and, last but not least, SOFT Gallery [the gallery of Norwegian Textile Artists, Oslo], where I work, and, of course, the Skien Kunstforening [Skien Art Association].  She has also exhibited in several locations around the world.

Chinese-inspired clouds

Chinese-inspired clouds, from Britabeen.no

One of several old Norwegian skybragd weavings in the Norwegian Digital Museum, at: https://digitaltmuseum.no/011023238942/putetrekk

One of several old Norwegian skybragd weavings in the Norwegian Digital Museum, at: https://digitaltmuseum.no/011023238942/putetrekk

I wish to draw attention to one biennial event in which she has participated no fewer than four times, the International Fiber Art Biennial, which takes place in China.  It is from this meeting with the East that the inspiration for the series Skybragd comes.  Here, Brita became fascinated with the reliefs carved in marble of variations of the cloud motif, and she then combined this with the old, traditional pattern, skybragd, that was used in earlier Norwegian weaving tradition.  In the National Museum’s archives, I found one piece with that title dating from between 1700 and 1760.  It appears that this pattern, based on the pomegranate and palmette motifs, is a universal motif that has moved across cultures and through time.  Here, Brita weaves together the West and the East.  Everything is connected.

The series Arvestykker began when Brita was given a commission to decorate the Bø Hospital retirement home.  She wanted the tapestries to give both residents and visitors a sense of belonging and recognition.  Therefore, she took as her point of reference Telemark’s strong folk costume culture.  It has, of course, been known for a long time that the most beautiful costumes of all come from there.  And, if any of you are in West Oslo on the 17th of May, you will see that everyone there originally comes from Telemark…*  But, there is a reason why this costume is so popular, for it is rich and colorful, with beautiful details.

Detail from the an Arvestykker tapestry

Detail from the an Arvestykker tapestry, from BritaBeen,no

In this series, Brita has taken as her reference the embroidery on the costume’s stockings and shirts and translated them to another strong folk tradition—that is, weaving.  The lovely details from the folk costume are now allowed to play the lead role in Brita’s work.  The powerful handwork that took hours to embroider now gets to be not just a decoration and pretty detail but the work itself.  Brita herself says, “These tapestries are a celebration of women’s creative work, their time and patience.”

The exhibition shows three different series, but at the same time as Brita manages to constantly renew herself, she also remains true to herself.  There is no doubt when one encounters a Brita Been tapestry that it is her creation.  The same is true for the woman herself—when one meets Brita Been, one knows that it is Brita Been.  I still remember the first time I met you ten years ago at the exhibit honoring stipend award-winners held at City Hall.  I remember you, dressed entirely in bright pink stripes, your dark page-boy haircut, and, not least of all, your incredibly joyful and energetic radiance.  I remember I thought then what I think now—this is an incredibly cool lady.

Warm congratulations, Brita, for the year, the day, and the exhibit.

*The reference to everyone coming from Telemark is because the Telemark-style folk costume is so popular and worn by many Norwegians, regardless of where their families originally lived.

Karianne H. Sand is an art historian and the head of Norske Tekstilkunstnere (Norwegian Textile Artists) and the SOFT Gallery in Oslo, the site of frequent cutting-edge textile exhibits.
Translated by Edi Thorstensson

Read more about the work of Brita Been on her site, britabeen.no, including an article from a 2015 issue of the Swedish Väv Magasin that gives interesting details about her weaving technique as well as her inspiration. Several of her tapestries are found on the Norwegian Absolute Tapestry site, here.

Threads of Devotion: Possible Medieval Origins of Nordic Christening Bands

By Lisa-Anne Bauch

draped-detailAt a recent visit to the American Swedish Institute in Minneapolis, several items in a folk art display caught my eye. They included a birch bark basket, a red coverlet, and a woven band, all dating from the nineteenth or early twentieth century. My friend Jan Mostrom, an expert in Nordic textiles, explained that the items were intended for use in baptism. All three were decorated with protective symbols, intended to shield the vulnerable infant from evil spirits until the sacrament could be performed. (See more photos here.)

A few months later, I happened to enroll in an art history course at the University of St. Thomas. The course, taught by Dr. Michelle Nordtorp-Madson, was entitled “Medieval Sacred Space.” In this fascinating seminar we investigated the idea of sacred versus mundane space, including not just the soaring cathedrals of the Middle Ages, but also its woven tapestries and illuminated manuscripts, its popular roadside shrines and dusty pilgrimage routes, the beehive huts of Scottish monks and the ancient holy wells of Ireland.

Besides regular coursework, each student was required to undertake an independent research topic focused around the following questions: How did people in those times understand and define certain places, times, seasons, objects, and activities as sacred? How did the newer sacred times and places of Christianity overlap with older pagan practices and beliefs? And how did medieval artists express these ideas visually?

I immediately remembered the red woven christening bands I had seen, used to protect babies as they traveled from the mundane world of the home to the sacred space of a local church and its baptismal font. Could this tradition go back to the Middle Ages, with echoes from an even-older pagan age? How did the bands visually represent the beliefs of those who wove them? How are the colors and patterns significant in answering these questions? Since Dr. Nordtorp-Madson specializes in clothing and textile arts, she was as curious as I was to investigate. With her help and encouragement, I began my quest.

Click here to read PDF

Below are a few of the photos I used to illustrate my presentation of the paper, leased from the Norse Folkemuseum. They illustrate bands used in christenings.

Doll 1

https://digitaltmuseum.no/011013439205/valle-aust-agder-1935-reivebarn-dukke-ifort-spedbarnsutstyr

Christening 1

https://digitaltmuseum.no/011013444239/barnedap

Band Sling 2

https://digitaltmuseum.no/011013438297/gurine-engedal-baerer-barn-i-linde-til-dap-fjotland-kvinesdal-1941

Band Sling 1

https://digitaltmuseum.no/011013438526/torbjorg-fidjeland-med-barn-i-fatle-i-sirdal-kalt-linde-og-botte-og-rive

 

Monster Weaving Update

Marta Kløve Juuhl recently reported that the “monster weaving” at the Osterøy Museum has reached the ceiling. Enjoy these photos, and if you missed the description of the seat-belt-webbing weaving, read it here: “Weaving on the Ceiling: A New Exhibit and Installation at the Osterøy Museum.”

Perhaps this scaffolding, as a support structure for weaving, could be considered a sort of loom?

Perhaps this scaffolding, as a support structure for weaving, could be considered a sort of loom?

Marta Kløve Juuhl under the Norwegian star

Marta Kløve Juuhl under the Norwegian star

Perhaps Monika Ravnanger  had tired arms after waving above her head?

Perhaps Monika Ravnanger had tired arms after weaving above her head?

This photo showing the wall and ceiling gives a good sense of the huge scale of this project

This photo showing the wall and ceiling gives a good sense of the huge scale of this project