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.

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.

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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2017 Vesterheim Textile Tour to Denmark and Norway

By Robbie LaFleur and Laurann Gilbertson

The 2017 Textile Tour sponsored by the Vesterheim Norwegian-American Museum in June was the first one to add travel to Denmark as well as Norwegian destinations. This brief overview should give you an idea of why these tours sell out as soon as they are announced. 

Copenhagen was our first stop, and our learning and inspiration began with a visit to Christiansborg Palace, the only government building in the world that houses all three branches of a country’s government. We toured the Royal Reception Rooms to get an overview of 1,100 years of Danish history through tapestries designed by Bjørn Nørgaard. The tapestries depict scenes from Viking times to today and were presented to Queen Margrethe II for her fiftieth birthday in 1990. The guide planned to visit other rooms, but the weavers in the group, in particular, were entranced by observing the tapestries and reading about the historical events depicted in them.  Laurann asked the guide, “Is it OK if we just stay here instead?”

Lapidarium of Kings.  Frederick V, King of Denmark-Norway, commissioned life-sized statues of Norwegian and Faroese farmers and fishermen for his palace grounds. Completed in about 1773, the figures from Nordmandsdalen (Valley of the Norsemen) are used today by researchers to understand the clothing worn in rural Norway in the past. 

The number of tour participants is small enough that we can take advantage of visiting artist studios and sights that would’t be possible for huge groups.  Our group divided in two for a visit to Knitwear Designer Geske Svensson.  Read about that experience in the article by Marilyn Huset

Our stay in Copenhagen was short, and we headed off to visit Greve Museum to learn about Hedebosom. Some even took a mini-course.  Read Edi Torstensson’s account of the museum in a separate article, here

Through gorgeous, trim countryside (and once having to change course because the bus was too big for the road), we reached Sagnlandet Lejre.  Solving Pollei wrote about the experience, here

Heading across country, we stopped at the High School for Design and Handwork in Skals for their annual summer exhibition and market, with fabulous exhibits of student work in weaving, clothing design, embroidery, hand- and machine-knitting, leather work, and ceramics. In tents in the sunny courtyard outside the school, leading Danish designers sold their work.  Molly Miles was struck by beautiful embroidered towels with hearts, and Ingebjørg Monsen loved a cleverly embroidered coat. She commented, “So happy young people take embroidery to a new level, but the quality prevails!”

Our final stop in Denmark was at Hørvævmuseet, a linen weaving museum in the heart of Denmark.  The museum is staffed by dedicated volunteers who are passionate about the collection of jacquard looms, with educating visitors about the processing of flax to linen, and the history of linen production in Denmark.  This stop was a highlight of Elizabeth Hunter’s tour, and she described our guides as “a couple who are the oldest and most charming hosts ever!” The museum is housed in a former cowshed of a large estate. The looms and equipment, from a linen mill that closed in 1972, sat unused for 33 years until it gained new life. And after our group left, the gift shop staff had some serious re-stocking to do.  

Molly Miles loved the jacquard cards used on the looms to create letters.

After the Linen Museum we traveled by ferry over the Skagerrak, the strait between Denmark and Norway. The food was great on the boat, but the crashing, bumpy waves made the ride one that several of our group would like to forget. 

On a sunny Sunday morning the group traveled by rowboat ferry out to  Bragdøy, an island outside of Kristiansand, for a lecture and class with Annemor Sundbø. Annemor was awarded the King’s Medal of Merit in 2013 for her work to research, share, and preserve Norway’s knitting history. Her latest book is on the native short-tailed spelsau sheep. After giving a talk about the spelsau in folk belief, art, and everyday tradition, she gave a short class on knitting right from the sheep; in other words, the students sat in front of a giant pile of fleece and pulled strands into instant yarn and knitted it up.  This day was a highlight for Linda Devitt, who later translated her memories to a painting of sheep (above), which she gave to her tour roommate, Carole Johnson. 

Molly Miles noted that one of her highlights was watching Annemor guide Kay Larson through the fleece-washing process. 

We visited the Kristiansand Museum learn about regional textile traditions, including danskbrogd, a boundweave variation done only in Norway. When we toured the historic buildings moved in from rural Vest-Agder County the guide did her best to pull out all of the textiles, since she knew we were interested. 

We visited Sjølingstad Uldvarefabrikk in Mandal, a working textile mill museum that interprets the history of commercial spinning, dyeing, and weaving. 

In the village of Moi, which for years has been a center for the production of spinning wheels, we learned about spinning and the special Moi-style wheel at Lund Bygdemuseum.

After a drive with breathtaking scenery of the Jøssingfjord, we stopped for lunch in Sogndalstrand. This tiny seaport village is the only place in Norway where old wooden buildings and the surrounding landscape are protected as a cultural heritage site. The food was amazing at the Sogndalstrand Hotel. 


Floral detail from a Frida Hansen tapestry

In Stavanger we concentrated on Frida Hansen (1855-1931), a tapestry weaver who captured the essence of both Norway’s nationalistic movement and Art Nouveau style in her tapestries, including her patented transparent tapestries. We toured her house to learn more about her life, then continued on to Stavanger Kunstmuseum to learn more about her work. Elizabeth Hunter loved the lecture in the gallery with Frida Hansen’s work.  ” It was brief, but so insightful!!” Elizabeth is following up now, by reading  Japanomania in the Nordic Countries 1875-1918.  



We traveled on an often ocean-side route to Bergen, and the group appreciated the fact that our bus driver, when faced with the choice of two roads, always opted for the more scenic route.  In Bergen, our first stop was USF (United Sardine Factory), home to 200 artists, musicians, dancers, architects, and filmmakers, as well as offices for cultural organizations and performance spaces. We met several artists in their studios, including Kari Aasen, Åse Ljones, Sissel Blystad, and Kari Myrdal. A favorite of many was the artist Marta Nerhus, who crafted life-sized flat figures in metal wire. 

North of Bergen, we visited the Osterøy Museum. Our group arrived at a good time; the Museum recently set up a beautiful new permanent exhibition featuring local craft traditions, including warp-weighted loom weaving, knitting, and beadwork. Marta Kløve Juuhl shared her current project, a 91-foot weaving in the museum’s main exhibit hall, one that was described in previous issues of the Norwegian Textile Letter (here and here).  It stretches over a whole wall and down the long, tall room. And aren’t visits even better with food?  We enjoyed coffee and a local treat, stompekake. 

It would be interesting to know how many projects are completed by tour participants after a tour, based on inspiration from pieces seen in museums and shops and studios along the way.  Martha Schumann wrote, “Even though my favorite hobby is knitting, I only took one picture of a knitted item – a mitten at the Osterøy Museum.  It has a flame colorway in the patterning instead of being knit in two colors.  As soon as I saw it, I knew would like to copy it, so I took a picture.” 

Oleana sweaters are renowned in Norway and the U.S. In business since 1992, Oleana A/S is the only knitwear factory that knits and sews all their products in Norway. Combining art, culture, and good design, Oleana creates sweaters of fine wool and silk from Solveig Hisdal’s award-winning designs. The group toured the factory and explored the outlet store. 

The farewell dinner was prepared by chef Ingvild Bøge of Spisekroken i Bergen, who uses local products to create rustic food with a contemporary twist. If you travel to Bergen, you should eat there. 

Carol Johnson wrote that the highlight of the tour for her was the people. From her comment, you can see that her enjoyment of the trip began in the airport! 

The highlight of Vesterheim’s Textile Tour for me was the people.  There was the buzz in the MSP gate area as travelers checked in with Laurann, greeted old friends and got acquainted with new ones.  Arriving in Copenhagen, we were met with hugs from IngebjØrg and met more tour members who had flown directly there.  During meals and breaks, stories were shared on a variety of topics.  One learns that the spectrum of textile interest within the group ranges from awesome textile experts, some internationally known, to those of us who are merely textile spectators. It was energizing to meet textile designers, curators at small local museums and volunteers and staffs at small textile mills, all passionate about keeping traditional techniques alive, sometimes in new formats.  

Who planned this fabulous trip for us?

Tour Leader Laurann Gilbertson has been Textile Curator for 19 years and is now Chief Curator at Vesterheim. She holds a B.A. in anthropology and an M.S. in textiles and clothing from Iowa State University. She cares for the museum’s collections, curates exhibitions, and has planned and led seven textile study tours to Norway (with Sweden, Iceland, and Finland).

Tour Guide Ingebjørg Monsen is an electrical engineer, but is enjoying a second career in textiles. She teaches classes in weaving and sewing and specializes in constructing men’s bunader (national costumes). She has been president of the Bergen Husflidslag (handcraft association) and has planned and led them on tours in Norway, Iceland, and Denmark. Ingebjørg has offered textile instruction, interesting tour information, and lots of fun on Vesterheim’s seven previous textile tours.

Geske Svensson Designs Inspired Vesterheim Tour Group

By Marilyn J. Huset

The Vesterheim Norwegian-American Museum’s textile tour’s second day inspired our imaginations from the get go. Danish knitwear designer and creator Geske Svensson welcomed us to her studio and home on June 15th to show us her creations and describe her creative process. Svensson finds inspiration for her unique creations in historic garments and has a collection of books that she goes to for ideas. She then translates her design into fabric with her computer-aided Brother knitting machine. Pieces cut from the fabric are joined together using a crochet machine.

The vibrantly red-haired Svensson modeled a number of her jackets for us. She loves stripes and black and white, as we could see from the collection. She strives to create flattering shapes in her garments that are made of merino wool. In addition to the jackets, she also creates one-of-a-kind garments for exhibitions, again inspired by historic garments. We viewed the piece she calls “Femme Fatale” (see photo above) that was conceived for a 2004 exhibition. The collar of its tan sleeveless jacket was inspired by the style of Queen Elizabeth I and is held up by strips of nitrile cord that are also part of the design elements. The black skirt is knitted in an open stitch. Both are made of linen yarn.

Svensson’s creations are sold at the museum shop at the National Museum of Denmark, shops in Denmark and Canada, and at the museum shop of the British Museum in London. She doesn’t produce new designs each year, but still produces previously designed jackets.Svensson lives and works in an historic building. The Harboe Home for widowed women was built in 1754-60 in Copenhagen with funds willed by Privy Councillor Christine Harboe. The childless Harboe was touched by the plight of upper class women who were left in dire straits when their husbands died and they, by the law of the time, could not inherit property. Today the building offers apartments to women over age 45 for a reasonable rent.

She met with us in a conference room available to residents and then took us into her living space to show us her studio. A bright and sunny space, the studio contained shelves stocked with yarns and was dominated by her knitting and crochet machines.To learn more about Geske Svensson and her designs, visit her website. Perhaps her creations will inspire you as they did the Vesterheim group.

Marilyn Huset is the treasurer of the Center for Knit and Crochet, an online museum created to preserve and promote the art, craft, and scholarship of knitting, crochet, and related arts.


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






Hedebosyning at Greve Museum

By Edi Thorstensson

It was a beautiful Danish summer day when we visited the Greve Museum, a traditional four-winged farmhouse located in Greve, Roskilde, a short drive from central Copenhagen.  Standing in the lovely courtyard, we were warmly welcomed by museum staff.  What awaited us inside was a breathtaking collection of one of Denmark’s signature embroideries, hedebosyning, which is comprised of seven variations of white on white embroidery, cutwork, and needle lace.

I, like every Textile Tour participant, had the opportunity to chose from mini-classes offered at selected sites, such as the Greve Museum, or to use time to explore.  At first reluctant to commit to a workshop in an embroidery technique that I felt I would never use again, I decided to sign up. After all, this was a unique opportunity to learn from a skilled teacher in the country of origin. 

We 12 or so Hedebo novices gathered in a well-equipped classroom, at work stations set for each of us by our fine instructor, Laila Glienke Sørensen, with instruction sheets, needle and thread kits, bits of beeswax, and graduated Hedebo winding sticks (hedebopinder).  With much guidance, we began our work, winding Swedish Bockens linen 35/2 lace yarn 15-20 times around the appropriate portion of our sticks to form a small “doughnut” ring base.  Next, we drew our linen thread rings up and off our sticks and began the process of encasing the rings with Danish buttonhole stitches (see below), followed by needle lace filling stitches (hulgang) and a pyramid on the outer edge of the ring.  To make threading needles easier, we drew the linen thread through a bit of fragrant beeswax from Laila’s own honeybee combs.  

To explain the Danish buttonhole stitch, I refer the reader to pp. 11 and 41 of Udklipshedebo = Hedebo Cutwork, but I will attempt to give my own version here:  Danish buttonhole stitch is worked from left to right.  Beginning from the back of the work, the needle is brought from the previous stitch into and through the center of the ring from the back, then up and over and through the back of the loop formed on the outer edge.  You can see this process at

The goal for this 1-1/2 hour class was for each of us to accomplish at least one Hedebo ring with hulgang (wheel stitches) in its center and a needle lace pyramid on its edge.  From this base, whole wheels of eight rings can be created by joining the pyramids’ points or by other means.  And, from there, the sky is the limit!  Everything is in the hands of skilled, patient artists, as it has been for at least two centuries.  

Following the class, I took part in a guided tour of the museum, which included exquisite examples of Hedebo embroidery, worked on clothing, household textiles, and celebratory cloths.  The historical and technical connections to Hardanger embroidery are evident.  Although distinctive from one another, both embody stitch and cut open work, white-on-white, and, traditionally, linen thread and cloth in their production. 

It is worth mentioning that, while the exact date of origin for hedebosyning is unknown, most artifacts originate in the early 1800s and later and that certain forms of the embroidery, such as rings and edgings, predominate as embellishments on clothing, while others, such as bound cutwork, are found mostly in larger formats, such as table and window coverings.  And, while lovely examples of Hedebo have come from many settings, the majority of the museum’s pieces originated in prosperous farm homes, where women and girls had the time and means to spend on fine handwork.  Today, Hedebosyning is preserved as a cultural treasure and taught to any who wish to learn, and it has also found new interpretations.

This classic, traditionally white-on-white embroidery is very lovely, versatile, and one that I will do again.  Before leaving Greve Museum, I purchased both an instruction book (Udklipshedebo = Hedebo Cutwork, by Jytte Harboesgaard.  Published by J. H. broderi in 2010, and available in paper format with ISBN 978-87-988931-3-4 and as an e-book with ISBN 978-87-988931-5-8) and the beautiful, turned wooden stick with graduated sections on which to wind the linen thread circles that form the base for the needle lace to follow.   Like the nøstepinne, it might have American equivalents.

Editor’s Note:  The Greve Museum posted a video about the Vesterheim group on their Facebook feed.  If you are a Facebook user, this link should work: video.

Edi Thorstensson is a retired librarian and archivist who has appreciated the history and creation of Scandinavian textiles since her first visit to Europe in 1961.    She is a member of the Minnesota Weavers Guild Scandinavian Weavers Study Group and the Pioneer Spinners and Fiber Artists guild.  She lives in St. Peter, Minnesota, with her husband Roland and Icelandic sheep dog Ára.

Sagnlandet Lejre – the Land of Legends (and Textiles)

By Solveig Pollei

“Check out and turn in the key. Take your bag to the bus. Bus departs at 9:00 am for Lejre.” And so another adventure begins.

As we continue to practice our ‘bus-riding’ skills, the roads become smaller and less traveled. Then a turn into an area with tall trees, thatched buildings with moss accents and open fields – all just beyond a building with banners inviting us to experience the Stone Age, the Iron Age, the Viking Age, to visit the smallholder, to take historical workshops. We have arrived at Sagnlandet Lejre – the Land of Legends!

Dividing into groups, we follow our guides into the sunshine. Over hills, around a boat landing, ducks announcing our arrival, we walk to an Iron Age long house. Our guide is an archaeology student in period dress and she helps us imagine a world of people, animals, trade. A world where everyone works for the survival of the community. A world which helps build into our world.

Leaving the darkness of the house, we step out and walk past the tended garden. As is often the case, we take a few moments to check out the plants! Our guide continues to show other points of interest as we walk toward our next presentation at the Dragtvaeksted. Our walk takes us into a more wooded area with the last tendrils of a morning mist rising to disappear in the morning sun. One wonders if Grendel might appear.

For those walking toward the back of our group, the ‘oohs and ahhs’ drifting back to our ears make us quicken our steps. As you can see, it is a sight to gladden the heart of any textile addict! A warp-weighted loom resting against the side, a garden of dye plants reaching for the sunshine, and hanks of richly-dyed wool by the door. A glorious hint of what awaited us.

Inside the cycle of textiles awaited: Fiber. Spinde. Farve. Vaeve. Sy. A quick glance showed the raw fibers, spindles/spinning wheel, glorious dye colors, looms, and sewn clothing. From words to hands.


From Ida Demant we learned of the progression from animal skin to woven fabrics. Of how the construction of garments evolved from what worked best for sewing animal skins to what was best for the fiber/cloth. Clever ideas. We were taught how to prepare nettles for the cycle. It didn’t seem possible that the resulting cloth would have such a smooth hand. There was so much to see and our presenter was so very knowledgeable, that it was very hard to leave! But there was another presentation so we made our way to the Farver Laden – the colour barn!

We were greeted by our presenter, Fria Gemynthe, who proceeded to show us ongoing dye experiments, a terraced dye garden with the plants clearly marked and then the A-frame barn. Another slice of textile heaven! Hanks of wool dyed with madder, birch, indigo, cochineal, walnut and others.

Each was carefully noted for dye, mordant, etc. And in a corner of the barn, a posterboard with half the dyed skein visible and half under another piece of posterboard in order to test lightfastness. So much to learn. But there are deadlines, so we heed the call for lunch and head to the museum cafe.

After lunch, the shop awaits. (Were you surprised?) One slight change to the shopping experience however. A swan family were resting in the sun and as we made our way to the shop, the cob made his displeasure known in voice and body-posture!

Shopping completed, we made our way to the bus, some more dry than others in a sudden rain shower. Our next stop would be a linen weaving museum. But for now, our thoughts and conversations were on our wonderful time at the Land of Legends.

50 Years of Folk Art at Vesterheim

By Laurann Gilbertson

Exhibition: 50 Years of Folk Art

vesterheimVesterheim Norwegian-American Museum in Decorah, Iowa, is celebrating 50 years of folk art, through classes, the National Exhibitions of Folk Art in the Norwegian Tradition, and tours to Norway.  To mark this important anniversary, Vesterheim has created a special exhibition to share at least a few of the stories of 20 folk art tours to Norway, 90 Norwegian teachers, 145 American teachers, hundreds of class topics, and hundreds – if not thousands – of students between 1967 to 2016.

What is Folk Art?

Folk art is simply art of the people.  American folk art is often defined as the work of self-taught artists, artists who have not had formal artistic training.  It can be “outsider” art, created by artists who have had little contact with the mainstream art world and who may be expressing unconventional ideas or spiritual visions.

Folk art can also be defined as global art, fitting closely to local traditions.  At Vesterheim, Norwegian folk art typically refers to useful objects created and decorated using local materials by individuals of a particular, often rural, region of Norway between 1600 and 1900. These objects and techniques usually expressed regional aesthetic and styles and were borne of traditions developed over several hundred years. The craftspeople that made these items typically learned their trades informally or through apprenticeships. The objects they created needed to be functional and beautiful.

What is Tradition?

Tradition is a repeated pattern of behaviors, beliefs, or objects passed down from one generation to the next.  We follow traditions because they mean something to us. Traditions change through time and evolve with the availability of resources, forces of nature, personal taste, political or religious ideas, and foreign influences. All traditions change. But how far can they change?

Can an object made today be called traditional folk art? The artists of the eighteenth century didn’t have commercially-spun yarn, chemical dyes, circular knitting needles. Can an object made using these things be called traditional folk art?

Vesterheim often uses the phrase “in the tradition” to describe objects made today that are based on or inspired by historical examples. As long as there is a strong visual connection, it seems acceptable to change to the material OR technique OR medium. Too many changes, however, and the piece is no longer recognizable as having been part of the Norwegian tradition.

Folk Art and Vesterheim

Vesterheim began in 1877 as the Luther College Museum and folk art was part of the collection from the very beginning. Norwegian immigrant materials, including folk art brought from Norway, became the official focus of the collection by 1895.

In 1964, Luther College hired Marion Nelson, an art historian, to catalog the collection. He soon became director of an independent, world-class Vesterheim museum. Nelson was passionate about folk art and saw the collection’s potential to educate artists interested in Norwegian folk art. Nelson launched the Folk Art School and National Exhibition of Folk Art in the Norwegian Tradition in 1967.

Weaving was added to the National Exhibition, an annual judged exhibition of folk art in the Norwegian tradition, in 1981. A jacket woven by Marie Nodland of St. Paul, Minnesota, won a blue ribbon that year. The diamond twill reverses to rya (pile weave) and there are handknit collar and cuffs.

Weaving was added to the National Exhibition, an annual judged exhibition of folk art in the Norwegian tradition, in 1981. A jacket woven by Marie Nodland of St. Paul, Minnesota, won a blue ribbon that year. The diamond twill reverses to rya (pile weave) and there are handknit collar and cuffs.

While Nelson was interested in folk art as an academic, he did not create folk art himself. His wife, Lila Nelson, was an accomplished weaver and textile artist who would go on to teach many textile classes at Vesterheim in her capacity as textile curator.

The opportunity to study and practice of folk art is also offered through tours to Norway.  The first tours, starting in 1970, provided a folk art focus while traveling.  Since 1978, tours often included hands-on workshops with local artists as instructors.

Students learned Telemarksvev in the weaving class during Vesterheim’s first hands-on Folk Art Tour to Norway in 1978. The teacher, Elsa Bjerck, is standing in back, second from the right. Lila Nelson, the museum’s Textile Curator, is second from the left.

Students learned Telemarksvev in the weaving class during Vesterheim’s first hands-on Folk Art Tour to Norway in 1978. The teacher, Elsa Bjerck, is standing in back, second from the right. Lila Nelson, the museum’s Textile Curator, is second from the left.

Fiber Arts at Vesterheim

A wide range of fiber classes have been offered at Vesterheim, from embroidery, knitting, nålbinding (knotless netting), spinning, loom weaving, bandweaving, sheepskin printing, and basketry.

Oline Bredeli of Molde, Norway, taught weaving and working with teger, birch or spruce root, in 1982 and 1990. Canadian artist Karen Casselman’s specialty is historical plant dyes. She taught dyeing at Vesterheim in 1997, 2002, and 2005. For this placemat, she used korkje, a Norwegian dye made from fermented lichens.

Oline Bredeli of Molde, Norway, taught weaving and working with teger, birch or spruce root, in 1982 and 1990. Canadian artist Karen Casselman’s specialty is historical plant dyes. She taught dyeing at Vesterheim in 1997, 2002, and 2005. For this placemat, she used korkje, a Norwegian dye made from fermented lichens.

Fiber arts have been at the core of Vesterheim’s Folk Art School since 1967 when Carola Schmidt taught the first class in hardangersøm, a cutwork and embroidery technique from the Hardanger region of Norway.

Grace Rikansrud, a nationally recognized expert on Norwegian needlework from Decorah, began her two decade teaching career in 1970. Rug hooking was also added in 1970, along with the first weaving course taught by Lila Nelson, Vesterheim’s registrar and textile curator. Nelson gave students an overview of Norwegian weaving by focusing on traditional coverlet techniques, which continues to be a focus of weaving classes today.

Vesterheim hosted a rug hooking camp for many years and rug hooking was part of the National Exhibition from 1970 to 2005.  Now independent, the Decorah Rug School continues to meet each summer for classes.  Marianna Sausaman (West Lafayette, Ind.), Esther Miller (Decorah, Iowa), Anne Duder (Decorah, Iowa), and Dorothy Huse (Chippewa Falls, Wisc.) have directed the rug school.

The first weaving class with a Norwegian instructor was in 1978.  Elsa Eikås Bjerck, from Jølster in Sunnfjord, taught tapestry and bandweaving at Vesterheim.  An important weaver in her own right, Bjerck is known for traditional and contemporary textiles, monumental works for public buildings, and church textiles.

Elsa Eikås Bjerck was the first Norwegian instructor to teach weaving at Vesterheim. In 1978 she also taught weaving on a Vesterheim folk art tour to Norway. This piece replicates an early bed pillow from Jølster in Sogn, Norway, in plant-dyed wool on linen. The mittens were done in nålbinding, an ancient looping technique.

Elsa Eikås Bjerck was the first Norwegian instructor to teach weaving at Vesterheim. In 1978 she also taught weaving on a Vesterheim folk art tour to Norway. This piece replicates an early bed pillow from Jølster in Sogn, Norway, in plant-dyed wool on linen. The mittens were done in nålbinding, an ancient looping technique.

What has always set Vesterheim’s Folk Art School apart from other visual art and fine handcraft programs is the focus on historical objects – the collection – that can inform and inspire. Most classes at Vesterheim include a guided visit in the museum galleries or look at the depth and breadth of the collection in the museum’s storage facilities.

The Future of Folk Art

What does the future look like for Norwegian folk art in America?  Are traditions going to live another 50 years?

Some say that the future of folk art looks bleak. With each generation we are further and further from the original practice of folk art. What meaning can folk art hold for the sixth, seventh, or eighth generations?

Others say that the future looks bright. No matter how Norwegian you are (and even if you are not Norwegian at all) you can find enjoyment, fulfilment, and meaning in learning and practicing skills that are rooted in the past. The beauty and pleasure of creating is not dependent on a time period, an ethnicity, or a language.

“50 Years of Folk Art” is on view at Vesterheim Museum in Decorah, Iowa, through April 23, 2017.  The exhibition was made possible by the Iowa Arts Council, a division of the Iowa Department of Cultural Affairs, and the National Endowment for the Arts; Veronna and John Capone; Ron Hovda; and additional support.

John Skare, Bricelyn, Minnesota, in the exhibition. Handwoven rya wall hanging, 1987. “Mona took this photo of the kids and me by my rya weaving that the Vesterheim purchased in 1987.  I remember Marion Nelson relating this piece to the ryas that were placed in the bottom of the long boats.  Perhaps my heritage was creeping into my artworks without my knowledge.  I hadn’t seen this piece since 1987.  A reunion for me with one of my creations.  A bit emotional.  I like this piece.  It was created with handspun wool yarns and wool blankets scraps from the Faribault Woolen Mill.  Wool carpet mill ends where used for the weft.  The weft ends have been wrapped.  I know this artwork’s DNA quite well. An old friend with a good home, the Vesterheim.”

John Skare, Bricelyn, Minnesota, in the exhibition. Handwoven rya wall hanging, 1987. “Mona took this photo of the kids and me by my rya weaving that the Vesterheim purchased in 1987.  I remember Marion Nelson relating this piece to the ryas that were placed in the bottom of the long boats.  Perhaps my heritage was creeping into my artworks without my knowledge.  I hadn’t seen this piece since 1987.  A reunion for me with one of my creations.  A bit emotional.  I like this piece.  It was created with handspun wool yarns and wool blankets scraps from the Faribault Woolen Mill.  Wool carpet mill ends where used for the weft.  The weft ends have been wrapped.  I know this artwork’s DNA quite well. An old friend with a good home, the Vesterheim.”

Laurann Gilbertson is the Chief Curator of the Vesterheim Norwegian-American Museum and a tireless promoter of Scandinavian textiles.

November, 2016





Danskbrogd Weaving from the Krokbragd Study Group


5-harness danskbrogd by Lila Nelson (detail)

Each year the Scandinavian Weavers Study Group in Minneapolis, Minnesota, chooses a weave structure or theme.  In 1996-1997 the theme was krokbragd.  Each participant compiled a notebook with drafts and photos of the projects undertaken.  Many of the pieces included danskbragd, especially those woven by Lila Nelson.

In the days before easy digital sharing, compiling this documentation and the notebooks was a true labor of love. The only ones who saw the inspirational contents were members of the group, or people who viewed the notebook at the Weavers Guild of Minnesota or at Vesterheim. Now the inspiration is further shared.

The reproductions scanned here are not the full contents of the notebook; they include drafts and photos of weavings that included danskbragd.  To avoid making one overly large file, the pieces are found in these two files:  Danskbrogd weaving 1 (large, 14MB), and Danskbrogd Weaving 2 (8MB).

There was overlap between the Danskbrogd Study Group, which was national in membership, and the Minnesota-based Scandinavian Weavers Study Group.  In particular, Lila Nelson was the superstar of both groups and you will see many of the same pieces represented in each group’s materials.


Vesterheim’s Danskbrogd Coverlet

By Jan Mostrom

1989.066.001The Vesterheim Norwegian-American Museum acquired a danskbrogd coverlet from Norway in 1989. (accession # 1989.066.001) Director Marion Nelson noticed the coverlet in the window of an antique store in Oslo and recognized it “as a very rare type from Vest Agder” which his wife Lila had been researching.  After a year of negotiations with the shop and the Norwegian government, permission was granted to allow the coverlet to leave Norway and become part of Vesterheim’s collection.

1989.066.001aThis beautiful coverlet dates from 1800-1870 and is woven in bands of red, cream, green, black-brown, gray-brown and yellow. It measures 73” by 47”.  At least some of the colors could be natural dyed, especially the red.   The cream and browns appear to be natural sheep colors.  The warp of cotton seine twine is sett at about 8.5 epi.

The back side of the piece show the long floats created by the danskbrogd technique

The back side of the piece show the long floats created by the danskbrogd technique

The coverlet is woven on a plain weft face ground with danskbrogd pick up technique for the pattern bands which are separated by bands of color stripes. The designs vary in how they are combined in the danskbrogd bands.  It was likely woven on two harnesses.  Once I started charting the designs, I realized that they could all be woven on krokbragd threading with pick up on two sheds, saving a few rows of pick up.

The overcast edge

The overcast edge

One interesting technique to weavers is that the weft ends are carried up one edge of the weaving and overcast with black-brown stitching rather than working the ends into the weaving.   Another interesting thing about this coverlet are that the “spots” that make up the design are a bit elongated rather than square and all touch at the corners, creating a honeycomb look to the designs.  In most other danskbrogd coverlets, the “spots” are squared or slightly elongated and separated with background so that they do not touch at the corners.