A Piece of Old Finery: The Story of the Nordland Bunad

By Katherine Larson

Photo1Sample

An early 20th century embroidery sample, adapted for the Nordland bunad from an older piece. Embroidery by Dina Kulstad. Vefsn Museum, Mosjøen, Norway. Photo: K. Larson.

Long ago, a woman took needle in hand and embroidered fanciful vines and flowers onto the breast-piece and pocket of a green wool dress.  When the dress met its inevitable fate in the ragbag, these small pieces were pulled off and saved.  At some point in their history, the right pair of hands gave these pieces to a little girl, who used them as “paintings” to decorate the walls of her playroom.  When the little girl left her childhood behind, she tucked the pieces away instead of throwing them away, a small happenstance that is at the beginning of the Nordland bunad’s story. (The bunad is a Norwegian costume based on local folk traditions; images of the Nordland bunad can be found here.)

During a visit to north Norway last September, I spent a day at Vefsn Museum in the town of Mosjøen.  Mosjøen lies in the middle of an area known as Helgeland, the southern part of Nordland County.  I was at the Museum to see the oldest known rye coverlet in Norway, a knotted-pile fragment now carefully preserved behind glass in a framed box.  Because my mother’s ancestors came from Helgeland, I was also curious about local textile traditions. Curator Rønnaug Tuven showed me the rye fragment, and then graciously asked if I would like to see some of the other treasures in the collection.  The invitation to look in a museum storeroom is an opportunity not to be missed, and I readily accepted. Since very little from the ‘old country’ survived my grandparent’s trek across the States to the West Coast, I was also excited to see what my family’s Helgeland attic might have contained.

Photo2OldEmbroidery

Old pieces of embroidery, probably a breast-piece and pocket. Vefsn Museum, Mosjøen, Norway. Photo: K. Larson

After looking in many boxes and opening many drawers, two small pieces of embroidered cloth came forth.  Tuven told me the story of the little girl and her “paintings,” and later showed me several books that explained how these pieces became the basis for the Nordland bunad. The following description summarizes this story,1 and provides an interesting window into a time when the Norwegian bunad was coming into being.

In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, interest in folk traditions was high, as Norwegians set about rediscovering their past.  Astrid Langjord, a writer and poet from the Mosjøen area, recounts that it was popular in the late 19th century to make copies of the Hardanger bunad. Then, following the 1903 publication of Hulda Garborg’s small booklet, Norsk Klædebunad (a description of Norwegian traditional dress, including several patterns), the Halling bunad became a new source of inspiration.

In 1926, the Hålogaland Ungdomslag (Helgeland Youth Society) decided to see if there were any pieces of old clothing in their region that might inspire a costume of their own.  Langjord was the leader of the committee charged with this task, and members of the committee searched for a year, each in their own area, to see what pieces of clothing might come to light.

At their next meeting in 1927, the Youth Society reviewed the many pieces of finery gathered by the committee, and there was general agreement that the most striking examples were the two small pieces of embroidery mentioned above.  They were brought to the meeting by Dina Kulstad, who had received them from a woman at Røyten farm in Vefsn, a keepsake from her childhood. (Vefsn is the larger municipality surrounding Mosjøen.)

It so happened that Langjord had an old green bodice in her collection, part of a bridal dress from Ravassåsen farm, also in Vefsn.  This bodice had a nice form but no embellishment, and the old embroidery was copied almost exactly onto the back of the bodice (you still find it there on today’s bunad). Discussion ensued concerning how to adapt the embroidery to the front of the garment, and of what the ultimate shape of the bodice would be.  The Oslo handcraft shop, Heimen, also took an interest in the project, and the final embroidery design for the skirt was contributed by one of its employees, a Miss Grude (Heimen, which is still a thriving business, helped to foster interest in the bunad, in association with Hulda Garborg).

Photo3BackEmbroidery

Embroidery on the back of the Nordland bunad. Vefsn Museum. Photo: Vefsn Museum.

A newly sewn blue version of the proposed bunad was proudly shown at the Youth Society’s meeting in the summer of 1928. The design was well received, and was adopted that fall into the needlework program of Vefsn Folk High School in Mosjøen.  Under the capable guidance of teacher Anne Svare, the first group of eleven students made bunads in both blue and green fabrics.

In describing the committee’s original search to find remnants of the local clothing tradition, Langjord remembered that many people had been very supportive of their efforts, but others had scoffed and suggested they should be doing something more useful. Speaking 20 years later, at a time when the bunad tradition had grown in stature, Langjord noted with some satisfaction that there were few who continued to express reservations about bondeglo when referring to the Nordland bunad.

Puzzled by the use of bondeglo, which is not in my Norwegian/English dictionary, I found the word in Hulda Garborg’s Norsk Klædebunad, along with an explanation for its somewhat derisive meaning (the booklet is online; see pp. 6–7).

In the late 19th century, according to Garborg, as factory-made clothing became popular, Norway’s time-honored, colorful forms of dress were abandoned for fabrics of “grey-brown” and “brown-grey-green”; in short, “color mush.”  A new word arose at that time, bondeglo, to describe traditional clothing.  In fear of this label, many rushed to divest themselves of their rural attire and don city clothes.  The picture of my own great grandmother, ca. 1880, might be a case in point.

Photo4Petersons

Peter Christian and Maren Kristin Peterson, ca. 1880, the author’s great grandparents. Vega, Norway. Photo: K. Larson.

Bonde is the Norwegian word for farmer, and it is likely that glo comes from glorete: gaudy or glaring,2 which explains Garborg’s further use of the term bondeglo. She notes that in some places, especially “high up in the mountains or long out towards the coast,” people perversely clung to their old ways. “…they wore their bondeglo as always, and considered themselves to be no more like ‘Indians’ than they had before.”  In addition to providing an interesting glimpse into turn-of-the-century sensibilities, Garborg’s reference makes clear that colorful rural attire was considered less-than-civilized in a country that was striving to emulate the fashions of a wider world.  No wonder Langjord and her committee members encountered crosscurrents when searching out pieces of discarded finery!

Fortunately, the committee persisted in the face of a somber, factory-informed sense of fashion.  Fortunately as well, a sentimental little girl kept her playroom “paintings,” to the benefit of future generations of Nordland women.

______________________________

[1] Sources for Nordland bunad description:

“Nordlandsbunaden, Vefsn-bunaden.” Excerpts from an informal lecture by Astrid Langjord, 1949. In Fagerli, Åse et al., eds. 1996. Spor etter mødrene. Kvinneprosjektet – Mon. Mosjøen, pp. 83–85.

Halse, Kristian 1999. Oplysning være skal vor lyst, Vefsn folkehøgskole 1899–1999. Mosjøen, pp. 186–191.

2 I would like to thank Ingebjørg Monsen, Leader of the Bergen Husflidslag, for help with this term.

Katherine (Kay) Larson is the author of The Woven Coverlets of Norway and holds a doctorate in Scandinavian Textile History from the University of Washington.

kllarson (at) uw.edu

 

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