A Rag Pile, My Lot in Life

By Annemor Sundbø

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Annemor Sundbø, from Kristiansand, has written six books, the latest SPELSAU OG SAMSPILL in 2015. All photos in this article: Fædrelandsvennen

Editor’s note:  It’s a good bet that most Norwegian Textile Letter readers are familiar with the work of Annemor Sundbø, as an author, knitting instructor, and promoter of Norwegian textile traditions. Here we are pleased to present a recent in-depth interview with Annemor that appeared in the newspaper Fædrelandsvennet on February 3, 2016, “En fillehaug, mitt lodd i livet.”

 

“If you’re not good, I’ll sell you to the rag man!”

That was mother’s threat when I was a bit too unruly as a little girl. Even though I didn’t quite believe it was her prophecy coming true when literally tons of rags landed in my lap, I must admit that I have often wondered whether the rag pile I acquired, as part of a factory for recycling wool, was punishment or reward. It is said that arrogance brings its own punishment, but of one thing I am absolutely certain: this enormous amount of remnant thread has been spun into the thread of my own life, and the professional textile network that I have gained entrance to has been the winning ticket to a rewarding life.

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Photo: Fædrelandsvennen

Is there such a thing as fate or destiny? Beliefs about predestiny abound. Many cultures have common ideas about powers that are exerted by gods or other elemental forces. In creation myths these powers are personified as a mother goddess or virgins who spin the threads of fate that determine a person’s life on earth. All begin with a timeless dark, a cosmic chaos.

But when night’s mother breaks out of the chaos, the powers of order step in and the world is woven from threads that are spun by three virgins, the Fates. Together they make the threads of life, spinning the destiny of every single person who will be born into existence. The world is a thread system that forms an enormous weaving. One Fate prepares the material by placing the fibers for spinning on a distaff (a stick that holds the prepared fiber for spinning). The second Fate spins and measures out the length, which the third Fate cuts at life’s end. A lifetime was understood to be allotted, unchangeable and predestined, while eternity was unforeseeable and infinite, but it was possible to reach a heavenly state by winning the favor of the gods.

Great grandmother’s spinning wheel

My very first memory of spinning is from the 1960s, when I got down great grandmother’s spinning wheel from the attic. It was put away after she died in 1947. Mother taught me how I should card wool, first into a layer, then into fine rolags. Then she showed me how the thread should go onto the bobbin. She had learned this from her grandmother, who spun two full bobbins every morning until she was 87 years old. I practiced so that I could spin thread as thin and even as the thread that had been left by great grandmother on the bobbin. Father was a butcher, and the butcher’s shop had accepted wool, an Eldorado of qualities and a great variety of natural wool colors.

I am a child of my time, born in the middle of Kristiansand just four years after the Second World War. After I graduated from high school in 1968, an interest in wool and yarn led me to begin an education in the subject of textiles. First I chose sewing and weaving at a husflidskole (handcraft school), then industrial textile design at Bergen Kunsthåndverkskole (Bergen Art Handwork School), followed by further teacher’s training in weaving and drawing at Statens lærersskole i forming (National Teacher’s School in Handcraft) in Oslo. This was during a golden age for modern Norwegian handcraft, textile art and handcraft art. I also taught weaving and spinning for a year in the Faroe Islands.

Annemor with her ragpile exhibit in Ose. Photo: Fædrelandsvennen.

Annemor with her ragpile exhibit in Ose. Photo: Fædrelandsvennen

When I became a student at the handcraft school, it was a huge revelation. Here I was initiated into the art of weaving, learned the different traditional Norwegian yarn qualities, and had my eyes opened to the old Norwegian sheep, the spelsau, that was sacred to the handcraft school. It is the oldest type of sheep in Norway, a primitive breed with a fateful “to be, or not to be” role in the fight for survival.

Our spinning teacher taught us to utilize all the different fiber qualities in a sheep fleece, and to card in the correct manner for the yarn type that was planned. It was important to spin with the right technique and hand placement for all purposes, whether one should knit clothing for an inner or outer layer, or weave wadmal, tapestry, a coverlet or a rya. We received the knowledge that spinning and weaving were, and always have been, possessed of strong powers that could affect favor, status and honor, and we learned to set our spinning wheel against the sun to spin thread, and with the sun to ply thread in order get the best sheen in the yarn.

A goddess of fate and a new dimension

The spring after handcraft school I got the opportunity to take a trip to Paris, and I came by chance into a small side street in the Latin Quarter, Rue de Seine. A loom in a display window drew me into a gallery that proved to be also an academy for various arts. The academy was established by the poet Raymond Duncan (1847–1966). Raymond was the brother of Isadora Duncan, a legendary dancer who was tragically killed when a scarf fluttering around her neck was caught in the back wheel of a Bugatti. (Her life is the subject of a film, with Vanessa Regrave as Isadora.)

Raymond was apparently like a Greek god. In his time he had made the costumes in which Isadora danced. Up until then, I had only thought that clothes should have a beautiful surface, with good form and durability that also protected against weather and wind. But Raymond Duncan’s manner of spinning resulted in a cloth that draped, emphasizing the beauty inherent in movement. This was exciting and totally new for me!

Into the gallery came an older woman in flowing clothes, spinning with a spindle like one of the Greek Fates. It proved to be Madam Aia Bertrand, the widow of Raymond. This was the first time I had seen anyone spin with a drop spindle, a simple little whorl with a stick through the middle. At that time, I thought one had to go back to the Stone Age to find someone who knew how to make thread in this manner, or that the secret lay hidden in the graves of Viking women.

Elated, I asked Aia to show me how to spin with a drop spindle. She answered with a definite: no! If she taught me to spin in her way, she would inevitably influence my yarn and my art in the future. She gave me her drop spindle with the condition that I must find my own manner of spinning, so that the yarn would have my personal character. She emphasized that thread is an artistic medium, a manner of expression like an individual pencil stroke, handwriting or a signature. This opened a new dimension and understanding for me, that each and every person must spin in their own way if they want to make their own artwork.

From sacred yarn to tons of castoff knits

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Photo: Fædrelandsvennen

After several years as a weaving and spinning teacher, the thread of my life was abruptly turned upside down. I applied for a six-month practicum at a shoddy mill, Torridal Tweed and Wool-Duvet Factory at Øvre Stai, a woolen mill that recycled wool. The owner, textile engineer Bernhard Konrad Bergersen, presented only one condition for teaching me about the business: I had to buy the factory first! This entailed new challenges, toil and struggle for close to 25 years with almost century-old machines. Customers came daily to the factory with worn out woolens as part payment for wool-filled duvets, mattresses and sleeping bags, or wool blankets, plaid and tweed.

In 1983 I found myself in the possession of the creative work of others in the shape of tons of knitted waste destined to be recycled into used-wool products. From spinning my own thread for artistic work, I now fed others’ woolens into a rag-picking machine. All traces of the purposes these clothes had served disappeared and emerged as a blended grey mass of fiber. Pattern and knitting techniques were swept away. Almost every day I decided the fate of knitted remnants, standing in judgment over which I should transform into used fiber, and which would have meaning for future knitting history and therefore should be spared.

Deep dive in a rag pile, with a trace of soul migration

Out of approximately 16 tons of raw material that lay in storage when I took over the factory, I have chosen a collection of cultural treasures that amounts to nearly a ton. This has been a unique source from which I have been able to ladle out knitting knowledge and share it with others. The woolens came from the everyday lives of everyday people, and have become the basis for a considerable number of exhibitions and lectures, articles, courses and books. The books are also published in English, which has been a springboard for teaching and offering courses internationally.

I met my own spinning goddess by chance in a side street in Paris, which gave me insight into another dimension of working with wool. She taught me that the thread should reflect the spinner’s soul and personal expression. In the book Haandarbeide som skolefag (Handwork as a School Subject), published in 1880, handwork teacher Marie Rosing maintained that in handwork, the hand is simply the servant of the spirit. The wisdom from these women let my thoughts circle around what content the art of spinning really contains.

The expression “to vanish like a spirit in a rag pile” [i.e. quickly and without notice] came to mind, and this triggered my hunter’s instinct. I set myself the goal of conjuring up this spirit. It became a hunt among the rags and into the wool fibers, the threads, the sheep, and the earth mothers’ myth-shrouded past. A number of metaphors in mythology, folk belief and religion are drawn from sheep, wool and thread, and they emerge in different cultures’ understandings about our origins and the spinners of fate; a belief that every tiny component, up to and including the masses of dust that I was surrounded by, should contain a little of the spirit from which it originated. I got the feeling that something of the soul followed these threads that had been formed by hand, a spiritual power. My lectures became empowered as I discovered the kinds of understanding found in cultures older than our own, of life, death and eternity.

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Photo: Fædrelandsvennen

Artistic pieces of work often stand out from my collection of remnants. Beauty and eroticism have been twined together with technique and magic, with the spindle and distaff as the magic wand. If “need taught the naked woman to spin,” as the saying goes, so also has vanity contributed, by helping to bring forth the most desirable qualities. Spinners have challenged the spinning material’s furthest reaches, with thread as a blessed implement to attain happiness and, if possible, divine favor in the afterlife. Life has a measured length, eternity is infinite, where one can be set free from the suffering of this earthly life.

In the real world, it is everyday fates that are reflected in my bits of rags, from the fight against wear and tear to the amusingly creative notions that have added zest to life’s toil. I have met a spirit in my rag pile, a spirit that represents all the soul, skill, experience, love, and not least, joy in creation, that is invested in the making of all these tons of clothes, where each one of them has begun with the making of thread from the wool of a sheep. My role has been not only to reuse woolens from these remnants, but to give them an afterlife by passing on the history that the rags tell.

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Annemor Sundbø (b. 1949) of Kristiansand, is a Norwegian national grant holder, and the recipient of the Kings Medal of Honor, the Norwegian Handcraft Association’s Medal of Honor in 2004 (for preservation and continuance of cultural values, both domestically and internationally), Aust-Agder County’s Cultural Prize in 1999, Bygland Community’s Cultural Prize in 2004, Sørlandet’s Literature Prize in 2006, and Vest-Agder County’s Cultural Prize in 2015. She ran Torridal Tweed and Wool-Duvet Factory from 1983 to 2006, when the machines were moved to the textile museum at Sjølingstad Woolen Factory, and started Ose Woolens in Setesdal in 1993.
Books published: Kvardagsstrikk 1994, Lusekofta fra Setesdal 1998, Usynlege trådar i strikkekunsten 2005, Norske votter og vanter 2010, Strikking i billedkunsten 2010, Spelsau og Samspill 2015.

(Translated by Katherine Larson)

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