By Katherine Larson
Do you ever wonder what will become of the textiles you create? Will the enthusiasm you pour into your work today be reflected in the faces of those who receive it tomorrow, next year, 10 years from now? What about in one hundred years?
On a recent trip to north Norway I was shown a beautifully embroidered crazy quilt that had traveled far from the hands of its maker. It was made in the early 1900s, a gift sent to Norway by a woman who had emigrated over 25 years earlier. The seamstress, Petrine Almli, embroidered her name into the quilt, as well as the names of many family members on both sides of the Atlantic, a testimony in stitches to the ties that bind a family together. But time and distance eventually dimmed those memories, and while the quilt was carefully preserved through the years (and finally found its way into a museum collection), the family members in Norway no longer remembered its story.
Where did the quilt come from? Certainly it originated somewhere in the United States, where the linen cupboards of many families (my own included) hold an old crazy quilt or two. But unlike most textiles that are doomed to remain anonymous, this quilt held clues that begged to be followed. And, piece by piece, the story of Petrine and her family emerged: a small chapter in the immigrant experience that began over a century ago with the efforts of a woman and her embroidery needle.
Finding Petrine—Part I
I was shown the Almli quilt at Vefsn Museum in the town of Mosjøen. Curator Rønnaug Tuven brought out the accession page from 1981, which records the original owner of the quilt (Henrikke, Petrine’s sister), the name of the seamstress, and the fact that she died in the United States in 1940. From the Vefsn community history book, Tuven could further determine that Petrine and her husband, Johan Berg Gullesson, left Norway in 1881: “utvandret til Amerika.”[i] The book listed Petrine’s parents and siblings on the Almli farm, all of whose names are embroidered on the quilt. But there the information stopped. Was it possible that I could find where Petrine and her husband had settled when they immigrated to the United States?
I have always loved crazy quilts, and was thrilled to discover one in a Norwegian museum. Having spent years studying Norwegian textiles, many of which were brought to America, here was the reverse: a thoroughly American textile that had returned to Norway. I was delighted to offer my help in finding this seamstress! After all, given the amount of information online and the somewhat unusual farm name, this would be an easy task. A few clicks and I would find a cluster of family members in the Midwest, or a descendant searching out their family history, done and done.
This confident attitude evaporated in short order. Yes, the Almli (or more commonly Almlie) name appeared in several states, yet nothing connected these family groupings with Petrine and Johan. But, I had volunteered to find Petrine, and in any case I was getting curious…she sent this quilt to Norway from somewhere. It was time to seek out professional assistance.
During a visit to Madison, Wisconsin, I contacted the Norwegian American Genealogical Center with this little mystery.[ii] Not surprisingly, they, too, were stumped at first (“Let’s see, you don’t know what surname this couple used, and you don’t know what state they settled in…”). They tactfully did not mention needles or haystacks, and soon discovered information in Norwegian records indicating that husband Johan was also from the Almlie farm, or rather another division of that farm (Austgard, or East Farm; Petrine was from Utigard, or Outer Farm). Helpfully, Johan’s several possible surnames were all listed in the Norwegian departure registry: Johan Berg Gullesson Almlie. After following several false leads generated by this uncertainty, the genealogists finally located a grave marker for Petrine and Johan Almlie, in Willmar, Minnesota. It seemed they had found them! But no, although this was definitely their grave, Petrine and her husband were a little more elusive than that.
The Almlie grave lies in a part of Eagle Lake Cemetery associated with a senior center, and while it seemed likely that Petrine and Johan retired to that center after living somewhere in the vicinity, I had already failed to find them among several Almlie families in Minnesota. I next turned to the Kandiyohi County Historical Society Archives in Willmar, hoping to find Petrine’s obituary. This document was duly located but unfortunately held no clues. However, the Archives also happened to have the Bethesda Senior Center records for temporary study, and this finally provided the missing piece to the puzzle. Registration information revealed that Petrine and Johan were not from Willmar at all, but from a town that was over 200 miles away and in another state, Cumberland, in northwestern Wisconsin. The couple listed no children, possibly explaining why they retired so far from home, however they both did give names for next of kin in America: for Petrine, Anna Almlie and Harold Almlie in different parts of California, and for Johan, Pauline (Almlie) Hagen in Cumberland, Wisconsin. Although I was not able to pin down where Petrine and Johan actually farmed in Cumberland, township census records for 1905 do indeed show Petrine (or rather “Retrine,” a mis-transcription in digital archives) and Johan Almlie, as well as Petrine’s brother, Olaf Almlie (and son Harold), and Johan’s sister and her husband, Pauline and Thomas Hagen.
At last I had found Petrine. But now that I knew where she had settled, surely I could find a little more, perhaps about the quilt itself, or maybe even about Petrine?
A Norwegian-American quilt with Wisconsin roots
Quilts are a well-known part of the American textile tradition and, according to Laurann Gilbertson, Chief Curator at Vesterheim Museum, the American “fancy work” known as crazy quilting became popular among immigrants as they adapted to their new home. In an article on Norwegian-American women, Gilbertson cites a letter from the Museum’s collection, in which an Iowa woman describes this popular type of needlework to her sister-in-law in Norway: “…of course I must do crazy work, since every body else does so.”[iii]
Petrine’s quilt is a distinctive combination of crazy patches, profuse embroidery and formal lettering. It is comprised of 20 blocks, in four columns and five rows. Each block has a center of white cloth on which a name is embroidered, except for the lower right block, where the year (1908) is entered. Most of the fabric pieces are unpatterned wool or cotton, although there are a few plaids, stripes and prints. Seams between the pieces are richly embellished in typical fashion, with an anchor embroidered beneath two names, and flowers added to several other blocks. The Almli family names are embroidered in cross-stitch with rose-colored floss, and the letters are in a variant of Old English script that lends an air of dignity to the otherwise fanciful stitchery.
How common was the practice of including names in a quilt? A review of the Wisconsin Historical Museum’s online collections reveals quilts in several categories, including crazy quilts and a type known as signature quilts. The latter were often made as fundraisers by women’s church or social organizations, and were inscribed with supporters’ names in either ink or embroidery. No quilts that combine both the crazy style with signatures are part of this museum’s collection, but I was able to find a beautiful example of a “crazy signature quilt” in Ellen Kort and Maggi M. Gordon’s Wisconsin Quilts: History in the Stitches. This textile, associated with members of the Women’s Christian Temperance Union, has names or initials embroidered in the center of each block. A “family and friendship crazy” is also described by Kort and Gordon, using the example of an irregular patchwork quilt that reflects the efforts of several generations of one family. They further identify the “autograph or album” quilt, often inscribed with names and even verses, usually given as a remembrance to someone leaving a community.[iv] Petrine’s quilt is not a precise match for any of these categories, perhaps an indication that quilts can be as different as the individuals who make them. Instead of assigning Petrine’s quilt to a category, then, we might say that she stitched a distinctive family album quilt that includes elements of departure and kinship, emotions she expressed in the textile language of her new home.
The embroidered names in Petrine’s quilt are quite striking, with both upper and lower case letters that total over two thirds of the letters in the alphabet. Where would Petrine have gotten the patterns for letters in such a formal style? I posed this question to Lou Cabeen, Associate Professor of Art at the University of Washington. Cabeen, whose expertise includes both embroidery and textile history, noted that women’s periodicals were popular sources for patterns in the 19th and early 20th centuries, and gave the well-known example of Godey’s Ladies Book.[v] This journal was published between 1830 and 1898, and thus no longer available at the time Petrine made her quilt, but other women’s journals certainly were. (Godey’s can be viewed online, although I urge caution before doing so—hours can easily be lost. For example, I wonder what hard-working farm women thought of the following advice, found on page 112 of the July 1896 issue: “A celebrated English beauty insists that nothing is so important in preserving the freshness of the complexion as absolute rest; this lady, although a great society woman, remains one entire day out of ten in bed, and emerges from her chamber looking young and lovely.”)[vi]
In my own family collection I have sewing materials from my Great Aunt Rosa, who grew up on her Norwegian-American family farm in Oakes, North Dakota. She was a young woman of about 20 when Petrine was finishing her quilt several hundred miles to the east, and Rosa, too, had an interest in American fancy work. Among Rosa’s things (which include a few unfinished crazy quilt pieces), I found several booklets and catalogs, such as Richardson’s American Beauty, offering embroidery instructions and patterns from the Richardson’s Silk Company of Chicago (1909), and New York Fashions, a catalog for “Made-to-measure Garments,” published by the National Cloak & Suit Company of New York (1907). The odds and ends of Rosa’s embroidery collection were stored in envelopes from these and other companies, including the “Embroidery Department” of another New York-based journal, Woman’s Home Companion.
Rosa’s collection also included several methods for transferring embroidery patterns onto cloth. For use with perforated patterns, there was a small tin of Webber’s Stamping Material and a scrap of cotton cloth infused with blue dye (“Pour a little kerosene oil in a dish, take a roll of felt or cotton waste, saturate in oil and drub it over Stamping Material, then stamp”). Transfer patterns for use with an iron were another option (“Place Transfer with printed side down. Press lightly and quickly with a well-heated iron”), as well as paper infused with blue ink for imparting designs through tracing. Accompanying these materials was an envelope in which Rosa had saved an assortment of initials for tracing. Some were obviously ordered from embroidery suppliers, others were clipped from the pages of a newspaper, and one of her embroidery catalogs had a small square cut out of the cover, capturing what must have been a particularly attractive “a” from the center of “Richardson’s.” Three small letters in her collection (P, T and O) were of a size perfect for monograming a handkerchief, and they showed clear evidence of tracing. Perhaps they were applied to gifts for Rosa’s three brothers: Peter, Thorvald and Olav.
A family history in cross-stitch
The names in Petrine’s quilt record the story of the Almli family, verifiable in the Vefsn community history book, and their order of appearance confirms that the quilt was intended for Petrine’s sister, Henrikke. Central to the quilt, and to the family story, are Petrine’s parents, whose names are entered in the middle two blocks. On either side are their two eldest children (Petrine and her brother Ole), and the remaining children are listed in order below, with one exception. Henrikke’s name and that of her spouse are entered above the parents, and it appears that the names of their two sons are placed on either side (the only individuals in the quilt without last names). Rounding out Henrikke’s family connections in the top half of the quilt are the parents of her spouse (middle blocks, top row) and one of his sisters (top left), who also immigrated to Cumberland, Wisconsin. How the woman in the top right block might relate to Henrikke is unclear.
The Almli quilt faithfully records Petrine’s family, but beyond her expertise as a seamstress, it tells us little about Petrine herself. Because she and Johan had no children, memories of Petrine could only be found by looking for descendants of the couple’s immigrant siblings, the next logical step in this story.
Finding Petrine—Part II
In listing their next of kin, Petrine and Johan revealed that they each had siblings in America (Anna and Olav for Petrine; Pauline for Johan). Oddly, Petrine’s brother, Olav, was not listed as an emigrant in the Vefsn community history book, even though her sister, Anna, was. U.S. census records may explain why: Olav’s wife died relatively young, and although sister Anna joined Olav after he was widowed (no doubt to help take care of the children), he apparently returned to Norway and is buried in Mosjøen. Given his son’s address in California, Olav’s family had likely dispersed by the time Petrine retired in the 1920s, and thus his descendants would be difficult to identify (sister Anna, also listed in California, never married). Johan’s siblings seemed to offer a more promising lead. Although a sister, Ellen, is listed as a member of Johan’s household in 1905, she apparently remained single. His sister Pauline, however, had ten children, and Pauline and Thomas Hagen were still living in Cumberland in 1930, along with four adult children. Prospects for finding a Hagen descendant thus seemed good. Actually finding the Hagens turned on a stroke of luck.
While investigating the history of quilting in Wisconsin, it occurred to me that a local guild might recognize the family-album type of crazy quilt made by Petrine. The closest guild appeared to be Apple River Quilt Guild in Amery, Wisconsin, about 30 miles southwest of Cumberland. I contacted them with my question and, without much hope of success, asked if there might be any Amlie or Hagen members in the guild. After their next meeting I got an immediate response: there was no knowledge of similar quilts in the area, but there were members who could connect me with the Cumberland Hagens.[vii] Not quite believing my good luck, I contacted Loretta, a granddaughter of Pauline Almlie Hagen. Although Loretta didn’t recall her Great Aunt Petrine, she remembered seeing a quilt with many embroidered names at a family gathering years before. She suggested I contact her cousin, Iris, who knew the family history and might remember something about that quilt.
Iris, another granddaughter of Pauline, did remember her great aunt, and although too young to have met her, Iris remembered a story from her own father that finally tells us something about Petrine. She related that when her father was a boy of 10, his aunt and uncle came to live with them to help out during the influenza epidemic of 1918. Aunt Petrine made quite an impression on the youngster, and for a very good reason—she made the best krina lefse. Krinalefse is a specialty from Nordland County, where the sisters-in-law Petrine and Pauline both grew up. With this childhood memory, passed down to the next generation, the picture of Petrine begins to take shape: beyond a fine seamstress adapting to the fashions of her new home, we find a caring member of an extended family, and a woman preserving the traditions of her homeland through her excellent pastries.[viii]
Iris further surprised me by saying, “of course” she remembered the quilt mentioned by her cousin, it was hers! She described it as a crazy quilt, made by Grandmother Pauline in 1905, and she sent me several photos, along with information about the family members represented. The names of eight of Pauline’s ten children (the last two were not yet born) are embroidered in the centers of eight out of sixteen blocks, with Pauline and her husband’s names appearing in two more; the year is entered under Pauline’s name. After searching unsuccessfully for other Wisconsin quilts of a type similar to Petrine’s, I had finally found a close match within her own extended family.
Pauline’s quilt looks a bit less formal than Petrine’s, perhaps due to its softer colors, or because the names are less regularly placed. Added to that, the children’s names in Pauline’s quilt are embroidered in a cursive script, using stem-stitch with white, rose, or blue-grey floss. However, Pauline used a different style to accentuate her own name and that of her husband: a cross-stitch in rose-colored floss for herself, red for her husband, in the identical Old English lettering that Petrine would use three years later (compare the first letter of their names—the Ps are identical, and in the same rose-colored floss). Was Petrine inspired by her sister-in-law’s quilt? Did the two women sew together? Share embroidery catalogs? Trade patterns, and perhaps a carefully saved assortment of initials for tracing? At the very least, Petrine and Pauline shared an interest in that quintessential American fancy work, crazy quilts.
Towards the end of our conversation, Iris mentioned that she had some photos of her grandmother and her great aunt, would I be interested? Yes, indeed I would! After learning about the Almlie families, and having now discovering their matching quilts, how nice it would be to actually see pictures of the two women who made them.
Like most people photographed around the turn of the century, Petrine and Pauline gaze intently at the camera, and although their serious expressions tell us very little, simply seeing their faces somehow completes this story. I was introduced to these two women through their shared interest in embroidery and quilting, but of course their relationship was much deeper than that. Petrine was ten years older than Pauline, but they knew each other all of their lives. They grew up on neighboring farms on the shores of a small lake in Vesfn (Ømmervatnet), and became sisters-in-laws when their two families were united through marriage. They shared the pang of leaving parents and childhood homes, just as they shared the struggle of adapting to their new homes in America. But for all the hardships of leaving Norway, they did not really leave family behind. Like many immigrant families, the Almlie story is one of brothers and sisters who settled near one another. Petrine and Pauline each had a brother and a sister who joined them in Wisconsin, a fact underscored by the sisters in these photographs.
In setting out to find Petrine, I was seeking the woman behind the Almli quilt. What I found instead was an extended Norwegian-American family that included four Almlie women: neighbors, family, and friends since childhood. Petrine was no longer a lone seamstress somewhere in the American West, but part of a network of women who supported each other in their new home in Wisconsin.
One hundred years later
Looking at Petrine’s quilt today, we see a piece of American textile history that is representative of its time and place. We see an example of skilled needlework created by an excellent Norwegian-American seamstress. And we see the record of a Norwegian family separated by the tides of immigration. But what did Petrine see as she plied her needle, embroidering one fanciful line of stitches after another? Thoughts of her parents and brothers and sisters must have been present as she carefully stitched their names into place. Perhaps she was chatting with Pauline, or Anna, or Ellen as she selected colorful pieces of fabric and pieced them together to complete each block. And no doubt she could picture how appreciative her sister, Henrikke, would be upon receiving such a beautiful and unusual gift, something new and different from America!
Petrine’s quilt must have served its original purpose admirably well, taking its place as one of many small strands that firmly held her family together. Did Petrine ever wonder what would become of her creation as it was passed down to the next generation? Perhaps, but what she could not see was her quilt’s power to serve yet another purpose over a century later. For although treasured by her family in Norway, and carefully preserved by Vefsn Museum, when Petrine’s quilt came adrift from its story, it became a curiosity, a puzzle that invited inquiry. And who could guess that solving the puzzle of Petrine’s quilt would ultimately shine a light back on its creator, bringing forth a small part of this Norwegian-American woman’s story.
Katherine Larson, PhD, is an Affiliate Assistant Professor in the Department of Scandinavian Studies, University of Washington, Seattle. She is the author of The Woven Coverlets of Norway (University of Washington Press, 2001).
[i] Andresen, E. (2006). Gardshistorie for Vefsn – Vefsn Bygdebok Særbind VII a. (pp. 190–227). Mosjøen: Vefsn bygdeboknemnd. I would like to thank Curator Rønnaug Tuven of Vefsn Museum for introducing me to the Almli quilt, and for her assistance in providing essential background information, including this reference.
[ii] I would like to thank Senior Researcher Carol Culbertson and Translator/Library Specialist Solveig Quinney at the Norwegian American Genealogical Center & Naeseth Library for their help in tracing Petrine and Johan Almlie.
[iii] Gertrude Smith, letter to Anne Bugge, 20 Jan. 1885, Gertrude Smith Collection, Vesterheim. As cited in L. Gilbertson (2011). Textile Production in Norwegian America. In B. A. Bergland and L. A. Lahlum (Eds.), Norwegian American Women: Migration, Communities, and Identities (pp. 157–180, see p. 165). St. Paul, MN: Minnesota Historical Society Press. For more on Norwegian-American quilts, see L. Gilbertson (2006). Patterns of the New World: Quiltmaking Among Norwegian Americans. In J. E. Evans (ed.) Uncoverings 2006: Vol. 27 of the Research Papers of the American Quilt Study Group (pp. 157–186). Lincoln, NE: American Quilt Study Group.
[iv] Kort, E. and M. M. Gordon (2008). Wisconsin Quilts: History in the Stitches (2nd ed.) (pp. 28, 128, 160). Iola, WI: Krause Publications.
[v] Personal communication, December 15, 2014.
[vii] I would like to thank Nancy Drake and members of the Apple River Quilt Guild for their help in connecting me with the Hagen family.
[viii] I would like to thank Loretta Kummerfeldt and Iris Lambert for generously sharing stories and photos of their family.