A Wonderful Scanian Art Weaves Adventure

By Edi Thorstensson

Our teacher, Gunvor Johansson

This issue includes contributions made by weavers—all of us Americans– enrolled last June 2017 in a Scanian Art Weaves class, taught at the Swedish Handicrafts Center for Skåne in Landskrona, a beautiful city on the western coast of southern Sweden.  Here we experienced the unforgettable opportunity to study classic Swedish weaving techniques under the tutelage of master weaver, Gunvor Johansson. 

Skåne (often referred to as Scania in English-speaking countries) is Sweden’s southernmost province and, historically, one of its most prosperous and populous.  Rich in textile tradition, Skåne has been influenced by its proximity to Denmark, of which it was a province until 1658.  Still, it’s culture is distinctly Swedish.  Landskrona is a quiet, thriving city with a citadel dating from 1549 and a lovely community garden colony, where one in twenty-seven city inhabitants has an allotment.  (For more information, see the Landskrona Wikipedia entry.)

Landskrona’s Old Train Station, home of Skånsk Hemslöjd.

Seven of us—Mary Erickson, Melba Granlund, Liz Hunter, Sharon Marquardt, Jan Mostrom, Mary Skoy, and Edi Thorstensson — came to Scandinavia with the  Vesterheim Norwegian American Museum’s 2017 Textile Study Tour through Denmark and Norway. It ended on June 24, and we prepared to leave Bergen for Copenhagen, the closest air connection to Southern Sweden.  A flight cancellation had us rebooked for a late arrival that gave us little time to catch the train from Copenhagen to Landskrona, but all went well, and we arrived at our destination in the dark— even though it was the weekend of Midsommar, the summer solstice celebration! The eighth member of our group, Janis Aune, met us in Landskrona. Here, we settled into the comfortable Hotel Öresund, situated within walking distance of Skånes Hemslöjd, located in Landskrona’s old railroad station, where our class took place.

Classroom, with Liz Hunter at the table, Melba Granlund and Edi Thorstensson at the looms

On Stiftelsen Skånsk Hemslöjd’s archives and the appreciation for historical textiles

In addition to rewarding class time at our looms, we were treated to a very special insiders’ tour of the SSH archives and a visit to Bosjökloster, where we saw a beautiful exhibit of our instructor’s work in a lovely historical setting (see Mary Ericsson’s article, “Gunvor Johansson’s Exhibit at Bosjökloster.” 

Field inventory, showing provenance, yarns, and pattern

A short walk from Hemslöjd to a quiet street, we entered a secured building that houses the Skåne Handicrafts Foundation’s textile archives.  Climbing a narrow stairway to a locked door, we followed Åsa and Gunvor into a room lined with storage cabinets and drawers where precious textiles encompassing many genres are stored.  Here are the historical links to a vibrant textile heritage, examples reflecting the skills of women who wove for their households and, in some cases, for others.  Much of the collection has been documented for provenance, but it includes items that have not been documented and field records, as well.  All are cared for with respect and pride, all are inventoried.  All are important and valued parts of Skåne’s and Sweden’s cultural history, its textile legacy. 

Åsa and Gunvor in the archives. Gunvor is wearing gloves used when handling textiles, paper, photographs, and other materials. The gloves help protect archival materials from skin oils and other substances that might cause damage.

Following are examples of items in the archives. 

Closing Words and Images 

Each weaver came away with special memories, only some of which are told here.  Liz Hunter writes, 

“this time in Landskrona was a joyful turning point for me!  i knew i wasn’t going to do the classical patterns. i did gain a greater understanding [for] them. instead, i concentrated on flossa and rya.   these will give me the ability to combine painting with weaving….and to turn from production weaving to more artistic expression.  gunvor and asa were so kind to me:  i’m sure having one student going in a different direction, and trying to speak to them in broken norwegian from 40 years ago, was not easy.  at the end of the session, they each gave me a vintage rya pile measuring tool, which i treasure.  i also treasure their passion and love of swedish weaving!”

Each weaver brought home with her a story and a sample of her own making.  Here are three samples that have found or are finding their way to completion:

Mary Skoy plans to make her sample into a pillow with ribbon embellishments.

Janis Aune’s sample, fashioned into a purse to wear with her folk costume.

Edi Thorstensson’s sample, showing knotted finishing in progress, for a wall hanging that will eventually include bobbin lace and inkle loom-woven band embellishments.

Special praise for Gunvor Johansson’s excellent book, Heirlooms of Skåne : Weaving TechniquesShelburne, MA : Vävstuga Press, 2016.  This is an excellent resource for both textile historians and weavers.  It features chapters on various techniques mentioned above, as well as three-harness weaving.  It is beautifully illustrated and includes pattern drafts.  Highly recommended.

We students share a feeling of deep gratitude for all that Gunvor Johansson and Åsa Stentoft gave us during our time with them.  They welcomed us and treated us with great optimism, patience and kindness.  They taught us skills that we will incorporate in our weaving–some of which will find its way into loved ones’ lives–and pass along to others. This is community.  This is who we, as weavers, are.

I wish to thank everyone who contributed words, photographs, and moral support to make this set of Skane adventure articles happen.  I apologize for not crediting photographers individually for the images they shared in our Skane articles.  Can you live with our being a collective of pretty good anonymous photographers? 

Read more about how this textile adventure came about and what it entailed in the other articles in this issue.

Weaving the Art Weaves of Skåne 
Inspiration, Outreach, and Connection   
Gunvor Johansson’s Exhibit at Bosjökloster 
Fika and the Joy of Lingonberry Cake

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.

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Weaving the Art Weaves of Skåne

By Jan Mostrom

Eight excited American weavers traveled to Landskrona for a class in Skåne Art Weaves taught by Gunvor Johansson.  We could not have had a more lovely or qualified instructor.  Gunvor has been honored by Sweden as a master weaver and has written the definitive book, Heirlooms of Skåne : Weaving Techniques.  Åsa Stentoft from Skåne Hemslöjd was our gracious hostess and helped us with any questions we may have had, acted as translator if needed, and treated us to her baking skills for fika.  

Instruction included rölakan, krabbasnår, halvkrabba and dukagång, woven on the same warp to create a sampler of techniques.  All of these weaves are woven upside down.  Rölakan is geometric tapestry that is woven with a double interlock.  The other three techniques are woven with inlay butterflies against a weft face ground but each creates a unique pattern.  Dukagång creates columns of color.  Halvkrabba  design is made up of squares resembling a checkerboard.  Krabbasnår makes designs with the inlay moving in diagonal steps.

A sample in the class to illustrate techniques

A sample in the class to illustrate techniques

Gunvor encouraged us to graph out our pattern choice on graph paper so we would understand the way the patterns were built and moved.  We had an abundance of inspiration from antique weavings and reproductions, books, and Gunvor’s weaving to draw from.  We also had a booklet of graphed designs that was part of our class handouts.  

All looms had a linen warp, but the warps and setts were not all the same.  Gunvor wanted us to be able to see and compare the look of the different setts.  8/2 linen was set at 35/10cm and at 40/10.  16/3 linen was sett at 40/10 and 45/10.  20/3 linen was sett at 45/10 and 50/10.  At all setts, we used a single wool yarn, either Klippans Fårö or Rauma prydvev tapestry single ply to weave the weft face ground.  The inlay butterlies were made up of three strands of the single ply or one two-ply strand of prydvev or Klippans Brage combined with one strand of the single ply yarn.  Colors could be combined in a butterfly; for instance two or three shades of red could be used in one butterfly.   At the 35/10 sett, a two ply thread or two singles could be woven as the weft and 4 single stands of singles could be used for inlay, depending on the look you liked.  Three picks of weft were woven between pattern inlays.  One of the weavers chose to weave inlay monksbelt motifs and trensa flossa, which is a short flossa that does not cover the whole ground, for her sampler instead of the other techniques.

Patterns were woven upside down, that is, with the back side facing the weaver.

In addition to the art weaves, Gunvor taught us finishing techniques, including a warp finish, tassels of ribbon and fabric strips, two ways to make fringe or kavelfrans, fabric balls–both plain and covered with stitching–to attach to pillow corners, and explained how to make our sample into a pillow or bag.  

The student weaving varied in color and techniques chosen: in columns top to bottom going from left to right, Liz Hunter;  Janis Aune, Sharon Marquardt and Melba Granlund; Mary Skoy and Mary Erickson; Jan Mostrom and Edi Thorstenson.

Jan Mostrom, a weaver and instructor from Minnesota, will be teaching a class on Swedish art weaves at the Weavers Guild of Minnesota in the spring of 2018.  Details are herealthough it is already filled. Jan has a great passion and love for researching and teaching weaving, and is a frequent contributor of articles on weaving techniques to the Norwegian Textile Letter

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Inspiration, Outreach, and Connection

By Melba Granlund

This adventure in weaving began a couple of years ago when the Weavers Guild of Minnesota’s  Scandinavian Weavers study group chose to focus on Swedish art weaves.   I and many others in the group had never personally studied or done this type of weaving, although some of the patterns resembled Norwegian patterns we knew.  At or about the same time, I had been “gifted” several pieces from southern Sweden woven in this fashion from the late 19th or early 20th century, so we had examples to study up close and personal.  However, we needed to find out more about what these Swedish “art weaves” were all about, and I looked forward to the challenge.

I was aware of the Swedish weaving school Vävstuga in western Massachusetts, operated by Becky Ashenden, as I had taken the “Beginners” class there a few years earlier.  While looking at Vävstuga’s website and pondering whether to return there for further instruction on “Swedish classics,” I remembered that while studying at Vävstuga I had purchased a book on the subject, written in Swedish by Gunvor Johansson.   I now saw that the book was available in English.  Wanting to know more about Gunvor, I continued to dig deeper on the internet and discovered that she was teaching Swedish art weaves through the Skåne Hemslöjd in southern Sweden and had done so during the month of June for at least the last couple of years.  It seemed to me that if I wanted to learn from the best, then being taught by the person who taught Becky many years earlier at Sätergläntan made the most sense.  Being the frugal person I am, the cost of instruction was the next thing to consider.  I found that traveling to Sweden for a class was almost the same as going to western Massachusetts. In fact, it was almost cheaper.  

That was it.   I needed to go to Sweden.  So, I sent an email to Hemslöjden i Skåne to inquire about classes in 2016.   As it turned out, while the class was being offered again during the same week in June, it was eventually canceled for lack of interest.  While I was disappointed, I was happy that I hadn’t already booked my flight and hotel room.  Having thought that further instruction would not be possible – at least in Sweden – I then received news about Vesterheim’s 2017 Textile Study Tour.  The itinerary showed that the tour was at or about the same time as the class in Sweden and that we would be traveling nearby while in Denmark.  So, I contacted the Hemslöjd once again. This time I dug a little deeper and inquired how a person might “guarantee” not having the weaving class canceled for lack of participants.  I was told that they would be happy to host a “private” class for us “English speakers” if we had enough students.   One thing led to another (email upon email) and, finally, there were eight of us who wanted to take the class.  Liz Hunter in our group made our hotel reservations and also tracked down flight info.  Edi Thorstensson handled train reservations.  I took care of class registrations.  The Hemslöjd was thrilled.  We were thrilled.  It was actually going to happen.  Hooray!   Our class even became a post on the Hemslöjd’s Facebook page as they prepared the looms for us. 

Landskrona turned out to be a storybook town.  17th and 18th century buildings and cobblestone streets everywhere – each block had a different type of stone and pattern.  Our hotel was only a couple blocks from the North Sea and only a few blocks from the Hemslöjd, which had been relocated to the former Landskrona train station which, in itself, was an architectural beauty.  

Arriving at our classroom the first morning, we were greeted by Åsa Stenoft who had been the person I communicated with in scheduling our class.  She could not have been a more gracious host and supplied us each day with freshly baked coffee cakes and treats (freshly brewed coffee was always at hand).  Her knowledge of weaving was also very helpful during class time and she helped translate for Gunvor, which turned out to be almost never. 

Gunvor Johansson

Gunvor Johansson

A little bit of background on our teacher, Gunvor Johansson, and the Skåne Hemslöjd.  The Swedish hemslöjd, or handicraft, movement was first developed in 1899 by Lilli Zickerman who sought to encourage self-supporting artists working in their homes while at the same time preserving Swedish folk art traditions.   Lilli traveled around Sweden to map and document the textiles and their makers.  

Since the mid 1980s, Gunvor has continued to study and expand the documentation of the Skånsk textiles based on the Stiftelsen Skånsk Hemslöjd (Skåne Handicrafts Foundation) archives collection in Landskrona, with textiles dating from the 17th century forward.  This work culminated in the publication of her book, Väv Skånska Allmogevävnader, translated into English by Birgitta Esselius Peterson as Heirlooms of Skåne: Weaving Techniques.  In her studies, Gunvor researched the colors of the original yarns, drew up the patterns and developed suitable yarns currently available for replication of these beautiful pieces.  She has taught the weaving techniques rosengång, halvkrabba, dukagång, munkabelt, krabbasnår, rölakan, viggrölakan, and trensaflossa to students in classes at Sätergläntan and continues to teach through the Hemslöjd organization in Skåne. With Kristina Lindkvist, Gunvor co-owns the company Kyrkotextil i Syd, creating liturgical textiles for use in churches.  In 2005, in connection with Hemslöjden Malmöhus’s 100th anniversary, she received the Swedish Hemslöjdsföreningarnas Riksförbund’s Royal Silver Medal for her work on the documentation of Skåne’s art weaves, her work for the handicraft movement since the mid-1980s, as well as for her outstanding contributions to ecclesiastical textile art.   Hemslöjdsföreningarnas Riksförbund is the national umbrella organization.  Therefore, its Silver Medal is a very high distinction.

From the Hemslöjden Skåne website:    

We use natural materials, reuse and keep the knowledge of how to manufacture long-lasting items. The slöjd helps us solve problems with our own power.  It gives a sense of context, belonging and roots; inter alia by building on the long tradition of doing things by hand. In addition, it fills people’s everyday lives with well-being, beauty and creativity.

Beauties actually change the world. And we do it with only our hands.

Hemslöjden – Our hands shape the future

For a sustainable world created by our hands

 What a great philosophy!

Melba Granlund is a Swedish folk artist and fiber art instructor focused on weaving, spinning, felting, nålbinding, wire jewelry-making, sewing, embroidery and natural dyeing. She enjoys traveling and studying the historical aspects of Scandinavian textiles and handcrafts. As a life-long learner, she has received instruction from masters of these handcrafts in the U.S., as well as in Sweden, Norway and Finland. Her purpose in practicing and teaching Scandinavian handcrafts is to keep these folk art traditions alive for future generations.

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Gunvor Johansson’s Exhibit at Bosjökloster

By Mary Erickson

Gunvor Johansson

As with most weaving classes, I tend to focus on weaving and finishing the project.  So I was somewhat reluctant to be “pulled away” from the loom to go on an excursion.  As it turned out, an invitation such as this gave me a rare opportunity for an understanding of place and history of weaving that I could not have experienced on my own.  

Gunvor invited us to view an exhibit of her work called “HISTORICAL THREADS :  Scanian Art Weavery & Church Textiles” at the Bosjökloster Castle and Gardens.  She and her husband both drove cars to transport us and, as we traveled through the countryside, we passed farmsteads and field after field of crops, which gave us a sense of the landscape.

Bosjökloster originally was a Benedictine abbey, founded in 1080, and remained so until the Reformation.  Today the site is privately owned and open to the public.  Gunvor’s weavings were displayed in two rooms of the Bosjökloster  Castle.  The extensive exhibit included traditional weave structures we had been studying and liturgical weaving. 

The liturgical textiles on display were examples of Gunvor’s work, designed and created through a business she co-owns, Kyrkotextil i Syd (Church Textiles in the South).  Below are examples of Gunvor’s beautiful liturgical textiles. 

Janis Aune inspects a beautiful robe.

More information and images can be found at:

Mary Erickson lives on the Mesabi Iron Range and is interested in the cultural connections found in weaving traditions.   She recently retired as an exhibit researcher at the Minnesota Discovery Center in Chisholm, MN and is currently a fiber artist focusing on the influence of landscape and place in our lives.  Mary holds a  Bachelor of Science Degree in Art Education from Bemidji State University and a Master of Art Degree from the University of Wisconsin, Superior.

Fika and the Joy of Lingonberry Cake

By Mary Skoy

In the midst of all the pattern graphing, yarn selection, bobbin winding, and loom preparation, in the midst of all the intense weaving energy, Åsa interrupted us to tell us that it was time for Fika.

What?  Time for a coffee break, when we had so much to do, so much to learn?  Well, it didn’t seem to be an option.  Åsa had made a special cake for our first fika and had coffee ready.

Most of us were familiar with this Swedish word that loosely translates as “coffee break,” but I, for one, had no idea of how much fika is a part of everyday life.  In Sweden, it seems, fika is something to look forward to, not a grab-and-go and on-to-the-next-thing moment.  Instead, it’s a time when everything else stops, and we took a breath, sitting together around a big tale within sight of our looms but slightly around the corner from them so we could truly slow down.  We admired the woven samples surrounding us on the walls.  We took time to examine the seat cushions, “jynne”, on our chairs.  Each of these everyday cushions was different, and each beautiful.

Fika became a welcome daily habit.  And, after finishing Åsa’s cake, we shared cookies or chocolate from the grocery store across the street and fresh picked strawberries from the strawberry seller parked nearby.

We knew our looms were waiting for us, providing opportunities for more intense weaving and learning.  And, after fika, we were ready.

Fika.  Left to right:  Sharon, Janis, Jan (hidden), Mary Skoy, Melba, Gunvor, Åsa, Mary Erickson

Åsa’s Lingonberry Cake

June 2017, Landskrona in Skåne, Sweden

This goes well with apples or currants and a little bit of coarsely crushed cardamom in the batter.

2 eggs
1 ¼ C. flour
1 C. powdered sugar
1 stick butter
1 T. vanilla sugar
¼ C. frozen lingonberries or other berry

Chopped almonds or poppy seeds (Åsa used pumpkin seeds)

For serving:
Whipped cream

Stir together all ingredients. Pour into greased and floured pan. Sprinkle with almond slices. Bake at 450 degrees for about 20 minutes. Cool and serve with whipped cream or light sour cream (this might be crème fraiche).

Mary Skoy traces her fiber roots to her Norwegian/Irish mother who taught her to knit and further back to her Norwegian great aunt Sunniva Lønning, a weaver, spinner, teacher, and activist in mid twentieth century Norway. Scandinavian textiles are her weaving inspiration: contemporary functional weaving seen in shops, those seen in use in the homes of family in Norway; and historical pieces in museums.

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Nettles – For Clothing and Much More

By Annemor Sundbø, June 18, 2017

Editor’s note: This article originally appeared in Lokalkulturen, a local culture blog produced by the newspaper Fædrelandsvennen, under the title “Brennesler – til tøy og mot utøy.”

Cultural Memories (Kulturminner) is a reflection on textile-related matters. Just now it concerns close contact with a plant that has deep roots both in the earth and in tradition.

‘Weeding out’ my thoughts about everyday things for the blog, Local Culture (, led me to the most common weed we have in Vest-Agder. Stinging nettle, a plant that truly makes itself felt by hours-long stinging and blistering when one brushes past them, as for example next to the steps to my shop in Ose, Setesdal.

Stinging nettles are nonetheless a diverse and important plant that has had great importance along Norway’s coast. The plant grows wild on hills and rocky areas where it is otherwise difficult to cultivate vegetables.

It is used both as a foodstuff and as medicine, as fertilizer and as a source of yellow dye.  In addition, it has been used as a fiber plant.

Nettles have also been very important as a forage plant for pigs, horses, cows and chickens. Pigs ate it fresh or boiled with flour and potatoes.  Horses especially liked nettle seeds blended with oats. Cows were given nettles dried or boiled into a broth.  This gave greater quantities of milk and increased fat content in sour cream and butter. Chickens were given seeds or a decoction, which made them lay eggs more frequently, with yolks that became golden yellow.

Nettles were also important in the daily diet. The plants have twice the nutritional value as carrots, and must have been an important source of vitamins.

Nettles have had great importance as medicine, especially against respiratory diseases and asthma.  On the island of Hidra in Vest-Agder, people whipped themselves with nettles as a treatment to cure arthritis, and a decoction was used as a treatment for scabies, according to Christiern Pedersen’s Medicine Book (Lægebog) from 1533:

“Take nettles, mash with a little salt and rub the scabby limbs”

In many places, a nettle decoction was also used for dandruff and itching, and among other things was recommended for hair loss in Randesund. Nettle leaves were laid on children’s impetigo sores, and for cattle they were blended with stale urine as a healing ointment.

In 1972 I lived in the Faroe Islands.  The purpose of this stay was to study the wool-working methods that allowed the Faroese to survive in this barren landscape with its harsh climate.

At one place on the islands there were nettles. They were outside the ruins of the Magnus Cathedral in Kirkjubøur.  It is likely that these plants were grown for food and medicine, but possibly also as fiber plants? I became quite curious about this after being inspired by H. C. Andersen’s fairytale, The Wild Swans.

The princess in the story had eleven brothers that had been bewitched into swans. She could free them from this spell if by sunrise she could spin and knit a shirt for each of them out of fresh nettles.  If she failed, she would be burned as a witch.  By dawn, all the shirts were completed except one, which was missing a sleeve.  As the princess was led to the fire, the swan brothers came flying, and she managed to throw the shirts over them.  The swans were transformed back into princes except for the youngest brother, who got the shirt with the missing sleeve. He was left with one swan’s wing.

Even though I am no princess, I nonetheless wanted to try out this fairly tale. The collection of the nettles was real enough, anyway, I could feel it on my skin!

Earlier I had grown and processed flax, and now I wanted to process nettles the same way.  The plant stems consist of outer bark, baste fibers, pectin and a woody substance. When the plants are placed in a water bath for five or six days, bacteria will loosen the pectin through a fermentation process, and the bark will rot. This is called retting. I laid the plants in a bath tub.  The first day it smelled like fresh hay, the next day like a barn, the third day like a manure heap, the fourth day like rotten eggs, and the fifth day – the foulest bad breath imaginable!

The nettles were thrown out far away.  When I finally found the courage to come near them again, the plants were dry.  I could easily break the woody substance, and the fibers came forth as small bands. As I combed the fibers, they became shiny and silky smooth, and I could begin to spin them into thread using a drop spindle. But compared with flax, which has long fibers, nettle fibers break at each branch on the plant stem, giving less fiber length.

My conclusion after this adventure – it’s a good thing that the burning of witches is forbidden, because considering the time and work that this process required, my amount of thread would not have saved more than one feather if the swans had been my brothers!

See also: A Rag Pile – My Lot in Life

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, Vest-Agder County’s Cultural Prize in 2015 and Kristiansand Community’s Cultural Prize in 2017. 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 (translated into English as: Everyday Knitting, Setesdal Sweaters, Invisible Threads in Knitting, Knitting in Art, Norwegian Mittens and Gloves); and Spelsau og Samspill 2015 (not translated). 


“Forsøk med spinning av brennesler” m/ illustrasjon, Norsk Husflid nr. 1, 1973.
“Brennesler til tøy og utøy” Kysten nr. 1 1989.
“Brennesle” Våre Nyttevkster, 2001.

Thank you to Katherine Larson for her translation. 

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Virgin Tapestries and the Bridal Theme

By Randi Nygaard Lium

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

A west coast virgin tapestry from the collection of the Norsk Folkemuseum.

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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