Cobalt

Hi, this is Debi and today I want to take you to one of the most fascinating stops we made in Norway, the Blaafarvevarket (Blue Cobalt Mine). Cobalt is a chemical element that is a by-product of mining, usually copper or nickel. It has played an important role throughout history, first for the creation of color and now in manufactured products. Let me tell you a bit about the Mine and the history of the color blue. Then we will look at Bluework Embroidery!

This cobalt mine was discovered in 1772, and was an incredibly important discovery. The mine opened in 1782 and was at peak production from 1822 to 1848. At one time this mine supplied over 80% of all the blue coloring to the world. It was also the largest industrial business in Norway, employing over 2000 workers! The ore refining process stopped in 1856, but the mining continued until 1893.

The ore goes through a refining process called smelting which separates out the cobalt.

The resulting cobalt glass goes through additional processing which separates it into color levels. The first color level is the most intense and most expensive.

This particular mine was special because the ore was not combined with nickel, which takes a difficult process to separate. Instead, in this mine the ore was combined with copper and arsenic. The arsenic was removed by heating the ore to a temperature up to 1650 degrees F using a fire fueled by wood. The smoke containing the arsenic was funneled through a cooling building, called the Poison Tower, and the arsenic would attach itself to the walls. This building was cleaned twice a year so the arsenic could be purified and sold. As you might expect, it was dangerous to the workers doing that cleaning. In fact, "cobalt" comes from the German word "kobold". This translates to "goblin" which is how the miners referred to the cobalt ore. Perhaps because it is always found with other ores and minerals that tend to make the workers ill.

So, if it was so dangerous, why did people want to mine cobalt? Cobalt has been used for over 4000 years to create blue glass and to color porcelain. The Chinese started using Cobalt blue in the 9th century to create blue and white porcelain pieces. The outside world learned of this wonderful porcelain in the 14th century when it was exported to Europe. However, it took about 400 years before other artisans could recreate the process. Blue and White designs became very popular throughout the world. Here are some of the porcelain pieces they had on display.

This website has examples of blue and white porcelain throughout time.

The cobalt glass was used in stained glass windows and glassware as well. These vases came from a display at the museum.

This glass icicle was one of the items I purchased from the Blaafarvevarket Gift Shop.

The paint pigment cobalt blue was invented in 1802 and became a very important color for painters. Here is the painter’s palette used by Christian Skredsvig.

It was also a favorite color in the textile industry because cobalt blue will not fade. At the Mine Museum they had a sample of wallpaper centuries old, and it has never lost its color.

A modern use of cobalt is the creation of strong earth magnets. What would we do without our magnets to help us stitch? Also, during the research on magnets, it was found that the addition of cobalt to certain batteries gave them a higher capacity and more reserve power. This led to the Ni-MH battery which powers most of our cell phones!!!

After the mine closed in 1893, the facility fell into disrepair and it was decided to tear everything down so the area could be reused. All of the original structures were removed except for the Poison Tower. Every time they tried to tear down the Poison Tower, workers became sick. It was finally decided to stop the destruction of the site and instead reopen it as a museum, which opened in 1993. Here is the actual Poison Tower, which we were not able to get very close to!

The day before, we visited another museum that had some ties to the blue pigment. Christian Skredsvig was a famous Norwegian painter who lived from 1854 to 1924. His home, Hagan, has been turned into a museum preserved just as when Christian lived there. His great-granddaughter gave us a personal tour; she’s wearing the red folk costume in the lower left. The white house was Christian’s house and studio.

His kitchen was completely painted blue, because we were told the blue color kept away flies because it contained arsenic. Here are some pictures of the kitchen and furnishings.

We asked about the kitchen paint during our visit to the Cobalt Mine and were told all arsenic had been removed before it was used for industrial purposes. I Google’d whether blue would repel insects and found articles advising blue or green will keep spiders from forming a web and will repel insects. This belief is so still that people in the South (United States) often paint their porches and window sills blue or green.

Scientists have said living creatures have a vast library of unconscious knowledge. I have to wonder if those insect ancestors did encounter arsenic in the local cobalt mine and passed that knowledge down. Whatever the real reason may be, the flies seem to stay out of this particular blue kitchen!

Here are some other interesting "blue facts":

  • Indigo from plants was the dye used for the first pair of blue jeans.
  • Some cultures, including the Lakota Sioux, Vietnamese, and Korean, use the same word to describe blue and green! How confusing is that?
  • Turns out blue-haired ladies have been around for a long time! Julius Caesar (100 BC-40 BC) commented on the Celts who tinted their hair blue when they grew old.
  • Many ancient cultures use blue for royal clothing, because it was expensive to produce and the fabric would fade so it had to be re-dyed or replaced. The Virgin Mary is often portrayed in blue or purple clothing. However, blue signified a person of a lower-class color to the Romans. The term, "blue-collar worker" was coined in the mid-1920’s, is someone who does manual labor. This term came about because the clothing had to hold up and was often made from canvas or cotton. The blue color helped to hide dirt. Coveralls were used to protect clothing and were originally made from a blue-colored heavy cotton fabric.

In general, I found "Blue" to be a very confused color! Throughout history it has often symbolized death and was the color of mourning clothes. Yet, many countries purposely chose to include blue in their flags. Many royal families adopted the color blue for their clothing, and "blue blood" denotes a noble lineage. Yet many people look down at blue-collar workers, thinking them less educated and refined. "Being blue" means you are feeling down or depressed. Yet, a "blue chip stock" refers to a high-performing company. You have the warmth of the clear, blue sky, yet blue signifies the cold water tap on your faucet. To learn even more blue facts and to see how blue was used throughout history, check out this fabulous website!

So how did the color blue impact the textile industry? The dyes used originally for fabrics were developed in Europe, Asia, and Africa from plants. The mucus from certain snails was used in Biblical times to produce an indigo blue dye used for priest garments. The Egyptians actually created the first synthetic blue around 2500 BC! Which is crazy since our modern version, known as Prussian Blue, wasn’t invented until the early 1700’s. However, today’s blue colors are usually created using chemicals.

In my stash of magazines, I came across a reference to Bluework embroidery. Bluework was influenced by Redwork and became popular when a thread color came along that would not fade. Redwork’s popularity was generally 1880 to 1920. I wrote a newsletter on Redwork which is available on line.

Bluework became popular in the United States around 1910. Its reign lasted about 20 years as documented by a few remaining pieces. The same stitches used in Redwork are used in Bluework: running stitch, straight stitch, stem stitch, French knot or Colonial knot. Typically, a design is outlined rather than completely filled in. I only found a few examples of original Bluework. Basically, the designs are reminiscent of Redwork designs, characters like Sunbonnet Sue and Kewpie, Days-of-the-Week designs, or floral patterns mimicking blue and white china.

In the early 1900’s there was a group of stitchers calling themselves the "Blue and White Society", located in Deerfield, MA. This group wanted to keep Colonial stitching alive. So, they took antique patterns and motifs and created new designs in a blue and white color scheme which were then sold to the wealthy. Their stitching style more resembled crewel or Jacobean work and the motifs were often filled in rather than outlined. Here is a wonderful article by Patricia Cummings about the Society.

Thanksgiving Week I had a chance to go see my dad. Along the way I stopped at Finders Keepers Antique Mall just east of Nebraska City, NE, on Highway 2. This area was closed for a long time due to the Missouri River flooding of 2011 and I was glad to help the local economy. I purchased several linen pieces including this pillowcase done in blues.

I also had to chuckle at their "advertising sign".

While in Topeka, I also had a chance to go back to the Wheatland Antique Mall. This is the same place I locked my keys in my car last trip. I was very careful not to do that this time! At this stop, I was amazed to see Santa and Mrs. Claus doing some Christmas shopping.

I sure hope I am on the Good List this year! While in this shop I found a couple more linens, and this great book on Redwork and an old Aunt Martha’s pattern.

The Redwork book had an advertisement on the back for a publication called Redwork in Blue! The Aunt Martha’s pattern doesn’t have a print date on it, and I haven’t seen a red and blue envelope. Aunt Martha’s patterns have been published for 70 years, and this particular pattern, Rabbits for the Kitchen #3311, has been reissued as Jack the Rabbit #3980.

I must admit I had never stitched a Redwork piece. So, for this newsletter, I decided to do a Bluework piece.

I used the Vintage Blue Stripe Tea Towel (9897C), Aunt Martha’s pattern Bonnie Bonnet (2335G), and DMC Floss #803. It was relaxing to stitch since it was the basic stitches. The stitching did go faster since only one color was used and I didn’t have to start and stop to change colors for each area of the design. And, yes, I did do Colonial knots instead of beads. Personally, I prefer designs with more color and stitches. However, this is a great technique to perfect your basic stitches. I am sure the ladies who specialized in Redwork and Bluework had incredibly tiny, uniform stitches.

Here are some great resources and projects if you would like to create your own Bluework or Redwork piece.


We hope this guide makes your stitching easier and more enjoyable!

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“The following article was written by Debi Feyh of Nordic Needle and published in their weekly e-mail newsletter. Permission was granted by Nordic Needle to share this article in (name of your publication). For information on subscribing to their weekly e-mail newsletter, visit www.nordicneedle.com. A free mail-order catalog is available to you upon request if you live in the USA or Canada.”

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