Scandinavian Needlework

As you are aware one of my passions is Scandinavian Needlework particularly from Norway and Sweden. I was asked to do a presentation for the Fargo-Moorhead Fine Arts club on that subject. So, I thought I would share the information with you in today’s newsletter. Here I am with Jean Berg, my friend from the Fine Arts Club.

Today I would like to tell you a bit about the needlework of Scandinavia, particularly Sweden and Norway. First we will look at some of the factors impacting the development of Scandinavian needlework. Then we will look at some specific styles of needlework that came from Norway and Sweden.

Climate greatly impacted the development of arts in Scandinavia. The winters were long, dark, and cold. Tending to the livestock was the primary outdoor activity, finished quickly so the person could return to the warmth inside. People spent most of their time inside, unable to travel far from home, so their houses were literally the center of their world. This is how the Scandinavians began to hold their homes in high regard.

Even though you were inside during the winter, you could not be idle. The women had the looms going creating the cloth to replace and repair clothing and linens. The men whittled and carved, again not for fun, but to create utensils and furniture. Homes originally did not have fireplaces as we know of them today. A flat hearth in the center of the home held the fire. There was an opening in the ceiling for the smoke to go out of. As you can imagine, without a chimney the walls and rafters became blackened with soot. Gradually changes were made and the fireplace was moved towards an outside wall, but still with a hole in the ceiling and perhaps a couple of small windows.

It was impractical to use white linens for everyday use and display in this type of smoky environment. The fancy needlework was saved for the church-going clothes which were carefully put away after wearing. This dark and smoky environment probably played a part in the early decorations in the home being the lovely carvings into the wood furniture.

When spring and summer came around, this season was short so the household’s efforts were directed towards planting, harvesting, and shepherding activities. The shepherdesses were able to do some of their needlework while tending the flocks. In fact, some areas of Sweden, the young ladies carried small looms on their backs so they could weave. There was no time for going on vacation or traveling any great distances.

Because of the short summers and harsh winters there were vary little opportunity to exchange ideas and patterns. Therefore, family and local designs became tradition. As a piece became so degraded that it was non-repairable, an exact duplicate was made to take its place. Because of this tradition, designs and color combinations became so distinctive that people could easily identify the region, town, and even the family an item came from.

Geography also played a huge part in the development of designs. The closer to the sea a person was, the more likely the artist was to include foreign elements and materials into their designs. For example, most of the needlework was done on linen, which is created from flax grown in the area. Women also created wool threads and fabrics. Cotton had to be imported from Europe and was very expensive. Over time, the United States started to import cotton to Scandinavia and the people along the well traveled sea coasts gradually started using cotton. Also printed patterns from Germany and England began to cause a change in the traditional designs from these coastal regions. However, the inward areas remained relatively unchanged. That is how the regional designs remained into the 1900’s.

In Sweden another event greatly impacted handcrafted items. In the late 1700’s there was an anti-luxury law passed. This dictated that wood and metal could not be used just for ornamental purposes. Furniture became almost severe with no carving and simple metal hinges. In the early 1800’s there was a reversal of the anti-luxury laws and a style known as "Karl Johan" was popular from the 1810-1830. Mahogany furniture became the canvas for beautiful carvings once again.

In the mid 1800’s industrialization came to Scandinavia. Around 1860 furniture was being mass produced and the need for home arts and crafts declined. This was a livelihood for many people living in the rural communities. People were forced to relocate moving into the cities to find work at the factories in order to support their family. The beautiful designs and loving handwork were replaced with mass-produced designs and inferior workmanship.

Two very important movements happened in response. Thankfully people realized the shoddy workmanship and took action. The first response was to improve the quality of mass-produced goods. The impact of this movement is still felt today with the international reputation for fine design and quality production of Swedish-made products.

The second one was even more important from an artisan’s standpoint. This movement sought to protect the cottage industries and promote handcrafted products, Several Svensk Hemslöjd (Swedish Homecraft Associations) were formed. Craftsmen and women were able to come together to sell their creations. Still today, Hemslöjd organizations are going strong. The artists are not required to move and work in large shops or leave their items on consignment in the hopes they will sell. Instead, they are commissioned to do the work from their own designs or from patterns provided by leading Scandinavian designers. Particular attention is paid to what area of the country the person is from so they are encouraged to use the local resources available to them, such as linen from locally grown flax or birch from the heavier wooded areas. This arrangement not only provides a livelihood for the art but for his or her region as well. In addition, the use of the traditional patterns and colors is highly encouraged. That is why today Scandinavian art and techniques are alive and well.

So, let’s see how needlework evolved in the Scandinavian home. Remember how dark and sooty a home would become because of the fireplace? Because of this perpetual gloominess, it became a symbol of wealth and prestige as to how well you could decorate your home for celebrations. There would be colorful cushions and pillows put on the chairs and benches. Large sheets of linens or cut paper would be hung from special hooks to cover the walls and rafters, called a ceiling dress. Where those pieces ended on the walls, another band would be tacked up running horizontally around the wall. The end results made the room appear more like the inside of a very festive tent. If you did not own enough special linens, you would use the bed sheets, or ask a neighbor to borrow theirs, especially for a wedding. After the celebration or holiday, these special wall coverings and pillows were carefully stowed away in trunks.

Each home did have a few items displayed year round. It was important to have at least one fine tapestry usually stretched on the wall above the front door. Also near the front door there were several linen bands that were used only at funerals to carry and lower a coffin. There were linens called towels that draped the headboards but they weren’t used as towels. They were more like a pillowcase for the bed.

As a family became more affluent, their time and money spent on ornamentation for their own home grew. Modern appliances helped reduce the time it took to do necessary farm and home chores. So it was at this point that stitchers began to have more time to spend on their needlework. I want to touch briefly on several styles of needlework.

The first is the embroidery on wool. The designs were very colorful and often stitched on black or dark wool. This piece was done by my great-grandmother in a style influenced by the Dalarna region. As you can see, it is becoming very worn. If I were to follow tradition, I should chart this design and recreate it, then preserve the original piece.

(The next technique I talked about was Swedish Weaving. Learn more about this technique. )

Cross Stitch and surface embroidery date back centuries. It was a quicker and relatively inexpensive way to adorn clothing, bed sheets, towels, and ceiling dresses. Here is an apron done by my great-grandmother.

Directly translated it says "A home of so little" but the meaning is more like "It takes so little to make a home". On the display board is another piece she did and you can see that similar designs are still being used today.

Two almost forgotten needlework techniques are Norweave and Tvistsöm. Both of these techniques evolved from the cross-stitch. (Learn more about Tvistsöm and Norweave embroidery )

The last two techniques are considered to be pulled and drawn thread techniques. This means some of the fabric threads are cut and withdrawn from the fabric. The stitched designs draw fabric threads together to create openwork designs.

Note to my newsletter readers. I didn’t realize that Nikolina had snuck into the presentation until I took pictures afterwards. She told me she was overseeing the Hardanger display. She made sure people knew that you had to do the cutting in order to make it truly a Hardanger technique. (Learn more about Hardanger )

The technique I finished with was Naversom. This technique appears to have originated in Sweden as early as the 17th century. Näversöm is translated as Näver = Birch bark and söm = seam/stitch. It gets the name from the piece of birch bark that was used as a frame. Shepherdesses did the embroidery as they tended their animals, so this frame could be rolled up, protecting her work, and could easily be carried.

What makes this technique unique is the design is worked from the back. The birch bark protected the front of the piece, so the final design was not revealed until it was completely done! This technique is relatively unknown and exclusive to Sweden. I have a personal connection to this technique. In the late 1800’s the technique had almost died out. A stitcher in Hudiksvall started a project to gather up and catalog all the samples she could find. Augusta had a needlework store and actively promoted näversöm. She was probably a member of one of the early Svensk Hemslöjd associations. My great-grandmother was from Hudiksvall and came to America in the early 1900s. When my dad saw the näversöm doilies I got from Sweden he said he remembered his grandmother doing those. Unfortunately none of her pieces have survived. She probably knew Augusta and maybe even learned some of her stitching from her. I am on a mission to teach myself this technique as there is very little published on how to do it, especially in English. Learn more about Naversom.

I could have gone on for hours, but I stopped there. The ladies were a fabulous audience and they asked many questions about the techniques, my costume, and Nordic Needle. Before I knew it, it was time to pack up and head back to work. It is exciting that people are still interested in the heritage arts even if they don’t do them.


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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