When Frida Hansen Sought a Tapestry Teacher

I rarely read weaving-related passages from books or articles to my husband, but this week I read him flowery paragraphs from a July 1929 issue of House Beautiful. The next morning he was still thinking about them and commented, “That was such a funny thing you read to me about Frida Hansen.” It’s a good story, and I’ll share two versions.

A Scholarly Approach to Frida Hansen’s Experience

Frida Hansen was instrumental in the revival of Norwegian billedvev (tapestry) in the late 1800s. Enamoured of medieval tapestries, she sought a teacher who was still practicing using centuries-old methods.  I first read about this in Anniken Thue’s definitive book about Hansen, Frida Hansen: En Europeer i Norsk Tekstilkunst (Frida Hansen: A European in Norwegian textile Art). Here are a few key sentences from that section of the book (pages 19-21, my translation).

1889 was an important year for Frida Hansen.  Her decision to learn to weave was put into effect. She started by asking at farms around the district whether anyone knew the old technique. The answer was no. Several remembered a deceased woman who had woven eight-petaled roses on an upright loom, but none knew the loom or the technique.

In desperation Frida Hansen tried to figure out the “åkleteknikk” (coverlet technique) on a simple embroidery frame. She figured out how to weave geometric figures without contours. But the loom and how to weave figures with curves remained unsolved.

By chance she found help.  Via an acquaintance she had the opportunity to purchase some weavings by a young woman–Kjerstina Hauglum–in Sogn. When Frida Hansen heard that the woman wove images from the Bible on a loom that was called an “upright loom,” she had to travel to Sogn. She was so impatient that her husband said, “Let’s get her out of the house, the sooner the better.  There will be no peace here until she takes off!”

….Frida Hansen finally reached Laerdal, and here she saw an upright loom for the first time. The same afternoon she telegraphed home, “Marvelous! I have found what I sought.”

…[Frida Hansen described her visit to Kjerstina Hauglum in a letter to Randi Blehr in 1893.] ” On my arrival in Laerdal I was immediately convinced from my previous study that I was standing in front of the old work in all its authenticity. One look at the old method was therefor enough, and once I obtained a loom and learned how to set it up, I traveled home happy over the rich exchange. When I returned home I began at once to weave “Birkebeiner.”

But as simply as she describes it here, it wasn’t so easy. She needed to solve many technical problems before actually beginning that tapestry.

The More Romantic Version

Several of Frida Hansen’s works were owned by Americans, and later in her weaving career she visited the United States. She was prominently featured in an article from the July, 1929, issue of House Beautiful, “An Old Art for the New World,” by Miriam Ott Munson. Perhaps I should use her first paragraph in describing my workshop on Norwegian billedvev (tapestry)?

From the ships of the ancient Vikings and the hands of long-dead queens comes an art whose vitality and vigorous beauty hundreds of centuries have not been able to quench.  In the days of the old Norse sagas this art was called billedvaev, or ‘pictorial weaving,’ and the story of its discovery is as thrilling and full of incident as any tale that tells of search for treasure trove.


Here’s Ott’s description of Frida Hansen’s quest.

One woman there was in Norway whose imagination was fired by the old tales and legends that clung about the tapestries. Also, she had seen and exhaustively studied the specimens of the ancient weavings which were enshrined in the museums of her country.  And so she was inspired by a desire to recapture the secret that was buried with the Viking queens.  But at last, after years of study and search, Mrs. Frida Hansen of Christiania heard that far up in the mountains there dwelt an aged woman, the descendant of an ancient Norwegian family, who knew something of the old lost art.  Thither she journeyed to learn all the old woman had to teach.

Once again fate was kind, and news came from a friend of the discovery of a most marvelous loom of unusual size and peculiar form, unlike any other loom in existence in her country.  In an old and remote farmhouse Mrs. Hansen found the centuries-old loom, and at last, after years of effort, the secret of the method of weaving the tapestries was hers.

Frida Hansen at her loom, from the Store Norske Leksikon. snl.no/Frida_Hansen

I’ve written to the Hearst Corporation for permission to share the article in its entirety. It’s wonderful.  For example, if you are wondering about a topic for your next tapestry, Ott wrote,

American tradition and history, replete with romantic, heroic, and inspiring scenes, such as Hiawatha setting forth in his birch-bark canoe into the sunset, the thrilling ride of Paul Revere, and Washington kneeling in prayer on the snows of Valley Forge, lend themselves peculiarly to this ancient art.

I am a great Frida Hansen fan, especially of her woven transparency technique, and I look forward to careful study of her pieces next spring in Stavanger.  Thither I will journey, thanks to a grant from the American Scandinavian Foundation.  (More about that here.)

Maybe this is the very same loom; it’s my photo taken at “Frida Hansen’s Hus” in Stavanger in 2015.


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