Dipping Into “Gammel Norsk Vævkunst”

Each time I prepare for my Norwegian Billedvev (tapestry) workshop, I check out these ten volumes from the Textile Center of Minnesota Library: Gammel Norsk Vævkunst: Putetræk og Tæpper i Farvetrykte Gjengivelser (Old Norwegian Art Weaving: Pillow Tops and Coverlets in Colored Reproduction), published in 1913 by Henrik Grosch, Director of the Kristiania Kunstindustrimuseum (now part of the Nasjonalmuseet, the National Museum). I take them with me for students to gain inspiration and steep themselves in the old Norwegian weaving style. This time, since my workshop involves an airplane, and I’d rather stuff my suitcase with samples than books, I’m scanning pages and studying the volumes extra closely. Here are some wonderful pillow covers from Volume 1.

Of the existing 1200 medieval tapestries that still exist, only about 200 are large tapestries. The images are generally religious, like the well-known “Wise and Foolish Virgins,” “Lot and his Daughters,” and versions of Mary and the Wise Men. Around a thousand smaller pillow-covers have a wide variety of images. Some are compositions of design elements often found in the larger tapestries. like this star-filled billedvev.

Many were secular images, some of the same designs found in professionally-woven tapestries in other parts of Europe. Parrots and stags were often used as motifs, also grapes and potted plants. The motifs came from the  Renaissance at the end of the 1500s to Baroque weavings from the mid-1600s.

But the Norwegian ones became quite abstracted. According to Randi Nygaard Lium, in her book Norsk Tekstilkunst (Norwegian Textile Art), by the mid-1600s tulips were very popular in Norwegian weaving, probably from Dutch inspiration. These look like tulips, don’t they?

The flowers in this pillow are more abstracted.

And in this one, if you look carefully, you can deconstruct the mass of pattern into a vase with flowers. The description says, “The pattern area is filled with a two-handled vase with stylized flowers, birds on each side and above, and below, two leaping animals. In addition the space includes jagged, isolated leaves, squares, and stylized grape clusters. An old Norwegian folk art piece from Vaage in Gudbransdal, 25″ x 23″” So the blue areas with little red diamonds–grape clusters!

The Norwegian tradition of using birds, flowers, and animals to fill the whole background of a tapestry is similar to European millefleurs. Look at the rabbits in the tapestry above, and then look at this detail from  one of the French “Lady and the Unicorn” tapestries.

The treasured Norwegian woven pillow covers were taken out for celebrations or holidays and set on tables, benches, or chairs. Because they were packed away in chests at other times, they were well preserved, and the plant-dyed yarn escaped fading. 

Sometimes these ten oversized Henrik Grosch pamphlets are sold as one bound volume; I have a friend who was lucky enough to purchase one on eBay recently. If you ever see one for sale, let me know!