Dyed and Gone to Heaven – An Online Magazine and Needlework Resource  

Back to Feature Stories

The History of Hardangersom (Hardanger) Part I

by Rita Vainius

 -- ---

 Table runner, linen, mid-20th century, 29 x 15" Made by Sigrid Melloh in Beloit, Wisc. - Full view and detail

Hardanger, known in Norway as Hardangersom or Hardangersaum, is a form of whitework (hvitsom or kvitsaum) combined with drawn and counted thread work. It is executed on evenweave fabric, usually linen or cotton, employing linen or pearl cotton threads. Though traditionally worked with natural colored linen and thread (white or cream), additional embroidery could be colored as was the case in smoyg (pattern darning) and svartsom (blackwork). Earlier in this century, this type of needlework was known as Norwegian drawn work and takes its current name from a town on the southwestern coast of Norway, in a mountainous area at the head of the Hardanger fjord. Because of the unique geographical properties of this district, Hardanger developed a very distinctive style and technique exclusive to this part of the country. Flax grown locally was harvested, carded and spun into linen fabric and thread. This home processed linen was often a little on the gray side in color. In the rural community, Hardangersaum was first used for parts of the bunad (festive folk costume), including apron borders, trim on the collars and cuffs of blouses and the handaplagg (bridal head covering), employing the techniques of utskurdsaum (cutwork) and uttrekksaum (drawnwork). As household linens came into common usage, it became a favorite decoration for tablecloths, napkins, towels, bedspreads, pillows and curtains.

 Shirt waist, cotton, 1900-1910 said to have been made in Norway.

Hardanger has a geometrical character, whose angularity and straight lines are softened by additional stitchery. The traditional designs are based on several shapes: square, rectangle, triangle, diamond, diagonal, zig-zag and cross. These could be combined in a limitless number of ways but the designs produced were never pictorial. Patterns varied greatly from one family to another and from village to village. Eventually specific designs came to be associated with specific places.

The historical origins of Hardanger are rather obscure. It's roots are said to have sprung from ancient Persia and Asia where a similar technique was worked on fine gauze netting with colored silk and metallic threads. Apparel which incorporated this type of embroidery was worn only by nobility. This art was popularized during the Renaissance, having been introduced into Europe through Byzantium from other Asiatic cultures. During the Renaissance, there was increased interest in geometric and ornamental patterns, some depicting human and animal figures. As the use of linen for making garments increased, the technique was spread by the distribution of pattern books and imported textiles which were copied by local artisans. These books were available from Germany and Italy. The best known was Munsterbuchlein by Peter Quentell, published in approximately 1528.

The technique is believed to have traveled first to Italy where the exquisite lace motifs of Punto Taglito and Punto Rialto were executed and later evolved into the Italian reticella patterns, which eventually developed into the Punto Aria patterns of Venetian lace. Assisi embroidery was already coming into its own in the 1200-1300's. The stitches, Holbein and cross, were worked with silk in many colors. In the 1500's designs were worked on linen with bright colored silks and the motifs were similar to those used in Norwegian blackwork. Some traditional Hardanger patterns exhibit an Assyrian and Egyptian influence which can be traced to the Vikings' forays far into the Mediterranean Sea. The Crusaders of the Middle Ages may even have been instrumental in introducing this type of embroidery to parts of Scandinavia. Another motif found in Hardanger, the eight-pointed star is also a common element in the embroidery of India as well as being a universal symbol. This star has, throughout recorded history, signified good fortune in virtually every culture throughout the world. The eight points of the star also signify the eight directions of the compass, representing all the different directions one may follow to find happiness. Specifically throughout Scandinavia, the eight-pointed star has been a magical invocation and protective ideogram going back to pagan times.

Table cloth, cotton, early 20 th c., 37 x33" . Made in the U. S. Full and detail. 

As these embroidery techniques and the textiles incorporating them spread northward through Europe, they evolved into Norwegian Drawn Work, Danish and Dutch Hedebo, English Ayshire work and Ruskin lacework. The Hedebo work dates to about the 1700's. The Norwegian form of this embroidery, now known as Hardangersom (meaning work from Hardanger area), developed and flourished between 1650 and 1850. True Hardanger is a direct offshoot of reticella embroidery. Reti means net and the Italian reticella consisted of a background of double drawn work and cutwork embroidered with motifs of squares, stars, crosses, arrows and wheels which filled the openings. This embroidery was also done white-on-white. The technique first sprang up in Rindalen in Nordmore, Norway in the 1790's but it was much more substantial looking than the traditional reticella.

The Industrial Revolution was a major influence on all textile production, needlework and other fiber arts, but in Norway the old traditions of self-sufficiency were practiced until the beginning of the twentieth century. As a happy result of this extended insularity from modern industry, Norwegian folk embroidery remains to the present day, true to its heritage and original form.

Around 1895 representatives from several of the larger thread companies visited Norway and were introduced to Hardanger embroidery. Since the names of the stitches, techniques and patterns were not under copyright, these concerns copied the local patterns and began to mass produce booklets on Hardanger embroidery designs. Hardanger was formally introduced to the world in 1900 at the Paris exposition where an apron with Hardanger embroidery by Brita Skalveit of Aga, in the Hardanger district, was displayed and won an award.

Pin cushion, cotton, early 20th century, 15 x 7". Made in Strom, Wisc. 

Part II of The History of Hardangersom on our May website

Examples of vintage Hardanger embroideries shown are from the private collections of Rosalyn Watnemo of Nordic Needle, Lillill Thuve of Thuve-Stua and from the extensive holdings of Vesterheim Norwegian-American Museum, which is tucked away in the small town of Decorah in northeast Iowa. Vesterheim is translated as "Western Home" in Norwegian. This institution is one of the outstanding ethnic museums of America, specializing in the preservation of Norwegian-American art, crafts, artifacts, tools and architecture, telling the story of Norwegian immigrants, encompassing their home and life in Norway, their journey to America and their adaptation to a new home in the Midwestern part of this country. In the U.S., the women from Norway created some of the loveliest Hardanger embroideries in the world. The textile area of the museum exhibits a bunad (festive folk costume) from several different parts of Norway, as well as examples of weaving, tatting, blackwork, crocheting, knitting, rosesaum (rosework), and hvitsom (whitework, of which Hardanger embroidery is a part). The bunads from different parts of Norway can vary greatly in style. The typical Hardanger, or west coast costume, consists of an apron (often with an embroidered panel), long sleeved blouse of white linen with embroidered collar and cuffs, long black wool skirt and a red woolen sleeveless bodice. The bunads of the Hardanger district are the only ones with this now famous, embroidery technique. The examples of Hardangersom at Vesterheim encompass a collection of works dating from the late 1700's to the present as well as several trousseaus, spanning from 1880 to the early 1920's.

For more information on Vesterheim Norwegian-American Museum located at 523 W. Water Street, P.O. Box 379, Decorah, Iowa, 52101-0379, please call them at (319) 382-9681 or visit their website at http://www.vesterheim.org

Information for this story was gathered from many sources, most notably The Hardangersom of Vesterheim Vol. II by Carolynn Craig Gustafson, which is available from Nordic Needle. Special thanks also to Vicki McEntaffer of Kunsten Needle Art, Roz Watnemo of Nordic Needle and Laurann Gilbertson, curator of textiles at Vesterheim Norwegian-American Museum, for generously sharing their time, knowledge and related materials concerning the history of Hardanger embroidery.

For more information on Rosalyn Watnemo and Nordic Needle see this month's Designer Spotlight and Shop Focus. Nordic Needle has some vintage Hardanger table and bed linens for sale, which can be viewed on their website at http://www.nordicneedle.com/antique.htm

For more information on Vicki McEntaffer, Kunsten Needle Art, Lillill Thuve or Thuve-Stua designs see this month's Innovation Gallery Feature.

For those interested in other Norwegian cultural events, please see the Sons of Norway website at http://www.sofn-district6.com

COPYRIGHT NOTICE: No part of this feature story nor the included designs can be reproduced or distributed in any form (including electronic) or used as a teaching tool without the prior written permission of the CARON Collection Ltd. or the featured designers.


© 1999 The Caron Collection / Voice: (203) 381-9999, Fax: 203 381-9003

CARON email: mail@caron-net.com / Webmaster monika@nika-net.com