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Take it from the Linen Ladies ­
You don't have to be Norwegian to love Hardanger!

by Rita Vainius

Linen Ladies is a shop in Sidney, MT, but it also personifies its two owners, sisters Mary Lu Etzel and Barb Hagler. Both were raised on a working cattle and wheat farm in rural Montana. While growing up, they learned sewing, embroidery, crocheting and knitting from their mother, Lucille, and their grandmother. They do happen to be of Norwegian descent on their father, Andy Lee's, side of the family and have been fascinated with their Scandinavian heritage since childhood. In 1986, this interest was piqued when Andy took both his daughters on a trip to Norway, an experience that was to alter both their lives forever. There, amidst the splendor of the mountains and fjords, Mary Lu and Barb fell in love with the country, its people and with one of its most prized indigenous needlearts, Hardanger embroidery.

Immediately, the sisters undertook to learn this distinctive and exquisite needleart themselves. They bought Hardanger fabric and supplies and once home, sought out a native Norwegian needleworker to teach them the special cut and drawn thread techniques, which distinguish it from other types of embroidery. It would not be long before Hardanger became their mutual overriding passion.

When Mary Lu and Barb began stitching Hardanger in earnest, almost 15 years ago, patterns were scarce and hard to come by in Montana. As they themselves became more proficient in the technique and after many repeated requests from fellow stitchers, they began to give classes and offer some supplies to the growing number of Hardanger enthusiasts they encountered. Word spread and from this modest start, just by following their own bliss, their favorite pastime grew into a viable business enterprise.

Their shop, Linen Ladies, made its official debut in November 1992 in Savage, MT and has prospered ever since. Only four years after its establishment, the shop expanded by moving into a lovingly restored home in order to meet the increasing interest in and demand for its products and services. As Savage is a small burg, the sisters decided it prudent to relocate to Sidney, a larger town, as it would provide more traffic and exposure for the store. But they wound up not only moving the business; Mary Lu and Barb actually relocated the building, which would house it! Built in Savage, MT circa 1910, this vintage home was moved lock stock and barrel to Sidney, about 20 miles away, and placed over a new foundation. It was then reconstructed piece-by-piece, including all its original floors and period woodwork including all the moldings, trim and frames, which were all separately labeled and re-installed authentically. The front room was renovated as a Scandinavian room to house all their imported gift items. The outside landscaping was accomplished by a group of Sidney High School Agricultural students enrolled in a special program, which stresses actual supervised work experience. The horticulture students laid the sod and landscape workers from grades 8 to 12 worked after school and weekends to complete the job.


Linen Ladies is an especially welcoming venue because it retains it all its home-like attributes. Both sisters agree, "We love it so much, we could live here!" Before visitors even enter the front door, they are tempted to kick up their heels on the charming porch to just relax and enjoy the view. Once inside, one is transported to a stitcher's and handcrafter's paradise. Along with their extensive needlework inventory, the large premises accommodate an extensive gifts and collectibles selection. On display is a handpicked selection of items imported from Scandinavia, which include china, jewelry, napkins and other table and bed linens and figurines - especially the trolls that Scandinavians are so fond of! Even for non-stitchers, it's a favorite spot to browse because of the exceptionally beautiful product mix set in such historically authentic surroundings. Available are handmade craft items of all kinds such as baskets, wreaths, silk floral arrangements, stuffed animals, afghans, rugs, purses, jewelry, pottery, candles, household linens and many other home décor products.


Stitching supplies are so numerous there is enough on hand to keep even the most avid needleworker busy through the most severe winter Montana can dish out! In addition to fabrics and threads for Hardanger, Linen Ladies stocks all the materials needed for doing counted cross-stitch and silk ribbon embroidery, along with patterns and books for each technique. And, speaking of books, Mary Lu's and Barb's Hardanger enthusiasm has extended to authoring two books themselves - Linen Ladies Beginning Hardanger - Our Way! and The Linen Ladies On Linen. They are currently at work on yet a third to be called Cable Mania, which will feature Hardanger patterns using cable stitch. The Linen Ladies also design original Hardanger patterns, which they sell in the shop and wholesale to other retailers. They have done commission work to order for their clientele and carry finished Hardanger projects including bellpulls, doilies, placemats, napkins, boxes with stitched inserts, baskets, centerpieces and tablecloths.

Mary Lu and Barb are assisted by a staff of four other Linen Ladies - all dyed in the wool Hardanger devotees: Signe Verhasselt, Cindy Mead, Kay Harmsen and Shelly Averett. Each is a vital part asset to the business and each has also been an original design contributor to their second book. According to the owners, "With a little arm-twisting, they each designed a piece in this book. Some actually found they liked it!"


Hardanger classes for beginner, intermediate and advanced stitchers are scheduled throughout the year. Also offered are silk embroidery classes and a "Basket a Month" class for constructing a variety of reed baskets. The sisters estimate that since they started down this path, they have introduced and taught Hardanger to over 400 people, but it could be much more as they lost count after 350. Mary and Barb insist that it is the students who actually keep them inspired. They are quick to give them credit, "Your encouragement to us and enthusiasm for learning the art of Hardanger embroidery keeps us motivated."

One celebration, which is unique to Linen Ladies, at least on this side of the Atlantic, is the Syttende Mai Holiday. Syyttende Mai refers to the 17th of May and commemorates Norwegian Independence Day. Annually this holiday marks the start of an open house at the shop and an accompanying spectacular sale event. Be sure to mark this date on your calendar, even if you are not Norwegian. You just might wish you were! The Linen Ladies urge you to visit their domain and have two simple words of advice for fellow needleworkers, "Keep stitching!"

Linen Ladies
323 Second Ave. S.E.
Sidney, MT 59270
Phone: (406) 482- 6414 or (800) 482- 6414
Fax: (406) 482- 6414
Shop Hours: Monday to Saturday ­ 9:30 am to 5:00 pm

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