by Rita Leydon ©1996
My childhood in Motala, Östergötland, Sweden was ordinary and uneventful by my own reckoning. My concerns revolved around school and friends on the block, as well as garnering the impressions of the world around me for future reference—but I wasn’t aware of this at the time. In retrospect, I now recognize many pivotal events and trends which helped guide and shape my adult interests and passions. One of these was my mother’s almost holy reverence for handcrafted objects—hemslöjd. She didn’t produce anything like this herself—she was too busy flying and setting Swedish women’s records in soaring—but she knew how to appreciate the beauty, craft, tradition and love that were manifested in these everyday objects, be they of wood, metal or fiber. I noted the care with which she handled the few precious items that she owned. I knew that we couldn’t pass through a town without Mother stopping at Hemslöjden. Motala was not far from Vadstena and one of Mother’s special appreciations was for the beautiful bobbin lace produced there by the St. Birgitta nuns. Some of this awe and fascination rubbed off on me.
I recall going on class trips to Vadstena. The medieval castle with its moat was all right, but what really fascinated me was the nuns at the St. Birgitta Convent—sitting in their garden, shaded by fruit trees, each one busy at her knyppeldyna (lace pillow). Laboring by the hour, nimble hands twining the flaxen threads and creating their lovely signature laces. These lovely and devoted women were attired in long grey habits, black veils with a banded skull cap which formed an X over the top of their heads with a red spot at each of the five intersections. Their heads looked like julklappar (christmas presents) with the ties secured in the old fashioned way with sealing wax.
Flash forward to the present. In recent years I have constructed for myself two Swedish costumes—Rackeby and Vadsbo—both have similar hats, called a bindmössa, under which one wears a lace trimmed linen cloth called a stycke. The lace trim for my first hat (Rackeby) is in fact from Vadstena; I exchanged a very healthy sum in order to acquire it, feeling slightly guilty about the purchase, but at the same time knowing that I did the right thing. I remember thinking that if I should ever need more lace for another hat I would have to make it make it myself. This I have now done. It took me only six months. I am well pleased with the results and want to share a bit about this project with the readers of Nordstjernan.
Knyppling (making bobbin lace) is a traditional textile craft which is part of our collective Swedish heritage. It is one of those crafts that many admire, but very few know how to execute. Therefore, those of us who have the knowledge become custodians of the artform and have a responsibility to share it with others whenever possible.
I first learned knyppling in Motala. The mother of my best friend Monica taught the two of us together one summer. We produced yards and yards of a simple 1/4" wide lace called “Udd och Stad” which required only six pairs of bobbins. My next encounter with lacemaking occurred when I was fifteen or sixteen, then living in New Jersey. Mormor and Morfar visited and brought with them a gift of a knyppeldyna and bobbins. I made a few laces, but didn’t get terribly involved because I had no pressing need for laces at that time. Now however, as a solidly middle-aged woman I had a real need and desire for fine lace for my Vadsbo costume’s bindmössa.
A bit of history
Bobbin lace is basically just a lot of linen threads held in place by glass-headed pins as the work progresses. The lacemaker handles two pairs (four threads) of bobbins at a time. It may look daunting, but in reality it is quite easy. The craft is traditionally taught by elders to youngsters and thus carried on.
The origins of bobbin lace is disputed, some say Italy, others say Flanders. Late 1400s. It spread quickly and soon every European country had fine lacemakers. By the end of the 16th century, the clothing of the fashionable elite was lavishly decorated and dripping with lace. It is said that many a nobleman would sell acres of land to buy lace to feed his peacock obsession. This frilly fashion accent was not lost on the courts, nobles and royalty of the northern countries—just slightly delayed—before long there was also demand for lace in Sweden.
Birgittinernunnorna of Vadstena Kloster were in a fine position to assist in this desire for worldly finery because they had affiliate cloisters in Florence and Genoa which may have supplied them with raw materials, ideas and fresh insights as to what designs were fashionable. The nuns obviously couldn’t keep up with demand and therefore, much of the lace consumed was imported.
In the mid 1700s it was officially decreed that women in Vadstena should learn lacemaking for the court and nobility’s benefit so that importation would not be necessary. Several experts were brought to Vadstena to teach the local women and at the same time a spinning facility which could produce fine linen threads was established. By 1757 it has been recorded that almost all girls and other womenfolk with good eyesight worked at lacemaking from morning until night.
During the 1800s lacemaking became an organized cottage industry with the middlemen supplying the raw materials for lace production in the homes around Vadstena, then buying the finished product. The lace was sold by “Västgötaknallar” and “Spetsgångare”—itinerant salesmen of dry goods. For the women, the economic realities were harsh. Lacemakers would typically earn between six and eight crowns per day and spinners between two and four crowns. In 1806 a lacemaking machine was invented and gradually the handworkers couldn’t compete with the machine made stuff. Still in 1870 there were 800 lacemakers in the Vadstena area. The inevitable loss of a market for handmade lace threatened the extinction of the skill of knyppling in Sweden.
In 1903 a school for lacemaking was established in Vadstena in order to preserve the skill and quality of this textile art form. Today Föreningen Svenska Spetsar oversees the craft, quality, traditions and patterns of bobbin lace in Sweden.
Back to the present
Just what had I embarked on with this lace project of mine? Well, it was just a matter of twining in systematic order eighty-eight linen threads over and around each other until the end was reached forty inches later. My hands danced in a choreography dictated by the stiff paper pattern pinned around the bolster situated in the center of my pillow. The lace pillow with its work in progress is beautiful to behold, all the taut white threads radiating out from the center with the smoothly turned wooden bobbins at the end providing tension and weight. There is an air of mystery and anticipation to the sight—I marvel at it myself. The pattern I selected is called “Krokväg” and I had in fact purchased it in Vadstena a year or so earlier along with a freshly published book on the craft to guide me. I was elated to get the project under way and it went reasonably smoothly—except for once when the dog knocked over the whole pillow and it took me the better part of a day to sort out all the threads. The project traveled with me occasionally so that I could demonstrate and share with others this wonderful textile art. Lace grows very slowly when it is four inches wide, I anticipated that it would take me all winter and spring if I spent a couple of hours a few evenings per week—and it did.
My hat with its new lace halo made its public debut at the Walter Erikson Musik Fest at Budd Lake in May. It was the crowning glory to a costume that had otherwise taken me a year to produce. The hat, the costume, my husband and I danced the day away. Perhaps you saw us.
Published in Nordstjernan, February 13, 1997