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The Patchwork Planet:
Quilting in Sweden

By Anita Fors
Goteborg, Sweden

Quilting in Sweden goes way back... So long that the oldest quilt saved for us to see today is dated back in the early 16th century. It's made out of wool cloth that after it's woven also is felted, the usual material in early Swedish quilts. This quilt also includes strips of gold-covered leather and is beautifully appliqued with animals. This one, and another like it that also has survived, were made for churches. There are also early notices of a quilt made of silk for one of our Queens.

Quilts in Sweden are believed to have originated as art objects for rich churches and upper class people, who always had embellished their homes with costly tapestries. Back in those early days fabric was too much a luxury for ordinary people even to have scraps of. . . it was homewoven and cut for clothes in a way that consumed every bit. These were worn until they fell apart.

During the 18th century patchwork quilts spread wider over the country, writes Asa Wettre - the leading lady of Swedish Quilt History - in her book "Old Swedish Quilts." The first entry of the Swedish word for quilt - lapptacke - is found in the year 1755.

This period has left a special heritage of "wedding cushions" - sewn as patchwork blocks of the same woven, felted wool. The special technique includes a kind of braid (or edging) in ALL seams.

Susan Rikert, who in 1986 did research on Swedish quilts in Swedish museums, says there was a radical change in how quilts were made around the year 1830. Before that quilts were often made by (or by maidens for) upper class people. They were sewn of silk with a cotton backing, materials that were very expensive. The blocks were often embroidered, mostly with monograms.

Quilts became common in mid-19th century

Both Asa and Susan agree that around 1830 common people started to make patchwork quilts for use on beds - copying the upper class methods, but out of need rather than pleasure.

When ordinary people started to make quilts they used scraps of wool or linen. Imported cottons were way too expensive to be in their hands for many years yet to come. The batting was - in the best case - made of pure wool. Poor people had to make the batting out of what was left when linen was produced, rags or even paper, sometimes mixed with hair from elks, reindeers and other animals.

Brides' quilts

The "out of need" making of quilts has one exception: Brides' quilts, or wedding quilts, were one of the most valued presents for the newly-wedded couple in many parts of Sweden. In some places a scarf given to the woman by her husband-to-be was used as a center medallion.

In 1870 traditional quilts became common in middle-class families. Until then quilts were made all by hand - now came the use of the new sewing machines. By this time, says Susan Rikert, people used patchwork techniques in the making of all kinds of home decorating items -- pillows, curtains, tablecloths, rugs and so on.

1900 arrived with lower prices on imported cotton but also financial problems associated with World War I. Then, when finances got better, people didn't want patchwork quilts any more if they could afford industrially-made products. During the 1930s quilts were out of fashion. They became a sign of a poor family.

Male quilters

Although quilt-making mostly was (and still is) regarded a female occupation, there are known to have been male quiltmakers too. The men were mostly soldiers and seamen. Soldiers made quilts of fabric from old uniforms. Seamen had to bring their own bed supplies (even the mattresses) on board the ships and could be seen sitting on deck in good weather sewing their own quilts.

Seamen are, by the way, known for the making of other traditionally female handicrafts as well; knitting, embroidery and hooked rugs for example.

American influence

All this year, 1996, we celebrate the 150 anniversary of the migration years here in Sweden. Back in 1846 the emigration from Sweden to North America started. All in all one million people left Sweden to start a new life "over there" - a number equal to about 20% of the Swedish population of 1900.

A lot of them came home again, for different reasons. (I've seen an unofficial figure of 25 percent). Doing so several of the homecomers brought back American quilting ideas. This caused of course an American influence on Swedish quiltmaking.

In 1888 a magazine was started with Swedish-American women as the target audience. Printed in Swedish, it also offered American quilt patterns. This caused a discussion about the risks of American influence on Swedish quilt traditions. Some of the quilts that have survived prove this influence. Then it all faded away.

In recent years an American influence has come back into Swedish quilting. Rotary cutters and quick-piecing methods are things we've picked up. As Swedish is a small language and therefore doesn't provide us with that much literature about quilting, a lot of us read English and American quilt books and quilting magazines now. The only quilt shop in Goteborg is clearly influenced - it's called Patch (in English!) and only sells American cotton.

Revival of the quilts

I think the revival of quilting in Sweden started in the late 1960s and early 1970s, when people here began to react against what we refer to as the "use and throw away" mentality.

I myself started to make my first quilt around 1973 - it's still a UFO. Then I made baby quilts for my children, born 1978 and 1979. Around this time it happened that classes were held to teach elementary quilting. And polyester batting had come to make it easier. At this time no one really regarded applique as something that had something to do with quilts - it was an art form of its own and almost never quilted.

Asa Wettre - who is a textile artist in Goteborg, on the Swedish west coast - was one of those early teachers. For twelve years she held classes. Then she decided to found the first Quilt Guild in Goteborg - "Lapphexorna" - in 1987. At first the members only came from classes Asa had held. Later it opened up to all of us others who share the passion for quilts.

That Asa was early doing this is proven by the fact that the Swedish National Quilt Guild - "Rikstacket" - wasn't founded until the next year. Asa also did the huge work of putting together a private collection of old Swedish quilts, that since 1989 has been traveling around the country and even made it to Paris, France, and I think Japan. Not only has she collected the quilts, she has also traced the maker and the history of almost every quilt. This work later resulted in her book.

Swedish Quilt Guilds

"Rikstacket" now has 2,100 members all over the country and around 25 affiliated quilt guilds, although "Lapphexorna" isn't one of them. "Rikstacket" publishes a magazine for its members which comes out four times a year. The national quilt guild is also a member of EQA, the European Quilter's Association. Together the EQA-affiliated national guilds have more than 42,000 members.

The first Scandinavian Quilt Expo was held in Norway in 1994. The next one is planned for May 1997, and will be held in Sweden. These are organized by the national guild. They also arrange a yearly two-day symposium along with their annual meeting.

The guild I belong to, "Lapphexorna", is just a local guild and has around 150 members. Some of them are also members of the national guild. We meet at least once every month. In the guild there are three smaller groups meeting and sewing every week, all of them under the same roof - that gives a great creative climate, I can assure you.

"The guild means so much to me. You get to see new patterns and you share the creative stages of the quilts others do. Everyone is so generous. The only problem is that when you get home, your head is just filled up with ideas, that you know you'll never have time to do," says one of the guild members, Eva Samuelsson.

"I don't know what it is that makes it that fun, but it is! There is so many different kinds of people in the guild. And all are so friendly. I want to start a new quilt every time I've been at a meeting. I used to sew clothes before I joined the guild. Nowadays all my free time goes to quilting," says Maud Helegard.

In the guild we do all kinds of quilts. Some are more into traditional, others contemporary quilts. Choice of material differs as well, although most of us use 100 percent cotton today.

"I love to buy fabric. I can't resist a nice fabric when I see it in a shop. I collect it. Buy a little bit of everything I like. That makes a wonderful stash to chose from when I start a new quilt. I don't know what I would have done with all the fabric if I didn't make quilts," says Ragnvi Ratia who certainly would have described herself as a "fabricholic" if we have had such an expression in Swedish . . . .

Recycling popular

Others, like Gerd Bengtsson, are more into recycling:

"I think the idea of using fabric once again is great. I hardly ever use a new fabric in a quilt. I like the old Swedish quilting tradition, patchwork and scrap quilts. I think recycling is the whole idea of quilting. And I love to see the results, when something old and maybe disliked gets a new life in a quilt."

I myself, along with several others in the guild, are torn between both ideas. But we all like to go fabric shopping. The best thing to do is to go on a "bitch race". 70-80 kilometers out of Goteborg is the old Swedish fabric district where the manufacturers are. A "bitch race" is when a bunch of women go together around all the manufacturers sales-shops looking for the best findings. A sight for Gods . . . .

Fabric costs are usually much higher here than in the U.S. Imported American cotton, like Hoffmans and others, costs about 15 US dollars per meter. Normally-priced Swedish cotton starts from about 9-10 US dollars per meter and if it's designer-made prices can easily go up to 30 dollars and more.

Quilting and computers

Quilting and computing isn't a big issue in Sweden. One could almost say it isn't an issue at all . . . . So far I've met only one other quilter on the net - Louise Gripenhov, known to those of you who are on Quiltnet. From time to time we've discussed quilting and things we've seen on the Internet about quilting through e-mail. We have never seen each other in real life as it is 400 kilometers between the cities where we live. We've both got a standing invitation for visiting. Louise is a member of a small quilt guild in Lund in the most southern part of Sweden.

Quilting software isn't available and I don't know anyone that has used it, although one of the members of "Lapphexorna" now are talking about ordering a program from the USA.

Since the middle of April this year "Lapphexorna", as the first Swedish quilting guild, has a website (http://www.mc.hik.se/Ūmip96anf/lapphexor/). So far all the information is in Swedish and we've just started to build the place. When time comes, we'll put all the information in English as well. "Rikstacket" is talking about making a website as well.

But since the Internet-boom started in Sweden during 1995 - I think we will soon see the effects of this even amongst quilters.

If you're interested of knowing more about old Swedish quilts I highly recommend Asa Wettres' book: Old Swedish Quilts. I know that it's been available in English since January of this year, from an American publisher. (I've seen it in the lists of Amazon.com on the Internet.) She has worked together with a photographer, Lena Nessle, who has made excellent pictures of the quilts. And actually - it's cheaper in English in the U.S. than in Swedish here in Sweden.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Anita Fors is a journalist living in Goteborg, Sweden, where she writes for a trade union magazine with 200,000 readers. She resumed quilting four years ago after a 20-year break, and is taking internet courses at the University. She has also done other textile crafts, including knitting, felt-making, and vegetable dying. She is an active member of Interquilt and Quiltnet. Her two children are Jonatan (18) and Sara (16). Their cat is named Zarniwoop.

(c)Copyright 1996 by Anita Fors. All rights reserved.



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