Archive for the ‘Vesterheim Norwegian-American Museum’ Category

A Most Mischievous Christmas

December 24, 2013

In honor of Christmas eve, let’s set aside the ancient, spooky traditions featured in Heritage of Darkness, and celebrate one of Norway’s more recent (and fun) bits of folklore:  the nisse.

nisse heritage of darkness

Nisser are household or farm spirits. Belief in these mythological creatures, which resemble garden gnomes, became common in Scandinavia in the late eighteenth century.

nisse might help with  chores, especially those involving animals. A happy nisse could help ensure a farm’s prosperity. The nisse on the old Christmas postcard below is hauling wood for the family. (Artist unknown/author’s collection.)

nisse

That being the case, farm families were careful to acknowledge their nisse with a bowl of porridge with butter on Christmas eve. If they forgot, trouble was sure to follow! One common story tells of a young girl who ate the porridge herself. The nisse was so angry he forced her to dance until she almost died.

Farmers who swore or treated their animals poorly would also be punished. In this painting by Gudmund Stenersen, an angry nisse is stealing hay. (Wikipedia)

220px-Tomtestealinghay
Nisser were also mischievious.  A bored nisse might amuse himself by tying the tails of two cows together. This nisse, on exhibit at Vesterheim Norwegian-American Museum, is trying to startle visitors with his dangling spider.
vesterheim nisse
In Heritage of Darkness, one of the projects in Chloe’s rosemaling class is a bowl decorated with nisser—a project inspired by this bowl from Vesterheim’s collection.
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Nisser remain part of Christmas celebrations in many Scandinavian households and communities.
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Who knows—if you set out a bowl of porridge tonight, you just might ensure good luck in the coming year!
I wish you all a most peaceful and lovely holiday season.

Happy Solstice!

December 21, 2013

It’s the shortest day of the year! In southern Wisconsin, the day was gray and frosty.

Frost

Hoarfrost on spent coneflowers in our yard.

Centuries ago, our ancestors built bonfires on the darkest day of winter. Many Europeans feared the evil spirits that roamed winter skies.

The Wild Hunt

Åsgårdsreien, by Peter Nicolai Arbo, 1872.  Many cultures have folktales about “The Wild Hunt.”

I thought a lot about that ancient belief and similar folktales while writing Heritage of Darkness. In isolated rural areas, peasants may have carried a goat head to ward away evil. Servants and employers spread straw on the floor and huddled together for protection.

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Photograph of a former exhibit courtesy of Vesterheim Norwegian-American Museum.

Such  traditions made great fodder for a mystery novel!  But in real life, the winter solstice is one of my favorite days. I love to think about the earth’s cycles. I love to pause and remember that we all have the power to bring a bit of light to the world.

This chip carved candle plate was made by my friend Ellen.

This chip carved candle plate was made by my friend Ellen.

Without these coldest and darkest days, the holiday candles’ glow wouldn’t be so welcome, so cozy, so full of warm and promise.

May your days—and nights—be merry and bright this season!

Solstice observance at the First Unitarian Society, Madison, WI.

Solstice candles at the First Unitarian Society, Madison, WI.

Lefse

October 28, 2013

Since a lefse pin spattered with blood is on the cover of my latest Chloe Ellefson mystery, Heritage of Darkness, it’s not much of a spoiler to say that the murder weapon is. . . you guessed it, a lefse pin.

Heritage of Darkness 1

Which has led some readers to ask, What the heck is lefse, anyway?

Lefse is a round flatbread usually made with mashed potatoes (which used up old potatoes, and kept the bread soft) and baked on stovetop or griddle. It was a staple in the diet rural Norwegians and Norwegian-Americans in the 19th century.

LEFSE

This old stereocard image shows a Norwegian woman making lefse on an outdoor griddle. A lefse stick is used to turn the paper-thin round of dough.

I was introduced to lefse when I worked at Old World Wisconsin. Lefse was frequently made at the Fossebrekke cabin, home to young Norwegian immigrants.

KAE at Fossebrekke Web

That’s me at the 1845 Fossebrekke cabin in 1982.

potato masher

Hand-cranked potato masher, Fossebrekke cabin, Old World Wisconsin.

The heavy wooden pins used to roll the dough were deeply scored or grooved, which helped reduce air bubbles, pulverize any bits of unmashed potato, and keep the rounds of lefse quite thin and pliable.

lefse pins - Version 2

Two pins on exhibit at Vesterheim Norwegian-American Museum.

lefse pin

This pin’s groove’s are nearly worn away. (Vesterheim Norwegian-American Museum Exhibit)

In Norwegian-American communities it can still be found in local stores. . .

Schuberts Mount Horeb lefse

Schubert’s Diner and Bakery in Mount Horeb, WI.

. . .often folded into quarters and offered fresh or frozen.

lefse sale

Oneota Co-Op, Decorah, Iowa.

Although fewer and fewer people make lefse at home, it still holds a special place in good Norwegian-American hearts. Many people have memories of mom or grandma boiling Russet potatoes and making lefse on special occasions.

Last year my friend Martha invited me to the local Sons of Norway – Valdres Lodge Norwegian Constitution Day Dinner on May 15, held at the Washington Prairie Lutheran Church outside of town.  (Learn more here.)

On the way, she told me that when the church needed a new roof, several elderly members of the congregation made hundreds of lefse. They announced sales, to be held at a bank in town. Sales were brisk, and the money raised helped buy the new roof.

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A few weeks later at Nordic Fest, a celebration of Scandinavian heritage and pride held in Decorah each summer, another small army of  lefse bakers reported for duty.

lefse Nordic Fest - Version 2

Warm rounds of lefse are delivered from the griddle to eager buyers, who add whatever toppings they prefer.

lefse Nordic Fest

I’ve read that 10,000 lefse are served at Nordic Fest each year.

lefse Nordic Fest

Me, I love lefse spread with butter and brown sugar, then rolled up tight. Maybe a touch of cinnamon. Or lingonberry jam.

Decades ago, I bought a lefse pin at an antique store.  I don’t know how old it is, or who used it, but I liked to wonder. Who once used it to roll out a bit of home or heritage on a flour-dusted table?

lefse pin

My lefse pin is much larger than my regular rolling pin.  Heavier, too.

And one year, while working at Old World Wisconsin, the Norwegian-area interpreters gave me this lovely rosemaled lefse pin at the end of the season. While I treasure the stick, I must admit that I’ve never made lefse at home. After learning how on an antique stove in an 1845 cabin, it just wouldn’t feel the same.

lefse pin

This stick has had a place of honor in my kitchen for 25 years.

At the launch party for Heritage of Darkness held at Mystery To Me (in Madison, WI) I witnessed lefse’s popularity all over again.  My talented baker friend Alisha brought a gorgeous cake.  She also brought a plate of lefse made by Lutheran church ladies, and rolled up with butter and cinnamon and sugar—the combination she’d learned from her Norwegian grandmother.

People who’d never tried lefse were eager for a sample. People who had their own fond memories of lefse munched happily, reminiscing.

Alisha with lefse

This plate of lefse disappeared fast. Really fast.

I think the generations of long-gone lefse makers would be pleased.

Why Vesterheim?

September 13, 2013

“Why is the new Chloe book set in Iowa?” The question came in an email. “Why is Chloe crossing the border? Why not explore other sites in Wisconsin?”

Heritage of Darkness 1

I have no intention of having Chloe leave her job at Old World Wisconsin. Roelke McKenna, suitor and local cop, will remain in the area as well.

But I do plan to get Chloe out and about from time to time. She can travel to other sites for professional and personal reasons, finding mystery and mayhem and historical echoes wherever she goes. Variety will help keep the series fresh. It also gives me the chance to showcase other sites that I find particularly appealing.

That happens in Chloe #4, Heritage of Darkness. Chloe, Mom, and Roelke head to Vesterheim Norwegian-American Museum in Decorah, Iowa, for a week’s vacation. So. . .  why Vesterheim?

Vesterheim wikipedia

It’s a stellar museum. Vesterheim is the most comprehensive museum in the United States dedicated to a single immigrant group. The collection is phenomenal.

Vesterheim trunk

Local historians began collecting artifacts over a century ago. The Norwegian government—believing Norwegian-Americans should be able to learn about their heritage—also contributed original pieces to the museum.

Vesterheim

It is not, however, a museum only of interest to those with Scandinavian heritage.  Vesterheim’s mission is to “explore the diversity of American immigration through the lens of Norwegian-American experience.” I can attest to that. I have no Norwegian heritage, but I find that each visit helps me reflect upon what my own Swiss, Dutch, and Irish ancestors experienced.

Vesterheim knitting

The Open Air Division of the museum contains twelve buildings, ranging from the tiny homes of new arrivals to a huge commercial mill. I only recently learned that Vesterheim’s collection has special significance. Sten Rentzhog, in his book Open Air Museums: The History and Future of a Visionary Idea (2007), notes that “The oldest American outdoor museum appears to be Vesterheim. . . “

Vesterheim Valdres snow

I had visited Vesterheim several times since moving to the Midwest in 1982, but returned with special purpose in 2005 while doing research for Old World Murder, the first Chloe mystery. That mystery centers on a missing antique ale bowl, and I made arrangements to visit collections storage so I could study Vesterheim’s bowls.

Vesterheim ale bowls

I thought I’d visit, say thanks, and that would be that. Instead, I’ve gotten more involved. My husband and I have returned to enjoy a variety of special events.

Vesterheim syttende mai

Vesterheim Christmas

Another part of Vesterheim’s mission is to “showcase the best in historic and contemporary Norwegian folk and fine arts, and preserve living traditions through classes in Norwegian culture and folk art, including rosemaling (decorative painting), woodcarving and woodworking, knifemaking, and textile arts.”

Vesterheim rosemaling

I’m a heritage arts junkie, and have enjoyed classes in painting, fiber arts, and foodways. Vesterheim’s combination of top-notch instructors and behind-the-scenes access to artifacts for study is unparalleled.

Kate demonstrating the basic stitch.

Vesterheim Laurann

When I took my first rosemaling class, the Education Specialist spoke of “the Vesterheim Family.” It does exist. There’s a special sense of sharing and camaraderie that helps explain why so many people return to Vesterheim again and again.

Writing a Chloe mystery involves several years of thinking, researching, and writing. I can only pick locations that I love—and that I believe readers will love too.

KAE ale bowl Vesterheim

Heritage of Darkness Launch Events!

September 8, 2013

Heritage of Darkness, the 4th Chloe Ellefson Historic Sites Mystery, will soon be published!  And I have some great launch events—including two special Chloe’s World Tours at Vesterheim Norwegian-American Museum—planned for my wonderful readers.

For curator Chloe Ellefson, a family bonding trip to Decorah, Iowa for rosemaling classes seems like a great idea—until the drive begins. Chloe’s cop friend Roelke takes her mother’s talk of romantic customs good-naturedly, but it inflates Chloe’s emotional distress higher with each passing mile. After finally reaching Vesterheim Norwegian-American Museum, Chloe’s resolve to remain positive is squashed when she and Roelke find Petra Lekstrom’s body in one of the antique immigrant trunks. Everyone is shaken by the instructor’s murder, and when Mom volunteers to take over the beginners’ class, Chloe is put in the hot seat of motherly criticism. As she investigates, Chloe uncovers dark family secrets that could be deadly for Mom . . . and even herself.

Heritage of Darkness 1

Here’s the calendar:

1.  Book Signing, Saturday, October 12, Noon – 5 PM;  Old World Wisconsin,  Eagle, WI.

The award-winning Chloe Ellefson Historic Sites mysteries feature protagonists who work at Old World Wisconsin and in the nearby Village of Eagle. I will be greeting visitors and signing books from Noon to 5 PM in the museum store, which will have copies of my mysteries for sale. Get an autographed copy of Heritage of Darkness, and then explore the locations at Old World where key scenes in the series take place. Free “Locations Guides” can be downloaded from the Old World Murder and The Heirloom Murders pages on my website. Note: while tickets are not needed to visit the store, there is a fee to explore the museum’s extensive grounds and buildings.

Old World Wisconsin - (262) 594-6301 W372 S9727 Hwy 67, just south of Eagle, WI.

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2.  Book Signing, Sunday, October 13, 10 AM – Noon;  Islandtime Books,  Washington Island, WI; 10 AM. 

I’ll be greeting guests and signing copies of Heritage of Darkness at this wonderful independent bookstore.  You can also get The Light Keeper’s Legacy, which is set on Rock and Washington Islands, and the first two books in the series.

Islandtime Books – (920) 847-2565 – 1885 Detroit Harbor Rd., Washington Island, WI.

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3.  Launch Party, Tuesday, October 22, 6 – 7:30 PM;   Mystery To Me Bookstore,  Madison, WI. 

I’ll be introducing the latest Chloe adventure and signing books from 6 to 7:30 PM in Madison’s newest mystery bookstore, which will have copies of all the Chloe Ellefson Historic Sites mysteries for sale. There will be mementos for all guests, great door prizes, and another fabulous cake by Alisha Rapp.

Mystery To Me Bookstore – (608) 283-9332 1863 Monroe Street, Madison, WI.

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4. Book Signing,  Thursday, October 31, 5 – 7 PM; Vesterheim Museum,  Decorah, IA.

Heritage of Darkness is set in Decorah at Vesterheim Norwegian-American Museum. I’ll be signing books from 5:00 to 7:00 PM, Thursday (Halloween Night) in the museum’s Bruening Visitor Center at the corner of West Water and Mechanic Streets.

Vesterheim Norwegian-American Museum - (563) 382-9681 – 502 West Water St., Decorah, IA.

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5.  Ticketed Chloe’s World Tour, Wednesday, December 4, 5:30 – 8:30 PM; Vesterheim Norwegian-American Museum, Decorah, Iowa.

This tour, which is limited to 25 participants, includes:

    • An after-hours Chloe’s World tour.  The tour will take readers through the museum, highlighting the locations featured in Heritage of Darkness.  Stops will include the Norwegian House, the rosemaling and woodworking exhibit galleries, the vault, and the Valdres House in the Open-Air Division.  The tour also includes a stop at one of the museum’s collections storage facilities for a peek at some hidden treasures.
    • A visit to the rosemaling classroom featured in the book, where participants will enjoy dinner with the author.  The meal will include the soup featured in Heritage of Darkness, salad, and drinks.
    • A sampling of Norwegian Christmas cookies and a book discussion in Vesterheim’s new Visitor’s Center.
    • Favors for all participants, plus special door prizes.

Tickets for this event cost $25.  Reservations are required and can be made by calling 563-382-9681 and asking for Jocelyn.

The tour will begin in the lobby of Vesterheim Norwegian-American Museum, 502 W. Water Street, Decorah, Iowa. Please gather at 5:20 PM. Since the tour and discussion will include major plot points, guests are encouraged to read Heritage of Darkness in advance. Museum members and those registered for the ticketed tour who order the book through Vesterheim’s Museum Store will receive a 10% discount.

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6. Free Chloe’s World Tour, Thursday, December 5, 10 AM – Noon; Vesterheim Norwegian-American Museum.

The tour will take readers through the museum, highlighting the locations featured in Heritage of Darkness.  Stops will include the Norwegian House, the rosemaling and woodworking exhibit galleries, the vault, and the Valdres House in the Open-Air Division.  The tour also includes a stop at one of the museum’s collections storage facilities for a peek at some hidden treasures.

The tour will begin in the lobby of Vesterheim Norwegian-American Museum, 502 W. Water Street, Decorah, Iowa.  Please gather at 9:50 AM. Since the tour will include discussion of major plot points, guests are encouraged to read Heritage of Darkness in advance.

Heritage of Darkness teaser 1

7.  Blog Tour
I’ll be visiting several blogs in coming weeks—and doing a Giveaway at each stop! Visit and leave a comment, and you’ll be eligible to win your choice of the Chloe Ellefson Historic Sites Mysteries.
Monday, September 16: http://sheilaboneham.blogspot.com/index.html
Wednesday, October 9:  http://bethgroundwater.blogspot.com/
Wednesday, October 23:  http://www.escapewithdollycas.com/
Saturday, November 23:  http://www.killercharacters.com/
More tour stops will be added, and posted on my Facebook Author Page.

Heritage of Darkness Teaser 2

There is nothing better than connecting with readers! I hope to see you, or hear from you, during one of these events.

Holiday Food Traditions Class – You’re Invited!

September 8, 2013

I am very excited about a weekend workshop I’m teaching this fall, Holiday Food Traditions:  Remembering, Writing, Tasting, Sharing. The class is scheduled Nov. 1-3, 2013  (Fri. from 6:00-8:30, Sat. and Sun. from 9:00-5:00) in Decorah, in northeast Iowa.

Precious family stories are often shared around the table, and many involve favorite recipes. This holiday season, treat yourself to a special weekend designed to help you recall, record, and celebrate food traditions from your family or community. Tattered recipe cards can lead to reminiscences, poetry, scrapbook pages, family cookbooks…the possibilities are endless, and the results make perfect gifts.

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I’m teaching this class at Vesterheim Norwegian-American Museum, but you do not need to be of Norwegian descent to participate!  This will be an easy-going weekend intended to help capture and share some food memories in whatever form works best for you.

The workshop includes fun, reflective, and imaginative writing activities. You’ll also enjoy baking demonstrations of favorite traditional Scandinavian Christmas goodies, as well as advice about preserving and protecting kitchen heirlooms. You’ll leave with some holiday treats, a finished scrapbook page, and lots of creative ideas for turning recipes and memories into cherished family gifts.

cookies

I’m team-teaching the workshop with Darlene Fossum-Martin. Darlene’s cooking style is shaped by the Norwegian cuisine of her ancestors. Although she holds a degree in home economics and education, her strengths in cooking come from the women in her family. Darlene has taught traditional Scandinavian food classes for adults and children of all ages throughout the Midwest and at John C. Campbell Folk School in North Carolina.

Darlene and Kathleen

You may know me, but if not - I‘m the author of twenty-five books, including the Chloe Ellefson Historic Sites mystery series for adults and historical novels for young readers. I’ve taught writing at the University of Wisconsin-Extension, Mount Mary College, and many conferences and workshops. I’ve also spent thirty years exploring and writing about food heritage and traditions.  During my decade as a curator at Old World Wisconsin, an outdoor ethnic museum, I coordinated the historic foodways program for different ethnic groups represented in fourteen period kitchens. I trained museum staff in foodways traditions and techniques, and often wrote about food history for professional publications.

Can you join us in Decorah?  Here’s everything you need to know:

Level of instruction: All levels. Youth ages 14-17 signed up with a participating adult receive a 25% discount.

Dates: The class is scheduled Nov. 1-3, 2013  (Fri. from 6:00-8:30, Sat. and Sun. from 9:00-5:00) at Vesterheim Norwegian-American Museum in Decorah, in northeast Iowa.

Cost:  $148 Vesterheim members / $198 non-members.  There will be an ingredients fee.

Registration:  You’ll find registration information and forms on Vesterheim’s website.

If you have questions, please call Darlene, Vesterheim’s Education Specialist, at 563-382-9681, Ext. 215.

 vesterheim cookies

 

 

Nålbinding, Part 2 – Getting Started

March 9, 2013

As I mentioned in a recent post, when I learned that Kate Martinson taught workshops in nålbinding at Vesterheim Norwegian-American Museum in Decorah, Iowa, I signed right up.

When the class began, I quickly learned that the trickiest part is getting started. Projects begin with a chain of stitches, and creating those first few stitches took some practice. Kate prepared a little started piece for each student so we could learn the basic stitch before having to start from scratch.

Kate demonstrating the basic stitch.

Kate demonstrating the basic stitch.

Here’s my first attempt at a chain. After a couple of mistakes (toward the right) I started getting the hang of it.

Kate brought a variety of nålbinding needles to class so we could experiment. She encouraged us to find just the right one, based on how it felt in our hands.

Examples of Nålbinding needles.  Kate urged us to try different kinds, and choose one that felt good in our hand.

Examples of Nålbinding needles.

Everyone made a small pouch for their first project. These let us try increasing and decreasing, and changing colors.

Nalbinding

Nalbinding

Once a project is completed, the next step is fulling. (Felting refers to manipulating raw fibers; fulling refers to manipulating fibers that have been spun, knit, crocheted, woven, etc.) The creator can decide whether to full their piece, and how much to full it.

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Here Kate is using a fulling board–similar to an old-fashioned scrub board–to help individual wool fibers catch with their neighbors.

Agitating

My pouch is in the bototm of this tub.  A simple potato masher helps with the agitation.

The next three photos show the procession. First, the completed pouch before any fulling.

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The individual stitches and overall stitch pattern are clearly visible.

Next, the piece in the middle of the fulling process.

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The wet fibers are easy to stretch at this point.

The wet piece is blocked and left to dry.

The pouch after it dried, with button ready to be sewn into place. I could have chosen to start the fulling process all over again, but I wanted to leave some of the stitching pattern visible.

After we made our pouches, each student began planning a project of his or her choice. Kate made sure we had a good grounding in all the fundamentals, such as yarn selection. (And we took a field trip to the wonderful yarn store, Blue Heron Knittery, down the street. )

Kate discussing types of fibers that do--and don't--work well for Nålbinding .

Kate discussing types of fibers that do—and don’t—work well for nålbinding .

She also brought lots of her own projects for inspiration.

Scarves, mittens, hats…

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mitts…

and bags.

The class was informative; it was also great fun. Kate reminded anyone who got frustrated about making a mistake (that would be me) that historically, women were working toward practicality and functionality, not perfection. And she would know—she’s studied nålbinding for years, and has even taught classes in Scandinavia.

In addition, it’s special to take a class at a world-class museum where original artifacts also provide inspiration.

Kate is offering her nålbinding workshop again this summer. I highly recommend it! For more information, visit the Vesterheim website.

Nålbinding, Part 1 – An Ancient Technique

March 2, 2013

I’m a fiber arts junkie—especially when it comes to old forms of needlework. So when I saw a woman demonstrating a technique I didn’t even recognize during a special event at Vesterheim Norwegian-American Museum, I skidded to a halt.

Nalbinding Kate Martinson Vesterheim 2013

Kate Martinson, Associate Professor of Art at Luther College, explained that she was doing nålbinding (pronounced noll-bin-ding). I immediately signed up for one of her classes.

Anthropologists refer to this unique technique as knotless netting. Nålbinding is also sometimes called Viking knitting, but it actually pre-dates the Viking era. Women have used this technique for centuries to make everything from mittens to strainers to stockings. It produces a very strong and water-repellant fabric that doesn’t ravel when cut.

Artifacts constructed with Nålbinding

Kate showed us images of artifacts constructed with nålbinding.

Scandinavian women used fibers from sheep, fox, wolf, bear, and cows. The technique produces a distinctive ribbed finish, but women often fulled the finished item by agitating it in water. With enough fulling, the stitchwork can totally disappear. That makes it difficult for even skilled textile historians to know for sure if a certain artifact was made by nålbinding or not.

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Possibly the oldest known example of nålbinding—maybe as old as 15th-century.

Nålbinding requires only a single-eyed needle and a natural-fiber yarn to work with, so it was quite portable. One cool example:  women used this technique when they went to high pastures with their herds of cows each summer. They twisted hairs from their cows’ tail into thread. Nålbinding then allowed them to make a perfect mesh for straining milk.

Here's an example of a milk strainer from Norway.  (Vesterheim Norwegian American Museum collection.)

An example of a milk strainer from Norway. (Vesterheim Norwegian American Museum collection.)

Nålbinding strainer - Vesterheim

Here you can see the distinctive herringbone pattern in the spiral of stitches.

A milk strainer as it would have been used.

A milk strainer as it would have been used.  The wooden base, which has a hole in the center,  would have been set over a bucket.  The strainer’s natural bristles would help filter out impurities. (Vesterheim Norwegian-American Museum exhibit)

Learning about this provided an unexpected personal connection for me. Examples of nålbinding have been found in Iran, China, Peru… the technique was so versatile that it was widely used. My father’s parents came from Switzerland. It’s very possible that women on my grandmother’s side of the family made milk strainers just like that when tending their cows in alpine pastures.

Nålbinding was done in at least some rural areas through World War II; the fabric produced is sturdier than knitted fabric, so when supplies were scarce, women made items this way. The technique almost died out, but a few textile historians—like Kate—are working to keep it alive.

Interested in learning more? I highly recommend taking a workshop with Kate, who is both an expert and a wonderful instructor. There’s a class scheduled at Vesterheim Norwegian-American Museum (in north-east Iowa) this summer.  For more information, see their class description page.

Next time, Part II – a peek at the class experience!

Syttende Mai—Old Traditions, New Directions

May 22, 2012

I happened to be in Decorah, Iowa last week on Syttende Mai, Norway’s Constitution Day. Decorah goes all out with a Nordic Fest in July, so I knew the Syttende Mai celebration would be low-key. It was, and it was delightful.

I was lucky enough to be invited to attend the local Sons of Norway – Valdres Lodge Norwegian Constitution Day Dinner on May 15th, which was a treat even without reference to the holiday. First, I met a lot of lovely people.

Gathering in the fellowship hall.

Second, I love any gathering that includes traditional foods.

Lefse, which I like best spread with a little butter and brown sugar, then rolled up.

Several options for dessert, all traditional Norwegian favorites.

And third, the meal and meeting took place at the beautiful Washington Prairie Lutheran Church outside of town. This was the congregation (then known as the Little Iowa congregation) that called Ulrik Vilhelm Koren  to serve as pastor in 1853. Ulrik’s wife Elisabeth accompanied him, and The Diary of Elisabeth Koren, 1853-1855 is a must-read for anyone interested in the immigrant experience.

The church is on a hill, surrounded by farmland. I can imagine people looking up from their labors and taking comfort from seeing the spire.

The modern church clearly cherishes its history.  And the people I met at the dinner do too. I’ve visited ethnic festivals in towns where the celebration has become part of the community’s heritage, more so than the people who actually live there now.  Not so here.

After-dinner entertainment included a beautiful mini-recital by Rachel Storlie.

On to May 17th. One of the things I like about Syttende Mai is that it is a non-military holiday, and festivities often focus on children. In Decorah, children celebrate with a traditional parade from the courthouse to Vesterheim Norwegian-American Museum.

Perfect weather for a parade!

The parade was followed by a street performance by The Nordic Dancers of Decorah.

Students audition for the Nordic Dancers in the third grade, and make a ten-year commitment!

The Junior and Senior Nordic Dancers performed some of the  thirty-plus traditional folk dances in their repertoire.

The dancers also invited anyone in the crowd to come out and join them for a dance.

A good time was had by all!

Later that day came a wonderful climax to the festivities:  opening of a formal exhibit in one of Vesterheim’s galleries featuring the work of 4th grade students.  They had spent six weeks visiting the museum, studying the immigrant and pioneer experience.

How many fourth graders get to see their work formally displayed in a museum? Pretty cool.

Each student then chose a special project, and wrote an immigrant diary.

I was impressed with the projects!

Many kids mentioned that working on their project with a parent or grandparent was the best part of the experience.  They also became comfortable spending time in a museum.

Intergenerational sharing was one of the program highlights, both during the project phase and at the grand opening.

Some of the kids focused on Norwegian culture and heritage for their projects.  Others used Norwegian studies as a springboard to delve into their own cultural identity—whatever that might be—or a group that interested them.
Which is what visiting places like Vesterheim Norwegian-American Museum, or a Sons of Norway Lodge’s Syttende Mai celebration, so special—even for non-Norwegians like me.  It’s fun to explore the traditions and heritage preserved by descendants of the Scandinavian pioneers who settled the area in the 19th century. It’s also meaningful to consider how their stories reflect our own.

An Ale Bowl With Cow Heads

June 8, 2011

If you’ve read Old World Murder, the first Chloe Ellefson/Historic Sites mystery, you know that the plot revolves around a missing antique ale bowl. Ale bowls were used in rural areas of Norway during the period many immigrants came to America in the 19th century. They were used for special occasions, and were often beautifully carved and exquisitely rosemaled (painted).

Often ale bowls were carved with animal heads serving as handles. I chose to make my fictional bowl feature cow heads as handles, something I’d never seen on an actual bowl. It worked for the story. (For more visuals, see earlier posts Rosemaling Through Time and Ale Bowls:  Migration of a Tradition.)

When Old World Murder was published, my husband Scott suggested that we commission a carver and painter to create the bowl described in the novel. It was a lovely idea, but after several discussions, I nixed the idea as impractical.

Well, Scott ignored me. He surreptitiously made arrangements with woodworker Becky Lusk and rosemaler Judy Nelson Kjenstad.  These two incredibly talented women worked from the description of my fictional bowl to create the piece. Scott gave me the bowl for my birthday.  Surprise!

The bowl is spectacular. Becky and Judy have both earned Vesterheim Gold Medals in their respective arts. Vesterheim Norwegian-American Museum awards Gold Medals to artists who have repeatedly won ribbons in the annual National Exhibition of Folk Art int the Norwegian Tradition. These are coveted awards, earned only by those who truly excel.  My new ale bowl is a beautiful piece of folk art for our home.

I also look forward to displaying the ale bowl when I give programs. Since the novel was published last fall, lots of readers have asked what such a piece would look like.

I think my favorite aspect of the gift, however, is Scott’s assertion that publication of Old World Murder deserved some kind of commemoration. He knows the publishing biz can be…shall we say…fickle. He’s celebrated high notes and successes with me, but he’s also seen me work hard on novels that have yet to find a home. He wants me to have a memento to remind me that this book did find a home with publisher Midnight Ink, launching a series I am enjoying immensely.

When I think back on our earlier discussions about whether or not to have this particular bowl made, I realize he was right all along.


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