Archive for the ‘Vesterheim Norwegian-American Museum’ Category

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.



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.


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


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.


The individual stitches and overall stitch pattern are clearly visible.

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


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…



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.


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.

Cabin Fever, Part II

February 12, 2011

Here’s another historical example of close quarters.

Mikkel and Hage Sinnes emigrated from Telemark, Norway, in 1849. In 1855, Mikkel constructed this building. It served as his blacksmith shop, but the couple also lived here for a year, until a home could be built. An infant was born during this time, but did not survive.

The building has been restored at Vesterheim Norwegian-American Museum in Decorah, Iowa.

Imagine spending a winter in this small cabin. Or delivering a baby here. Or tending a sick infant here.

The lower level held the shop; there was a small loft above.

If you’ve ever visited a working blacksmith shop, you know how pervasive the soot and smoke can be. Burning coal has a distinctive and lingering odor, too.

Visiting a place like this is humbling. Our ancestors experienced  a lot in their efforts to build a better life.  Remembering reminds me to appreciate my own warm, cozy house.


Cabin Fever

January 27, 2011

One of the reasons I love history is that it provides context and perspective for any irritation, frustration, or hardship that pops up in my own life. Case in point:  it’s that time of year when lots of people start feeling antzy. Shut-in. Claustrophobic. Bored.

Understandable, but let’s think back. One of my favorite buildings at Old World Wisconsin (Eagle, WI) is Fossebrekke, a cabin restored to its 1845 appearance.

That's me in warm weather, heading into Fossebrekke, 1983.

It’s so small that visitors sometimes mistake it for an outbuilding. On the occasions when I interpreted that building, I loved helping guests see it from the perspective of Knudt Fossebrekke. In 1839 Knudt had—like so many others—arrived America with almost nothing. He spent his first winter in a shelter of some sort dug from the side of the hill. After that, it must have felt wonderful to complete this sturdy little cabin!

Bea and Sandy in Fossebrekke, probably late 1980s.

Oral tradition also suggests that Knudt and his wife Gertrude opened their cabin to other immigrants who arrived as winter was bearing down. Some say seventeen people wintered in the tiny cabin one year, although it’s impossible to know now if that count includes people coming and going, or people there all at once. In any case, sharing the space—one room and a loft—was both  generous and, I imagine, very challenging.

We get a glimpse of the other side of frontier hospitality from Elizabeth Koren, a Norwegian pastor’s bride who accompanied him to Iowa in 1853. They arrived in winter; no handy parsonage was waiting. Erik and Helen Egge invited the Korens to stay with them, and their two young children, in this 14 x 16′ home.

The Egge-Koren home has been restored at Vesterheim Norwegian-American Museum in Decorah, Iowa.

Elizabeth, who had lived a genteel existence in Norway, found the close quarters noisy, smelly, and often challenging.

Both adult couples slept downstairs, with only a curtain to provide a facade of privacy. The children slept in the loft.

Tight quarters, with no space wasted. Reverend Koren wrote his sermons in this cabin.

Elizabeth dreamed in her diary about having a home of her own:   “That will be glorious!”

I imagine it was.

Rosemaling Through Time

July 24, 2010

The Norwegian folk art called rosemaling is a form of decorative painting that dates back to the early 18th century.  Styles varied from region to region in Norway, and was practiced largely by traveling painters in rural areas.  Many immigrants carried painted bowls or plates or boxes in their trunks when they crossed the Atlantic.

Many trunks were rosemaled too. Isn't this one spectacular? (Vesterheim Norwegian-American Museum)

In the new world, the demands of starting new lives, and acculturation, led to a quick demise of the art.  Those painters who immigrated earned their living in other ways.  After some years, the painted pieces that made the trip took their place as treasured mementos of the old country… or perhaps were put to some mundane use, and eventually discarded.  By the 1870s, rosemaling had also faded from favor in Norway.

Ethnic pieces at the 1865 Kvaale House, at Old World Wisconsin, are relegated to a high shelf. By 1865, the Kvaale family had been in Wisconsin for some time.

A man named Per Lysne is credited with reviving the art in America.  Lysne learned the art from his father in Norway before immigrating to Stoughton, WI, with his wife in 1907.  Lysne went to work at a local wagon factory as a painter, and was soon adding decorative flourishes to the finished wagon boxes.

This wagon still shows the faded flourishes added during the period when Per Lysne worked for the Mandt Wagon Company in Stoughton. (Vesterheim Norwegian-American Museum)

Here's a piece of agricultural equipment that was rosemaled.

When the Great Depression caused the factory to close, Lysne was able to earn a living with his paintbrushes.  He began by repainting some of the old and faded pieces brought to Wisconsin by his neighbors.  Soon his work became popular in its own right.

Per Lysne became famous for platters featuring bright designs on a cream or white background. (Vesterheim Norwegian-American Museum)

I was introduced to the folk art when I went to work at Old World Wisconsin in 1982.  I was fascinated by the lovely painting.  When I wrote Old World Murder, I chose to make a missing rosemaled bowl the heart of the mystery.

My protagonist is a Norwegian-American museum curator named Chloe Ellefson.  Chloe’s mom is an expert rosemaler. Knowing that this art will be touched on again in future books in the series, I decided I needed to learn more about it.  That’s how I found myself in a beginner’s rosemaling class last week at Vesterheim Norwegian-American Museum in Decorah, Iowa.

I had not held a paint brush since I was in middle school, when my art teacher made it clear (and not politely, either) that I had no business taking an art class.  I signed up for the rosemaling class because I wanted to learn more about the art, but I had low expectations of what I could actually accomplish.

The class was taught by Joanne MacVey, an expert who earned her Gold Medal in rosemaling (which is not easy to do) in 2001. She is a lovely person, and a calm and encouraging instructor.  She had us begin by practicing basic strokes.

My practice work. Note the many wobbles.

Then we mixed paint for our projects.  That part was kind of fun.

I did learn that my eye for color needs developing.

Joanne soon had us moving on to our wooden project piece, a bentwood tray.  (I was dubious.  Shouldn’t we spend more time practicing?)  Making that first stroke was the hardest.

Joanne demonstrated each step of the project...

and she made it look easy.

That's me, working on my own piece. Bit by bit, the pattern came together. Much to my surprise, it was recognizable.

My very first rosemaled project.

The beginner class was three days.  I opted to stay two extra days for an advanced beginner course.  For that, we painted a mangletree.  Mangles, as they are often called, were historically used to smooth wrinkles from cloth.  They were also created and offered as betrothal gifts.

My mangle, with just the first few scrolls painted.

Here (two photos below) is my finished mangletree.   I was astonished with (and proud of) what we were able to accomplish in such a short time.  I credit that to having a superb instructor.

Vesterheim is the perfect place to take a class in one of the traditional folkarts.  The museum’s extensive collections are made available to students for study and inspiration.   I was also lucky enough to be there during the annual National Exhibition of Folk Art in the Norwegian Tradition.  Artists who are awarded ribbons in the show earn points; enough points accumulated over the years earn the coveted Gold Medal.

Some of the stunning pieces entered in this year's exhibition.

I went to Decorah to learn about rosemaling; I discovered that I loved doing it.  I will never become an expert rosemaler, but I like to think that my tentative brushstrokes have become part of the continuum, helping to keep this vibrant art alive.

Ale Bowls: Migration of a Tradition

March 28, 2010

When I was developing the plot for Old World Murder, I needed a Norwegian artifact for a major plot point.  I chose to feature an ale bowl.  These old tankards, which are often beautifully carved and painted, have appealed to me ever since my Old World Wisconsin days.

I knew the bowls were used historically to commemorate special occasions.  I could easily imagine them being passed from hand to hand in some long-ago smoky Norwegian cabin.  And honestly, that was about it.

Carol Hasvold worked from 19th-century accounts to understand drinking customs in Norway.

I recently went to Vesterheim Norwegian-American Museum to learn more about ale bowls.  The visit began with a program given by former registrar Carol Hasvold, “Festive Events and Drinking Customs.”  In rural parts of old Norway, she said, ale was brewed to mark two kinds of events:  those tied to the annual cycle, such as harvest-time and Christmas, and those marking special personal events.

For example, ten or twelve barrels of ale might have been brewed for a wedding.  Strong ale implied that a family was prosperous, and their farm well managed.    The bride price was negotiated with ale.  After the ceremony itself, friends and family attended a reception at the newlyweds’ new home.  The bride was expected to throw a small bowl over her house!  If the bowl did not make it over the roof, she could expect bad luck.  As ale bowls were drained during the reception, guests tossed coins into the bowls as thanks for the celebration.

This bowl is tiny--perfect, perhaps, for tossing over a house?

Ale also played a part in funeral rituals.  After a death, neighbors and friends came to the home with gifts of food or ale.  They stood in a ring around the casket and sang three hymns, with ale passed around between each.  Then the mourners carried the casket outside, placed an ale bowl upon it, and drank a final toast to the deceased.

In each event, when the ale was gone, the bowl was put away.  We’re lucky that ale did not have a long shelf life in the 19th century!  Sporadic use meant that many of the bowls survived for generations.  When emigrants decided what to take to America, they sometimes packed ale bowls into their trunks.

After the program, Alison Dwyer (left) and I sampled home-made ale (strictly for research purposes, of course.).

After the program, Vesterheim staff member Alison Dwyer was kind enough to show me some of the bowls in their collection.  You can get a behind-the-scenes look too!  Just check out the video:

The first ale bowl I ever saw was a beautiful artifact on display in the Kvaale House, at Old World Wisconsin.  The Kvaale exhibit portrays a well-settled Norwegian-American family, and the ale bowl is one of a handful of artifacts used to suggest an assimilated family that nonetheless treasures mementos from the homeland.  Now I know an ale bowl likely held specific memories, too.  A man might recall when the bowl was used to toast his own marriage.  A woman might remember how it sat on her mother’s coffin.

We can’t ever know all the human stories represented by any particular ale bowl…but isn’t it intriguing to wonder?

This is one of my favorite bowls in Vesterheim's collection.

(Have a question about Vesterheim’s ale bowls?  You can email Alison at

More Than I Was Looking For

March 1, 2010

The plot of Old World Murder (coming October, 2010!) revolves around an antique Norwegian ale bowl.  I’ve always been intrigued by the beautifully carved and/or painted  bowls.  I recently went to Vesterheim Norwegian-American Museum in Decorah, Iowa, to take photos and learn more about them.

On both counts, the trip was a success.  More about that later, though, because something unexpected happened along the way.

I was introduced to Norway’s rich folk-art traditions when I began working at Old World Wisconsin in 1982.  I sought out more gorgeous woodenware and textiles at the State Historical Society of Wisconsin’s main museum, and at Little Norway (a special place near Mount Horeb, Wisconsin).  Still, people told me I had to visit Vesterheim.

An exhibit suggests what life was like in the old country.

Vesterheim (which means “Western home” in Norwegian) is a world-class museum located in small-town America.  Way back in the 1870s, Norwegian-Americans in Northeast Iowa began collecting and preserving objects that documented their ongoing story.  The collection now holds over 24,000 artifacts.

The first time I walked into the exhibit hall at Vesterheim, years ago, I was stunned by the collection’s depth.  A curator at Old World at the time, I soaked up as much as I could.  The material culture on display helped me understand more about the Norwegian families we interpreted at Old World.  I studied construction techniques, estimated measurements, considered paint colors and thread choices.  I analyzed weaving and knitting patterns, and dreamed of recreating them.

One of the knitted textiles in the Vesterheim collection.

Years later, I visited Vesterheim again, this time with my husband Scott.  We went to enjoy a new exhibit that focused on the contributions Norwegian-Americans made during the American Civil War.  The programming and displays helped me consider broader stories.  I imagined the questions and challenges that faced immigrants who had made the long and difficult journey to their Western home, only to have war erupt in their new country.

On my recent trip to Vesterheim, I entered the museum with one goal:  look at the ale bowls on display.  It was, of course, impossible to ignore the rest of the exhibits!  And this time, instead of thinking only about the objects, or even the Norwegian-American experience, I found myself asking the next logical questions.  How did what I was seeing compare to what my own (non-Norwegian) ancestors experienced?

One of the exquisite carved pieces in Vesterheim's collection.

Vesterheim is a treasure that needs to be experienced more than once.  Over the course of my own visits, I processed what I was seeing and hearing on different levels, in different ways.  The artifacts and exhibits are important as examples of folk art.  They are important because of the stories they tell—or at least suggest—about the people who originally made, owned, used, and ultimately preserved them.

And they are important because they help all of us connect with our own heritage.  Vesterheim uses the story of Norwegian immigrants to explore aspects of identity and culture common to everyone.

Norwegian-Americans are lucky that thoughtful individuals did collect and preserve such an abundance of folk art.  But those of us who descend from cultural groups which did not, perhaps, manage to save so much can be inspired to wonder about and search for our own ethnic and folk art traditions.  In my case, how did my Swiss and Dutch and Scottish forebears express themselves with paint brushes, or knitting needles, or carving knives?

Some of our ancestors carried what they could of their lives from old world to new in  rosemaled trunks.  Others tucked what was precious in battered suitcases, lumpy bedrolls, leather pouches…and, simply, their hearts.  Vesterheim, and other historic sites and museums, remind us of that.  Their collections hold treasures for us all.

To learn more about Vesterheim, its collections, its educational programs and special events, and its ongoing classes in folk art and culture, visit

To get a glimpse of this wonderful place, check out the video:

And soon, I promise—on to the ale bowls!