Posts Tagged ‘Vesterheim Norwegian-American Museum’

Exploring Your Heritage: A Writing Sampler

December 10, 2019

I’m delighted to announce that I will be teaching a writing workshop at Vesterheim in Decorah, Iowa, on April 24-26, 2020.

(photo by Rebecca Hanna)

Cherished family stories can be preserved in many ways. This workshop will introduce you to several types of writing, including poetry, memoir, fiction, and creative nonfiction.

You will enjoy a variety of short writing activities designed to help capture memories or explore what interests you most about your unique family, ethnic group, or community heritage.

(photo by Rebecca Hanna)

Inspired by Vesterheim’s rich collections and your own personal memories or heirlooms, you will leave with drafts of several poems, character sketches, essays, and short stories.

(photo by Rebecca Hanna)

Both beginning writers and those with some experience are welcome. Returning students will find some familiar activities, some new, and a chance to continue your work.

For more information, and to register, click HERE.

I hope you will consider gifting yourself a weekend of creativity and reflection. If you have any questions, let me know. I look forward to seeing you!

Researching Heritage Of Darkness

April 11, 2018

 

Image of a wooden Norwegian goat head (Julebukk) with the caption "Sometimes the darkness is inside."

 

Front cover of Heritage of Darkness, the fourth Chloe Ellefson mystery book by bestselling author Kathleen Ernst, published by Midnight Ink Books.Mr. Ernst here. This month the focus is on a surprise that turned up when researching a specific scene in this book, the fourth in Kathleen’s award-winning Chloe Ellefson Historic Sites mystery series.

Heritage Of Darkness (HOD) takes place within and around the wonderful, world-class Vesterheim Norwegian-American Museum in Decorah, Iowa. The story is set during December 1982, with historical flashbacks to the 1940s and 1960s.

This is the first Chloe mystery set at an historic site outside of Wisconsin. Other ‘out-of-state’ stories follow, but Kathleen intends to keep Chloe and Roelke firmly rooted at Old World Wisconsin and the Village of Eagle.

 

Image of a Norwegian wooden message tube (Budstikke) surrounded by text stating Dark Secrets Hidden In Norwegian Traditions.

 

Chapter Thirty

As Kathleen crafted HOD, she decided to add an attempt on Roelke’s life.

An isolated location was required — somewhere between Vesterheim in downtown Decorah and a nearby farm that Roelke would be staying at. After consulting a local map and exploring the area by car, Kathleen picked a farm to the northeast, across the Upper Iowa River. (The farm’s exact location remains a secret to protect the resident’s privacy.)

Part of the farm’s appeal was its proximity to a bridge over the river. Roelke would have to cross it when making the one-mile walk between the farm and Vesterheim where he was taking a Norwegian chip carving class. The solitary red pin on the upper right side of the satellite image below shows where the bridge is located.

 

Screen grab of a custom, interactive Google map of Decorah IA with pins marking where key scenes in HOD are located.

Above is a screen grab of a custom, interactive Google map of Decorah. It is one of many reader resources available on Kathleen’s HOD website page. (Map by Bonner Karger and Mr. Ernst.)

 

[NOTE: Each pin marks where a key scene in the book takes place. You can visit the HOD webpage to explore the map’s location photos and descriptions by clicking HERE.]

Kathleen and I initially scouted the book’s locations in warm weather, but given that HOD is set in December, we re-documented them in winter.

 

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This photo reveals the partly frozen, snow-covered Upper Iowa River where someone tries to kill Roelke. (Photo by Mr. Ernst.)

 

The modern bridge looked new enough that we decided to confirm it was there in December 1982. Local Archivist Midge Kjome directed me to bridge-related newspaper clippings and photos in the files of the Winneshiek County Historical Society . . . where I found the following.

 

Excerpts from The Decorah Journal Newspaper June 21, 1984 article entitled "City, County cut ribbon to open new bridge."

Excerpts from “City, County Cut Ribbon to Open New Bridge” article, The Decorah Journal Newspaper, June 21, 1984. (Underlining added.)

 

Well, hunh. There was no bridge there when the ‘bridge’ scene was set!

Note from Kathleen:  I hate it when that happens.

Making matters even worse, I discovered that the original “Twin Bridges” was an historic iron truss structure built circa 1880. It had just one-lane, no lighting, and lacked a sidewalk. It also had low, skimpy side-barriers, and offered a steep drop to the river.

In other words, it was perfect for the scene Kathleen envisioned.

 

Black and white photo of the Fifth Street Twin Spans bridge over the Upper Iowa River on the northeast side of Decorah Iowa. Photo courtesy of the Winneshiek County Historical Society.

This undated photograph of the Twin Bridges, also known as the Fifth Street Bridge, looks south across the Upper Iowa River to the City of Decorah, Iowa. (Photo courtesy Winneshiek County Historical Society.)

 

As her readers know, Kathleen is a real stickler for historical accuracy. It’s the museum curator in her. In this case she made an exception, wielding her literary license to shift the tractor-bridge crash forward in time until after the book concludes. Problem solved.

Powerful things, literary licenses.

Below is an excerpt from the resulting scene, which starts on page 284.

 

    Roelke walked north and east to the sounds of boots crunching snow and shovels scrapping sidewalks. The wind drove snowflakes almost sideways through the cones of light cast by street lamps. This may not have been my best-ever idea, Roelke thought as he approached the Upper Iowa River bridge. He was dressed well for wintry weather, but the snow was slowing him down. Best try to pick up the pace.

    Good plan, but he’d no more than tromped onto the bridge when both feet flew out from under him. He landed, once again, on his ass. “Danger,” he muttered as he clambered to his feet. “Bridge surface may freeze before road.”

    There were no lampposts on the bridge. He dug his flashlight from his pocket and scanned the single traffic lane, hoping to identify any additional icy spots. There was nothing to see but snow and the twin ruts of tire tracks. He set out again, this time keeping a hand on the railing.

    He was half way across the narrow bridge when headlights appeared ahead. A car was approaching the bridge, too fast. “Slow down,” Roelke muttered. “Slow down. Slow down, Goddammit!”

    The car didn’t slow down. As it hit the bridge the yellow beams went crazy, slicing the snow-hazy night. The vehicle was a dark blur, whirling, sliding, coming his way–Christ Almighty–coming his way and there was nowhere to go, nowhere to go. The bridge railing bore into Roelke’s hip until something had to give, bone or iron, and the car kept coming.

    Roelke leaned out over the river, away from the speeding mass of steel. He heard the relentless shussh of skidding tires. The car was seconds away from crushing him.

    Instinct pushed him over the railing in a wild twisting scramble. He managed to catch one vertical bar with his right arm. His other arm shot around too, and he clenched his right elbow with his left hand. The car hit the railing inches beyond the spot where he now dangled. The bridge shuddered. Roelke clenched every muscle. The car fish-tailed once or twice before the driver was able to straighten it out.

    Then the car accelerated on toward town. Roelke watched the taillights disappear with stunned disbelief and rising fury.

 

We’d love to hear what you think, now that you’ve had the chance to compare the scene with some of the historical research used to write it. Please feel free to leave us a comment below.

HOD is available in trade paperback and multiple ebook formats from independent booksellers as well as Amazon and other online resellers. Both formats includes a map of Vesterheim, photos of the Norwegian folk art featured in the book, plus a cast of characters.

But Wait, There’s More!

Hopefully this article has piqued your interest in discovering more about the ‘people, places and the past’ that went into making HOD.

You can find a page full of details about it on Kathleen’s website, including a discussion guide, the Google map, the recipe for a dish served in the story, a slide show of objects featured in the book, public radio interviews with Kathleen, plus additional blog posts, links to booksellers that offer HOD — and more — using the link below.

https://www.kathleenernst.com/book_heritage_darkness.php.

Next month I’ll post an article on this blog about researching the next book in the Chloe Ellefson mystery series, Tradition of Deceit, which takes place in Milwaukee and Minneapolis.

 

Heritage of Darkness – A Retrospective

April 4, 2018

Heritage of Darkness, the 4th Chloe Ellefson mystery, was the first to cross state lines. It’s set at Vesterheim Norwegian-American Museum in Decorah, Iowa.

By the time I started planning this book I’d visited this wonderful museum while writing the first Chloe mystery, Old World Murder, to study ale bowls. I’d also taken several classes through the museum’s folk art school.

Me with my first rosemaling instructor, Gold Medalist Joanne MacVey

 

I also learned the basics of Danish hedebo embroidery (featured in The Lightkeeper’s Legacy)  at Vesterheim. Here instructor Roger Buhr explains motif construction.

I’d enjoyed my own class experiences so much I wanted to feature that element in the book.  I also love Vesterheim’s annual Norwegian Christmas celebration, and decided to feature that as well.

Most importantly, this setting provided the opportunity to develop characters in new ways. A road trip to Vesterheim, where Chloe and her mom take rosemaling classes (Chloe is a beginner; Mom, advanced), let me explore a complicated mother-daughter relationship.

Also, at the end of Book 3, Chloe and Roelke have reached an understanding. They are a couple, and both want to see where their relationship might go. Having Roelke volunteer to come on the trip let their relationship develop as well.

SPOILER ALERT:  Plot points discussed below!

A mystery writer is always looking for ways to get characters in trouble, and for situations that might foster conflict. I was familiar with the old adage, Beware the man with many mangles, which referred to the tradition of men carving a mangle board for the woman he hoped to marry. If a mangle was refused, it could not be offered to another woman. How could I not use that bit of folk wisdom? Thus Emil was born.

This is a mangle board I painted as a class project.

I also decided to focus on some ancient winter customs. In the pre-Christianity days, many in northern Europe believed December’s shortest, darkest days brought evil spirits swooping through the sky. People developed traditions to help ward away the evil. By the time Christian Norwegian immigrants came to the Midwest, those traditions had evolved, but still persisted in the form of julebukking. Since the book came out I’ve talked to many people who remember disguising their identity with a costume and going out to visit neighbors.

This reproduction in the Vesterheim collection represents the Christmas goat. In ancient times a goat head, real or effigy, was used to ward away evil.

That offered some interesting possibilities for a mystery plot! The whole notion of having a chance to act up led to the scene near the story’s end, which takes place in Vesterheim’s Open-Air Division:

The julebukker whipped something from behind his back and shoved it toward her. Chloe glimpsed glowing animal eyes, wicked animal teeth, wildly streaming animal hair—all evoking the childhood memory of the threatening strangers brandishing a bloody goat head on a stick.

…Chloe tried again to wrench away from the devil-creature. Her boots slipped over the drop-off beside the house. The julebukker swung her hard, like a mean child playing crack-the-whip, and released her abruptly. Chloe flew head-first toward the home’s stacked-stone foundation.

My working title for the book was The Power of Darkness, harkening back to those old times. My publisher changed it to Heritage of Darkness to get a “history” word in the mix, a trend which had been established in the first three books. (Old, Heirloom, Legacy.) I trust my many Norwegian friends know the sentiment isn’t personal!

I also trust that my many rosemaling friends know how I admire their work, and how much I enjoy painting myself—even though I have no innate aptitude.

I am always the slowest painter in any class. I think just about everyone else had left for the day when this picture was taken.

Chloe has a miserable time in her rosemaling class, but I wanted to leave open the possibility that some of her challenges stemmed from her own preconceived ideas. This led to one of my favorite moments in the story:

“Do you know what I have loved most about rosemaling?” Mom asked.

“Winning your Gold Medal.”

“No.” Mom stared at Chloe’s tray, but her gaze had turned inward. “Every time I pick up a brush, I feel connected to the old days when skilled painters traveled through Norway’s remote valleys. Rosemaling was done in the winter, so the artists probably traveled by sleigh, or perhaps just on skis. I picture isolated families welcoming the rosemaler into their dark little cabins—back in the days when most people lived in windowless houses with just an open hearth to provide warmth and light. Can you imagine what a joy it would be to have the painter at work while snow fell and wind howled? Can you imagine how people felt while watching the painter bring such vivid life and color to their world during winter’s bleakest, darkest days?”

“Well…I can now,” Chloe allowed.

A small step forward for Mom and Chloe.

By this point in the series, some readers were asking if/when Chloe and Roelke’s relationship would become intimate. Since this is a Traditional mystery, with no explicit sex or gore, I crafted a scene that I hoped conveyed the moment without spelling it out. Perhaps I should have been a wee bit more explicit, because I heard from a couple of people who’d read the book and were still wondering when the two main characters would have sex.

My talented friend Ellen Macdonald made this chip carved candle plate to represent the gift Roelke gave to Chloe, used in the hotel scene.

I also heard from a reader who complained about my sloppy writing, referring to the fact that about mid-book, I repeated a thought.  Chloe and Roelke are, in their separate lodgings, going to bed.  First Roelke thinks:

Tonight, with a killer wandering Decorah and a December wind rattling the windows, he really, really wished he could fall asleep with Chloe in his arms.

In a later scene, in Chloe’s point of view, she has the same thought:

Tonight, with a killer wandering Decorah and a December wind rattling the windows, she really, really wished she could fall asleep in Roelke’s arms.

I crafted that echo in hopes it would convey the growing bond between them; how they both wanted the same thing; that they were connected in thought even if physically apart. One never knows how such things might strike any individual reader.

While Chloe and Roelke’s relationship took a big step forward, Chloe’s relationship with Mom is only somewhat improved. I could have wrapped the book up with some moment of complete harmony and understanding between the two women, but it would have felt—at least to me—too pat and unrealistic.

What did you think?

You can explore relevant people, places, and the past on my webpage for Heritage of Darkness. Resources include a Google map, color images of key artifacts, a Discussion Guide, a recipe for Chloe’s Tomato Soup, and links to lots of additional background material.

A final thought:  People often ask how employees feel about me setting a murder mystery at their historic site or museum. I always chat with key staff before starting a new book, and make sure everyone is comfortable with the idea. The staff and volunteers at Vesterheim have been wonderful, and Mr. Ernst and I have made many friends within the Norwegian-American community. (We even celebrated our 20th wedding anniversary in Norway!) The decision years ago to create a protagonist of Norwegian descent has brought wonderful things we couldn’t have imagined. We’re grateful.

Precious Papers

August 17, 2015

A museum curator’s job includes studying, preserving, and interpreting historical objects. When I worked at Old World Wisconsin I thought a lot about objects immigrants used in their New World homes. As I was writing  A Settler’s Year, I thought a lot about the things immigrants chose to carry on their journey.

A few years ago I enjoyed a behind-the-scenes tour of some of the artifacts in storage at Vesterheim Norwegian-American Museum in Decorah, Iowa. Chief Curator Laurann Gilbertson showed a collection I’d never considered—immigrant wallets.

A drawer full of wallets.

Wallets carefully preserved.

As she talked about them, I realized how important these wallets were for those traveling from Europe. Immigrants painstakingly calculated expenses, and money had to be meted out with care.

DSCF6506

In addition to money, these wallets often held precious papers. According to a museum exhibit, these papers might include a “passport” giving a traveler permission to leave, a statement from the local church attesting to his or her good standing, and certificates of vaccination for “cow pox” or other diseases.

Document on display at Vesterheim.

Travel document on display at Vesterheim.

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Travel document on display at Vesterheim.

Given the importance of what was to be carried in these wallets, it’s not surprising that some show real craftsmanship.

DSCF6509

They conjure images of immigrants carefully tucking away their precious documents and money. I imagine men patting their pockets from time to time, reassuring themselves their wallets were still there. I imagine women slipping wallets under their pillows at night for safekeeping.

DSCF6511

Immigrant literature includes many tales of theft, or swindlers waiting in every port to take advantage of newcomers. But with good planning and some luck, the wallets and their contents would see the immigrants safely to their new homes.

Immigrant Trunks

July 6, 2015

A Settler’s Year:  Pioneer Life Through the Seasons focuses primarily on newcomers’ experience after reaching their destination. But many of the European immigrants’  diaries, letters, and reminiscences included poignant descriptions of their journey from old world to new.

Museums and historic sites like Old World Wisconsin preserve not only the stories, but bits of the travelers’ surviving material culture. And there is, perhaps, no other object more closely tied to the immigrant experience than the immigrant trunk.

Some were plain, and purely functional.

Chest, trunk. CL*314563.01.

This trunk was constructed of pine, with simple iron fittings, c. 1880.  (Smithsonian National Museum of American History)

2009-5367

This one was used by a Dominican sister from France in 1880. (Smithsonian National Museum of American History.)

Schulz House, Old World Wisconsin

This plain wooden trunk has beautiful ironwork details.  Some immigrants chose trunks with rounded lids, hoping it would keep them from being buried on the bottom of towering stacks of trunks packed in the hold. (Schulz Farm, Old World Wisconsin, Eagle, WI)

Many trunks were painted with the owner’s name.

DSCF2847

(Swiss Historical Village & Museum, New Glarus, WI.)

Add a description…Elk Horn Iowa

(Museum of Danish America, Elk Horn, IA)

Some had a bit of painted decoration…

DSCF2870 - Version 2

(Swiss Historical Village & Museum, New Glarus, WI)

2008-7168

Swedish Immigrant trunk, 1867. (Smithsonian National Museum of American History)

Wisconsin Historical Museum, Madison,

Trunk used by Halvor Anderson Lovaas on his trip from Norway, 1860. (Wisconsin Historical Museum, Madison, WI)

And some, such as these Norwegian immigrant trunks, were exquisitely painted.

DSCF2699

(Vesterheim Norwegian-American Museum, Decorah, IA)

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This might be my favorite.  (Vesterheim Norwegian-American Museum, Decorah, IA)

Vesterheim Norwegian-American Museum

Rosemaled trunks in open storage. ((Vesterheim Norwegian-American Museum, Decorah, IA)

IMG_0541

Detail on trunk visible in preceding photo. Painted by Ola Eriksen Tveitejorde, Voss, Norway. (Vesterheim Norwegian-American Museum, Deborah, IA)

Artistry aside, any immigrant trunk is valuable because it represents the people who struggled to fit their old lives within its confines. How many times did a family pack and repack it in the weeks leading up to departure? What was the most efficient way to pack?

Vesterheim Norwegian-American Museum

This exhibit at Vesterheim Norwegian-American Museum suggests the difficult choices immigrants had to make. What would fit? What had to be left behind?

First must come the essentials: food for the journey, warm clothes, seeds, necessary tools. People didn’t always have accurate information about what was available in America, or how much it would cost.

And surely treasured mementos of home were squeezed in, too.

Kathleen Ernst, Vesterheim Norwegian-American Museum

Many ale bowls (which inspired my first Chloe Ellefson mystery, Old World Murder) made their way from Old World to New. Since bowls like this one wouldn’t have been easy to pack, they must have been treasured keepsakes. (Artifacts in storage at Vesterheim Norwegian-American Museum)

Wisconsin Historical Museum

This trunk, originally brought from Ireland, is shown with items both practical and, perhaps, “for best.” (Wisconsin Historical Museum, Madison, WI)

For the earliest immigrants, trunks served as furniture and storage in the New World.

Schulz Farm, Old World Wisconsin

The Schulz Farm at Old World Wisconsin depicts a family which had only been in the US for a few years, so furniture was relatively spartan and basic.  A huge trunk provides storage and, perhaps, a place to leave a shawl or book if needed.

But in time, trunks often ended in attics or outbuildings, filled with old clothes or pressed into service as grain bins. Gorgeously painted trunks were once so common, I’m told, that even museums with a focus on immigration had to decline many offered donations.

Wisconsin Historical Museum

This lovely trunk got a second life when Per Lysne, who many credit with the revival of rosemaling in the US, painted it in the 1930s or 1940s. (Wisconsin Historical Museum, Madison, WI)

Every trunk saved is a tangible reminder of the often anguished choices people made about what they might carry, what must be left behind.

Fortunately, hopes and dreams took up no space at all.

(Kay Klubertanz photo)

(Kay Klubertanz photo)

* * *

Want to see more trunks?  Vesterheim has a fabulous collection of rosemaled trunks online.

Chip Carving

April 22, 2014

I knew Roelke McKenna needed to accompany Chloe and Mom to Decorah in Heritage of Darkness. Signing him up for a woodworking class wasn’t hard, either; I’d already established in an earlier book that he enjoying carving. The question was:  what style of carving should he pursue?

Vesterheim Norwegian-American Museum’s collection includes exquisite pieces of different styles. The museum’s workshop schedule offers lots of diversity as well.

Vesterheim Gallery

Acanthus carving, featuring ornate and flowing leaf designs, is perhaps the most popular style. Acanthus carving dates back centuries. The style of relief carving started in Greece and spread to other area.  

Vesterheim Gallery

Chip carving takes a different approach. Small, precise cuts produce elaborate geometric designs. (They remind me of quilt patterns.)

Vesterheim Gallery

 

Vesterheim Gallery

Some wood carvers produce figures…

Vesterheim Gallery

…or spoons.

Vesterheim Gallery

Which style was right for Roelke? He’s really not a free-flowing kind of guy. He does appreciate precision and order. I decided that chip carving best suited his personality.

I turned to Vesterheim’s chip carving instructor, Ellen Macdonald, for help.

Ellen Mcdonald

She helped me understand the basics of chip carving. We also talked about what Roelke would have experienced in a week-long class.

Ellen Mcdonald chip carving

One of the things many carvers like about this style is that is requires only simple tools, and is very portable.

Ellen Mcdonald chip carving

Ellen’s work is gorgeous. It was easy to imagine Roelke aspiring to such craftsmanship.

Ellen Mcdonald chip carving

Roelke ran a finger over his work. Geometry…maybe that was it. His cousin Libby had called him “rigid” more than once. He preferred “meticulous.” Either way, the precision of chip carving appealed to him.

 …He wanted to learn how to design and carve rosettes. He wanted to design and carve rosettes with, as his classmate Lavinia had observed earlier, stunning energy and symmetry.  And maybe, if Chloe played her cards right, he’d carve something special just for her.

Ellen Mcdonald's candleplate

Vesterheim is open year-round, so you can visit anytime and tour the exhibits.  Click HERE if you’d like more information about the museum’s folk-art classes.

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.

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

Nålbinding, Part 3 – Going Solo

March 16, 2013

In recent posts I provided a brief glimpse of the history of nålbinding, and an overview of my class at Vesterheim Norwegian-American Museum. I left Iowa knowing that I needed to practice the stitch until it was firmly imbedded in my brain.

This shows one stitch on the needle.

This shows the basic stitch on the needle.

I’d decided that my first independent project would be a pair of mittens. I understood what I needed to do to shape a mitten, so I got started.

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I got this far in class.

Once home, though, I soon discovered that I didn’t want to work on something that required even simple shaping. Life was crazy-busy. I was traveling a lot, and trying to meet deadlines too. I wanted a handwork project to relax with.

So I switched to scarves and bags. Nålbinding requires natural fibers, and I picked yarns with inherent variations.

A luscious wool-mohair blend.

A luscious wool-mohair blend.

Then I experimented with variegated yarns. I found the repetitive stitching almost meditative, and I loved watching the colorplay develop. Nålbinding projects were perfect for traveling since they required only a ball of yarn and a blunt wooden needle (which did pass TSA screenings, by the way. No scissors are required; yarn is broken and spliced.)

I love the colors in this skein.

Gorgeous colors!

Making a flat bottom for a bag.

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Unfinished bag, ready for the fulling process.

Since taking the class, I’ve learned a lot through trial and error.

I’ve learned that when making scarves, it’s tricky to gauge how many stitches to add on the curves so the ends stay perfectly flat.

I made the bottom scarf in the round, and even with blocking, the ends aren’t quite flat. My talented friend Becky solved this problem by making a tube instead (top). She’ll close the ends when she’s done and have a double-warm scarf.

I’ve learned that whatever leads to wool being labeled “washable” makes it difficult to splice yarn or full the finished piece.

Since this washable wool doesn’t splice or full well, I’ll need to line this bag.

I’ve also learned that I never should throw away wool yarn remnants.

I made this bag from scraps left over from an afghan project.

I haven’t given up knitting, hedebo, rosemaling, etc., etc.  But I find nålbinding more relaxing than anything else. Now I’m trying to figure out when I can introduce nålbinding into one of my Chloe Ellefson Historic Sites mysteries!

Kate Martinson 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.

DSCF6474

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!