Norwegian weaver Frida Hansen, seated on a low stool at her upright loom. Black and white photo.

Imagine you’re a lady born in 1855, you live in Norway and you were raised as a proper lady from a wealthy family. You were given an education at private schools and taught to do embroidery and to draw and paint.

You grow up, get married and everything is fine, until one day, it isn’t. There’s a world wide economic depression and your family’s shipping company goes bankrupt. Your husband leaves and goes to another country to try to find work.

What do you do? Would you try to find a job? Start a business?

That’s what happened to Frida Hansen. After her husband’s business went bankrupt in 1888 she started an embroidery company, taking in repair work and making custom embroidered pieces. Some sources say that someone brought her a tapestry to repair, and that she became fascinated with the technique, and decided to learn it.

And so she did, later becoming a pioneer of modern textile art. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

Frida Hansen – Training and Career

She studied weaving with Kjerstina Hauglum. And in 1894-1895, she went to Copenhagen and Paris to study drawing further.

She was unusual as a weaver in that she did every step of the process, including drawing the designs, dyeing the yarn, and the weaving. She used plant-based dyes, not synthetic dyes (dyes made from chemicals in a factory).

She said of the colors:

“For me, design is first and foremost a means of bringing out the colours. The colours are like the sun in my art. Therefore, the design must often accommodate the colours which I absolutely must have in a collection.”

Her tapestries were so popular that they were often sold while they were still on the loom, being woven.

Started a weaving school as a partnership in 1892 but left over pattern copyright disputes. A few years later, she started her own weaving workshop where she trained and employed women who produced her textiles. She also taught weaving in her own weaving school.

In 1897 she patented a special type of weaving called transparent weaving. If I understand it correctly, in transparent weaving, there were sections with no yarn woven in horizontally, yet the process still manages to create negative space, or shapes, in her overall design.

Libellenes Dans, 1901, by Frida Hansen

Style and Exhibitions

The topics she used for her tapestries were all over floral patterns, and designs inspired by literature or stories. She worked in a style called Art Nouveau.

In Norway at the time, the most popular kind of tapestries were those that told stories from Norway’s culture. But Hansen’s inspiration was more international, she had travelled to other countries, including when she studied drawing in Paris. While traveling, she saw art in the Art Nouveau style and was captivated by it. She was also influenced by the English Arts and Crafts movement.

Because her style was more international, she was not very famous or well regarded in her own country during her lifetime. Outside of Norway, her work was enormously popular and sold very well.

She exhibited her work at world fairs, including the Columbian Exposition of 1893 in Chicago, Illinois and at the 1900 Paris World’s Fair.

At the Paris World’s Fair, she exhibited multiple works including Milky Way, her most famous work, shown at the top of this post. That work was awarded a gold medal.

For the Columbian Exposition in Chicago, she was commissioned by the Norwegian Association for Women’s Rights to make a large scale tapestry. She made a piece called, Løvetand, or Dandelion. According to the National Museum of Norway, “the symbolic motif depicts a woman in the middle surrounded by women bearing dandelions in bud, bloom and seed. The tapestry became an important work of art for the early women’s movement and an expression of Norwegian women’s struggle against oppression.”

Even though she didn’t make tapestries about the history and culture of Norway, she did use an Old Norse style of loom, an upright style that is the oldest type found in Norway. Vertical looms are an ancient type of loom that go all the way back to ancient Greece, where the warp threads would hang from hooks in the ceiling and be weighted down with loom weights.  The Old Norse style loom is of course an advancement from that, as it is a wooden frame.

There was a resurgence of interest in the upright Old Norse loom and by 1893 there were 50 of them in the area where Hansen lived, worked, and taught, up from a mere two.  (See image above, of Hansen seated at an upright loom.)

Her house is a now a museum and they own two of her looms! One is wider than the other, and when you see some of her works in pictures in museums, some tapestries are wider than the others, and you can tell which loom they were made on!

She was awarded Norway’s King’s Medal of Merit, a gold medal, in 1915.

Today her work can be seen at the Stavanger Art Museum, (that’s where her family was from) and in museums in Copenhagen, Denmark; Basel, Switzerland; London, England; Chicago, Illinois; Stockholm, Sweden; Berlin and Hamburg, Germany, and in the Royal Palace in Oslo, Norway.

Born: March 8, 1855, in Stavanger, Norway.

Name at birth: Frederikke Bolette Petersen. Nicknamed: Frida. Married name: Hansen.

Died: March 12, 1931, in Oslo, Norway.

Here are some good links to see tapestries by Frida Hansen

https://www.anstenstudio.no/ansten–frida-hansen.html

I like this website because since the tapestries are hung in a museum, you can get a feeling for the scale of the pieces.

Here is a link to a picture of an upright, Old Norse, or Oppstad loom, with a weaver working on a project:

https://en.visitsunnhordland.no/things-to-do/the-oppstad-loom-p811383

If you’d like to see the pictures of her two looms in the house museum, here’s the link:

http://www.fridahansen.no/content/frida-hansen

And here is a blog post by an American weaver and teacher, Robbie LaFleur:

https://norwegiantextileletter.com/issue/november-2018

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Definitions of Terms Used in this Blog Post

What is Art Nouveau?

Tate modern has very clear definitions of art terms. Here’s how they define it. “Art nouveau is an international style in architecture and design that emerged in the 1890s and is characterised by sinuous lines and flowing organic shapes based on plant forms.”

What is the Arts and Crafts Movement or Style?

“Arts and Crafts was a design movement initiated by William Morris in 1861 which aimed to improve the quality of design and make it available to the widest possible audience,” according to tate.org.uk

What is a tapestry?

The Tate Museum defines it as, “Tapestries are thick pieces of fabric with pictures or designs, which are made by weaving different coloured threads.”

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Want to try weaving?

We have a kit!  Check it out: https://beingbold.me/product/mini-tapestry-loom-kit

Elaine Luther is the blogger and podcast co-host for Being Bold. As a kid, Elaine’s mom gave her the book “Girls are People Too,” sparking her interest in women’s rights and the untold stories of women. She is a writer and artist whose work has been published in national magazines and online. Her art has been shown in galleries nationwide and libraries across Chicagoland.