Hardanger embroidery – back to the fjords (via Sydney)
I’ve been waiting eagerly for Yvette Stanton’s new book Early Style Hardanger since I first read about it as a work in progress, on her blog, White Threads. It sounded right up my street: firmly focused on the traditional Norwegian whitework technique rather than any modern interpretations.
I’m delighted to say that the book lives up to my expectations. It’s a substantial paperback: neat layout, enticing photographs, clear typography, copious step-by-step diagrams and charts. If I had to sum up the contents in one word, it would be ‘thorough’ – it’s one of the most in-depth single-subject embroidery books that I have seen.
Yvette starts with a look at the roots of Hardanger embroidery and its use on the traditional Norwegian costume, or bunad. There are lots of photos, including some good close-up shots of pieces in Norwegian museums. I can spend many happy hours poring over pictures like these. The introduction packs in a surprising amount of information and history while still leaving rooms for some glorious photos of the Hardanger region, with its fjord, mountains and neat houses.
From here we move on to the technicalities of materials, threads, working methods and the differences between the original form of the embroidery and the modified versions of Hardanger that have developed from it.
An aside: I’ve been bemused by some of the more bizarre examples of ‘Hardanger-Work’ I’ve seen in pattern books from the early years of the 20th century. Norwegian Drawn Work, for example, has some very strange dresses and shirts. The picture below is a table centre in ‘Hardanger work’ from Fancy Needlework Illustrated in 1907 (in my own collection). It’s worked in five shades of yellow pearl cotton, four greens, three blues, black and cream. Quite a long way from the neat, crisp white-on-white bands of the original style, isn’t it? I wouldn’t call it an improvement!
Coming back to the book, the next section features a range of attractive projects, from small pieces (a box-lid, a bookmark, a biscornu pincushion) through to a most romantic blouse, a crisp table-runner and my favourite: a traditional apron with a broad band of lacy stitchery. The charts and patterns for these projects are on three large, folded sheets of paper in a pocket at the back of the book. (It’s good quality paper, but I would suggest taking photocopies of any charts that you need to work from, to save wear and tear on the originals.) There are not just charts, oh no: there are also diagrams showing the exact order of working the cutwork areas, step by step. As I said before, this book is thorough.
The final section of Early Style Hardanger is the largest section by far: the stitches and techniques. Every stitch is clearly illustrated and carefully explained, with all the step-by-step diagrams that you could wish for. Yvette also shows how to check for counting errors and how to correct mistakes such as cutting the wrong thread as well as how to best avoid them. Wherever there’s the slightest difference between left-handed and right-handed instructions, both are given. (Each set is shown in full, so there is no need to flip between pages. The order-of-working diagrams on the pattern sheets are also shown for both left- and right-handed stitchers.) I’ve been coping with right-handed instructions for fifty years. It seems a remarkable self-indulgence to have everything shown ‘my way’ too.
For me, the historical and the technical parts of the book are the most interesting. The projects are all excellent, and inspirational eye-candy, but I get more fun from developing my own patterns than from exactly copying a set piece.
Most of the projects are worked on 36-count linen, which is quite widely available in the UK, using linen thread – which is not so easy to find over here. Yvette does stock suitable linen threads (and the other necessary materials) in her online shop. Because of the cost of postage from Sydney, Australia, I went looking for a UK stockist. I’m very pleased to have found Jo Firth Lacemaking and Needlecraft Supplies. Jo stocks Bockens Knyppelgarn Swedish linen thread, in many sizes. She has lots more threads as well, and carries all sorts of things that are not very easy to come by elsewhere. If you like fine threads for embroidery or if you make any kind of lace , it’s well worth bookmarking this shop.
I wasn’t expecting to see much advantage in using linen thread, being usually happy with cotton, but now I can see why Yvette recommends it. Not only are the specified weights exactly right for 36-count fabric – the 35/2 is a little thicker than Cotton 12 and the 50/2 a little thinner – the linen takes a sharp crease when you squeeze it with your fingers, which makes the stitches stay in place on the fabric without springing up. I am converted!
One unexpected result of reading Early Style Hardanger is that I’ve found myself thinking again about why I stitch and what I get out of it. I definitely do it for the pleasure of doing it (yes, even when I am unpicking half a day’s work and feeling like throwing the piece out of the window in frustration). Finished results are a pleasant side-effect of stitching but are not my main focus. And half the fun of stitching comes from figuring things out, problem-solving, finding ways to adapt stitches to my own left-handed working and exploring combinations of fabric, thread and style, just to see what happens. In some ways, Yvette Stanton’s book is a bit too thorough for me: I’ve rarely seen instructions that require so little ‘translation’ and guesswork. But the book will lead to more enjoyable puzzlement when I use it as a jumping-off point for further experiment and explorations in due course. Meanwhile I am trying to be disciplined (for a change) and intend to perfect my Hardanger stitches by actually following the instructions!