The Bunad Bustle

Young girls in different national costumes. Akershus, Norway. Photo:Flikr

One woman’s quest to pass down the tradition of Norway’s national costume

By: Shelby Gilje

Once again it’s time for “The Bunad Bustle.” My dining  room table is awash with brightly striped cotton fabrics in red, white, blue and black; lavender, white, rust and gray, and handsome woven cotton solids in coordinating colors, all from Norway except for one piece.

Syttende Mai is just around the corner, and my grandgirls’ bunads no longer fit! What’s a dutiful, loving bestemor to do?

First, I had to have my 70+-year-old Singer sewing machine rejuvenated. This faithful 40-pound iron horse of a machine needed oil and much, much more. When I delivered it for service, sales personnel in the store clustered around to admire its decorative features. It has an art deco look and is nothing like the current plastic models. And it has sentimental value: It was my mother’s machine.

It has been several years since I made and / or remodeled bunads for my four grandgirls. The first round was not so difficult. I remodeled two bunads my daughter, Kari, had worn as a child, and created two new costumes. I re-tailored the largest costume to fit Analise, one of my daughter’s now 10-year-old twins. The smallest costume was remodeled to fit her cousin, Olivia, my son Kurt’s youngest daughter, now seven years old. But I had to start from scratch to create bunads for Analise’s twin, Kristina, and Olivia’s sister, Chloe, now nine years.

This year my family must “retire” two vests or bodices, and a skirt for future generations; let hems down and expand waist bands for three bunad skirts; make one new skirt, remodel two vests and create two new vests. Uff da!

This sewing emergency piqued my curiosity about the history of bunads. According to my research, the word bunad originally meant “clothing” for women and men, but it has evolved to mean the national costume in Norway.

Heavily involved in the scene today are the bunad police, those who want  strict adherence to traditional patterns, with fabrics purchased, costumes made and embroidered only in Norway.

To give you an idea of the controversy, here’s an exchange from one website between a seamstress wondering how much to charge for her work and someone sympathetic to the bunad police.

“I make pockets, belts and skirts for bunad. How much should I be getting paid to do this?  I do all the embroidery on the skirts and make the complete pockets and belts – please – just an idea.”

One response: “You can’t get paid anything if you do not have the copyrights to the patterns. It is illegal to sell copyrighted bunads. Copyrights are usually owned by the original dress makers in Norway. There is an on-going case where a Norwegian bunad company is suing a Chinese company for making illegal bunads. Make sure what you are doing is legal first before you start selling your things.”

The Norsk Instittutt for Bunad og Folkedrakt, or the Norwegian Institute for Bunad and Folk Costume (NBF) was founded in 1947. It has acknowledged that not all bunads are strictly Norwegian these days. Here’s an excerpt from the Institute’s website:

“The modern bunad industry is no longer wholly Norwegian. Fabrics with embroidery are made in China or Vietnam and then completed in Norway. The production of handicrafts is much cheaper in Asia than in Norway. In addition, there are not enough people working within the field in Norway to supply the growing demand of hand-made costumes.”

NBF’s goal is to sustain traditions of folk costumes, prevent deterioration of the manufacturing of bunads and give advice on the construction of new bunads.

An advisory board with academic qualifications is appointed for NBF by the Ministry of Culture. Through its work an extensive archive has been established. As of 2011, it housed approximately 70,000 registrations of clothes and costume parts. Photos, sketches and notes about material related to traditions from different districts supplement those items.

Additional sources include illustrations from artists, sculptures, probate material, letters and other items on old costume traditions. Each item is photographed, and a description is made of the fabric, color, technique and cut. Additional information from the owner is included.

Archives at  NBF also include samples of fabrics, information on textiles and detailed descriptions of sewing technique. This material is made available to the public upon request.

Bunads now are often viewed as a status symbol, with costs ranging from $2,000 to $10,000, depending on the design, fabric, embroidery, gold, silver and accessories. The price varies depending on whether the consumer buys from a company such as Husfliden; from local seamstresses; or the individual sews and does embroidery on their own. It can take up to a year to complete an elaborate bunad.

Critical of the fact  that only wealthy people may be able to afford  such a bunad today, Norske Bunader has moved production of some costumes to China, according to the website

The NBF Institute has established five categories describing bunad and festive folk dress. Here are descriptions from its website


1. Bunads which represent the final stage in the development of folk costume. The Folk costume, particularly for use at celebrations and formal occasions, eventually gained renewed interest and function as bunad.

2. Bunads based on a particular folk costume that had gone out of use, but which was not forgotten by the local people. Many people knew the look of the Folk costume, and to some extent old garments were used in the bunad.

3. Bunads reconstructed based on preserved garments from old folk costume, and which are from the same district and period and belonged to the same type of costume. Other sources that have information about the type of costume, e.g. written information, illustrations and oral traditions, are used.

4. Bunads that are constructed based on insufficient and random material from old costumes. Elements without existing source material have been designed to match the appearance of the other garments.

5. Bunads fully or partly composed as a new creation. Some of these are inspired by material from the folk costume, while others have found inspiration from different types of items and garments.


My grandgirls’ costumes most likely are in category five even though all but one fabric was purchased in Norway. Being practical about children’s clothing, I chose cotton rather than wool so it could be washed. Adult costumes often are in cotton for the same reason, though more formal bunads are made in wool and silk. The fancy, embroidered wool bunads are considered appropriate for formal events when men folk wear tuxedos.

Many bunads are passed onto future generations who wear them for confirmations, christenings, weddings, funerals and other important events.

Today’s bunads really belong to the 20th and 21st centuries, according to “Norwegian Bunads,” published in 1982 by Hjemmenes Forlag AS of Oslo. And because of isolated populations in many areas of Norway, a uniform national costume never existed. Additionally people had to use whatever fabrics were available in their region.

Usage of folk costumes decreased in many areas around the middle of the 19th century. But folk costumes experienced a renaissance in the late 1840s as romantic nationalism gained momentum in Norway. The rural folk culture became regarded as valuable, and clothing was a part of that renewed interest. Folk costumes also became a popular theme among artists. And Norwegians expressed their national sentiments by  making and wearing bunads.

The Hardanger bunad, with its elaborate bead work, embroidery and often hand-made gold-and-silver jewelry, probably is the best known bunad. Late in the 19th century it  was regarded as a national costume and widely copied throughout the country but often simplified in details.

Apparently there is sufficient interest today in folk costumes, because a new magazine, “BUNAD,” made its debut this past February, focusing on Sunnmøre costumes. Its April issue focused on bridal apparel from the same area. Text is in Norwegian.

You may order it from the website

BUNAD Magazine is published four times a year; A one-year’s subscription is USD 84.70, or NOK 487. One back-issue is USD 29.60, or NOK 170. For two back-issues it is USD 39.20,  or NOK 225. Prices include shipping.

Many women prefer to select a costume style from the region where their forebears resided. Hence I followed the Trøndelag style of a vest with peplums for my grandgirls. And I made “waist bags,” or small purses, that can be worn or tied around the waist. I do not have embroidery skills, so I bought iron-on appliqués of flowers. SSSH! Please do not tell the bunad police.

Further, I confess that  in 1975, when HM King Olav V visited the U.S. to commemorate 150 years of Norwegian immigration, I was forced to follow the tradition of women and make do with fabrics accessible to me locally.

I had neither time nor financial resources to order an “authentic” bunad from Norway. My husband’s cousin, Turid Gilje Kolstø, sent her bunad to me hoping I could wear it for King Olav’s visit. But I was much too tall and the costume would have required many alterations. I was able to obtain a pattern in Norway so that I could make my own bunad.

I used some burgundy brocade that I had on hand to create a bodice or vest in the Trøndelag style, and bought fabric for a white cotton blouse.

My mom, Ruth Sankey Collard, a skilled seamstress, made a pleated skirt in black gabardine wool. Our babysitter, Mina Harris, knew how to embroider. I supplied her with a strip of burgundy wool and she stitched flowers on it. That border then was applied near the hem of the skirt.  It was the best I could do at the time. When I apologized some time later to a Norwegian visitor about my “faux” bunad, she said: “Hei! That’s what women have done over the ages. Make do.”


Shelby Gilje is  a longtime Pacific Northwest journalist, having written for The Seattle Times, The Seattle Post-Intelligencer, and The Kitsap Sun and other publications.

This article originally appeared in the May 11, 2012 issue of the Norwegian American Weekly. To subscribe, visit SUBSCRIBE or call us at (800) 305-0271.

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