Viking Age Craft

Inkle weaving revival reflected in new book

Photo: Judith Gabriel Vinje Sturdy and gorgeous woven bands have a myriad of uses.

Photo: Judith Gabriel Vinje
Sturdy and gorgeous woven bands have a myriad of uses.

Judith Gabriel Vinje
Los Angeles

Nearly 20 years ago, dressed in my hopefully authentic garb to be part of a Viking “living history encampment” at California Lutheran University’s Scandinavian Festival, a fellow re-enactor gifted me with a small wooden loom and a lesson on how to weave on it.

It was an inkle loom. The narrow, patterned bands it produces are varied, depending on how you set it up. I spent hundreds of hours in the next two decades weaving bands and ribbons, simple and complex, wide and skinny, plain and intricate. My fellow “Vikings” wanted them to trim their costumes or girth their waist.

I acquired a larger version of the inkle loom—a floor loom—and started making wide sashes up to 21 feet long—just what the hefty Viking reenactment guys needed to girth their garb.

The web contained websites on how to warp the loom, with samples of the myriad patterns one could achieve by how the threads—wool or cotton—were set up. There were a couple of books, such as the classic Inkle Weaving by Helene Bress. But mostly I was on my own, learning by trial and error.

In recent years, inkle weaving has gained a significant following, particularly among Viking, Renaissance Faire, and other history re-enactors, as well as weavers in the U.S. and Europe.

Photo courtesy of Judith Gabriel Vinje Dressed in her garb, Judith demonstrates weaving at a festival.

Photo courtesy of Judith Gabriel Vinje
Dressed in her garb, Judith demonstrates weaving at a festival.

At Scandinavian festivals throughout Southern California, I give weaving demonstrations, clad in my “authentic” Viking apron dress laden with amber and glass bead necklaces. People are fascinated by the weaving process.They stop and watch, hypnotized by the changing of layers and the whip of the weft riding on its wooden shuttle, carrying another line of color into the fabric.

Inevitably, I am asked, “How long does that take?” I answer that it’s so engrossing that I totally lose track of time.

The other question was, “What do you do with that?”

Wear it. A belt. Trim on my jeans. A ribbon for my hair. And back in the day, there was no duct tape, so these strong bands were used to wrap and carry goods. They are so strong you could carry a baby in them, I say.

At home I use them as curtain tie-backs, to trim pillows, to tie presents.

On a trip to Norway, I saw bands used to suspend other objects hanging on the wall. And of course, for trim and belts on bunads.

But now my love affair with inkle weaving has become much more meaningful, since I learned that the craft to which I am addicted is Norwegian.

A beautiful new book has just come out, titled simply Norwegian Pick-up Bandweaving, by Heather Torgenrud (Schiffer Publishing, 2015). It’s large, lavishly illustrated, and engagingly and clearly written, with patterns and historical details that have enriched my weaving experience considerably.

Pickup is a technique for weaving narrow bands or ribbons of wool, linen, or cotton that are both decorative and practical, notes the author. It’s called “pick-up” because that’s what you’re doing, row after row: following a pattern chart, lifting up certain threads with each change of the warping.

Historically, pick-up-woven bands were used to tie up baskets of food, to swaddle babies, and as hair bands, apron bands, stocking bands, trim for clothing, and more.

Born and raised in Montana, Torgenrud was given her first inkle loom by her Norwegian husband, Don. The loom set off a passion for weaving pick-up bands—as well as a desire to learn their history.

She and her husband were taking a Norwegian language class in the 1990s when her teacher showed up wearing a bunad with suspenders woven in pick-up.

The quest was on.

Torgenrud’s research led her back to the day when most Norwegians lived on farms. Despite the hardship of daily life, farm women wove beautiful bands. Richly colored with intricate patterns, the bands often featured large tassels.

It was customary for a girl to weave pick-up bands as bridal gifts at her wedding and to weave a stocking band for the groom. The favored color was red, and the most common motif was patterns with crosses.

When one attended a wedding, one had to bring a couple days’ supply of food. The food basket would be covered in white linen and wrapped with the woman’s distinctive pick-up band, making it easily recognizable when it was time to return home.

Babies were swaddled in these bands, which were thought to possess magical powers of protection.

Everyday dress was plain, but Torgenrud notes that a pick-up belt could be worn to church. These bands were used in the forerunners of the bunad.

While such bands and ribbons have been used since the Iron Age, use in folk dress traditions dates back to at least 1600. Gradually, communities adopted official band-woven patterns to adorn their bunads.

Norwegian Pick-up Bandweaving is festive with photographs and pattern charts from the Vesterheim Norwegian-American Museum collections, including belts brought over to America with early Norwegian immigrants. Each belt tells its own story. Laurann Gilbertson, chief curator of the museum, notes in the book, “Bands are small in size, but they are large in function, history, and folklore.”

And so, with every passing of my wooden shuttle between layers of red wool warp on my loom, I feel linked to my ancestors and grateful to be immersed in this most Norwegian technique for creating practical beauty.

This article originally appeared in the Oct. 23, 2015, issue of the Norwegian American Weekly.

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The Norwegian American

The Norwegian American is North America's oldest and only Norwegian newspaper, published since May 17, 1889.