Tracing Patterns of the North

by Sigrid Quemby and Gill Speirs


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'Don't go looking for Antarctica without this book.' - Susan Solomon




Part One: From Byzantium to Bergen

Today many people are attracted into the Arctic regions most often in pursuit of important scientific or geographical information. But, just occasionally, the Arctic becomes the arena where young people go to race across the ice to explore the snowy wasteland, in traditional 'dare and do' style.

Yet history suggests it wasn't always so. For in the past people of the North travelled out of the Arctic regions rather than deeper into their homeland searching for new sea routes or to claim new lands and make other discoveries abroad.

The sagas speak of legendary journeys made in ancient times, right across the top of the world to Iceland and Greenland and onwards to America. However, it is often forgotten that between the eighth and eleventh centuries the Vikings also sailed south, not only to England but down to the Mediterranean, trading with, or plundering in, Spain, Sicily and Byzantium, for these Scandinavians were in turn both robber and merchant. It is known they were in Africa and Italy around 860AD and formed part of the Varangian Guard in Byzantium in 1000AD.

On their journeys the Vikings would have seen many wonderful buildings, the Great Mosque of Cordoba or the most precious Chapel of the Mihrab for example. All were richly decorated with plaster filigree and mosaics of incomparable beauty. In addition there were the gorgeous carpets and textiles which also featured exotic designs, including the motif of the pomegranate and clouds of heaven.

Famous stories tell of traders who returned to Norway from the Mediterranean with magnificent clothes made from silks, and it is thought to be from this time that the pomegranate/palmette pattern may first have been seen or introduced into Norway.

In 1258 it is recorded that a marriage took place in Bergen between Kristina, daughter of King Haakon IV, to Don Philipus of Castile, an unusual alliance, but one nonetheless which underlines the political and cultural links which existed between the north and south at that early date. Certainly both the pomegranate/palmette-based designs can be directly traced back to Spain and Moorish influence.

No doubt the introduction of rich silks and damasks into Scandinavia would have made a dazzling impression in the more isolated Nordic communities and quickened their desire to acquire something of the latest patterns and styles. These would have been soon copied or adapted into their own embroideries and woven textiles, and clearly the pomegranate or palmette pattern was a favourite one.

Eventually, the pattern became fully integrated into the repertoire of the Norwegian weavers, from Gubrandsdal to Lillehammer, and it was melded by them into something quintessentially Norwegian.

By the sixteenth/seventeenth century the traditional Norwegian woven and embroidered designs had developed roughly into three main groups:

  • Designs abstracted from nature, for example, the palmette/pomegranate pattern, the cloud pattern and the lightning pattern.
  • Geometric designs, influenced by Eastern European carpets motifs and Mosaics.
  • Figurative designs which mainly feature stories from the Bible, and in particular parables such as the Wise and Foolish Virgins.
  • The woven textiles featured here all belong to the first group of designs, designs which were both abstracted out of nature and inspired by cultural links and trade from abroad. The patterns were easy to adapt to large or small scale, from cushion covers to complete wall hangings of considerable size.

    The large-scale woven hanging illustrated below is from the Sandvigske Samlinger collection in the Maihaugen Museum, Lillehammer. It is a really beautiful example of how the pattern finally evolved. The design has been transformed into an image which now seems to relate directly to the Norwegian landscape, rather than Cordoba. Many of the surviving examples have a strong overall consistency in the use of colour. The chosen palette of light blues, dark blue and terracotta is a reflection of the surrounding forests, fjords and skies. It was also given a Norwegian name, skybragt monster - cloud pattern.

    Equally popular at this period was the lynild monster (lightning pattern). The inspiration for this must surely be the great winter night skies of the North. Cushions and hangings with technicolour flickers and shimmers so skilfully woven across the entire surface, emulate the display of the Northern Lights, as it is so often seen in the Arctic. The fact that several versions of this pattern have survived confirms how very popular and much loved this design must have been, and what a delight to have in the home, to light up the long days of darkness.

    These are rare examples of woven hangings to survive from the Far North which display old patterns and all are carefully preserved in museums in Bergen, Trondheim, Oslo and Stockholm. It would seem that within the traditional arts and crafts of Scandinavia there still lingers a trace of far distant cultures and influences, and these should all be treasured as a testimony to those awe-inspiring and epic voyages the Vikings once made.




    Wilfrid Blunt (1976) Splendours of Islam, Viking Press, New York
    Ernst Fischer (1969) Från Granätapple till Skybragdt, Norsk Folkemuseums Årbok 1968-69
    J. Graham-Campbell and D. Kydd, The Viking, British Museum Publications, London
    Thor B. Kielland (1955) Norsk Billedvev 1550-1800, Gyldendal Norsk Forlag, Oslo
    Rene Planchenault, l'Apocalypse d'Angers, Caisse National des Monuments Historiques, Paris
    A. Santangelo, The Development of Italian Textile Design, A. Zwemmer Ltd, London
    W.S. Sevensma, Tapestries, Merlin Press, London
    Aase Bay Sjovold, Norwegian Tapestries, C. Huitfeldt Forlag A/S, Oslo
    Gill Speirs and Sigrid Quemby (1985) A Treasury of Embroidery Designs, Bell and Hyman, London
    Lilli Zickerman(1937) Sveriges Folkliga Textilekonst, Rolakan Aktiebolaget Svensk Litteratre, Stockholm

    © Sigrid Quemby and Gill Speirs. Gill Speirs studied at the Slade School of Fine Art before following a career in publishing. Sigrid Quemby also studied at the Slade School of Fine Art and has continued to work in the arts both as a teacher and freelance artist. Sigrid and Gill have collaborated on many projects, including the book The Embroiderer's Treasury published in 1985 by Bell and Hyman.

    All drawings and photographs © Sigrid Quemby, with the exception of the Sandvigske Samlinger wall hanging reproduced here with kind permission from the Maihaugen Museum, Norway.



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