Reviews / Comptes rendus - Catherine C. Cole, ed., Norwegian Immigrant Clothing and Textiles

Reviews / Comptes rendus

Catherine C. Cole, ed., Norwegian Immigrant Clothing and Textiles

Dorothy K. Burnham
Canadian Museum of Civilization

1 In May 1987 at the Beaver House Gallery in Edmonton an interesting gathering took place. Canadian and American researchers came together with a Norwegian costume expert to discuss what information exists concerning the clothing worn in North America by Norwegian immigrants and to what extent the textile making skills of the homeland were utilized as adjustment was made to a pioneering life. It is not easy to gather the necessary funds for a publication and to expend the energy necessary to turn the passing excitement of a one day seminar into a permanent contribution but, with this small book, that has been accomplished. Congratulations to the Prairie Costume Society and Catherine C. Cole, editor, and to all others who have worked on the project.

2 The publication is well designed, the cover is attractive, the format excellent but the type is rather too small for comfort. The size is modest, but within its slender 113 pages there are five important essays concerning a so-far almost ignored subject. The essays provide easy and interesting reading even for the nonspecialist. As the texts are well supported by footnotes and there is a long and varied list of suggestions for further reading, the earnest student will find the way open to a rich area for costume research.

3 The scene is set by David Goa, Curator of Folk Life at the Provincial Museum of Alberta, Research Fellow of the Calgary Institute for the Humanities, lecturer in Religious Studies at the University of Alberta and himself of Norwegian descent, a combination of experience that provides rich insights for his introductory essay. Humour there is but, as with so many others who found their way to North America, emigrants from Norway were making a serious escape from a way of life that was becoming increasingly difficult both economically and religiously. Facts are given concerning areas of settlement, dates and sizes of the waves of newcomers but, more importantly, the thrusts back of the decision to emigrate are brought into focus: a growing desire for democracy, the spread of education generating a middle class that had little to look forward to in Norway and, above all, the strength of the pietist movement. In ten very thought provoking pages a firm foundation is provided for the costume research contained in the papers that make up the rest of the book.

4 The second essay, "Tradition and Transition: Norwegian Costume from Norway to the United States 1840-1880," is by the well-known authority, Aagot Noss, head curator and in charge of the folk costume department at the Norsk Folkemuseum, Oslo. As indicated by the title, only costumes worn in Norway and their adaptation to life in the United States are covered. An interesting body of information is given and the references from letters written home are fascinating, providing rich and very human insights into the changes the newcomers were facing. One wishes very strongly that similar quotes from letters written from Canada could have been given; but, in spite of the later time frame for settlement on this side of the border much of the information is relevant.

5 The third article "Immigrant Handweaving in the Upper Midwest," also concentrates on the United States. The author, Dr. Carol Colburn, as a graduate museology student had an internship at Vesterheim in Decorah, Iowa and the opportunity to study the western immigrant textile experience. In her essay, she fits the Norwegian contributions in with the general picture of development as that part of the country opened up: home production, professional work on a local scale, small factory work and finally, all processes out of the home and into large factories. As the area of settlement she deals with predates the Norwegian presence on the Canadian prairies, only part of the information she gives applies directly to a Canadian-based textile and costume use; nevertheless, her information provides valuable background for Canadian Norwegian studies.

6 The fourth essay, "The Tradition in Alberta: A Case Study of Valhalla Centre," by Heather Prince, is apparently based on research done for a Master's thesis for the University of Alberta. Valhalla Centre, in northwestern Alberta, was founded as a Norwegian Lutheran community by a missionary -evangelist, Halvor Nilsen Ronning. Where better to look for Norwegian textile traditions? The periods of major settlement are of late date, 1912-1920 and again 1925- 1929. Many of the settlers came to Valhalla after some years in the United States and their old country traditions had already weakened. Few of those who came directly from Norway were still accustomed to wearing distinctive folk costumes but, treasured in various families, Heather Prince discovered articles of clothing and household textiles that had been brought when people came from Norway or that had been sent later by family members. She also found distinctively Norwegian taste in the embroidery done locally for such things as cushion covers and decorative table linens. It is known that Norwegian settlers did do simple weaving in Alberta, but there was no evidence for it in Valhalla. The spinning of wool was common in the community and garments knitted from the homespun yarn show the influence of Norwegian patterns. In Valhalla Centre after more than 75 years, ties with Norway were still strong.

7 The fifth essay, "The Farvolden Collection of Norwegian Costumes and Textiles," by Barbara Schweger of the Boreal Institute for Northern Studies, describes in considerable detail material brought by one family who came from the Telemark region to Alberta. Most immigrants arrived with few possessions but the Farvolden exit from Norway in the years following 1922 must have been a major operation. It seems that nothing was left behind and the numerous large crates that came with them contained not only the useful things needed to start a new life but family treasures and memorabilia of all kinds. What remains has now been given to the Alberta Provincial Museum in Edmonton and as most pieces have good documentation they provide a valuable resource for those interested in Norwegian decorative arts and costume. Disappointingly, nothing is recorded concerning the Farvolden's production after arrival in Alberta. David Goa, in his introduction, tells of a baptismal blanket woven by Nona Farvolden, donor of the collection to the Museum and to whom this volume is dedicated, but in Schweger's article there is not a word of description and no picture - possibly the article is not photogenic but it was a bit of a let down that this piece of documented Norwegian-Canadian weaving was ignored.

8 In spite of this last small criticism, this is an excellent and interesting publication and one that deserves a wide distribution.