The early history of Norwegian tapestry is rather obscure. However, in spite of the lack of documentary sources, surviving tapestries and implements for weaving enable the main lines of development to be traced. The wall hanging from Baldishol Church, Hedmark (c. early 13th century; Oslo, Kstindustmus.), is the only Scandinavian example of medieval tapestry weave. The two figures depicted are believed to represent the months of April and May. The scene resembles European, particularly French, iconography and figurative compositions on the portals of a few Norwegian stave churches. The Baldishol tapestry has consequently sometimes been held to be an imported work, but most scholars believe it was woven in a provincial but Western-orientated craft milieu in Norway.
Renaissance tapestry weaving in Norway did not build on medieval traditions but was inspired by foreign influences. In the second half of the 16th century immigrant weavers, probably both men and women, must have started small workshops in a few towns. Wall hangings and other textiles attributed to them have stylistic similarities to provincial work from north Germany and Schleswig. Only one professional weaver, Johanne Jensdatter, has left a trace in contemporary written sources; burnt as a witch in Bergen in 1594, she had run a tapestry workshop with apprentices. Non-professional female weavers from prosperous town and civil service families are known to have produced tapestries at the end of the 16th century and during the 17th. In the 17th century, tapestry-weaving skills spread to various districts, notably Gudbrandsdal. Among women, it became a specialized domestic craft, both for sale and for domestic use. Tapestries, above all coverlets and cushion covers, comprised a vital part of vernacular art until c. 1760. With a few exceptions, the over 200 surviving coverlets show biblical scenes, probably copied from older tapestries woven in the towns (e.g. Feast of Herod, late 18th century; Oslo, Kstindustmus.). There was a development from relative realism to an expressive, but flatter, stylization.
The formation of museums of applied arts in Christiania (now Oslo; 1876), Bergen (1887) and Trondheim (1893) encouraged a renewed interest in traditional Norwegian tapestry; at the same time these museums actively encouraged new weaving based on national traditions. The textile artist Frida Hansen (1855–1931) and the painter Gerhard Munthe led a renaissance of tapestry c. 1900. Hansen drew her own cartoons and also taught and ran a large workshop. She won international recognition at the Paris Exposition Universelle in 1900, and her tapestries and portières in a transparent weaving technique are in many European museums . However, as an internationally orientated artist she was out of step with the Norwegian art world. In 1889, Munthe began to design weaving patterns for his wife, based on traditional Norwegian coverlets woven in a technique known as rölakan. In 1893, he exhibited illustrations of folk tales in a new style ideal for weaving. The Noerdenfjeldske Kunstindustrimuseum in Trondheim bought several of his cartoons and drawings for use in its weaving school and workshop, in operation from 1898 until 1909.
Interest in tapestry weaving declined in the 1920’s, although one innovator, the Swedish-born Hannah Ryggen (1894–1970), did emerge. She wove her tapestries directly on the loom without using cartoons, and her lively, imaginative work conveys strong social and political convictions. In 1950, the Kunstindustrimuseum in Oslo and the Norske Husflidsforening (the Norwegian Association for Arts and Crafts) together started the Norsk Billedvev, a tapestry studio that was active until 1967 and received a number of public commissions for monumental wall hangings. The tapestry cartoons, most depicting allegories, were drawn by such painters as Kåre Jonsborg (1912–77) and Haakon Stenstadvold (1912–77), who worked in a style that was construed as being within the national tapestry tradition. Modernism entered Norwegian textile art with the work of Synnøve Anker Aurdal (b 1908), who progressed from traditional tapestries to monumental textiles built up with such materials as nylon and metal thread. During the 1960’s Polish tapestry inspired several young textile artists, with Brit Fuglevaag (b 1939) in the forefront. This led to a break with the Norwegian tradition as materials and techniques became directly expressive and the textiles three-dimensional. In the 1970’s many textile artists produced tapestries that were concerned with social and political issues. Few younger artists became interested in tapestry at the end of the 20th century.
Professional craft and later industrial textile manufacturer has always been relatively minor in Norway. Until the 20th century, the production of textiles both for display and for use was mostly a domestic craft done by women. Many older kinds of implements that disappeared elsewhere in Europe (e.g. the warp-weighted loom) therefore stayed in use in Norway. The horizontal treadle loom was probably introduced to Norway during the Middle Ages, but the first weavers known by name were entered on the list of Bergen citizens as late as 1574. Weavers’ guilds were formed in a few towns only at the end of the 17th century and during the 18th. In the same period, small factories were founded, primarily for the production of simpler textiles for clothing, but none lasted long. Mechanized production began in the first half of the 19th century and reached its peak at the end of the century; it declined sharply in the 1970’s.
Among the various kinds of decorative textiles made in Norway, those with woven or embroidered patterns were the most common. They were used as furnishing textiles, ecclesiastical textiles and for costumes. Most of the surviving examples from the 17th century to the end of the 18th were made in rural districts, using a number of techniques. Long horizontal wall hangings were made from pre-Christian times to the 17th century. Fragments of such hangings were found in a ship-burial at Oseberg (9th century; Oslo, U. Oldsaksaml.). They show epic scenes with parades of people, animals and vehicles. The figures were woven in colored wool on a ground with a woolen warp and a linen weft (now partly disintegrated). They are filled in with different brocaded patterns, the contours of which are woven in a variant of the soumak technique. The textiles were probably made in a professional workshop attached to the noble household to which the woman buried in the ship belonged. Medieval Norwegian textiles in pick-up double cloth are decorated with geometric interlace patterns. The patterns, in colored wool against a white linen ground, have Late Romanesque features. These textiles came from churches, but their original use is uncertain. Horizontal wall hangings from the 17th century showing bridal processions have been preserved (Oslo, Norsk Flkmus.). Coverlets, coffin and cushion covers in woolen pick-up double cloth were woven in Gudbrandsdal and Trøndelag into the 19th century; their motifs originated in the pattern books of the Renaissance. Rölakan coverlets were woven primarily in west Norway but were sold to other parts of the country. Although they cannot be traced back further than the 18th century with certainty, the technique is probably older. The rectilinear patterns, built up of small squares, are eight-petaled roses, wall-knots etc. Rölakan coverlets continued to be made until the 1930’s. From the 1860’s onwards, some women combined traditional motifs with others taken from international embroidery patterns.
Apart from small fragments of embroidery found in the Oseberg ship, the earliest surviving embroidered textiles date from the Middle Ages. A horizontal wall hanging from Høylandet Church in Trøndelag depicts the Three Wise Men (early 13th century; U. Trondheim, Kon. Norske Videnskabers Selskab Mus.). The figures are outlined in white linen thread in stem stitch on a ground of red wool fabric. They are filled in with several geometric motifs worked in pattern darning, using colored wool and white linen thread. The design has certain similarities to English manuscript illumination of the St Albans school, and it has been suggested that the hanging was made in a professional embroidery workshop. A few professional embroiderers are known from the 17th and 18th centuries, but earlier Norwegian embroideries were mostly of domestic production. Urban embroidery followed international fashions, but country regions developed distinctive styles. Few 20th-century Norwegian designers have worked with embroidery.
Fabric printing flourished after the Statens Håndverks- og Kunstindustriskole in Oslo started a printing workshop in 1950. The craft centre PLUS in Frederikstad played an important role in its development, and several artists who had worked at PLUS set up their own studios in the 1960’s. In the 1950’s and 1960’s printed fabrics were mostly used for clothing and interior decoration, but in the next two decades fabric printing was increasingly regarded as an art form. The designs were inspired by various sources, including Norwegian folk art, graphic arts and textiles from other cultures. Among the printers who have played an important role, both with their own work and as teachers, are Inger Gulbrandsen (b 1932), Turid Holter (b 1936), Gro Jessen (b 1938) and Bente Sætrang (b 1946). At the end of the 20th century, fabric printing was the most active area of Norwegian textiles.
R. Hauglid: The Native Arts of Norway (London, 1953)
T. Kielland: Norsk billedvev, 1550–1800 [Norwegian tapestry, 1550–1800], 3 vols. (Oslo, 1953–5)
H. Engelstad: Dobbeltvev i Norge [Pick-up double cloth in Norway] (Oslo, 1958)
M. Hoffmann: En gruppe vevstoler på Vestlandet: Noen synspunkter i diskusjonen om billedvev i Norge [A group of tapestry looms in west Norway: some aspects of the debate on Norwegian tapestry] (Oslo, 1958)
M. Hoffmann: ‘1880-årenes nye billedvev i Norge og litt om utviklingen senere’ [The new Norwegian tapestry of the 1880’s and its later development], Vestland. Kstindustmus. Åb., 1963–1968 (1969), pp. 66–105
A. B. Sjøvold: Norwegian Tapestries (Oslo, 1976)
M. Hoffmann: ‘Tekstil’, Norges kunsthistorie, ed. K. Berg and others, ii (Oslo, 1981), pp. 315–49
A. Thue: ‘Kunsthåndverket, 1940–1980’, Norges kunsthistorie, ed. K. Berg and others, vii (Oslo, 1983), pp. 350–420
M. Wang: Ruteåklœr [Rölakan coverlets] (Bergen, 1983)
A. Steen: Hannah Ryggen: En dikter i veven [Hannah Ryggen: a poet in weave] (Oslo, 1986)
A. Thue: Frida Hansen: En europeer i norsk tekstilkunst [Frida Hansen: a European in Norwegian textile art] (Oslo, 1986)
H. Danbolt: Synnøve Anker Auerdal (Oslo, 1991)
R. N. Lium: Ny norsk billedvev: Et gjennombrudd [New Norwegian pictorial weaving: a breakthrough] (Oslo, 1992)