Textile Society of America


Date of this Version



Textiles as Cultural Expressions: Proceedings of the 11th Biennial Symposium of the Textile Society of America, September 24–27, 2008, Honolulu, Hawaii


Copyright 2008 by the author.


As you may know, Norway is located far north in Europe. We have a cold climate with a short summer, during which nature almost explodes. The country is sparsely populated, and because only 2 per cent of the land is suited for farming, Norwegians never supported themselves exclusively from growing crops. Multi-tasking and trading have always been necessary to survive “on top of the globe.”

Despite the short summers, sources for all the rainbow colors can be found in nature. Plants, trees, bark, lichen, shrubs, mushrooms, seaweed and even purple snails (Nucella lapillus), are something the old Norsemen and women were aware of and used, not only on their home made textiles, but also as trading commodities. Sheep wool, linen, hemp and nettle were the most common fibers and from trading trips abroad (some would probably call these trips with different names) the Norwegians developed a taste for silk fabrics as well. The silk was, of course, used by the wealthiest only.

Bright colors in textiles have a long tradition in Norway. The old Viking sagas and findings show that household textiles and apparel were created in bright reds, yellows and blues, when people could afford them. Wooden household items and interiors in churches and homes were usually painted in bright colors too. This is no wonder, since our natural colors most of the year are tones of whites, grey, black, brown, blues and dark green (where needle trees are growing.) During the times before electricity, the dark time of the year must have felt even darker.

Trading with other people, imported dyes like indigo and cochineal were introduced, but this was not an immediate success. Norwegians loved their local blue dyes made from the woad plant, which gave a yellower blue than the indigo or lichen. For some time the daring risked being killed if they were discovered using the foreign indigo blue. The risk was probably taken as a matter of taste for the color, but the regulation was probably a way to protect the domestic woad production.