Rita Hagenbruch – Cloth with meaning

I am the second generation product of Swedish immigrants. My maternal grandparents and siblings emmigrated during the 1920’s from Råggärd Parrish in Dalsland to Chicago. Grandma and grandpa had siblings who remained in Sweden.

About 1967, my sister and I were sent handwoven tablecloths from Sweden by my grandmother’s sister, Berta. Mine was woven by Berta. She attached a note explaining the cloth had two-panels of overshot using handspun linen for pattern weft on a cotton warp. My sister’s tablecloth is a two-panel dräll cloth woven with handspun linen also on a cotton warp. It was woven by my great-grandmother, Anna. My mother also had a few handwoven textiles, and we grew up using them with respect. We knew they came from Sweden.

I took Swedish as a foreign language in college, and in 1973, I traveled to Dalsland to visit my relatives from both my grandma and grandpa’s families. It was there that I first placed a shuttle through a warp. It was a Monk’s Belt warp for curtains in the farmhouse kitchen windows of my grandfather’s sister-in-law, Elna. My weaving history had just begun!

As time went on and the generations before me expired, many of their handwoven and embroidered textiles that came to America have found their way to me. They are so inspiring, and I treasure them.

My mother’s cousin, Emmy and her Homestead Association have written three history books about the Råggärd Parrish. The latest book, published in 2000, is titled Folk och gårder I Råggärd which translates People and farms in Råggärd.It is a chronological record of the history during the 1800’s and 1900’s of the farms and farm life.

In this book is a testimony by Anna Larsson on the process of cultivating flax and harvesting the linen. She described that the flax seeds were sown in May, and the plants were pulled up by the roots when the seeds started to rattle in the seed pod. This would have been around August. The seeds were saved for future crops and the rest were pressed for linseed oil. The stalks were placed thinly on the ground and it took at least two weeks to dew ret the flax if there was rain. Then they built a fire pit, over which they placed poles to dry the retted flax.

Anna related the arduous process of harvesting the linen fibers. The dry flax was put into the flax break and then was scutched and hackelled. In her home, they had three spinning wheels going because all the linen needed to be spun by Christmas. After Christmas, the weaving began. Before weaving the linen, they cooked the linen in birch ash lye. Of this the finest linen was woven into tablecloths. For towels and sheets, it was suitable to use the lesser quality. The weaving needed to be completed by the end of March in order to bleach the fabric on the remaining snow.

I grew up on a dairy farm in Harvard, IL and am in awe that all this occurred every year they planted flax along with all the other chores and duties of living on a farm.

My grandparents and their siblings did not weave after they came to the USA. Spinning and weaving for them, as you can see, was not a hobby but a part of daily life in Sweden. As immigrants, they came to new challenges.

I am blessed to have been able to view through the window into their lives in Dalsland, Sweden. This gives great meaning to the textiles that I have inherited and collected. I am truly in awe of all it took to accomplish the task of weaving these fine linens.

I recognize how really blessed I am to be able to weave today with all the beautiful yarns conveniently available from mail order companies and local shops. Weaving is my hobby and what I look forward to do with my free time. I am honored to be able to share this passion and appreciation with handweavers today.

Rita L. Hagenbruch

Editor's Note: Rita is a frequent contributor to Handwoven. If you are interested in inviting her to be a guest teacher, you can find her on Weaving Today.

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