Hardanger is typically viewed as a Norwegian needlework, named after the district on the west coast of the country. However, the roots of Hardanger stretch all the way to ancient Asia and Persia, with some Italian techniques such as reticella, also a part of this needlework’s past. (1) Many of the motifs found in Hardanger can be traced to Egypt, India, and Syria. (2)
Hardanger is the most famous of the whitework needleworks of Norway. It has always been used as a decorative type of needlework. During its most popular period, from 1650 to 1850, it was mainly used as embellishment on women’s blouses, headdresses, aprons, and men’s shirts. After 1850, it was also used on decorative items around the home. (3)
The needlework of Norway developed more slowly than the needlework of the other Scandinavian countries, mostly because the country was cut off from the European Continent by geographical barriers. (4) As a result, Hardanger did not change much from its traditional style until Norwegians began to leave their homeland. As Hardanger became known outside of the country, women began experimenting with all aspects of the needlework. Traditionally a strictly geometrical and symmetrical needlework done in white on white or ecru on ecru tones, women in Denmark and Sweden began changing the cutwork areas and began to use pastel colored materials. (5) Since the early part of the 20th century, when Norwegians began arriving in America, even more color has been added and in some cases the designs have become extremely elaborate. (6) Modern Hardanger is often done on bright colored fabrics with coordinating or contrasting threads, and in amny pieces much of the ground fabric is either covered with detailed surface work or cut away to allow for lacy openwork design.
The forerunners of Hardanger were stitched on very fine gauze netting, and when the technique became popular in Norway, it was stitched on a high count white fabric, typically linen. Again, though, migration of Norwegians led to change. As Hardanger became more popular in America, the fabric changed from the traditional high count linen to a 22-count “basketweave” fabric, known today as Hardanger fabric. (7) In the early 1900s, linen became scarce, and therefore more expensive, and needleworkers looked for an alternative fabric. Cotton became the fabric of choice mainly because it was readily available. (8)
After fading from popularity during the mid-1900s, this type of needlework enjoyed a resurgence in the 1980s and 1990s. Hardanger designers are taking advantage of the great variety in fabric and threads available for stitching, and it’s quite likely that the women who practiced this art when it was in its heyday would not recognize it today.
1., 2., 7.: Dardis, Joan Pavel. Vesterheim-The Norwegian-American Museum. Treasures in Needlework, Summer 1993, p. 61.
3., 4., 5., 6.: Nielsen, Edith. Scandinavian Embroidery: Past and Present. Charles Scribner’s Sons, New York, NY 1978.
8. Vainius, Rita. The History of Hardangersom, Part II. Caron Collection Website, accessed 9 June 2003.