Playing with yarn: Raine Navin and Gunilla Skyttla

There will probably never be another pair of artistic provocateurs like Raine Navin and his wife, Gunilla Skyttla. Textile artists who studied at Konstfack, the design school in Stockholm, they settled in Kalmar, on the east coast of Sweden, in the early 1960s. Both taught, and Raine worked for the Kalmar County Crafts association from 1963 to 1981. Together and individually, their principal mode of being was playful, a very serious playfulness. Raine and Gunilla rarely met a material or an object which did not interest them, which they could not use to make a visual pun or a meaningful metaphor for something either joyful or painful — or both. Their images, objects, things — including Raine’s textile designs and Gunilla’s many heart and angel forms—were always startling— usually insightful, occasionally inscrutable. In their work, they emphasized the need to see things anew, to re-invent and re-create. Re-creation for them really was recreation.

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Raine and Gunilla in their home/studio, Rolf Lind photo.

 

 Raine Navin, Hat made out of Christmas ornament, his version of a “Star   boy” hat like that worn by little boys in a St Lucia day celebration. (Illustration from Elsa Beskow, Swedish childrens’ book author/illustrator, from her book Stjärngosse). Raine loved hats of any kind, and seems to have taken any excuse to make odd things into unique headgear.

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Raine Navin, Bicycle wheel, snow/sweater/snow tire. Reproduced in En Livs Levande Bok.
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Raine Navin, wire sculpture called “Childish and Grown-up” (“Barnslight och vuxet“). To me the ball of fibers recalls the balls of many kinds of materials collected by children, but the wire hook is a utilitarian adult use of material. Combined in a single object here, the form is thought-provoking.
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Gunilla Skytlla, Wire heart with buttons. Wire, for both Raine and Gunilla, was a kind of substitute for thread or yarn, and it appears frequently in their created objects.

Born in the same year, 1934, Raine and Gunilla were both were somewhat self-invented people, rare in Swedish society. Gunilla was originally Maj Gunilla Elisabet Pettersson, but embarking on a weaving career, she gave herself the rhyming name of Gunilla Skyttla, with skyttla being the Swedish word for “shuttle.” Raine was born Sten Raine Navin, with his last name a shortened form of his grandfather’s Russian name, Navitzonok. Raine learned to knit at age five from his father’s mother and took to it avidly. By age 13 or 14, he was featured in a magazine article showing how he had knit sweaters and socks for his family (with two brothers looking on admiringly in the article’s photos). He seems to have known that his interests in textiles and flowers would not be viewed as boyish pursuits, but his parents were supportive, and he made certain adaptations: carrying his knitting bag inside another more conventional boy’s satchel, for example .

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Raine Navin, knitting, age 13 or 14. Magazine source unknown; photos reproduced in En Livs Levande Bok.

After Raine finished school, his father arranged a job for him in the yarn department of the large department store, Nordiska Kompaniet (at at time when Swedish department stores had yarn departments!). He also worked as a hotel bellboy (a “piccolo” in Swedish) and he knit sweaters for a photographic model, a woman who encouraged him to go to art school. He applied and was apparently accepted (on the basis of his portfolio?) as Miss Raine Navin. But his experience at art school set his course for life. And there he met Gunilla. The beginning of the 60s in Sweden, was a time that, as elsewhere, the traditional boundaries of crafts were breaking down and there was more experimentation allowed. Under Edna Martin, then head of the textile department at Konstfack, students were actively encouraged to think of their work as art as much as the craft it had always been.

Raine was hired at South Kalmar County Crafts Association (Södra Kalmar läns hemslöjdföreningen) in 1963 as a designer of embroidery kits for the home embroiderer. Gunilla arrived a few years later, having worked in Stockholm as a weaver of rugs and cloth, to take over the full-time teaching of children’s classes, which “Uncle Raine” had been doing. Raine’s apparently inexhaustible creativity found outlet in ways which brought new customers to the Crafts Association store. He made it impossible to think of crafts as boring, as things old people did, when the shop had fantastic new windows each week, flowers on the door step and lively and funny announcements in the papers.

Gunilla taught the very popular children’s classes for the Crafts Association until 1971 and her  classes were full, with 120 students a week.  Her method of teaching allowed and encouraged children to find their own ways of expressing ideas.

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A Viking boat, made in one of Gunilla’s childrens’ classes. Photo Rolf Lind, used with permission, from book Varp och Vävt.

Embroidery was a textile form which both Raine and Gunilla found congenial. This post will look at embroidery by both of them, but primarily by Raine since my visit to Kalmar County Crafts Association gave me access to more of his material than hers. (A later post will look at Raine’s designs for rugs). Ann-Marie Forsberg had been Raine and Gunilla’s embroidery teacher at Konstfack, and Raine’s designs frequently echo the whimsicality of his teacher’s work. Navin also had a strong graphic sense, and many of his designs have a kind of lively randomness, an spontaneity about them, even though they were actually very carefully thought out.

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Raine Navin, Watercolor sketch for “ Bouquet” (“Buketten”), date and intended use unknown. Kalmar läns hemslöjd item identification number KLH 479 1246.
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Raine Navin, Embroidered tree, unidentified pattern, and undated, intended use unknown. Kalmar läns hemslöjd item identification number KLH 479 12 xx.
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Raine Navin,Cross stitch embroidered table mat used as model in County Crafts shop, pattern called “Apple Box” (“Appelrutan). Photo from digitaltmuseum.se, identifier: HKLH-1304. Production date noted as 1968. (Permission obtained from Kalmar läns hemslöjdförenigen to use image).

Gunilla’s embroidery was less purely decorative and more about ideas. It was a way of integrating her thoughts and observations of the world, quite literally working them out. She had a kind of casual disregard for the neat precision of traditional embroidery, yet at the same time explored interesting spatial relationships—hardly the traditional embroidery subject.

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Gunilla Skyttla, “People on an escalator “1960-61 Photo by Rolf Lind from En Livs Levande Bok, used with permission.

Raine did many many designs for home embroidery kits for South Kalmar County Crafts Association (Södra Kalmar läns hemslöjdförenigen) — for cushions, tablecloths, and other small items. One author says “a steady stream” of these designs “poured” from Raine’s hands.  These items were very popular. His patterns have both structure and at the same time the bolder coloration and looser forms typical of 1960s textile designs. Flowers were a frequent subject. It is fun to see examples of his design sketches, working drawings with colors of embroidery thread indicated, and the finished products. The traditional method of transferring an embroidery design to fabric was by “pouncing,” or piercing a tracing-paper pattern with holes and then pushing graphite or pigment through the holes in a spreading or pouncing motion so as to recreate the pattern on the fabric before embroidering it. There are a few examples of these tracing-paper patterns among Raine’s material in the archives as well. Notes on sketches also capture Raine’s breezy notes to those who worked with him.

Many of Raine’s designs look very casual, but for none of the designs in the Kalmar archive is there a full record of all of the stages a design passed through to become the product available to customers as an embroidery kit. But looking at the archival material for a number of his pieces makes the process more apparent.

 

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Raine Navin, Water color sketch of “Happy flowers” (“Gladblomster “) embroidery design.1963. Kalmar läns hemslöjd item identification number KLH 479 1256.
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Raine Navin, Working drawing for “Gladblomster” embroidery design for a cushion. Kalmar läns hemslöjd item identification number KLH 479 1256. Colors of yard are numbered on sketch.
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Raine Navin, Embroidered “proof” of “Gladblomster” design. Kalmar läns hemslöjd item identification number KLH 479 1256.
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Raine Navin, “Gladblomster” embroidery. Photo from digitaltmuseum.se, identifier: HKLH-1289. Production date noted as1963. (Permission obtained to use image).
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Raine Navin, Sketch of “Small Flowers” (“Blommer Små”), with example of small embroidered flower attached. Note on paper torn from sketchbook reads, “Little Embroidery 1 Chainstitch, stem stitch and knots intended as a small piece of jewelry cloth or pillow.” Kalmar läns hemslöjd item identification number KLH 479:1242
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Raine Navin, Detail of sketch of “Small Flowers” (“Blommer Små”), with example of small embroidered flower attached. Undated. Kalmar läns hemslöjd item identification number KLH 479:1242
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Raine Navin, One view of pierced tracing paper used to transfer pattern of Blommer Små image to fabric for embroidery. Kalmar läns hemslöjd item identification number KLH 479:1242.

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Raine Navin, Another view of pierced tracing paper used to transfer pattern of Blommer Små image to fabric for embroidery. Kalmar läns hemslöjd item identification number KLH 479:1242.

 

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Raine Navin, Tracing-paper sketch of “Blue Flower” (“Blå blom”), a table mat, 1965. Kalmar läns hemslöjd item identification number KLH 479:1243.

 

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Raine Navin, “Blå blom,” embroidered 13” table mat. Photo from digitaltmuseum.se, identifier HKLH-1286. Production date noted as 1965. (Permission obtained to use image).

 

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Raine Navin, Sketch for “Frost Butterflies” (“Frostfjärilar”), 1967. Kalmar läns hemslöjd item identification number KLH 479:1253.

 

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Raine Navin, Detail of another sketch for “Frost Butterflies,” with size of finished object noted as 75 cm x75 cm or 29- 1/2” square— thus, probably intended as a tablecloth. The note in the corner of this sketch reads: “Please, Mrs Loberg, print with as weak a color as possible. Greetings, Raine Navin.” Kalmar läns hemslöjd item identification number KLH 479:1253.
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Raine Navin. Design for “The Seed Pod” (“Fröhuset”), undated. A note in the corner reads, “Good day Mrs Loberg. Here is finally a new pattern and I /wish you a happy spring! Kalmar läns hemslöjd item identification number KLH 479:1254.
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Raine Navin, Ink version of Seed Pod design with descriptive lettering around the edge. This would be reproduced to be used for the packaging of the embroidery kits. “Mönster” means “pattern.” Kalmar läns hemslöjd item identification number KLH 479:1254.
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Raine Navin, Sketch addition to design for “The Seed Pod” (“Fröhuset”). Note reads, “ Good day, Mrs. Loberg! Is it possible to add to the Seed Pod pattern with the small dots here?” With this sketch, Raine seems to be rethinking and adding some definition to the pattern already under production. Kalmar läns hemslöjd item identification number KLH 479:1254.
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Raine Navin, Carbon copy version of design with dots proposed in last sketch now added to the final design. This was probably the copy which served as the cover of the embroidery kit, showing stitches to be used, and letters coded to color numbers for embroidery thread. Whether “Sonia Forsgren Color” (right hand side) was the supplier of the colored embroidery thread, or perhaps provided a color sketch of the piece, I don’t know. Kalmar läns hemslöjd item identification number KLH 479:1254.

After Raine stopped working for the Kalmar County Crafts Association, he and Gunilla began to bring their work to a wider audience. Like both the 1945 Swedish children’s book character, Pippi Longstocking, and the 1950’s French film character, Monsieur Hulot, whose hilarious and disruptive encounters with society delighted readers and film audiences, Raine and Gunilla brought a kind of performance art to their craft workshops, classrooms and lectures. Their ebullience, generosity and humor—probably as much as their instruction— was the basis for their great popularity. Years before respect became mandated and politically-correct, their kindness and delight in working with all kinds of people won them friends across Sweden.

And their own out-of-the-box creativity gave encouragement to others’ unconventional solutions to artistic problems. One student, the textile artist Karin Jonsson remembers having Raine Navin as a professor at the University of Design and Art, HDK in Gothenburg during the 1990s.. She recalled,

“He used to start his lectures by shouting “Hello all my beautiful flowers” and then one became one of those flowers in his bouquet. He made people bloom. You were always warm, surrounded by this love and the joy both between them and to the work they did in art, but there was also a great deal of seriousness.”

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Photograph of Raine Navin at a Kalmar County Craft Association workshop. Photo by Agneta Gefors with permission.

Raine turned to his art for serious reasons as well, particularly as a way of coming to terms with the death of those he loved. For Raine, the sweaters he had made for his family members were particularly evocative of each of them. When one of his brothers died in 1984, Raine took back a sweater he had knit him, and finding a form which had the simplicity of Greek tragedy, he unravelled it into five balls of yarn, titling these “My brother is dead.” And another photograph shows Raine’s response to the death of his aunt: he is floating with one her sweaters.

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Raine Navin, “My brother is dead,”  1984. Photo by Rolf Lind from En Livs Levande Bok, used with permission.
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Raine Navin, “ Aunt Jessie is dead” 1995; cardigan knit 1947. Photo by Rolf Lind from En Livs Levande Bok, used with permission.

Gunilla looked at darkness too. She described the piece shown below as a response to reading about one author’s long journey back to life from serious illness. She had made her spangled heart embroidery, but decided she needed to cut it in half to let her cuts mark that “borderland between life and death,” and to enlarge it (by leaving the two sides open). She said that the wanted this little heart “to show that love is limitless, infinite and holds all people.”

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Gunilla Skytlla, “Journey” (“Resan”) embroidery, undated. Photo by Rolf Lind from En Livs Levande Bok, used with permission.

For both Raine and Gunilla, work with textiles lead to work with all kinds of materials, and all kinds of people. Their careers as Swedish textile artists were certainly less conventional than those of many others, and rugs and tapestries were not their primary focus. Yet they both produced all sorts of embroidered and crafted objects. They had great fun making things together and included many many people in that joyful pursuit. The two photos below capture their pleasure in being together and in working with others. They were a unique team!

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Gunilla Skyttla and Raine Navin, in photo published 6/10/12 on website of Vestabularis, a medical research organization in Kalmar.
30. Raine and Gunilla in Östra Småland Nyheterna .se photo Paulina Neuding 12-23-17
Gunilla Skyttla and Raine Navin, from article (published after their death in 2016) in Östra Småland Nyheterna. Photo Paulina Neuding

Sources
Alm,Helene, interview on Swedish radio: https://sverigesradio.se/sida/artikel.aspx?programid=478&artikel=6456465

Asmundsson, Karin, “Navin och Skyttla hyllas på museet” in Östra Småland Nyheterna, 21 November 2017.

Bojin, Agneta Mattisson, article about Gunilla Skyttla. Väv magazine 1-2014

digitaltmuseum.se Images and short biographical statement by unidentified author. Permission to use images granted by Kalmar läns hemslöjdföreningen.

Gefors, Agneta, “Hemslöjdens käraste par–Raine & Gunilla,” in Sinne för slöjd, Kalmar läns hemslöjd publication, Summer 2008.

Jeppson, Tina and Gunilla Petri. Rolf Lind, photographer. En Livs Levande Bok om Raine Navin och Gunilla Skyttla. Hallén & Hallgren Förlag, 1999. Permission granted to reproduce photos by Rolf Lind from this book.

Kalmar läns hemslöjd archives, now located in designarkivet building in Pukeberg, Sweden. Permission granted to use photos taken of the Kalmar County Craft Association collection (Kalmar läns hemslöjdsföreningen). Kalmar läns hemslöjdsföreningen shall be named as the owner of the collection. These photographs may not be reproduced without permission. The individual artifacts depicted are protected by copyright, and the names of the creators behind the photographed objects will follow the photos at publication. With thanks to Agneta Gefors, Hemslöjdskonsultent.  Photos of sketches and weaving proofs not otherwise identified are from this collection, photographed by Anne Whidden, September, 2018.

Kalmar Läns Tidning, Undated and unsigned newspaper article, “Raine vill leva i 80 år till! “

Lundahl, Gunilla,  Varp och Väft /Textilkonstnärerna och hemslöjden,  Hemslöjdens småskrifter no 1, 1994.

Martin, Edna and Beate Sydnoff, Svensk Textilkonst / Swedish Textile Art, LiberForlag Stockholm, 1979.

Website of Gunilla and Raine’s friends: https://gunillaochraine.se/raine-navin/ with statements, remembrances and photos of them.

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