From the time of her arrival at the Jönköpings County Craft Association in the fall of 1944, Ulla Kockum’s talent in embroidery design was evident. She produced many designs for embroidered products, probably to be sold as kits in the Craft Association store. In 1944, she drew at least 8 designs for cushions decorated with small fanciful flowers; in 1945 there were more cushion designs, as well as patterns for Easter- themed items: embroidered egg warmers, and table runner with a border of colorfully stylized chickens; and various red Christmas table mats embroidered in white. In 1946, Ulla produced embroidered cotton tablecloths among other products, and in 1947, a complex embroidered design for a tablecloth which she seems to have been pleased with: she modestly called the pattern, “Ulla’s Rings.”
Kockum’s embroidery designs were much admired (and purchased). A few years later in 1950, when the Jönköping County Craft Association celebrated its 40th Anniversary, Eva von Zweigbergk, a journalist for one of Sweden’s national daily papers, Dagens Nyheter, who often wrote about crafts, noted that “Before Ulla Kockum was asked to go to England to organize the teaching handicraft arts there, she composed many excellent things, shown here, for Jönköpings Hemslöjdsförening.”
While she lived in Jönköping, Ulla also met Elvind Øverengen, a refugee from war-time Norway. He worked at bookstore in Jönköping, and he and Ulla married in 1949. But before marrying, Kockum went off on an adventure. She learned of a possible job in Scotland and went to London for a job interview. Just being in London seemed exciting so soon after the war, and because Ulla had grown up with parents who spoke English, the whole idea seemed more fun than daunting. So in 1948, Ulla took a job as an “embroidery expert” in Scotland for about a year. A 1946 note in Dagens Nyheter mentions that Kockum had won a “stipendium” or scholarship of 500 SEK in 1946 from the national craft organization, Svenska Slöjdföreningen, which may have funded the interview trip to England, or underwritten some of her expenses.
In Scotland, Kockum worked for a program called the Needlework Development Scheme, begun in 1934 to improve the quality of Scottish embroidery and sewing. The sponsors of the project were the four major Scottish art schools in Aberdeen, Dundee, Edinburg and Glasgow,and the project was anonymously underwritten at least in part by J&P Coates, Ltd, Scottish manufacturers of thread and embroidery floss. Since the original intention had been for these art schools to teach young new embroidery teachers, an important objective of the program had been to develop loan collections of excellent international needlecraft in order provide their young teachers with useful and attractive models. Before the war, these collections were exhibited in schools and other public venues. a few examples from the original collections follow:
In its post-war years while Kockum was in Scotland, the project also functioned as a kind of cottage industry designed to develop a source of income for Scottish women and Scottish textile artists whose post-war living standard was precarious. During this year Kokum became aware how difficult living conditions in Britain still were. Her daughter recalls Kockum telling her that she was frequently paid for her consultations in eggs and other scarce foods.
After she returned from Scotland and was married, Kockum wrote the forward to and probably compiled the contents for a little booklet a book called “Embroideries of Sweden.” As author, her name was now “Ulla Kockum Øverengen” —spelled in the Norwegian way for this book, though in Sweden she became Ulla Kockum Överengen. It has black and white photographs and includes two of her own pieces as well as embroidery by Ann-Mari Forsberg, Kaisa Melanton, Edna Martin, Marianne Richter — who were all well-known Swedish designers of rugs and tapestries, perhaps known through British publications to those in the textile world there. There were also pieces by several other less-known designers: Kerstin Gävler, Greta Hammarquist, Gunilla Alexandersson and Ingrid Bjernefors Dalman. Kockum’s booklet on Swedish embroideries is short and hardly a definitive statement about the contemporary practice of embroidery in Sweden, but it is interesting that designs by these particular women were regarded, at least by her, as representing the best of Swedish embroidery at that moment. The conclusion to Kockum’s introduction to the little brochure about Swedish work — obviously exactly what those in Britain wanted to hear —was that “New forms are constantly being created bearing in mind our rich tradition of the past whilst catering for the needs of the present.”
While in Scotland, Kockum was befriended by a talented British embroiderer, Kathleen Whyte, 13 years older. Whyte had grown up both in Scotland and in India where she had been impressed with the vivid colors of native textiles. She had studied at the Aberdeen School of Art including drawing and embroidery with Dorthy Angus, a vigorous teacher who was committed to advancing British embroidery from the Arts and Crafts movement —beyond both the well-known crewel work designs of William Morris and that of the romantic Art Nouveau Glasgow School of embroidery around the MacDonald sisters, and towards more contemporary expression. Whyte also studied weaving with the Scottish weaver Ethel Mairet.
In 1948, the year Kockum arrived in Scotland, Whyte —with Angus’ support—was appointed embroidery and weaving lecturer in the Design and Craft section of Glasgow School of Art, a post which she held until 1974. Whyte viewed the contemporary embroidery work being done in Scandinavia as innovative and influential, and over several years, she herself traveled to Scandinavia, visiting craft centers and forming relationships with weavers and embroiderers. Quite a few of her students also noted the influence on their work of Swedish models. To what extent Whyte knew of Swedish embroidery work before meeting Kockum is unclear, but it is evident that Kockum identified outstanding contemporary Swedish designers of embroidery for Whyte and provided Whyte with important Swedish contacts.
A supporter and promoter of her students, in 1955-6, Whyte founded the Glasgow School of Art Modern Embroidery Group as a way of generating regular exhibitions of embroidery in which her students could show their work and continue to grow in their design abilities. The group was active with lectures and workshops as well as exhibitions, and was functional until the mid-1990s. Whyte also wrote a well-regarded introduction to the art of embroidery in 1982, called Design in Embroidery. A biography, Kathleen Whyte Embroiderer, by Liz Arthur was published in1989.
By the early 1950s, the Needlework Development Scheme had been extended to England as well and its collections were exhibited throughout Britain, including at the Festival of Britain in 1951. There were multiple NDS brochures put out, under their common punning title, “And So to Embroider,” showing many examples of embroidery possibilities. The brochures promoted a kind of genteel middle-class lifestyle, and offered young girls early instruction in embroidery (and later, sewing).
Cover of Needlework Development Scheme Brochure #19B
Originally those promoting the program were seeking not just old-fashioned patterns for a craft that was largely moribund in Scotland— but they were also looking for ways to adapt older patterns to fresher livelier models, and to rejuvenate embroidery so it became a living craft once again. The first of these brochures presented examples from the Scheme’s study collections — including several simple Swedish examples (by Brita Lindahl, Kerstin Holm and Ulla Kockum). The next brochure —addressed to British as well as Scottish needle artists—encouraged the adaptation of traditional embroidery examples to more contemporary purposes: a purse made based on a flower pattern found on a traditional British christening robe; a tea cosy and table mat inspired by the leaves and flowers on an embroidered Indian skirt; the yoke of a child’s dress embroidered with birds found originally on an Hungarian mat, and a “wedding smock” (whatever this is) drawing on designs from traditional designs from several English counties. Later brochures explored more contemporary needlework projects geared to children or adults.
The Needlework Development Scheme was also ambitious in its intention to bring contemporary embroidery up to the level of an art form. Not only did it teach simple stitches to women and children for their own use and pleasure, but Scottish craftswomen trained under this program at the participating art schools also produced a large range of beautiful contemporary work. Work by a number of Kathleen Whyte’s students at the Glasgow School of Art illustrates how successful the program was in training professional needlewomen. The NDS also offered encouragement to other superb British needlework artists who, although not associated with the Scottish universities, were invited to assist with the Needlework Development Scheme by providing designs for the public touring exhibitions.
Unfortunately, I can’t reproduce the following images, drawn from the Victoria and Albert Museum collection. But here is a link to the museum page with the following images: http://www.vam.ac.uk/content/articles/n/needlework-development-scheme/
–Lesley Miller, Book cover, 1959. Ribbed silk, hand embroidered with gold and silver thread , gold couching. Collection of the Victoria and Albert Museum; Museum no. CIRC.191-1962. Click on third image in image panel halfway down page. Miller was a student of Kathleen Whyte at the Glasgow School of Art.
–Beryl Dean, St. Peter, Embroidered gold silk and cotton thread on linen. Made for the NDS, 1953. Width 11.5. in Length 18.5 “. Collection of the Victoria and Albert Museum; Museum no. CIRC 196-1962. Dean was trained at the Royal School of Needlework and became the foremost British practitioner of modernist ecclesiastical embroidery, particularly famous for her use of metallic threads. Click on central image.
— Susan Riley, Machine embroidered curtain edge. Made for the NDS, 1959. Riley was a student of Beryl Dean’s, particularly interested in the use of machine-embroidery. Collection of the Victoria and Albert Museum, Museum No. CIRC.293-1962. Click on the image of mermaids in lower left of image panel.
1961 marked the end of this project when J&S Coats withdrew their funding. At that point, the some 3500 examples of embroidery collected were distributed to various British university and museum collections.
These war years in Sweden and post-war year in Scotland turned out to be the high point of Kockum’s textile career. Kockum’s training in textile design at Konstfack taught her to work at both large and small scales —not only knowing how to design rugs, but also to design textiles for home and church use, using varied weaving and embroidery techniques. As it turned out, it was her embroidery work which enabled her to provide Scotland’s newly re-energized and innovative Needlework Development Scheme with an introduction to the best in contemporary Swedish embroidery work. Kockum had more than just an adventure in 1948. She also made a surprisingly significant contribution to the mid-century revival of British needlework.
Bukowskis Auction house, Stockholm
Claesson, Anna Maria, Frostroser och tulpaner Jönköpings läns hemslöjdsförenings samling 1909-1986. Småländska kulturbilder, 2003.
Claesson, Anna Maria, Email correspondence, research in Swedish newspapers, and assistance in contacting Ulla’s family.
Crafoord Auction house, Lund, Sweden.
Glasgow School of Art archives including these pages:
Jönköpings Museum. Permission granted to use photos taken of the Jönköpings County Craft Association collection (Jönköpings läns hemslöjdsförening). The moral rights must be respected and the names of the creators behind the photographed objects will follow the photos at publications. Jönköpings läns museum shall be named as the owner of the collection.
Lunde, David, http://www.bygdeband.se — lokalhistoria på web
Morris, Paula, article on Whyte, Kathleen (1909–1996) in Women in World History: A Biographical Encyclopedia, Gale Research Inc., 2002.
Needlework Development Scheme: “An Account of its Origin and Aims,” 1951 brochure
(price 1 shilling)
Needlework Development Scheme, “Embroideries of Sweden,” with forward by Ulla Kockum- Øverengen, 1952 brochure (1 shilling/6 p).
Needlework Development Series, “Designing from Traditional Embroidery,” undated brochure, assumed to be ca 1954 on the basis of price (2 shillings/6 p).
Nicholson, Nancy, blogpost, https://nancynicholson.blogspot.com/2014/04/needlework-development-scheme.html
Överengen, Helena, phone interview with Anna Maria Claesson and subsequent email correspondence
Platen, Alvar, Släkten Kockum. 1920 (pdf ur Malmö Fornminnesförening – Minnesskrift) with link provided by Emma Hultqvist at Malmö Stad Kulturförvaltningen.
Ridderberg, Maria, at Jönköpings Museum, with particular thanks for her search for Kockum’s embroidery designs for Jönköping läns hemslöjd.
Robert Gordon University, Aberdeen https://www3.rgu.ac.uk/about/art-and-heritage-collections/needlework-development-scheme/?
Sarnäs, Anette, Archivist at Stadsarkiv Malmö for generous help finding Ulla’s relatives via the Kockum family genealogy.
University of Dundee, Dundee, Scotland, Needlework Development Scheme Embroidery Collection
Please reference as follows:
Whidden, Anne, “A Swedish Contribution to Mid-Century British Embroidery: Ulla Kockum,” theswedishrugblog (3/18/18); theswedishrugblog.wordpress.com; accessed (day/month/year)