Ethel Halvarsson was born in 1917 in Kristinehamn, Värmland, a town at the top of Lake Vänern, located about halfway between Stockholm and Oslo.
At age 17, Ethel entered the Tekniska Skolan (now Konstfack) in Stockholm, in the textile stream. She graduated in 1938 or ’39 and after a European study trip to Germany and Italy, took a job as a junior designer with the Jönköping County Craft Association (Jönköping läns hemslöjd). Ethel worked at JLH for the next 3 years, from August 1939 to the summer of 1942. She was subsequently married, and took the name Ethel Halvar-Andersson for the years of her marriage. Divorced in 1949, she returned to her maiden name, Halvarsson. Ethel had a long and productive career working for a number of County Craft Associations, designing not only rugs but also damask weaves, embroidery projects, and many church textiles. She is attributed with some 1000 varied textile designs. She was later a much-loved teacher at the local high school, KPS. This post will focus on the designs Halvarsson did for the Jönkoping County Craft Association.
Nearly all of the rugs Ethel designed for the Jönköping County Craft Association have a garden motif. Many are abstract representations of gridded garden plots. As background, it is worth noting that gridded garden designs are frequently seen in many traditional Persian rug types—Bakhtiari, Kerman, Heriz— to name a few. Because the Quran, the holy book of the Islamic (Muslim) religion defines a garden as a kind of allegory of paradise, many rugs woven in the Muslim world use this imagery. These kinds of rugs were usually either four quadrants divided by water courses (these were called “Chahar Bagh”)or “bird’s eye” views of gridded gardens. In both, water and fertile trees figure strongly. Several examples of traditional, very elaborately-woven Persian “garden” rug designs are shown below:
Swedes did not, obviously, view their gardens so much as images of paradise or with the same sense of the preciousness of water but nevertheless, the growing season in Sweden is short and every flower and plant seems to be lovingly appreciated. So it is not surprising that Swedish rug designers adapted these ancient forms of garden-design rugs to their own culture. Gridded gardens in particular are a subject that seems to have appealed throughout the 20th-century to Swedish rug designers. Märta Måås-Fjetterstöm’s rugs were shown, published, and acquired by museums, and her garden-inspired rugs seem to have set the models for quite a few subsequent Swedish variations, those of Halvarsson included. Måås-Fjetterstöm’s designs were colorful and drew on quite a few of the design elements found in traditional Swedish weaving—in particular a hash shape which is a variant on the very traditional 8 pointed star. They were not, however, gridded evenly, and in some cases had a more patchwork arrangement.
Ethel Halvarsson drew garden designs for rugs of almost all types: rya, half-rya, pile (“flossa”) and flat-weave (“rölakan”). And in some cases she seemed to have allowed for choices as to the kinds of weave used for particular designs. As was typical in the 1930s and ’40s, she generally used several concentric borders of varying widths. For her garden-patterned rugs, she used color changes and different patterns to represent vertical and horizontal divisions within the plots. Unlike the Måås-Fjetterstöm models, her rugs were gridded much more regularly. Some of her designs are more specific and realistic but others are looser and more abstract. It is tempting to conclude that they evolved over time to be looser, but we don’t know this for sure, because we don’t have dates on all of the sketches.
Ethel Halvarsson signed her own sketches with a lower case “eh” and only occasionally added the year of the design; she also frequently used a stylized slightly large printed font for her titles (which distinguishes her drawings from her contemporary designers at Jönköping).
Halvarsson was also a capable fabric designer, and for much of the time she worked at the Craft Association, it is clear that she designed fabrics, cushions and other textile products, and probably a number of church textiles as well.
In 1940, however, Halvarsson drew a sketch for a 1940 blue and white rya rug with the curious notation, “Rya and garden fabric in wool or rayon.” This title suggests the garden-pattern she drew was meant for both rug and perhaps matching fabric in rayon (“konstsilke”). While the stalk and leaf forms in her garden are quite explicit, her flowers have more abstract representations: circles with dots, hashes and crosses.
An undated sketch for a rya rug in a palette of mostly greens, yellows and neutral tones of grey/cream/grey has several elements similar to the previous rug. The wiggly lines in the rug could be flower beds—they are probably not meant to represent water because they aren’t in a continuous stream.
The sketch for the rug above is very similar in pattern to an unattributed pile rug sold recently at auction. Although the size of the actual rug and the sketched rug are different sizes, I suspect this rug was also designed by Halvarsson.
Another undated sketch by Halvarsson for a rya rug of a more complex garden rya has much in common in terms of color and elements to the previous sketch. While this sketch certainly looks like a garden, it carries the name of Trollskogen— troll forest.
There seem to be no rug sketches by Halvarsson for 1941, so again, she may have been working more on other kinds of textile designs.
As seen above, while working at the Jönköping Country Craft Association, Halvarsson often worked with shades of greens, yellow and brown. Another undated rug is designed in the same color family and has a garden feeling but the pattern of chevrons is unusual.
In 1942, Halvarsson seems to have designed quite a few rugs for the County Craft Association, almost all of them with some kind of garden pattern, and all more varied in color.
An unusual rug for which we have a sketch from 1942, is a design for a “half-flossa” or half pile rug. This was a kind of rug in which only the figures were in pile, standing defined against a background of the flat-woven base. This was a style of rug popular from the 1920s through the 1940s in Sweden. (See my earlier blog post on this technique here). In fact the curling foliage of this design echoes other craft work made during this time period which is sometimes known as “Swedish Grace”. In this example, the written notation suggests that the bottom was designed to be grey, with blue-colored pile.
Two other sketches for rugs from 1942 are similar to sketches shown above, in the way they balance specificity and abstraction. Here the pattern is a tulip garden, explicitly titled “Plot” with two kinds (shapes) of flowers and leaves. One version of this rug uses several pastels on a pale yellow-green ground, and the other is a bold red-on-red toned rug. Despite the nearly identical pattern, the two rugs are also intended for different kinds of weave: pastels are used for the flat-woven rug where each edge and contrasting line of color will be visible, and the reds, used for the half-rya, a low pile rug in which the colors will be blurrier and the flower shapes more impressionistic. In fact, in the red rug, one of the flower shapes has been pared back to just a few dots while its foliage has been amplified. They both have a sort of broken edge stepped border on the sides and bands of color on the ends.
We have another sketch from 1942 for a colorful and bold flower-patterned flat weave rug. With this design, Halvar moves away from the gridded garden design to a looser rendition of rows of multicolored flowers (tulips?). This rug clearly was woven, because the Jönköping Museum also has both sketch and working drawings for this rug in their archival collection.
Also dated 1942 is a design for a rya rug with an overall pattern of yellow, white and pale green flowers with black stems on a green ground. There is still a sense of an underlying grid (basic to most weaving!) in this garden design rug, but this design is no no longer a gridded garden.
As we have seen, Halvarsson seems to have been able to imagine her designs in various different kinds of weaves, recognizing that some designs would be best suited to only one particular weave technique, but that others could function well, though look quite different, woven in a different weave technique. It may not be too much of a stretch to think that the design for a rya rug shown above may have prompted, with some changes, a design for a flat-weave rölakan rug.
In fact, a rug attributed to Halvarsson (although not signed with either EH or JLH) when it was sold last year, certainly has some similarity to the design shown above. For a number of reasons, however, this rug seems more sophisticated than the designs we have been looking at here in the Jönköping sketches. The borders in this rug have become integral to the rug itself. Instead of a series of concentric colored bands as borders, here there are three different very quiet borders: the outermost with its runs of triangles, the second in, with a “piano key”motif and the third made so simply by the way that the first band of flowers sits on a blue rather than green backgrounds. The pink and yellow flower elements, contrasting in shape and color, are nevertheless perfectly balanced and create a patterned grid with the background of a green melange.
Detail of Ethel Halvar Andersson, Flat weave rug (rölakan) “Maskroser”, unsigned and undated. Sold by Doris Leslie Blau, New York.
Later in her life, rugs and tapestries that Halvarsson designed for other County Craft Associations are quite different in character from these quiet garden designs drawn and made in the Jönköping phase of her career. With its subtle flower designs, this last rug is clearly linked in motif and subject to Ethel Halvorsson’s garden rug designs for the Jönköping County Craft Association. It will be interesting to discover if this wonderful flat-weave carpet dates from this early period of her career, or if it has a later date— which would suggest that Halvarsson returned to garden motifs later in her life. I read this rug as an invitation for us to discover more about her later work.
Bukowskis Auction house, Stockholm, online auctions
Claesson, Anna Maria, Frostroser och Tulpaner Jönköpings läns hemslöjdsförenings samling 1909-1986. Småländska kulturbilder, 2003.
Doris Leslie Blau, New York City Carpets
Crafoord Auction house, Lund.
First Dibs online auction site
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. Particular thanks to Maria Ridderberg at the Museum.
Metropolitan Museum of Art online catalog