Agda Österberg, best known for her audaciously-colored flat-weave rugs —many of these designed for churches—also brought to other kinds of weavings, the same kind of color excitement. A previous post looked at some of her vibrant rya rugs and woven draperies. Her compositions on a smaller scale, her half-tapestry bildväv, are another area of Österberg’s work which merit further attention.
Smaller Swedish weavings are generally known as “bildväv,” “vävnad,” or “bonad” (meaning picture-weave, weaving or hanging). From the mid 1960s to mid 1970s, Agda Österberg provided these extensively to churches, to institutions as well as to private clients. Most of those made for churches were figurative, with religious symbolism, and could be accurately termed bildväv. Her large tapestry for the Linköping library, similarly figurative and narrative, is also clearly a bildväv. But many of the non-church bildväv, were not so much pictures, as balanced compositions which drew on Österberg’s long-standing interest in cubist art, art deco forms, mayan imagery, and her own unique totem-like form language. Others were more geometric abstractions. This post will examine several of these so-called “profane” pieces. Agda’s versions of the bildväv play with geometry, symmetry and almost always involve surprising juxtapositions of color. They are explorations of inlaid pattern, often separated by more “transparent“woven areas.
As with her flat-weave rugs, Osterberg’s lively, colorful wall-hangings are easy to appreciate. But understanding the techniques used in the making of these evokes another level of appreciation.
For most of these small hangings and a number of draperies she produced, Österberg was using a tapestry method most accurately described as Half-Tapestry or “halv-gobeläng.” This method was not unique to her, and in fact, Agda’s half-tapestry weaves are the artistic progeny of earlier Swedish arts and crafts door draperies meant to prevent drafts and beautify an interior space. The famous Swedish designer, Märta Måås-Fjetterström who worked earlier in the century, used half-tapestry. So too did a number of the Friends of Handicraft (“Handarbets Vänner”) designers, particularly during the 1920s and 30s when there was a particular interest in semi-transparent decorative woven curtains. Let’s look at what Österberg’s Half-Tapestry work looks like in order to try to better understand this category of Swedish woven textiles..
One helpful definition of Half-Tapestry to keep in mind is that it “refers in general to inlay techniques in which a continuous background weft supports a discontinuous pattern inlay ….” (This definition is given in Doramay Keasbey’s book Sheer Delight: Handwoven Transparencies.) For you non-weavers out there, the inlay referred to here, is of course, wool yarn or thread which is “inlaid” into the weft threads— that is, the threads which run side to side across the loom. If you don’t understand this now, hopefully the photos below will show you what it means.
Many of Österberg’s hangings employ a technique known as rysskväv in Swedish, or in English, Russian weave or Russian inlay. This post will look at several of these pieces closely, to understand the technique and to appreciate the process involved.
Beginning in 1963, Österberg designed several hangings in rysskväv. I do not know which of these came first, but it is tempting to think that her first attempt of the rysskväv technique had to do with the subject matter. That year she designed a very large bildväv dedicated to the achievement of a Russian woman, the first Russian cosmonaut to be sent into outer space.
Although this makes a good story, the truth may be some what different, since apparently this piece as originally designed, was intended as a curtain for a large glass door. So it seems that it had already been started in rysskväv. When it was already partially woven, presumably in the three-column format it has now, the Russian cosmonaut, Valentina Teresjkova was sent into space, an event which so impressed Österberg that she reimagined the upper part of the hanging with a number of faces, designating the central large upper face as that of Teresjkova herself.
Another of these pieces with this kind of totem-like format was called Inca, from 1966. The colors here are dark, bold, and the totems, with their multiple faces, seem a bit menacing. The size here is smaller than many of Österberg’s rugs, but still a significant size for a wall-hanging: about 7′-6″ x 5′-9.”
Three other rysskväv pieces, all untitled and undated, will let us look more closely at this kind of weaving technique. These were most likely designed between 1963-75 when these kinds of pieces were being made at Tre Bäckar, Agda’s studio and home.
The first is a geometric and symmetrical piece which is similar in size to the piece shown above but has an entirely different feel due to its linear geometry and lighter, brighter color palette. As with many of Österberg’s compositions, there is a fine balance between a symmetrical format and an asymmetrical play of colors.
The first photograph shown below presents the piece as it is meant to be shown, with Österberg’s familiar AÖ signature in the lower right. But in fact, this piece was woven, like gobelin tapestry is, in the opposite direction. So in the photos which follow, the piece has been rotated, so that the process of weaving is clearer. In these rotated images, the warp threads run top to bottom and the weft threads run side to side, and it is clearer how the longer stretches of color were woven from side to side.
The following four images, taken from the rotated image of this bildväv, begin to show what rysskväv looks like, seen up close. What becomes immediately evident is that most of what is pattern consists of threads which have a higher pile than the adjacent thinner, flatter areas. The patterned areas are where colored yarn is “inlaid,” ie added to the weft, making the area thicker and denser. There are stretches of what look like longer stitches in these area, and this is the case. Rysskväv passes weft threads over three warp threads at a time, not just one. But the “in-between” sections of weaving consist of one weft thread over one warp thread, and have no color inlay. In some places these look transparent. But note also another trick of Österberg’s: she varies the tone of the warp threads slightly, so that in this piece, there are background areas with a tannish transparency, and then other areas with a grayish transparency.
The next four images revert to the orignal format of the piece, just because they are so horizontal, and that to show them vertically on this screen would be inefficient and harder to comprehend. Using these photos, you can compare where you are on the piece with the original image. The first two of these are now very very close to the surface of the piece. You are now looking at the long weft stitches of the rysskväv running vertically, which is disconcerting, but in compensation, you can really see the nature of the warp threads (here running horizontally), as you could in several of the previous photos. What you can see now is how much variation in color there is in the warp threading. It’s not just a tannish color, but tan, violet and orange; it’s not just a grey color but a grey, yellow, and lighter grey.
The last two images of this particular piece pull back further, so that the original format of the bildväv is evident. Having seen both the inlaid color areas and the more transparent background areas, you now have a sense of how the contrast between the denser inlaid colored areas and the thinner flatter background makes rysskväv work, and creates this half-tapestry appearance.
The second rysskväv piece I want to look at is a considerably smaller one, only about three feet square. Like the Russian cosmonaut and the Inca bild-väv shown above, this is a kind of picture, but also a geometrical exploration, drawing on both darker colors and lighter ones.
Here the yarns used are much more complex. While the more tightly-woven background threads which outline the various figures appear to be a light tannish brown, they are not. These “background” weft threads which outline the figures, in this case are not pale and almost transparent as in the piece previously shown, but are instead, a darker alternation of red and metallic threads or orange and a kind of pale grey. And some of the longer overlapping threads used for inlay also have significant color variation in their strands— note the green, coral and dark blue areas.
The final rysskväv piece we will look at is a fantastic jewel-like composition. This is a slightly larger piece than the previous one, about 4’ x 3-1/2.’ It takes Agda’s frequent symmetrical formulation but adds a level of syncopation in the placement of vibrant colors and the slight changes in the shapes of elements. Like previous pieces, this one exhibits slight variations both in the more transparent background and in the colors of the inlay threads.
The next photograph focuses more closely on the piece’s central section.
The next three photographs are even closer to surface, and show clearly how in halv-tapestry —as the definition given above states —“a continuous background weft supports a discontinuous pattern inlay…” They also show the same variation in colored weft yarns we have noted in other bild-väv pieces.
The next photo shows the back of this piece. Can you tell which direction the weft threads are going in the folded over piece? Hint: inserted or “inlaid” yarn is running in the same direction as and together with the white weft threads.
The last photograph of this piece shows Agda Agda Österberg’s signature in red. She consistently used AÖ as a woven signature, and frequently used a vivid red for that lettering. I had noticed that Agda shared her AÖ initials with both of her parents, August and Agnes, and she had a sister named Anna as well. But Robert Vickström, Agda’s biographer, has a wonderful story which illustrates how this red AÖ signature resonated with Agda. She recounted a happy family memory from before the time her father died. Vickström recounts that the family’s white sheets were all embroidered in red yarn with “a big AÖ in the middle.” One day, her father came running down to see how the hanging of the heavy wet sheets on the line was going. Agda’s mother “made sure all the sheets hung straight, that all the AÖs hung the same.” Then counting their twenty sheets, she said playfully, “We are a bit wealthy after all, little Father. Now I will go up and make coffee while you hang what is left.” Using this bold red signature let Agda repeatedly recapture and reclaim with every rug or bildväv she marked, that sense of joyful security she had as a child, which had been lost with her father’s early death.
Now that we can recognize and identify the rysskväv technique, it’s possible for us to look back at the draperies in the last post and see that they too were done in rysskväv. Of all of the pieces we have looked at, the first drapery shown below illustrates most clearly how transparent the non-inlaid sections of the half-tapestry can be. The second drapery is not at all transparent, but like the second small piece examined above, it uses metallic threads in the weft, and like the last small piece examined, uses fantastic color combinations and has a jewel-like shimmer.
And like the first large bildväv we examined in detail above, these curtains have been turned and hung sideways, so that the warp threads are now horizontal and the ryssk inlaid weft threads run vertically. As with traditional tapestry, this keeps the warp threads from stretching out and lets the tightly-packed weft threads bear the load of gravity.
While most of my blog posts have been about the design of mid-century rugs and tapestries, this one has been more about this particular technique of rysskväv in a half-tapestry (“halvgobeläng) format. Understanding how these pieces of Agda Österberg’s were woven only adds to our pleasure in their colorful design.
Bukowskis Auction house, Stockholm
Cyrus, Ulla, Swedish Handweaving, Charles Branford, Boston, 1956.
First Dibs internet auction site
Gefors, Agda, Hemslöjdskonsultent, Kalmar for assistance with rysskväv identification
LaFleur, Robbie, editor of the Norwegian Textile Letter, for assistance with rysskväv identification and an introduction to weaving literature with useful definitions.
Hammenbeck, Steffan, catalog for Skovde Konsthall 1991 exhibition, titled Agda Österberg 1891-1987, Textil Verk från 1910-till 70-tal.
Keasbey, Doramay, Sheer Delight: Handwoven Transparencies. Stellar Publishing House Inc, Petaluma CA 1990
Modernity, Stockholm antique store
Vickstrom, Robert, Agda Österberg — En livsvandring i färg 1891-1987. Happy Minds, Frösön, 2016.
Please reference as follows:
Whidden, Anne, “A Look at “Half-Tapestry” in Rysskväv: Agda Österberg,”
theswedishrugblog (2/28/20); theswedishrugblog.wordpress.com; accessed (day/month/year)