Thrift stores are a gauge of sorts for the values of a society. In second hand shops and Goodwills we sift through bins and shelves of stuff. Much of it is just the residue, the ephemera of a way of living, buying, consuming, and discarding. But setting aside the plastic toys and cheap vases, it is possible to pick up on the passing of one generation to the next.
Here in Tranås, the history of place is very intense, very concentrated. Browsing through Erikshjälpen, the (in my opinion) best second hand shop in town, there are three things you can be sure of. (1) The clothes will almost certainly be boring, pilly, or boring and pilly from H&M. (2) IKEA will be strongly represented in the vase and lamp department. (3) A very special generation of women is dying.
Number three was one of the first things that struck me when I first came to Sweden. I didn’t think of it in terms of the death of a generation at the time, but my first trip to Erikshjälpen with my sister Allie was strange. Why were beautifully worked embroideries being sold for $3? The baskets full of doilies and hand-made lace, bed linens with in-set bands of crochet and embroidered initials could be bought for a song. Wooden spools of silk thread, wool yarn, buckets of knitting needles, boxes of mother of pearl buttons, hundred year old weaving shuttles and cards of Parisian hooks and eyes sat there on shelves, bleakly. These were the kinds of things you never really saw in the states. Acrylic yarn, maybe. A discarded cross-stitching kit, perhaps. But these were not the cast-offs of crafters. These were items that pointed to real skill, to a strong cultural identity, and pride in a home. And I wanted it ALL.
When I ended up moving to Sweden, I found myself going to Erikshjälpen quite often. I was scared to go in by myself, afraid someone might talk to me and of the awkwardness that might ensue. But I always went in, and I always felt relief looking at the linens and sewing supplies. Here was something I understood and could appreciate. While I felt irrational dread at shopping for groceries by myself, the odd familiarity and comfort of the beautiful things some woman had made for her bed or table made my hands itch for something to do.
I really wanted to learn how to weave. Fast forward 6 months, and a loom now sits in our house. J, tipped off by a good friend, located a woman who was giving her loom away, one of the many women “of a certain age” who are downsizing or passing away. There is not much demand for looms these days. Their size is prohibitive, the time required is not a point in favor, and for most women now, it is just something their mothers or grandmothers did. This lack of interest in carrying on skill in needlework and weaving is pervasive among the younger generation, or so I understand from older Swedish women. Tastes in home décor have also changed from the cozy warmth of Carl Larsson to the clean, white, and spartan, and the table coverings and curtains and other household linens so lovingly crafted and embellished are consigned to charity. Hence the glut of old fashioned textiles and tools at Erikshjälpen.
My loom is beautiful. All the joints are wood, all the pieces are beautifully shaped oak, and it’s at least 130 years old. The first owner wrote “den första mars, 1883” (The first of March, 1883) on one of the pieces. All over the loom notches and tick marks can be seen, where a woman was counting her threads or passes of the shuttle and marking them off so she wouldn’t lose track.
For myself I find that I often lose track of that first excitement I felt the first time I sifted through the stacks of linens and bobbins and buttons. They are things that have always been here, things that are integral to the shape and form and color of the Swedish culture. As an outsider it was a beautiful and moving thing, that the handiwork women were doing was still so close to the particular flavor of Sweden before ABBA, H&M and IKEA. Still an outsider, but more accustomed, more casual in taking note, I don’t want to be dulled to the beauty of these things.
It’s rather unusual now for a woman of my age to take an interest in weaving, embroidery, and sewing. We’ve been given many beautiful examples of these things, with the explanation that, “you seem to be interested in handverk, and I thought you might like to have this”. And yes, I would!
I remember one of my first design classes in college began with a question from a then unknown, now beloved professor: “How many of you have parents that are makers?” It struck me as an odd question then, but I have always remembered it. I would like to be a maker. It strikes me now that it is very easy to be merely a consumer rather than a maker. Old needs and traditions are passing away, and their physical artifacts are now populating second hand shelves.
The time may come when there is a resurgence of interest in needlework and weaving, but in the meantime I hope to make good use of this “window” to acquire what I can of the tools and knowledge that belong to the older generation, and learn to be a maker.
P.S. This doesn’t relate to making, but I thought it was sweet. I was flipping through an old botany book at Erikshjälpen the other day and found this pressed between the pages: