Farm story 15: Women's work

Embroidered towels, the oldest from the 1890's

When I arrived on the farm in the 1980’s I remember my surprise when I opened a large wooden chest to find no fewer than 58 linen handtowels! All were white or cream in colour, some with coloured borders and some without. The smallest were 50 x 61 cm and the largest a couple of centimetres bigger. When I asked Olle why there should be so many he explained that in the past it was impossible to dry laundry during the cold winter months so families had to have enough towels and sheets to last them until they could finally do a big wash in the spring. But I remember thinking that that was surely only part of the story, for most of these towels looked as if they’d never been used and were so beautiful that I couldn’t imagine anyone using them to dry their hands after they’d been working in the fields.

By tracing the owners of the towels through their embroidered initials I learned that some of them (the towels – not their owners) were over 120 years old. For centuries, until at least the 1920’s or 30’s, it was the custom for girls on Tjörn and other parts of Sweden to collect linen articles which they would take with them when they left home to get married. The more towels you owned the more well-off you were seen to be, for these were expensive items. The embroidered initials were important for establishing ownership , but also to show how well-off you were, for these items were valuable. The embroidery also gave girls a rare opportunity for artistic self-expression, for they could choose the colour of thread and type of stitch, as well as the size and design of the initials.

Until the end of the 19th century they or their relatives might well spin flax from local farms into linen thread, using spinning wheels like the one in our basement (See Farm story 12.) Then they’d weave it into cloth on a loom – a long and complicated process. Later, girls were more likely to save up money to buy their towels and sheets, perhaps from Almedahls, a large factory outside Gothenburg, whose linen products won prizes in the International Exposition in Paris in 1857, as well as the The International Exhibition of 1862, in London. However they were acquired, they were expensive, high-status objects (see Farm story 10) highly-prized by their owners.

When I started going through the piles of linen I felt like a poorly-informed archaeologist at a dig. But I was reassured by a helpful curator at the Textile Museum of Sweden in Borås, who told me that even experts can find it hard to distinguish between factory-made and homemade linen, or to tell how old it is simply by its look or feel. Of the total fifty-eight towels, twelve had no initials and a further twelve had only the initial O for Olofsson, so their dates were difficult to establish. However, 34 had embroidered initials, sixteen of which belonged to AO, Axelina Olofsson, Johan’s first wife, who died on the farm in 1921. Another sixteen belonged to SO, Signe Olofsson, Johan’s second wife who moved to Mölnebo Nedergård in the early 1920’s and died there in 1981.

The remaining couple of towels had belonged to CJ, Charlotta Johansson, Signe’s mother, who was born in the nearby village of Bäckevik in 1874. The initials were probably embroidered in the late 1890’s when she got married. Her husband was Johan Johansson and he had had a tragic start in life. In 1869 his father had suffered a terrible accident when his arm had got caught in a threshing machine. They rowed him to Marstrand to get medical help but they could do nothing for him there and he died on the way to hospital in Gothenburg. The baby his pregnant wife was expecting at the time was given his father’s name – Johan – and became Johan Johansson.

This second initial, an embroidered J, showed that Charlotta had adopted the new-fangled custom of taking her husband’s surname on marriage rather than keeping her maiden name, Kristiansdotter. Her two towels are white with red borders and the embroidered initials are in smallish Gothic script so elaborate that they’re almost illegible. The linen is thick and woven in a simple herringbone pattern and is also rather irregular in places, making me think that it was probably homespun. I was touched when I found the towels,for Signe had kept them, probably unused, all her life. Charlotta had had five daughters and I guess that each of them received a couple after her death. They were sewn when she was still a girl, and with their handsewn initials the towels provided her daughters with a tangible link to their mother.

Axelina, Johan’s first wife died tragically early at the age of only thirty-two. She had been working in the fields, cut her hand and contracted tetanus, which in those pre-antibiotic times, the doctor could do nothing to cure. Her husband Johan and a four-year-old son, Einar, survived her. But she had not been only a wife and mother – she had also been a housekeeper, cook, farm labourer, milk maid and doer of the myriad jobs that made up “women’s work” on a farm, and Johan needed someone to take over those roles. That’s where Signe came in. She had gone to Kärret from Bäckevik as a piga – a maid of all work. On Tjörn at that time, it was common for a girl to go to a neighbouring farm as a maid. and when Axelina died it would have been natural for Signe to take over many of her jobs as well as looking after little Einar, only four years old at his mother’s death. During the seven or eight years Signe worked on the farm before she married Johan, and for the 31 years of her marriage, she became a second mother to her step-son, even after she had two boys of her own, Henry and Olle. Strangers might call Einar their half-brother, but Einar’s wife Anna would have none of that. “How can a person be “half” anything?” she asked. And the three brothers were close all their lives.

Of the initialled towels which formed part of Signe’s dowry, four are made of thick, creamy linen, slightly rough to the touch. They are woven in a faint herringbone pattern, with a thick red border on all four sides of the cloth. The initials SO, each letter about 2.5 cm by 2.5 cm, are embroidered in the middle of the border on the narrow end. On the reverse side is sewn a small piece of tape a couple of centimetres long, so the towel can be hung on a hook. Every one of the 58 towels has at least one of these, and some have two, a practical detail which is typically Swedish, and something I miss every time I go to the UK and have to retrieve a tea towel from the kitchen floor.

From what I remember from needlework classes at school – and I’m amazed that I remember this much - the embroidered initials are in satin stitch. They are red to match the borders of the towel and in beautiful, swirly, modified Gothic script, with a dot after the S and the O. She’d probably selected one of the many printed patterns available, and she executed the job beautifully. The standard of workmanship is consistently very high with only the smallest differences between individual towels. Some of the knife-edge creases in the towels had probably been made by Signe herself when she’d ironed them fifty or sixty years ago, perhaps with the flat iron which is now rusting away in the basement, where it acts a a reminder of the dark days before electricity.

As well as Signe’s sixteen linen towels, I inherited the same number from Axelina. I’ve always been interested in her, partly because of her terrible early death, and it has been tempting to guess what she was like based on the only evidence remaining at Kärret - the embroidery on her towels. They are in an assortment of styles and colours and in all of them the linen is of excellent quality. However, (whisper it) some of Axelina’s embroidered initials are not quite perfect. In a few towels the initials are in pale blue and written in lower case, using cross stitch. Unfortunately, deciding to use cross stitch for round letters, like an “a” and an “o”, is a questionable decision as it’s no good for creating curves. Another two towels have a wide border in a pretty turquoise colour but the initials are written in exactly the wrong shade of green and clash horribly. On one of the others, horror of horrors, there are signs of scorching! And yet four of Axelina’s towels are exquisite. On these four, the elaborate initials are white, and sewn onto cream linen which is woven in a pattern of squares and stripes. The Gothic A’s and O’s are elaborate, reminding me of the shapes of letters from medieval manuscripts, and are works of art. I can only imagine how long they’d have taken to sew.

There’s a sort of exuberance in the many different colours and designs Axelina chose, some of which worked and some didn’t. It may be fanciful to try to build an idea of someone you’ve never met through the things they created - but I can’t resist. She seems to have been a young woman who liked to experiment, and to do that you can’t be too afraid of failure. To my mind that’s an attractive quality and one which makes me think I’d have liked Axelina.

If Signe and Axelina had had daughters rather than sons I doubt I would have inherited their towels. Most were kept for show rather than use and for decades, like them, I left them in my cupboard. I thought they were too good to use in the kitchen while in the bathroom, like everyone else I knew, I’d never used anything but cotton towelling. However, during the covid pandemic when we all became conscious of hand hygiene, I took them out of retirement when friends came for (socially distanced) coffee, putting out a pile in the bathroom so they could take one each to dry their hands. The next day I washed them and the damp linen was transformed, revealing squares and stripes woven into the cloth, which shimmered slightly when they caught the light. And the initials were clear and beautiful - as good as new. I hope very much that Axelina and Signe would have approved.

© Gwyneth Olofsson, 2023

Thanks to Viktoria Holmqvist of the Textile Museum, Borås. Thanks to Axel Eriksson, Bäckevik, Charlotta's great-grandson, for additional information.

See more pictures of the farm on Instagram: gwyneths_swedish_farm

Story of the week
Previous farm stories
Introducing Gwyneth