Nancy Ellison

Norwegian folk arts are one set of the many traditions that make up the cultural heritage of the Upper Midwest. Immigrants from Norway made their homes on land already inhabited by Indigenous peoples in Minnesota, Wisconsin, and other parts of the Upper Midwest starting in the early 1800s. As they migrated, they brought with them their foodways, language, fiber arts, and other customs. Many of these traditions were passed on and modified by their children and their children’s children to suit their needs, often retaining some elements that were recognizably Norwegian.

Accomplished weaver and fiber artist, Nancy Ellison of Zumbrota, Minnesota, remembers seeing her family’s Norwegian heritage in many places: from the lefse and krumkake irons her grandmother brought on visits, to her aunt’s and mother’s weaving.


Nancy’s first memory of weaving was as a young girl asking about her mother’s card weaving. That tradition, like many others, has roots that stretch back thousands of years.

My mother was a one-room country schoolteacher and she went to college for one year in Winona in 1931 and she took an arts and crafts class. And she had this, the cards, strung up with a belt half done. And I asked her what that was when I was about 12 years old, and she showed me and I finished the project and that was my first encounter with weaving.

Hand holding cards and strings in front of heddle board
Card weaving involves rotating cards to make patterns based on how they are threaded. The technique is often used to make bands or trim and is one that Nancy was first introduced to in her childhood.

Nancy later followed that interest and became a home economics teacher. A couple of years after she started teaching, Nancy needed to renew her teaching certificate and thought it would be fun to take the classes in Norway. There she studied weaving and rosemaling and encountered something familiar.

Ten years later I was in Norway in 1968, and at the Viking ship museum in Oslo I saw these square things with holes in. So I recognized the card weaving that had been done back in Viking times. So, that was kind of fun. So many of these techniques have old traditions that go way back hundreds of years.


Once back in Minnesota, Nancy regularly visited a woman in her community who spun wool and conducted demonstrations at Vesterheim Museum in Decorah, Iowa. 

She later bought one of the woman’s spinning wheels and took more classes at Vesterheim. Nancy now owns about thirty spinning wheels, but has had as many as sixty on her farm at once. She has some antique wheels for sale and is a dealer for newer ones.

Here Nancy is adjusting the spindles of her spinning wheel.


Spinning was one way to make good use of the resources she had available,

The pasture was full of weeds, so get some sheep. And then you have the sheep, might as well figure out what you can do with their wool, and it sort of grew from there. So I’ve had sheep for, I suppose over 45 years now.


The sheep Nancy raises are Scandinavian breeds including Shetland, Gotland, Icelandic, and crosses of the three. In 1991, she even had the first Shetland sheep in Minnesota.

sheep in a field
Nancy owns just under thirty sheep on her southern Minnesota farm.

Nancy’s sheep provide grey, black, brown, and white wool which she typically cards and then spins it into bulky, single strand yarn. 

A close-up of Nancy’s yarn in progress. The yarn she makes is a bulky single strand, which is what one typically gets from Icelandic sheep.


Here Nancy uses one of her dozens of spinning wheels to demonstrate how she spins wool into yarn. When she spins at historical demonstrations, she says her spinning wheel often gathers a curious crowd.





But Nancy’s talents in fiber arts go beyond spinning the wool, often using the wool to weave a variety of pieces. She prefers to use the natural colors and textures of her sheep’s wool in her weaving, though occasionally dyes the wool with commercial and natural plant dyes. These preferences are just some of the ways Nancy adds her own touches and innovations on techniques that have been passed down for generations. 

Hand holding up weaving
Nancy explains, "I enjoy the sheep and the way the wool looks and the shape... and the way it grows on the sheep." She often includes the natural textures and colors in her weaving. The unwashed, greasy wool of the sheep was used to make this weaving.
From the backside, you can see how the wool was woven in using a knot similar to the traditional rya knot—often used at the bottom of a weaving to create fringe. Here, the fringe effect is seen in the wool on the front of this weaving.


Nancy is skilled in a number of different weaving styles, utilizing many types of looms. She owns looms of all sizes ranging from large floor looms, to a warp-weighted loom she made from box elder trees in her pasture, to small, hand-sized cradle looms. Some of her weaving does not require a loom at all, such as the card weaving she had first seen her mother working on. A number of her looms are antiques and others are more modern.

Nancy did the rosemaling on this cradle loom, which she explains is "a small box about the size of a shoebox that you can put strings on for weaving.... Originally, they were used for weaving bands that were used to trim clothing, like a geometrical slip technique."
This floor loom is used for bandweaving. Completed bands are visible behind the weaving in progress. The bands are often used as trim on other pieces.
This antique floor loom was brought over from Norway by the Lexvold family in the 1870s. It was sold at an auction in the local Lands neighborhood some 30 years ago and bought by an antique shop. Following some restoration in St. Paul and a couple of changes in ownership, it has been back in the Lands neighborhood at Nancy's farm for the last 12 years.
Another of Nancy’s large looms, this floor loom has a narrow weaving in progress. The foot pedals, or treadles, are used to open and close different sections of the warp during weaving.


Nancy uses specific looms for weaving in different styles. She has looms for bandweaving and others for creating wall hangings. She weaves in a range of styles spanning Sámi grene blankets and wall hangings with Norwegian rutevev and krokbragd designs.

This is the first weaving Nancy did during a class in Norway and remains her favorite piece. She comments that creating the geometric rutevev design was slow-going and she incorporated the pattern into one section of this weaving. Many others weave the intricate design across entire coverlets and tapestries. It is a style of design she remembers her aunt often making.
A framed weaving of a sheep
Sheep and scenes from nature are abundant throughout Nancy's designs, often complemented by traditional Nordic patterns.
She often includes elements of nature not just in her designs, but the weavings themselves. Note the weaving around the piece of wood to the left of this wall hanging of a winter scene.







Nancy’s favorite thing to weave are wall hangings. She explains, “each one is a little different and you can be more artistic with it.” Nancy has won recognitions at the Vesterheim National Norwegian-American Folk Art Exhibition for her wall hangings and in the past exhibited and sold her work in galleries.

This is one of Nancy's favorite pieces and received Honorable Mention from Vesterheim. The design is her own variation on the Norwegian krokbragd style and includes a traditional red and blue pattern, tombstones, fences, sheep, and people. The krokbragd or "crooked path" is a weft-faced weaving technique used to create a lined pattern which covers the warp underneath.
Wall hanging with two sheep
This was the first piece Nancy entered at Vesterheim, earning a red ribbon which is worth two points in their award system. Submissions are eligible for blue (highest), red, and white ribbons in addition to Honorable Mention, Best in Show, and People's Choice.
Her designs often feature not only sheep, but the natural textures and colors of their wool. The effect of shaggy wool on these sheep was created using a rya knot technique. The design above and below the sheep was made using a traditional krokbragd designs. This weaving won Honorable Mention at Vesterheim's Folk Art Exhibition.


Nancy incorporated the techniques she learned in Norway into the classroom for years. Since retiring, she has continued to teach different audiences. She offers lessons in weaving at her farm and at the local Zumbro River Fiber Arts Guild as a way to pass on the tradition. But some of those different audiences are a bit more familiar, including her daughter and granddaughter. Both have inherited a love for fiber arts: Nancy’s daughter often uses wool from the sheep in her needle felting projects, while Nancy’s granddaughter has learned to spin and knit. Her granddaughter first showed interest in peddling the spinning wheel when she was four or five years old. Nancy helped encourage that interest early, giving her a spinning wheel for Christmas a couple of years later. Her granddaughter even accompanied Nancy to demonstrations for a number of years, taking over the spinning and weaving when Nancy took breaks.

By teaching and passing on her skills, Nancy is not only sustaining these Norwegian-American traditions, but demonstrating how their practice is a dynamic process to which one adds their individuality.

Well, as I’m getting old especially, anything that I share with other people, a sort of little bit of me lives on. If I’m not able to do it anymore, they’ll continue doing it and expanding on it, and add their originality to it. But I can get people started on things and so on.

Nancy Ellison
Nancy shows a traditional rigid heddle board alongside its contemporary counterpart.

Nancy’s work is in fiber arts, an expansive category, filled with rich and varied traditions and abundant possibilities for individual artistic expression. These are possibilities that Nancy has built on not only with her designs and techniques, but through her innovations of old methods and by passing on her skills to interested students. The wide range of traditional methods, styles, and tools allow for a variety of voices and styles to take part and add their individuality to this art form, one whose histories stretch back many generations. Nancy’s story is an important example of how these traditions can be sustained and pushed forward in ways that allow originality and personal style to take center stage, yet still honor their history and allow artists to inspire the next generation of practitioners.

Visit Nancy’s website for more information on Ellison Sheep Farm and her artwork.

By Mirva Johnson
Interview and Photography by Jared Schmidt