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.
CONNECTING TO TRADITION
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.
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.
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.
Nancy’s sheep provide grey, black, brown, and white wool which she typically cards and then spins it into bulky, single strand yarn.
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.
LOOMS OF ALL SIZES
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.
A RANGE OF STYLES
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.
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.
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’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
Meet the Traveling Traditions Artists
"I think just keeping our ethnic culture alive is a big thing... I think it's kind of neat that we're keeping something that is a century old alive."
"Sometimes I alternate between doing the acanthus and flat-plane carving. Pretty much stand for carving acanthus. And I sit when I'm carving flat-plane. That way you stand a couple hours then sit a couple hours. Between coffee breaks."