Noe Valley Voice May 1999

Spinning a Scandinavian Yarn

By Florence Holub

There were three responses to my December column in the Voice -- the one which featured "A Weaver's Prayer" by Swedish weaver Valborg Gravender.

The first was a phone call from my museum docent friend Jean Mooney (of last month's column). Jean had an interesting story to share. About 40 years ago when she was teaching at the Bayshore City School in Visitacion Valley, she learned that the school's weaving classes were to be discontinued and that a man with a sledgehammer had been hired to break up the looms and haul them away. Being an arts and crafts lover, Jean was horrified to think that these fine implements might be destroyed, so she sprang into action.

Conveniently, her nephew, Dan Murphy, was living in a Mill Valley cottage owned by Mrs. Gravender, who was known to all as "Mama" Gravender. With Dan's encouragement, Jean phoned his famous landlady, who was then retired, and asked if she'd be interested in adopting the dozen wooden orphans. Mama assured Jean that she would be delighted to find them good homes. Jean then arranged to have her brother-in-law Bill (Dan's father) haul the trailerful of looms to Mill Valley. Let's hope some are still in use today.

A second note came from Charlotte Black, who was our Sanchez hilltop neighbor until last year. She wrote that she'd especially enjoyed the column mentioning Valborg Gravender because she had taken lessons years ago at her weaving school in North Beach.

A third correspondent, a weaving student in Bernal Heights, wrote that my article brought back fond memories of her own lessons under Mama Gravender, who seems to be recorded warmly and indelibly in the minds of all those whose paths she crossed. Regrettably, I did not have the opportunity to meet the lady, although I gradually became aware of her importance to the local artist colony.

In 1922, the year that Valborg Gravender came to San Francisco,
I was 3 years old and living on a potato farm in Idaho. I later found out that Valborg was born in Gävle, Sweden, around the turn of the century (I'm not sure of her birth date, nor of her death). In her early career, she worked as a trained nurse.

She married a writer, Axel Gravender, who had previously traveled to the Bay Area on an assignment. Axel had been so taken with San Francisco that he convinced his bride to make the city their home.

Before sailing to the U.S., the couple pooled their resources -- about $2,000 -- and invested in Swedish artifacts. They packed up their treasures, intending to sell them if they were in need of cash. Once here, however, they both found work quickly and were able to keep the lovely things for their own pleasure.

Two years after they arrived, Valborg's sister and her husband also moved to San Francisco. The sister immediately started a weaving school, but after only a few months she and her husband decided to relocate to Cincinnati.

Valborg, like most Scandinavian women of the day, was a skilled weaver herself. So she gave up her nursing job to take over her sister's school, with Axel's help. Some of the students lived with the Gravenders as paying boarders during their training, and then there were always visiting guests from Sweden. Before long, the weaving school, called Sveagard House, became a magnet for artists and immigrants. It must have been a delightful place to learn the craft, as well as a bustling center for Nordic food and customs.

There were many evenings of dancing, Charlotte Black later told me. Her husband Bob, who had waited tables at Sveagard House, recalled doing spirited folk dances on the lower level.

Mama Gravender would greet the guests at the door dressed in native costume -- a colorful, intricately woven skirt, a white linen blouse, and a handmade apron with long decorative ties ending in tassels. Upon her head sat a small hat, trimmed in lace.

Costumes like this are still worn all over Scandinavia. Each has its own design and colors, identifying the wearer's hometown. Vörå, the town where my father was born in Finland, has a similar costume for the ladies to wear on festive occasions. That is because Finland was part of the Swedish Kingdom for more than 400 years. Finland didn't become an independent nation until 1917.

In 1971, my father and I went back to the Old Country to settle the family estate after his sister Maria's death. At the same time, I went about acquiring a Vörå dress, like my Aunt Maria said I should have because of my family roots there. (My mother had died when I was a teenager.)

My aunt's friend Linnea took me to a crafts center, where we talked with someone about weaving a Vörå dress for me to take home. However, when the day of my departure came, I left empty-handed.

The following year, my father and I returned to complete the estate. We were told that all of Maria's possessions would be auctioned off and that we should remove those items we wished to keep. It turned out that the things we chose were mainly related to weaving:

- Maria's spinning wheel (which now rests in Leo's and my attic),

- an elaborately carved distaff to hold unspun fiber (now hanging on our wall),

- six beautiful beige-and-white
brocaded tablecloths, and

- a handmade hope chest etched with the names of my father's parents, who were married in 1880.

The chest, which now sits in our living room, was the kind that a young girl would fill with all the weavings she'd prepared for her future married life.

It is impossible for machine-age people like ourselves to appreciate the time and effort once devoted to the weaving of textiles! I received a glimpse when my aunt told how she and my father as children would chop the flax stalks and carry them home for the purpose of making linen. The stalks were slashed vertically, combed into strands, spun, woven, beaten with a batlet, washed many times, and then hung out to dry. The lengths of linen would later be ironed on a wooden mangle.

My father vividly remembered one very cold day when he was sent out for firewood. As he passed a shed with the door ajar, he was startled to see a shadowy, silent figure hovering inside. He spoke to the woman, but got no reply, so he lunged at the apparition, grabbing at the folds of her dress. A terrifying sound resulted, like the rattling of dry bones. He stood paralyzed with fear until he realized that the ghostly lady was only pieces of linen that had frozen stiff while wet. What a relief!

My father also spoke of how hard a woman's life was in those years. His mother was the first to rise to prepare breakfast. Then she joined the workers in the fields, sowing rye, barley, oats, and potatoes. She prepared dinner, and after everyone had gone to bed, she'd sit down to weave. The soothing sound of the loom lulled my father to sleep.

I would like to think that this part of my grandmother's day was the greatest pleasure, creating a thing of beauty alone, with the shuttle flying across, between the warp threads, back and forth, back and forth, in rhythm with the beat of her heart.

On that second trip to Finland, just as we were about to depart, I suddenly remembered the Vörå dress, then with regret decided there was no time for a fitting. But Linnea spoke up, saying, "It is finished, you can pick it up now." Which we did!

I've now cherished that dress for close to three decades. The red and green frock is so beautifully detailed I wear it proudly, but only on special occasions -- such as the Noe Valley Voice staff parties!