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Parallel Threads: Sweden and United States

By Helena Hernmarck

Helena Hernmarck is a Swedish-born tapestry artist and weaver best known for her monumental tapestries designed for architectural settings. Her designs derive from sources ranging from photographs, to watercolors, to handwritten letters, and even from the texture of wool itself. She has supported Swedish textile arts throughout her career, collaborating with Swedish spinners, dyers, and weavers on each commission. Hernmarck’s work is in the collections of the Museum of Modern Art and the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York; the Los Angeles County Museum of Art;the Art Institute of Chicago; the Minneapolis Museum of Art; and other institutions.

 

Montreal Studio 1970 photo Martin Lyons

 

Montreal Studio, 1970

My mentors in Sweden – Edna Martin, Astrid Sampe, and Alice Lund – were successful professional textile designers and felt that architecture was much enhanced by textile art. When I immigrated to the United States in 1975, their model was the first thing that I imported. The American architects, who admired Scandinavian design, loved it.

When I was just starting out as a tapestry artist, I hired apprentices and produced everything in my own studio, first in Canada, then in England, and eventually in the United States. But in 1975, when I got a big job that I couldn’t handle in my own studio, I gave it to Alice Lund Textilier in Borlänge, Sweden to produce. At the same time, I went to Walstedt‘s Textilverkstad in Dala-Floda, Sweden to have the yarn custom spun and dyed.

Big commissions kept coming and suddenly, I had a Trans-Atlantic business producing tapestries both in the United States and Sweden and figuring out kroner to dollars, square feet to square meters, inches per day and exchange rates. I needed skilled weavers who I could train in my technique and skilled spinners and dyers who could create any type of thread I wanted on order, and I needed quite a few.

 

Helena Hernmarck.Alice Lund Textiles_2014

Alice Lund Textiles, 2014

I had been an apprentice myself under Alice Lund, my mentor, and knew that the weavers there would live up to my expectations. That is, I knew that we shared a language and training and that their understanding would match my meaning. I also knew that they were willing to commit to the intensive process of learning my technique, which takes at least a year of training. Because of this, I have invested a considerable amount of effort into sustaining Alice Lund Textilier and Walstedts Textilverkstad, and have certainly reaped many rewards.

That said, it was important that I be located in the United States for the access to commissions. I felt that I had come to the land of opportunity, a place where all this could take place. But this distance from Sweden was also important for the well-being of the Swedish weavers to feel ownership over their efforts and have the freedom to interpret the designs using my technique. I also felt some responsibility to share the work so that their skills would not be forgotten, feeling that I had a role to play in Sweden. This certainly enriched my own life as an immigrant. I couldn’t have been more fortunate to work with and support these two firms in Sweden for 30 years when we needed each other.

At the same time, because of all this, I’ve set an example in the U.S. to encourage more people to weave and to seek commissions. Here, I have hired numerous apprentices from diverse backgrounds. Two went to Cranbrook Academy at the same time in the early 1980s, and one is there now.

 

Helena Hernmarck.HH Studio_2016

Helena Hernmarck Studio, 2016

At this stage in my life, I am again looking to bring tapestry art forward by experimenting and seeing what will come of it, and sustaining relationships with communities of weavers in Sweden and the United States.