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Joanna's Story

You may have heard of an old craft called hairwork or plaiting, somewhat related to the trade of wigmaking, but during the 19th century quite a fad amongst ladies of all ages. Victorian era was a cluttered period, cluttered with romantic notions, with do-dads and decorations. Hairwork was the very essence of the age.

A lock of hair was the most romantic token of affection that could be given to one's sweetheart, the only physical memento one could keep at the burial of a loved one. A nicer way to keep a hairlock couldn't be found than to make a dainty wreath or a piece of jewelry of the hair.

In Sweden, the population boom, scarcity of farm land, and many cold summers made life miserable for small farmers in the central areas. In order to survive and keep posession of the farms they took work temporarily or turned to crafts on a part time basis. Not having economical means amongest themselves they had to work or trade in towns and cities along the coast or to the south. Therefore, each village developed it's own special trade, depending on what raw materials were available. Towns with suitable quarries made grindingstones, towns with streams could build waterpowered lathes and they made turned chairs and spinningwheels, if metal were avilable they made pocket knives or grandfather clocks. Each village did it's "thing".

In a village at Mora called Våmhus, some woman had apparently learned hair plaiting in the early 1800's. She in turn taught it to friends and relatives. It soon became a necessity for Våmhus' survival. At most this village of about 1800 people has at least 300 hair workers. I mentioned that people of the era had to take employment or peddle their crafts far from home. Well, hair ornaments were luxury items, hard to sell in poor farm regions. The many hair workers had to take much longer journeys to take their orders and sell their wares. In fact they were so many that they not only covered the large towns and cities all over Sweden but in most of Northern Europe as well. When a hair worker (they always travelled in groups of three or more) came to Lithuania and learned some of the language she would often make her trips in that direction. The hair workers who went to Demark perphaps made that country her specialty. Hair workers not only covered most of Finland, Norway, Denmark but the Baltic countries, England, Scotland, Wales and were far into Germany and Russia. Some of them even emigrated to the U.S. with the wave of the Europeans who saught a home there. And they also took there art with them.

In olden times, hair workers traveled in the local folk costume because that was what they always wore. Today we wear our folk costume because it shows our origin and it is part of the hair work history. We use the same implements that were used on trips to the capitals of Northern Europe. We show how the work is done and tell about the adventures of some of the young girls who dared to travel and trade in the man's world of the 1800's.

This picture is of Erika Borbos and a girl named Laila Wing-Ahlback. Erika is the one with the braiding table and Laila is the other one. Laila is not a hairworker, she was a guide at Skansen. Laila is wearing Mora/ Våmhus national costume for the married women that’s why she has a white hat. Erika is wearing a hat called "hilka" that is for the unmarried girl to wear in the winter time, but at Skansen you must wear some sort of hat with your custom. When you work there, that’s there rule. Laila has a white scarf over her shoulders that’s a "halskläde" you can wear that or a scarf like Erika's.With the red ,white, and yellow decorations on it, it is called "Ryss trasa" or "Russian scarf". The hair working women brought them home from Russia on there trips.
Information & photo contributed by Erika Borbos

In American and elsewhere the art of hair work was soon forgotten. Not so in Våmhus, where hundreds of women and even men plied the art. The 20's and the "bob" practically wiped it out, but a few women kept it up.

In the 50's when new interest was kindled for old craftes and customs, three old women gave a class on hair work. They gave several classes and I became a pupil, in spite of the fact that I am a Chicagoan by birth. We usually only teach the craft to Våmhus residents or their descendants. Since then I have given hundreds of demonstrations in Sweden, Finland and Denmark. I've led many classes in the art at Våmhus too. and I can say that hair work will not be forgotten this side of the year 2050. Many girls in their teens and twenties can now do hair work. Just like in the old days hair work gives an extra income, now to young people who are unemployed.

Joanna Svensson

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