Clothes are Made from Fabric - guest blogpost by weaver Charlotte Engstad

My name is Charlotte Engstad, I live in Tromsø, in northern, subarctic Norway. I am very excited that Ingvill asked me to write a guest post for her blog. I am a big fan of her brand, Hovden Formal Farm Wear, and the concept it is built on. And I love my blue linen Hovden shirt!

This is a little scene that is happening to me surprisingly often, for instance at a party or wherever I meet people I don’t yet know and there is small talk going on.

New acquaintance: I am a corporate lawyer, and what are you doing for a living?
Me: I am a hand-weaver.
Acquaintance: ????
Me: I weave fabric, mainly for folk costumes, but I also make single items like throws and shawls.
Acquaintance, with relief: Now I understand, sew clothes!
Me: No, I don’t sew a single stitch, I make the fabric.
Acquaintance: ????
Me: I take lots of threads, and with the help of a loom, I make fabric. Look down at your trousers.
Acquaintance (skeptical, looks down at his blue jeans): Yes?
Me: Well, I make like the blue fabric, except that I have never woven jeans fabric, but I could. I make other sorts of fabric. But this blue fabric was made on a large mechanical, computer controlled loom, probably in India, China or Bangladesh.



The beginning is square

When fabric comes off the loom, either a handloom or a fully computer controlled one, it is square, or more correctly, it is a large rectangular band, always. In the good (or bad) old days, clothes were not a commodity, but very valuable items, handed down over generations. And so was the fabric. It took many hours to spin yarn on a spinning wheel and earlier, even more time to spin on a hand spindle, then followed by many hours of weaving on a handloom and sewing by hand. Not mentioning the innumerable hours used to raising the sheep or growing and processing linen or cotton fiber.

When making clothes, all of the fabric was used and the cutting patterns were laid out to that purpose. The body was a rectangle, with holes for the neck and the arms. The sleeves were triangles and rhombuses, the hood was a rectangle or a square. Skirts were made up of several rectangles or squares. And in this way, the whole fabric was used. Actually, the Hovden shirts are based exactly on this principle! All the fancy cutting generating leftover fabric came later and then only for the rich. The poor continued to use simple cutting patterns with zero waste for many centuries.

This is an example of a folk costume skirt, based on the above principle. This type of folk costume is called Rondastakk, meaning skirt with stripes. The folk costume tailor, Mona Løkting, used three rectangular heights of fabric for each skirt. The skirt is pleated at the waist, and nothing is cut away and thrown in the bin. (Note from Hovden: More about this Rondastakk project on Stellaria's blog )

Photo: Odd Sprakehaug

 Photo: Odd Sprakehaug

Quality means longevity

Textiles were a valuable part of inheritance, and when households were split and the inheritance distributed, bed clothes, coats, dresses, skirts, shirts, all kinds of textiles were counted and parted. In this context, quality was of utmost importance.

What is quality? Quality lies in the material and in the process of making, meaning the raw material, the spinning process and the weaving must hold good quality standards.

When working on the Rondastakk project together with Mona Løkting, we started in the museum of Maihaugen in Lillehammer, looking at old dresses. There was a multitude of patterns and colors! The life of a folk costume skirt was on the whole like this: The farmers wife would pick the sheep with the best fiber quality for spinning the thread. She would spin herself and dye, or send to a mill, perhaps also get dyed at the mill. Then she would weave. She knew the perfect quality for this kind of fabric, which was meant to last for many years.

The new skirt was used on Sundays and holidays. When it was well used and began to be exhausted, the owner would replace it with a new one, if they could afford it. The old skirt could be made into children's skirts, or used for work, in the barn, in the fields and in the kitchen and would thus last for many years. Thanks to superior fabric quality.

In contrast, many of the clothes I buy in the supermarket are of cheap and low material quality, they get holes quickly, the fabric is pilling, the buttons fall off, the list is long. I am sure you experience the same problems. When many people don’t know what fabric, fiber types, weaving or fabric quality is, how are they able to choose quality clothing, even if they could afford it?


The life cycle of a fabric

As you probably have suspected, it is very cold in Norway during winter. Norwegians used to sleep with sheep pelts as bed covers, and the pelts had a richly ornamented woven textile called åkle on the skin side. The åkle would last for many years, but when it started to get holes and show severe signs of wear, it would be replaced. The old textile could be used as a horse cover, or padded on one side and used as a floor cover. If it was severely damaged, it would be used on the horse wagon as underlay for goods, in some cases even manure. And in the very end, the remains were used as isolation.

In the photos above and below you see an åkle, stored at Sverresborg museum in Trondheim. It had been a gorgeous textile once upon a time. Now it has big holes, which were mended by an unskilled person with coarse thread. There are red stains on it, is blood or paint? This textile ended as isolation material, after having served multiple purposes for many years. The natural fibers of the åkle, typically wool, linen or cotton are completely biodegradable and end up as earth at the very end of their life cycle.


The cost of fast fashion

Most of us can afford cheap and fast fashion. Clothes and textiles in general are now so inexpensive for most people living in the west, that we are able to buy without thinking. We can buy new ones, if it gets worn out after ten times of wearing, or throw away the item even before it is worn out in order to get the most fashionable items for next season. Yes, we can afford it money-wise, but the planet cannot. Fast fashion is not sustainable at all, it comes at a huge cost: abundant use of pesticides and insecticides in plant monoculture, pollution through chemicals in production and dyeing, water-shortage, and slave-like production conditions. Just as fast food is not healthy for the body, fast fashion is not healthy for the planet.

I hope we can see more ethical high-quality fashion in the next years, clothes that really last for years, and that age with style. Like the Hovden shirts and aprons.

Photos by Charlotte Engstad 

Note from Hovden: 

Thank you so much Charlotte for writing this insightful and educational blogpost. And thank you for putting weaving and clothes-making into a historical and sustainability perspective. It is important to shine a light on our relationship with fabric and garments, how they were valued in the past vs today. We don't all have to weave our own fabric and make our own clothes, but being aware of how it's all connected might inspire people to make more sustainable and mindful consumption decisions. 
I hope people will continue this conversation amongst themselves and out in public. Hovden certainly will : )
Check out Master Weaver Charlotte Engstad's gorgeous work on her website:

And follow her on Facebook and Instagram.



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