Thursday 8 October 2009

A Long Post on Swedish Folk Costumes

The information in the first paragraph is no longer valid. (I've started a new blog in Swedish (Som När Det Begav Sig), for those who know how to read Swedish. It has pretty much the same content as this one, but I might explain about one of my pet projects a little better. The pet project is making a folk costume from the area in Sweden where I was born and grew up, and since there's a lot of costume-related words that have no English translation, it's easier to write and explain it there. The short version will be posted here as well.)

So today, I'll explain a little about Swedish folk costumes.

There's no such thing as an original "uniform Swedish folk costume". The costumes were only worn by the people in the countryside, farmers, their families and servants, and it changed and developed over hundreds of years, and look very different in different parts of Sweden. Some areas have no documented folk costumes at all. Many factors contributed to make the local costumes look the way they did, such as when the areas had it's times of economic affluence or poverty, what access to imported fabrics they had, the local ideas of propriety and fashion and so on. In some areas the late 18th century and early 19th century is clearly recognised in the costumes. In other areas you can trace parts of the costumes to the 16th and 17th centuries, or even to the middle ages. When an area had a lot of money, they invested in the latest fashions (interpreted by their local tailors) and when the times went bad, the fashion was fossilised, as it where. The folk costumes went out of use in most of Sweden during the 19th century. Here are a few different costumes (I've blotted out the faces, so as not to get in trouble):

A couple from the county Södermanland:

A girl from the county Västergötland (who should have her hair dressed and wear some form of head covering):

A woman from the county Dalarna (that has one of the greatest variety of costumes, this is just one of them):

A woman from the county Hälsingland:

There's not really a good picture out there of anyone wearing the costume I'm making. Not that no one's making it, but because most people cheat, and change the clothes to fit their idea of how it should look, and leave out some articles of clothing altogether. As a researcher, seamstress and wearer of historic costumes, this is quite upsetting. Why do it at all, if you won't do it right, I wonder? Well, here's a picture from the 1830's of a woman wearing a costume from my area, the southwest corner of the county Skåne:

The headdress in the picture is only for married women, so I won't be wearing that for a while yet. The costume consists of these parts, presented in the order you should have put them on:
  • A white, sleeveless linen shift, called hankasärk in this particular area.
  • Black woolen stockings.
  • A short, white linen "blouse" for want of a better word, called opplöt. It has a wide gathered collar, which might be made out of fine cotton, a very expensive fabric in that day.
  • A knitted woolen sweater, called spedetröja. It was felted until it lost its stretchiness. It was usually green, red, blue or black. Trimmed at neck and wrists with silk or velvet ribbons.
  • A bodice, liv, in silk, velvet or wool. It could have pretty much any color, but black, green and blue was most common. It is laced with a silver chain through silver buckles, and it also could be decorated with silk ribbons. At the bottom was sewn a linen roll, stuffed with flax. On this the skirts was supported. The roll was called pölsa, sausage.
  • Two or more woolen skirts. Again, green, blue and black was common. The skirts could have decoration of tucks or silk ribbons.
  • A striped apron, in wool or cotton. Blues, greens and reds where common.
  • A neck kerchief in silk.
  • A headdress. If you where married you wore the starched, white, linen klut, as in the picture. Unmarried women could wear a headdress made mostly out of red ribbons (for parties and weddings) or a colored, cotton head kerchief, put on the head and tied at the nape of the neck.
The material in the clothes depended on your economy. A poor farmers wife could obviously not afford a silk bodice and silver buckles, while a wealthy farmers wife might have several silk bodices, each with their sets of silver buckles. Also, you wouldn't wear a silk bodice while feeding the chickens, milking the cows, carding and spinning wool and cooking. For everyday use, linen and wool where the usual materials, and the colors where more subdued. The materials described above where for going to church or parties.
This took a while... I wonder if anyone will have the endurance to read it all?

Edit (15 August 2013): I've posted a short guide to researching Swedish folk costumes.


  1. Jaså du är från Skåne! Vilket härad?
    Jag är själv från Västra Göinge härad, men surt nog har jag aldrig hittat bilder på mansdräkt därifrån :-(

  2. Oxie härad. Jag är född i Malmö, och har bott på olika ställen i och omkring Malmö större delen av min barn- och ungdom och de tillhörde alla samma dräktområde (det sydvästra hörnet: Oxie, Skytts, Bara och Vemmenhög) och har väldigt likartat dräktbruk. Det tog hur lång tid som helst för mig att leta fram den information jag behövde för att kunna börja...

  3. Hi Sarah - I found your blog because I googled swedish folk fabric. I have always wanted to sew an "authentic" Swedish folk costume - and recently bought a pattern for it. But now I am looking online to see where I can find fabrics like the woolen woven fabrics that I imagine would look appropriate. I have never seen fabrics like this in USA - at least in your average fabric store. Do you know of any where I can look online for

  4. hmm - guess I typed too much... anyway - wondering if you can help me find a source for swedish fabric - perhaps online - but not in Swedish - so that I can read it?
    Sirkka Johnson

  5. Sirkka, it's great that you want to make a Swedish folk costume! The problem is that there's no such thing as one authentic costume for all of Sweden. The costumes have very destinctive looks in different areas, and many of the fabrics are exclusive for those areas, and can't be bought anywhere else. Believe me, even for a person living in Sweden, speaking swedish, it's a huge task just to hunt down the right fabrics. Many of them you have to weave yourself, or have somebody do it for you - mashine weaving is usually out of the question. If you could specify where your costume's from it would be easier to help.

  6. Sarah - thanks SO much for answering! I just talked to my mother - and her parents came from Halland. (sorry - I can't type the Swedish characters). And my father's family came from Vastergotland. It would be OK for me if my costume was not authentic to one of those counties - but I really want to find the distinctive striped fabric and some distinctive Swedish looking trim. I like the pic you have posted of the Vastergotland costume the best.
    I never thought about having someone weave fabric - tho I do know someone who has a loom. But I'd have to be able to describe what I want - or at least have a picture.

  7. Found this today.... it's something like what I've imagine either for the skirt fabric or for the apron fabric. What do you think?

  8. Well, for one thing, the material is wrong. It should be all wool, or a wool weft on a linen warp. The stripes (that doesn't look anything like the originals, I'm sorry to say) should be woven in, not printed on the fabric. I really doubt you'll find anything like that in the States, it being hard enough to find here.

    The question is how authentic you want to be. If you want it to be right, then perhaps you'd better buy a second hand costume, since that, though still pricey (somewhere around 500 dollars, shipping not included), will still be much, much cheaper than buying all the materials and then make up the costume (which will land somewhere around 1400 and 2800 dollars).

    If you just want a "this-is-sort-of-how-Swedish-folk-costumes-look-like" costume, then just look at pictures, and use what materials you have at hand. It will never be the real thing, though, unless you use the right msterials, the right patterns, jewellery, and stitches they used. I realise this is all but impossible to do from the other side of the world, but I'm afraid thats how it is. To make a costume like this is an investment for life, even here in Sweden.

  9. well - I guess I should start at the beginning - with the correct patterns? Where would I start for that? I bought one here at a Swedish Import store - the pattern is by Doering Designs - #879 Nordic Style Old Country Costumes. I think the company is in Minnesota - many Swedes there in USA. This is a dream of mine - I at least want to research where I can find all the makings - I am not against spending the $ - my children would have this after I'm gone. Do any of these authentic fabics sources have web sites that you know of? Sirkka

  10. Hello Sarah, first of all, you've sure got an incredibly interesting blog!

    Just a note on the Hälsingland woman: The dräkt hails from the parish of Delsbo, were women actually traditionally let their hair flow loose out of their bindmössa - yes even married ones - so the girl in the pic is all correct. As far as I know, this practise was unique for Delsbo parish and weren't around elsewhere


  11. Ooops, my bad..... Never be too sure you know anything, you're sure to be proved wrong :)

    That's really interesting, I never heard about that. It looks strange to my eye, but then I suppose I've been prejudiced by the way women from Skåne dressed... I'm always willing to learn more, so thanks for letting me know!

  12. @Sarah -- Yes, we read all the way through your very nice article. Thank you for the information. The discussion in comments with Pirkka (SP?) interested me. My suggestion is to find your local SCA (Society for Creative Anachronism) chapter. They will probably know sources of handwoven woollens and linens. In New England, we can find them at SCA gathers and tournaments.

  13. Hi Sarah - thought I would update you on my 'quest' to create my Swedish folk costume. I found a Swedish weaver here in US - here's her website -->
    She's made me some BEAUTIFUL striped fabric of wool/linen combo. Here it is on the loom -->!/album.php?aid=55863&id=1015894760

    It's just a start - but a great one!

  14. Thanks for the interesting information, I am making native dolls from around the world and want to be as close to the "real" as possible, you have given me some good idea. Thanks again!!!!

  15. Hi there. I'm looking for a pattern/direction/guidance on the headdress (klut) for a typical outfit from Smaland. My mother has been diligently fashioning a folk costume but has had no luck with the head wear. I came across your site and thought you might be able to help. Any direction would be greatly appreciated.
    All the best,

  16. Hello Monica! From where in Småland is the costume? They varied quite a lot in appearence depending on location and time, and so, naturally, did the headdresses...

  17. Thank you for sharing what you have learned about Swedish folk clothing. I have Swedish ancestry, and one of my granddaughters wants to wear a Swedish folk costume for a cultural pageant at the Polynesian Cultural Center in Laie. We won't be able to do anything very authentic, I am afraid, but with your information, I am sure we can put together something that will work.


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