Traditional costume-maker

When we see people proudly wearing Norwegian traditional costumes (bunads), it is easy to fall in love with the overall impression they make. Each and every one of Norway’s more than 450 different bunads have their own origin, traditions and unique technical finesses. To preserve the sewing expertise that has traditionally been passed on orally, bunad-making was established as a vocational course of study, with its own curriculum, leading to an advanced craft certificate

Written by Barbro Tronhuus Storlien. Last updated 15. March 2023. Do you want to reuse the content? The contents are licensed for unlimited reuse

About the tradition and knowledge

Traditional costumemaking became a separate vocational study programme, leading to an advanced craft certificate, in 1999. The programme was established to formalise and preserve knowledge of how Norwegian bunads and folk costumes are made. (For the sake of simplicity, I will just use the term bunad in the rest of the text.) The programme covers bunads for men and women, as well as the appropriate accessories. In addition to confection, i.e. the sewing of a bunad from scratch, the programme also contains modules on bunad alteration and repair. The expression “to sew a bunad” is as widespread as “bunad-making”, and can include both embroidery and assembly.
The less common technical aspects that are also covered in the programme may be referred to as separate techniques. These include, for example, beading, tatting, finger-weaving garter bands, netting and other niche areas within textile cultural heritage which exist today primarily because they are part of one or more bunad styles.
Bunad-making is a relatively new course of study, but the knowledge on which it is based is old. Clothes were traditionally made at home. In large parts of Norway, bunads have been made locally by women without formal training. These practitioners had generally learnt from other family members and were skilled in the craft. Nowadays, the majority of bunads are made professionally in sewing studios. In recent years, we have seen the emergence of some bunad production abroad. The majority of traditional craftspeople have seen this as a problem because, although it keeps prices and delivery times down, traditional craft knowledge is lost.
Personally, I have a small studio, I need no more equipment than a good sewing machine, a large table, an iron and good lighting in addition to I need the usual sewing tools, such as needles and thread, scissors, etc. When I am embroidering, I need a good chair to sit in, but all in all the craft requires little specialist equipment. I have chosen to embroider some of the bunads I assemble, even though this requires working hours for which I cannot expect to be fully recompensed.
I know other who makes traditonal costumes who do not embroider the fabric themselves. In that case, they use a subcontractor or they receive ready-embroidered materials from a main supplier. This is more profitable work, generating a higher income. The reason I still choose to do the embroidery myself is because I find it a rewarding task and because I consider bunad embroidery to be a cultural heritage that we ought to preserve.
Today, the majority of bunads are made in professional sewing workshops – some large, some small. There are sewing workshops with many employees, and there are one-person businesses. In addition, some bunads are made by people attending courses held by handicraft groups, bunad commitees and other groups. These course participants often lack the technical proficiency to work independently and therefore depend on being part of a learning environment.

Highly skilled practitioners

Traditonal costume-making has changed and become more professional. When I grew up, most bunads were made privately by local women working from home and with this on the side as a source of extra income. They had no formal training in bunad confection; there were, after all, no education, but they were highly skilled. Today, there are still some who do the embroidery themselves, but choose to outsource the bunad’s assembly. I hope this is a tradition that will endure. A bunad that has been embroidered by a relative will create a completely different sense of kinship for the user than if they bought it ready-made in a shop. Sadly, there are fewer and fewer people who embroider, which is also reflected in the fact that many purchase ready-made bunad shirts. Shirt-making requires good eyesight and extreme precision, which is often a challenge for eyes that are gradually ageing.
The majority of those who assemble bunads nowadays have some form of sewing background and work in a firm. In this way, the craft and its underlying knowledge become more visible and it is easier to value the work they perform.
The work itself, on the other hand, has remained fairly similar. We sew using a machine or by hand, since that is the right way to do it, and we use irons and other tools.
My first encounter with a bunad-maker was when grandmother’s Rondastakk was altered to fit me. The work was performed by my father’s great-aunt, Maria Storli (1907–2000), who was a seamstress in Lom and had also worked as a seamstress in Oslo. I knew of others who embroidered and/or assembled bunads, but this was the first time I realised that it could be a profession and not something one merely dabbled with on the side.

Someone else who has had a huge impact on my approach to the craft is Irene Hebæk Ødegården in Asker. I was lucky enough to obtain an apprenticeship at Kulturringen, a training and competence centre for rare and protected crafts. During my apprenticeship, I worked at three sewing workshops and gained a thorough all-round education. But it was with Irene that I expanded my knowledge of embroidery and saw how important it was to hold courses and help other people to make their own bunads.

Knowledge transfer

Meeting places, such as the annual Bunad and Folk Costume Conference organised by the Norwegian Folk Art and Craft Association, the Association for Studies of Culture and Traditions, the Norwegian Institute of Bunad and Folk Costume, Norway’s Youth Society, and Norsk Folkedraktforum, are important for debate and discussion about the craft. Here, you can also meet craftspeople from the rest of the country, make new acquaintances, meet potential collaborators and share experiences.
The bunad-maker programme of study( Bunadopplæringa), a partnership between the same organisations as the conference, is also an important meeting place for new retailers. The programme consists of six modules, and provides an introduction to the craft’s different areas, such as embroidery, shirt-making and the assembly. It is also a great change for students to meet new people and build a professional network.

Local courses are also valuable venues for recruitment to the craft. It is important to offer something to those who do not necessarily want to make a living from making bunads, but who want to sew for friends and family. This is an important tradition that we must do our utmost to preserve.

Historical background

The way a bunad is produced is relatively unchanged. We have access to better equipment, but as the objective is still to preserve a specific look, the bunad’s appearance remains unchanged.

Nevertheless, changes have taken place, not least in the use of accessories. Silver belts, which were practically non-existent in parts of the country or used only by married women in other areas, are becoming more and more widespread. Traditional headwear has fallen more or less entirely out of favour. This is due partly to the fact that we are no longer used to covering our heads, and partly because we are not as concerned with displays of social status, since boundaries have become less rigid.
Because we are more mobile than previous generations, we must be aware of our responsibility to preserve local traditions and knowledge.
This is where the bunad-maker can play an important role by encouraging correct use, without spoiling the bunad wearer's enjoyment of their costume. Passing on knowledge and guidance to customers is also part of the craft, and is particularly important at a time of rapid social change.

Plan for preservation

I firmly believe that Norway’s traditional costumes will survive, but I am worried about the growing practice of importing entire garments or partly assembled pieces. By focusing on delivery time and price, some retailers are persuading customers to view the bunad as a fashion item rather than an expression of cultural heritage, thereby severing the bunad from its historical roots and diminishing its value. Fortunately, efforts are being made to increase the focus on this aspect, and although we cannot completely be rid of bunads produced abroad, we can at least hope for greater awareness.
For me, holding courses is an important part of the job of a bunad-maker, and I spend a lot of time passing on the craft, as an instructor and consultant, and by using social media to visualize life as a bunad-maker (FruStorlien). By being visible online, I reach out to people who are interested in bunads, embroidery and traditional handicrafts, but who do not always know where to turn for help.

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