A few years ago, no one but Ingebjørg Byrkjeland knew how to pleat the headdress traditionally worn with folk costumes in Hardanger. Thanks to a partnership between the Folgefonn branch of the Norwegian Folk Art and Craft Association, the Bu and Ringøy branch of the Norwegian Society of Rural Women and Hardanger Folk Museum, the future looks brighter for a headdress than has been used for special occasions in Hardanger for centuries.
Written by Norges Husflidlag. Last updated 9. March 2023. Do you want to reuse the content? The contents are licensed for unlimited reuse
About the tradition and knowledge
Written by Solveig Torgersen Grinder and Jorid Martinsen, the Norwegian Folk Art and Craft Association.
What follows is both a description of a specific method for pleating the headdress for married women (koneskaut) in Hardanger, and of a method for preserving an element of intangible cultural heritage that is transferable to other practices/living traditions in the intangible cultural heritage field.
In general, wearing of hats and headpieces has fallen out of favour in Norway, and this headdress is no exception. As regards the headdress from Hardanger, few people now know how to pleat the headdress in preparation for use (felle), adjust (bryte) it to the wearer's head and put it on the wearer (skaute). For the past 30–40 years, Ingebjørg Byrkjeland has been more or less the sole practitioner in this area. In modern times, it has become less important to use elements from traditional costume to signify the wearer’s marital status, which has further undermined the tradition.
A headdress consists of a special headpiece and a scarf that is used to cover the head. The use of a scarf to cover a woman's hair has been, and remains, common in many cultures and in conjunction with many types of garments. In Norway, many traditional costumes have particular forms of headdresses that go with them.
In former times, it was usual for a married woman to wear a particular kind of headdress with their a folk costume. After the Hardanger folk costumes were granted the status of bunad and their use became associated with special private or family occasions, use of the headdress became more sporadic. Such special occasions include weddings, baptisms, confirmations and public holidays like Christmas and the Norwegian Constitution Day, 17 May.
The Norwegian term “å skaute” refers to the process of arranging the wearer’s hair and putting on the headdress. The headdress may be put on in several different ways, and the headdress itself comes in several different styles. Use of a headdress with the bunad has been particularly widespread in Hordaland County. For example, the “slettskaut” has much wider pleats than the headdress most commonly used with the Hardanger bunad. Two styles of headdress that go with the Hardanger bunad are the “kvammaskaut” and the “sørfjordskaut”. In this text, the headdress we are referring to is the “sørfjordskaut”. Although the techniques for preparing the two different styles are very similar, there are some differences in the way the scarves are folded.
The use of a headdress with the Hardanger bunad has been decreasing for a long time, even though it is an old tradition. No one knows for certain how long the pleated headdresses have been in use, but they are believed to have been worn since the Middle Ages. Pleated scarf headdresses are also found in Sweden and Finland.
The headscarf is made from an 80–90 cm square of thin, fairly tightly woven cotton cambric. In addition, a suitably thick mixture of starch and water is required. The thickness of the starch mixture is not precisely specified but is based on the practitioner’s preference and how they make it work with the fabric being used.
Nowadays, rice starch is used. In times past, it was more usual to have this kind of starch at home, but since the starching of fabric is no longer a daily occurrence, it is difficult to obtain. Starch used to be easily accessible in Norway in part because the ruffled collars of the clergy and certain ornamental household textiles were stiffly starched. Along the coast, the fjords have constituted a trading highway and have ensured access to a wealth of imported trade goods.
Before the advent of rice starch, potato flour and soured milk may have been used. Some of the participants in the core group have experimented with soured milk as a method of stiffening, though this has not proved sufficiently effective. Today, Hardanger Folk Museum buys starch directly from a producer in Belgium.
Lay out the scarf on a flat, colour-fast surface. The surface could be a kitchen worktop or a smooth table. A dark table works best because it will allow you to see when the fabric is fully impregnated with starch.
Start by slightly moistening the fabric, then fold the scarf diagonally in half to form a large triangle. Fold the tip of the triangle back towards the centre of the baseline to form three equally sized triangles. The folds must be measured, and the centre point equidistant from both ends. A deviation of 4–5 mm is acceptable. Once the scarf has been folded, press it lightly with a rolling pin to set the folds.
Now the starch must be worked into the fabric. The starch must completely permeate the weave, a process which requires a lot of hard physical work.
Once the fabric is soaked through with starch, the actual pleating can begin. For that, you need a sloping pleating board. To pleat the fabric, you use three metal rods of different dimensions (from 0.8 mm to 1.2 mm and 1.5 mm). You could, for instance, use one bicycle spoke and two piano wires. If the piano wires come on a roll, they must first be hammered straight before they can be used. You must also make sure that the rods are perfectly clean, so they do not mark the fabric. The rods must be long enough to stretch across the entire scarf, but not so long that your arm gets tired from pulling them out over and over again during the pleating process. You will also need a bodkin (preferably a cobbler’s bodkin) with a short needle and a slightly blunt end to fine-tune the folds as you go along. It is important not to poke holes in the fabric.
The scarf is now fixed under the clamp on the pleating board, and so begins the painstaking process of creating the approx. 300 pleats required. As you work, moisten the scarf again with a damp cloth or add more starch if needed.
When the whole scarf has been pleated, pack it in a new piece of cloth and dry it in the oven, with the door ajar, at around 60–70 degrees Celsius for 2–3 hours. The scarf will now be as stiff as a board. Pull the scarf apart to unstick the folds. Now open it out and fold it back together again, iron it and roll it up for storage until needed. The scarf is stored rolled up until it is to be used.
A scarf that has been used repeatedly and whose pleats have been spoiled by damp, rain or “cracks” will need to be re-pleated. It must first be washed clean. Boil the scarf on the hob for 3–4 hours with a dash of washing up liquid added to the water. Then it must be rinsed in cold water. All the starch must be removed from the fabric in order to achieve a good result when it is pleated anew.
The scarf is fixed to the head over a headpiece. This is tied in place first and then the scarf is draped over the top. Previously, the headscarves had extremely elaborate and beautifully embroidered ties. Today, the headdress ties are often a loose decorative band that is tied in place at the very end. At some point, mass production of decorative bands put an end to the use of handmade scarf ties. The hidden ties under the scarf are plainer. The headpiece may be made of plywood or cardboard covered in a plain, light-coloured cotton fabric. The curved sides of the headpiece are cut to fit the shape of the wearer's head.
The use of a headpiece dates back to the Middle Ages. Since then, married women have worn white headdresses. The sources show that it was in use in the 17th century and that, since then, the scarf and headpiece ensemble has changed less than the actual costume. It was used in connection with everyday wear and with folk costumes and has been incorporated into the tradition of bunads.
Today, a small group of people have set about learning the art of how to pleat a Hardanger headdress before it is too late and the knowledge is lost. They are two people from the Folgefonn branch of the Norwegian Folk Art and Craft Association and two from the Bu and Ringøy branch of the Norwegian Society of Rural Women, as well as the director of the Hardanger Folk Museum. In addition, there are a few people without any direct organisational affiliation. These enthusiasts form a core group whose shared goal is to ensure that this knowledge is passed on to more people.
The practice is relevant for a wide geographic area, and many of those who live in this area would like to use the pleated headdress with their bunad.
The tradition of dressing the bride in a bunad still exists in the area. This means that not only does the bride get married in a bunad, but she also has brides maids in the true sense of the term, i.e. female relatives or local women who help her put on her bridal bunad and traditional bridal crown.
The area also has a tradition of Midsummer Weddings. These are staged child weddings held on Midsummer Night’s Eve. The participating children are dressed as though they are adults in a bunad-clad wedding party. The pleated headdress has been a normal part of this tradition, which helps pass on knowledge of how people customarily dressed at weddings.
The custom of having the pleated headdress put on as a newlywed and using it on special occasions, is a custom that has held stronger in Hardanger than in many other areas.
The pleating of headdresses may be done throughout the year. It is important that the headdress is ready to use and is stored without being damaged. It can be kept rolled up for many years without spoiling if it is kept dry and suitably protected.
Highly skilled practitioners
Ingebjørg Byrkjeland, from Kvam in Hardanger, has practised the pleating of bunad headdresses for over 50 years. She was born in 1932 and retired from pleating headdresses for other people a few years ago. For the past 30–40 years, she has more or less been the only person to pleat headdresses for the Hardanger bunad.
In 2015, a small group of women came together and discussed the precarious state of this knowledge. They were Åslaug Eikrem Utne and Magna Hauso, both from the Folgefonn branch of the Norwegian Folk Art and Craft Association; Gerd Rosten Bu and Alis Bjortveit, both from the Bu and Ringøy branch of the Norwegian Society of Rural Women; and Agnete Sivertsen, director of the Hardanger Folk Museum. In addition, experts Liv Rumohr Selland from Granvin and Christine Råkvik Duesund from Lysekloster also work with the group.
Traditionally, if advice was needed, there was always one or more experienced headdress pleaters (skautefellar) in every rural district. For example, Ingebjørg Byrkjeland learned the art of pleating a headdress scarf from Alfhild Steine in Øystese, who had been doing it for many years and who, in turn, had learned the skill from another woman. Training has not been organised, but has taken place through private meetings and acquaintances. The training of new “skautefellarar” has always been based on “the need to know” and was naturally integrated into the practice.
Ingebjørg Byrkjeland says that with the benefit of years of experience, she could pleat four to five headdress scarves a day. She has also managed to pleat six headdress scarves in the same day, but that was working a 12-hour day. When she started out, she charged NOK 15 per scarf.
Nowadays, wedding celebrations do not normally extend over several days, as they did in the past. There is therefore no need for the newlywed bride to put on the pleated headdress the day after the marriage service, and the headdress's once powerful symbolic value in relation to the actual wedding celebration has changed. In Hardanger, this has nevertheless been preserved, in that the pleated headdress is ceremonially put on the new wife at midnight on her wedding day, which many of those who marry wearing a traditional bridal crown wish to do.
Until the turn of 20th the century, the various parts of the traditional costume constituted clear and important signals about the marital status of the person wearing it. This norm has now practically disappeared, and with it the original significance of the headdress. Nevertheless, it is important for many people to wear a bunad that reflects their own identity – in this case, a married woman. Whether an unmarried woman can also wear the headdress is currently a matter of dispute. Some say that the most important thing is that the headdress is worn and used. Others contend that it is important to also preserve a knowledge of the headdress’s traditional meaning as a signifier of marital status.
Plan for preservation
The core group who has worked with headdress-pleating at Hardanger Folk Museum has taken on a great responsibility for the preservation and transmission of these skills. None of the group’s participants envisage becoming “skautfellar” in the same way as Ingebjørg Byrkjeland has been. They do, however, imagine that the museum can become a competence centre for this knowledge. The museum has played an important role in assuming responsibility for the import of rice starch, creating pleating rods out of piano wire, building the special sloping pleating boards and testing various qualities of cotton fabric. This would probably have been too much to do for an individual alone, if the aim had only been to pleat a headdress for themselves and their family. The museum has, not least, also been able to offer suitable premises for courses and other meetings relating to this work. The museum also has a great deal of source material relating to the pleating of headdresses, in the form of documents, photos and film. To date, two headdress-pleating courses have been held by the resource group, both of which were heavily oversubscribed, necessitating the creation of waiting lists.
The local competence resources, who represent the core of the preservation effort, see the challenges involved in building up an expert community large enough to keep the practice alive, or at least ensuring there are individuals who acquire sufficient proficiency and delivery capacity to enable, for example, the Norwegian Folk Art and Craft Association's shops to order ready-pleated headdress scarves for those customers who wish to buy them. Although discussions of this nature are under way, the issue today is primarily to ensure that rural women's societies, arts and crafts associations and museums are experienced and skilled enough to provide training and courses more people can benefit from. In this way, the knowledge will be made available to more people and will, thereby, gain a stronger footing. They also know that may people have ready-pleated headdress scarves tucked away in cupboards and drawers because they do not know how to adjust them to fit the user’s head.
The group has suggested, for example, that the rural women's societies and arts and crafts associations in areas where the headdress is in use should each own a ready-pleated scarf, which could potentially be lent/hired out, that they should know how to re-pleat it and, not least, know how it should be put on.
The core group wishes to establish an annual day at the museum, when people can bring in their headdresses, watch a demonstration of the scarf-pleating process and learn about the tradition. The group is also planning two courses in the autumn of 2017. The museum will create the necessary equipment and obtain the necessary materials that the participants can then purchase. The group is also discussing courses in how to put on the headdress, as well as how to use and store it.
The practitioners’ collective agrees that it must be possible to turn this practice into a commercial activity. Pleating a headdress scarf is an extremely painstaking and time-consuming process. It is reasonable that this is a service that should be paid for in the same way as the embroidery or sewing of other parts of the bunad. One suggestion is to look at bunad headdresses in other parts of the country, and see what they are sold for. The challenge of pricing a ready-pleated headdress scarf correctly is to get the customer to understand the huge amount of labour that is involved. In contrast to, for example, an embroidered headscarf, which involves a one-off payment for the embroiderer's work, the owner of a Hardanger bunad headdress must pay for this service over and over again. The fabric is not in itself an expensive component of the overall bunad. It is the headscarf’s preparation that one is paying for. Perhaps there are bunad-makers who could have this as part of their business offering? The handicraft shop Norsk Flid Husfliden Bergen has decided not to put headdresses on any of the mannequins it has on display, since they are currently unable to help their customers obtain one.
The headdress-pleating project is a good method by which to preserve and pass on this cultural heritage. And the Norwegian Folk Art and Craft Association has chosen to highlight it to mark the tenth anniversary of Norway ratifying the 2003 Convention for the Safeguarding of the Intangible Cultural Heritage. The pleating of bunad headscarves is a skill that the Folgefonn branch of the Norwegian Folk Art and Craft Association chose some years ago as its red-listed technique, i.e. a craft skill that it saw was at risk of disappearing if no one took action.
The Norwegian Folk Art and Craft Association's red list is a nationwide voluntary effort, in which local branches across the country select practical skills and knowledge related to folk arts and crafts that few people now master or even know about, and embark on a process of training and documentation to reverse this trend. A key aspect of this effort is that it is the individual members and local associations who choose which knowledge is important to them and who take responsibility for its transmission. This way of working was also one of the reasons that, in 2014, the Norwegian Folk Art and Craft Association was accredited as an expert organisation under UNESCO’s Immaterial Cultural Heritage Convention.
The partnership between folk art and craft associations, rural women's societies, museums and individual practitioners is a good example of how knowledge can be transferred from one pair of hands to many, and we hope that this way of working can be an inspiration for other practitioner communities in the immaterial cultural heritage field.
• "Å felle seg et skaut" paper by Christine Åkvåg Duesund, Vestnorsk kulturakademi 2010
• Headdress-pleating on the Norwegian Folk Art and Craft Association’s red list of endangered handicrafts: husflid.no/folgefonn-husflidslag-skautfelling/
• "Hardangerbunaden før og no" by Gudrun Stueland
• "Krone og skaut" by Ågot Noss
This text is based on conversations Solveig Torgersen Grinder and Jorid Martinsen had with members of the project group, and participation at a seminar with the group and with Ingebjørg Byrkjeland at Hardanger Folk Museum in 2017.
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