Hardanger

You are in a world of white, white on white. All ice is, white ice, made of snow, hard snow. It is in cubes, cubes on cubes, piled in regular geometric patterns; it is in diamonds, stepped diamonds, and it is in eight-pointed stars. Corners everywhere; any false turn can crack a convex vertex into your cortex. You feel that there is a figure and ground you cannot quite separate: you see a danger, and you see that it is hard, but somehow it doesn’t quite work together – you see one with one eye but the other with the other. How can you get down to the numbers on this, how can you figure it out? And then you roll over, and all these frozen edges lie soft against your cheek on the pillow: it was a dream. It was in your mind. You were upset, and all that you were seeing was your own hard anger, inspired by the place your head lay; the white on white was only your own world laid on itself.

Well! Doesn’t that seem quite a bit of embroidery on this simple word! Well, yes, in fact, it does, just as it should. Hardanger is after all a name for a kind of whitework embroidery, white thread on white thread in geometric patterns – you probably have seen it sometime on a cushion or pillowcase, or perhaps a tablecloth. It’s a mathematical discipline in its way, with much stitch counting (five-by-five blocks in tidy patterns, so many up and so many down, all symmetrical). It’s founded on a style that made its way up via Renaissance Italy from Asia; the eight-pointed star motif, so common in Nordic countries, is also to be seen in the near East.

It must be ironic that this embroidery style, so low-contrast, has taken its name from a rather high-contrast place: Hardanger, Norway, a fjordland district in southwest Norway near Bergen. It’s not certain whether the hard comes from a word meaning “hard” or from an old Germanic tribe name, but the anger – which is pronounced not like English anger but rather to rhyme with wronger – is from a word meaning “fjord” (the modern name for the fjord in Hardanger is Hardangerfjord, which does seem a bit redundant in that light, doesn’t it?). The original (and also still used) name for the embroidery is Hardangersøm, with søm meaning “work”. Anyway, it is a Nordic place, so one may think of it as being rather white, but it is hard to get away from the contrast of sharp fjord walls, and the angular light of the farther north – see Gude’s painting Fra Hardanger and tell me whether you think it looks like this Hardanger embroidery.

Indeed, Hardanger the place may seem to have much hard danger or the hard anger of high rocky cliffs, but just as the word loses some of its negative overtones in the pronunciation, the embroidery has embraced a lower contrast than the fjord – in line with the austerity of the north, indeed, but hardly in tune with the greater colour that one may sense from voiced stops and nasals and liquids. Such a stitching as this would seem to seek a whisper, nothing more: the opening /h/, and more layers of /h/ on top of it, and that would be the sum of the søm.

One response to “Hardanger

  1. Touching and being inspired by the Hardanger embroidery of my forebears, there is not one bit of “hard” feeling. My joy is to know the love and care taken in creating the most beautiful embroidery is now in my hands and visual context. Be gentle with your description, please. And also please be aware that the Hardanger way extends well to the east of Bergen.

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