To celebrate the release of our summer issue, Issue 101 Grow, this week's 'Long Thread' article focuses on Scandinavian straw crowns. Read on for an interview with Swedish artisan and straw crown maker, Per-Åke Backman, written by Cia Wedin.
There's a contradiction present in contemporary Scandinavian straw crowns. The fragility of their parts unexpectedly come together as substantial form, yet are of an ethereal, light touch. The tradition of making straw crowns goes back a long way in the Scandinavian countries. In Sweden, Per-Åke Backman has dedicated close to 30 years to the craft.
The hanging of straw crowns in the ceiling of your house is a tradition whose age, origin and deeper significance are somewhat unclear and placed in the obscurity of time, says Per-Åke Backman. We know, however, that the decorative objects of peasant society had an important function when celebrating, for example, the last sheaf or a wedding. The formerly "magical" objects of peasant society (where straw mobiles can be included) eventually blended with Christian symbolism. The "Christmas mobile" became a reminder of the birth of Jesus and the manger in which he lay.
Per-Åke Backman’s work touches on many ideas and references in the form, colour and materials used: traditional craft, national and international art history, folklore and personal experience. Every crown is unique but they all capture the magic of responding to the slightest breeze of air. Even your own breath! The movement is slow and deliberate, with a poetic feel.
The work process is as contemplative as the crown itself.
I use an older variant of rye straw called "midsummer rye". It grows as tall as a human being. Modern rye is shorter. It is the strawpipes beween the so-called "knees" you use, and the longer the straw the better. I peel and soak the straw in water for half an hour. Then I sort the straw by size. I choose the thickness that fits the straw crown I intend to create, and cut the straws according to the dimensions of the prototype.
The prototype is crucial in Backman’s creative process.
In short it is about seeing a problem and trying to find a solution. You work with imagining, trying out and finally building a stabile construction.
The basic construction has to be perfectly calibrated, and hang straight. Otherwise the crown will tip over when the craftsman adds parts and decorations.
When the construction of the basic form is solved I am often a step ahead in my thinking, and eager to take what I have accomplished to a higher level, into the making of the next crown.
The period when Per-Åke Backman is working on the protoype and then the actual crown takes several days, sometimes weeks. But time is of no importance for this craftsman.
It is a very delicate craft, he says. sounding pleased. You cannot stress the material, you must let the material lead the way. Have faith in the material. You see, straw is very fragile... you've got to work with a light hand. It is a slow process and I find that exciting in a time when lots of things go about very fast.
In a basic model Per-Åke Backman uses one single linen thread running through all the straw pipes.
You could say I "sew" my straw crowns. I create a basic form, which I then often multiply in smaller formations. For a cube I use 12 exactly equal lengths of straw. Straw that I thread up and tie together. The length of the linen thread must be enough for the whole cube. Then I join separate parts into a whole, and decorate as desired.
There're not two crowns alike, and Per-Åke Backman never ceases to be surprised with his skilled craftsmanship. In Sweden this craft has a long tradition in the making of everyday objects, but somehow Per-Åke has the gift of transforming the anonynomus into an artistic endeavour.
Well, it is my reward, kind of, he says in his humble way. To be able to work the materials, and bring an idea to the process of handicraft. The expression becomes very personal. During the creative process and actual craft an idea might develop into a form or an expression I did not know before.
Another foundation of Backman’s work is the process of refining waste material into something beautiful and up-cycling processed waste.
The material in itself is of little value. It can be considered "waste". I take what's around, like when I cut a weave from the loom and there's a lot of tiny pieces of thread... I save those and use them, sooner or later, as a decoration. I find it very satisfying to try out and reach the implicit possibilities of the materials. To have faith in the fragility of the straw, the texture of cloth and linen thread. When I start working I never think in terms of time or effectivity. Especially not economical. That wouldn't do, and is not why I work in this crafts tradition.
Per-Åke Backman learned about the craft in 1992, when he went into the attic of his grandmother's cottage and found some straw objects she had started to work on but not finished.
It was a traditional 6-side straw crown from Dalarna. I got curious and tried to construct something similar. But I got it all wrong. The problem of constructing a straw crown became something I wanted to solve.
When a crafts competition at Dalarnas Hemslöjd in Falun was announced, Backman participated with a crown. The jury said he had captured the soul of the material and craft, and developed a contemporary yet traditional expression. One internationally recognized series of crowns is called "The four Seasons".
I had found my way of expression. From then on I have worked with handicraft, with the straw crown as my main interest.
Those crowns are inspired by the four seasons we have in Sweden. Spring is pink with a sweetness about it. It is made in delicate straw, very fragile and pale. And decorated mainly with squares of pink linen textile. There's also a touch of light green and yellow. The Summer crown is more powerful, the Fall crown basically orange with an additional dark green. And the Winter crown is natural straw with whites.
Per-Åke Backman says he finds it very satisfying to see a crown completed, to be able to take a creative idea or a thought and realize it into an object.
For a few moments I enjoy the crown...wow! But then I start thinking about how I can refine my work, make it even better. And the creative process starts all over again.
Per-Åke Backman was born in 1963. He lives and works in the small village Lycka ("Happiness") in Dalarna county in Sweden. In the summer of 2022 he'll exhibit at the Swedish Straw Museum, "Halmens hus", where approximately 20 straw crowns will be shown in an homage to his 30-year anniversary as a straw craftsman.
Written by Cia Wedin.
Take part in our summer celebration of straw! Read more in our latest issue, Issue 101 Grow.