Ethel Halvarsson was a qualified textile artist whose particular skill lay in her use of colour. She mainly produced sacred textiles but she also created profane works for private homes and public spaces.
Ethel Halvarsson was born in Kristinehamn in 1917. Her father, Karl Halvarsson, worked in Kristinehamn as a carpenter and later became a construction contractor. He had dreamt of becoming an architect or an artist. Later on in life he met the artist Otto Sköld, who encouraged him to paint and carve wood. Ethel Halvarsson’s mother, Ester (née Moberg), had grown up at Bergsjötorp farm near Kristinehamn where she had been the eldest of eight siblings. She came from an enterprising family and all the girls learned practical skills such as sewing and weaving.
The Halvarsson family were active members of Missionskyrkan (Swedish Mission Covenant church) and it was there that Ethel Halvarsson gained her knowledge of the Bible which she later used in creating her sacred textiles. She had already as a preschooler begun to sew doll’s clothes and stated that she wanted to be a seamstress. She also spent many hours drawing and painting.
When Ethel Halvarsson was about to start school the family moved into Kristinehamn, having previously lived at their mother’s childhood home, which was always bustling and full of life. Ethel Halvarsson really enjoyed her school years. Towards the end of her schooling she wanted to apply to become a drawing instructor or an interior designer. On gaining her school-leaving certificate at Filipstad at the age of 16 she was, however, too young to apply for either course and so she then attended a course in applied embroidery and weaving at Kristinehamns praktiska skola (vocational school).
In 1934 Ethel Halvarsson applied to both the drawing instructor’s and interior design courses at Tekniska skolan (now Konstfack, college of arts, crafts, and design). She was accepted on both courses but opted for the drawing instructor’s course as it seemed a safer bet in regard to a future career. A couple of years later Ethel Halvarsson discovered the textile course offered at Högre konstindustriella skolan (now also Konstfack) and transferred so that she could produce independent sketches and develop her innate talents more freely. Her fellow students were a supportive lot and tended to show each other their sketches and textile creations. Marianne Richter and Ethel Halvarsson became best of friends whilst students and their friendship lasted for the rest of their lives. They both admired their teacher, Barbro Nilsson whose students not only blossomed under her care but became adventurous. Barbro Nilsson also highlighted textile art’s many possibilities.
Ethel Halvarsson completed her studies in 1939 and found a position within the well-managed Jönköping läns hemslöjd (county handicrafts association). The manager there expected high-quality production and expanded the association’s customer base by determinedly focusing on finding clients in the public sphere. Sweden was undergoing a period of crisis (the Second World War) just as Ethel Halvarsson began working and rationing made it hard to obtain yarn. So she began to experiment with the new hard artificial yarns and succeeded in designing items such as shawls, table cloths, and creating images which were then passed to a weaver for production. These items sold well, convincing her manager that she should continue creating them. At the same time Ethel Halvarsson was engaged in prestigious jobs including designing rugs for both sacred and profane uses.
Ethel Halvarsson resigned from her job in Jönköping in 1942. She married Gunnar Andersson and moved back to Kristinehamn and that same year her son Lars was born. Ethel Halvarsson carried on producing sketches and took on commissions to produce sacred textiles even though she was primarily a housewife. The family lived in the same building as Gunnar Andersson’s mother and this caused problems in the marriage. It was not long before Ethel Halvarsson moved out and took a job at Gurli Aronsson’s weaving school in Kristinehamn, where she worked until 1943 when she got a job with Värmlands hemslöjd association. A couple of years later she and her husband tried to make a fresh start together and Ethel Halvarsson fell pregnant with her daughter Elisabeth. However she ended up moving out of the marital home before the birth. Nothing had changed and she needed to have time to produce her sketches and to create her designs.
Ethel Halvarsson enjoyed her initial period at Karlstad hemslöjd, pleased to see her sketches rapidly turned into woven products that went on to be sold. Her design called Solrosmattan was a particular success although it did not bear her signature as products were to be sold anonymously. When her creations were displayed at exhibitions they received positive press reviews for their composition. It was not long before she became responsible for all sacred commissions and today the majority of Värmland’s churches contain choir rugs and other sacred textiles created by Ethel Halvarsson. She had a rare talent for reflecting the atmosphere of the particular church for which she created a design.
In 1948 Värmlands hembygdsförbund (local history association) decided to send a “friendship” gift to the American Swedish Institute in Minneapolis to commemorate the 140,000 Swedish emigrants who had left the area and Ethel Halvarsson was hired to work on the project. The task involved finding a textile gift that was specific to each parish. She hunted for old textiles that she could recreate or she created her own using something which related to a given parish. The project took four years to complete and in 1952 the “friendship” gift was handed over in Minneapolis. Ethel Halvarsson was present at the ceremony and then spent six months in America, travelling around and visiting museums, galleries, and public libraries. She made particular studies of Indian textile crafts.
In 1954 Ethel Halvarsson landed a dream job at Säffle town hall where, in conjunction with the architect Nils Einar Eriksson, she was to supply interior decoration. She designed two large “röllakan” weavings for one of the stairwells. One of these depicted a silhouette of Säffle town. For the session hall she designed the upholstery cloth used for the chairs and the curtains. The entire back wall was covered in seven strips of damask weave displaying a pattern which Ethel Halvarsson christened Lindallé and the speaker’s chair was flanked by a tapestry displaying Lilies of the Valley. The Svenska Dagbladet newspaper commented at the inauguration that same year that this was not just a town hall but “also an art gallery and an exhibition of the art of interior decoration”.
In 1955 a new manager was appointed to Värmlands hemslöjd who terminated all the contracts of those working there. Ethel Halvarsson then set up her own studio in her own home along with two former weavers from the association. Her previous customers returned to her with new commissions and after a few years she began to collaborate with an architectural firm which designed many missionary buildings as part of its remit and for which she created large textile decorations.
Ethel Halvarsson closed her studio in 1977 and retired. She moved out to the countryside near Kristinehamn where the garden became part of her artistic efforts and often inspired her in new commissions. She received orders for several rugs for church choirs and at Lextorp church in Trollhättan you can see an example of Ethel Halvarsson’s incredible skill with colours in the nature-inspired Skog och sjö rug in the choir. Here she has managed to combine colours which when considered separately would not appear to work together.
In 1979 Ethel Halvarsson designed and also wove the large altarpiece entitled Påsk in the form of a reredos for Närheten church in Kil, Värmland. Textile altarpieces are of themselves unusual and Påsk is woven in four strips using tapestry techniques and is mounted within a golden frame. The central section portrays First Communion in which Christ holds a golden chalice before him. In 2003, then 86 years of age, Ethel Halvarsson made her final sketch for a choir rug for Mikaeli church in Arvika in what was a genuine work of excellence by the aging artist. That same year a major retrospective exhibition of her work was held at Kristinehamn court house.
Ethel Halvarsson’s work was also displayed at the Nordic Cool: Hot women designers exhibition held at the National Museum of Woman in the Arts in 2004. Here the pioneers were presented as a foundation against which younger artists positioned themselves. Works by Ethel Halvarsson form part of various collections, such as a rya rug called Stenar at Stockholm’s Nordiska museet and another two rya pieces entitled Valborgsmäss and Blåelse held in Värmlands museum. Ethel Halvarsson received several stipends and undertook several study trips abroad, often to France, Great Britain, the USA, and Mexico. Despite offers to take up other professional posts elsewhere in Sweden she remained loyal to her home area.
Ethel Halvarsson signed her work with “eha” representing her married name of Ethel Halvar-Andersson. She retained this signature even after reverting to using her maiden name.
Ethel Halvarsson died in 2011.