Helena Catharina Utfall was a pioneer of weaving in that she taught “dräll” weaving (which produces geometric designs) following Dutch patterns.
Helena Catharina Utfall was born in Kristine congregation in Gothenburg in 1689. Her father, Jakob Utfall, was a magistrate and bank commissioner, and her mother Maria Kuyl was the daughter of an admiralty captain. Helena Catharina Utfall was the second youngest child of eleven born in the family. Her brothers were subsequently, in 1716, ennobled.
Helena Catharina Utfall grew up in Gothenburg. In 1711 she married Christian Gathe who hailed from a wealthy family. Christian was a sea captain who, along with his brother Lars – better known as Lasse i Gatan – engaged in piracy. The brothers belonged to a longstanding seafaring family in Onsala Halland where they enjoyed high status and exercised a dominant force within the parish. Helena Catharina Utfall gave birth to 10 children in her marriage, two of whom were stillborn. Given that her marriage lasted 11 years the indication is that Helena Catharina Utfall practically gave birth every year. Her husband spent most of the year at sea and on his death it was now entirely up to her to provide the family income. Helena Catharina Utfall’s husband has been described as a moody man possessed of a quick temper, another factor indicating that her life had probably not been an easy one. Further, her husband began to suffer from a psychological illness towards the end of his life. Nevertheless, he and his brother Lars were ennobled in 1715, taking the name Gathenhielm. In 1720 Christian purchased Jonsjö and Struxsjö manors in Veddinge parish, Halland although he himself never moved there as he died two years later, leaving Helena Catharina widowed.
It is unclear where the couple lived whilst they were married. It may have been in Gothenburg or in Onsala. When Helena Catharina Uftall became a widow in 1722 she and the children moved to Jonsjö manor in Halland, which bordered on Västergötland and Mark district. In the latter there were several close allies of the Gathenhielm family.
The year after Helena Catharina Utfall lost her husband she began to work on developing “dräll” weaving. The technique produced geometric patterns by using the alternating effects of the warp and the weft. In Mark district there was a long-standing tradition of linen weaving but Helena Catharina Utfall wanted to get the local women to weave “dräll”. Initially she got them to produce 8 shaft weaves which achieved 11–12 öre per ell instead of the 7–8 öre per ell achieved for the linen weave. This of course made the women better off.
It is hard to determine where Helena Catharina Utfall had learned to create “dräll” but it probably had something to do with her late husband’s and her brother-in-law Lars’ travels. The latter apparently spoke both English and Dutch although it is unclear just how much he travelled. Christian, in contrast, was always on the go and for a time ran a postal service between Gothenburg and the Netherlands. This connection with the Netherlands may have played an important role as, during the seventeenth century, the most accomplished cloth was produced by Dutch weavers. The fashionable damask linen had emerged from Flanders and Holland. Sweden largely imported most of its “dräll” and damask cloth at this time. The women in the longstanding seafaring families dressed differently from ordinary women due to their access not just to other types of cloth but also other models of outfits. The woven foreign cloth was brought home by local seafarers who could inform women about the textiles. Helena Catharina Utfall was pioneering in her efforts to introduce “dräll” weaving in Sweden. Her efforts in getting ordinary folk to produce their own “dräll” instead of just importing it ready-made from abroad were well-suited to contemporary ideas of mercantilism and domestic linen manufacturing.
The Von Döbeln family was an influential family in Veddinge parish. On 4 December 1724 Ernst Friedrik von Döbeln, the deputy district head and later assistant appeals judge, purchased Jonsjö and Struxsjö manors from the late Christian Gathenhielm’s estate. Later that same month, on 27 December, he married Helena Catharina Utfall. Her new husband was a qualified legal practitioner who ran their farms and engaged in land transactions. Helena Catharina Utfall also undertook property transactions, not only on land but also as a shipowner and as a part-owner of various vessels on behalf of her late husband. Helena Catharina Utfall gave birth to five children in her second marriage, most of whom were born barely a year apart.
Helena Catharina Utfall carried on her weaving innovations, moving on from the 8-shaft “dräll” weaves, seeking to refine the weave even further. Along with her neighbour, Maria Catharina Lagerquist, she persuaded a soldier’s wife in Istorp parish to adopt 16-shaft “dräll” following Dutch patterns. This was around 1727–1728 and from that time onwards the 16-shaft “dräll” became more common, partly because it achieved a higher price at 12–13 öre per ell, giving women an increased profit margin. The new weaving style spread throughout Mark district. Helena Catharina Utfall carried on working with “dräll” weaving until her death.
Eventually the locals became famous for their “dräll” linen, particularly those who lived in the southern part of Mark, and especially those in Istorp where this kind of weaving became a specialism. Indeed, “dräll” weaving has continued into the modern day in southern Mark. The development and continuation of “dräll” weaving in Mark district resulted from women who dared to begin something new, including Helena Catharina Utfall, as well as those who came after her and kept the tradition alive.
Helena Catharina Utfall died in 1750.