Märtha Gahn renewed profane and sacred textile art during the first half of the 1900s, and she was one of the first textile artists to cooperate with the textile industry to create patterns for printed fabrics.
Märtha Gahn was born in 1891 and she grew up on her family estate Kåfalla in Örebro county, together with her three brothers. Her father, Captain Henrik Jakob Fredrik Gahn, had inherited the manor estate and the iron foundry. He died early, in 1910, and their mother Ellen Gahn, née Silfverstolpe, thus became a widow at the age of 44. Her upbringing on the manor estate was a continual inspiration to Märtha Gahn and it eventually left its mark on a great part of her textile production.
After their father’s death, the family moved to Stockholm and Märtha Gahn began studying to be a textile artist at the Higher industrial arts school at the Technical College, now Konstfack. Immediately after completing her education in 1915, she started the atelier Ateljé Handtryck together with Elsa Flensburg, Märtha Hjortzberg and Bror Geijer-Göthe. They printed patterns using their own stereo plates and silk and cotton fabrics. The patterns were inspired mainly by renaissance and eighteenth-century models.
After two years, Märtha Gahn left Ateljé Handtryck and became the artistic leader of the textile section of the Swedish crafts association Föreningen för Svensk Hemslöjd, that had been founded in 1899 by Lilli Zickerman. Märtha Gahn worked as a pattern designer and also accompanied Lilli Zickerman on her stocktaking trips. One year she also ran the association’s test weaving institution in Vittsjö. The association composed artistic and aesthetically attractive patterns for carpets and furniture upholstery among other things. They were later made into products by women weavers around the country.
Märtha Gahn became an important artistic influence with her own form language. She composed a great number of patterns in the spirit of the association, her creativity showing a contemporary awareness while using traditional techniques. The association’s basic idea was to preserve the traditions from folk crafts and on that foundation to develop new patterns and forms. One of Märtha Gahn’s notable achievements was to vary the classical textile stripes. Stripy fabrics for furnishings and fittings suited the early twentieth century’s new furnishings ideal very well, with its simple, light style, inspired by among others Carl and Karin Larsson. The handwoven furniture fabrics suited the contemporary modern home excellently and the association received several extensive furnishing assignments for which Märtha Gahn was a driving force. Among them was the furnishing of Harpsund Manor in manor house style.
Märtha Gahn also participated in starting the group Verkstaden 1918, a fellowship of several of the most well-known artists, architects and craftsworkers of the time. Their most notable achievement was an exhibition in 1921 that won a good deal of attention.
The Föreningen för Svensk Hemslöjd took part in the Paris International Exhibition of Modern Decorative and Industrial Arts in 1925 with among other things carpets and hanging tapestries composed by Märtha Gahn. For the Stockholm Exhibition in 1930 she received a commission from Borås Wäfveri AB to compose patterns for printed fabrics. This is an early example of the collaboration between a well-known artist and the textile industry with the emphasis on printed fabrics. The six different patterns on her fabrics were both retrospective towards the Gustavian style and also geometric in the modern style. This was the first exhibition in Sweden to show a section with textiles produced only by machines and it was given a good deal of attention. Märtha Gahn also participated with furnishing fabrics, carpets and church textiles for Föreningen för Svensk Hemslöjd and carpets for the carpet factory Kasthalls Mattfabrik in Kinna.
After 15 years as the artistic leader of Föreningen för Svensk Hemslöjd, Märtha Gahn worked for two years as a teacher and artist at another crafts association, Handarbetets Vänner, before she succeeded Agda Österberg in 1935 as the director of Libraria Konsthantverk AB. The atelier Libraria in Stockholm was developed in the 1910s into a company producing church textile art. The enterprise was linked to the board of deaconry of the Swedish church. Märtha Gahn remained at Libraria until her retirement, and during her time there, about 3,000 vestments, antependia and chancel carpets were delivered. She also began to compose and order her own silk patterns and her greatest source of inspiration was the Swedish flora. She strove to develop Libraria into a living centre for modern church art and introduced a new spirit in collaboration with various artists and crafters. Märtha Gahn had already during her time at Föreningen för Svensk Hemslöjd composed church textiles, among other things a new chancel carpet for the Engelbrekt Church in Stockholm in 1924. She considered that it was of great significance for church textiles to be composed so that they related to local tradition in the various country districts and to the character of each respective village or town. An important aspect of Libraria’s activities was also to repair and put in order older damaged and worn church textiles.
Märtha Gahn was also active as a folk educator, writing articles and holding lectures, above all for various women’s associations, about textiles and home decoration. After her retirement, she continued to devote herself to church art, both as an advisor and by composing church textiles in her own company Kristlig Konst in Vaxholm.
Märtha Gahn died in 1973, at 82 years of age.