Ulla Stenberg was an important Swedish textile artist and owner of the Stenberg damask weaving mill in Jönköping for over thirty years.
Ulla Stenberg grew up outside of Jönköping, where her father served as rector of the Järstorp and Bankeryd parishes. It was presumably due to her family background and the influence of the Oxelgrens, relatives from Småland who were weavers, that she developed a strong interest in the art of weaving. After her father died in 1816, Ulla Stenberg settled in Bankeryd and dedicated herself completely to weaving.
In the early nineteenth century it had become the norm for hushållningssällskapen (the rural economy and agricultural societies) to support various handicrafts and forms of occupation. Specific funds were allocated to the Jönköping region for flax cultivation and a number of girls were sent to Ångermanland in order to learn how to weave flax. At one of the rural economy and agricultural societies meetings in 1819 Ulla Stenberg received a commendation which “attested that Mademoiselle Colliander was exceptionally skilled with fabrics and weaving, and had an excellent taste in stripes, and further, although she was reticent in seeking any general attention for herself, she was complimented by several of the members present for being unusually hardworking and able in all the female handicrafts.”
In 1822 Ulla Stenberg married the councillor and lace-maker Gottfrid Stenberg. That year he advertised in the local press that his shop in Jönköping sold “all sorts of woollen and cotton cloths, hats, shirts, underwear, both of his own production and wares priced at the usual factory prices”. The initial production took place on looms in the Stenberg household. Towards the end of the 1820s Ulla Stenberg also taught weaving of different cloths – damask, tablecloths and upholstery cloth – and planned to set up a weaving school in the town. The 1834 cholera epidemic led to a reorganisation of the civic poor relief and a vocational school for girls was established through a special women’s section, of which Ulla Stenberg was a representative. It is likely that weaving was an important element in the teaching.
Ulla Stenberg displayed numerous woven cloths with damask patterns at a major handicraft exhibition held in Stockholm in 1834. Six years later another exhibition was held at Prince Karl’s palace, where Ulla Stenberg’s work received a lot of attention. Thus far her work still bore the mark of traditional craft but this changed by the mid-1840s. The Stenberg couple travelled to Stockholm and Gottfrid Stenberg was able to demonstrate Ulla Stenberg’s weaving proficiency at the royal court. Ulla Stenberg used her trip to Stockholm to visit the K. A. Almgren’s Sidenväveri factory. She saw a jacquard loom – which made it possible for one person to weave the most delicate patterns – for the very first time. She was highly impressed by the ingenious invention and bought two of the machines.
By 1849 Ulla Stenberg had three jacquard looms in her weaving studio and two years later she and her apprentice weavers exhibited at the World’s Fair in London. Her damask-weaving workshop subsequently received commissions not only from throughout Sweden but also from abroad. Her output doubled by the 1850s and the year before the town fire in 1854 she earned 8,500 riksdaler. The workshop housed eight jacquard looms and 18 registered workers, mainly women, so that it was now considered a factory.
The patterns for the famous cloths appear to have been designed by Ulla Stenberg herself, along with her daughter Kristina Elfrida. The woven product was described as “opulent enough to allow the various gleaming surfaces of the warp and weft to contrast vividly against each other and to produce the voluptuous effect which is the great secret of damask”. Damask was often used to save material and simplify the work by using tight warps and few wefts or picks. Ulla Stenberg, however, used the opposite production method of a thinly wound warp and tightly bound pick. This made the product more expensive but also improved the quality and the durability of the cloth.
The factory was almost completely destroyed in the Jönköping fire of 1 March 1854. Only one loom survived, but with the help of public funding and an interest-free debenture loan the site was reconstructed and the former lace-maker Reinhold Beck was placed in charge of the weaving production. He had been employed in Ulla Stenberg’s lace-making section and in the mid-1840s had undertaken a two-year study trip to Germany, where he also learned damask weaving.
The fire resulted in the factory moving to a new location and being built up to house eight looms again, with a staff of about 20. The financial value of the output rose to more than 10,000 riksdaler. In 1855 the Stenberg weavers displayed their wares at the World’s Fair in Paris and their goods were given honourable mention. This was a triumphant year for Jönköping industry. The whole town spoke proudly of the safety matches produced by its match factory, only recently released on the public market, and of the Stenberg cloths, which won prizes both in London and in Paris.
After Ulla Stenberg’s death in 1858 her daughters Mathilda Gustava and Kristina Elfrida took over the factory, along with master-weaver Beck. In 1875 there were still eight looms in operation at the Stenberg factory, producing four patterned weaves. The Stenberg looms were sold to engineer Arvid Gerhard Damm in the early 1890s. He moved to Tammerfors in 1897 and at that point the factory was closed.