Vivi Sylwan was a textile scholar of international renown. She served as the textile curator at the Röhsska museum in Gothenburg and she was the first woman to be awarded an honorary doctorate from Gothenburg college.
Vivi Sylwan was born in Kristianstad. She was the daughter of Lieutenant Colonel Otto Sylwan and Ida Carolina Sylwan, née Wendel. She had seven siblings, and she was particularly close to her half-brother Otto Sylwan. He became a professor of aesthetics, literature, and history of art at Gothenburg college and also served as the college principal from 1914–1931. The two siblings lived together until Otto Sylwan died in 1954.
Vivi Sylwan qualified as a drawing instructor in Stockholm in 1894. From 1895–1896 she was employed in an embroidery firm in Berlin. She then ran a traditional handicrafts shop in Malmö whilst also working as a drawing instructor.
In the early 1900s Vivi Sylwan trained at the advanced applied arts department of Tekniska högskolan (now Konstfack, college of arts, crafts and design) in Stockholm. She moved to Gothenburg in 1908 where she was active in the traditional arts society called Konstfliten (Bohusslöjd) for several years. She then turned toward museum work, drawn into the sphere by Axel Nilsson, head of the Röhsska museum. Initially she was hired as a secretarial assistant in 1912 but was quickly given other duties. By 1914 she had already become a curator and manager of the museum’s textile section.
Vivi Sylwan began an intensive search for old textiles in both Sweden and further afield. She was particularly interested in traditional woven items, not least those from western Sweden, and she came to specialise in handwoven pile rugs and double weaves from Bohus county. She visited homes where she would make drawings of furniture, book bindings, household implements, woven items, and other pieces which could be of interest to the museum, which was inaugurated in 1916. She was extremely particular when it came to the cataloguing, care, and conservation of the textiles.
Vivi Sylwan’s research was extraordinarily wide-ranging in nature. She could describe Bronze Age apparel of the North, the cultural history of woven bands, Oriental rugs, medieval church tapestries, and more. Her academic work moved among many cultural circles and she was able to place the textiles she studied within a cultural history and ethnographic context. She traced weaving techniques and patterns and could, for example, show that certain design techniques in Swedish traditional textile art had ancient roots.
Vivi Sylwan was the first scholar to reveal that medieval tapestries from Överhogdal in Härjedalen and Skog in Hälsingland were not embroidered but were in fact woven patterns. Her major work, entitled Svenska ryor and published in 1934, also describes the development of the rya technique and revealed how rya items had originally been utilitarian in origin, used as under sheets with the pile facing downwards and usually unpatterned. Later, as bedclothes changed, the rya items began to be embellished with patterns, becoming decorative elements with the pile facing outwards and used as wedding blankets or as throws which later became rugs and wall decorations.
Having undertaken study trips to Germany, Great Britain, France, and Austria Vivi Sylwan’s textile research gained international exposure. She had already pointed out in 1923 that the development of weaving techniques could be traced to silk weaving. Her 1931 book, Siden och brokader, describes how silk emerged from the Mediterranean countries and the kind of looms that were used.
Vivi Sylwan’s books on Central Asian finds gained a lot of attention. She was given the opportunity to study textiles which Sven Hedin had brought home from his trips to Central Asia, and this led her to write Woolen Textiles of the Lou-Lan people, published in 1941. Her 1949 book entitled Investigation of Silk from Edsen-Gol and Lop-Nor reveals how the oldest evidence of silk weaving from China can be seen as imprints on bronze items from the 1000s B.C. Vivi Sylwan became famous among international specialists in this field as a result of these publications.
Vivi Sylwan was not just a collector and scholar. She also taught textile art history at the Slöjdföreningen (traditional handicrafts society) school (now Konstindustriskolan at Gothenburg university) and at Väfskolan (Textilhögskolan) in Borås.
Vivi Sylwan was awarded the royal Illis quorum medal in 1934. She received the Jacques Lamm prize in 1936 in recognition of important work within the spheres of visual art and applied art. She was the first woman to be appointed an honorary doctor of Gothenburg college in 1941.
Vivi Sylwan died in 1961.