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Klässbols linneväveri

Klässbols Linneväveri is known throughout Sweden nowadays, courtesy of Nobel banquets and Royal banquets. Of course, this hasn't always been the case. For a long time members of the Johansson family toiled away at their weaving mill in a remote village alongside a stream in western Värmland.

It's early summer 1979. The phone rings. It's someone from Stockholm. They want to come for a visit. Three people. That's fine. Just three of them. No trouble at all. Welcome.

We're used to visitors at Klässbols Linneväveri. Since the 1950s we've been receiving increasing numbers of busloads. Initially it was often sewing circles. Long before the tourist industry really took off. When people travelled or perhaps toured round without being recorded as overnight or dining statistics.

Distinguished visit

This visit was special. Just the fact that they had called in advance to announce their arrival. Sven-Olof felt prompted to meet them by car at the station in Arvika, and Dick gave the three of them a guided tour of the town. An imposing lady dressed in black and two gentlemen. The hierarchy of the party was somewhat uncertain, but the gentlemen seemed to be the lady's lieutenants. One of them purchased a wooden spade in one of the antique shops in town and walked along with it over his shoulder. Dick invited the party to enjoy some local pizza. The gentleman with the spade later turned out to be a restaurateur and was probably used to more exclusive dining.

Out at the textile factory in the small community of Klässbol, several kilometres south of Arvika, the three spent a long time wandering around the 110-decibel machine hall. Rather surprised. Impressed. Is it real? As if they had discovered something they thought was lost. Not just expertly-woven linen fabrics. Quite simply, a system of values, involving quality and respect for tradition. And the smell of linen. And lustrous colour.

The three wonderstruck visitors were Märta Österdahl, who had an art gallery in Gamla Stan, and her entourage, young restaurateur Carl-Jan Granquist and art critic for Svenska Dagbladet Åke Livstedt. Before the party set out on their return journey, Klässbols Linneväveri received an invitation to exhibit their products at Märta Österdahl's gallery. This would be during Advent in two year's time.

A milestone in Gamla Stan

The LIN exhibition opened on Advent Sunday in 1981 as promised, and the day after the opening, when "everyone" had been and experienced for themselves the texture of the unbleached pure linen, came Åke Livstedt's article in SvD entitled "Väverikultur" (Weaving culture). And Klässbols Linneväveri went from a rustic existence on the fringes out into the limelight. Thus began the climb from the bottom of the Swedish textile industry up towards the leaders.

Everyone at Klässbols Linneväveri now refers to the time before and after Märta Österdahl. And the exhibition was seen as a milestone. The journey up to that point had been long and often arduous. It began in 1920 when Hjalmar Johansson set up his first loom in his kitchen in Nystuga, above Sörtjärn in Klässbol, not far from the river where small-scale industries of all kinds had been following one after another ever since the 17th century: flour mills, carpenter's workshops, blacksmiths' forges, felting works, weaving mills... He began weaving traditional so-called drill patterns using linen yarn supplied by local housewives. Patterned cloths, but also sheets, pillow cases and towels. The loom was soon joined by a larger iron model and a jacquard that was so tall a hole had to be sawn in the ceiling, meaning that the children in the bedroom above were lulled to sleep every night by the rattle and thump of the loom. From 1924 he ran the operation with several looms in an adjacent cottage, a former tenement soldier's cottage, small and low.

Seventeen-year-old steps up

In 1928 Hjalmar died suddenly and unexpectedly, leaving his wife Augusta and eight children. Augusta and their son Vitalis, only seventeen at the time, decided to continue with the weaving business. Vitalis continued to weave the patterns he had inherited from his father, Schackrutan, Stafnäsrutan, Citron, Vinrankan, Fiskmåsen and others, over the next few decades, interrupted by the war when the armed forces requisitioned the flax.

In winter 1950-51 Vitalis Johansson had a new factory building constructed at Gärdet, just a stone's throw or two from Nystuga. The number of looms multiplied, often second-hand models purchased from closed-down textile factories, from scrap yards or from factories that had reorganised production – we have now reached the time when synthetic fibres in the form of nylon shirts, etc. are taking over and causing havoc in the textile and clothing industry. The traditional patterns – still the same – were supplemented with large-scale production of towels with the client's business name along the border: Svenska Rayon, Billeruds bruk, Lövbergs, Scania-Vabis, Boliden and Gunnebo. There was soon interest from national institutions too: Swedish Customs, the Police, the Swedish Prison and Probation Service and Systembolaget. It can justifiably be said that this mass production of linen towels was the most important contributing factor to Klässbols Linneväveri's survival during this period. Surviving with its head just above water.

Passing the baton

As summer 1979 arrived and the lady in black discovered the weaving mill in far-away Värmland, Vitalis Johansson was in the process of handing over the business to four of his sons: Sven-Olof, Torbjörn, Urban and Dick. They had all acquired knowledge of weaving at an early age; tradition points to fourteen as the age for starting to travel by cart down to the sub post office half a kilometre downstream along the Klässbolsälven. By the 1980s they had implemented a division of roles: head weaver, weaver and CEO, but with no strict division between duties.

Prominent visitors to the exhibition opening at Gamla Stan included representatives of the National Board of Public Building, headed by legendary textile designer Astrid Sampe. She was instrumental in getting Klässbols the commission to supply Swedish embassies with linen, using a pattern designed by Sofia Widén in the 1940s. This commercial breakthrough also resulted in a similar order from the Norwegian Directorate of Public Construction and Property. This collection was designed by Ingela Berntsson, who over a long period of time, starting in 1976, has helped to modernise and renovate the weaving mill; the current shop in Klässbol is her creation. Another designer now sought out Klässbol, Peter Condu, seeking weavers for his large curtain order for the new Riksdag building. Since then the number of renowned designers has multiplied.

Tablecloths for banquets

Now success followed success. After a decade came the two commissions that would make the weaving mill in Värmland a national concern: the 500 metres of linen tablecloth and the 1,400 linen napkins intended for the 1991 Nobel Award Ceremony, and the tablecloth and 200 napkins ordered a few years later by selected representatives of the Swedish population as a gift for King Carl XVI Gustaf to mark his 20-year reign. Åke Livstedt, who had been commissioned to stage the jubilee banquet, was responsible for the order for the Nobel linen. Weaving the King's tablecloth, with its unusual length and width – almost 3x64 metres – and its extremely fine thread, was made possible since hand-weaver Hans Thomsson had been lured to Värmland and it had been possible to modify the width of an old loom dating back over one hundred years – the loom itself had actually been inherited from the 18th-century Vadstena factory. Thomsson remained dedicated to this one commission for a full five years. And his work re-established the original handicraft tradition that Vitalis Johansson ultimately left behind with the construction of the factory at Gärdet in 1950.

Fantastic, but far from a fairy tale

The 90-year history of Klässbols Linneväveri is often depicted as a success story. That's a cliché. In a literal sense, it invites reflection. Certainly the Johanssons of Klässbol, with a fourth generation represented by Stefan and Andreas Johansson and Cenita Johansson Åsen now on board, have been fantastically successful, but it hasn't been plain sailing along the way. It has been more a series of realities that have taken this weaving business to pole position. Team spirit, acquired from football and ice hockey arenas, a good helping of tenacity, adherence to natural materials, a design tradition and financial sense that, if nothing else, recycled scrap machinery – much that outsiders viewed as stubbornness, old-fashionedness and dead ends. And along with that, naturally, solid know-how, a knack for weaving and building and maintaining a large assembly of machinery. And, where necessary, a gift for forming ties with people with know-how and, in numerous instances, with influence in important circles.

So an unbroken tradition of small-scale entrepreneurship has continued beside Klässbolsälven falls ever since the 17th century and looks set to continue for some time yet – last year's internal training in lean production has added a modern touch to tradition, and a Klässbols shop is now opening on Sveavägen in Stockholm, the first of its kind.

Sven Smedberg
From the magazine Företagsminnen published by Centre for Business History