The Making of an Embroidery Company

Oslo, 1915: Gunnar Pedersen (1890-1962) starts his own company, selling embroidery patterns, thread and sewing equipment. The embroidery business would preoccupy most of the lives of Gunnar and his son, Gunnar Christian (1930-) who would later export their embroidery patterns throughout Scandinavia, and to the United Kingdom, France, Belgium, Germany and the USA. On these pages, Norsk Trikotasjemuseum (The Norwegian Knitting Industry Museum) at Salhus presents the history of the company, and its contribution to the history of Norwegian textile crafts.
Gunnar Pedersen sr.

In 1915, Pedersen buys his own shop in Gjøvik. In the very beginning, he draws patterns himself and sells them to embroidery distributors on his monthly trips to Oslo. However, he soon relocates to the capital. From his office in Skippergata, he sold patterns printed on fabric to both distributors and directly to embroidery shops. Pedersen, and later his son, Gunnar Christian, would travel extensively around the Norwegian countryside as salesmen. On road trips like these, they slept in a tent next to their car, and brought a proper suit for sales calls. In the 1930s, Pedersen began selling embroidery patterns to the Norwegian women’s weeklies Allers Familie-Journal and Hjemmet under the brand names Laila and St. Georg.

The Norwegian Embroidery Association

The company made it through the lean 1930s and the Second World War, but ran into trouble after the war, when there was a ban on importing thread, yarn and textiles. Pedersen traded with Norwegian textile factories to get by, and when import ban showed no signs of being lifted, he took the initiative to create Norsk Broderiforbund (the Norwegian Embroidery Association), which would work towards the lifting of the ban. This would soon develop into a trade association consisting mainly of embroidery distributors, and became a forum to discuss common issues, textiles and designs.

Glasgow 1976: The company sold Anchor yarn from Coats & Clark Inc., and often visited their factory in Glasgow. Gunnar Christian Pedersen og office manager Kjell Kjeldsen(left).

In the late 1950s, Pedersen started delivering patterns to women’s weeklies on a much larger scale. At this time, the company provided patterns to Norwegian weeklies Norsk Dameblad, Det Nye and Norsk Ukeblad, and later also KK and Allers. For some of these magazines, they delivered new patterns every week. This put a lot of pressure on the pattern designers, but also made the patterns easier to sell to specialty shops afterwards.

From the 1950s, the company started producing showcase models of their patterns for use in shops, and in order to do this, they needed a number of ‘freelance’ embroiderers. At the most, around 2-300 embroiderers throughout Norway made pattern models for Design Gunnar P. Later on, the company would recruit a number of its embroiderers abroad, from the islands of Madeira and Mauritius, and later Manila and Sri Lanka.

1960s: Export and Expansion

Promotional materials for the American company Ports of Scandinavia, formed by a salesman of Design Gunnar P.
Promotional materials for the American company Ports of Scandinavia emphasized the traditional Scandinavian style.

When Gunnar Pedersen Sr. suffered a stroke in 1952, his son Gunnar Christian was brought home from studies abroad to take charge of the company. Gunnar Christian continued to take various courses in textiles and business while working, as his father never fully returned to work after his illness. When he died in 1962, Gunnar Christian took over the company.

The sixties would bring increased exports of the company’s patterns, and this made it necessary to hire more pattern designers. During the 1960s and -70s, between six and seven people worked in the design department at Design Gunnar P. From 1962, the company started expanding onto the Scandinavian market, via women’s weeklies in Denmark and Sweden. They also sold patterns through British Women’s Realm and Women’s Own, the American Better Homes and Gardens, as well as Belgian Femme d’Aujourd’hui and 3 Suisses, a major French mail order company. Getting their patterns featured in the catalogues of The Needlewoman Shop – a large retail shop in Regent Street, London from 1928-85 – was also a major goal during this period.

Going West

The company also had traveling salesmen abroad, and some of these would later form their own companies, while continuing to distribute patterns from Design Gunnar P. Companies like these were started in Copenhagen and Herning in Denmark, in Gothenburg, Sweden and in Germany. In the US, the company Ports of Scandinavia was founded, with headquarters in Litchfield, Minnesota. Representatives from Design Gunnar P also traveled throughout the country, selling patterns to embroidery specialty shops and ‘Scandinavian shops’ in equal measures.

Head of the design department, Laila Simonsen, ca. 1970.

The company delivered patterns and materials to different textile crafts – crocheting, tatting, and some knitting – as well as embroidery. According to Pedersen Jr., the real downturn didn’t start until the knitting fad of the 1980s. The company tried to keep up with the times, providing knitting patterns and using new fashion yarns in what they dubbed Freestyle embroidery, but in the end, it was not profitable, partly due to quick changes in yarn types. After Gunnar Christian became seriously ill, the company was discontinued in 1986. But his interest in needlework was still present, and Gunnar and his wife Inge started a mail order company in her name in 1989, selling patterns to women’s weeklies on a small, but busy, scale until 1999.

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Design Gunnar P

Patterns from Design Gunnar P have made their mark on many Norwegian houses and cottages, although many may not know the company behind them. Many of these patterns found their way abroad, too, particularly their sets of folk art-inspired pillowcases, wall hangings and bell pulls in straight gobelin stitches and woolen yarn.

During the early years, Gunnar Pedersen sold embroideries under different brand names, but was most known for the brands Laila and St. Georg. At Norsk Trikotasjemuseum (The Norwegian Knitting Industry Museum), we have preserved a lot of these early patterns for sets of decorative kitchen towels, runners, doilies and tablecloths, as well as other patterns from Design Gunnar P.

Decorative Arts vs. Amateur Crafts

Simple shapes: Stylized 1930s pattern, (Norsk Trikotasjemuseum, no. 5776)

In the 1930s, functionalist architecture and design had reached Norway, and key members of Foreningen Brukskunst  (Association for Decorative Arts, founded 1918), Jakob Tostrup Prytz and Thor Bendz Kielland, worked through the media and industrial mass-production to argue for the adoption of this new, modern style. In 1932, Kielland targeted the women’s weeklies, and this is where his path indirectly crosses that of Gunnar Pedersen, as a representative for the pattern makers for the weekly magazines. Kielland claimed that the magazines had good intentions,  but they nevertheless continued to ruin the Norwegian people’s sense of taste and quality through their hobby- and pattern pages. Kielland was not one to mince words, and characterized the pattern pages of the weeklies as a ‘poison’ that invaded every tenth Norwegian home.[2]

Fighting the Dragon

In 1932, Kielland organized an exhibition and a campaign under the slogan “Kampen mot dragen” (Fighting the Dragon), in cooperation with the newspaper Aftenposten and the Museum of Decorative Arts and Design in Oslo. Here, they displayed both ‘good’ and ‘bad’ pattern examples for the edification of the audience. After the exhibition, the Norwegian weeklies Hjemmet and Allers Familie-Journal announced competitions to create new patterns, as did Gunnar Pedersen A/S. The following year,  Aftenposten announced the great success of his St. Georg-competition – named after one of Pedersens brand names, which featured precisely, a dragon. The results of the competition were prize submissions containing simple shapes and stylized, geometrical figures. These were sold through Pedersen’s company, but according to his son, Gunnar Christian, the modern patterns sold rather poorly.

The Typical Norwegian Home

Promotional material for «Glittertind» pattern, Design Gunnar P 1970s.

The tensions between Foreningen Brukskunst and an embroidery company such as Gunnar Pedersen A/S are multi-layered. For the former, what became most important was establishing a modern design, and following current ideas about discarding old styles in favour of the new – a style based on mechanical and ‘rational’ production. Gunnar Pedersen A/S was – as the Association of Decorative Arts had been – interested in creating a distinct Norwegian style of embroidery.

When Gunnar Christian took over the company in the 1960s, some people urged him to follow the Danes stylistically, as the detailed cross stitch-embroideries of Clara Wæver/Eva Rosenstand were very popular at the time. Pedersen, however, wanted to create embroideries that were different from the Danes, and one that appealed to ordinary women. It could be modern, but not to the extent that the customers would not accept the patterns. In 1971, Pedersen stated – in an interview with the newspaper Nationen – that the company aimed at following the style of the Norwegian home.[4]

Folk Art Inspiration

Pute frå mønsterbok Design Gunnar P, ca. 1970.
Pillow from Design Gunnar P catalogue, ca. 1970.

In hindsight, perhaps the most prominent heritage from Design Gunnar P are the countless patterns for wall hangings or “åkle”, pillowcases and bell pulls, worked in straight gobelin stitches or «klostersøm» on canvas with woolen yarn. Pedersen Jr. mentions the abundance of pine furniture and wooden wall paneling in Norwegian houses at the time, as a natural frame of reference for the creation of these traditionally inspired patterns. Patterns named after Norwegian towns with a ring of tradition to them, such as “Skjåk” and “Gudvangen” would go on to become customer favourites.

«Klostersøm» is worked in straight gobelin stitches, that is, in horizontal rows of stitches of equal length, that are repeated over a certain number of canvas threads to produce rectangular, star-shaped and «staircase» patterns.[5] Partly due to their simplicity, they were used extensively in the company’s production of patterns for wall hangings, bell pulls and pillow covers. In the 1970s, Pedersen’s designers started using a variation of this that they called ‘billedsøm’ (‘picture seam’, similar to satin stitch worked on canvas), using gobelin stitches of unequal length. This allowed the pattern designers to be far more leeway when creating patterns.

«Surrealist» Patterns

Abstract pattern, ca. 1980 (Norsk Trikotasjemuseum/G01917)

But Gunnar Pedersen A/S produced far more than wall hangings and bell pulls in woolen, traditional patterns –  they aimed at following ebbs and flows of textile and crafts fashion. In the newspaper Arbeiderbladet, March 4th 1970, the head of the design department, Laila Simonsen, talked about the success of the «surreal» patterns they had released the previous fall.

–There has been a revolutionary change in people’s attitude to embroidery design these past few years. (…) Color combinations that would have been taboo some time ago, are quite normal today, she said, and mentioned that composing patterns solely in green/blue og red/orange would be inconceivable only a few years earlier. She went on to mention that her department would deliver around 300 complete patterns to the sales department each year. In 1970, the designers had landed an agreement that ensured that the designer’s name would appear on the pattern along with the brand name – although the company still owned the copyright to the patterns.

Another example of how Design Gunnar P adapted to changing times, was the release of Freestyle embroideries in the 1980s, using new kinds of knitting yarn to sew patterns on plastic mesh. In the end, this kind of embroidery proved hard to deliver materials for, as the new ‘fashion’ knitting yarns changed almost by the season.

Sources: Interviews with Gunnar Christian Pedersen (2008, 2011), text by Ellen Sjursen about Gunnar Pedersen (Sr.) as well as materials from the company Gunnar Pedersen A/S in the collections of The Norwegian Knitting Industry Museum in Salhus, Norway.


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