In with the old: Ancient skills alive and kicking in Norrland
In with the old: Ancient skills alive and kicking in Norrland

In with the old: Ancient skills alive and kicking in Norrland

The Society for Creative Anachronism champions the old ways in Norrland, says Rehana Lothian, whose feature about one of their twice-yearly period events is on page 20. Here, she meets two of the society’s movers and shakers…

Imagine thinking about a tool that would suit your needs precisely, or clothes to suit an exact occasion, and being able to actually make these yourself. These SCA (Society for Creative Anachronism) members, blacksmith Jörgen Öhman and needleworker Riia Chmielowski do precisely that.   

In with the old: Ancient skills alive and kicking in Norrland
Riia wearing a dress that she made with embroidered neckline.

The Needleworker

Riia is originally from Anchorage, Alaska but has moved across the globe several times to Arizona, Italy and Tasmania to name but a few places. She has now settled here in Norrland and has settled in entirely. ‘I’ve lived all over the world but I’ve never really felt like a newcomer anywhere because at high school, I found the SCA, which led me to develop an interest in crafts. SCA has been my community link ever since. Before I even arrive anywhere, I already have connections and common interests with people. It also gives me the chance to travel for some of the events.

‘SCA is a real society. People may join to practice their hobbies but they stay because of the people. We all feel part of the community. There’s a lot going on, so it’s easy to find an area of interest.’

Riia is studying for a Master’s degree in Archeology, studying remotely with Durham University, so she also has academic interests in how people lived and created artifacts in the past. She is interested in techniques relating to sewing and knitting as it was practiced in earlier centuries. These are techniques such as sprang (a little like braiding a garment), nålbinding or needle binding, in which a needle is used to tie many knots together to build a whole garment and soapstone pot carving.

Over the years, she has become increasingly skilled in the art of nålbinding, a technique used as far back as the Neolithic period, 6,000 years ago. It uses interlinking knots and one wooden or bone pin to build the piece. It turns out that nålbinding is actually still being practiced in Norway and was kept as a skill because it produces much stronger results than knitting.

Riia makes items such as hats and scarves but also teaches techniques to other apprentices. ‘These days, members mainly use the internet to research their costumes or skills and techniques but as there are no written instructions, there is a lot of trial and error, which is why experience helps’.

The Blacksmith

In with the old: Ancient skills alive and kicking in Norrland
Jörgen working at the forge in the Lofotr Viking museum. Photograph by Kareina Talventytär

Jörgen has been practicing his skill of blacksmithing since 1993 and has crafted hundreds of objects from sculptures to axe-heads and swords. Born and raised in Skelleftehamn, he also enjoys fight practice, armour-making and archery, as well as a touch of needlework. He just loves making things, he tells us.

‘Most of the time these are knives and axes and the occasional pieces of jewellery and sculpture,’ says Jörgen. No weekend goes to waste. He doesn’t make things to order; he makes things for people who need them or for someone wishing to swap crafts.

‘Blacksmithing is what you might call a dark art,’ says Jörgen. ‘To create the correct tool for the job, you first have to plan. Every variation will give a different result. Take an axe – the carbon content of the steel you choose to begin with determines the hardness of the edge. Too hard, the axe becomes brittle; too soft, the axe has no cutting edge.

‘Then, there are all the other considerations after that. Considerations such as the temperature the metal is heated to (around 1100°F, 600°C), the methods of welding on a sharp edge and the medium (often oil), used to quench the hot metal are just a few of the variables that have a significant impact on the quality of the finished product and its uses,’ he explains.

Mostly self-taught, Jörgen has benefited from skills exchanged with others including other master smiths. Of course, YouTube provides the possibility to learn techniques from anyone, from Norwegian smiths to Japanese master metal workers. After 30 years, he can craft the items he needs at will, using his years of experience and sometimes, in a teaching role, he helps others create.He teaches courses to others at SCA events, such as the SCA University.

If you fancy taking up the art yourself, he estimates your first axe would take a week, (he does it in a day). Take heart, beginners – ‘it takes much more to mess an item up in metalworking than woodworking for example. You can usually fix small mistakes.’ says Jörgen.

A keen believer in the SCA’s social merits, Jörgen enjoys the parties, combat and staged wars that are all part of the experience but he is most keen to express what a diverse and interesting set of people he meets and now considers part of his extended family. ‘It’s a really nice network – if I have a problem, sometimes I find the solution within the group.’

The group has regular meetings for craft activities, archery and fighting practice (carried out with strict safety measures), as well as the regional SCA events. There is a real diversity in age, gender and nationality. They are a truly welcoming bunch…

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