Who was Gerda Bengtsson? I was surprised to find that there isn’t much information available about this wonderful designer, a woman who had a lasting influence not only on the world of cross-stitch but on the arts of an entire nation. Possibly, if I could read Danish, there would be much more.
Gerda Johanne Bengtsson was born in Copenhagen on February 6, 1900 to Svend Bengtsson and Elise Lassen. She was one of six children. Both of her parents were teachers. She started drawing at an early age, creating pencil portraits of family members. Her parents supported her desire to become an artist.
At age nineteen, she began attending technical school—at Frederiksberg Technical School in Copenhagen, if Google Translate is to be believed. Between 1919 and 1924 she studied at the Danish Academy of Arts. She studied painting, and in her final year sculpture as well. Afterwards, she worked in the Department of Natural Sciences at the University of Copenhagen as a painter.
A turning point in her career was her introduction painter and textile artist Astrid Holm, who herself had studied with Matisse. Astrid Holm was known for her bold colors, strong forms, and modern aesthetic, all of which characterize Gerda’s work as well.
The final nudge Gerda received that started her on the path that she would follow was her eight-month sojourn in Paris, where she visited the Cluny Museum and became enamored with the plants and animals depicted in Renaissance tapestries, particularly the Unicorn series. She must have been fascinated by how the species in those woven masterpieces were stylized and simplified, yet instantly recognizable.
Gerda also studied with the Finnish weaver Essi Klingendal in the late 1920s and had her own weaving workshop in Copenhagen until 1939. She produced floral motifs, but the pieces required so much yarn that their production was not profitable.
There had always been a strong tradition of embroidery among the women of the Danish royal family. Queen Alexandrina created the Danish Handcraft Guild (Haandarbejdets Fremme or HF) in 1928, with the goal of preserving the traditions and techniques that were in danger of becoming lost.
In 1929, the Guild held an exhibition and some of Gerda’s watercolors from the Cluny museum were featured. This led to the commissioning of some cross-stitch designs, the first being a rabbit leaping among flowers in the tapestry style. She exhibited again in 1932. This led to a proposal to interpret her designs in cotton thread on a natural canvas. She was invited to take over the Guild’s embroidery class in 1939. She closed her workshop, and from 1940 Gerda became one of the chief designers for the Guild, an association that would last the rest of her life. She was their most prolific and best-known designer with her own busy workshop. Although she designed many subjects, she became particularly known for her floral designs executed in cross stitch. She became a member of the Danish Botanical Society and enjoyed her time in the field.
Some of her early designs were meant to be worked in wool and to cover the entire ground fabric, but most of her 1,000 or so designs were meant for cotton thread on an unworked linen ground. In 1930, Gerda worked with Einar Hansen to create a thread and a palette especially suited for Gerda’s floral designs. These Dansk Blomstergarn (Danish Flower Threads) (worth a post of their own) are still available today, as are many of Gerda’s designs.
Gerda’s simple, colorful, modern designs were perfectly suited to the tastes of post-War decorators and crafters. She found inspiration in old samplers and other sources, but most of her work and the greatest part of her fame involved her interpretations of the Danish flora. She had a gift for translating the essence and beauty of plants into charted designs that anyone could work.
Throughout her career, the Guild published many of her designs in book or booklet form. Quite a few of these were translated into other languages. In 1960, the Guild began publishing annual calendars with a cross-stitch design and pattern for each month. A good number of these featured Gerda’s beautiful plants. The Guild acquired many of her finished designs for its own collection. Her sketches and watercolors were also prized.
Her fame spread far beyond her home country. At the Triennial in Milan in 1951, she was awarded a gold medal for her design of currants. As far as I know, she continued to design for the rest of her life. She created at least a thousand designs for the Guild alone.
I have not been able to find out anything about Gerda’s personal life, so I don’t know if she ever married or had children. A genealogy page for her lists parents and siblings but no spouse or children, so perhaps she remained single. She died on December 13, 1995, which means that if I had had my act together, I could have met this remarkable painter and designer.
Gerda’s designs and books are still exceedingly popular across Europe, in Russia, in Japan, and in the U.S. Just look her up on Pinterest and see how many thousands of pins there are on boards all over the world. Her books (more on those later!) are highly collectible and the rarer calendars can fetch astronomical sums–if you can find them.
One fact from Gerda’s life stands out sharpest for me, astounds me, and makes me more than a little sad. Though she spent her life designing cross-stitch patterns that countless stitchers the world over will treasure forever, Gerda herself was not an embroiderer. She never stitched a single one. They were all worked up by others in the Guild.
I can only hope that putting the final brush-stroke on a painting or charting the last perfect petal gave her the same pleasure that putting the final leg on that last cross stitch of one of her designs has given all of her fans.
Gerda Bengtsson’s Book of Danish Stitchery, 1972, Van Nostrand Reinhold