The 1860s Memorial Wreaths initiative was a small-scale, personal intervention by me and researcher Andrew G. Newby. In the initiative, I made eight memorial wreaths that we then, touring across Finland, placed at different local memorials dedicated to the memory of the Great Hunger Years of 1860s. While this initiative served as a personal commemorative action we also wanted to bring attention to the local memorials and to the immense suffering which was endured by so many individuals, families and communities in many different parts of Finland. In this first part I open the backgrounds of this initiative.

To follow the laying of the wreaths at the memorials look at PART 2: The Tour

Who should remember? What is remembering? How to give shape to remembrance?

These questions surface when looking at the experiences of hunger and poverty in the 1860s Finland. Such questions crave attention especially now: May 2018 marked a sesquicentennial of the last high peak of mortality of the Great Hunger Years. Along the summer of 1868, after many years of shortage and suffering, nature began to offer up a decent harvest, giving hope and the possibility of social and economic recovery.

The historical episode of the 1860s Great Hunger Years, with its approximately 200.000 lost lives, creates a notable moment in the canonised timelines of Finland’s history, but its sesquicentennial appears to be largely overshadowed by other events, in the first line by the centennial of the civil war of 1918. Atrocities of past are hard if not impossible to measure on the scale of their collectively traumatising effect, but there are differences in how these events are recalled. The mass graves of the 1918 civil war are strong evidence of brutally violent events, but the question, what kind of historical evidence the mass graves of the 1860s famine provide, still remains largely to be answered.

“In memory of those who died of hunger.” This memorial was erected on the side of the Kortesjärvi church, South Ostrobothnia, in 2017.

In comparison with some other countries that suffered ‘Great Famines’ (for example, Ireland and Ukraine), Finland’s 1860s Great Hunger Years have not become a key part of the national story. Nor, generally, have they been the subject of national-level commemoration. It would be wrong, however, to claim that Finns have suffered “amnesia” about this part of their history, as there are nearly ninety memorials to the Great Famine around the country, often in areas which suffered the highest mortality. These memorials usually are the work of parish committees, local history societies, or other small-scale private initiatives.

“Dedicated to the memory of those who languished to death during the harsh hunger years of 1866–67 and -68 the Alajärvi parish erected this memorial stone in 1951. Lord give us our daily bread.” Great Hunger Years memorial at the Alajärvi church, South Ostrobothnia.

In his extensive fieldwork, researcher Andrew G. Newby has mapped memorials dedicated to the memory of the Great Hunger Years across Finland. Many of these memorials are placed in the vicinity of mass graves, which are often located at parish cemeteries. Several of these local mass graves provided the final resting place for many hundreds of people. Memorials at these sites have been since the 1930s (supplementing the memorials which were left in a few sites by contemporaries in the 1860s), after which there have been waves of activity, particularly around the centenary commemorations in the 1960s.

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Kärsämäki parish memorial commemorating “those who died of hunger during the years 1866–68” cites the Proverbs: “Whoever is kind to the poor lends to the Lord.” Proverbs 19:17.

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It is notable that the Kärsämäki memorial is positioned right in the vicinity of the war graves of the WWII (Winter War, Continuation War). The text on the backside of the memorial cites a past local clergy man advising the visitor of the memorial to closely reflect on the history the memorial stands for.

Responsibility to remember – responsible ways to remember

It is apparent that the 1860s Great Hunger Years are carried in the collective memory of Finnish people (however that is defined) as a traumatic experience that has been addressed at best in the local levels, as there is no national famine memorial.

In our coffee table hunger history meetings in autumn 2017, I and Andrew speculated on whether there shall emerge any national initiatives to commemorate the Great Hunger Years. Along with the more obvious “the government should do something” lines of thought we played with the idea of which parties would be logical to cooperate with in taking action to commemorate that historical episode. The Red Cross, possibly, or other organisations that focus on human aid. Or maybe the Finnish Meteorological Institute, that would be apt! So often the Great Hunger Years were blamed on the exceptional weather conditions – or at least attention was steered to that instead of the shortcomings of societal initiatives to give and organise help.

As researchers who had spent years in going through the grim history of famine(s), having shed tears of sorrow and empathy at least in our hearts when not literally, the potentiality that the memory of the Great Hunger Years would be politicised or otherwise short-sightedly interpreted to rhetorical needs appeared as unacceptable. Partly due to this reason, the personal perspective was emphasised in the initiative. Back when I was writing my dissertation, I got inspired by F. R. Ankersmit’s thoughts about the historian’s research experience and her/his ability to relate to historical events. Historian’s work can be counted as public service and as work where one needs to make use of the variety of her/his cognitive skills. There are, of course, many perspectives and mindsets about how history ought to be written, but there are less guidelines about what to do with what history research does to the historian. When studying a topic that has not won much research or public attention, there easily appears a contradiction between the benevolent advocating for awareness and the doubt about self-appointed role to do so.

I think, of course, that more attention should be given to the 1860s Great Hunger Years and to how the events of that time wounded people’s minds and how that past has continued to cast its shadow on what could be termed as the Finnish mentality. No one can be forced to do so, though. Instead, I can show how I feel about that memory – and I can make that complex set of knowledge and feeling into an object of remembrance.

I can show how I feel about that memory – and I can make that complex set of knowledge and feeling into an object of remembrance.

It was all clear then that I would make memorial wreaths and that I would make use of materials which were used as emergency foods at the time of the Great Famine, materials such as straw, lichens and pine phloem. I asked Andrew if he would like to join me in this initiative. We both had a lot of other things to do, there was no time (and even less so point) to apply for foundation funding to this initiative, so once again I returned to that tedious, overtly commercialised and needlessly sporty slogan: Just do it.

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Kitchen table transformed into a work desk.

Materials and the making of the 1860s Memorial Wreaths

To collect and use natural materials in the making of memorial wreaths resonates with the 1860s famine history. Back then, it was a rather common custom to make flour of pine phloem that was mixed to bread dough. Resulting substitute bread, made of a mixture of pine phloem flour (‘pettu’ in Finnish), cut straw and maybe some grain, has become emblematic of famines and crop failures in Finnish history.

At the time of emergency in 1860s, grain was delivered to help people in areas struggling with famine, but this aid was conditioned. Especially the then statesman, J. V. Snellman, considered it important that people would work for the help they needed: craft work was seen suitable to this end. In poor houses crafts that were made in return to a piece of substitute bread or thin soup included cutting straw for bread mixture and even the making of coffins. Such practices intensified the humiliating experiences of starvation and begging for help. Same rules applied in emergency work sites, in the building of canals, roads, bridges and the railway from Riihimäki to St. Petersburg. Sometimes the claim to earn one’s keep took forms of bully and blackmail. Such incidents fed mistrust and resentfulness against the parties organising help.

It is apparent that materiality – and, indeed, the lack of it – play a significant role in the remembering of the 1860s Great Hunger Years. Many of the memorials relate to the harshness of those years. They have been crafted from plain stones or they otherwise depict the meagre circumstances, for example with reliefs of broken ears of rye or begging hands. A distinctive material choice is the use of railway tracks in the memorials dedicated to those lost in the relief work sites building the railway to St. Petersburg, a stretch of track known as ‘luurata’ (skeleton track).

The action of crafting wreaths by using certain, emblematic natural materials and the black-painted cutlery was my choice of making the remembering of the 1860s Great Hunger Years visual and concrete.

As an ironic way of commemorating the sesquicentennial, spring 2018 progressed very slowly. Snow and ice kept on covering fields and forests, and indeed, I started to collect materials for the wreaths with my skis on. As also the autumn 2017 had been challenging – indeed, crop failures had taken place again, but due to endless raining rather than frost, and with the crop failure hardly reported in the media – I was pointed to a grain field where straw had had to be left (instead of collecting and using as litter in barns and stables) that I could collect and use as the core material for the wreaths. I covered these straw wreaths with diverse found materials: lichens, usnea, mosses; pine twigs, roots and phloem; spruce, birch, aspen and heather twigs; dead leaves, pine and alder cones (NB: no living green plants were harmed!).

The making of memorial wreaths took a good part of my May 2018. Although the making of wreaths was considerably quicker than my embroidery projects tend to be, it was nevertheless a time consuming activity. Eight wreaths was an amount I was able to make for this initiative. Whereas this was simply a matter of resources, it is also my wish that this initiative with the sample of memorials and the series of wreaths could give impetus to e.g. local cultural associations to create and lay wreaths and thus to commemorate their local Great Hunger Years memorials. A showcase of the wreaths is available as a virtual exhibition.

Welcome to follow the laying of the wreaths at the memorials in PART 2: The Tour

“To know the history of embroidery is to know the history of women.”
Parker 2010 [1984], p. ix.

These words can be found in Rozsika Parker’s classic, The Subversice Stitch, Embroidery and the Making of the Feminine. I first read the book while working on the previously discussed Vanitas (Nobis cum semel occidit brevis lux) embroidery project. As it often happens, I was overwhelmed and enlightened by the book, but could only apply a few of its ideas on the then current project. Still, it was this book that invited me to the art of embroidery.

That I now took the chance to return to Parker’s book, I was glad to find out that there has been issued a new edition of it, in 2010. Therefore, returning to The Subversive Stitch is like returning to meet an old acquaintance, and the new edition of the book seems like a friendly out-reached hand that encourages to do so.

As the title points out, Parker’s book concentrates on the distinctively feminine aspects that embroidery is connected with; emphasis is put especially on the making of femininity during the Victorian Era. The book offers a vivid, cultural historical look to history of embroidery in the British context. I choose to point out this particular notion about context, because it is good to remind that while many of the topics discussed by Parker apply on a more general, or even on a universal level, historical phenomena hardly reappear in analogous ways through space and time. In other words, I dare to say that history of embroidery in Finland might look rather different in comparison to Parker’s presentation.

But as was said, the basis that Parker set for understanding embroidery is nevertheless salient.

“When women paint, their work is categorised as homogeneously feminine,” Parker wrote, “but it is acknowledged to be art. When women embroider, it is seen not as art, but entirely as the expression of the femininity.” To which she still added: “And, crucially, it is categorised as craft.” (Parker 2010, p. 4‒5.)

The juxtaposition between art and craft is of course a whole topic of argumentation. Parker’s solution was to recognise embroidery belonging to the sphere of art: “I have decided to call embroidery art because it is, undoubtedly, a cultural practice involving iconography, style and a social function” (ibid., p. 6). To my view, on the other hand, art tends to be such a fluid notion that one hopes this kind of demarcation would no more be needed, especially as recent decades have shown an increasing re-negotiation of craft from within to challenge these categorical divisions.

This nevertheless does not empty out the conceptual historical significance that is connected to terms art and craft. For centuries the category of craft has been used for gate-keeping, for belittling and stigmatising some creative making, apparently for the endorsement of art as the dominantly male signifier. And as Parker’s book shows, embroidery has been used systematically ‒ again, for centuries ‒ as a method of inculcating the supposed right kind of femininity and, hence, embroidery has even evolved into a thoroughly feminine notion. The image of an embroidering young woman therefore used to embody the stereotypical attributes of (well-to-do classes’) female behaviour: decency, silence, submission ‒ “docility, obedience, love of home, and a life without work” (ibid., p. 11).

Yet the silence of embroiderer has evoked other notions, where the silence surrounding embroidery has signified maker’s consciousness or self-containment. Parker has applied juicy literature quotations throughout her book to illustrate the different impressions about embroidery through centuries. For example, in the autobiographical description Colette (1873‒1954) considered her daughter’s silent sewing action somewhat frightening:

“But Bel-Gazou is silent when she sews, silent for hours on end, with her mouth firmly closed, concealing her large, new-cut incisors that bite into the moist heart of a fruit like little saw-edged blades. She is silent, and she  why not write down the word that frightens me  she is thinking.” (Colette, Earthly Paradise, p. 214‒216 cited by Parker, p. 9‒10.)

And furthermore, as Parker enlightens us, the image of silently embroidering young woman has also been ‒ but of course ‒ considered a seductive scene.

Still, imagining Victorian middle and upper class young women doomed to languish through silent embroidery in the drawing room of some old, ghastly and moist stone house had an almost suffocating effect on someone raised in the comparatively free and wellbeing circumstances of 1980s’ and 1990s’ Finland. And in the early 2000s ‒ well, who would have contemplated at a piece of embroidery when you could have squeezed your thought or motto into a SMS and could have pretty freely chosen and swapped between the more or less girly or tomboy identities on a daily basis?

Graphic designer Briar Mark’s documentation of her embroidered graphic design project illustrates the internal contradiction of making by hand. Why bother? Why go through so many steps of manual work?

Perhaps one could also ask, why people run city marathons when they could just take the bus.

For my part, I would say it were the painted and embroidered suffrage banners from the early 20th century demonstrations that really impressed me in the first place, both with their form and with their content, shortly, as a medium: ” [- – ] the form and content of the banners depicted femininity not as a frailty but as strength, and embroidery was presented not as women’s only appropriate medium but co-existing with paint” (ibid., 199).

For a variety of these banners, go see the collection of VADS, the online collection of visual arts.

The transformation of embroidery into a medium of political art was further underlined in the practice of embroidered handkerchiefs: to commemorate a special occasion a handkerchief used to be embroidered with a date and signatures. As Parker pointed out, in these pieces of embroidery made by suffragettes there was combined the political tradition of petition with the social tradition of embroidering handkerchiefs. The supporters or the imprisoned suffragettes self stitched their names to commemorate sentences and hunger strikes. One was embroidered by Janie Terrero and it is held in the collections of Museum of London.

Another handkerchief was dedicated to Janie Terrero. Parker explained details of it: “The delicate embroidery declared that the supposed weaker sex was being subjugated to the torture of force-feeding  and resisting. They signed their names in the very medium which was considered proof of their frailty, and justification for their subjugation.” (ibid., 201.) Obviously, these women took over the power that was hidden in the materiality of embroidered textile. And in this way, to recognise this political move in the history of women is actually to know the history of embroidery.

As a medium for expression embroidery is no more dead than those of paint or ink, and to know the history of embroidery can also mean to embrace the power that it carries within. This has been shown especially in embroidery works presenting distinctively feminist statements that Parker’s book exemplify from the late 1970s.

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Embroidered runner by Beryl Weaver pictures two feminine figures and a pram. Apparently fond of applying the ♀ [venus] symbol in her works it is seen also in the speech bubbles in this Weaver’s embroidery. The character behind asks “How is little ♀ today?” and gets a reply: “She’s getting stronger and angrier all the time, thank you.” Lower, there is also stitched a line saying “From small buds big flowers grow…” Parker details that Weaver’s embroidery was reproduced in 1978 in the magazine Spare Rib. Happily, archives of Spare Rib are available online, and report about Beryl’s embroidery can be found in the February 1978 issue (issue 67, p. 42‒43).

Truly, the use of embroidery as a medium for expression is more likely a very conscious choice regarding both distinctively feminist standpoints and other angles and topics that are handled through stitches.

I would also claim that the required craft skills, and even more so the certain protracted action that especially hand embroidery involves, can add to this conscious choice. Parker interviewed artist Kate Walker back in 1981 and she considered that the attributes typically connected to embroidery, femininity and sweetness, could not harm her intentions.

“Passivity and obedience, moreover,” she added, “are the very opposites of the qualities necessary to make sustained effort in needlework. What’s required are physical and mental skills, fine aesthetic judgement in colour, texture and composition; patience during long training; and assertive individuality of design (and consequent disobedience of aesthetic convention). Quiet strength need not be mistaken for useless vulnerability.” (ibid., 207)

There we return to the notion of silence, to the quiet strength that embroidery is rooted in and that translates as contemplative action. That quiet strength takes courage and determination. And a whole lot of stitches.