Embroidered Norwegian Primstav: A year long journey


I am embarking on a long anticipated journey. A road less taken to be sure but a road that, although lost to the mists of time and unfamiliar to most people, beckons and intrigues me.

The journey fits in very nicely with my focus this year on completing personal projects that have languished on my "to do" lists while I gave my time and attention to "blog projects".


My journey will take a full year to complete. As you will soon understand, it is one in which each step begins in exploration followed by learning and finally must end in self expression.


I am making an embroidered primstav.

A primstav is a carved stick used as a calendar in medieval Norway. The minute I saw my first one, I was - well - enchanted. I knew I would one day make one.

And then to "seal the deal" my dear English/Norwegian friend Gill sent me a copy of "Arets Rytme Vi Lager Var Egen Primstav" by Vera Molland. Translated: "The Year's Rhythm: We Create Our Own Primstav". Although I must translate the book from Norwegian to English, I am learning a great deal about the calendar and the special days marked.

I hope some of you are interested and will follow these links (written in English or if not, allow google to magically and instantly translate them) and learn a little more about the primstav and read the stories behind the carved symbols. While so many of the days were established on Saint's Days - the primstav was after all designed to help medieval Norwegians keep track of important Christian days of worship - in time it evolved into a calendar that served as a guide for the farmer and his family in their yearly cycle of chores.

Read more here: "Primstav" : "google images of primstavs" : "and how to make a carved stick!"


Although primstavs were traditionally carved into yard long sticks, I have chosen to make mine a circle - 18 inches in diameter. For one thing, the whole year is visible at all times. For another, the circle provides more room for embroidered symbols!

I wish I had the wall space - I would make it 36" in diameter!

Dinner plates and bowls large and small served as templates for the concentric circles making up the "calendar band".

Once the circles were completed, the beginning of the "Summer side" (April 14th) and the "Winter side" (October 14th) were marked Â… and then followed divisions for twelve months. Tiny marks divide each month into days. Yes! there ARE 365 little marks!

Long lines drawn from the calendar band toward the outside edge of the calendar designate each important day on the traditional primstav and lines drawn toward the center designate dates that hold special importance to me - family birthdays, and holidays (Valbourgs, Brigid's Day, Xmas in July) not known or celebrated in ancient Norway. The addition of personal dates?  A suggestion in "The Year's Rhythm" that I whole heartedly adopted!



Then - the whole thing including all 365 day marks was traced in ink.


My trusty old light table was once again called to service, the paper primstav and the fabric secured to the top surface, and the whole design traced yet again - this time using a disappearing ink pen.


April 14th is the beginning of the "Summer Side" of the primstav, but because of all the preparation (not to mention the drawing of 365 little lines - three times), I began my journey ahead of schedule.

In addition to designing and preparing the basic circular primstav pattern (with 365 tiny lines) for embroidery, I have been happily engaged in a great deal of research, translation, creative thought and Muse consulting regarding the symbols themselves. I am trying to create symbols that authentically represent the spirit of the old primstavs and at the same time reflect bits and pieces of my own personality.

I am being guided by the resources linked above certainly. But much of the inspiration and guidance for the symbols has come from "The Year's Rhythm". As previously mentioned, the book is written in Norwegian so I have spent a lot of time on google translate! But so worth the investment.

Because the meanings of many of the symbols are even a mystery to those who study primstavs, research into many of the special days and the Saints associated with a special date has also been necessary at times in order to arrive at a symbol that has meaning to me.

A majority of the marked days on the old, original primstavs were actually Saint's Days - commemorating their death or martyrdom. Remember, this was a tool employed by the early church to help farmers in remote mountain valleys keep track of the days they were supposed to be in church!

However, in time, as all things seem to do, things changed, the Saint's special days were replaced with days designated for planting, plowing, harvestingÂ…. Many symbols that are curious and unintelligible on the old sticks have been replaced with something to do with farming cycles or something more recognizable and perhaps personal on my own version.

I have learned so much!!! And I am just beginning! Creating symbols has been the best part of the journey - and the part that has taken the most time - so many surprising and delightful little side trips! So for now only the symbols representing important dates in the first quarter of the year - April 14th to July 14th - have been researched and finally drawn in place.

Another consideration that generated long, long discussions between me and Muse - whether or not to create the primstav in color or make it monochromatic which would be more in keeping with the carved sticks.

The argument for color won! Which then led to ideas for using colors to depict seasonal changes as well. And a trip to a local craft supply shop to beef up my embroidery thread stash!!!


So! My work so far!

And the meaning of the symbols!

April 14th: traditionally a deciduous tree sprouting it's first green leaves depicting the renewal of life. I chose a creamy white for the tree itself - Aspen trees (one of my two most favorite trees) have beautiful white bark.

April 16th: St. Magnus Day - St. mangos (clearly spell check has never heard of St. Magnus) was the Earl of Orkney and was murdered in 1115 by his cousin. The symbol is traditionally an arrow or axe which seems to have been the murder weapon; however, the day can also be represented by a half cross which resembles a pick. This is the day to begin cultivating the fields.

April 23rd: St. George Day which does not appear on the old primstavs but does so on the primstav depicted in ""The Year's Rhythm". The day, as I understand it, is a not so well known day set aside to celebrate St. George, the patron saint of England.

The symbol - a red cross - is the basic framework of the UK Union Jack and apparently is somewhat controversial - some even calling it a racist symbol. For most however, the red cross is simply a symbol of St. George who was himself a knight and is considered a knight's saint. A quick look on google images reveals that the red cross finds it way to being depicted on cakes, finger nails, sheep, jock straps and quilts!

Red doesn't exactly fit with a "spring" color scheme, so I tried to embroider the cross in a more open manner rather than attention demanding solid.

April 25th: St. Mark's Day: for the apostle Mark and both the quill (evangelist) and a lion (martyrdom perhaps) were often used symbols; however sometimes symbols that appear on old sticks seem to be unintelligible! (Perhaps creative license!)

Since this day eventually became a day for blessing the fields so they would produce an abundant crop, I created my own symbol of a wheat stalk. You might remember that wheat stalks woven in fall and hung throughout winter in homes, were taken to the fields in spring and sprinkled in the furrows as a blessing. Seemed appropriate!

April 30th: Valborg Day or Walpurgis - celebrated in Sweden with communities gathering together around a huge bonfire set at dusk to burn away the last remnants of winter. So it seemed only a hotly burning sun devouring a frozen snowflake would do!

May 1st: Cuckoo Day - hence the cuckoo sitting atop a tree!

There are various superstitions and traditions surrounding this day, however, for my own purpose here it depicts the big event each spring when the cuckoos return to northern Europe after wintering in Africa. Not having ever seen a cuckoo, I had to look them up so that my little representation might resemble one! And now I understand why the traditional sticks depict the bird as so large in comparison to the tree! Cuckoos are very big birds - 15"!! 

You might recognize the tree the cuckoo is sitting upon - from my "Solstice Quilt" - upside-down Maidenhair stitch from "Stitching Borders and Beyond" found in the Polka & Bloom Shop.

May 3rd: Holy Cross Day. Apparently Empress Helena found "the savior's cross" while on a trip to Jerusalem in 362. It also depicts the beginning of summer farm chores as moving cattle to pasture and sheering sheep.

It was this last (sheering the wool from the sheep) that influenced the symbol I used - a small cross but made of knitting needles.


And now, as the season moves onward through spring and into summer I begin stitching the next leg of my journey. In July I will return with the symbols above stitched. And I will share a little about them and the inspirations for the designs as I have done above.

And Â… I will give you a sneak peak at the late summer and early fall designs I come up with!

Lots of lovely research and stitching ahead of me!! And the hope that you will enjoy sharing the journey with me.

Completed primstav is here

What a gorgeous idea, it's

What a gorgeous idea, it's looking beautiful already, I especially love that cuckoo! Look forward to following your progress throughout the year.

Thank you Sally!  I am so

Thank you Sally!  I am so happy to have you join me!  Yeah - I am pretty partial to that cuckoo too.  He came out way better than I thought he would.  Single thread embroidery is a great tool!

WOW Pam!!! I'm always

WOW Pam!!!
I'm always overwhelmed by the projects you are involved with...so very interesting and pretty!
My future daughter in law is half Swedish. I'll have to see if there is something like your calendar. Will be watching to see how you are progressing!

Annette.  Always so good to

Annette.  Always so good to hear from you! The Swedes do have someting somewhat similar - but the markings are completely different - they are called runes and were used more as an ancient alphabet carved on stones.  As far as I know, the Norwegian Primstav  - calendar stick - is unique.  But I see no reason why one could not be fashioned using Swedish themed symbols!

I read this and started to

I read this and started to tear up a little, and then I realized that I was being silly. One day, I WILL get to Norway. And one day, I WILL complete a year-long project with loving delicacy and patience. And one day, I WILL replace all the symbols on the traditional primstav with pagan symbolism, which, as serendipity would have it, will be just about the same as the traditional symbols.

However, I will instead follow along as you complete yet another of your steady, disciplined, delicate, and lovely projects, combined with stunning erudition and humility.

Of course, I'll be jealous and a little irritated, as usual.

Actually Chrissy, you sould

Actually Chrissy, you sould consider useing your art skills to create one!  It would be so fabulous!

Actually, I have heard from readers who are thinking of interpreting the primstav using Celtic symbolism as well as American Indian symbolism.  Makes my heart happy.

Since my family come from

Since my family come from Native American heritage, we tend to follow a similar idea, just done a little differently. It's called a "Winter Count Robe" or sometimes just THE Winter Count. Pictures representing different major events that happened during the year, both good and not-so, are depicted on a piece of leather that was tanned. Usually, elders were responsible for deciding which events would make the Count, and some of the very old ones are amazing to look at. The symbols tend to work around in a spiral pattern and they are as amazing and beautiful as your piece of history will be. I love these methods of capturing life and sharing them with generations to come, and it's interesting that so many cultures have their own methods of doing so. I find your Primstav absolutely beautiful and definitely meaningful as well. It's also a beautiful thing to share and might give many others ideas about preserving their history for the future generations as you are doing.
PS - Your embroidery/stitchwork is absolutely breathtaking. Your choice of colors and stitches show how talented you are at your work. Aho!

Dianne!  First of all thank

Dianne!  First of all thank you for taking the time to share traditions from your own culture.  I had no knowledge of the "Winter Robe Count", but I do find it fascinating that many traditions and customs - very similar to each other indeed - were practiced by cultures never in contact the world over.  

And I thank you for all your kind words about my Primstav adventure.  You may be a little too kind and generous - my embroidery skills have a long way to go before I would consider them talented!!!  But I appreciate your both your compliments and your visit very much!

Oh, Pam! The journey has

Oh, Pam! The journey has begun and it is fabulous!!! I haven't even read the whole post but just had to comment immediately!!! I love everything about your interpretation of a primstav; the circle of life, completing it by the seasons and taking the whole year, using COLOR (!!!), including your own "special days"... well, it's just a thing of absolute beauty and meaning. You really made my day. As I've mentioned to you before, my plate is oh so very full with family obligations that I can't start mine just yet, but you've inspired me to keep it very close to my heart.

I have had you on  my mind a

I have had you on  my mind a great deal while working on this project Nancy!  I especially love knowing that one day soon, you will be happily engaged in making your own - in a completely different medium!  I am as excited about yours as I am my own!!

I really love this idea, Pam

I really love this idea, Pam - especially with the addition of your personally significant dates and symbols. Looking forward to seeing how it progresses over the year.

June!  What an absolute treat

June!  What an absolute treat to hear from you!!!  And it warms my heart to know that with all your endeavors - which i know sometimes push you to the point of exhaustion - you will be sharing in the primstav adventure!  

popped over from Instagram.

popped over from Instagram. This is gorgeous! Would you consider selling your primstav pattern? My mom embroiders and is getting back into it and I think she'd love this. I love it too, but I'm not very proficient at embroidery. yet. :)

really inspiring. lovely!

Katie!  I haven't given it a

Katie!  I haven't given it a thought!!  I will muddle over it with my Muse and with Diane!!!

Super cool project. Can't

Super cool project. Can't wait to see the finished project!

Thank you Cathy!  It will be

Thank you Cathy!  It will be a surprise to me too!!!

This is amazing! It really

This is amazing! It really resonates with me, as I have an affinity for cycles of the year expressed in stitchery. I'm really looking forward to seeing your progress. Oh and tempted to do something like this myself.....

Oh Bobbie i hope you do make

Oh Bobbie i hope you do make one of your own!!  And i am happy to hear you are interested in following along and allowing me to share.

This is fascinating, Pam,

This is fascinating, Pam, thanks for the discovery, and I'll look forward to seeing how the project evolves!

I appreciate your interest so

I appreciate your interest so much!  I look forward to sharing!

I am inspired! I have a

I am inspired! I have a Celtic/Druid calendar painted by a friend that is heavily influenced by the seasons and the important events (Beltane, Samhain, etc.). He also converted it into a circular representation. And now, I am thinking about planning out one of my own. It will be a while until I'm ready to start stitching, but I will be eagerly following along to see how yours is progressing. I can already tell that it is going to be gorgeous!

Cindy!  Wow!  Thank you so

Cindy!  Wow!  Thank you so much for sharing!  The symbolism for a Celtic/Druid calendar would present so many fabulous options for design.  I am very excited to hear about your plans and I hope you will keep me informed and keep me in the loop when you do begin yours!!!

Dawn I am beginning to really

Dawn I am beginning to really appreciate the benefits of stitching with one or two strands of floss! Amazed at how well it worked when blending the tiny bird stitches!  Most of the symbols are only about an inch so the fewer strands the better it seems!

What a wonderful project

What a wonderful project you're working on, Pam! It's fun to see you so enthusiastic about your embroidery! And thank you for letting us learn alongside you! Looking forward to your next reveal for this project in July. (And oh my, 365 hash marks 3x?! I think I'll definitely just sit back and enjoy the photos you show us of your work. :) ) Big hugs!

Heh heh Yes Arielle!  i just

Heh heh Yes Arielle!  i just had to emphasize that point about 365 little marks so everyone would feel sorry for me!! 

Pam, This whole idea is

Pam, This whole idea is wonderful, I love your cuckoo and look forward to seeing your future symbols. Such a personal work of art - you are working on an heirloom.