Miriam Parkman had the good fortune to meet and talk with Ebba von Eckermann a handweaver and clothing and linens designer who was famous in the mid-century. Here is her story as told by Miriam. - Susan
The incredible story of Ebba von Eckermann (1921–2018) is one of books and movies. How do you describe a woman who saw fashion shows in Paris before World War II, who saw the United States from coast to coast through the window of a blue Plymouth in 1950, and then met Clark Gable on the Atlantic cruise ship back home to Sweden, who appeared on the cover of LIFE magazine with a big photo feature in 1958—all because she sold handwoven blankets and skirts made in a small village south of Stockholm, Sweden
I was in my first of three years of weaving school when I first heard of Ebba von Eckermann. The more I found out, the more awestruck I became. Here was a woman, from a noble and privileged background, who wanted to become a farmer rather than the heiress to the family couture atelier she was intended to be. At the agriculture and farming school she attended, she discovered weaving and eventually ended up in couture anyway, but with the help of local farm and forest workers rather than the tailors of High Street in Stockholm.
Countess Ebba von Schwerin was born in Stockholm in 1921. Her mother, Marg, was the founder and director of Märthaskolan, a fine tailoring atelier licensed to sew the styles of the big European fashion houses of the time. Young Ebba grew up in fashionable salons and showrooms, modeling their collections from an early age. Her mother thought she had raised a daughter to take over her business, but as Ebba grew older, she wanted completely different things. She chose the countryside over the city, and in 1947, she married Erik von Eckermann, a recent forestry graduate. They moved to his estate farm in Ripsa, one and a half hours south of Stockholm. There Ebba began making tweed yardage for her mother’s business. But Ebba wanted more.
It’s a rather sweet story of how the first seed was planted for the later world-renowned business. Erik was the head of a team of lumberjacks. The small Swedish village had a network of phones, all connected to the operator who naturally knew everything about everybody. The operator noticed a growing discontent among the lumberjacks’ wives, and she knew Ebba wove. One day, she brazenly said to Ebba, “All the women here know how to weave. Why don’t you just hire them?” When an old chest drawer filled with chamois leather was found and the idea of making blankets trimmed with the soft hide was born, a production started.
A visit from a Swedish-American forestry student became the next turning point. The student invited Erik to visit the farm and forestry industry on Vancouver Island, Canada. Erik and Ebba already had a dream about going to the United States, and so it was decided—they would go to New York and then make a coast-to-coast journey across the United States, with big dreams, and blanket samples in their luggage!
In New York, they bought a light blue Plymouth and started their maiden journey across the country that was to last four long months. Ebba later admitted she was “properly naive to do what she did, but in the end it worked.” With her sample bag in hand, Ebba started knocking on doors at the big department stores in New York, Chicago, and San Francisco. Between sales meetings, the couple slept in the car, had “coffee and a Danish” for a few coins, and made fools of themselves in the fancy apartments of Manhattan. Once, they got invited for drinks at the home of an influential woman vaguely related to Ebba’s mother. Erik and Ebba declined the invitation, deciding that if you invite someone to your home who’s traveled so far and you won’t even offer dinner, well, that’s a no!
In time, they got the hang of this new society’s culture and started making contacts. The results of this first journey was an order of a dozen blankets from McCutcheon’s in New York, and City of Paris in San Francisco, and two dozen blankets from Marshall Fields in Chicago. Feverish activity broke out in Ripsa to finish the orders, and Snickar-Kalle, the local carpenter, was hired to make wooden boxes neatly handpainted with logos, to ship the blankets in. In the December 1950 issue of Vogue, one can read about Countess Ebba von Eckermann and how her lap robes, available from McCutcheon’s, made great Christmas gifts. In the week the magazine was distributed, Ebba received the message that the first dozen blankets had already sold out.
From this epic start, Countess Ebba von Eckermann was a success. She created her first garment as a last-minute birthday gift to her mum—a leftover piece of blanket hung over a mannequin became a cocoon-shaped jacket by folding it around the neck and sides to create a collar and sleeves, a style very typical of the era. Finished off with a crocheted button and loop at the front, it became the Marg jacket and was later referred to as the Ripsa jacket. All the big department stores in Sweden placed large orders, sold out, and then placed another set of large orders. The next iconic Ripsa garment, the skirt, came to life thanks to the import director of the Marshall Fields European office. “With your color combinations and ideas, I’m sure our American public would love them,” he said. Ebba listened, fashioned a collection, and brought it to Paris. While waiting for him to arrive, Ebba’s cousin who worked at the French fashion boutique Irene Dana suggested, “Why don’t you try Dior while you wait?” Dior did buy, and when the import director arrived the next day, Ebba triumphantly commented, “By the way, Dior bought yesterday . . .” Needless to say, the Ripsa skirt was a success.
Things continued in this unstoppable fashion until the mid-1960s. Collections of entire outfits were developed, including jersey tops, long hostess skirts inspired by the exciting barbecue culture of the United States, capri pants, dresses, suits, and coats for day as well as evening wear. Ebba spent two months each spring and fall traveling to department stores to sell her products with a thrilling public relations trick: as the “weaving countess,” she would sit and weave in the department stores showing just exactly how handcrafted her line was. She also spoke on radio shows and attended countless cocktail parties, dinners, and social events. At home in Ripsa, the business had its own building and the wives were no longer weaving from their log cabins. Tourists arrived by the busload, eager to eat in the newly opened restaurant, shop for souvenirs, and watch how the famous garments came to life in the factory. By the end of the 1950s, American designer Alice Topp-Lee was hired to develop the collections further, and in 1964, the young up-and-coming Danish designer Lars Hillingsø took over for several years.
The golden years for the business lasted until the end of the 1960s, but at the beginning of the 1970s, production costs were high compared to sale prices. The company stopped selling to department stores and instead focused on exclusive, private clients. This decision saved the business for another decade, but in 1982, Ebba finally decided to close.
When I met Ebba in 2016, she lived at a home for the elderly in Nyköping, a town close to Ripsa. She was ninety-two but still had the tall and elegant figure of her photos from the past. As soon as we started talking, it was like pressing a button. She remembered more or less everything of her extraordinary life, including how pleased she was that she had a white dress embellished with little green clovers when she was invited to a Saint Patrick’s Day celebration in Los Angeles in 1955. She remembered entering the house of Frank Lloyd Wright where he and his wife welcomed guests sitting in one black and one red armchair, wearing matching outfits of red and black. She remembered how she met and befriended the Wrigley family and how she dressed in denim, boots, and a hat to ride out into the Arizona desert. She remembered how the leaves turned to red and orange around her home in Ripsa in the fall, and how inspired she felt in the winter when the “hunger for color” was at its worst.
When I nervously showed Ebba a skirt I had made with her work in mind, she smiled and said, “I could’ve done that.” No remarks on a beginner’s mistakes, no comment on how I couldn’t mimic her work. She was just as excited as if it was a sample for a new collection, and I felt as if I had just been knighted by the queen. When I was leaving after several hours of talking, she finished by sighing and saying, “Oh, I wish I could hang on a little longer!” After a life so lived, her curiosity and creativity were still blooming. On the bookshelf next to her bed was her most valued possession—the client folder that had accompanied her on all her travels containing precious addresses, phone numbers, and contacts. San Francisco, New York, Chicago, Palm Springs, Dallas, Miami, Las Vegas . . . memories of a time when handwoven threads made their way across the Atlantic. She passed away in spring 2018, but in my imagination, she’s again the young adventurous woman steering a Plymouth from coast to coast, making her textile dreams come true, with the love of her life, Erik.
- For more information, see the 1964 public relations movie Ripsa: The Weaving Village on YouTube. youtube.com/watch?v=ovprmgTLRrs