Weaving Refuse: Handwoven Art with a Message Made from the Ocean’s Garbage


We are all facing the growing crisis of plastic refuse overwhelming our oceans. One TSB author is using her crafting skills to turn garbage into art with an eco-conscious message. Mette Handberg’s books NORWEGIAN PATTERNS FOR KNITTING and SCANDINAVIAN CHRISTMAS STOCKINGS bring the history and artistry of Scandinavian knitting traditions to knitting aficionados everywhere. Recently, however, she has set aside her knitting needles and made her hands busy weaving the garbage found on the beach near her home into striking tapestries.

“Since I came to the magical Norwegian island of Stokkøy (in 1965), which is by the coast of Troendelag, I have been studying everything that brought by the ocean and landed on the beach,” Mette explains. “Years ago it was mostly oil that I found, in big brown lumps, often unbroken light bulbs and glass bottles, probably from Russia, driftwood of all sizes, and many other kinds of waste, likely from boats. In the last 20 years, however, this has all changed, and now it is mostly plastic.

“I have always had a reaction to all kind of unnecessary waste,” she goes on. “It has been too simple for people to just throw things over board and think, ‘That’s that!’ But it does not disappear. It does not go away. It ends up somewhere. This is pollution of the worst kind, and it is changing our globe dramatically.”

We asked Mette to share a little about the kinds of objects she has found and the inspiration behind the tapestries she has created, weaving the found objects together into stories intended to inspire discussion, and hopefully, action.

“I have always gathered interesting objects from the shores—maybe a well-used toy, a nicely shaped root, or whatever. About five or six years ago I thought that maybe some of these found items could be used in a handwoven tapestry, and so I started with my first, which I called ‘Plastic Sea.’ All of the materials were gathered by the shore at Stokkøy—a lot is everyday household waste…too much plastic. Do you remember ‘Kinder Suprise,’ the hollow chocolate eggs with small plastic toys for children inside? They still exist and I’ve used them in my tapestries.”

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“Look carefully at Plastic Vortex and you might see the tale of a whale trapped in it. A diver is about to cut it loose. Ropes and old fish nets are a death trap for lots of kinds of animals, and they suffer a slow and horrible death. Luckily, in my tapestry, someone is able to come to the rescue, and this brave diver is really a hero.”

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“The Japanese artist Hokusai made a fantastic and very well known woodblock print called “The Great Wave,” and this iconic masterpiece has been inspiration for many artists. In my tapestry “Plastic Wave,” instead of a Japanese boat you will find life boats filled up with too many refugees, and they are wearing life jackets, which will be of no help if the boat is sinking. These life jackets will actually drag people down into the deep. After the tsunami on the coast of Japan, entire towns were pulled out into the sea. All kinds of materials ran ashore along the West Coast of North America—a lot of these materials were of course plastic. If this sunami had happened a hundred years ago, it would have looked different. All the unnecessary pieces of our everyday households, which in earlier times would have been degradable, will almost forever be floating around us.”

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“My inspiration just comes to me—it is, in fact, my main job as a textile artist. I went to a weaving school for half a year after I graduated from college. After that I spent three years at art school, and it might be compared with a bachelor degree. I learned a little bit of everything in school, not just tapestry weaving, but it just happened that weaving became my special field.

“All together I have made about 240 tapestries in my career—big and small ones. The technique has changed as the years have passed. To create tapestries you just have to learn the hard way. Nowadays looms seem to have disappeared from art schools, and other schools as well. This profession is dying. Some guardian angels have been giving courses in the profession, but it still seems to be dying. Lucky are the ones who have grandmothers to help them with a loom of some kind!

MakingArtOutofOceanGarbage-trafalgarbooks“One of my tapestries is at Nordenfjeldske Kunstindustrimuseum [National Museum of Decorative Arts], in Trondheim, Norway. I have participated in a long list of exhibitions, both alone and together with others. The world will see nothing if I don’t exhibit them. But many artists want to exhibit, so there is a lot of competition, and it is enormously hard. Anyway, I will only be one of many who are interested in making this point—it’s a trend nowadays. I hope more and more people will ‘wake up’ and not leave their waste all over! I ask everybody reading this to bring a little garbage bag wherever you go, and gather waste when you find it where it shouldn’t be. Always leave a place as if no one has been there. Use less plastic and only if it seems necessary and you have no other option. Plastic is here to stay; use it wisely.

“I hate fleece!!”

Mette Handberg’s knitting books NORWEGIAN PATTERNS TO KNIT and SCANDINAVIAN CHRISTMAS STOCKINGS are available from the Trafalgar Square Books online bookstore, where shipping in the US is FREE.

CLICK HERE for more information or to order.

Trafalgar Square Books, publisher of fine equestrian and craft books, is a small company based on a farm in rural Vermont.

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