JOKKMOKK, Sweden — Contemporary Sami artisans, using techniques handed down through the years, are making functional and decorative handicrafts that are the most sought after souvenirs from this Land of the Midnight Sun.
Sami, also known as Lapps, were the first inhabitants of vast timberlands and tundra above the Arctic Circle in northern Scandinavia in the area known as Lapland.
Most Sami, even into this century, lived a migratory life following reindeer herds from winter grazing areas in southeastern lowlands to summer mating grounds in high northwestern mountains. This vast territory includes parts of Sweden, Norway and Finland, and, to a lesser extent, areas within the Soviet Union.
Sami families lived in katas or tents. Duodji (creative hands or handicraft) was essential to survival. They made most necessities with their own hands, using natural materials.
Reindeer skins were sewn into clothing and bags with thread made from reindeer sinew; reindeer horn was carved into knife handles, buttons or small containers for salt or needles; gnarled birch roots were sculpted into bowls, cups and small chests.
Today, most Sami have left their katas for permanent residences in Lulea, Jokkmokk, Kiruna and other towns throughout Lapland.
They work as teachers, bus drivers, accountants, nurses, policemen and in all sorts of jobs. Those who still herd reindeer often do so with snow mobiles, helicopters and other high-tech aids.
Although modern Sami (about 50,000 in all) are Swedish (about 20,000), Norwegian, Finnish or Soviet citizens, they maintain a distinct culture.
Duodji has helped preserve their heritage. Craft techniques were taught by father to son and mother to daughter, even when other cultural aspects (Sami language, for example) were suppressed or forgotten due to assimilation into the predominant Scandinavian and Soviet cultures.
Sami love decoration. Simply shaped items of wood or horn are etched with geometric designs, some of which are often meant to represent the sun, wind and other forces of nature.
Similarly, clothing, bags, wristbands, caps and other clothing made of reindeer hide and (since the 16th Century) of wool are richly embroidered with tin thread (called "poor man's silver") that dazzles the eye.
No one knows when the Sami first used tin thread as adornment, but they seem to have invented the art, which is thought to be characteristically Sami. It is a complicated art involving several arduous processes and it is traditionally done by women.
Susanna Nordquist, 63, works traditionally preparing reindeer skin, sinew thread and tin thread herself. She lives and works with her husband in an isolated house on a bend up the Stora Lulea River, about 15.5 miles from Porjus, which is about 27 miles north of Jokkmokk.
"There is nothing to distract me here," she says, "only nature to inspire me. I work for hours, perfectly at peace. That shows in my designs. I rarely plan them out. Mostly they come to me while I work, like visions in a dream. They are traditional designs, but don't have special meaning--only the idea of nature, like the sun or mountains or a boat sailing on calm water."
The design work is preceded by hours of preparing reindeer skin and tin. To start, tin wire is pulled through a piece of flat reindeer horn with holes of different sizes cut through it.
To make it malleable, the tin must be worked at about 30 degrees Celsius (about 86 degrees Fahrenheit). The wire, originally 2 millimeters thick, is forced through successively narrower holes until it is .17 millimeters thick.
Then it is intertwined with thread made of reindeer sinew (the sinew is soaked until it is pliant and is then pulled apart with one's teeth into usable strands). When the tin and sinew are spun, the tin is pushed down around the sinew to form a tightly coiled thread that is used for embroidery.
Reindeer skins are soaked in a liquid made from boiling sallow bark (which also colors skins a rich tan and gives them a clean, earthy scent) to soften them.
The skins are worked by hand to soften them further before they are cut into pieces for handbags, pouches (traditionally used to carry coffee) and other items, or into narrow strips to be braided for fastening ties and shoulder straps. The bags are sewn with reindeer sinew thread.
Embroidery is the final step, with the tin thread sometimes applied directly to the skin or sometimes sewn onto a black, blue, red, green or yellow wool inset that is sewn to the reindeer skin. Each artisan has secret stitches for applying the embroidery.
Nordquist learned the art from her mother and grandmother, and taught it to her daughter. "It takes a lot of patience," she says. "Nowadays some artists use already prepared tin thread, but I prefer to make my own so I can guarantee the quality. I use tin with 10% silver, others might use 2% or 3% silver.