“I draw a lot of blobs on sticks. That is my comfort zone,” Lotta Jansdotter tells us as she begins to demonstrate the basics of carving a stamp for printing. She quickly draws today’s version of her iconic blob in pencil on a small piece of soft pink rubber and then begins carving around it in smooth, simple strokes using the smallest of the V-shaped blades in her carving kit, the same kit that all of us surrounding her have back at our worktables.
We are twenty women from seven countries, ranging in age from about our 30s to our 60s, each wearing a Lotta-designed apron that, funnily enough, is printed with a pattern that, now that I think about it, does indeed resemble blobbish marshmallows on a stick.
This is day two of our five-day sojourn to the island of Silverskär, one of the over 6,000 islands (about sixty of which are habitable) that make up the Åland Islands.
Åland is a self-governing province that is officially part of Finland but it was once part of Sweden, and Swedish is spoken widely here. Three of Lotta’s four grandparents as well as her parents and she and her three brothers were born on Åland, and she has spent nearly every summer of her life on this remote Baltic archipelago halfway between mainland Sweden and Finland.
“It is in my bone marrow,” she told us as we toasted our arrival with schnapps and a local cardamom-spiced pancake the day before. This was after a picturesque, five-hour ferry crossing from Stockholm and then short rides on a bus and a motorboat to reach the Silverskär pier.
A Return to Scandinavia Each Summer
Lotta was living in Stockholm in 1990, when a love interest compelled her to cross the Atlantic. It was during a screen-printing class at a community college in Santa Cruz that Lotta came up with an idea for a business.
“I saw a niche for tea towels, runners, pillows, and other things with modern prints,” she recalls. And in 1996 she founded her company Lotta Jansdotter. Like her strong, self-sufficient ancestors from Åland, striking out on her own and starting her own enterprise (named, in part, for her father—“Jansdotter” means “the daughter of Jan” in Swedish) seemed natural to her. Since then her designs have been printed on nearly every kind of textile imaginable, from quilting cottons to laptop cases to rugs, as well as on paper goods, luggage, dishes, and more. She also writes books and teaches workshops.
Today Lotta’s home base is Brooklyn, New York, with her husband and son, but her yearly pilgrimage to Åland is sacred to her. In Lotta Jansdotter Everyday Style, the most recent of her ten books, she writes, “Growing up in Scandinavia, I spent a lot of time, especially during the summer, in nature, surrounded by sparse fields, vast ocean landscapes, and the muted colors of rocks, weathered barns, and hay. I picked flowers and drew flowers. I made things with sticks and leaves. I harvested carrots and potatoes with my uncle and loved getting my hands dirty.”
It is on Åland that, she explains, she refreshes and recharges her creative spirit and conditions her soul. And that is why, I surmise, most if not all of us have gathered around her. We are a varied group of single and married women—an elementary school teacher, a corporate executive, a nurse, a graphic designer, an interior designer, a stay-at-home mom, the director of a charity, and so on.
A Happy Mess
Our goal, Lotta announces, as we return to our worktables after the block-carving demonstration, is “to make a happy mess.” She doesn’t want us to judge what we create as we practice and learn to make stamps and stencils and print them on different types of paper and fabric.
photo by Jenn Butterworth
She wants us to experiment.
PHOTO BY Nerissa Campbell
“Great ideas are often born out of mistakes,” she reminds us as she walks around the room, egging each of us on, offering tips and encouragement.
Lotta’s positivity and playfulness are contagious, and the energy in our group is joyous. When we’re not printing, we’re enjoying delicious meals, hiking around the island (which takes about an hour and is rocky and lichen-covered at the perimeter, lush and carpeted with ferns, mosses, and tall and small trees within), and getting to know one another.
photo by Melissa Weismann
The nightly pilgrimage to the wood-fired sauna is a must, Lotta exclaimed on that first day, and most of us partake. A few minutes in the dry heat is followed by a dive (or reluctant tiptoe, for some of us) into the mirror-calm but icy Baltic Sea just a few steps away.
The Magic of a Small Island
Silverskär is a small island of about a hundred acres and no one actually lives here. Lotta describes it on her website as a “private hotel.” The small staff quietly arrives by sea each morning to tend to the needs of the guests, who can only come as part of an organized group, such as a wedding party, family reunion, corporate retreat, or one of Lotta’s printing workshops. Guests stay in the seven assorted cottages and log houses that dot the island’s south side and are served three gourmet meals, plus the beloved afternoon fika, each day.
Photo by Jenn Butterworth
The meals are all prepared by two young Ålander chefs (brothers, actually), who work almost exclusively with locally foraged or farmed organic ingredients.
Not surprisingly, on our last night, we are all wishing we could stay longer. It is nearly 11 p.m. but, this being July in Finland, the sky is still light. Some of us are enjoying one last sauna, others are back in the barn continuing to print and also sew and knit. We have shared meals without having to prepare them or clean up; we have shared both lighthearted laughter and deep, private truths. We have swam and hiked. We have explored our creativity. And we have forged new friendships.
While the magic of Åland may not be in our bone marrow, as it is in Lotta’s, it is now deep in our memories and it has most definitely conditioned our souls.
Registration for Lotta’s 2017 printing workshop on Åland will begin on November 17 at noon EST. Sign up on her website.