No doubt the miniskirts helped as much as the letters of introduction that launched Helena Hernmarck's career more than 40 years ago.

Trained as a weaver, she set sail from her native Sweden on a freighter in 1964 and settled in Montreal. Her first big job came from the National Film Board of Canada, which gave her $20,000 to produce a tapestry for a pavilion at the 1967 Montreal Expo. Since the theme was "labyrinth," she hopped a plane to Crete to check out the labyrinth at Knossos, then whipped up a 23-foot-long snake-motif tapestry that fit the bill.

She was just 26 and had big dreams.

"I just wanted to conquer America," said Hernmarck, 71, laughing over coffee in the airy new cafe at the American Swedish Institute in Minneapolis, where a career-spanning survey of her tapestries is on view through Oct. 14.

With 18 of her weavings hanging in the institute's new addition and the salons and ballroom of its original mansion, the show offers an impressive overview of Hernmarck's long career. Called "In Our Nature," it features evocations of the natural world -- water tumbling through a rocky gorge in Sweden, a steamy rain forest in Washington state, 6-foot-tall golden poppies and Texas bluebonnets.

She is legendary for her ability to create trompe l'oeil illusions in wool, especially letters, postcards or money that seem to float in three dimensions thanks to subtle manipulation of shadows and light. Based on photos, the tapestries have a Pop look, gigantic in scale and startlingly realistic. Her unconventional subjects have ranged from the interior of a steel mill to computer chips, portraits (Mao, Nixon, Little Richard) and architect Daniel Burnham's famous 1909 plan for the city of Chicago.

Big-league commissions

To suggest Hernmarck "conquered" America might overstate the case, but her client list does read like a Fortune 500 roster: Weyerhaeuser, Bank of America, John Hancock, Bethlehem Steel, even the Federal Reserve Bank of Boston. Her institutional collectors are equally choice, from Sweden's Ringhals nuclear plant to New York's Museum of Modern Art, from the national galleries of Sweden and Australia to museums in Los Angeles, Chicago, Washington, D.C., and Quebec.

Throughout, her career has been shaped by visionary ambition and confidence that an ancient art form -- tapestry --was ideally suited to the monumental scale of 20th-century buildings. Armed with letters of introduction from a well connected European architect who was a family friend, she drove across the United States introducing herself and her work.

"I went to 124 architectural offices in three months," she said, recalling a freewheeling era of three-martini lunches and corporate pride. "They thought I was going to be 80 years old and there I was in my miniskirts." The trip led to so many commissions that "from it I lived for 20 years," she said.

One of her most famous projects, the 1971 "Rainforest," which is in the Minneapolis show, captures the flavor of the time. Nine feet tall and 14 feet wide, it depicts the trunk of a massive cedar rising from a mossy mound in an old-growth forest suffused with hazy sunlight. To find a suitable subject, Weyerhaeuser sent a helicopter to pluck her from the roof of the corporate headquarters outside Seattle and fly her over the terrain.

"So there I was, standing on the roof like James Bond," she said. "It was fantastic."

Life in the U.S.

Since 1980 Hernmarck and her third husband, industrial designer Niels Diffrient, have shared a home and studio in Ridgefield, Conn. Her projects can take from a few months to a couple of years to complete. The largest piece to date is an abstraction 11 feet tall and 80 feet long that weighs 600 pounds and wraps the semicircular lobby of the World Trade Center West in Boston. Two assistants spent 18 months weaving it.

She works primarily with specially dyed yarns spun from Swedish wool gathered from sheep herds she knows. "I even choose from where on the body I want the yarn," she said. She prefers fibers from the animals' backs because they are "longer, stronger and more lustrous and repel dirt better. Tummy yarn is softer and curlier. The wool I like to weave with is itchy and wouldn't be comfortable to wear."

She has a long association with the Twin Cities, where her work has been shown at the Minneapolis College of Art and Design as well as the Minneapolis Institute of Arts, which owns nearly two dozen of her works. The Anderson Library at the University of Minnesota also houses her archives from 1962 to 1987, and the Swedish Institute commissioned a 15-foot-tall tapestry inspired by folk costumes in its collection.

"I like to tie in with real history, so with everything I've done I've looked for a deeper connection to the culture or to the past," Hernmarck said.

Mary Abbe • 612-673-4431