Old Norwegian Sheep and Their Durable Wool
By SARAH POLLOCK
This sidebar is a supplement to The Norwegian Sweater Detective
After writing extensively about the history of Norwegian knitting and textile design, Annemor Sundbø turned her attention to the very foundation of those textiles, to the wool without which, she says, there would have been no Vikings. In the process, Sundbø has become an ardent ambassador for the value of the wool produced by Norway’s original breed of sheep, the Old Norwegian spelsau.
Spelsau, which now exist only in remnant flocks, grow wool that is prized by knitters and textile crafters for its unique properties. The sheep’s woolen coat is two-layered—with a tough, water-resistant outer layer, and a fine inner layer that can be sorted for softer yarns.
Today, spelsau yarn can be hard for crafters to come by, as the wool can’t be sorted by machines and tends to be exported for rough carpets. Then there’s the fact that most commercial farmers maintain flocks of cross-bred sheep, which produce more meat. Nonetheless, there are some small farmers still trying to make a go of a life their ancestors lived for centuries.
Sundbø has solved the wool problem for herself in her usual capable fashion: She’s become a part-owner of a flock of spelsau that are kept year-round on the island of Bragdøya, just off the coast of Kristiansand. We journeyed out to visit her flock on a scorching summer day, taking a small passenger ferry crammed with day-trippers heading to the island’s swimming beaches.
After we landed, we strolled up from the beach toward an open meadow, where we found her flock grazing in the distance. We tried to get close, but were stymied by an energetic young girl who drew childish pleasure from chasing them. So we watched from afar as Sundbø explained why the sheep are special and how the wool can be used.
Because the sheep are well adapted to the Norwegian climate, they can live outdoors year-round, as Sundbø’s flock does. The spelsau are leaner than cross-bred sheep, but they require less oversight because they forage well and flock together for group protection.
The sheep’s two-layered coat makes them particularly appealing to crafters because the inner coat is light, soft, and warm, whereas the outer coat is glossy, durable and water resistant. Pelt colors vary, from brown to taupe to beige, so lovely effects can be created even without dyeing. Its use in Norway goes at least as far back as the Viking age (from 800 to 1066 AD), where the wool was used to weave sails and the dense wadmal fabric that allowed survival in North Sea weather. Sundbø says the wool can be used to weave wadmal so tough that an arrow can’t penetrate it. But the wool needs hand-sorting and it fell out of favor as industrialization took hold in the 19th and 20th centuries.
“We couldn’t have been populating Norway without the spelsau,” says Sundbø. “People couldn’t have crossed the oceans on Viking ships without wool sails. They couldn’t have survived in open boats without wearing this wool. They couldn’t have survived the temperatures we have along the coasts and up in the mountains. But today, we have gotten so rich that we cannot afford to take care of this little sheep because it doesn’t pay in the way of the meat.”
Today, the wool that’s not sent off for carpets is mainly spun by hand-spinners and a couple of smaller mills. “If you can hand-spin, if you can do the craft, you can select fiber for whatever it should be—from the very finest shawl that you could put through a ring finger up to the toughest rag rug,” she says. “You can make everything out of a fleece from one of these primitive old sheep.”
The tougher yarn, she adds, can be spun into tapestry wool so durable it will last a thousand years. For example, the council chambers in the Oslo Rådhuset (the city hall) are decorated with tapestries made from spelsau wool, she says; and in Bergen, Håkonshallen (a 13th-century royal residence that’s now a museum) is decorated with a 125-kilo spelsau tapestry made in the 1950s and 1960s.
Sundbø uses this wool for weaving, knitting, and demonstration projects, such as some miniature hand-knotted rugs she is making to show that spelsau wool can turn into rugs as durable as Turkish carpets. “I’m working on how I can show that the wool that is regarded as waste nowadays I can use to make the utmost, best product, by using the skill of my hand.”