Weaving in Norway

by Toby Smith on November 19, 2008

In June I attended a two-week weaving course on a farm in the spectacular mountains of Telemark, Norway. The purpose of the course was to make the traditional Norwegian fulled cloth called Vadmal. The farm dates from at least the 18th century and is situated on a hillside with magnificent views and a fully equipped weaving studio. There were eight of us on the course, five from the US, two from Canada, and one from Paris. Everyone had a lot of weaving experience, and all but one had considerable sewing experience.

In the first week we wove 6 or 8 meters of wool cloth. The yarn we used was spun in Norway and came from the indigenous Spelsau sheep, whose ancestors provided the material for Viking sails. This breed is unique in that it has a very long outer hair, up to ten inches long. It is thick but silky and looks exactly like wavy human hair. It comes in a range of colours, black, greys, various blonds and a rich, almost gold colour. Spelsau pelts make stunning blankets and rugs. The undercoat is fluffy and warm and spins easily, unlike the outer hair fibre. There is only one mill left in Norway that spins the Spelsau and no one expects it to last much longer. The Norwegian government subsidizes the farming of this sheep because of its historical importance, although there is tremendous pressure from Australia and New Zealand to stop.

We wove on various Scandinavian looms, with which most of us were unfamiliar. I found the lack of a shuttle race on the beater to be an enormous problem. Several of us had this problem and it really slowed us down. We constantly were sending the shuttle down through the warp and had to scramble amongst the wool fluff on the floor to retrieve it, coming up looking much like a cat that has been exploring behind the couch. Sometimes I would have this problem one out of every four or five shots. The instructor fiddled a lot with the tie ups and this did not help. But then she gave us a big shuttle with wheels on the bottom, and tightened our warps so taught I thought the whole thing would snap. After that, we were fine. Another thing we short people found was that the loom was too high for us. If we put the bench on the top rung, we couldn’t reach the treadles. Eventually we got it worked out, although one of our shorties went crashing onto the floor reaching for the treadle a few times that week. I came away thinking I’ll never complain about my old rusty beat-up Leclerc again.

At the end of the week we fulled the cloth in a reproduction “stampa”, a hand made device with slabs of heavy wood that pound down onto the cloth in a hot-water filled trough below it. The stampa is situated next to a large, fast running stream because it is run by a paddle wheel using the force of the water. The fulling is traditionally done in June because the stream is very full with the melting of the snow in the mountains. After the fulling is done, the fabric is stretched, rolled and unrolled repeatedly, then finally laid out to dry. With the violence from the huge slabs of wood crashing down on the fabric and the hotness of the water, it was a great mystery to me why the fabric held together at all, let alone shrank just ten percent.

Most people wove a 3/1 twill, which gave two distinct sides. The long floats were not a problem because the fulling process felted all the threads together. Having different sides provided flexibility when designing the jackets we sewed the second week. I wove a Herringbone twill which I figured was appropriate in the Herring capital of the world. The zig zag of the original pattern was obliterated in the stampa and came out with a kind of mottled effect. The fabric was soft and had drape after the fulling.

We had previously sent our ideas for a garment to make to the sewing and design instructor, who teaches costume history and design in the Theatre Department of the University of Northern Iowa. Her specialty is Norwegian clothing history so she is very knowledgeable about design and construction. Most of us wanted to make some reference to Norwegian clothing history in our garments. Some people did this by using typical Norwegian clasps or buttons, others by sewing on traditional types of trims. I had spent the last year researching Norwegian historical costume and designed a jacket based on men’s long jackets from several regions. I am doing traditional embroidery around the neck and down the fronts. We used a traditional Norwegian construction method of making each pattern piece a bag made from the outer fabric and its lining sewn together and then turned inside out. All the bagged pieces were sewn together by hand. There are no raw edges anywhere in this method and if the special joining stitch is done with care and skill, the seams on the inside show a lovely decorative stitch down their length.

Throughout the two weeks, we were given many wonderful cultural lectures connecting weaving and other textiles to Norwegian cultural and political history. We saw private as well as public costume collections, met traditional embroiderers, and visited a folk museum. We also went to a university college that specializes in folk traditions including textiles, wood-carving, decorative painting, knitting, embroidery, weaving, music, etc. We were also very fortunate to have a visit from Annemor Sundbo, author of several unique knitting books. In the end, I came away with not just a jacket and some new techniques, but also a real sense of the role of textiles in Norwegian life.

Submitted by Toby Smith

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