Updated: Mar 4
DISCLAIMER: I am sharing with the world wide web what I have learned, used and what are my preferences when creating with wool. I, in no way condone nor abhor the use of man-made material for textiles.
It is no surprise Norway will have a centuries old purebred sheep.
Vikings history, early on, was oral. Stories and legends passed down from generation to generation at gatherings until the first written account of Viking heroes, sea adventures, triumphs, defeats, legends, pagan rituals and day to day living/survival was written during the 12th century by Icelandic Viking settlers.
All other written accounts predating the 12th century were recorded by those affected directly or indirectly by Viking invasions and their devastating raids only describing the savagery of the intruder, the pillages, the slaughter of the villagers and their possessed demon like appearance.
The 793 A.D. invasion and sacking at Lindisfarne in Northumbria, modern day Northern England and South-East Scotland, were recorded by the surviving monks. The infamous "EVIL" description of the barbaric actions of the Vikings, named the "Great Heathen Army" and carved onto the Doomsday Stone, the coming of the end of days, is how the Norse are still known today.
‘Here were dreadful forewarnings come over the land of Northumbria,
and woefully terrified the people:
these were amazing sheets of lightning and whirlwinds,
and fiery dragons were seen flying in the sky."
The Nordic Countries...
Scandanavia, the Norse Lands, remote group of islands and peninsula in the northern hemisphere consisting of Norway, Iceland, Finland, Sweden and Denmark. Well known for its brilliant flickering spirals of light across the sky, its natural hot pools in subzero temperatures and its seemingly never-ending winters.
In this region there is a purebred Norwegian sheep, the Spaelsau. Proven to have existed over 1000 years ago.
In 2020 a Viking burial chamber of a young woman was discovered at Hestnes in Northern Norway. It was an uncommon grave for Norwegian Viking culture dating somewhere between the 9th and 10th century. It was the sole chamber grave at excavation site. The burial mound chamber, the burial rituals and offerings were known Danish practices. The treasures for her journey to the afterlife were a pair of wool combs, a spindle, brooches and beads leading to believe she was a highly regarded textile worker amongst her tribe. Despite the finding of the undisturbed burial site with identifiable traits it was an 11cm (4in.) remnant of embroidered fabric where most of the excitement was directed to.
In total there were six woollen fabrics and two linen when the excavation concluded. A brooch pinning layers of fabrics suggests the woman was buried fully dressed in her most treasured possessions of clothing- undergarments, dress and top layer. The top layer may have been a cloak or a cape.
Unlike other cloth remnants found in Viking burial sites in the past, the unusual fragments of stitching, embroidery, the theory of bead work for embellishment and a narrow braided edge is a rare insight to Scandinavian women garments in the 9th to 10th centuries.
The wool when investigated and studied is the direct link to the Norweigan Spælsau sheep.
Proven to be the original breed of Norway reared as a domestic animal since the Iron Age for meat and wool, the Spaelsau is a small short-tailed animal. Adult ewes weigh between 60 and 70 kilos (130-150 lbs). They have a double coat. The top coat is of long locks protecting the animal from cold and rain the inner coat is plush to maintain the animal warm. The majority produce a white fleece, however variations of browns and grey fleece exist. Known to survive in extreme climates and have the ability to adjust to limited feed. They have adapted to its environs depending on drinking sea water and eating seaweed for sustenance during the winter.
In the 1960´s and 1970´s breeding programs were established to prevent the decline of sheep breeding, then used mostly for its meat and milk, with Icelandic Faroa Island Sheep and Finnsheep.
In 1992 Norway created two breeding stations to prevent extinction of the purebred Spaelsau. Today over 20% of Norways sheep are purebred Spaelsau.
The Spaelsau has a long crumpled glossy staple. Known for its longevity. Not soft, best for wearing mid or outer layers. Great for blankets, they are heavy and warm. Fabric does not pill from wear. A body temperature regulator and absorbs moisture from the skin. The strength of the wool allows it to have a lifespan fit to stand the test of time.
Spaelsau wool though the ages..
Archeological finds of viking burial sites and discoveries of viking longships have confirmed sails on the vessels were woven with Spaelsau wool. The strength of the fabric allowed strong winds to guide them across the sea without tearing. The water repelling properties of the fiber enabled the vikings to shelter themselves with the sails from storms at high sea and the keep warm when shrouded with it because of the natural temperature regulating fiber.
Perhaps the most famous and recognisable six panel tapestry is of the Lady and the Unicorn, 15th-16th century, representing the five senses; touch, taste, smell, sound, sight and "À Mon Seul Désir", My Only Desire.
Then there is the Bayeux Tapestry... EPIC!
The Bayeux tapestry is a 70 meter long and 50cm tall, (230 ft. x 20 in.), tapestry illustrating the battle of Hastings and the Norman conquest of 1066 allied with the French.
Woollen embroidered designs on nine woven linen cloth panels with over 70 scenes, in chronological order of events, with a plain background. Not quite a tapestry but referred to as one with the absence of traditional tapestry weaving techniques. The woollen coloured threads are natural plant based dyes of blues, pinks, oranges, yellows and browns. Basic embroidery stitches were used to create the images and texture: stem stitch, plain stitch and split stitch and Bayeux (couching) stitch to fill in areas. Simultaneously simple and complex. Often referred to as one long comic strip.
The video below brings it to life.
What is extraordinary about the Bayeux Tapestry is its survival through the ages not buried in a Viking tomb. It has been repeatedly moved and stored, survived the French Revolution, has existed during two world wars and the stitches of the images have remained unchanged like the purebred lineage of the Norwegian Spaelsau Sheep. It displays the great mastery in textile work and somewhat sensibility, honour and triumphs of the often misunderstood Vikings.
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