Monday, September 26, 2016

A textile find in Greenland.....and the National Museum

My sister's friend, Maryann, recently spent 2 months with another spinner/weaver in Iceland to recreate a garment based on a textile fragment (which can be seen at the National Museum in Reykyavik) which had been discovered at a dig in Greenland. The dig was at one of the early Icelandic settlements there.

Maryann wrote an article for an Icelandic magazine about the archaeological find and about her experience recreating the garment and we're hopeful that she can get either Interweave or Ply to publish it here in English.

 Based on the textile fragment discovered in the dig (apparently a metal brooch helped preserve the textile enough that they could determine the fiber, dye, twist, and weave structure) she and another colleague reverse engineered it and then hand spun, dyed using woad, sett and then made the handwoven fabric in the same twill weave structure  to completely recreate the jumper based on this tiny fragment!

What a wonderful spinning, kyeing and weaving project to take on and see thru from reverse engineering to re-creation! You'll have to keep your eye out for the article here in the US with pictures and so much more detail about their journey!
Unrelated to that Greenland textile recreation, Maryann (who has studied the historical textile traditions as part of an MA degree, I believe)  has been handspinning a very fine 2 ply thread from the "tog" (see an earlier post about the difference between tog and thel in Icelandic fleece if you're interested). Apparently, this is what the Vikings used for thread. I purchased some from her to use in stitching the fish skins I bought in Iceland to felt bags I have planned with some Icelandic fleece. Here is a photo below showing the fine tog threads - three natural colors and the red is dyed with a berry.

The National Museum in Reykyavik is well worth a visit.  We visited it on our previous visit to Iceland 4 years ago. The textile highlights for me were the nalbinding mittens and sock  (the word they used for the technique describing these items technically translated into "needle coiling"  and mentioned that it was a technique which predated knitting- which didn't come to Iceland until the 16th century). The museum also had a couple of crudely felted saddle blankets, pictured below the mittens.  But there were other exhibits - non textile related - that were fascinating as well. And if you can't make it up north to the Blonduos Textile Museum, the Reykyavik museum had a few handknit mittens and shoe soles to show (but make an effort to get to the Textile Museum if you are going to Iceland!)


 With so many digs going on in Iceland, they are constantly updating the exhibits at the museum. While we were in Iceland, some hunters were out walking a field in the south and came across a Viking sword in the ground! Can you imagine how exciting that must have been for them. And there is a big dig going on in the eastern fjords of a longhouse that I believe they said was over a football field in length!

That sort of ends my photos and synopsis of the textile/sheep aspects of our trip that I thought any knitter, spinner or felter reading this might be interested in. 

But of course, there are lots of other aspects of Iceland that we experienced, saw and enjoyed personally, so if anyone is planning a trip to Iceland and wants to ask me anything non-textile/sheep related about visiting the country shoot me an email. I'm happy to share what I have picked up during our last two trips there. From car rental issues to driving in Iceland, to riding, hiking or white water rafting there, food, literature, local brews  - or even air bnbs to stay at.  I can tell you what to look for or avoid based on our experience with these 2 trips, anyway.

 It is an adventurous place....driving in the interior can be a bit nerve-racking as many roads you want to take are actually "tracks" criss-crossed by raging waters for which there are no bridges! I don't have a picture of my sisters having to ford rivers on the drive along a "track" to come pick me up after my hike in  Landmannalauger (thankfully, after a glass of Vana Tallin and maybe a winning Penuchle hand, they forgave me!), but I snapped a shot of one such car crossing a river as I waited for my siblings to come get me

As a side note...if any of you are runners, you might find this interesting.  This Run the World lead car was for a group of runners from all over the world that were in Iceland running 100 miles of the most difficult/remote terrain.  They wwere running the  drive into Landmannalauger the day I was there - crazy people! We passed them at about 8:30 in the morning as they began the run and on our way into the area to hike for the day  and I cheered the last one to arrive  at about 5 p.m. that afternoon! It was a smart destination for them to run to since there was a great open hot spring to soak in at the base of the mountain we hiked (and where their run ended!).

Tho' I'm done using this blog to share the textile aspects of our trip,  I may use this blog to record my experiences tanning fish skins and incorporating the fish skins from Iceland into some felt bags. I'm thinking it is better to write it here than in a paper notebook that I won't be able to find next year when I want to review what I did!

 So if you're interested in seeing what happens with my experiments, check back in now and then to see if I have any results to show and tell! 

Friday, September 23, 2016

Check out these knitted garments.....

The museum in Akureryi wasn't particularly exciting, except for the following exhibit of clothing worn by the first elected woman head of state of any country, Vigd√≠s Finnbogad√≥ttir, who was president of Iceland from 1980 to 1996. 

The exhibit included 2 hand spun and knitted outfits that were pretty amazing.

 The first outfit was a suit  designed and knit by a local Akureyri knitter (Steingerdur Holmgelrsdottir) who sent it to Vigdis with the understanding that it was to be worn only if she won! So on June 30th (or was it April 30th?) 1980, the first day after she'd been elected, Vigdis made her first public appearance as President wearing the dress, vest and jacket featuring the natural Icelandic colors. 

The next handspun/handknit piece was designed and knit by another artisan ( AStrid Ellingsen) a year later. It was quite fine  lace weight singles (not plied) and we wished that the information plaques had shared information like how many yards were spun or how much the entire garment weighed! But obviously the museum curators were not knitters since they didn't think to include this important information! I've provided a closeup shot so you can see the detail in the stitch.

And this next photo is actually from the Textile Museum in Blonduos, but when I wrote the post featuring the textiles from that museum last week, I couldn't find this particular photo. It just shows some lovely historic garter stitch wristwarmers. Since they also feature the lovely natural colors of the Icelandic sheep's fleece it seemed appropriate to share this photo here with Vigdis' handknit garments!

And this next paragraph is totally unrelated to fiber, but on the subject of the natural colors of Iceland, I thought I'd share this new website which was just launched about the equally colorful Icelandic Horses which I love!  

Wednesday, September 21, 2016

Horns - nonje, 2, 3 or 4. And something new I learned about the Icelandic "leadersheep"!

Well this trip set right some misconceptions I had about the breed!

Somehow I thought all Icelandic sheep had 2 horns or none. But it turns out that they can be polled (no horns or nonje in Icelandic!), have one, two,  three or even four horns! And then there are sheep with different combinations of horn "buds" which's all very confusing genetics. Add the horn differences in with all the 28 colors and patterns, the "thoka" gene (attributed to some ewes that have many lambs), and the "leadersheep" oddity and you've got a very complex breed!

Polled  and 4 horns are dominant, genetically speaking, but 2 horned sheep make up 70% of the flock in Iceland. I believe this has something to do with the focus on breeding for the more lucrative, "white" fleecesThough horn number varies by region since some farmers prefer the ease of handling a polled sheep (no danger of injury if there are no horns!) and others prefer the regal look of a 2-4 horned sheep.

Since Icelanders try to use every part of an animal, the horns are used for buttons, tools, needles, etc. I purchased a few horn tip buttons at Alafoss - thought they might work into some future felt bags. Anna's workshop was full of sheep horns at various stages of use. She also had a reindeer rack (reindeer are not native to Iceland, but a few years back they brought some over from Norway - I don't know why). She intends to use them for buttons as well but said the smell when cutting a reindeer horn up is so bad she is waiting for the "right moment".

The color genetics of these sheep has always been a tad convoluted and nothing about the trip made it any clearer to me. Really....since when is white considered not a color but a pattern!? Anyway I wrote a little summary of the genetics of these sheep for a yarn CSA a couple of years ago if you're interested in reading it. I also have a great poster in the workshop here at the store which shows each of the 28 potential colors/patterns that these sheep come in, so check that out next time you're in if you want!

Another surprise was to learn was that the "leadersheep" (forystufe) are not necessarily dark brown with a badger face! For some reason, I thought that specific coloring was how you distinguished these unique  leadersheep from the rest. I took this photo at the Hildarett roundup, sure that this was the leadersheep since he had the coloring I always associated with leadersheep! Now I realize he may be just as "ordinary" as the rest of the group!

In case you haven't heard about these leadersheep before, they are a unique subset of Icelandics ( less than .5% of Icelandics) that are exceptionally intelligent.  Contrary to what I thought, it turns out that the leadersheep can be any color. And have any number of horns - or none!  

Leadersheep are generally taller and trimmer than the other Icelandics. But what sets them apart most is their intelligence. They are somehow endowed with a tremendous sense of leadership, guardianship, and acute sense of direction and keen anticipation of weather changes. They herd other sheep much like border collies.  So these unique abilities make these select sheep the ones that lead the flock out of danger and to safety. So I guess the only real way of identifying them is to observe them in the flock?

There are about 1500 of these "leadersheep" today, thanks to an effort in the 1970s to have leader rams at the AI insemination stations around Iceland.  Obviously, this is not dominant if only ..5% of all the sheep turn out to have this distinct ability.

And then lastly, I have felted and spun Icelandic fleece before but have always chosen lamb fleeces (to get the softest) and then carded the tog and thel together, knowing that the tog was coarser but not as coarse as it could be since I had bought a lamb!
If you're just joining this discussion, these 2 aspects of the Icelandic fleece were discussed in an earlier post.

 But having seen the  handknit/handwoven articles in the Textile Museum in Blonduos that feature either the tog or the thel made me want to work with another Icelandic fleece just so I could go thru the process and experience such a fleece as 2 separate components, rather than one! 

So I'm embarking on a project to separate tog from thel of some fiber I got there and am going to spin them separately and then knit something with each element spun separately. Why not add one more project to my ever increasing bucket list of "fiber-want-to-dos" !

So below I share a few photos of my start on this journey as I've separated the tog from the thel this week. The separation was easy by hand. A bit faster using a brush. But in both cases, I still ended up putting the tog thru my St. Blaise combs because I needed to produce a nice sliver for spinning. So in retrospect I should have just used the combs to begin with! They obviously did, since we saw Viking Combs in both the Textile Museum in Blonduos and also in the Turf Village we visited.

In this first photo, I laid a lock as shorn off the sheep next to the "tog" (long coarser 12" length) and the "thel" (shorter, softer clump) which I separated by hand.

This next photo shows some of the tog laid on my St. Blaise and then the  photo below it  shows the tog combed (took about 5 seconds!).

Lastly, here is the lovely sliver I"m pulling thru a diz.    

Anna Gunnarsdottir...

While in Akureyri we met with a felter that I'd been in touch with about teaching here, Anna Gunnarsdottir.

I've known her for her lovely sea-inspired sculptural shapes that are also exquisite as lights/lampshades. But our visit also made me aware of her love for leather work too! Particularly with fish skins - she showed me 2 dresses and a jacket she had designed and sewn from fish skins for a show recently.

 And so EXTRAORDINARY were 2 bags she made from leather she tanned herself  (but I didn't get photos - sorry) . What was unusual was the source of the leather she used.  She went to the slaughterhouse and got the stomachs of a cow and of a sheep. She tanned the stomachs and then cut/stitched them into bags.

As she said thru a grimace remembering her slaughterhouse experience - we try to use every aspect of what we have.  What was so interesting about the bags was that the stomach has a hexagonal (or maybe it was pentagonal?) structure to it (I didn't know this since I don't eat tripe). Particularly the sheep's stomach had very pronounced  hexagonal/pentagonal cells that were quite deep and this gave a very interesting design/surface texture to the bags. 

These are some photos I did ask permission to take to share - the one above shows Anna standing in her gallery in Akureyri . beneath some lovely light fixtures she has felted and one to the side here is of another wall hanging she made which I originally mistook for bolts of eco-dyed fabric!  You can see more of her sculptural work on her facebook page here

It was at first surprising to hear from Anna that there isn't really a big community of felters in Iceland. But when you consider how few people there are (under 350,000) and how spread out they are (remember the 2 square kilometers per person from a previous post!!!), I guess it is inevitable.   I guess it is also the reason why yarn is sold in grocery stores and grocery stores sell horseshoes too!

Tomorrow....some handknits for Vigdis!

Tuesday, September 20, 2016

Fish Skins and the Tannery in Iceland.....

So we went to the only remaining tannery in Iceland . It was in Saudarkrokur, up north. They are known for tanning fish skins, not just sheep skins! And of course, that makes sense since fishing represents a large industry for them - it employs 9% of the population.

We found that the tannery was closed despite signs indicating it should be open on the day and hours we were there. And thru the window we could see all sorts of beautiful fish skins and products made from them. It was like having a bowl of chocolate chip cookie batter in front of you and not being able to take a bite!

We had looked forward to learning about the process- since fish skins are so thin it seems it would be a challenge to tan them?  

There were about 20 palettes like this one - stacked 3 palettes high-  of sheep skins just waiting to be tanned too, but sitting in the parking lot.

With no hope for a tour or opportunity to shop, we went on our way.

After stopping at an old turf village ( I've included a picture here since the pattern the turf wads are laid down in is intriguing and maybe inspires a knitting design?) and then we went on to Akureyri where we learned the fate of the Lodskinn tannery!

It had just filed bankruptcy and closed its doors most unexpectedly.

Fortunately, Anna (more about our visit with this felter in tomorrow's post) called around and found a few places for us that had some fish skins for sale. We also had a chance to talk to her about the process and I'm quite interested now to try it myself!.

Here is a photo of some of the fish skins I purchased there. I look forward to working them into the design of some felt bags in the future! The leopard looking ones are for real - that is a spotted fish and one of the skins was dyed ochre (the white is natural). 

Obviously, the red fish skins shown below are dyed, though they are salmon and feature an interesting chevron pattern.. The blue almost looks like an eel to me? And the black one is just BIG and has a nice texture!  

As you can imagine, the
 fish skins  are quite a bit thinner than camel or cowhide. And even a bit thinner than lamb's skin which is the grade I use to make gloves. Anyway, it will be fun to experiment with these in some bags.

 I have a brother who is an avid fisherman down on the Outer Banks so I'm hoping he can catch a pretty bluefish or something and I can try tanning it myself. 

So this weekend in Maine I picked up a bunch of birch bark and this morning at Shaws I got a whole snapper.After a call to Eric for advice on how to skin and descale a fish, since I've not done that before, I'm going to try tanning a la Vikings!

Stay tuned to next week's posts if you're interested in how that process works out!

This is how Anna has tanned fish skins before and she said it is the "traditional" way they did it in Iceland:
you boil the tannin source hard in water for 2 hours in a big pot. Then put the fish skins in and let them sit (with occasional rotation/stirring) for 2 weeks. Then remove, dry, dye (if desired) and voila! 

In theory, anything with tannin should work. I believe my sister Roby is experimenting with oak galls, since she has a bag of those  and they are very high in tannic acid.

It all sounds very easy. I guess we'll see!

Monday, September 19, 2016

Some interesting things I learned about the economics of farming sheep in Iceland.....

I've always thought of the Icelandic sheep as being desirable for their triple purpose of meat, fleece and milk (compared to most sheep which offer the dual purposes only of fleece and meat). We didn't see any sheep milk's cheese for sale anywhere and apparently Icelanders are just starting to think about developing this third purpose.

While there are a few Icelanders that have sheep for a hobby (some 500 or so Icelanders keep sheep for their own consumption - the average Icelander eats 45 pounds of lamb each year and since the average amount of meat from a lamb is 37 pounds, that is 1+ lamb per person), most farms need to have 200 - 400 head of sheep and still need to keep other animals like dairy, in order to make ends meet

An aside about horses for those interested:
Some sheep farmers keep horses to supplement the income from sheep. Since the horses are left out in the rangelands all winter (no stable for the horses in winter even if the sheep are brought in !), it is little cost to the farmer to keep them overwinter. Then in the spring, summer and fall, they lease their horses to the many riding centers that take tourists thru the landscape! So horses offer an income stream that costs very little. Although in the past the horses would be left to fend for themselves completely thru the winter, the guide I had said that now farmers will put out hay for them

 In order for a farmer to depend solely on income from sheep, it is estimated that he/she must overwinter around 600 ewes.

The sheep farmer that we talked to in the Lake Myvatn area (shown in the picture below) has 400 to overwinter and then he also has dairy. According to my brother-in-law, who had an extensive conversation with this farmer's wife, this farmer had already sent many of his lambs to the slaughter house and on this day he (in yellow overalls) was supervising the rounding up of about half his herd. The other half he expected he would roundup the following weekend. These next photos show the kids herding the sheep home from the Hildarett rettir where they were sorted from sheep of other farms.

The sheep rounded up in September will graze on the pasture by his house (photo below) until around December. During these next 3-4 months, he will decide which ones to breed and which ewes to cull from the herd. And, of course, they will shear them. 

 Most ewes will have twins, so his 400 ewes becomes around 1200, and once the lambs are strong enough, and the weather permitting, the sheep will be released into the "wild" in late May/June to forage for themselves until roundup. But not before they are shorn again - so most farmers get two shearings each year: when they bring them indoors in late fall and just before sending them out to forage again in the spring.

Most of the Icelanders raising sheep are doing so for the meat, not for the fleece! 

Lamb makes up about 25% of the meat that Icelanders eat each year. I don't eat a lot of meat, but I do love lamb. And Icelandic lamb is so incredibly tasty! They attribute the great taste of Icelandic lamb (as opposed to Australian, which is what we get around here) to the nature of the plants that the lambs forage on all summer in the highlands. And it makes sense - you are what you eat! They graze on arctic thyme and whatever other arctic grasses are growing in the summer months in the highlands of Iceland and these plants flavor the meat. 

With so much focus on raising sheep for meat, there is less attention paid to the fleeces! Most farmers just shear and send their fleeces in bulk to the Istex Mill (formerly Alafoss), makers of Lopi yarn.  When Alafoss went bankrupt years ago, a group of the employees along with the Sheep Breeders Association in Iceland purchased the mill and now operate it under the Istex name.  The sheep breeders group owns 50% of the mill.  This is the "main" Istex mill pictured below just north of Reykyavik.  There are several other Istex sites around the country - we discovered one up north in Blonduos which is where much of the wool is washed - 1000 tons of wool washed here in 2013!

It is apparently not uncommon for sheep farms in Iceland to be as large as 1200 - 3500 acres in size! The Sheep Breeders Association there takes great care of their sheep tradition. Almost 90% of all sheep farms participate in a national program for quality assurance which ensures ethical husbandry.

  Because during a short period in the early 1930s when Iceland relaxed its rules about importing other animals to Iceland there was a terrible disease spread by karakul sheep imported from Germany, Iceland now restricts the import of sheep, horses, etc. And the government has built thousands of miles of fencing to keep the sheep in different sections of the country contained in order to control the spread of disease should something get into the herd.  There are 26 such "containment" areas around the country

Ah ha! That explained the ridiculously long fences we saw built up nearly vertical mountainsides! We didn't understand who in the world would bother to build these insane fences we saw here and there since the sheep, afterall, seemed to be free range! But reading about these 26 "containment" areas, answered that mystery.  I wish I had a picture to share of one such fence because you just couldn't imagine anyone building a fence in the remote and steep areas we came across them!

And this next fact was surprising to me. Contrary to what I would have guessed, farmers actually get more money for white fleece than for the colored.  I'm always drawn to the range of beautiful natural colors myself, so this was unexpected given my "handspinners" point of view. But thinking thru the lens of the commercial yarn industry, it makes perfect sense!  White fleece can be easily dyed any color the yarn industry wants.  White is genetically dominant, too, so today 87% of the Icelandic flock is white. 

And I was shocked to learn that the farmers don't get anything for the pelts of the lambs they send to slaughter! When we were in Gotland many years ago, the pelts were selling for $900 - $1000 a piece!  But apparently in Iceland  the slaughter house gets the pelts in payment for transporting the sheep to the slaughterhouse for the farmer (minus, of course, the cost of tanning). Here is a photo of one of about 20 such palettes of sheep skins sitting outside the tannery in Saudarkrokur.........but more about the tannery tomorrow!

Saturday, September 17, 2016

Hildarett Roundup

Here is the map published (in that same newspaper I mentioned in an earlier post) which provides the dates and rettirs (rettir is the Icelandic for corral) for the roundup: It may be too hard to read from my photo, but each name identifies a particular "rettir". The "rettir's are permanently standing corrals. Many are made of wood, like a fence. We saw one made of turf. I believe there are about 170 of them around the country.

  Generally, they feature a center circle with pens built in wedges radiating out from it,  like the spokes of a wheel . Sheep are brought down from the highlands/rangelands by horses and herded into the central pen. Then the sheep are sorted by ear tags and sent to the "spoke" of the wheel which is designated for their tag. Each tag - which might be an ear notch like the I shared on Facebook, or might be a plastic colored tag - identifies the farm, the region and the sheep Once sorted, each farmer then herds (with the help of lots of kids, family and friends) his/her sheep home by foot, along the road or across fields!

We were fortunate on our visit to the Lake Myvatn region to witness the rettir at Hildarett. Hildarett is one (if not "the") oldest rettir in Iceland. And it is a beautiful stone structure, as hopefully the next pictures show. It is so large, I couldn't get a single photo showing the entire structure!

But hopefully you can get an idea from the photo above on the right that there is a central circular pen (currently empty) and radiating out from it are the wedges (or spokes) of a wheel, some of which still have sheep in them (like the wedge in the foreground) and others are empty because those sheep have already been run home. 

In the photos below you can see that it takes a lot of people to herd the sheep from the rettir back to the home pasture. Kids of all ages are participating in the occasion and helping to keep the sheep in line! Even young adults now living in Reykyavik, like the hiking guide I had in Landmannalauger, head home on the weekends to help their parents or grandparents with the roundup. It is clearly a celebratory event. The young kids in particular were having a grand time -  first herding one batch of sheep back to the farm and then hopping  into the back of a truck - laughing and smiling - to be driven back to the "rettir" to get the next batch to herd home. Afterwards, they all gather for a feast. In fact, the Cow Shed Cafe which we had hoped to get some geothermally steamed bread from was closed on this day because they were participating in the roundup and readying for the meal afterwards. So it is an "all hands on deck" event.

 Here are just more photos of the corrals and some individual sheep to show the great range of colors. I learned so much more about the sheep and the farming economics etc, but I'll save those for tomorrow's post!