I can report that a week of handling soft dense sheepskins has marvelous restorative powers, even if it also requires toughened fingers from sewing through the hides. I had the great pleasure of attending a class on traditional Norwegian skinnfell-making at Vesterheim Norwegian-American Museum. The idea of learning to block print on sheepskins in a traditional technique sounded interesting.
A sheepskin is the skin of one sheep; a skinnfell is a piece made of two or more skins. The skill is fitting and sewing and creating the large, rectangular pieces. On the non-fur side, the suede-y side that will have the block printing, the butted-together seams are sewn over with narrow strips of suede cut from the edges of the fleece. Britt has taught classes to hundreds of Norwegians so far, and a printed skinnfell has become a status item for people who are involved in traditional textile techniques and Norwegian cultural history. A large skinnfell made of 4-6 skins, like the ones pictured on Britt’s website, might cost $3000. They’ve also become a high-end home fashion item, popular with the Holmenkollen crowd, Britt said. Holmenkollen is the mountainside wealthy neighborhood up by the ski jump in Oslo.
Before the skinnfell class (pronounced like shin-fell), I really hadn’t thought about sheepskins much. That all changed when I helped our instructor, Britt Solheim, bring her luggage in from the car. Peeking out of the corner of a cloth bag I saw an alluring, curly-fleeced, silvery gray sheepskin with a creamy white suede-y back covered in gray patterns and symbols. The Gotland Swedish fleece was luxurious and silky, pulling my hand toward it. I felt like a drug addict catching a glimpse of a cocaine stash. First impulse: grab it and run! Swedes have really pretty sheep! Britt said a few times that she was so sorry she couldn’t bring enough fleeces to sell to the students. I’m sorry too, but those skins would have cost about $200 each. (The exchange rate with the Norwegian krone is just horrible right now.) Even though the sheepskins from which we will choose are not as pretty as the Swedish fleece in her example, they are still expensive, at about $80 each.
I made a long, narrow printed piece made of two Australian skins. That’s the one that is pictured. I made another of two Hangarian skins to back a traditional krokbragd weaving, and two small chair cushions. I’ll post more pictures soon, and longer notes for my textile-making and skinnfell-making friends.