Adding a Textile to a Skinnfell

A fellow weaver posted a question to the national Scanweave email list this week, asking for guidance on attaching a textile to a sheepskin backing.  I can help a bit, since I took a class in making skinnfell from Britt Solheim at Vesterheim in 2009.  Skinnfell is the word used to describe a sheepskin coverlet made from skins pieced together.  Typically it refers to pieces with traditional block printing on them.  Britt is a thorough and fun teacher.  If you have the opportunity to take a class from her, either here or in Norway, snatch the chance!  For now, look at the beautiful pieces featured on her site,  She also has a blog with many fabulous photos. She has a book, Skinnfeller Du Kan Lage Selv (Skinnfells You Can Make Yourself), but I believe it is only in Norwegian, and not available in this U.S. right now.  (I am checking with Laurann Gilbertson at Vesterheim to see if they can get the book or have copies now.)Here is a photo of the 2009 class, showing the fabulous results of a few days work.

Two types of edges are typically found on skinnfell, the hverdags edge, or everyday edge, is a plain edge trimmed with a narrow strip of supple, smooth leather.  Here’s an example, on the edge of a skinnfell wall piece, “Edvard Munch Comments on Folk Art.”

The brudekant, or bride’s edge is considered the fancier choice.  Strips of fleece are sewn around the edge, like a furry frame.  Interestingly, the ‘frame’ is sewn onto the sheepskin back on the inner side of the frame, but the outside edges are not sewn together.  It’s not really necessary, as the edges of the fleece blend in together and softly bind themselves together.

When planning a skinnfell with a brudekant from the beginning, it’s important to calculate how the skins are cut so you will have enough fleece for the  inch and a half border.

Once the frame is prepared, the textile is mounted. In my example, I mounted a krokbragd weaving to a sheepskin.  (The krokbragd was one made from a translated Norwegian Husflid magazine article; see  “Tjukkåkle (Thick-åklae): Three Generations of Tjukkåkle-weavers in Lom Weave “Det Gamle Mønsteret”)  The strong contrasting colors of the krokbragd work well with the soft snowy-white border of fleece as a wall piece.  Normally, woven pieces with thinner yarns would have been used on sheepskins.  If you think about it, a weaving in heavier wool, woven large enough for a bed covering and then attached to sheepskins, could be crushingly heavy.

Here is an old skinnfell with a lighter-weight weaving attached, peeking from a drawer in the storage area at the Vesterheim Norwegian-American Museum.

Using a thread that coordinates with the textile piece, stitches are made into the textile and then through the stitches that bind the brudekant frame to the backing.  For this, a regular needle is used, not a sharp-edged leather needle, which could cut the threads of the textile. The textile is not sewn directly into the skin in back of it, and can be more easily removed for washing.

Britt told us that many skinnfell coverlets with textiles attached also had printing underneath the textile.  I loved the thought of secretive symbols adding power and personal meaning to such pieces.  I used the interior of my krokbragd piece as my test piece, to learn how to do the printing well, and I definitely learned a lot about stencil placement and how much ink to use.  Here’s the interior of the krokbragd piece.

I would love to do many more skinnfell pieces, with textiles and with printing.  I’ll do that as soon as I discover a source for reasonably-priced sheepskins.  The skins need to be supple, both to drape nicely and to be able to get a needle through them.  (You use special leather needles to sew skins, with sharp knife-like tips rather than the rounded tips of normal sewing needles.)  And if they are to be used for printed skinnfell, the smooth sides need to be tanned to a clean, smooth surface.