Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Dalahäst: the Story of the Swedish Dala Horse

My little friend, Zaza, is completely enthralled with horses right now, as many eight-year-old girls are. Any picture, book or likeness of a horse catches her eye and so I wondered if she had ever seen a Dala horse. She had not and her curiosity was piqued and so I have researched their history so that I might better answer her questions.

Since my Swedish friend, Inga Marta, has a Dala horse plaque on her front door, I thought she might be a good starting point in my quest. According to Inga, as early as 1700, Swedish lumberjacks in the Province of Dalarna near the villages of Mora, Vattnas, Risa, Bergkarlas and Nusnäs would sit around the fire when away from their families after long day of tree-felling and log transport and carve wooden toys for their children. They cared a variety of animals, but the most favored was the horse.

The horse was regarded as a creature of great value and strength to a family; a faithful friend that helped move lumber from the forest, worked the fields and helped carry equipment up to summer pastures and chalets. The horse helped in trips to the mill, village and church. Children delighted in their strength and company.

These stocky, tailless horses become a well-established tradition. They were unpainted and had just the natural grain of the wood for ornamentation.

In further research I learned that in the winter of 1716, while war was waged throughout most of Europe, many soldiers were housed in private homes in the Mora area of Sweden. Due to the severe winter and the war, soldiers and civilians alike suffered from lack of food and warmth. Lore has it that one such soldier, carved a Dala Horse from some scrap wood in the home where he was staying. Before presenting it to the child of the home as a gift, he painted it a bright red, readily from the copper mine of Falun. He decorated the horse with a decorative harness and saddle. This style is known as Kurbits painting and grew more popular in Sweden between 1780 and 1870.

The woman of the house gave the soldier a warm bowl of soup in exchange for this delightful toy, and so a system of bartering emerged. Like-minded soldiers began carving and painting horses in exchange for food as well. Before long the Dala Horse was credited in part with the army's surviving the harsh winter; this is another reason why the Dala horse is now synonymous with goodwill and has become a symbol of Swedish frugality and dexterity.

Dala Horses were traditionally made during the long fall and winter evening hours when little other work might be done. The traditional color of Dala Horses is a bright orange-red, but they are also to be found in natural wood, or painted white, blue, or black, all with ornate Kurbits-style trim. Today the village of Nusnäs, in Dalarna, is considered the home of the authentic Swedish Dala Horses. Over 250,000 Dala Horses are produced there every year. These horses also have distinctive shapes and often come in different sizes. Some horses like the Nusnäs horse are stocky work-horses; others are lean and upright with stately countenance like the Rättvik horse.
These decorative carvings are a labor of love. Most are made of pine and the initial shape is sawed by machine and then past on to the craftsmen to finish carving. The horses are dipped in primer immediately after the craftsman’s carving, to reveal any defects in the wood that may need to be fixed. Any remaining cavities in the wood are filled in to ensure extra smoothness. They are then dried several weeks to prevent the horses from splitting after they are painted. 

After a final sanding, the horses are dipped into the paint of the appropriate color and then the craftsman free-hands the ornate paint of the harness and bridle. The art of “rippling” or Kurbits painting requires great skill and takes many years to master. Each craftsman’s develops their own individual technique and many prefer to decorate horses of the certain size over another. That is why the horses are varying in size and no two horses are ever exactly identical.

Thursday, April 7, 2011


Bindmössan refers to a type of Swedish folk hat that is worn with a regional Folkdräkt. The literal translation is a bond cap, a small, rigid, rundkullig hat which originates in the dress of the 1500's. The hat is usually covered in silk or sometimes wool and embroidered using a tamburnålar. They are often adorned with rosettes or a floral pattern and complemented with a piece of lace or embellished linen. The one pictured here is worn by my dear friend, Inga Marta, and compliments her Lyckseledräkten and was made by Tora Risberg of Lycksele.

The female headgear had a strong symbolic function. It was primarily the status of women, married or unmarried, as was shown with the headgear. Married women have since prehistoric times covered their hair with a scarf or a hat.

The model for the Bindmössan came from Mary cap. The hat is French in origin and was worn by Mary, Queen of Scots (1542-67). The hat was originally soft and covered the entire head with deep cutout at the temples and tied together at the back of the neck.

The tie the hat was common in the fashion of the 1500s and later part in the 1600's. Noble ladies began to wear the hat during the 1600s, but  it was mainly middle class women who wore it in a tight variation of headgear, made of dark fabrics. It became the most common headdress among the Swedish peasant women thereafter.

The model changed over time and during the late 1700s ladies reduced the caps in size and it evolved into a harder form. Cutout at the temple fell, and in many styles the cutout eventually disappear completely. Tie hats were difficult and expensive to manufacture.

The Bindmössan used to indicate a difference between married and unmarried women, but this differentiation disappeared overtime and by 1800s this headgear could be used by the unmarried women as well. Upon confirmation many girls would receive their first bond cap.

I found a beautiful blog entry from a young woman named Fia in Lunde about making her own bindmössa. It was very inspiring to see the beautiful work she did. She told me she got the pattern from Ulla Centergran in Göteborg. As I understand it, once Fia finished the hat she took it to Ulla to have it shaped/ stretched into shape. I have had little to no luck contacting Ulla for patterns. Should anyone have a contact or ideas for where I could procure patterns, your comments are very welcome.