mid-summer 2001 a meeting between
two women took place on board the knarr Ottar
– a meeting which could easely have taken place some 1000 years ago.
Ottar is an exact copy of Skuldelev I, a Viking Ship dating from
around 1000 AC and found on the bottom of Roskilde Fjord along with four
other ships. The original Ottar
was a 52 feet broad-beamed boat called a knarr, featuring a much
bulkier and stubbier hull than the famous longships. This type of boat was able to
Shetland, Orkney or anywhere in the North Atlantic, even in rather bad
weather. Her cargo could inklude men, women, children, livestock and
Copyright: The Viking Ship Museum, Roskilde. Photo: Werner Karrasch,
crewmember of the
Ottar was explaining how she was to handle in open sea, and how the rest
of the crew had just begun to learn a little about her excellent sailing
characteristics. They had experienced how the rigging and the sail was half of
her secrets. Testing had revealed that her old-fashioned
square sail was second to none compared with modern sails. Ottar lay more
steady on the water (not in the water!) and she was even excellent when turning
her stem up to the wind.
The secret of the sail was just what the meeting of these two women was all about. Much attention was paid to choice of raw materials and types of weave, qualities absolutely necessary in open seas when heading towards western horizons. Contrary to the skipper, who saw the sail as an integrated part of his ship, the two women discussed and felt with their hands the tiny small differences in the structure of the cloth. It was indeed made of wool, wool from old northern double-coated sheep still living in Norway, Iceland, North Ronaldsay and other North Atlantic Islands. The structure was a sophisticated mix of long hairy outer coat to give strength (tog) and the under coat (thel) to give tightness to the sail. When touching the surface of the cloth, their hands became slightly yellowish because of the treatment with fish-oil and ochre.
experimental, woollen sail was woven in sections such that they might compare
and assess three different types of wool;- from adult spaelsau, (spel-sheep),
from spaelsau lambs and from Norwegian Primitive Sheep (Villsau) (Feral Sheep).
A lot of secrets had to be tested.
Copyright: Sheep-Isle photo: Sheep-Isle
In the picture Amy (right) describes to “Nirvana” how she has created the sail. Amy is from Hitra, an island in coastal Trøndelag, Norway. Her flock of villsau lives year round on a remote little island. She loves her flock because of their ability to live on their own, and no less because of their wool. Amy worked on her first sail for about 3 years, the sail which carried Sara Kjerstine over the Norwegian Sea to Shetland. But back onboard Ottar she reveals some secrets. She doesn’t just work strictly scientific but also with considerable attention to knowledge based intuition – the way they may have done things in practice 1000 years ago. “Nirvana” is listening. She is what we today should call a “land-lubber”. She brought the spælsau to Denmark from Norway some 20 years ago and she is still second to none when it comes to modern use of the wool, double-coated just like Spælsau and villsau. The two women had an exchange of experiences at a high level. For an outsider – an initiation in secrets. For them – very much as a matter of fact, just the way women did it some 1000 years ago.
the Viking Ship Museum, Roskilde website. www.mac-roskilde.dk/
will find two detailed articles. One on “Ottar” and
one on the Woollen Sail:
The Ocean-Going Trader: http://www.mac-roskilde.dk/Article1.asp?ArticleID=46
star on Sheep-Isle – the little tough short-tailed,
double-coated sheep – is only mentioned sporadically in the features above.
double-coated sheep was the only breed in the Viking Age and it was spread by
the Viking settlers all over the North Atlantic.(
The double-coated sheep's wool was the basis for making sails. Very skilled women also played an
important part in making high quality sails. They knew the right moment for
plucking (rooing) and they knew the
way to separate the outer coat (long coarse fibres) from the inner coat (short
Amy Lightfoot has considerable knowledge having spent a lot of her time trying to find out how women
worked with wool 1000 years ago, from rooing
to the finished woollen sail. Amy will later tell about harvesting of wool from the
double-coated sheep, and this little creature will have to reveal the
qualities of its wool, not only as they were a 1000 years ago, but also in the
hands of modern crafters.
The closing photo is from North Ronaldsay – a typical representative of the double-coated sheep
North Ronaldsay Native Sheep grazing seaweed