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"Necessity will teach a naked woman to spin"
Faced with a wool shortage in World War II, Norwegian knitters discovered a variety of alternative fibres that could replace the sheep fleece that had clothed them since Viking times.
World War I had Norwegians eating dandelions, substituting butter with whale fat, and baking bread with fake flour that consisted of desiccated powdered fish. These ignominies were repeated during World War II. In addition, Norwegians in the 1940s had to deal with a wool shortage. Cotton, artificial silk (viscose), and other plant-based textiles took up part of the slack, but there was never enough and knitters soon began to supplement their yarn in unexpected and unusual ways.
It was perhaps natural to begin by incorporating the fur of pets into knitted garments. In 1943, a pseudonymous author in the ladies’ magazine Urd was pleased to report that she had managed to avail herself of 400g of fur after combing her German shepherd. Because of its short staple, it had to be blended with sheep’s wool when spun; it produced a yarn that was not as strong as pure sheep’s wool, but was nevertheless suitable for gloves, mittens, socks, and ski stockings.
“Unfortunately,” concluded the author, “it smells very strongly of dog.”
Nevertheless, dog fur remained a popular alternative to sheep’s wool. It was claimed that a Newfoundland dog could easily supply enough fur to make mittens and stockings, and in Bærum the local newspaper reported that “a woman has shown us the most wonderful socks made of poodle wool. They were amazingly beautiful.” However, the Norwegian Craft Council doubted that dog fur would ever gain as much popularity as the new artificial silk (viscose), though they encouraged people to use it if available. As for the fear that a sweater knitted with dog wool would attract curious canines from all over town, a Danish woman’s experience seemed to disprove that theory: “After the yarn is spun and washed, there is no smell at all.”
Cat fur enjoyed less popularity, at least in the press, than that of dogs. Only a few articles give any due to felines.
“A well-known woman here in town showed us a lovely pair of socks knitted from—cat hair. She has a white angora cat whose greatest pleasure is being brushed. For three years she collected the fur, then it was carded and spun, and has now become socks. There is still enough for a pair of mittens.”
Three years to collect enough fibre for a single pair of socks may have daunted even the most conscientious of housewives. However, the story of a Danish woman suggested that the situation may not have been so dire: “A large angora cat, brushed daily and which every day relinquishes a handful of fur, gave enough fur for a jumper in the course of a few months.”
If you did not own a dog or cat, foxes were also an option. They were farmed in Norway for their fur. However, their undercoats could be brushed to produce a woolly fibre, and Borge Gundersen’s pre-war experiments with this wool laid the basis for later enthusiasm: when woven, fox wool “made a very beautiful material and was incomparably warm and delicate when taken into use. However…it can hardly be described as strong. …In this sense, it reminds one of angora.”
Blended with sheep’s wool, fox wool was “eminently suitable for knitting.” In 1942, a farmer from Østre Toten displayed a sweater and a pair of mittens made from this yarn. “According to experts,” wrote the local newspaper, “the sweater is demonstrably better than one in pure wool [and] the mittens are very strong.”
The same farmer advised combing out the foxes’ wool, rather than clipping or shearing them; “otherwise it is too short.” As to whether shearing foxes is even possible, the answer—perhaps somewhat surprisingly—is yes, although it presented some challenges: “The females took it with phlegmatic calm, while the males were less happy about losing their coats.”
By January 1943, fox yarn could be spun commercially by machine. The challenge lay in obtaining enough material for continuous production; “as is well-known, fox wool is very light in weight, and therefore it is a job and a half to collect a kilo’s worth.” That autumn, fox wool sold for 30-40 crowns per kilo, depending on the quality; in 2022, those prices work out to 770-1030 crowns, or about US$70-100.
Building on the work of Borge Gundersen, the designer Magna Monsen spearheaded efforts to bring fox fibre into the mainstream. She envisioned her product as a competitor to angora and cashmere, and hoped that it might kickstart the Norwegian fashion industry.
In an interview in 1940, Monsen told a journalist about her formula for postwar success: quality inspections, good farming conditions, advertising (or, as she called it, propaganda), and a national impetus to make it work. “The whole country must go in for it, and when the war ends we will need to be so well-established in our position that we can’t be moved.” Sadly, if postwar newspapers and Norwegian museum collections are any indication, her idea of a fox-based “Norwegian tweed” to rival “English tweed” never took off.
Fox wool’s soft and lightweight warmth drew high praise and comparisons to angora. Yet the latter—ostensibly easier to procure given that angora rabbits are domesticated and docile (at least in comparison to foxes)—played little to no role in alleviating wartime wool shortages. Angora rabbits experienced great popularity in neighbouring Denmark during the war, but they never really caught on in Norway. Most farmers and families were more interested in raising meat rabbits. According to Harald Hansen, a Norwegian angora enthusiast, Norway also lacked the industrial infrastructure to commercially produce angora yarn; “we have tended to send the angora produced here at home to be spun in Sweden.”
When knitters could not avail themselves of alternative animal fur to supplement their wool rations, they turned to a very personal source of fibre: their own hair. In 1941, Alette Nissen organised a spinning workshop in Heggedal. Participants spun dog fur, horse hair, and human hair. Alette explained how she incorporated her own hair into yarn: “I plied it together with 2-ply yarn and got the most wonderful result. A shiny and fine yarn that looked like silk…it’s much stronger than linen, despite my hair being both thin and fine. The hair was spun on a regular spinning wheel with a flax flyer.”
Although Alette emphasised the delicate silkiness of yarn made with hair, others usually highlighted the hard-wearing quality of hair and wool blends. In 1942, the following story extolling these virtues went viral and was reprinted around the country:
“A woman in Tjølling has knitted mittens with human hair. She spins the yarn with a mix of hair and sheep’s wool, with a fantastic result. The mittens are quite suitable for forestry workers. They are very warm and don’t get wet easily.”
In the wake of this story, a lighthouse keeper—identified only by his surname Evensen—told a newspaper that his grandmother had knitted hair mittens for him in 1889 and that he had used them every winter but two for the past 53 years. While Evensen’s mittens may have had an extraordinary lifespan, it was generally agreed that mittens with hair lasted longer than regular wool mittens, didn’t shrink, and stayed warm even when wet or icy. Well into the 1960s, fishing communities along the Oslo fjord still remembered these superior qualities.
As Evensen’s mittens demonstrate, the use of human hair in knitting was not unknown prior to the war. The polar explorer Fridtjof Nansen took socks made of wool and hair on his Greenland expedition in 1888; “they were both sturdy and warm.” Felted hair mittens were also traditional in Hvaler, an island municipality near the Norwegian-Swedish border. In 1930, a pair was exhibited at a handcrafts show. They were described as “unpleasant—but…very warm and used mainly by fishermen, and aesthetics must give way to practicality.”
Hair helped to strengthen the knitted fabric and make it water resistant. It was incorporated into the yarn by spinning it together with the wool or simply by stranding it along with the yarn when knitting. However, it was not an ideal material with which to work: unlike wool, hair had no elasticity and was therefore difficult to knit.
“Necessity will teach a naked woman to spin,” says a Norwegian proverb. It was oft-quoted during the war, and proved true figuratively if not literally. To take advantage of alternative fibre sources like dog, cat, fox, and human hair, many women learned to spin. These alternative yarn blends were never produced on a commercial scale and after the war Norwegian knitters gradually returned to pure wool yarn.
Nowadays, crafters in Norway can avail themselves of fibres like alpaca, viscose, silk, and bamboo (and Selbu Spinneri even makes a dog/wool yarn). Yet many unexplored possibilities remain; and should you ever spin a blend of fox fur, human hair, and sheep’s wool to create a soft yet hardwearing bouncy yarn, I would be very excited to hear from you.
If you enjoyed this article, you may also like How Dandelions Saved Norway in World War I and Not Your Great-Grandmother’s Knitting: Sock Production in the First World War.
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