The horse from Dalarna that became a symbol of Sweden – an interview with Christiana Liljegren form Grannas A Olsson Company

What is the history of the Dala horse?

Christina Liljegren, Grannas A Olsson Hemslöjd AB: It was a toy for children from the very beginning. Most of the known wooden horses and Dala horses are neither signed nor dated. Therefore deciding the age became considerably more difficult. We know that the horse has been depicted in different ways for many thousands of years. The wooden horse has been an obvious toy for the common people as well as for the rich. During the Middle Ages and onwards Sweden was a land characterized by small farm holdings and poverty. Most of the wooden horses which were carved were given to their own children, but there is written proof that wooden horses were found on sale at markets nearly 400 years ago. The absolutely oldest written article which mentions horses for sale in a commercial amount at a market is a preserved manuscript of a sermon of the bishop Johannes Rudbeckius in 1624 in Västeras cathedral. The Bishop was really angry over all the “frivolity which only leads to pride, sin and ungodliness, also to cheating the foolish”. Västeras was and still is Dalarna’s diocese city. This means that the people of Dalarna travelled to the cathedral city in connection with the more important church services and especially for the markets which were found there. That is why it’s very possible that the wooden horses which annoyed the bishop came from the Siljan district. The high quality of the handcraft and the more or less well preserved original method of production is something that still is particular for the handcraft from Ovansiljan. Born of necessity combined with a very rich creativity and with a “conservative brake as protection” the traditional parish handcraft has avoided disappearance through the centuries.

When and why Dala horse became a symbol of Sweden? Why horse, some people think it should be a moose?

ChL: It became permanent as a symbol of Sweden in 1939 in the New York World Fair, where Sweden had an extraordinary performance and the pavilion was very much praised by the foreign press. The Swedish simplicity stood in contrast to the fair’s other spectacular sights. A nearly three metre high orange Dala horse stood outside the Swedish entrance and attracted to it attention and curiosity.
It’s especially interesting that it was chosen for a World fair which praised technical progress and future. Those who really advocated for the Dala horse as a symbol for Sweden, were also some of Sweden’s most outstanding architects and artistically talented people at that time. The Dala horse is a phenomenon which has been deeply rooted in people for many hundreds of years and looking at it from today’s perspective it stands out as a real survivor. Looking at it a little closer, the Dala horse is in itself a really remarkable and living history lesson. Sweden has had a huge fondness of their horses working in the forest with people; I think this love proves in the fact that Dala horses are today accepted as a national symbol. Lately it has been implied that a moose should be the national symbol for Sweden instead of the Dala horse.
That can be correct depending on how you look at it. If we look back to our Stone Age ancestors and their first attempts at survival it’s perhaps not completely wrong. Prehistoric remains found in Norrland have shown that 75% of all bone remains on the rubbish heap were of moose. This shows if anything how indispensable game was about 9000 years ago and thousands of years onwards. However, if we go back to the last 1000 years and onwards and try to imagine what the horse has meant for our well being today then the mind reels with gratitude. A gratitude for all the hours through the centuries which the horse has faithfully served mankind. Thus a horse!

The decoration of Dala horse is very colorful, which style of decoration is typical?

ChL: The Dala horse’s colourful design, fancy oil painting, is a simplified form of kurbits painting. This colourful painting distinguishes itself through exaggerated richness of detail and was painted on walls, cupboards, chests and Mora clocks in the areas around Siljan. The painting started in Leksand and Rättvik around 1780 and during the 19th century it was even practised in Mora. The trade was carried out by church decorators, school teachers, soldiers etc, but sometimes because of different kinds of disability, people chose painting as a way of earning a living. The typical kurbits looks like a vase which explodes into firework display of flowers and petals, the painters were self taught using a style which was both charmingly naive and colourful.
Stikå Erik Hansson (1823 – 1897) from the village of Ryssa, was the only Dala painter of class in Mora.In 1837 it was noted in a parish catechetical meeting list that he had become disabled because of a pelvis fracture. In spite of his difficult handicap Stick Erik was able to support himself and his family by painting kurbits. The Risa painter was famous for painting very beautiful wooden horses with a fancy painting technique, that is to say a simple form of kurbits. He has also been given the honour of being the first to use the two colour technique, that is to say two colours at the same time on the one brush.
At the same time as Stikå Erik Hansson was Vik Olof Hansson who learnt the painting technique from the Risa painter. Vik Olof was the maternal grandfather of Karin Nisser (1883 – 1947) who after marriage moved to Vattnäs. The family Nissers Dala horses are today coveted collectors´ items, and Karin’s talent with both the knife and paintbrush was extraordinary. Around the turn of the 20th century the village Vattnäs became the centre for the Dala horse production mostly because of the Nisser family´s ability to vary form and design.

What is the history of the company Grannas, the oldest existing Dala horse manufacturer?

Grannas Anders Olsson (nicknamed Pelle) was the oldest of 9 children and at an early age learned how to take responsibility and help make the family’s living. In 1920, when he was 24 years old, he received a large order and in his family’s bakery he started to produce black and white spotted wooden horses standing on a plate with wheels.
In 1922, he turned to producing Dala horses and in the same year the company was established. Besides the wooden horses even tools for weaving, curtain rails etc were manufactured. The selling was carried out by a travelling agent, for instance Anders Henriksson from Nusnäs, who has related that already in 1926 he went around and sold Dala horses from Grannas Anders production. Both of the younger brothers Nils and Jannes (in 1922: 9 and 7 years old respectively) helped their big brother to make the horses after school. Together with the other brothers and sisters they also helped to pull a band saw, which Anders had bought. The band saw was an important investment in order to rationalise the production of the wooden horses. During the latter years of the 1920s the machine was equipped with a motor.
In 1928, Anders married Maria and moved into the village with his business. The two boys Nils and Jannes now 13 and 15 years old received a cardboard box with wood sawn in 13cm pieces which made the start of their wooden horse production. Anders mostly hired carvers in Nusnäs but in 1937 when he wanted to make a 5cm sized horse he had to go to Vattnäs and their recognised talented woodcarver to get help. Ten years later the Nusnäs carvers succeeded in making an even smaller horse, 3 cm, in series production. In 1939, the same year as the great world exhibition in New York, the first carpentry building was erected on the spot where the company is today.
The production of Dala horses today is a peculiar mixture of a genuine handcraft and series production. In 1939, just over 20,000 Dala horses were produced –nowadays approximately 100,000 are produced each year, with only a couple of planers and three band saws in the machine park. Visitors are surprised when they see the production volume the company has in comparison to the number of machines and how much handwork is put into the making of each horse.
Every Dalahorse is “double” unique – we can identify the carver and the painter!
Grannas A Olsson is still a family company today run by third generation with fourth generation among the employees.



How did it happen that your family became one of the biggest manufacturer of the wooden horses in Sweden?

ChL: I think it has to do with the fact that the older members of family has had the sense to hand over responsibility to next generation before it is too late. If you wait too long, children disappear out into the world. The need to get connected with the heritage. Then we have been lucky or somehow sometimes created our own luck just being ourselves, using our gut instinct.

Please describe shortly the whole process of the wooden horse manufacturing. What are the differences between manufacturing now and in the past?

ChL: In the beginning waste material was used as a base for wooden horse manufacturing. When the sales increased, eventually wood was taken from the forest with the intention of using it to carve horses out of. Pine was the normal material but it happened that spruce was also used.
The wood had to be free from knots and the logs sawn in suitable bits, and cloven with an axe. If the log was large enough it was chopped into what looked like “slices of cake”, these “work pieces” were formed with an axe so that they had an obvious narrowing front part and a head. To form the legs a brace was used and then a small axe.
In the 1920s, the band saw took over the task of the axe for the manufacturing of the material. Today the horses are made from pine (7 cm and bigger) and alder (5 cm and smaller). The pine has to grow slowly and the tree rings sit close together. It is a must for the smaller models that the wood piece is free from knots, but it is not necessary for practical reasons for the larger models which are made up of so-called lamina which are glued together.

Wooden horses are series produced in 20 sizes, from 10 mm to 75 cm. the height is measured from the foot to the upper side of the ear. Gluing starts with the 25cm size. The larger horses (30cm and bigger) are glued together in sections. The material has to be carpenter dry, that is to say 8% to 10% moisture and is dried for about two to three weeks in the drying room (compressor with a heating fan), after that it is planed. Water based glue is used to join the pieces together. The glued piece is planed again. Using a stencil the outline of a horse is drawn (the smaller models are stamped by hand) and then sawn in the band saws.

Nine production steps:
1. A plank of pine or alder is planed and marked/stencilled with the outline of a horse.
2. Contour-sawing in the first band saw
3. Profile sawing in the second band saw. Sawing by free had, forming of a head, legs and stomach. The horse is now called a workpiece.
4. Woodcarving with a knife
5. Dipping in water based paint (first coat)
6. Puttying and polishing
7. Final dipping in the first coat colour.
8. Oil painting in the kurbits style
9. Dipping in clear laquer. When the oil paint has dried after about two days, the horse is dipped in a clear varnish to protect the design and to give it a finish.

In 1999, Grannas A Olsson started an extensive environmental project which resulted in practice that all of the company’s routines were thoroughly examined. The biggest effect on the environment not surprisingly is caused by the paint used. A large amount of it contains solvents and the total discharge in 1998 was about 1, 2 tons. The goal was set to try to replace the synthetic paint with a water-based colour. Several years of work and a whole pile of difficulties which were eventually solved resulted in the company only using about 300 kilos of solvents in 2002, producing the same amount of horses. Since then we have reduced the amount of solvents even more. Our horses are often handed from one generation to the other and it feels good that the Dala horse is environmental friendly and just right in time.

Are your products protected by the law as original hand-made wares?

ChL: No, it is such an old item it is owned by the Swedish people, as a kind of national heritage. That is why the Dalahorse is much copied, as many other design items in the world. You can look at that fact in two different ways – either be very angry/sad or remain positive about it: “Be proud, you have an item worth copying…” We have chosen the second way. We are a living proof that it is best for your creativeness.

In your opinion what is the role and condition of the design based on tradition of Swedish folk art?

ChL: I think Sweden has a very rich treasure of handicraft. Since our country for decades was very poor, the poverty has served as a generator for ingeniousness and creativity. When people are too well off, laziness is a danger. At least that is something I believe in.

You are selling your products on the Internet?

ChL: Yes, we sell all over the world to private persons and companies.

Who is the biggest buyer outside of Sweden?

ChL: As a country – Japan. Asia is very strong for us this year, since it is a year of the Horse. As singular customer: IKEA – we deliver to over 60 stores around the world, not to be sold, but to be given to their staff. They use the horses as exam gifts after performed educations.