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Norwegian Travels: The Cow Tail Tale

Some stories deserve to be told. So, this is a tale about the King’s Cow. Joy, Cathy (from LaCrosse) and I went to the Norwegian Folk Museum in Oslo. It is very similar to the Henry Ford and Greenfield Village. We found the museum’s exhibit of Norwegian handicrafts totally fascinating. Lots of rosemåling (decorative painting), embroidery, weaving and costumes in various settings and time periods. Once we finished as much of the museum as we could, we set out to visit my must-see: the weaving studio.

Outside the studio there is a series of displays showing weaving-related crafts that were interesting from a teaching perspective. They showed band weaving, nållbinding (sort of like knitting with one needle that dates from the Viking Days), spool knitting, card weaving, etc. The display that really intrigued me, tho, was the one that showed how Norwegians used cow tail hair to make shoe inserts. First the hair is jumbled in the shape of a sole, then hair that has been spun together is threaded through a needle which is used to define the shape and hold the layers together. Cow hair doesn’t absorb moisture and the air trapped by the layers helps keep feet both dry and warm.

The hair can also be used in weaving. Since a visit to the DIA conservator’s studio a few years ago, I’ve been looking for horse tail hair to use for weaving. It is used in upholstery textiles for its strength and beauty. So, when I saw cow tails used in a somewhat similar way, I decided I had to try it. The hair from one tail with instructions for making the soles was 75 NOK, about $12.50 USD. Well, I didn’t want the instructions and I wanted more than one tail’s worth of hair so I asked if they had more tails. The weaver called her boss who said, yes. She then said she would have to go to the downstairs storage room to get them and left us in charge of the store. She came back with three more tails, and sold them to me for 50 NOK each, telling us they were from the King’s cows that live adjacent to the museum. AND, she added, “They are organic.” Real sales point there. Did I mention that the tails totally smelled like barnyard? Ick. They came complete with poo. A lot of poo.

With treasure in hand or, rather, double bagged in zipper bags, we headed back. Once in the hotel room, I started cleaning the tails. I went through several baths of body wash and two shampoos and still they made the water muddy. I let them soak overnight and left them by the window to dry. I wonder what the maid thought! When we got back in the evening, I could see that much of the dirt left would shake out, so I leaned out the window to do just that. Yes, I dropped some of my tails!

I walked around the hotel to see if I could get to the spot where they fell, but I couldn’t. The hotel is built into the hillside with some of the mountain actually forming walls inside the hotel. The first floor of our wing was higher than the third floor in the rest of the hotel. Suffice it to say, it was an unusual layout that created a certain access complexity. If I wanted myd royal tails, I had to ask for help. I went to the desk and told the clerk I dropped something from my window and asked if he could tell me how to retrieve it. He said he wasn’t sure how to get there, went in the back and apparently consulted with someone and came back with keys and asked what exactly I had dropped. I had to come clean. I told him I lost control of my cow tails and he shook his head, but lead the way to the right door to go through to get them. I waded through knee-deep clover to get them, but get get them I did. I thanked him and told him he now had another story to add to his guest tales. Pun intended.

But that’s not the end. Arnhild told me that my tails aren’t royal after all – the King gave his cows to the museum. All this for ordinary-but-organic cow tails. That I WILL weave with!

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