Promoting Natural & Cultural History
Weaving of homespun, collecting of eiderdown, trade in wool and cloth or observations of local clothing are not subjects which the court chaplain and later archbishop Uno von Troil (1746-1803) usually are associated with. However, as a young man on a journey to Iceland he made enlightening and detailed notes in his travel journal on such traditions. A few words about his early life leads up to these events. His father was ennobled in 1756 – which gave the family and the ten year old Uno extended privileges. Already the following year at the age of eleven he became a student at Uppsala University, which was not entirely unusual for boys from well-to-do families, but first in 1770 he finalised his studies in mainly history and theology. After his exams, travels and further studies on the Continent took place and when arriving in London in 1772 he met the naturalists Daniel Solander and Joseph Banks – during a time when the latter was leading the preparations for a scientific voyage to Iceland.
One aim of the Enlightenment period was “to observe everything” on a journey, and Uno von Troil was one of many young scholars who followed these ideas. He seems to have had a general interest in natural history, humanitarian matters and local traditions as well as specialist knowledge in languages, history, philosophy and theology. His initial period abroad – 1770 to 1772 – included visits and regular attendance on lectures at several universities as well as network-building with learned men, particularly in Göttingen. At the arrival in France, he came in contact with the Enlightenment philosophers Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712-1778) and Denis Diderot (1713-1784) among others in Paris. The glimpse into the world of these well-known men – more than thirty years his senior – may have influenced him in many ways. To have met Diderot for instance, at the time for his ongoing editing of the Encyclopédie must have been an inspiration for a young man like von Troil, who in the coming year got the possibility to amass facts from a wide range of subjects on the Iceland journey – including weaving, local clothes as well as trade in wool and eiderdown. In the smaller format, it almost became like an encyclopaedia of Icelandic traditions.
It is noticeable too, that von Troil had no prior knowledge of the planned Iceland journey when arriving in London 1772, for the reason that Joseph Banks (1743-1820) had changed his travelling arrangements in short notice. James Cook (1728-1779) actually departed without him and found other botanists to explore the flora and fauna on his second voyage, which set sail in July 1772 – that is to say in the same month as the Iceland journey. Uno von Troil came to accompany the twelve-man crew – primarily invited due to his interest in the Icelandic language – on an expedition led by the naturalist Joseph Banks. The voyagers set out from Gravesend on 12th July 1772, almost exactly a year to the day after the naturalists Daniel Solander (1733-1782) and Joseph Banks had returned from their circumnavigation with James Cook, which lasted from 1768 to 1771. The ship rounded Dover and sailed towards the Isle of Wight, Plymouth, Cape Cornwall and northwards to Scotland, where local people were visited and botanical excursions undertaken.
Subjects of a textile nature, mentioned by Banks and von Troil in their writings, dealt with the important handling of wool, the weaving of homespun or wadmal, the collecting of eiderdown, trade in wool, cloth and down, besides notes on the Icelanders’ clothing. Iceland was an island where the population had been severely decimated during the 18th century due to volcanoes erupting, earthquakes, unusually cold winters, famine and disease, leaving deep marks. What most surprised the group therefore seem to have been the bareness of the land and the inhabitants’ wretched lives. All the ash, which covered the island also contributed to the people being of poorer health than in other places and the island was also colder than expected. Due to the fact that the travellers only arrived in Iceland in September, a number of plants were past flowering and the remaining exemplars grew in Great Britain at higher altitudes. The surprises were but few.
The success of the expedition was limited and the Icelandic journey therefore an expedition not much mentioned in the 18th century. Uno von Troil’ documentation was the exception however, due to that he immortalised the journey in a number of letters which were published some years later. His account of life in Iceland, clearly interested people at the time and translated into English, German as well as French. On the other hand, Banks never published any discoveries made on the journey from his diary notes (first published 200-years later), but he did spread information about Iceland via the literature and old manuscripts which he had brought back. He is on those grounds seen as having inspired the English and Scottish to travel north to the north of Scotland, the Hebrides, Orkney and other places to discover the northerly and sparsely populated parts of the island kingdom. Best known of them would be James Boswell (1740-1795) and Samuel Johnson (1709-1784) in 1773.
After arriving in Iceland it was von Troil who took note of the sheep of the country and the weaving of cloth and wrote about the division of labour between men and women. The women worked the wool, did the sewing, spinning and collecting of down, while both men and women wove wadmal and were paid by the yard for their work. A woman ought to be able to weave three yards of this fabric in a day, which must have meant many hours of labour at an intense tempo. The wool used for the wadmal was moreover described as: ‘The principal profit they have from their sheep arises from the wool; this is not shorn off as among us, but remains on till the end of May, when it loosens of itself, and is stripped off at once like a skin, and is then called Ullafaell (wool shedding)’. During the ‘wool shedding’ new short wool was already growing and was seen to be of good quality. Shearing the sheep was avoided during the summer and autumn so as best to help the animals cope with the cold and wet winters. Additionally, he perceived the sheep’s wool as resembling camel hair and the main objective was for the sheep to produce great quantities of wool, preferably yields of four pounds in weight per annum.
Eiderdown, which was an extremely warming material for stuffing in bedding, was another valuable source of income for the Icelanders. The women collected the eiderdown mainly during the egg-laying season, when it was at its finest and most plentiful. An eider-duck could, according to von Troil’s observations, yield half a pound of eiderdown at that time of year, which was then sorted into two qualities: thaugduun and grasduun. The latter was considered the very best and was separated in the following manner: ‘... some yarn is streaked in a square compartment round a hoop, on which the down is laid. A pointed piece of wood is then moved backwards and forwards on the lower side of the yarn thus streaked, which causes the coarser feathers to fall through, while the fine down remains on the yarn’.
He drew attention to the development of the Icelandic trade in such essential goods as cloth, wool and eiderdown. Iceland was at the time under the Danish Crown and was so to remain until 1848; since the year 1734 there was moreover a trading company with the monopoly of trading and for that privilege a considerable sum was paid in tax to the Danish king. The company annually sent 24-30 ships to Iceland bringing grain, bread, wine, iron and wood as imports from/via Denmark in exchange for fish, pork, butter, skins, wool, eiderdown and woollen textiles. The export of eiderdown was the commodity principally recorded by von Troil. The material was sold ready cleaned, but also unclean at a lower price; it could even be plucked from dead eiders but that was regarded as markedly inferior, the eiderdown then having lost its elasticity. The export value of the eiderdown was therefore poor. The trading company nonetheless exported large quantities every year, both cleaned and unclean, weighing between 1,500 and 2,000 pounds; plus a minor private export of eiderdown carried by visitors for their own needs. That the value of that soft and warming stuffing material was financially critical for the trade is illustrated by the following figures: ‘In the year 1750, the Icelandic company sold as much in quantity of this article, as amounted to three thousand seven hundred and forty-five banco-dollars, besides what was sent directly to Glückstadt.’
The traveller also noticed that the Icelanders often had several minor buildings close to their dwelling-house. The one most frequently seen of those was for keeping fish, but sometimes they owned a building set aside for the storage of clothes only. One home whose owner had such a storeroom for clothes clearly did possess considerable collections of clothes as well as other textiles. Similar clothes stores could be found in many farming homes in the Nordic area too, either in the form of an attic chamber, a box-room or a separate small building for storing the family’s valuable clothes and textiles.
Overall Uno von Troil wrote a lengthy account of the look and function of the Icelanders’ everyday clothes which he perceived as short on variety. In contrast to the festive dress illustrated above, he regarded the dress as lacking in elegance, but was carefully made and well suited to the climate. The black wadmal was the predominant cloth in both men’s and women’s clothing, being both warm and hard-wearing. The men’s dress consisted of a short jacket and a pair of wide trousers of this coarse cloth, while a linen shirt was worn next to the skin; on their feet they wore worsted stockings, probably knitted, and on the head a three-cornered hat. The women’s wadmal dress was made in the shape of a frock-like garment reaching to the ankles, added to which was a jacket often decorated with silk or velvet ribbons. On top of that was worn a coat of wadmal, somewhat shorter than the dress, called hempa.
On departing from Iceland, the ship set sails for the Orkney Islands, where the group arrived on 16th October. The sea voyage then continued to Edinburgh, where they stayed for a few days before finishing the journey overland to London, where they arrived on either 19th or 20th November. The trip to Iceland and the north of Scotland lasted just over four months. The botanical discoveries may have been few, but the journey brought insight into the sparsely populated Scotland and above all the Icelanders’ tough living conditions. There the textiles were of immense importance: to ameliorate the cold, make life more comfortable and provide crucial income through the extensive export of woollen cloth and wool.
In concluding words; a few letters from Uno von Troil to Joseph Banks about matters connected to their Iceland journey in 1772 are still extant, dating from 1773 to 1799. However, weaving of homespun, collecting of eiderdown, trade in wool or other Icelandic textile traditions – which the young Swede described with such great attention to detail in his travel description was not part of this infrequent correspondence over 26 years.
SOLANDER 250 – Bréf frá Íslandi | This essay has among other sources been inspired by the 250th anniversary of the Icelandic expedition, which is commemorated with a start in 2022 – over an 18-month period with diverse and innovative projects in Iceland.