48 hours in Dalarna: Part Two–The Dala Horse

Gigantic Dala Horse in Mora

This is what we awoke to across the street from our Best Western in Mora. We hadn’t seen it the night before because it was as dark as midnight when we pulled into the hotel at 6 pm. Took a little coaxing to get the kids out of the warm car to pose.

And here’s a quick shot of our hotel, as you can see the Dala horse is everywhere in Dalarna…in the lobby and another to ride on in our room.

You’d think everyone would know the origins of this horse, but ask around and most Swedes will tell you they’re not sure, it’s just always been popular. I did a little research though, to bring you the real scoop, or at least as legend would have it…

Beginning in the 1600’s, wooden horses were carved using leftover lumber scraps from wood used to manufacture clocks and furniture in Dalarna. The Dala horse, as it is called, was a toy, a way for someone to occupy ones hands during the long winter months, whittling before a warm fire. They weren’t painted, or if they were, just painted a solid white or red.

Then in time, a wandering painter in the village, decorating barns in the kurbits style (Swedish folk painting featuring gourds and biblical motifs), saw a child playing with a horse and painted it to match the barns. Wala! A new generation of decorative horses was born. Their fame was ensured when, displayed in the World’s Expo in Paris in 1937, they became a symbol for Sweden and a money-making export.

The folksy art style has been maintained, growing from a cottage-based industry to factories that make and export thousands of Dala horses every year. You should know, the horses are still hand-carved, dipped in paint and then decorated using an altogether fascinating method of painting with two colors at the same time.

When we visited the Nils Olsson factory, I expected to see something, I don’t know…a little more official than Grandpa carving all the horses? But this is how it’s done.

The horse are sorted into bins, thousands of them.

Then onto the painting room for their first coat of color.

The artist, pictured below, gathers oil paint from a glass tray onto her brush, then makes the precision strokes at lightning fast speed. I can only imagine how many of these she’s painted over the years.

The 2 major factories in operation today are in Nusnus, the Nils Olsson factory we went to (pictured below) and Grannas Olsson directly across the street. It’s illegal, in Sweden, to manufacture the horses in any place other than Dalarna or to produce them using machinery.

If your in Stockholm, I recommend you make the 4 hour journey north to get here,  since this is the only place in the world where you will see the Dala horses being made. The toughest part of the trip, I’ll warn you, is deciding which of the many horses you will buy. They come in all different colors, ranging in price from $20 for the smaller horses up to hundreds of dollars for the 15 inch sizes and larger. Still they are less expensive to buy at the factory than in the tourist shops in Stockholm.

We got chatting with the owners, a couple of brothers well past sixty, who told us they just received a contract to make 70,000 horses for Volvo, scheduled to be delivered next year. He said they’re trying to hire more “old people” to carve but it’s hard to keep them working, unless the weather’s bad; when it’s a sunny day they all go fishing. Well, if you love the horses, but can’t make it to Sweden, next year you might try buying a Volvo and get one for free.

5 Comments on “48 hours in Dalarna: Part Two–The Dala Horse

  1. Hi – just found your blog! How delightful – I didn’t know the origin and I have seen these horses so many times here in NY. They were so popular in the 70s but I haven’t seen them in a while.

    I am painting a very small repro of a Mora clock and was researching motifs and that’s how I found your site!


    • Thank you for leaving your comment. I find a lot of inspiration for my art in the Nordic folk art-the use of colors and nature motifs. I would love to see your project when you’re finished.

  2. Pingback: Dala Horse / Nils Olsson | ideasgn

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