• Sweden's news in English
Brand stories
The story of a Swedish symbol
A traditional Dala horse. Photo: Shutterstock

The story of a Swedish symbol

The Local · 5 Jan 2015, 14:33

Published: 10 Oct 2014 14:33 GMT+02:00
Updated: 05 Jan 2015 14:33 GMT+01:00

Facebook Twitter Google+ reddit

If you do a Google search for "symbol of Sweden", you'll see a bunch of gold crowns on a blue background, a few flags, maybe some peace signs... and plenty of red wooden horses.

The Dala horse (Dalahäst) is undeniably an international symbol for the country – but it hasn't always been that way.

“The Dala horse first became famous at the World Fair in New York in 1939,” Lennart Ihren, Head of production at Nils Olsson Hemslöjd  told The Local.

Shop Hemslöjd Dala horses on The Local Brands

The red-painted wooden horses, a traditional toy from the Dalarna region in Sweden, first made its international debut in Paris in 1936, where they received enough attention that the Swedish committee at the fair decided to take them to New York.

“All these small producers in the region got together and created some 15,000 horses and roosters, and a 2.5 metre high horse which stood at the entrance of the fair,” Ihren explained. “It was the highlight of the event and got its picture in papers all around the world.”

Today the legacy of the Dala horse continues – and it's in no small way due to the company Nils Olsson Hemslöjd.

The company was started in 1928 by two Swedish brothers, Nils and Jannes Olsson, who were 13 and 15 at the time.

The Henry Fords of Dala horse carving, the brothers created a method of speedily hand-producing the traditional carvings.

They just made production simpler,” Ihren said.

They used a hand-pulled wooden bandsaw. One pulled the saw and the other sawed the horses out. That's how they started more commercial production.”

Nearly 90 years later, Hemslöjd still makes the horses the same way.

The saws are electric,” Ihren admitted, “But otherwise it's the same.”

Workers at Hemslöjd select unneeded wood left over from building, drive it through the planer, use a rubber stamp to mark the pattern, and saw the basic shape out by hand – with help from the electric saws of course.

Leftovers are then turned into woodchips to heat up neighbouring houses. So nothing is wasted. Except for the workers on a Friday night, perhaps,” Ihren joked.

In other words, the entire operation is thoroughly and entirely Swedish.

From there the future horses are sent out as “homework” across the Dalarna region. Workers carve out the horse shape in their homes and then return them to the factory for a quality check and a basic coat of paint. Then they are handed over for decorating.

Horses being hand-painted at Nils Olsson Hemslöjd.

Hemslöjd has two to three decoration painters working full-time, and also has a handful of painters working from home. All of the painting is done by hand.

“We've always said to tourists that if they can find two identical horses, they can have them for free,” Ihren said. “And it hasn't happened yet.”

The original Dala horses, dating back to the 1700s, were painted bright orange-red - the colour available from the local copper mine in Falun. Today Dala horses are available in a range of colours, although traditional red is still the most popular.

Other traditions have become outdated, however: The Olsson boys used to run out into the forest to catch squirrels in order to use their tails for paintbrushes. Nowadays the company simply buys brushes, Ihren informed The Local with a laugh.

Even with such a small team, Nils Olsson Hemslöjd produces about 500 finished horses every day – which then travel the world.

“I have travelled all across the globe carving horses and showing the craft,” Ihren said.

“It's obviously a symbol for the whole of Sweden when you go abroad, and most Swedes think of it that way too. There's not much that is genuinely Swedish anymore... and I think we need to cling on to this horse.”

For Ihren, the Dala horse is personal as well.

“My grandfather used to sit in our home when I was a small boy, carving horses. So I have had the Dala horse around me all my life.”

And the Dala horse isn't going anywhere, Ihren said. Sales are steadily on the rise, and the carvings are becoming popular as company gifts as well.

“Many companies want a special horse with a logo or certain colour. It's a nice gift for customers abroad,” Ihren explained.

The World Cross-Country Skiing Championship in Falun, Dalarna, this winter will also feature its own horse – both specially-designed mini versions and a larger horse signed by all of the winners.

And of course, the large Dala horse will also be made by hand – the old-fashioned way.

“We are proud to make them the same way they have always been made,” Ihren said. “It feels like we are taking care of our cultural heritage.”



For more news from Sweden, join us on Facebook and Twitter.

The Local (news@thelocal.se)

Facebook Twitter Google+ reddit

Your comments about this article

Today's headlines
Here's how slow Sweden's high-speed trains are getting
A Swedish SJX2000 high speed train. Photo: Tomas Oneborg/SvD/TT

The high-speed rail journey between the three biggest Swedish cities is about to get longer.

The Local List
12 Swedish words with just awesome literal translations
A filthy-minded lobster, i.e. a snuskhummer. Photo: Gorm Kallestad/NTB scanpix/TT

One of our favourite things about the Swedish language is its wonderful compound words, which range from being utterly bizarre to making perfect sense.

US election
Donald Trump won't get new Ericsson head's vote
Trump pictured at a campaign rally in Florida. Photo: Evan Vucci/AP

The new Swedish-American boss of telecoms giant Ericsson has revealed he will not vote for the Republican nominee in the forthcoming US presidential election.

Swedes named fourth most gender equal in the world
A file photo of men and women pushing prams in Stockholm. Photo: Claudio Bresciani/TT

Sweden has closed 81 percent of its overall gender gap according to the World Economic Forum.

Sweden: Russian warships in the Baltic 'worrying'
Swedish Defence Minister Peter Hultqvist. Photo: Vilhelm Stokstad/TT

Two Russian warships equipped with long-range missiles have entered the Baltic Sea after passing Denmark.

Why businesses are worried about Sweden's drone ban
A drone filming in Stockholm. Photo: Pontus Lundahl/TT

The Local investigates what Sweden's new drone ban could mean for businesses in the country.

This is the new top boss of Swedish Ericsson
Börje Ekholm. Photo: Magnus Hjalmarson Neideman/SvD/TT

Telecoms giant Ericsson has appointed a new CEO after a turbulent year for the company.

These are Sweden's best universities: ranking
A new university ranking has been released. Photo: Cecilia Larsson Lantz/Imagebank.sweden.se

At least according to this global ranking, which picks 12 Swedish universities among the top-1000.

Swedish pharmacies restrict paracetamol sales for teens
The move is intended to cut paracetamol overdoses. Photo: Nora Lorek/TT

Sweden's pharmacies are banning teens under 18 from buying more than one pack of pills at a time.

Rwandan genocide suspect held in Sweden
A memorial centre in Kigali, Rwanda. Photo: Ben Curtis/AP

A man has been arrested in Sweden suspected of involvement in the 1994 Rwandan genocide which claimed 800,000 lives.

Sponsored Article
Stockholm: creating solutions to global challenges
Sweden cuts 2016 refugee forecast
Sponsored Article
Last chance to vote absentee in the US elections
Is Game of Thrones coming to Sweden?
Property of the week: Kungsholmen, Stockholm
Blog updates

6 October

10 useful hjälpverb (The Swedish Teacher) »

"Hej! I think the so-called “hjalpverb” (auxiliary verbs in English) are a good way to get…" READ »


8 July

Editor’s blog, July 8th (The Local Sweden) »

"Hej readers, It has, as always, been a bizarre, serious and hilarious week in Sweden. You…" READ »

Sponsored Article
This is Malmö: Football capital of Sweden
Will Swedes soon be looking for fairtrade porn?
Sponsored Article
Where is the Swedish music industry heading?
The Local Voices
'I simply don’t believe in nationality'
Why we're convinced Game of Thrones is based on Sweden
People-watching: October 21st-23rd
Sponsored Article
Why you should 'grab a chair' on Stockholm's tech scene
Fury at plans that 'threaten the IB's survival' in Sweden
Sponsored Article
Swedish for programmers: 'It changed my life'
Analysis & Opinion
Are we just going to let half the country die?
Angry elk chases Swede up a lamp post
Sponsored Article
Top 7 tips to help you learn Swedish
The Local Voices
'Alienation in Sweden feels better: I find myself a stranger among scores of aliens'
Sponsored Article
‘Extremism can't be defeated on the battlefield alone’
People-watching: October 20th
The Local Voices
A layover at Qatar airport brought this Swedish-Kenyan couple together - now they're heading for marriage
Sponsored Article
Stockholm: creating solutions to global challenges
Swede punches clown that scared his grandmother
Sponsored Article
Why you should 'grab a chair' on Stockholm's tech scene
Fans throw flares and enter pitch in Swedish football riot
Sponsored Article
Where is the Swedish music industry heading?
Could Swedish blood test solve 'Making a Murderer'?
Sponsored Article
One expat's strategy for making friends in Stockholm
Swedish school to build gender neutral changing room
Sponsored Article
Nordic fashion in focus at Stockholm University
People-watching: October 14th-16th
Man in Sweden assaulted by clowns with broken bottle
Nobel Prize 2016: Literature
Watch the man who discovered Bob Dylan react to his Nobel Prize win
Record numbers emigrating from Sweden
People-watching: October 12th
The Local Voices
'Swedish startups should embrace newcomers' talents - there's nothing to fear'
How far right are the Sweden Democrats?
Property of the week: Triangeln, Malmö
The Local Voices
Syria's White Helmets: The Nobel Peace Prize would have meant a lot, but pulling a child from rubble is the greatest reward
jobs available