LILLEHAMMER IN THE END OF THE 1800 hundreds: In some small wooden houses beside the Nedre Mesna waterfall lies a small spinning farm, where farmers come with wool - and receive yarn in return. The owner Bernt Otto Johan Johansen is deeply religious, and eventually his calling inspires him to mission all over the Gudbrandsdalen valley. It's a tough job, he is away for long stretches, and the spinning could be better. In 1912 he sold the factory to Andreas R. Svarstad, who answers the farmers' needs: they do not just want yarns. They want the woven, colored, finished fabric for clothes from the wool they deliver.`
"Already at that time we had all the processes in-house," says Frode Svarstad, 51, who now owns Gudbrandsdalens Uldvarefabrik together with his 3rd cousin Ragnvald Svarstad (66). It is afternoon and he is standing between all the factory buildings: the first house, set up around 1900; the red brick buildings are from the 1920s and 1930s, when it was invested heavily; the new weavery from 1964; and the last expansion , a modern glass building, completed for the 100th anniversary celebrated in 1987.
At this time, GU is one of Europe's leading suppliers of upholstery fabrics, and the only textile supplier in Scandinavia with its entire production under one roof; From the raw wool to the finished colored and woven fabric.
We are from Lillehammer, and have to trust ourselves. Here we have full control at all levels.
Frode Svarstad, fourth generation owner.
FASHION WITH MORE: Every other Norwegian bunad is made of fabric from Gudbrandsdalens Uldvarefabrik. Lillehammer has clients such as Snøhetta and Hurtigruten. They have developed a particularly durable fabric with special features, such as fire retardancy, for NSB (Norwegian National Rail), delivered fabrics to projects like The Norwegian Theater, Hotel Skt. Petri in Copenhagen and the King Abdullah World Cultural Center in Saudi Arabia.
During this year's furniture fair in Milan, GU previewed two new fabrics, a woven fabric with hand-woven expression and one with worn denim / straight look, both in line with the trend of natural materials and crafts. Their bunad fabrics and upholstery fabrics are used in the costumes for "Frozen" the Broadway musical version that recently opened in New York. Louis Vuitton uses GU fabrics in a never-before-made furniture by the French designer Pierre Paulin.
GU has collaborated with Norwegian and international designers to take care of unused material - and received the Doga Prize 2017 for furniture fabrics made from 100% Norwegian wool in cooperation with FLOKK, one of Europe's leading office furniture manufacturers.
A CELEBRATION OF SUSTAINABILITY: In a large room, the looms are weaving, and they produce pastel-colored fabric destined for a cruise ship in the Mediterranean. In another room where the radio is on, a group of women each sit with fabrics in front of them, removing nubs and knots with scissors and tweezers - before the fabric goes on to the final check where the last faults are removed.
- The fact that the left over material will get a new life has been a pet project for me since I started in GU four years ago. Our fabrics are very durable and have a long life, and the textile left-overs form the basis for good and durable design - even in Norwegian wool, "says Ragnhild Nordhagen, 37, who works with product development and design.
In recent years, together with interior designer Anemone Wille-Våge, she has designed and developed a hotel and cruise collection consisting of 12 designs and 72 colours, as well as developed new fabrics with furniture designers Anderssen & Voll.
- We have some high quality left over material, in beautiful colors, from different parts of the production process. Raw selvage cut-offs for example, have been sent to textile designer, Salem van der Swaagh in Berlin, who makes wonderful carpets and pillows with them. While bunad fabric that have been milled too much, or fabrics with small defects, are sent to schools for use in projects, or ultimately the fabric is burned, says Nordhagen.
FAMILY run. It is 1950s and the most fun thing the young Ragnvald Svarstad knows is to play in the wool at the factory of his grandfather. To the great frustration of the different department managers - because the labels disappear during this play.
- Where the wool comes from has always been part of the factory's concept right from the start. The farmer who delivered would know that he got the same wool back in yarn or finished fabrics, "says Ragnvald Svarstad.
As a teenager, he started working at the factory in the summer months, where the grandfather was a "father" who ensured a good working environment; summer and christmas coffee with good sandwiches were served. That he himself should have the opportunity to take over in the future was not something he thought about at that time. In 1948 Ragnvald’s father entered the company. In 1966 the grandfather passed away.
- Mother and Father settled purposefully away from the factory. They had seen how living next door to the factory ultimately led to burn-out for their grandfather, says Ragnvald Svarstad.
- He was always at the factory. He was down at night to check if the furnaces were switched off.
HALLINGDAL: In 1964, the Danish designer Nanna Ditzel wanted to develop a new fabric. According to the story, the hunt for the right manufacturer went through Europe in a Ford Mustang - and eventually the choice fell on GU. The result was the fabric Hallingdal, which received the Danish Design Center's classic award in 2001. As of today, eight million meters of fabric has left the factory.
At home in the living room of Ragnvald Svarstad and family, is a sofa in a gray-beige Hallingdal fabric. Originally, the sofa was designed by the Danish designer Arne Jacobsen, now it has been relaunched by the Danish furniture manufacturer &Tradition.
- The sofa is one of two products with our fabrics, which I really love, says Svarstad.
The other is his bunad.
In the 1990s, GU developed a robust wool in cooperation with the Navy, which was to be used in fleece jackets.
- We saw that it could also be used for bunads, says Svarstad.
- Now it has become one of our biggest successes.
SLIPPERS AND AUBERGINE. In the dying department, machines are humming and making noise. In the machines, several hundred meters of fabric go around and around. Inside a door, in front of a PC, sits Vidar Lilleespe, who develops and controls the colors. Once a customer came in with a few slippers and just wanted that exact color. Another came in with an eggplant.
- I had to try to find something that looked similar, Lilleespe said.
The woolen fabrics consist of 60 percent Norwegian wool, while the rest is from New Zealand.
- The reason why we do not use more Norwegian wool is that we have not been able to source enough of the quality we need; There has been too much plant material, black hair and poor sorting routines. But in this area there has been a lot of good work done in recent years. Now we have up to 80 percent Norwegian wool in our production, says Ragnvald Svarstad.
- The Norwegian wool most suitable for robust furniture fabrics and national costumes, that will look great for generations.
IT STAYS IN THE FAMILY. In the 1950s there were 300 employees in GU. Now there are 80, but producing the same amount.
- The fact that we have survived, has a lot to do with the fact that we are privately owned and have been very interested in investing profits back into the company. We have always been at the forefront, both in terms of employee education and technology, says Ragnvald Svarstad.
- Norway is in a special position - we are near self-sufficient when it comes to fabrics for national costumes (Bunad), and we have a relatively large textile industry compared to our neighbouring countries.
- We notice that customers are getting more and more concerned that their bunad is 100% Norwegian: Norwegian fabric from Norwegian wool.
He smiles a bit.
- I was visiting a textile company in northern England recently. It was started in 1784 and is also family owned - for eleven generations. They make a better pool table cloth than us. But on bunad and furniture fabrics – we are the best.
Where the wool comes from has always been part of the factory's concept right from the start. The farmer who delivered would know that he got the same wool back in yarn or finished fabrics
Ragnvald Svarstad, owner of GU and 4th generation Svarstad
This article was originally published in Norwegian Lifestyle Magazin D2 2018-05-04. It is republished with their permission.