Greenland and Sheep’s Wool: An introduction to a modern woolen word in the Arctic

Greenland may be one of the last places you would imagine cultivating its own wool culture, but in the southern tip of this Arctic nation, the close-knit group of Inuit sheep farmers are taking steps to turn their small-scale home productions into a more cohesive and commercially-viable textile industry.

Sheep in Greenland

The revival of modern-day sheep farming in South Greenland started a mere century ago in Qaqortoq, when in the period 1906-1915 Greenlandic pastor Jens Chemnitz and Lindemann Walsøe brought groups of sheep from neighbouring North Atlantic nations to start a breeding station, with varying success. Ultimately, 70 sheep from the Faroe Islands and 176 sheep from Iceland thrived and constituted the founding sheep population in Greenland. Thus, the sheep in South Greenland are part of the North Atlantic native heritage breed, a true mix of the wild sheep and the short-tail.

In 1924, Otto and Tiipaaraq Frederiksen founded Qassiarsuk as the very first inuk-owned sheep farm in the country, less than a kilometer from the ruins Erik the Red’s Norse settlement. Their original stonework stables and original farmhouse still stand today in the middle of the settlement. The farmhouse now serves as a small local museum and an information center for the UNESCO World Heritage Site KUJATAA. 

Their descendants (grandchildren and great grandchildren) are still running the farm, and they have also spread throughout the greater Qassiarsuk area, all carrying on the inuit farming tradition. Even the 5th generations have been born and have been handling spring lambs since they could walk.

Today, just on the cusp of the century anniversary of established sheep farming in South Greenland, there are 37 inuit sheep farming families throughout the entire region that breed for meat, and their flocks collectively totaling nearly 20000 sheep roam free in the hills each summer from June to September.

Greenlandic wool, as hardy a resource as it comes

The North Atlantic weather and environment are a force to be reckoned with. Even during the relatively mild summers, there is the chance for windstorms strong enough to knock a person over. And the unfortunate trend in recent years has been sustained torrential rains that not only completely drench everything in sight but also wash out roads and fences and decrease the end-of-summer lamb weight. Winter sees frozen tundra, meters of snow, and temps easily reach -15 Celsius, although the sheep stay indoors in stables overnight in Greenland from November through May.

Of course, the animals that live in this northern environment are dressed to adapt to the most extreme conditions. The sheep’s outer coat has long tendrils while the inner fleece is soft and warm. Spun into a 100% pure new Greenlandic wool, the yarn is thick, course and wonderfully scratchy, a cosy reminder of how rugged a place from which this fantastic resource came. 

In this way, wool is a clear symbol, anchor and communicator of place, and the inuit sheep farmers that cultivate the resource are central to the identity of the very special region called South Greenland.

Woolen wares from Greenland

South Greenlandic woolen wares span a range of homemade small-scale goods to internationally-manufactured commercial products.

At the most local end of the spectrum, one can find knitwear, figurines and tapestries made with completely hand-washed and hand-worked wool. Walk into any farmhouse and your eyes will be drawn to the gorgeous tower of patterned knitwear at the entrance – sweaters, scarves, mittens and hats ready for the whole family to grab on the way out to the stable or to drive into town. Time a July holiday just right to be in town for the annual Sheep Farmer Festival and you can find goods like needle-felted dolls and toys, Christmas ornaments and even raw wool on sale by the artisans themselves at the Farmer’s Market.

Processing of Greenlandic Wool

One farm, Kangerluarsorujuk, overtook a mini carding mill on its property, which was originally established as a group effort together with neighbouring farms. They collect Greenlandic wool, send it to England to be washed, and receive it back as clean wool. In their own barn, they then card the wool and mold it into felted wares, primarily house shoes of all sizes, complete with a hand-sewn sole. You wouldn’t believe how long the waiting list is for these unique local gifts!

A small proportion of sheepskins are tanned and treated at Great Greenland, the national furhouse located in Qaqortoq, South Greenland, which otherwise focuses primarily on the processing of sealskin (a traditional Greenlandic material). Likewise, another small proportion of sheepskins are sent from the one centralised slaughterhouse for experimental processing in Poland.

For many years, the sheep farmers’ association, SPS, ran a commercial business called Meqqit ApS which coordinated the purchase of raw wool from local farmers. It was made into 100% pure Greenlandic yarn in both natural and dyed colours, ultimately carrying the name of the Danish brand Filcolana. Meqqit ApS also coordinated the creation of 100% pure Greenlandic wool throw blankets in Lithuania. Unfortunately, this production has stopped for the time being, but there is certainly a desire to revitalize the creation of local products with even more sustainability in the production chain.

Wool as a driver for economic development

While the wool world in Greenland seems to be running well, there is a long way to go before it is a sustainable industry. In reality, only a small proportion of the 24 tons of wool shorn each year is saved or put to use; the rest is unfortunately burned.

However, combatting wool waste by engaging stakeholders throughout the entire value chain is something the regional business development company, Innovation South Greenland, is working on with especially the local farmers, wool entrepreneurs and end consumers. There is increasing discussion on how to move the current mini carding mill at Kangerluarsorujuk to a larger, more centralised facility. And most recently, the North Atlantic Native Sheep and Wool Conference, hosted in South Greenland in summer 2022, increased the desire even more to establish one or several mini mills. Inspired by a presentation made by Uppspuni Mini Mill in Iceland, it is highly desirable to produce yarn and other products entirely in-country.

The NANSW conference welcomed approximately 70 participants from 14 countries to discuss the heritage breeds in the north and what can be done to use wool more holistically. Thankfully many of the Greenlandic sheep farmers and a few local politicians were in attendance, all of whom got a tantalizing peek into the future of possibilities. In particular, the Marketplace was an inspiring space where artisan participants from Shetland, Great Britain, Norway, Faroe Islands and Germany (and Greenland) showcased their beautiful yarns in a rainbow of plant-dyed colours, gorgeous sweater patterns, and kitschy small things to use up every last gram of material. The wide array of commercial products and end goal was so close you could taste it, and it really got the wheels turning for many Greenlandic wool workers.

This development work surrounding wool has also been taken to the international level, as Innovation South Greenland was invited to be a partner in an international project funded by NORA, the Nordic Atlantic Cooperation. The project joins partners from Faroe Islands, Greenland, Iceland and Norway to collectively work on developing textile tourism in each of the countries under the shared branding and umbrella of “Wool in the North”. By creating package experiences through which wool-interested persons can experience the culture and nature of unique destinations, this creates a demand for wool and wool work, which ultimately creates the motivation for increasing the sustainable use of a most valuable and diverse resource. After a mapping process in each of the destinations, the project is currently finishing its second year which focused primarily on conducting test tours in Norway, Greenland and the Faroe Islands with real and true wool stakeholders. Keep an eye out in the coming year for more updates as these exciting tours take form!

South Greenland, a cultural landscape

With all the talk about South Greenland, where is South Greenland exactly? Many say it is nearly half of the country because that’s where the majority of the population lives. Wrong.

In fact, South Greenland is only the very southernmost tip of the giant island at 60 degrees North latitude, some 670 km south of the Arctic Circle. South Greenland is home to approximately 6300 people in total, or 11% of the country population. The regional population spans 3 towns, 11 settlements, 37 sheep farms and a small handful of cattle farms and reindeer lands. 

The northern fjords of South Greenland are a most unique arctic landscape of rolling green seaside hills just mere kilometers from the only ice sheet in the northern hemisphere, namely the Greenland Ice Sheet. To the untrained eye, this vast and verdant backcountry may appear to be untouched, raw and uninhabited nature. However, people do actually traverse and use this landscape for their daily life and work, and that is the very definition of a cultural landscape. A cultural landscape is one with which humans interact in such a way that their presence is visible, if one knows which signs to look for.

Arctic farming honoured as UNESCO world heritage

And who is it, exactly, that traverses this remote part of the world? Historically, the Vikings/Norsemen arrived to South Greenland in the late 10th century and established centralised manor farms and shielings with many different animals, and churches and parliament theatres all over the entire region. Their ruins dot every fjord, most valleys and even high up steep mountainsides, and sites are still be discovered to this day.

After nearly half a millennium of Viking agriculture, followed by several centuries without any farming at all, local inuit began experimenting with agriculture in and around the very foundations of the Norse structures. The tradition grew from just one founding farm in Qassiarsuk to almost 60 farms at one point, and now encompasses 37 farms.

Lorem ipsum dolor sit amet, consectetur adipiscing elit. Ut elit tellus, luctus nec ullamcorper mattis, pulvinar dapibus leo.

After nearly half a millennium of Viking agriculture, followed by several centuries without any farming at all, local inuit began experimenting with agriculture in and around the very foundations of the Norse structures. The tradition grew from just one founding farm in Qassiarsuk to almost 60 farms at one point, and now encompasses 37 farms.

UNESCO has deemed this arctic agriculture across two time periods to have extraordinary global cultural value, and in 2017, “KUJATAA” was inducted to the World Heritage List. KUJATAA encompasses five component areas in the northern fjords of South Greenland with especially high concentrations of cultural landscape.

Additional Resources

Learn more about all things South Greenlandic sheep farming on the KUJATAA – World Heritage facebook page.

Learn more about South Greenland travel experiences like Farm Holiday Greenland and others on and on all social media channels as @visit_southgreenland.

Learn more about the Wool in the North NORA project in the YouTube video “Wool in the North”.

Sarah Woodall is the Tourism Destination Manager in South Greenland, where sheep farmers have always played a core role in giving travellers a unique experience blending cultural discovery with outdoor activity. She promotes their offers, and others’, so that the world knows more about this arctic agricultural tradition and adventure destination. In time, her job has expanded to include development work focused on the sustainable use of their precious wool resource.