ART has always had a number of issues available, for free, to the public. Now, however, they have expanded that offering considerably. There are some fantastic items in here for people interested in a variety of cultures and time periods!
If you feel like digging around in Swedish this site is a gold mine.
I have wonderful friends who gifted me with a copy of Bundled Up in Blue last fall. It is a great museum exhibit book that covers many details of a Viking grave find in Iceland. I was very happy last night to see the dress information now available online. You can find it here!
Often people ask me how to improve upon their wardrobe or over all look. There are a million individual responses, but I think one of the most universal things one can do is to eye each component critically and ascertain exactly how "common" it might have been in period. In my article about Viking age plaids, I talk about how small the checks were and how narrow the stripes. What is also key about it is that in all of the materials I have, I could only find those few references. Certainly they used this cloth, but it does not appear to have been common practice when compared to the overall number of finds.
Another example of this is in the use of tablet weaving. In the article "Tablet Weaving on Reconstructed Viking Age Garments – and a Method to Optimise the Realism of Reconstructed Garments," by Lise Raeder Knudsen (from the book Refashioning Viking Age Garments. SAXO-Institute, University of Copenhagen), the author has a chart that shows the prevalence of tablet weaving in graves from different time periods. During the Migration era, it ranged from 20-30% of graves in various parts of Scandinavia, but during the Viking age less than 5% of graves have evidence of this practice.
What I take away from that is that this form of trim should be used sparingly, if at all. Not every edge of a kit should have it, and perhaps it should be used only for high status personas. If I use a tablet woven band, which would have been rare, then I would perhaps not also use plaid in the same kit (another less common item).
Another, earlier example of trends, is in this fantastic article on early cloth by Karina Grömer. Textile Materials and Techniques in Central Europe in the 2nd and 1st Millennia BC.
In this she has a fantastic chart showing how common things such as weave structure, use a dye, plaids and embroidery are. They are displayed as being important techniques of the period down to single evidences. It generates fantastic food for thought for the reenactor.
If you ask me about Viking clothing, the very first place I will recommend to you to look as Hilde Thunem's website. She has recently done some updates to her popular Smokkr (aprondress) article and has split her own experiments with different styles onto another page.
I highly recommend checking her fantastic research out!
A friend recently brought up an issue that is common among the SCA Middle and Near Eastern personas (and often, newcomers in general). That issue is the persistent myth that if a persona is a merchant or trader or traveler of any sort that "anything goes" in terms of garments and adornment. This also often becomes a matter of heated discussion within the Viking crowd, because of the travel, trade and raids that occurred.
Unfortunately, "anything goes" is really nothing more than a myth for most people, times and places.
To break this down, one needs to look at both the culture and evidence from the perspective of the people of the past, and not through our modern filter. Clothing, in period, was often an identifier of one's nationality, social status and, sometimes, religion. Costume was an significant reflection of social identity. If anything, I feel this was more important in mixed cultures (precisely the place where many would impose the "anything goes" theory) than in some other areas.
In Eva Andersson's work on the textiles at Birka ( she references what Inga Hagg and the Souvenir Hypothesis. Andersson states:
Hagg objects to these interpretations, arguing that 'The regularity found in this costume, both chronologically and as regards material, ornamental features, garment combinations, etc. shows that we are dealing with a real costume tradition and not with phenomena of the chance kind that has hitherto been claimed. The "souvenir hypothesis" is also based on a way of reasoning that is actually erroneous. In the history of costume it is normally the case that dress mainly expresses two things in a highly traditional and deliberate way. One is the ethnic affiliation of the wearer. This is sufficiently attested in a great many works about both prehistoric dress and modern folk dress. For that reason alone we are not entitled to assume that the Vikings of Birka, while in foreign countries, abandoned their own costume in favour of something exotic .... There is equally little justification for the assumption that foreign merchants in Birka would have adopted Scandinavian dress' (Hagg 1983, 209£). The costumes in the Birka graves have several distinctive features and therefore cannot be said primarily to be a reflection of the wearer's ethnic origin. Hagg argues that Birka costume instead expressed the status of the wearer (Hagg 1983, 210ff.) and believes that 'in such circumstances it is necessary to investigate whether the Oriental elements of Birka costume 'which cannot easily be interpreted as ethnically conditioned and which can no longer be regarded as souvenirs of travels - may instead designate rank' (Hagg 1983,211).
In her work with viking jewelry, Draupnir's Sweat and Mardoll's Tears, Michele Hayeur Smith makes the statement:
Viking adornment falls under the heading of anti-fashion. It is the product of a traditional society. Like all traditional
So what does all of this mean?
We need to look more closely at what evidence we do have. Yes, there was trade! Yes, there were incredible foreign items found in the context of Viking graves! But it is very important to consider the item itself, the source of the item, whether or not it was repurposed, and, most importantly, look at it in context of the entire find.
Hopefully the scant handful of items above show that often trade (or raid) goods were used as adornment in quite a different manner than originally intended.
Of course, items were sometimes used without revision. There are ample examples of Celtic penannular brooches in Viking graves. Likewise, Slavic pendants show up in graves from Birka that also contain the traditional oval brooches, items that signifies Norse dress.
Most important consideration
Looking at the overall context of items in the grave is, perhaps, the most important factor when planning to use foreign goods as part of your kit. Key points to consider:
This post is meant only to be a quick summary on my thoughts on dress and foreign goods in Viking society. It is by no means comprehensive. I highly recommend looking at some of the references below, as well as further researching how dress historically reflected the social identity in any culture, for those who want to accurately portray a persona who would have traveled, or had access to, foreign goods.
Andersson Strand, Eva. Tools for Textile Production – from Birka and Hedeby. Stockholm, 2003. (Birka studies; No. 8).
Glørstad, Zanette Tsigaridas, ‘Sign of the Times? The Transfer and Transformation of Penannular Brooches in Viking Age Norway’, 2012, 37–41
Hayeur Smith, Michele. Draupnir's Sweat and Mardoll's Tears: An Archaeology of Jewellery, Gender and Identity in Viking Age Iceland, 2004.
Helle, Knut, The Cambridge History of Scandinavia, Issue 1, (Cambridge University Press). 2003.
Heen-pettersen, Aina Margrethe, ‘Insular Artefacts from Viking - Age Burials from Mid - Norway . A Review of Contact between Trøndelag and Britain and Ireland’, 2014
Skre, Dagfinn, ‘From Dorestad to Kaupang: Frankish Traders and Settlers in a 9th Century Scandinavian Town’, Dorestad in an International Framework, 1991, 131–35
Sorheim, Helge, ‘Three Prominent Norwegian Ladies with British Connections’, Acta Archaeologica, 82 (2011)
I have friends who joke about me counting threads in cloth. I can readily laugh with them about it because textiles are a passion for me. In part, because the historic construction of cloth fascinates me, but in part also because this is one of the few facets of Viking costume for which we have a definitive model. Most of us who recreate these ancient bits of clothing know that we do so with great limitations regarding what patterning, cut and construction was used (particularly when it comes to women's dress). There is always a great deal of guesswork involved on part of the costumer.
The cloth itself, however, we have thousands of examples of. We know what this cloth looked like, we can see, even today, the texture and quality of textiles that the early Norse women crafted. My patterning of garments is largely guesswork, but the cloth itself I can at least analyze and try to attempt to find textiles that bear similar visual qualities, including thread count. Of course, one can bring up the argument that there are still faults with this (such as wrong breed of sheep or improper width of yarn leading to a more dense or loose cloth than that of a specific period example). I still believe that studying the fabric yields us a wealth of information about dress in the past and can help us better reach the goal of more faithfully reproducing it.
One of the hardest things that I had to overcome (and I have mentioned this in past entries), is that notion that the Viking Era Norse were barbarians, that their craft was crude and clumsy. While that might be true in some areas, the wealth of extant textiles does not bear this out. There were fabrics, of wool, that had thread counts in excess of 150 threads per inch in the warp. That cloth was exceptionally fine, even by today's standard. A person of some status, who wore metal brooches and a string of beads, certainly did not garb herself in cloth as coarse as burlap.
Breaking those stereotypes should not stop with the fabric. Another example (again, something that I have discussed at length in this forum, in online groups and in my classes) is that other elements could, perhaps, reflect the same sort of refinement and quality as did the cloth.
Long have I pondered how the large, open, and often poorly wrought (I have too many examples of this on my own costume) Herringbone Stitch has made itself so prevalent in Viking costume.
I think part of this, has to do with some modern mentality of equating over-embellished design elements with wealth and status. We love to see miles of trim or stitching on costume, and see it as a perfected work, rather than one that is over-wrought. Interesting, I think, given that one of the staples of a modern woman's wardrobe is the rather understated, but always elegant, "Little Black Dress". Simplicity can often speak volumes in the modern wardrobe, but we often bypass that concept in costuming because it, like the concept of fine wool fabric, does not fit with our own internal visualization of the past.
To look again at the scant evidence for the Herringbone stitch, see below:
Breaking the Myth
So where did we go wrong with this?
I think the first fault lies in our own taste. In our own desire to make something "rustic" that fits in with our own misconceptions of the capabilities of these people, we opt for things that fit in with this ideal, but also that are simple enough for anyone to add to their attire. We also have this concept that "more stuff" means higher status.
The second issue is with the evidence, or rather, our misinterpretation of it. One of the most circulated articles online is one entitled "Viking Embroidery" by Mistress Thora Sharptooth. She has been a powerful inspiration in the SCA for digging deeper into Viking costume and textiles. She has a series of works posted on-line that I think most of us would give credit as the best aids we had when starting out. In her embroidery work there is a paragraph concerning the ornamentation of seams.
One additional type of embroidery that seems to have been practiced even before the Viking Age was the ornamentation of seams. This practice occurred in an earlier related context, on a seam from a seventh-century pillow cover from the Sutton Hoo textiles (Crowfoot, 422), possibly indicating a tradition of some antiquity in north Europe. In the ninth century, one of the Oseberg garment seams is oversewn in some sort of loop stitch with a thread used double (Ingstad, 92). In similar fashion, some of the ninth- and tenth-century Hedeby and Birka finds display corded or braided thread appliqué over the seams (Hägg 1984, 169). The tenth-century Mammen grave contained a wool cushion with embroidery over a seam (Hald, 282). The stitches used on the Sutton Hoo and Mammen finds are similar: both yield a thick, wide strip with a plaited appearance. But whereas the stitch used on the Sutton Hoo pillow was a complex interlaced variant of Vandyke stitch (see the figure on the left below, redrawn from Crowfoot), the stitch used on the Mammen cushion was simpler, a closely-worked variant of herringbone (see the figure on the right below, redrawn from Hald).
I feel the need to further elaborate on the statements contained in this measure, and help to provide context (as it is researching these items that helped me to better trace the origins of the myth).
Putting the evidence into context is of paramount importance. Understanding something being referenced in that article is not necessarily proof that all of our notions of "seam embellishments" are documentable. It is absolutely not documentation that a standard Herringbone, or catch stitch, was ever used in such a manner either.
Looking deeper at the sources and meanings of each item is valuable as we move beyond beginner and progress on a journey as a costumer who is attempting to recreate the past.
My own opinion is that seams were likely not embellished. Not only due to lack of archaeological proof, but because of the time it would take to craft something that would make reuse of a textile less likely. It would be hard to take in that garment if it were so embellished. I often also see people citing that it "reinforces" the seams. Why then would you need to reinforce the seam of an aprondress (a garment that Hagg describes as only "slightly fitted"), when you are not taking time to sew that stitch around an armhole of a dress, or down the seam in the back of the sleeve at the elbow. Both of those areas are far more likely to break from stress than a side seam of a slightly fitted dress. Why not instead use these complex stitches (and the stitch from Mammen is indeed time consuming) on a functional textile such as the cushion cover that you will not need to alter, and that might possibly need the strength from the applied needlework?
And finally, I need to mention Scale, because I think a lack of understanding regarding scale is one of the main contributors to the reenactorism of "decorative herringbone". As I mentioned above, the only thing close to the reenactor's use of herringbone is the Mammen cushion cover. It is important to view that piece in proper perspective.
What we typically see of this find is the diagram in the lower right corner. This usually appears on our screen at a size of about a half an inch wide. The weave of the needlework for the diagram is open, to better show how the stitches interlace. What many people have not seen, is the actual photos of the cushion, which I have included here. Note that the stitch is tightly worked, with no negative space visible to the eye. In fact, it looks at first like applied braid. And perhaps the most important thing here is to consider the scale of the piece. That line of braid is a mere 3mm wide.
I think the single biggest perpetrator of the "herringbone seam embellishment" myth is a misunderstanding of that diagram (or rather, lack of understanding about its context). If indeed you were to opt to use this type of stitching, I think the only credible way to do so would be to apply it in the same manner of the original. While I personally do not think it would have been used over a dress seam, I can at least understand where the tradition stands historically and it reads as something that might be plausible for the Viking age.
Almost 4 years ago I wrote a short bit about Mendeley and other free applications that one can use to organize research for SCA use. That was shortly after I started working with Mendeley and I have to say that it not only completely changed how I store and organize my data, but it changed my over all process of research. I have ready access to much of my library now (from multiple computers as well as my phone), and no longer have to try to figure out where/when I read some particular fact.
I highly recommend checking out this product, as well as the tutorials. I have also included below a document that I did that is part very-basic-tutorial and part tips for how I personally use it to help make better use of my resources and research.
While I am still composing my thoughts, and pulling photos, about Pennsic, I thought I would share a blog by an amazing artisan from AEthelmearc, Lady Elska Fjarfell. If you ever wanted to know about ancient practices of soap making, brewing or tons of other cool things, I highly recommend looking her up at events.
Every now and then a news story pops up that make me giddy. This one, about finds of exceptionally fine, and well preserved, cloth from Bronze Age Britain is one of those.
I dance, race cars, play video games and am on a fantastic journey to recreate the past via costume, textiles, dance and food.
Blogroll of SCA & Costume Bloggers
Below is a collection of some of my favorite places online to look for SCA and historic costuming information.
More Amie Sparrow - 16th Century German Costuming
Gianetta Veronese - SCA and Costuming Blog
Grazia Morgano - 16th Century A&S
Mistress Sahra -Dress From Medieval Turku
Loose Threads: Cathy's Costume Blog
Mistress Mathilde Bourrette - By My Measure: 14th and 15th Century Costuming
More than Cod: Exploring Medieval Norway