I am the first to admit, however, that I use far, far more linen in period than my persona would have, and in far, far more colors. It is an exception that I make for events such as Pennsic, where it is almost a requirement for my comfort. I think most of us, in this area, tend to do that. What I want to discuss today though, is evidence for the use of linen in the Viking Age. Why? Because I have heard far too often very flat statements that Vikings rarely used linen, they never grew their own and sometimes narrower statements, that seem like they should have more of a foundation, such as "in Norway in the Viking Age no one used linen".
To start, Linen is a bast fiber spun from the flax plant. The first use of flax was in 7000BC in Turkey. (Ejstrud, 17) The first evidence of flax in Scandinavia is a seed from a Danish Iron Age find with the earliest piece of fabric being from the Roman Iron Age. Sweden has shows shows evidence of flax cultivation with similar dating to that of Denmark. (Ejstrud, et. al. 18; Viklund 509, 510)
There are other bast fibers as well, such as nettle and hemp, that were accessible to the Viking Age Norse. In archaeological finds it can even be difficult to differentiate between bast fibers. I have also noticed a trend, of late, where people are searching in desperation for hemp cloth to use for garments after the publishing of the article "Viking and Early Middle Ages Textiles Proven to be Made from Hemp". (https://www.nature.com/articles/srep02686 )
What I find interesting about that list bit, is that that particular study, while fascinating, used only 10 textiles, all of which were either decorative or home goods (two coverlets and the rest wall hangings). 6 are pretty solidly Viking Age, two others might be (skewing, by date, more to wards "might not"), and two are not. Only 4 of the tent total show use of hemp, and three of those show mixed use of flax and hemp. (Skoglund) I find that this is a fascinating piece of research, but it does not convince me that hemp would have been a top choice for garments.
This week I stumbled on a newer piece of research that thoroughly analyzed a number of textiles from Western Norway to fully determine whether the bast fibers involved were flax or hemp. In, "Identifying plant fibre textiles from Norwegian Merovingian Period and Viking Age graves", they look at ten samples, nine of which are considered to be from CLOTHING, and the last being from a purse. (https://www.academia.edu/34152492/Identifying_plant_fibre_textiles_from_Norwegian_Merovingian_Period_and_Viking_Age_graves_The_Late_Iron_Age_Collection_of_the_University_Museum_of_Bergen ) This piece, delightfully, helps to answer some of my questions.
9 of the 10 items were positively identified as flax and the final one was only able to be determined to be some type of bast fiber. (Lukešová) . I do hope that similar studies are carried out in a few other locations, to further confirm (or to counter) my thoughts that bast fiber garments worn by those of some social status (or at least wealthy enough to have a set of oval brooches, I will not deny that someone of lesser means might well have worked with native nettle or merely worn only layers of wool), were indeed flax rather than other alternatives. (See quote from conclusion below.)
Even more interesting in this recent paper, was the information that two of the garments (both identified as "Women's clothing") were not the tabby weave most often associated with but lozenge twill. Of those, one dates to the Viking Age (the other is Merovingian Age) and is from Vinjum in Aurland. (Also interesting is that the paper labels this as a 10th Century find, as does Lise Bender Jørgensen, but Sørheim lists it as 850CE in her paper about the imported metal work.) Finds of linen in twill are rather rare, so this shoes that a diamond twill is a possibility, even if an archaeological rarity.
That of course let me on a chase for more information about twill weaves in linen, and I did turn up a couple of additional items. (Note that this is not a formal survey on my part, and I did not even take a crack at the Birka material for this, it was just a quick glance at Jørgensen's catalog of finds as well as Walton Roger's work at York.)
Vinjum in Aurland:
Fragments, 2.8X2cm. Diamond twill with a repeat of 20/10. Z/Z spun, 38/26 threads per cm. She lists it as probably linen. (Jørgensen)
Denmark: Søllested, Denmark (Item 97 in the book): Linen in broken twill or possible diamond twill; Z/Z; 30/13 threads per cm. (I am unsure of the gender of this grave, but there are no brooches in the grave.) (Jørgensen)
Sweden: Vivallen, Tännäs s., Härjedalen, SHM 15052: 4 Grave 4 (Item 35 under Viking Age Sweden): 1) 2/1 twill, Z/Z, 20/10 threads per cm, plant fibre (Jørgensen)
Sweden: Mossegårde, Fiilene s., Vi.istergiitland. SHM 15333 (Item 65):
1) 1/2 Gooseeye, Z/Z repeat of 18/12, thread count of 32/13 per cm, probably linen; 3) 1/2 Gooseeye Z/Z; plant fibre (Jørgensen)
Further, Penelope Walton Rogers' work from York records:
If the linen tabbies may be considered largely domestically produced, the origin of the linen textiles in other weaves is not so clear. Simple 2/2 twill in linen, or probably linen, of which there are four examples at 16-22 Coppergate (1273, 1332, 1403 and 1462), is Fig. 150 Padded pleat, 1462, in carbonised 2/2 twill. Not to scale extremely rare elsewhere, although there may be some examples from Spong Hill in Norfolk (Crowfoot and Jones 1984, 22, 24). Similarly only a small number of 2/2 broken diamond twills in linen are known from Anglo-Saxon sites, from Barrington, Cambridgeshire (G. Crowfoot 1951, 30-32), Finglesham, Kent (E. Crowfoot 1958, 17, 36-7), Sutton Hoo (E. Crowfoot 1983,460) and Spong Hill (Crowfoot and Jones 1984, 24), with counts of 16-18Z x 16-18Z, 22-24Z x 18S, 21-22Z x 15-17Z and 16Z x 16Z respectively, all with varying pattern units.
These linen diamond twills resemble the wool diamond weaves and most probably were woven on the same type of loom and in the same areas as the wool examples; significantly the Finglesham piece is an unusual example of a vegetable fibre, probably flax, being used S-spun for one system in the manner of the wool diamond weaves. Looking beyond Britain, 2/2 twill, whether simple, chevron or diamond, is also rare among the linen finds of Scandinavia and Germany, although some are known, for example at Sievern, Kr. Wesermunde (Hundt 1980, 156-7); one example of 2/2 diamond twill in linen has been recorded as early as the Roman Iron Age at Hemmoor near Hanover (Schlabow 1976,30).
2/1 twill is not common in any fibre before the 11th century. In the Roman period there are examples in wool from Corbridge, Northumberland, and from Germany: Mainz (Wild 1970, 101, 117) and Feddersen Wierde (Ullemeyer and Tidow 1981, 77). From early Anglo-Saxon England there is a fine 2/1, 30Z x 22Z, from Little Eriswell, Suffolk (E. Crowfoot 1966, 29), probably of flax, and another in wool, 21-25Z x 19-20Z from Broomfield, Essex (E. Crowfoot 1983,473); from the Sutton Hoo ship burial there is also a 2/1 chevron, probably of vegetable fibre (ibid., 439). In Germany there are several 2/1-based pattern weaves, discussed below, and two examples each of 2/1 and 2/1 warp chevron from Elisenhof, all in wool (Hundt 1981, 11, 15). In the 11th-13th centuries the 2/1 structure became much more common throughout north-west Europe, being used for
fine lozenge twills and coarse simple twills, both of wool (see for example the late Viking Age textiles from 6-8 Pavement in York, AY 17/3). However, the 2/1 carbonised weaves from 16-22 Coppergate have a closer resemblance to the earlier linen textiles from Britain and the Continent, in yarn-type and in general appearance, rather than to the later, medieval,
And one more note about linen, because this item also comes up regularly and I mentioned before that I use linen in far more colors than would have been available historically. We know that linen could be dyed blue, as it turns up in archaeology. Woad and Indigo coat the fiber shaft in a manner differently than others dyes, such as madder, where dye does not take up well and often results in a pale shade that is not light fast. I have personally gotten some pretty light yellows on linen with weld and Queen Anne's Lace, and a lovely soft coral with madder, but I do not know that I could say that the Viking Age Norse would have desired such subtle colors.
In my research on Stripes and Plaids, I did make note of several Viking Age examples of colored linen and those are noted below (again, this is not a formal nor complete survey):
- Birka 563: Blue linen fabric decorated with red twined string
- Birka 563: Rust colored linen (noted that it could be color deposited in the grave)
- Birka 762: Possible red linen underdress
- Birka: Linen and wool striped with blue and reddish-brown (the linen was blue), ribbed textile
- Birka 757: Plaid with 5-6 blue threads alternated with red and white
- Birka 60: Blue-green linen, possibly discolored from contact with bronze
- Kostrup ACQ: Blue linen tabby loop from an aprondress
- Hyrt in Voss, Norway: Blue linen underdress in a female grave
- Kaupang: Fine blue tabby
- Hedeby (Graves): Blue and white tabby linen, 4mm checks, likely an underdress
- Hedeby (Graves): Blue and red tabby linen
- Pskov: Blue linen underdress (pleated neckline), as well as blue linen loop and textile from the over dress
- Gnezdovo: Blue linen underdress (pleated neckline)
My Personal Plans
I plan to continue to use linen, rather than other bast fibers, for under garments and underdresses, and even occasionally headcoverings, in my more accurate kit. I might eventually incorporate a piece or two of twill linen as well, and my focus, in terms of color, will continue to be bleached, natural and blue linens over all. (For the bulk of my non-demo, non-teaching events, however, I will continue to use the spectrum of colors in my currently linen garments, but explaining, as I do now, the reasons behind my choices when discussing my garments.)
Bender Jørgensen, Lise. Prehistoric Scandinavian Textiles, (Det Kongelige Nordiske oldskriftselskab), 1986.
Ejstrud, Bo, Andresen, Stina, Appel, Amanda, Gjerlevsen, Sara and Thomsen, Birgit. “Experiments with flax at the Ribe Viking Centre” (Ribe Viking Centre & University of Southern Denmark), 2001.
Lukešová, Hana, Adrià Salvador Palau and Bodil Holst. "Identifying plant fibre textiles from Norwegian Merovingian Period and Viking Age graves." Journal of Archaeological Science: Reports, 2017.
Skoglund, G., Nockert, M, and Holst, B. “Viking and Early Middle Ages Northern Scandinavian Textiles Proven to be made with Hemp.” Scientific Reports, 2013.
Sørheim, H. "Three Prominent Norwegian Ladies with British Connections." Acta Archaeologica 82. (2011)
Walton Rogers, P. "Textiles, Cordage and Raw Fiber from 16-22 Coppergate,” The Archaeology of York Volume 17: The Small Finds. 1989.
Viklund, Karin. “Flax in Sweden: the archaeobotanical, archaeological and historical evidence.” Veget Hist Archaeobot, 2011.