The starting point of this project was to try to find interpretations of female Viking Age dress that did not include the apron dress, based on silver figurines with depictions of dress. The figurines are found on Birka (two finds, 108915 and 108916) and one very similar find in Russia (the link is to a flickr-album, but it’s the only image I’ve found of this online). Both the figurines and textile finds from the Viking Age (especially Birka) have been consulted, but the look of the figurines have had more weight in the interpretations.
A lot of different mock-ups were made, both in fabric and paper, based on the assumption of one undergarment and one overgarment. The patterns were all based on geometrical shapes as that is an old construction technique. Since there are no surviving clothes from the Viking Age, only small pieces of cloth and imprints of textiles on metal finds, the assumption of geometrical shapes seemed like a plausible alternative.
The main overgarment of the experiment was woven on a warpweighted loom in a diamond/broken lozenge twill. The final pattern of the overgarment was dependant on time, and amount of fabric by the end of the project, resulting in a garment open in the sides with one triangular gore in the back. It works, but I wonder if it would have been more like the final mock-up, with narrow side gores as well as the back gore. That idea will have to wait for the future! The sewing thread was the same as the warp and weft thread of the woven fabric, and there were very little fabric left overs after construction.
As I didn’t get the idea of a collar to work, the finished overgarment is collarless.
The other overgarment in this project was a Barbie-sized rabbit fur overgarment. The full size Viking Age alternative would have been made of fur from a wild animal. The untanned rabbit skin was a gift, and I tanned it with salix bark scrubbing.
The undergarment was sewn from bought woollen fabric, in a shade of blue attainable with woad, the Viking Age blue dye plant. It was hand sewn with wool thread, and a few different Viking Age stitches were tried in the garment. The final pattern for the undergarment was a “classic” shift pattern with long sleeves. One of the mock-ups with wider upper sleeves did not seem like a plausible construction when compared to the “classic” construction and the sleeve width of the figurines, since the sleeves are looser on the overarm even without the exaggeration.
A third garment?
Is it possible with a shorter dress between the undergarment and the overgarment – or has there been a decorated lower hem on the undergarment? The decorated lower hem has no support in the archaeological finds, but to my knowledge there are no lower hems preserved at all, so supported with the iconic evidence, the Barbie-sized version had a decoration on the lower hem. The human-sized version had instead a shorter, sleeveless third dress, which I already had in stash. (This is where the apron dress can have been a possibility in this outfit, though it’s not visible in the iconic material, and I wanted to come away from the apron dress for this project!)
Instead of a collar, I used a scarf made from the same fabric as the underdress in the finished human-sized version. In the Barbie-version, I skipped it because the fur made it redundant.
The overgarment would probably have been dyed in a fairly strong colour, possibly with several different dye baths to create a darker shade. One part of this project was trying fermented bark dye baths, both birch bark and salix bark. Unfortunately I didn’t get the fermentation going enough, possibly due to the plastic containers or temperature, or that I started out with a lye that had a too high pH-value (13 instead of 10). The resulting colours of both wool and linen yarn were quite pale, redish brown. It should be possible to get quite strong colours with this method, so there will be more dye experiments in the future!
Viking Age Weaving
One unexpected part of this project was the experiments of the Viking Age set-up of the warp. A double tabby weave set-up proved similar to a preserved Viking Age set-up, which differs from the “modern” diamond/broken lozenge twill set-up on a warpweighted loom. There are also differences between the shape of the “diamonds” in modern diamond/broken lozenge twills, compared to the Viking Age finds, which could be attributed to the warpweighted vs. the horisontal loom.
I also had warp threads breaking a lot. The warp was bought woolen single ply yarn, quite thin, but still quite thick in comparison with the surviving pieces of Viking Age fabrics. By the middle of the project I coated the warp threads with gelatine which worked well! (In hindsight I should have done it before setting up the warp…) It would be interesting to try whether own-spun yarn would work better, and also try different methods of dyeing (bark fermentation v.s. mordant+hot water) before weaving, to see how to minimize the risk of broken warp threads.
It’s possible that the knotted “hairdo” is a headkerchief or scarf of some sort, but with help from a friend with really long hair, we tried out possible ways to put up the hair with knots. The result was that it would take quite long hair (at least waistlength or longer) to put it up in a knot and also have hair left for the “tail”. A possible cheat for women with shorter hair could have been with tablet woven band or with a braid twisted around another braid, as my hair is in the final photos. (There are Viking Age finds of tablet woven band across the head in graves, some of them have indications of being a hood or a headkerchief, some of them don’t, so the tablet woven band idea is an experiment!)
Update on hairdos
I did a talk about this project at a historic fashion show in Gamla Uppsala, and I had the hair from the silver figurine interpreted by a hairdresser. So here is another, more elaborate interpretation of the hairdo. On a side note, it was such a great thing to have professional hairdressers to interpret the hairdos of images from 500-1500 AD on the models of the fashion show! The photo was taken after the show and the talk, when I realized I had no pictures of my hair, so I’m not in the dress anymore.
Going into Viking Age clothing, a lot of guesswork is at hand! I have come up with something that looks similar to the figurines, with techniques that are at least possible with the information we have from finds. The overgarment would have been dyed, not left undyed, and could possibly have some more width from other gores, or some kind of train (though in this project, we discarded the train idea in favour of the width from gores-idea, as the feet were visible on many of the figurines). The overgarment could have been made from fur, or from fabric, possibly from a more pleated fabric than in this project. To summarize, it’s a possible outfit, but it’s guesswork.
Some of the sources
Note: This list is not an academic reference list! These are the books I remember the titles of several months after the project finished, so there have been more! So, in hindsight, a reference list would have been a good idea….
I start by listing the title, then the author. If there is a link, the content is published online, and I hope with the author’s permission! If there isn’t a link, I’ve used the source in bookform, and some might be difficult to buy as they might be out of print (and very popular in the second hand markets).
Books and resources easily available:
- Iconic Costumes. Scandinavian late Iron Age costume iconography – Ulla Mannering.
- Dyes and Dyeing Methods in Late Iron Age Finland – Krista Vajanto.
- Skind og pels i vikingetid – Ulla Mannering. (Article in Danish)
- Historiska Museet (Swedish Museum of History) online collections
- Online collections from Digitalt Museum Norway and Sweden
Books that could be more difficult to get (try libraries!):
- The warp-weighted loom – Martha Hoffman.
- Kvinnodräkten i Birka – Inga Hägg.
- Forhistoriske textiler i Skandinavien – Lise Bender Jørgensen.
- Olddanske tekstiler / Ancient Danish Textiles – Margrethe Hald.
And the blog posts about this project are here.