Wednesday, February 21, 2018

Red Heels

Archaeological Textiles Review has just made its 2016 (vol 58) issue available for free download on its free downloads page here. (Follow the "download issue" link on the left, and when the subpage comes up in the box, click the link for "ATN 58".)

The lead article is about the surprising prevalence of surviving 17th century red-heeled and soled shoes in Denmark, but the articles that interest me the most are the following articles about surviving 10th-11th century textiles from Russia.  
Kochkurkina, Svetlana & Orfinskaya, Olga.  Archaeological Textiles of the 10th to the 12th Century from the Gaigovo Barrow Group in Russia.  Archaeological Textiles Review, vol. 58, p. 21.
Frei, Karin Margarita,  Makarov, Nikolaj, Nosch, Marie-Louise, Skals, Irene, Vanden Berge, Ina & Zaytseva, Irina.  An 11th-Century 2/2 Twill from a Burial in Shekshovo in Russia.  Archaeological Textiles Review, vol. 58, p. 34.
The Gaigovo Barrow finds are especially fascinating in that they contain many specimens of tablet weaving as well as jewelry.  Happy reading!

Sunday, February 11, 2018

To Make A Bag

Having discovered on Etsy a reasonably-priced pair of wooden bag frames based upon one of the Hedeby finds, I impulsively decided to make my own Hedeby bag.  Naturally, the Historical Sew Monthly challenge where this fits best is the November challenge, but perhaps I can delay completion of this project item until October, the month before (which is permitted under the HSM rules).

What I have already discovered is that I am thinking about the construction of these bags in a significantly different light than I did before I had actually planned to make one.  Before I sat down to plan how I wanted to make the bag, I was looking at the idea of bag-making in terms of what would be possible, based upon materials and processes we know were available during the Viking Age.

Once I had ordered my reproduction wooden pieces (they aren't really "handles," as I may have called them, because it is not possible to hold the bag well just by using them; the cord or strap threaded through them is the only real handle such bags have), my thinking changed.  I began to consider what would be most likely given what I know about Viking textile technology and other material culture practices.

Part of this change was driven by additional information I obtained from Kristine Risberg's post about her Haithabu bag project.  From that post, I learned that one of the Haithabu frame pieces was found with wool ("fabric or yarn", according to Kristine) through holes which are in a natural place to use to fasten the bag to the frame.  That suggests that wool was used to fasten the frame to the bag, which in turn suggests that at least some of these bags may have been made from wool.

Even more interesting is that similar bags, with bone or antler frames instead of wooden ones, appear to have been used on leather food bags from Lappland, according to an early article by Arvid Julius.  The idea that the Viking bags were also used for food is supported, to some extent, by their sizes.  The Lapp (i.e., Sami) bags discussed by Julius were 20, 22, and 24 centimeters long which is close to the size of my reproduction (about 23 cm/9 inches long).  However, some of the Hedeby frames were much larger.  According to Kristine, the examples in the Haithabu Museum "are described by Westphal to "have a length of 181-495 mm and a thickness of 7-13 mm". The thickness of my piece is within that range, but its length is on the small end of the range. 181 - 495 mm equal 18.1 - 49.5 cm, or about 7 - 19 inches. In other words, the Haithabu bags were somewhere between lunch bag size and shopping bag size.  The Birka frames were largely incomplete fragments, but the one set of fragments that appear to constitute a single frame are 282 mm or 28.2 cm (11 inches) in length--within the range of the Haithabu frames though near the lower end of the range.  At 9 or so inches, my bag would be among the smaller bags based upon these finds, but I am content to make a (roughly) lunch bag sized container for this project.

The Sami frames were ornamented with simple carving, while the Haithabu and Birka examples were plain, their shaping being the only ornamental element.  Viking Age tools and useful articles differ greatly in how ornamental they are.  For example, most Viking needlecases and spindles are plain, though some examples bear simple decoration.  The wooden Viking frames fall on the low side of the decorative spectrum, which suggests that the bags they were part of were not adorned in a showy manner.  The likelihood that these were utilitarian items is further supported by the fact that, to the best of my knowledge, none of them came from graves--the Birka examples, for instance, were found not in any of the graves, but in an underwater area that was long known "to contain wooden logs and cultural layers."  With these facts in mind, I selected the components from which the bag would be made. Pictures of them appear with this post, and my rationale for each will be discussed below. 
WOOD: The birch frames

The elements to be decided upon for making the bag include: (1)  the type of wood for the frame;  (2) the material from which to make the body of the bag; (3) whether to line the bag and, if so, what material to use; (4) the color, weight, and (if using fabric) weave of the materials for the bag; (5) what material to use for the handle (e.g., fiber cord or leather strap), and how long a length of cord/strap to use, and; (6) how and whether to decorate the bag, and what materials to use for decoration.  Here's the reasoning I used to make each of those decisions.

BAG:  Wool felt fabric for the bag itself.
WOOD:  The frame pieces of the original finds that Kristine discusses in her post are typically ash or maple.  It is possible to purchase reproduction maple frames, but they tend to be more expensive ($30-$40 USD per pair).  The crafter from whom I bought my frame pieces uses birch and stains them walnut-colored, but I did not like the look of the staining and thus asked her not to stain my set.  (In addition, staining the frames I received would make it very obvious that that the wood grain on them runs vertically, instead of horizontally across the length of the frame as is true of all the original finds of which I've seen good photographs or drawings.)  The low price ($15 USD for frames that are about 9 inches/23 cm long) led me to go with the birch frames. 

BAG MATERIAL:  Strong, water-repellent, light, easily available--wool, the workhorse fabric of the Vikings, is a logical choice for a food bag.  The only drawback, if we're assuming the frame bags were used for food, is the possibility of moth damage, but that can be evaded with care and with using the bag solely for foods that are already wrapped or have natural protective coatings (such as apples or eggs).  

There are many different types of wool fabric, and that would have been true even in the Viking Age.  I purchased a fairly thick felt, since it seemed unlikely that a fine wool, suitable for elegant clothing, would have been used for a mere bag in the Viking Age.  Fine wool scraps might have been used for ornamenting an item, or for making small items such as hats or mittens, but a bag of the size that would match my frames would be need to be bigger, at least 9 inches wide and as much as 24 inches long--more than a mere scrap.  I selected a dark brown (the actual color is much darker than it shows in the photograph here) because such a color could be easily achieved on wool during the Viking Age, either with dyes or by using the wool of a dark brown sheep.  I have seen pictures of some lovely herringbone wool Haithabu-type bags, and I was tempted by vendors who were selling some truly lovely herringbone twills on line, but herringbone twill wool is not that common a fabric in the Viking Age, and I suspect such wool would be reserved for clothing or other items more display-oriented than these simple bags seem likely to have been.

LINING:  Linen for lining.
LINING: The Sami bags, being leather, would not necessarily need to be lined. However, what limited indication we have is that the Vikings made their bags from wool.  Since food stains on wool tend to attract moths, leading to fabric damage, it would make sense to line a wool food bag in a material other than wool.

The other commonly used fabric in the Viking Age was linen. We have no information that the Vikings used linen, waxed or dry, to wrap food, though there are hints in some of the Birka graves that linen was used as linings for dresses, underclothing, or both. But linen is not subject to moth damage, which would make it useful for a wool food bag lining.  If one uses a "bag" style lining (i.e., a lining that is sewn separately from the outer bag and sewn to it only at the top), it would be possible to remove the lining and replace it with a new one if the old one became too damaged or soiled in use.  In addition, I had a suitably sized scrap of linen in a plausible period color, so a linen lining was a reasonable choice.

COLORS:  Substances were available in the Viking Age could dye wool in many cheerful tones of the primary colors.  Originally, I thought I would use dark blue wool for the bag, since I had some large scraps of blue coat-weight wool on hand, and it's a color I really like.  However, judging by the fine wool smokkrs found at Birka and Køstrup, blue seems to have been a prestigious color during the Viking Age.  In contrast, the frame bags do not seem to have been heavily decorated items, and not the type of item one ornamented to flaunt one's wealth.  So it seemed best to stick to a color consistent with the undyed wools available to the Vikings, which came mostly in grays and browns.  
HANDLE:  Cotton cord; not authentic, but expedient.

With regard to the lining, linen is difficult to dye with the materials and techniques of the Viking Age, and a utilitarian bag would not need a fancy colored lining.  Most of the scrap linen I have on hand is either white (to mimic bleached linen) or light blue (a prestige color, again).  I do have some medium-weight linen in a light antique gold color that did not seem too fancy but would still make a pleasing contrast with the dark brown, so I chose that for the lining. 

HANDLE:  Wool cord didn't seem like a good material to use for the handle of a bag that might hold rather heavy objects (such as apples), because wool tends to stretch with use and would be vulnerable to breaking from stress.  Leather stretches much less and is much stronger, but an appropriate weight and color of leather would have significantly increased the cost of the project.  A quick search of my stash produced a length of heavy cotton cord in a cheerful yellow color, with a diameter just small enough to thread through the holes in the frames.  Though it's unlikely the Vikings had access to significant amounts of cotton, and equally unlikely that a bast fiber such as linen, ramie or hemp could be dyed that shade of yellow with Viking Age dyes, I selected the cord because it was suitable for my budget for the project.  

As a practical matter, the cord for one of these frame bags has to be at least long enough so that the bag could open fully.  Medieval pilgrims' bags had straps long enough to allow the bag to be carried over the shoulder, and since many existing frames indicate bags too large to hang on one's belt or easily carry in the hand, it is fortunate that I have enough cord to make it possible to use the proposed bag as a shoulder bag.

ORNAMENT:  Finer wool fabric for trim.
ORNAMENT:  I have seen photographs of reproduction bags on the Internet that were decorated with scraps of silk and/or embroidery.  If such bags were used as the Viking equivalent of a lunch bag, I suspect that such effort would have been deemed inappropriate.  But I could not tolerate the idea of making a totally plain bag, and suspect that many Viking women would have found some way to make even such a bag a bit less plain.  The fragments of apron dress from Birka that are trimmed with a simple wool cord indirectly support this idea.  So I bought a small piece of amber-colored wool, which I figured would harmonize with the other yellow components of the bag.  I will cut a piece of that wool that is about two inches (5 cm) wide, and stitch it around the top of the bag, just below the straps securing the frames.  That should look attractive without requiring the kind of effort that likely would have been reserved for formal clothing and other forms of status display during the Viking Age.  I could use it for the straps fastening the bag to the frame, but think that using the stronger felted wool would be structurally more sound for that purpose.

The best thing about a bag project is that its small size and geometrically-shaped pieces mean that it will be quick to assemble.  If I do not decide to save it for the November HSM, I should probably have it finished pretty soon.  When I have it completed, I will post pictures on this blog.

Tuesday, January 23, 2018

The Lengberg Finds and Late Medieval Tailoring

A few years ago, I wrote several posts drawing my readers' attention to the work of Beatrix Nutz with various 15th century undergarment finds from Lengberg Castle in East Tyrol.  A few days ago, I found the video that appears to the right of this blog, which shares some original research that is even more startling.  A webpage by the University of Innsbruck briefly describing this project can be seen here

The video is a narrated slideshow about the implications of the Lengberg finds for the history of tailoring. The slideshow was created by Professor Nutz and two independent American researchers, Rachel Case, and Marion McNealy, who used their long experience in historical sewing to make reproductions of some of the Lengberg finds to discover how they must have been created.   The result is a fascinating look at some long-forgotten techniques of European tailoring.

Their analysis started with the find that resembles a modern long-line bra: a few other costumers had previously recreated that item, as the links in this sentence show.  Rachel and Marion believed that the "bra" was actually only part of an undergarment which was more of a supportive dress, since the "bra" had a calf-length skirt attached.  They reasoned that, without a skirt, the bra would tend to ride up and be uncomfortable and less supportive.

Of even greater interest, and research value, were pleated pieces of linen that the team concluded was the underlayer of a dress.  Two such finds are discussed, one believed to have been made for a grown woman and one for a little girl.  The fact that bits of blue wool remain fastened to the right side of the linen tend to support that idea.  Between their review of period artworks showing dresses with similar shaping in the bodice area, analysis of the finds themselves, and their recreations, the three researchers reached some interesting conclusions.

Their first theory, as noted above, was that the "long-line" bra likely had an attached skirt. (I wonder what the costumers who have made non-skirted versions think of this idea.)

Their second theory is that the purpose of the pleated sections of the dress-lining was to shape the gown over the chest.  Though it isn't clear what purpose the pleats served for the little girl's dress, the effect of the pleats over the chest on the woman's dress would be to emphasize (without supporting, because the skirted bra undergarment does that) each breast separately as its own rounded shape--a profile that appears in period art and that Nutz/Case/McNealy call "apple breasts."

This "apple breast" shape was achieved, they believe, by stitching the pleated linen lining to the wool outer fabric by a technique used by modern tailors to create wool suits today.  It's called pad stitching.  The site has a tutorial explaining the technique here.  The lined garment would then be steamed or pressed to further perfect the shape of the gown, which would be worn with a skirted bra-type garment.  Bias-cut sections located in the strap areas are also critical for the correct shape.

Why didn't this tailoring style persist?  In the early 16th century, fashion for women shifted to styles that compressed the breast, and sometimes the waist, to create a more conical shape.  This silhouette was created primarily by an undergarment called "stays" and more recently, the "corset".  Shaping with a corset did not require unusual shaping of the gown, so the pad stitching fell into disuse, and the corset remained the primary women's shaping garment for the next 400 years.

This slideshow is heartily recommended as a great way to absorb the critical details of a key piece of new research from the Lengberg finds.

Saturday, January 20, 2018

Band and Cord for My Køstrup Project

The tablet-woven band and wool cord for the Køstrup apron dress that I am planning to make have arrived!  

I am very pleased with the quality of both band and cord, and also with the fact that the band and cord are a good match in color for each other (though the band looks much darker in my photographs).  The photographs are clickable to show the image larger and with more detail.

After I downloaded these pictures, it occurred to me that I had forgotten to include an item in them that would show the scale of the cord and band!  Perhaps some actual measurements will help.  From the beginning of the fringe on each end, the band measures 25.5 cm (about 10 inches) long and 1.8 cm (about 3/4ths of an inch) wide.  The cord looks as though it's a lighter blue than the band, but I think that is because it is plied from wool felt, and thus reflects light a little differently than the threads in the tablet-woven band.  

The fabric for the planned apron dress is a single-tone herringbone twill in a rose-red shade which should look lovely with the blue.  However, it will look visually different from the original Køstrup dress in at least two respects.  First, it will be in a twill weave (the Køstrup fragments are woven in tabby) and it will not be blue (the Køstrup fragments had been dyed blue).  But my primary objective is to demonstrate how I think the tablet woven band and the cords trimming it were fastened to the dress, and that should be easier to observe given that the dress itself will be a different color from the band.

Thursday, January 11, 2018

New ATR Articles About Clothing Reconstructions

For those of my readers who have, or can get, a subscription to Archaeological Textiles Review, be advised that Issue No. 59 of that publication is out.  For those who do not and cannot get a subscription, two of the articles in Issue No. 59 are available on
The Lendbreen tunic is a long-sleeved, longish shirt, probably for a thin, smallish man or an adolescent boy, that was found in the ice near Lendbreen, Norway; it is dated to the third century CE.  The Lendbreen project actually made two reproductions:  one for the Museum of Cultural History at the University of Oslo and the Norwegian Mountain Centre in Lom.  The wool of the Norwegian Villsau sheep was chosen because these sheep have a coat with both fine and coarse fiber.  The wook was hand rooed (i.e., plucked from the sheep) but spun by machine to save time and cost.  Fabric for the project was woven on a warp-weighted loom and sewn by hand emulating the period stitches used.  The two tunics took a total of 804.5 hours to make.

In contrast, Ida Demant's reconstruction of the Egtved girl's clothing from the Bronze Age (a short wool blouse and a corded skirt) took surprisingly little time to make.  The corded skirt (actually a skirt made of separate plied cords incorporated into a waistband, as the article itself points out) took an estimated 30-35 hours to make.  Demant does not discuss how long the blouse took, but it was woven in a simple tabby weave, and the sewing involved is not complicated, as I learned when I made a cruder version of the same garment.

Both articles look fascinating and I plan to plunge into them in greater detail.  People interested in reconstruction of historical clothing, as well as people interested in Scandinavian Iron Age and Bronze Age clothing, owe it to themselves to study these accounts.  

Monday, January 8, 2018

Lengberg--The Fingerloop Braids

Today I found more information about the Lengberg Castle textile finds. Professor Beatrix Nutz just posted a slideshow-type presentation about fingerloop braids that are part of some of the finds on  That slideshow can be downloaded here; it is written in English.

In addition to including photographs of some of the braid-containing finds and also reproductions of images showing the fingerloop braiding process, Professor Nutz's slideshow contains citations and references to fingerloop braiding instruction manuals of the 15th century, as well as some 16th and 17th century books.  Some of the books contain specimens of braids pasted into their pages. 

Professor Nutz's slideshow also shows the different ways that fingerloop braids became part of the textile fragments where they were found.  Some of them were attached to the edges of sprang pieces that were used to ornament some of the undergarments, probably to help stabilize them.  Other braids were used to ornamentally connect two pieces of linen for a garment, while still others were found as separate items and may have served as laces (fastening cords).  It even includes instructions on how to work a couple of the braids found.

There is a wealth of information concisely expressed in the slideshow.  It is worth studying by anyone interested in fingerloop braiding, or late medieval clothing.

Tuesday, December 26, 2017

A Køstrup Band!

In her paper on the Køstrup smokkr, Hilde Thunem mentions that she persuaded a friend to make a tablet-woven band for her Køstrup smokkr (i.e., apron dress) because she could not do one herself.    Nor can I; I do not know how to do brocaded tablet weaving, and I do not have the time and patience to acquire such skill at present.  

However, a week or two ago, I was delighted to discover that a seller on Etsy is selling reproductions of various Birka bands, and of the Køstrup one as well!  You can see the seller's Etsy store here, and one version of the Køstrup band is selling here.  I have already ordered that band for the Køstrup smokkr I'm planning to make.

Another Etsy vendor is selling a plied wool felt cord here; I will probably order that for my project as well.