Thursday, April 13, 2017

In Praise of

Today's post will be in praise of, EXARC's official website.

EXARC is the short name for the International Organisation of Archaeological Open Air Museums and Experimental Archaeology.  It is an affiliate of the International Council of Museums. According to its website, EXARC's special function is to "represent archaeological open-air museums and experimental archaeology in the international museum circles." Its home page may be found here.

Why am I writing about EXARC?  Because there turns out to be a surprising amount of excellent, inexpensive information on historic costume (as well as other areas of material culture) on the EXARC website.

For example, as I was exploring EXARC's site a few weeks ago, I found book reviews of these two recently-published works of archaeological clothing research:
Grömer, Karina. The Art of Prehistoric Textile Making: The Development of Craft Traditions and Clothing in Central Europe. (Naturhistorisches Museum, 1st ed., Feb. 1, 2016). 
Although this is not the case for all books reviewed on, the reviews of these two books include a link to a page where a digital copy can be obtained.   A Kindle or EPub copy of the Gordino book may be purchased for $5.99 U.S. here, and a free PDF of the Grömer book, in either English or German, may be downloaded here.  I am currently reading both of these books, and likely will review both of them on this blog. 

EXARC also publishes excellent articles about experimental archaeology projects, and scholarly articles about other areas of culture than clothing, on as an on-line, peer-reviewed journal. Some of the journal articles may be viewed only by EXARC members, which are limited to museums, persons affiliated with museums, and persons actively involved in experimental archaeology, but many of the articles are freely available to the public. There is a Paypal donation button on the EXARC site, and I urge everyone who can afford to do so to consider donating to EXARC's support.  

Monday, April 3, 2017

New Book Alert

Recently, I found a flyer advertising the following new book on
Stepanova, Iuliia. The Burial Dress of the Rus' in the Upper Volga Region (Late 10th-13th Centuries. Brill (March 2017).
According to the flyer:

"This book is devoted to the Old Rus’ dress of the Upper Volga area, as gleaned from the archaeological evidence of the burial sites. The organic remains of dress and metal and glass ornaments and fasteners are considered. Issues such as the social status and age of the buried individuals, as well as the influence of various ethnic groups (including East Slavic groups, Finno-Ugric tribes and the Balts) on the dress of the Old Rus’, are addressed through the study of variants of male and female headdresses, clothes and accessories. Furthermore, a detailed study of the evolution of the headdress and the structure of jewelry from the late 10th century to the 13th century is offered."

The book can be purchased from Brill here.  Unfortunately, it's expensive--$172.00 USD, or 149,00 Euros.  The e-book, unfortunately, is not much cheaper.--$157.00 USD.  Brill does have a program called Brill MyBook which allows scholars whose institutions have access to the on-line version of a Brill book to get a print-on-demand copy (in black-and-white only) for $25.00 USD/25 Euros.

I am not affiliated with an institution that belongs to the Brill program, and I have more pressing uses for $172.00.  However, I'm going to try getting a copy by interlibrary loan in a few months.  If any of my readers obtain a copy, I hope they will write about it in the comments.

Saturday, April 1, 2017

Secrets of the Historical Costumers Revealed!

Here is the perfect costuming post for a day like today (note today's date). 

Most costumers have cats, and blog about them. But this isn't just a costumer's cat, it's a costuming cat! Or at least a sewing cat. (She's so intense! I want to pet her gently and say, "It's okay! Take your time. It will come out all right!") 

This GIF is even historical, in a sense, because the cat is clearly not using an electric sewing machine; so her project must have been done no later than the early 20th century. Though how she is cranking the machine is beyond me. Cats can't work foot pedals, and she's got both front paws on the fabric!  (Maybe it is an electric machine, designed to look as though it has a wheel operated by a pedal. Or maybe the hand crank or pedal is located below the working surface and is being operated by a person who can't be seen in the animation.) 

Many thanks to P. Jennifer Christie, who spotted this GIF and posted it on Facebook, where I saw it. Happy April Fool's Day!

Wednesday, March 15, 2017

Recreating the Egtved Skirt

A day or two ago, I rediscovered the Facebook page of the Friends of Archaeological Textiles Review, which I recommend to historical costume buffs, particularly those interested in early period costume.  There is pure gold in some of the URLs posted on that Facebook page.

The most interesting item I have discovered on the Friends of ATR page so far is the video that appears to the left.  This video shows Professor Ida Demant, an archaeologist at Sagnlandet Lejre in Denmark, making a reproduction of the Egtved skirt, and explaining what she is doing, in English, while she is working.  The basic technique is to make a tablet-woven belt, leaving long weft loops, and twisting the loops together to make the thick fringe.  The video concludes with a few seconds of footage showing a young woman modeling the finished product for an outdoor audience.

To watch Professor Demant make this skirt is to acquire a new appreciation for the skills of textile workers in ancient times.  I commend it to anyone interested in the making of textiles as well as to persons interested in Bronze Age costume.

Sunday, March 12, 2017

A Random Thought About Viking Apron Dresses

Simple wool tube apron dress
(photo by my husband)
A pair of flat apron dresses,
wrapped in opposite directions
(photo by my husband)
A lined, wrapped, flat apron dress
(photo by my husband)
This afternoon, I had a random thought about Viking apron dresses--the sleeveless overdress associated with heavy bronze tortoise brooches that is associated with women's graves in Scandinavia during the Viking age. The purpose of this post is to clarify that thought and explain it.

As Hilde Thunem and others have observed, the surviving archaeological evidence at Kostrup shows that the Kostrup apron dress likely was a tube with a small section of pleating, probably located at the center front. The Hedeby fragment, believed to have been from an apron dress though this cannot be determined with certainty because it was not found in a grave, likely was part of a fitted garment. If that garment was an apron dress, it too would have been generally tube-shaped.

In her excellent general research article on apron dresses, Ms. Thunem summarizes a large number of textile finds that also appear to be from apron dresses. She mentions a number of textile finds in Norway that include pleated wool sections, similar to the pleated section on the Kostrup find.

Based upon these finds, Ms. Thunem and others have concluded that the apron dress, despite differences in design, generally had a tube shape throughout Scandinavia.  For that reason, she is comfortable with using the term smokkr to describe it.  Smokkr, a word used to describe a woman's clothing in one of the Norse sagas, is etymologically related to the verb that means "to creep through"--an apt name for a tube-shaped garment.

But if you examine all of the Scandinavian evidence in context, the overall picture is slightly different. Here is a brief summary of that evidence as I understand it.
  • The textile finds that support the idea of a tube-shaped dress with pleats or a fitted dress of some kind come from Norway and Denmark, not Sweden.
  • The Birka finds (from Sweden) believed to be part of an apron dress are not pleated, and do not show a seam or other evidence indicating that they might be part of a tube-shaped garment.
  • The Pskov find (from Russia) that is believed to have been part of an apron dress (the folded textile fragments found wrapped around tortoise brooches) also does not appear to have had a seam.
  • There are no finds in Norway or Denmark that resemble the Birka "apron dress" finds, which Agnes Geijer theorized were wrapped around the body instead of being sewn into a tube.
The thought I had this afternoon is that perhaps apron dress construction differed by region.  So far, the physical evidence amply supports Hilde Thunem's conclusion that apron dresses in Norway and Denmark were constructed in a general tube shape, a shape which evolved (possibly by becoming more fitted?) over time.

In contrast, the physical evidence suggests that Swedish apron dresses, and likely also the Pskov garment, were flat sheets furnished with small loops, which were wrapped around the body to form an overdress.   But this evidence does not necessarily contradict Ms. Thunem's conclusion that apron dresses were tube-shaped all over Scandinavia.  Although a wrapped apron dress looks very different from a sewn-tube-shaped dress when they are not being worn, both types can look very similar in wear.  The photographs of three of my apron dresses, shown at the upper right, illustrate the point.

I also agree with Ms. Thunem that Flemming Bau's theory of open-fronted apron dresses is not well-supported by the evidence.  She correctly notes that Inga Hagg and Thor Ewing explain why the physical evidence Bau cites does not require, let alone compel, the conclusion that any of the finds to which Bau refers was an open-fronted overdress.

So although the apron dress may have been made in different ways in different places at different times during the Viking age, its basic appearance--that of a tube suspended from tortoise brooches--tended to remain the same.    Ms. Thunem notes that there may have been minor differences in appearance.  I agree, and I think such differences likely resulted from differences in construction, as I've suggested above.  Moreover, since images of women on Viking pendants and other period art do not clearly show the apron dress, they provide no reason either to argue for a particular construction or to refute the theory that all apron dresses appeared to be tube-shaped in wear.

If any of my readers know of Swedish finds that support the idea of a tube-shaped construction, or of any evidence that might bear upon apron dress construction that is not discussed by Hilde Thunem or referred to above, please let me know in the comments.

Tuesday, March 7, 2017

The Woman in Blue--Online!

I just learned from a post by Jenn Culler on one of the Viking era clothing groups on Facebook that the Northern Women's Arts Collaborative has put a substantial version of the clothing information about the "Lady in Blue" find on the Internet, in English.  Go here to see the page, complete with illustrations, for yourself.  

A second page, webbed by the same group, provides an excellent English language description of the Marled Maher's and Marianne Guckelsberger's project of recreating the apron dress in which the "Lady in Blue" was buried.  That page may be found here.

Links to other textile projects, some of which have relevance to the Viking period, can be found at the home page for the Northern Women's Arts Collaborative, here. Enjoy! 

Sunday, March 5, 2017

Fine Fabric In the Bronze Age

Many people who aren't knowledgeable about historical costume assume that clothing in early times, including the Bronze Age, was coarse and heavy and bulky to wear.  

Early Greek and Roman sculpture show that that wasn't true in the Mediterranean--the fine drapery shown in those sculptures could not have been achieved with coarse fabric.  And archaeological finds from early Egyptian tombs show their skill at thin, translucent, fine linen. 

Somehow, it's hard to imagine fine fabrics showing up in northern Europe much before the Middle Ages.  The Hammerum dress, for example, was brightly dyed and well-woven, but rather thick and graceless in appearance, if the recent reconstruction of the dress by Museum Midtjylland is a realistic guide.  But a recent discovery in England, of all places, suggests that fine fabric was not worn solely in southern Europe during the Bronze Age.  The Independent published a news article summarizing the discovery here.

According to the article in The Independent, the site is about 30 miles northwest of Cambridge at a place called Must Farm near Whittlesea, Cambridgeshire, and the finds are approximately 3,000 years old. Over 100 different textile fragments have been found there so far, along with evidence that textile production took place at the site.  The finest specimens found are linen, and appear to have been of sizes that would naturally be used for draped garments, according to the article, which reports:
Some of the yarn is of superfine quality – with some threads being just 100 microns (1/10 of a millimetre) in diameter, while some of the fabrics themselves are so finely woven that they have 28 threads per centimetre, fine even by modern standards. It’s likely that some of the fragments of textile are from items of clothing.
Originally, some of the textiles must have been of very substantial size – because they had been folded, in some cases in up to 10 layers. If made to be worn, these folded fabrics may well have been large garments, potentially, capes, cloaks – or even large drapes, perhaps similar to those known from elsewhere in the ancient (and sometimes modern) worlds – the ancient Greek chiton, the Roman toga and the Indian sari. A drape folded into 10 layers for temporary storage would have served as a substantial garment – potentially up to 3 metres square (i.e. 9 square metre).
There is no evidence that the fabrics found had been dyed, but this is not surprising due to the difficulty of dyeing linen with the vegetable dyes available during the Bronze Age.

There is other evidence that this site was the location of a wealthy village.  Jewelry items, notably glass beads, were also found, and the beads appear to have come from the eastern Mediterranean, probably Syria or Turkey.  Metal tools and articles, such as tweezers and razors, axes and awls, were found, along with wooden buckets and ceramic bowls and containers.  The evidence also indicates that the site was burned less than a year after it was built, and then was depopulated--food and food items found in place indicate that the people didn't just move away but were killed, enslaved, or both.

If you care about early material culture, including clothing, in Europe, keep an eye out for information about Must Farm--there is a lot of material to analyze that may completely change our view of the cultural history of northern Europe.