Sunday, September 20, 2009

Viking Appliqué?

When I was first learning how little we actually know about Viking era costume, I came upon the following statement in Compleat Anachronist #59, an SCA publication about women's costume in early, post-Roman Empire northern Europe, including Viking costume:
Decorative cutout-shapes of tabby or samite silk were also applied to the gown layer. (p. 42)
This statement, coupled with a few assertions along the general lines that "appliqué" was liberally used by the Vikings, led me to concoct the piece of modern-style pieced-together-with-scraps-of-fabric applique shown in the photograph as ornamentation for the bottom of my "tea towel" style apron dress.

I eventually learned that my original idea of Viking applique shown in the photograph was almost certainly wrong (though sewing it--by hand--had been fun to do). I also later learned that the reference to "cutout shapes" in CA #59 was to an artifact in the Oseberg find, and that they were "animal" shapes, but I have yet to find a photograph, or even a good description, of those shapes. So over the years I have continued to wonder what the Oseberg "appliqué" looked like, and how close it might be to the modern idea of appliqué (i.e., a picture composed of cutout fabric shapes, instead of simply "braid and other pretty stuff sewn onto a garment as decoration").

Tonight, I re-read a Web article I'd found a while ago titled "How to Make a Norse Coat", by Comitessa Asa Beiskalda (formerly known as Countess Serena of the Black Ness). (I'd give the URL for the article, but I don't have it anymore.) The Comitessa's essay described her technique for making a Viking caftan coat; I had printed it out in case it had useful information on possible construction techniques for the next time I attempt to make such a coat.

To my surprise, however, she included, in her section on ornamentation, the following description of the Oseberg "appliqué":
The closest I have come to fully documenting applique is the use of silk pieces decorated with embroidery, then applied to the garment. The Oseburg [sic] burial unearthed a find like this with delicate animals done in chain stitch with silk thread, on a silk strip. It used yellow and red thread, with each animal appearing in its own roundel.
I was surprised because I had read this Web article before and had not recalled these two sentences. (That shows you the value of re-reading sources multiple times.) But I was also pleased, because this description gives a much better idea of what the actual find must be like than any of the other second-hand descriptions I had previously found. It suggests that the Oseberg "appliqué" find consists of a strip of silk fabric, with roundels cut from another piece of fabric sewn onto it. Each roundel, in turn, has a silk animal cutout sewn onto the roundel and chain stitching done around the edges of the cutout to hide the join between the two fabrics.

I still have no way to confirm whether my description of the Oseberg appliqué is accurate, but I do know that from the Late Roman Empire onward, animals and other objects or figures in roundels or squares were common decorative motifs, such as this Coptic example. Here an even later one, from 11th or 12th century Egypt, that features an animal. It would make sense that the Vikings would attempt to copy such a motif.

So although I now have a few more scraps of second-hand information, I have a better idea of what the Oseberg "appliqué" looks like. Is there a picture of it in existence? Does the big (and horribly expensive) book on the Oseberg textile finds include it? I wish I knew.


  1. I suspect that the embroidered applique you're describing is the 'Illustration page 179 top.' here:

    But I always interpreted it as being a strip of fabric that was embroidered, and then the silk was appliqued on. Does that make any sense?

    and Asa's article is here:

  2. Hi, Asa here. Thanks for reading my article! I was just about to post the link to the illustration that is already posted above, thanks Pearl! I agree with her, I interpret it as a strip of fabric with embroidered chain stitch on it, which itself is attached to a garment, making the strip the applique - what Pearl said!

    I mentioned applique in my article as it's one of my favourite & easy ways of decorating my garb, and I wanted to mention why I do it, & that the evidence is only scant - I didn't want anyone taking my garb as gospel & reproducing it faithfully without knowing I freely admit it may not be accurate! I've got some other bits & pieces of research/web sites that you may be interested in, if you'd like, feel free to contact me on

  3. Re: pearl's comment.

    Thanks for the link to Asa's article!

    I've been looking at the "illustration page 179 top" and I agree with you; that looks, to me, like a picture of embroidery on a silk strip. That's what I'd always assumed that picture showed. Of course, if that's what that picture is, it isn't "appliqué" in the modern sense.

    Then it seems to me that you're saying that there was no decoration consisting of "cutout shapes" in the Oseberg find; it's just a misreading of illustrations of the embroidery that is there. That could certainly be true, disappointing though I would find it.

  4. Re: Asa's comment:

    I thought your article was very interesting and useful; thanks for commenting.

    I see that you agree with pearl that there were not "cutout shapes" and the only "appliqué" in the Oseberg find is of the kind that is found in many Viking finds, i.e., strips of pretty stuff sewn onto clothes as decoration. As I told pearl, that could well be true. I just wish I could look at photos of the Oseberg textiles and decide for myself! (Guess I'd better save up for the big book.)

    I may take you up on your offer to share other reference with me; thanks again.

  5. Cathy, I think there are two different things you're mixing up.

    The first is the applique mentioned by Asa, which is an embroidered silk strip (or so it seems).

    The 'cutout shapes' vaguely mentioned in English-language texts are consistently described as being a tabby wool. (eg. in Dress in Anglo-Saxon Clothing.)

    I would conclude that they are two different things. Of course, it is possible that the CA pamphlet, or Owen-Crocker have mis-translated somewhere, but assuming that Owen-Crocker is correct implies there are numerous appliques found in the grave, and at least one set is shaped and woolen.

  6. Cathy, I think there are two different things you're mixing up.

    Yes, no doubt; I'm working off of second, third, and probably fourth-hand reports from several sources, trying to get a handle on what the evidence might be, if any, from the Oseberg find for "cutout shapes" sewn on clothing. :-)

    Asa said, above, that she was talking about the embroidered silk strip, so her article clearly isn't addressing the "cutouts" issue, as you point out.

    As the passage you showed me from "Dress in Anglo-Saxon England" shows, Owen-Crocker does state that the Oseberg find involved "appliqué work in wool, silk embroidery in rings and embroidered seams. [The Oseberg queen's] attendant's gown also had appliqué work in a tabby-woven wool. The appliquéd shapes represented, among other things, animal heads." (emphasis mine).

    I can't quarrel with your reading of this passage as asserting that the "cutout shapes" at Oseberg were made of wool, not silk as CA#59 said. (Though I wish it had been clearer; I probably didn't connect it with the "cutout shapes" on my original reading because of the way she sneaks in the reference to "appliquéd shapes" after starting out talking vaguely about "appliqué work" in wool.) And I wouldn't be surprised if CA#59 were simply wrong about what fabric the shapes were made from.

    On the other hand (to my disappointment), Owen-Crocker doesn't give a source for her statement either--though she carefully cites sources for other statements in the same paragraph. So again I've got a second- (third?) hand source!

    Thanks for reminding me of the Owen-Crocker reference. It is definitely relevant information, despite its tantalizing incompleteness.

  7. One last word.

    The summary (translation?) of Anne Stine Ingstad's article about the Oseberg finds that pearl cited earlier also contains references to the cutout shapes. The first one appears near the end of the discussion of the wool fabrics:

    Some of the fine tabby, blue fabrics have been cut up for applications, which amongst other things portray animal figures.

    So now I think I see where Owen-Crocker's reference to "appliquéd shapes" in wool comes from!

    The second reference comes at the end of the section discussing the embroideries:

    Finally some small applications in the blue tabby should be mentioned. Several of them represent animal figures, but they are also clumsily done.

    So this adds a bit to my knowledge. It says: 1) that the "cutouts" were small; 2) that they were made from fine blue-tabby wool; 3) that at least "several" of them were animal figures, and; 4) that they were "clumsily done."

    That's still more information than I had before. I'm a bit annoyed at myself, since I have read all of these sources--I simply failed to connect-up what I was seeing, and realize that they were trying to talk about the same thing.

    However, I still wish I had a photograph of them. Ingstad doesn't say where they were sewn, or which garment/s (?) they were sewn to; whether they were sewn directly onto a garment or to a backing strip; or whether they were embroidered as well as being sewn onto...something.