Saturday, October 3, 2009

Viking Lucets

A few months ago, I got involved in a discussion on the Norsefolk2 list about whether Scandinavians used lucets to make cord during the Viking era. A lucet is a two (or sometimes four) pronged tool used to fashion a continuous piece of string into a cord. The form of lucet that is commonly used and sold today only goes back to the Victorian era, but some people believe that certain finds of two-pronged objects were used as lucets. The Norsefolk2 discussion starts here.

Before that discussion, I had been aware that there have been heated discussions among reenactors and historical costumers about whether the Vikings used lucets or not, but I didn't really know what support existed for the hypothesis that they used such devices. It turns out that the most solid piece of evidence for the use of lucets in the Viking era comes from a grave find at Barshalder, in Sweden, which was the subject of an article by Kerstin Pettersson. Here's the full citation of her article, for the curious:

Kerstin Pettersson, "En gotländsk kvinnas dräkt. Kring ett textilfynd från vikingatiden," Tor 12, 1967-1968. Societas Archaeologica Upsaliensis, Uppsala, pp. 174 - 200.
Ms. Pettersson's article (of which I have obtained the gist primarily from the English-captions on the accompanying photographs, since the text itself is in Swedish) discusses two pieces of cord found in the grave, one of which apparently held beads, and the other of which appeared to be fastened to one of the tortoise brooches in the grave in a position that suggested a shoulder strap. Whether such cords were used for straps on apron dresses, however, is not the part of the discussion I'm focusing on right now. What I'm interested in is the evidence for the use of lucets in the Viking era, and what a "Viking lucet" might have looked like.

The Barshalder cords have a square cross-section, like the cord made by lucets, according to Sandy Sempel of Frojel Gotlandica, who has had an opportunity to see them in person. Like lucet cord and unlike cords made by fingerlooping, the Barshalder cords appear to be made from one continuous length of string. It seems likely that, if cord with the physical properties of lucet cord (shape, made from a continuous piece of yarn, etc.) is found in a Viking era grave, that the Vikings had a device that could make such a cord.

There are an astounding variety of different objects from Viking period digs that have been labeled as lucets. They range from elegant, highly carved and decorated two-pronged objects, to elegantly shaped but rather plain tubes with prongs, to pointed and crudely shaped pieces of bone. I am far from convinced that all of these items were used for the making of cords of any kind. Any two-pronged object can be used in the same manner as a lucet to make cord; I've even seen a picture of an upside-down chair being used to twine a rope. It's even possible, I'm told, to use two outstretched fingers for the purpose in the same manner as a lucet. If two prongs are all one needs to have a lucet, then all of the above objects can certainly be used as lucets. But that fact alone does not prove that Vikings actually used all, or any, of those objects that way.

One might argue that Vikings typically ornamented their textile tools, so the plain pieces of double-pointed bone were unlikely to be cord-making devices. On the other hand: 1) some needlecases, for example, are unornamented; 2) some of the deeply carved "lucet" examples would be difficult to use for the purpose, because the string would be likely to snag on the carving; and 3) plenty of reenactors have successfully made cord with bone or wood models of just about all of these devices--even the "rough" or "pointy" ones--making it difficult to exclude any of the proposed "lucet" finds on the grounds of impracticality.

To my knowledge, Ms. Pettersson has not opined about whether two-pronged pieces of bone were used to make cord in Viking era Scandinavia. She does, however, provide a sketch of the type of device she thinks may have been used to make the type of cord found at Barshalder. I've provided a copy of that sketch (shown on the right) as part of this entry.

This type of device will probably be familiar to those of my female readers (at least) who may have received one as a "craft" type of gift in childhood. Even now, this type of device is commonly made in bright primary colors and/or fashioned to look like an animal or doll figure. They are often marketed as toys for children. The term that most reliably tracks down such devices on Google is "knitting nancy". They are also called "spool knitters". The British sometimes call them "corkers". I've seen them called Bizzy Lizzies, and models made by various companies probably have different brand names. These "knitters" typically have varying even numbers of pegs, mostly either 4 or 6, but I owned one when I was a child that had at least 18 pegs and could be used to make a fairly wide knitted tube all by itself. And as the pictures I've located of Viking finds suggest, at least some of them look like two-peg spool knitters.

While I was looking for examples of spool knitters, I ran across this blog entry in which the blogger, inspired by an old book called "Spool Knitting" by Mary McCormack, experiments with making cord using a device she calls a "Cordelia cordmaker" that is not shaped like a lucet or a knitting nancy but, like them, has two pegs. She describes using the cordmaker using the same type of technique followed by McCormick with her two-peg knitting nancies:

McCormack does all her spool knitting on 2 peg spool knitters using the figure ‘8′ wrap. She doesn’t start with a slip knot, just by taking the yarn around the right hand peg. She uses a dowel with a center hole that she drops the yarn down, but since I am using a Cordelia cordmaker that doesn’t have a hole, I just hold the tail in front of the cordmaker. ...

So, you take the yarn around the right hand peg, between the pegs, and around the left hand peg, then back between the pegs……and around the right hand peg again. Then, you lift the lower wrap of yarn over the upper wrap…. of course, I had to take the picture, so I left the loop lifter dangling in space, but you’re not going to do that…

McCormack has the reader take the yarn around each peg, always following a figure ‘8′, and lifting the lower loop over the upper loop.

This creates a cord that is actually closer to being square than round (emphasis mine).

The McCormick method of cordmaking appears to be the same technique typically used today with spool knitters--i.e., it involves making a figure-eight type of wrap around each of the pegs. Judging by her sketch, that is also the technique, and the type of device, that Ms. Pettersson suggests may have been used to make the Barshalder cords. This suggests that a two-peg spool knitter and a lucet both make cord that is similarly square in cross section, from a single unbroken piece of string.

So here's the question. Do a two-pronged spool knitter and a lucet make structually identical cord? I think so, but I'd need to obtain a lucet and a suitable spool knitter, learn how to use a lucet, relearn how to use a spool knitter, and make a test cord with each device to confirm that theory. If both cords are identical, that likely means that a lucet is functionally equivalent to a two-peg spool knitter.

Unfortunately, my proposed experiment still won't prove which, if any, of the two-pronged bones from Jorvik, the ornately carved two-pronged bone devices from Scandinavia, or any other potential "lucets" from digs were actually used for cord-making. But it may suggest that the "spool knitter" is an older device than most people assume it is.

EDIT: The gentleman who wrote this site apparently believes that I have the causation backwards in my last remark. He states that the various versions of spool knitters "all owe their existence to the medieval lucet." It may well be the case that the lucet came first, and the spool knitter is a later improvement upon it. All the same, I wish he had reported the source of the information upon which he based that statement.

SECOND EDIT: Apparently the name "knitter" for the spool knitters is not misplaced. It is possible to "knit" a similar cord just using ordinary knitting needles. This blogger writes about doing so; she calls the end product "I-cord." This page describes how to do the technique.


  1. A minor refinement: The simplest and common form of lucet cord is made using a single cord, and has a square cross section. Other elaborations exist, but are rare, and I've never heard anything other than the simplest lucet cord considered as potentially period.

    I don't know enough about spool knitting, but I'm pretty sure it's structurally identical to lucet. Starting with a figure 8 is a stardard way of starting lucet, as I think is a slip knot.

  2. I agree with you that only the simplest kind of lucet cord may have been period to the Viking age. And as some of the diagrams I found show, spool knitters also start with a figure 8.

  3. You wrote: "Ms. Pettersson has not opined about whether two-pronged pieces of bone were used to make cord in Viking era Scandinavia. "

    If you translate a couple of paragraphs from page 190 of her article in Tor 1968 you get something like this:

    "At the State Hist. Museum in Stockholm at the
    exhibition Archeolog-67 in the autumn of 1967 amongst other things were on show small objects made of a long bone and provided with three spikes at one end. Such small objects, with two or three spikes, sometimes occur in the material from the early Middle Ages. Accordingly one finds examples from Lund, Sigtuna and other locations (Floderus 1935, p 19; BLOMQVIST MÅRTENSSON 1963, p 174 Floderus call the object a "cord braiding tool" with no explanation of the technology, while the latter, citing Floderus, calls it a "twining tool"). Exhibitors in Stockholm had tried to illustrate the object's use, and then associated it with a "modern” toy – a cotton reel with 4-5 pins wrapped around the hole, a tool that today's children and many generations before them, use and have used to make cords. The technique is basically the same as knitting, with only as many stitches as the tool has spikes or pins.

    After a few failed attempts using different techniques which did not require tools, it seemed natural to work further on the Stockholm idea. Tests using three and four spikes yielded a cord which was too thick, while using only two produced a cord with an outside quite similar to the ends of cord in the Grötlingebo grave – although it is impossible to unravel them in order to get exact details of how the thread goes within the cords . Despite this small element of uncertainty, it is clear how the small bone tools were used."

  4. Jennifer: thanks for the comment! It's interesting to know that Petterson mentions experiments with pronged tools.

  5. Hello!

    I am really greatful for finding your explanation.

    I would like to know where I can find Ms. Pettersson's article? I'm doing a lot of researches about lucet during the viking era, and everything is taking me to Ms Pettersson. But, i don't know how to find her article.
    Thank you very much.


  6. Emilie: I obtained the article from a friend who is a professional researcher. It's from a journal that's hard to find outside Scandinavia, and it's not in English (except, I think, for the captions on the illustrations).