Thursday, October 8, 2009

Viking Whipcording?

Speaking of cordmaking, there's another technique that I've seen bandied about by some people in the SCA and certain reenactment communities --"Viking" whipcording. This is a technique where you fasten wooden bobbins to four lengths of string. The strings are then suspended from a hook or other convenient point above the workers' heads, and the bobbins are interchanged in patterns to braid the cord. This site explains the technique and shows photographs of the sorts of cord that can be produced by this method. It is possible, I'm told, to do whipcording alone, but the process goes faster if two people work together, swapping the bobbins back and forth between themselves.

Certainly this is a technology that *could* have been implemented in the Viking age; all you would need are four "bobbins" or similar long, bowling-pin like weights, string, and people-power. But the fact that a people *could* have used a particular technology isn't proof that they *did*. I've heard any number of people refer to the process as "Viking Whipcording", but those people don't point to the finding of bobbins in graves or any other support for the use of this technique in Viking age Scandinavia.

Lacking further information, I note that what we do know of Viking technology--their shipbuilding and metal working, say--indicates that the Vikings preferred simple, elegant solutions to technical problems. If I had to bet on whether Vikings would make cord with a small device that would allow one person to make cord quickly, such as a lucet or spool knitter, or with four wooden bobbins hanging by their strings from the ceiling, my money's on the lucet.

Of course, it's always possible there's evidence for the use of whipcording with bobbins of which I'm unaware. If any of my readers know of any, I hope they will enlighten me.


  1. After looking into the whipcording thing earlier this year, I concluded three things:

    1) The people who consider it Viking all quote Hald.
    2) Hald doesn't actually mention any examples that are certain to have been Viking age. The best is a cord from Finland that _may_ have been a four-strand braid that was dated from 500 BCE to 1000 CE. (Pages 240 and 242 of Hald.)
    3) Four-strand braids doesn't necessarily mean bobbins were used. They certainly help, and I personally find the technique is easier than having free ends of string to tangle when making things like braids or fingerweaving (there is an example from the Mammen burial if I remember right), but one doesn't follow the other.

    Oh, and it is a braiding style that I have only ever done by myself, with thinner threads. The attachment point only has to be shoulder or hand-height or so (sitting or standing), which wouldn't be too different from a backstrap loom attachment. Off the top of my head, hanging the threads from your warp-weighted loom might be a good spot.
    About double the speed of this video, which is faster than I can lucet. I can't see this sort of set-up as efficient nor practical.

  2. Thanks so much for hitting me over the head with the Hald citation; looking at it explained everything for me. (I should have spotted it myself, frankly; the page I linked to in my entry cites part of the same passage). :-(

    For my own reference I'm going to rant a bit about what Hald says and why, so please bear with me (since I know you know most if not all of what I'm going to say).

    Hald mentions two examples of four-strand cord at pages 237-242 of "Ancient Danish Textiles". One is the Finnish example you mentioned. But the one she emphasizes more is a leather thong attached to a ring that was part of the Krogens Molle Mose (Bronze Age) find.

    As you pointed out, it is not necessary to use bobbins for a four-strand braid; it merely helps prevent the strands from tangling while they're being braided. Neither problem, of course is very likely when: 1) you're working with leather thongs and 2) the piece you're making isn't very long.

    What Hald does on the subject of four-strand braids is one of her most annoying faults; she attempts to explain a random grave find by means of an apparently similar folk practice that was common hundreds, even thousands, of years later. Thus she says, about our one (leather) four-strand Danish braid from the Bronze Age, on page 242:

    This technique appears to be very widespread among primitive cultures, in any event ethnographical collections often have examples of braiding of this type. [She then supplies examples of slings from Persia and Palestine, apparently made by the same technique.] But the whip-cording from Krogens Molle Mose in Denmark is ample proof that the technique has its roots in antiquity.

    Of course, the four-strand braid is no such proof, since one can do a simple four-strand braid without bobbins easily enough, especially in a medium, such as leather, which is less tangle-prone than thread.

    To make her comments more misleading, Hald provides an undated photograph of whipcording bobbins--but does not include photographs, or even sketches, of the Krogens Molle Mose thong or the Finnish cord (both of which were at least actual finds).

    Excuse my emotion (and my wasting your reading time), but this type of bad reasoning, passed off as deduction in a respected source, really angers me. It gives people the falsely comforting and misleading impression that something is known where that is not the case.

    To be fair to Hald, she doesn't come out and say that the Vikings used the whipcording technique. But she does imply that it was used, from the Bronze Age right down to the present day, on the above "evidence"--and after admitting that she knew of no more recent finds in Denmark.

    I'll comment on the videos separately as my rant is getting too long for a "comment".

  3. The second video you linked to is the technique I associate with "whipcording"--two people swapping bobbins to make the braid. I suspect that for this method it really is easier for the end of the strings to be fastened above the workers' heads. However, I agree with you that the set up is impractical. Why bother looking for an overhead (or nearly overhead) location to fasten your strings, and why tie up two people, when a four-strand cord can be made by one worker?

    Two other things occurred to me with regard to the practicality issue.

    First, for any technique that involves multiple strands (whipcording, fingerlooping) there will be some wastage of string on the ends. Techniques such as the lucet and/or spool knitter avoid that problem because they use a continuous string; when you don't need more length, you can simply stop.

    Second, I've learned from my own experiments that it's really difficult, if not impossible, to pause in the middle of working on a piece of fingerlooping. The same appears to be true of whipcording, even if you're working on it alone--the bobbins are likely to spin around, creating tangles and losing your "place", so to speak. On the other hand, a lucet or spool knitter can simply be set down.

  4. Excuse my emotion (and my wasting your reading time), but this type of bad reasoning, passed off as deduction in a respected source, really angers me. It gives people the falsely comforting and misleading impression that something is known where that is not the case.

    It really bothers me too. Especially as it has escaped onto the wilds of the internet as 'Viking' cord when the cord she discusses the most is from the bronze age. Even then, it isn't discussed in any great detail.

    I strongly suspect quite a few people see other people reference Hald and that by itself is good enough evidence for them. I honestly have trouble seeing how someone can read what Hald wrote and conclude that there is definitive proof for whipcord bobbins.
    (This doesn't excuse the museum displays either, which just reinforce the credibility of the idea.)'s really difficult, if not impossible, to pause in the middle of working on a piece of fingerlooping. The same appears to be true of whipcording, even if you're working on it alone...

    Agreed, but the evidence is so vague about what the bobbins would be, that you can experiment. Rougher, and more angular (instead of smooth and round, modern lace bobbins) don't slide and tangle themselves as easily. This does cause the added problem that when you are braiding, the bobbins may 'stick' together more, though.

    My quick and easy solution has been to take a thread (or the braided end of the cord) and place it in the middle of the four threads so that the last cross-over you made won't undo. The weight of the bobbins often is enough to keep it in place until you come back, or you can tie it into a little bow.

    I'm not arguing that bobbins are better than lucets or anything, just that there are ways to put your work aside while you do something else. :)

  5. It really bothers me too. Especially as it has escaped onto the wilds of the internet as 'Viking' cord when the cord she discusses the most is from the bronze age.

    Exactly! Heaven knows Hald is far from perfect (her photo of the Mammen cloak tags had me convinced for years that they were some kind of hlad), but at least she didn't *openly* make the claim that the Vikings used the technique. Personally, I think that a lot of SCA folk who have seen Hald's book and noticed the picture of the bobbins think that they are some kind of Viking find. Sigh.

    I will take your word on techniques for how to pause in the middle of solo whipcording without losing one's place, but I'm still inclined to think that the lucet is more practical. Until I'm ready to take up lucetting (or finally buy another spool knitter) and experiment, I have no firm basis on which to contend that one cord-making method is more "practical" than the other.

  6. I have worked with many forms of braiding, and I must say that whipcord using two braiders goes so much faster than lucet cord, fingerloop braiding, or kumihimo. You can make a couple of feet in just a few minutes as opposed to several inches. The historical accuracy of the technique may be in question, but for speed, whipcord using the two-person method just can't be beat.

    1. justmejill: I'm sure whipcording is a very fast technique. However, what I'm interested in is whether it is likely to have been used by the Scandinavians during the Viking era, and I'm inclined to believe that the answer is no. The fact that the evidence indicates that Vikings did not wear clothing requiring long laces tends to cut against their use of techniques that can make long laces quickly.

  7. I've been doing research on whipcording from the "keeping children occupied" angle. Not as an adult activity. I keep finding it taught in Scandinavia as "an activity used by children" The "Vikings" valued their children, and I am wondering if, perhaps whipcording was an activity used to both train and entertain children. It can even occcupy four children at once with one set of bobbins (younger children being "supervised" by older children and each child only being responsible for one bobbin.
    The lack of found bobbins is an issue, but we speculate about all kinds of things, and perhaps this is one. I can't find the pamphlet right now, but I have one from a Scandinavian museum that suggests the bobbins hanging from a tree or a hook on a door jamb - so lower than the ceiling.

    1. Hi, Saehildr! Welcome.

      I can certainly imagine whipcording keeping at least some children busy, but in Viking Scandinavia it's more likely that children old enough to concentrate on whipcording would be busy doing actual clothing production or farm work.

      I'm interested in your research, though. For what time periods have you found evidence that whipcording was taught to children?

    2. "Children old enough to concentrate on whipcording" - I have had 3, 4, and 5 year olds successfully whipcord as a group of four without adult intervention beyond first directions. (for about 20 minutes) - Also, Children didn't work all the time.

      I lost all my research to a dreadful computer crash, I am still looking for a bunch of it, I will try to remember to post it here if I find it again!

  8. I'd be surprised if children did work for extended periods of time like adults.

    I hope you can find your research, though, because I'm interested in the time period and regions of Scandinavia involved as well. Thanks for your reply.