Sunday, April 11, 2010

The Pleated Birka Shifts

Recently, I obtained a copy of the following article by Flemming Bau describing his theories about what the Viking age women buried at Birka were dressed:
Bau, Flemming. "Seler og Slaeb i Vikingetid: Birka's Kvindedragt i nyt lys." KUML at 13-47 (1981). [The title translates as "Straps and Trains: Birka's Female Costumes in a New Light."]
As I have mentioned in this blog before, Bau believes that the Birka graves provide evidence for the wearing of apron dresses with an opening in the center front, over which an apron (or "front cloth") might be worn in front and a kind of cape with a train (or "back cloth") might be worn covering the woman's back. His evidence in support of these ideas is interesting, and I will discuss it in another post. What I want to discuss in this post, however, is an insight I had about the pleated Birka shifts while reading Bau's article. Although I don't read Swedish  (or Danish, which, as one of my readers observed, the article actually is) very well, the article includes an English translation for all of the captions on the illustrations and charts, and provides a detailed English summary. Examination of the information provided by the summary and illustrations has made me rethink what I believed I knew about the evidence of pleated shifts found at Birka, and what that evidence may be telling us about how those shifts were made.

Although it isn't the primary focus of his article, Bau discusses shifts because he believes that linen imprints found on textile tools that hung from the tortoise brooches of some of the women in the Birka graves provide physical evidence that the apron dresses must have been open in the front.  As a tangent to part of his discussion, Bau notes that the "pleated" Birka shifts (as opposed to the unpleated "plain" ones) may have looked like the shifts seen on women in Russian folk costume.  He provides an illustration from Max Tilke of such a costume, which I have reproduced on the left.  It shows a woman wearing, among other things, a full-bodied shift pleated to a closely-fitted neckband.

Now, there is seldom justification to assume that an item of clothing that was worn as folk costume in the 19th or early 20th centuries C.E. was worn significantly earlier in time.  However, there is evidence for wide shifts pleated to a neckband being worn in the Slavic areas of Europe much, much earlier in time than the Viking age.  For example, the shifts shown on Slavic women on the Adamklissi monument (discussed in this recent post of mine) also are full cut shifts pleated or gathered to a narrow band that fits closely about the neck.  A picture of the Adamklissi shifts, found on Hilde Thunem's webpage about Viking underdresses, appears on the right.  (If the page does not come up, as sometimes occurs, try Google's cached version here.

In addition, there is physical evidence of at least one costume that featured a pleated neck shift with an apron dress--that is the 10th century Pskov find.  The Pskov find has been dated to the 10th century C.E., as have the pleated shift finds at Birka.  A picture of the neckline from the Pskov shift that I have reproduced from the NESAT X article about the Pskov find appears on the left. So we have evidence that women in the Slavic/Russian areas wore loose shifts that were pleated to a close-fitting neckband at least as early as Roman times, and that such shifts were worn in the Viking age. 

Archaeologists, starting with Agnes Geijer, theorized that the pleated shifts for which evidence turns up in the Birka graves were imported from the area we now think of as Russia. For a long time the archaeologists and reenactors have speculated about how these shifts must have been made and about what parts of the garment were actually pleated.  To obtain information about this issue, the pleated linen remnants found inside tortoise brooches can be very useful.

On the right is a photograph taken from Inga Hägg's article  in Cloth and Clothing In Medieval Europe which shoes of the inside of a pair of tortoise brooches that were found at Birka.  I have no information to indicate the scale of the pleating in these brooches, but they do not seem to be so much finer than the pleating around the neckline of the Pskov find.  Notice that the pleats appear to bend to one side.  To the left of this paragraph  is a series of sketches that appear in Hägg's article (apparently reproduced from Stolpe's original excavation sketches), illustrating the way the pleats bend to one side or the other. In her web article about Viking age shifts, Hilda Thunem observes, that it is unfortunate that Stolpe did not indicate on which side of the body each brooch was found. "This means that there is no way of identifying the left-hand and right-hand brooches, and consequently no way to learn whether the bending of the pleats always pointed towards the shoulders, always towards the throat or differed from one serk to another." I agree with Ms. Thunem that Stolpe's failure to record on which side each tortoise brooch was found is unfortunate, since that piece of information would help confirm or refute the theory I am about to describe.

The pictures of shifts that are pleated to a neckband show that the highest concentration of pleats appears within the first few inches from the neck.  The farther down the body one moves, the shallower the pleats become, until by the time you reach the waistline or so  the fabric is no longer pleated, as we see in image of the women in the Adamklissi shifts.  Below this paragraph, to the left, is a cropped picture of me, wearing a simple apron dress over an unpleated linen shift.  The photograph shows that the brooches fall in the area where the highest concentration of pleats are found in the Adamklissi image and the Tilke picture of a woman wearing a pleated shift with folk costume. Admittedly, some women wear their brooches at a lower level on their bodies than I do, but enough grave finds indicate that tortoise brooches were worn close enough to the neck that my practice of wearing the brooches this high was not uncommon.   (I've included Stolpe's sketches  of two of the Birka graves from the Hägg article to further illustrate this point.)

My hypothesis, based on the images and information discussed above, is that Geijer and those who agree with her was correct when she theorized that the pleated Birka shifts were imported from Russia.  However, if my theory about how the Russian shifts were made is correct, those shifts were not pleated through the entire body and sleeves, and they were not pleated by wetting them and using a broomstick-pleating or similar method.  Instead,  my hypothesis is that the shifts were pleated at the neckline, where the pleats were permanently held with a sewn-on neckband.  The reason we see pleated linen inside some tortoise brooches is that the brooches were worn close enough to the neck that they lay on top of the pleated areas--and perhaps were even pinned through them.  The rest of the garment would not need to be pleated for this to occur.   In other words, the idea of the completely pleated linen shift  may be a misapprehension which has arisen by the fact that we only have fragments of shifts from the graves.  Under this view, the Birka shifts were still luxury items, but they were luxury items because they used more cloth than a plain shift (made, perhaps, with rectangles and triangular gores) did--not because they had to be pleated again after each washing.

Hägg's article includes a picture of a pair of scissors found in Birka grave 597, which is reproduced at the right.  Part of the pleated linen has adhered to the scissors.  Note that the pleats appear fairly deep.  However, this fact does not necessarily indicate that the entire body of the shift worn by the woman in grave 597 was pleated.  The scissors in grave 597 were found high on the body, between the brooches, as the diagram from Bau's article, included below this paragraph, shows.  More specific information from the Birka finds to ascertain whether there are any graves containing scissors with pleated  linen remains that were found in a position low on the body, since such evidence would tend to disprove my hypothesis.

If my hypothesis is correct, it answers one of my questions about whether the Pskov shift should have gores.  The answer would be that the Pskov shift would not have had gores.  The body of such a shift could be made by sewing together rectangular pieces of fabric to form a wide tube, and then pleating the top of the fabric into a neckband.  That method, which would produce a result consistent with the Adamklissi image, would make the shift more than wide enough that gores would be superfluous.  My hypothesis would also eliminate the need to posit that the shifts were broomstick pleated, and then re-pleated every time the shift was washed, since pleats made at the neckband would be permanently sewn in place. 

There may well be responses to some of the points I've raised above.  If any of my readers knows of any facts that either support or refute the points I've made above, I would like to hear from you.  It would be wonderful to build a coherent theory as to how the pleated shifts of Birka were made.


  1. > Although I don't read Swedish very well...
    Isn't it Danish? In Swedish they say "kvinnodräkt", not "kvindedragt".

    Here is a photo of a hanging skirt worn over a Russian shift with pleats at the neck. The folds on the chest (where the brooches are) don't look like those from the Birka finds. They are much wider and shallower.

  2. You're right, it is Danish; I found out after you commented that KUML is the annual journal of the Jutland Archaeological Society. My mistake.

    The folds on the chest (where the brooches are) don't look like those from the Birka finds. They are much wider and shallower.

    That's a good point. But what the folds look like at high chest level may depend on how fine the linen is and how it is pleated. I don't know is the thread count of the linen found in the Birka graves. That may make a considerable difference.

  3. The linen from Birka graves is 15-20 threads\cm (source: Birka III). My shirt in the photo was of cotton cloth not coarser than that.

  4. Thanks for the information, and the photograph.

    However, cotton does not take a pleat or crease, or hold it as well as linen does. That might matter as well.

    It looks as though I have another reason for working on the Pskov shift. (Though I'm not sure if the linen I bought for that project is as fine as the Birka linen; I need to check.)

  5. Just as a little something to add to this, I recently found this photograph. Another option?
    I know, wrong place, wrong time, but...
    Cheers, Portia, Lochac.

  6. Portia, thanks for the photograph! It reminds me of this reconstruction from the Trellesborg Museum that pearl was discussing on her blog a little while ago.

    It's interesting that you mention a Roman image; there is at least one similar garment shown on one of the Pompeii murals.

  7. Just for illustration, or comparison, have you seen Eva Andersson's 12th century chainse, that she pleated into a neckband?

    I'm not sure how fine her fine linen was, but I thought it might help.

  8. Thanks for reminding me of Eva's chemise. For some reason, I had forgotten it was linen. Yes, that is a useful piece of data.

    But seeing the picture of her shift again (it doesn't zoom, alas) reminds me of another problem I'm having with the idea that the Birka shifts were pleated throughout the body.

    When one "pleats" a garment by wetting and wringing it, there will be a lot of pleats, but they won't be regular; they will be of different depths. The pleats seen in the brooches at Birka are both deep *and* regular. (I looked for a picture of a broomstick-pleated skirt to illustrate that fact for my post, but couldn't find one.) That is, no doubt, one reason why some people have pleated their Birka shifts with needle and thread--to get that regularity.

    I think that what I need to do is to make a shift of my own, pleated to a neckband, and see what the upper chest area looks like.

  9. It occurred to me that one way of creating regular, tiny pleats is to use a smocking stitch. I know that a smocking stitch has been found at a Danish site from the 1170's, but use of smocking stitch before that time would not be a huge stretch. I have not been able to look closely at the Birka descriptions. Would smocking make sense with the archaeological evidence from Birka?

  10. None of the Birka finds display any evidence of smocking stitches. However, that doesn't automatically mean the technique wasn't known. That may be how the neckline of some of the pleated smocks were gathered, and the stitched areas just haven't survived.

    I don't know how to do smocking, but I think that pleating a wide enough width of linen onto a neckband would have a result consistent with the finds. This is a theory I intend to put to the test, once I get time enough to work on actual sewing projects again.

  11. By the way, Lisa--do you have a citation for the 1170's evidence of smocking? I had never heard of evidence for smocking that early.

  12. Re: Smocking

    I think the two early smocking examples is the alb of St. Bernulf and the tunicella of St. Thomas Beckett.

    If you're on the 12th century garb list, there's photos of St. Thomas's tunicella if you go Photo Albums > Thomas Beckett garb.

    There used to be a great webpage about it, here:

    Failing that, there is discussion about what the webpage used to say, here:

    1. The "Pleatwork Embroidery" page is back up (as of Sept. 26, 2012). Looks interesting!

  13. Pearl: Thanks for the linnks.

    I am on the 12th century garb list and I'll look for the photos. That answers my question to Lisa--it's examples of 12th century smocking. The Birka specimens are 9th-10th century, though--much earlier.

  14. This is costum of rus-ukrainian women from central Ukraine ! In X c. it was vikings way from Gothland to Vizant. Empire !!!
    Today, this is national ukrainian costum !!!
    Rus - its real first name Kyiv (V cent.), Ukraine !

  15. First up left photo - Ukrainian national folc women costume of central Ukraine (Kyivska Rus'-Ukraina) from 9 - 12 cent. untill today !!!
    Absol. similar photo here -
    and here -
    more -

    A lower green-blue sundress - a typical costume Finno-Ugric peoples of Russia!

  16. Hi, Ruthen777! Thanks for the links. The first photograph is interesting because it doesn't show long sleeves. Do you know why they drew it with short (elbow-length) sleeves?

    The pages about shifts and panovas look very useful also if I can get a reasonable English translation--Google Translate isn't giving me much so far, but I'll keep trying.

  17. Almost all hydronyms and toponims of Central Russia - Finnish. Moscow itself - the name of the people and the Finnish Moksha 'water »(Moks Va).
    In the middle of the XIII century, these lands were called "country Moksel" on

    behalf of the people of Moksha (self Moksel), it was he became Kyiv (was founded in 5-th cent. of rus-ukrainians)
    call the people of the region "Muscovites" long before the emergence of Moscow:
    this is not a derogatory name, and ethnic self-Moksha. Another Finnish
    toponym from the river Moscow (or rather - the people moksha) - City Mokshan her
    origins in the Penza region. Other Finnish place names Muscovy. Ryazan (capital
    Erzya people). Moore (the capital of the people Murom). Perm (the capital of the people Permian).
    Vyatka (capital Finns Vyatichi). Vologda (of Veps vauged «white» * valgeda).
    Suzdal (Meria people) and Shuja (also people Meria, the name of the Finnish "MSA" -
    "Moorland"). And Kaluga, Rzhev, Kolomna, Kostroma, Tver, Penza,
    Vesegonsk (city Ves), Kholmogory, Vychegda and toponyms Tschudi Ladoga Ihalnema,
    Kemah, Kochevar, Maymanga, Nevloy, Pukaranda, Hyargokor, Chuchepala - and thousands

    In 1654 Moscow occupied Rus-Ukraine (Kyivska Rus')! But in 1721 the term Rus was stolen from Ukraine Ekaterina II!

  18. DNA results of the Russian people in 2012 shocked the scientists found that the Russian ethnos in its genes
    is a Finnish ethnic group and not Slavic (and not at all Indo-European). He
    is identical Mordovians (3 different genetic units, a complete
    genetic identity) and is located in the near kinship Finns Finland
    Estonia and the Estonians, Tatars Tatarstan (30 genetic units soon
    relationship) - and not the Indo-Europeans of Belarus, with which genes Russian
    totally disagree. But the Belarusians are genetically identical to the Western Balts
    Mazur Mazovia - North Poles. But surprisingly geneticists would like to
    less if they did not believe the delusional tsarist and Soviet propaganda about
    "Russian Slavic roots," and carefully studied the works of serious and honest
    historians. Russification RUSSIA For centuries, the Finnish population of Muscovy,
    once conquered Kiev invaders, the administering authority of the Kiev
    Origin: the princes, the squad and the priests who were baptized to consolidate power
    Finns and turned them into their own language. Gradually this "elite" solutions in the Finnish
    environment, but that's the language of Kiev with a huge mixture of church Bulgarian language
    priests' books - and was replaced by the Finns their language. As a result, the Finns were
    speak the language of Moscow, which was called at various times in various ways:
    at first it was a Russian (while Kiev was the language of the Ruthenians, Ukrainians), then with
    Finnish influence was called Moscow, and then he writes Lomonosov
    "Grammar" as the Russian language, and only in the first half of the XIX century, this
    language for the first time referred to as "the Russian language" in an era of Pushkin. Since then, in our
    Drives a conscious idea of ​​the "great and mighty Russian language," which,
    generally speaking, was never a "Russian" or "language".

  19. Today Finno-Ugric, Tatar peoples of the Russian Federation have nothing to do with real Ukraine-Rus 5 - 12th century with its capital in Kiev!

    Finnish tribes called us Ukrainian rus (rus - its our first name), after our Kiev Kings opened the eastern lands of the city Novgorod, Kursk, Volodymyr - it was a colony of Kiev Dynasty kings (the 8 - 12 cent.)

  20. According to the genealogist N.Baumgarten thirty-six marriages were contracted between ukrainian princes or princesses and representatives of monarchic families of Europe in the 11th c. only !
    This video Ukrainian royal marriages with European royal families :

    Video is called ; Ukrainian roots of Europe

  21. Hi. The answer is simple: she rolled her sleeves because shes worked! She rolled her sleeves to not contaminate them!
    So did all Ukrainian women since 100, 200, 500, 1000 years ago because it was their main outfits! Now it is a festive dress! ))

    1. Naturally, a woman would roll up long sleeves while she works. But that works best when the sleeve is narrow, or at least when it's narrow at the bottom. The sleeve shown in your first image is very wide at the top, and we can't see the bottom edge because it disappears at the bend of her elbow. If you rolled up a wide sleeve, it wouldn't look like that. I suppose the sleeve could be narrow from the elbow down, but if that's the case it's a type of sleeve I've never seen in shifts, folk costume or early period clothing.

  22. I suppose the sleeve could be narrow from the elbow down, but if that's the case it's a type of sleeve I've never seen in shifts, folk costume or early period clothing.
    No. In those days was always wide sleeve below the elbow !!! And almost in all peoples !
    Well look at this photo. Sleeves wide along the entire length!
    I know that i say, because these sleeves I see almost every week in my church! ))) I mean our female chorus) For a thousand years, our folc costume and apron with a pattern in the "box" ("plakhta@ in ukrainian) has not changed...

    1. I'm sure that sleeves have been wide along their length for awhile, but I'm a little doubtful that that hasn't changed in a 1,000 years.

  23. Even once the school 15 years ago in the history books I read that somewhere in Sweden in the 50s or 70s found the burial captive Rusyn-ukrainian women from central Ukraine! And scientists have dated the discovery of 10 or 12 century! I remembered myself that in light of recent studies of DNA Ukrainian and revival of our history and decided to find this fact! And I found it!
    Now I know it is in Birka, but I dont understand - this costume exist?? He real? Or is it just that these residues in the photo?

  24. Strange ... I can not read your comments ...
    If you wrote me answer to my recent comments on 3:41 and 4:02 AM please make a copy and send it to my email adress -
    Or on Facebook -тнмн
    or find - Yurko Miskiv

  25. Yurko--I didn't write any comments in response to yours of 3:41 A.M. and 4:02 A.M.--I've been too busy doing holiday cooking. I may have some tomorrow.

  26. 1000 years ago the sleeves been too wide! Now, sleeves just wide. )

    HAPPY NEW YEAR, Cathy ! ))

  27. Are you canadian ?
    You must love hockey )))
    In Canada lives almost a million Canadians with Ukrainian roots, ukrainian last name.
    In Toronto is the Ukrainian Street called Blur.
    Every year there is Ukrainian Festival.
    Go there and you will learn a lot about national costumes and more!
    There like to walk in the Ukrainian national costumes Mike Krushelnyski, Dale Haverchuk, Mike Bossy and many other living legends of hockey, Governor of Alberta Edward Stelmach and many many other Canadians and Americans with Ukrainian roots.
    If king of hockey Wayne Gretzki remembered who and where his father and grandparents, he would also come to the festival. )))
    Once again, HAPPY NEW YEAR, Cathy !!!

  28. No, I'm not Canadian, I'm American, and I don't follow hockey at all, sorry!