Wednesday, May 5, 2010

The Køstrup Find--Evidence of a Down-filled Coat?

The article from Fynske Minder about the Køstrup find that I discussed here a few weeks ago also discussed a curious fabric fragment associated with down.  The English translation I have described this part of the find as follows:
Above the brooches there were fragments of two layers of tabby-woven wool with feather/down between them. Fragments of tabby-woven textile were also found on the key. There were also fragments of linen tabby underneath the lowermost layer of wool fabric over brooch X505 [one of the tortoise brooches]. These fragments could be the remains of a cloak or a cushion. Furthermore, remains of a small piece of iron plate with a round punched hole were found two cm north-west of brooch X501 [the other tortoise brooch]. In the rust, several pieces of textile with scattered stitches were preserved. On one side of the iron plate, there were two layers of two-ply tabby, probably wool, with a thread count of ca 8/8 threads/cm. Above this there was a small fragment of one-ply tabby-woven linen? With a thread count of 26/20 threads/cm. Above the wool tabby there were also remains of two woven bands, which were tabby-woven over four warp threads, whereas the thread count of the weft was ca 24 threads/cm. The woven band could be the remains of a facing/”edging” of a cloak and the small piece of iron plate could have been attached to the edge and be part of a closure.
Page 178 (question mark in the original).

Although the author notes that this find could have been part of a cushion or coverlet, it is unusual to have a down-filled or quilted cloak.  That factor might point toward a cushion or coverlet--except for the iron plate, which would be out of place for either item.

The author seems to be inclined to believe that the find in question likely was part of a cloak.  I can think of several aspects of the find that tend to support that.  Only one plate was found (likely a coat would have two or more closures), and it was found high up on the body, above the tortoise brooches (where a cloak conventionally is tied or clasped).

It would be useful to know the exact size of the iron plate.   The article says only that it was "small," without giving the size. But the size of the plate could be very useful to know in attempting to reason about how the find should be characterized. A plate that was, say, 5 cm by 3 cm would be comparable in size to later cloak clasps, and might indicate that the item was used as a cloak.  On the other hand, if the plate was significantly smaller than that, say, 2 cm by 2 cm, it becomes much more likely that it was part of a set of clasps used on a coat.  Similarly, it would be useful to know how thick the plate is; a thicker plate would be less likely to have rusted to indistinguishable fragments in the grave than would a thin one.  Finally, it seems to me that a cloak plate likely would be thicker than plates used as fasteners for a coat. The article says that only "remains" of the iron plate were found, which may indicate that the plate was thin (and leaves open the possibility that there were other, similar, iron plates, elsewhere on the body, which have rusted into dust). 

So the Køstrup find contains enough information to argue that the occupant of Grave ACQ wore a down-filled coat--but not enough information to confirm the presence of such a coat.  I need to keep my eyes open for other finds involving down, to see whether they include a similar iron plate that might have been a clothes fastener.

EDITED after the original post date to clarify and further explain my thoughts.


  1. I need to keep my eyes open for other finds involving down, to see whether they include a similar iron plate that might have been a clothes fastener.

    What about the article
    Charlotte Blindheim 1979. "Til vikingtidens drakt- og handelshistorie. Gammelt funn in nytt lys"
    _Universitetets Oldsaksamlings Årbok_; 136-144.

    It's a male garment, with a layer of down sandwiched between leather and textile, but it was fastened with a buckle.

  2. Excellent! Thank you so much for the pointer.

  3. "Only one plate was found (likely a coat would have two or more closures), and it was found high up on the body, above the tortoise brooches (where a cloak conventionally is tied or clasped)."

    This screams presumption at me. Modern cloaks are clsped just below the neck. And the one I have tries to strangle me at every oportunity.
    A lot of ceremonial mantles are clasped mid chest, but they are not at all the kind of garment to keep you warm that a down filled cloak is. And I'm sure someone will point out examples of cloaks that clasp high (My knowledge is heavily biased to the 12th C where low clasping and mantles hanging open was the fashion, making it tricky for me), for there are no rules in costuming.

    A coat could have a stand up collar (I've some rough supporting evidence for the style), that might have a different (metal) clasp because it'd different from the other fastenings.

    To be honest I think a tightly clasped cloak is more likely, but I'm just not sure we can assume so much.

    The single hole is a bit wierd to me. the only thing I can thin of that has single holes are bezamnts and strung amulets.

  4. This screams presumption at me.

    Agreed. That's why I amended the post to explain further why I think the size and thickness of the plate are important. Aside from the issue of whether a cloak would have multiple fasteners, there's the issue of whether we can assume that the original garment (or whatever) only had one plate, just because only one plate survived.

    To be honest I think a tightly clasped cloak is more likely, but I'm just not sure we can assume so much.

    I think that even a tightly-clasped cloak is less warm than a coat of the same weight (I used to wear a cloak I made for myself as mundane wear, and found that out the hard way). For that reason I have trouble with the idea of going to the trouble of making a down-filled cloak, but I have to admit it has one idea going for it--it's easier than making a quilted coat.

    The single hole is a bit wierd to me.

    That's what leads me to agree that the article is the remains of a fastener. I can easily imagine that there was a companion piece with a hook on it, or, alternatively, that there was a string that was drawn through the hole and knotted.

    Thanks for giving me the benefit of your thoughts; I really enjoy brainstorming ideas about finds with other people!

  5. yse, I agree with all the things you've said, including loving the chance to brainstorm ideas. Sometimes making things is just hte boring bit you do to test a theory.

    When I think of strings drawn through the holes and knotted, I think of 12th C mantles, at least one picture of which has twin strings which seems to redistribute the tension better, but again, mantles, not other kinds of cloaks.

    I agree coats are warmer than cloaks and easier. I have trouble defining what a garment is when it doesn't either clasp at the front or button down the front. There's all these cloaks with sleeves, tunics with hoods, tunics that are coats, coats that only button halfway, etc that are difficult to divide up.

    Quilted sleeveheads wouldn't be fun!

  6. Quilted sleeveheads wouldn't be fun!

    They would be difficult to sew by hand, certainly. However, there's no reason to assume that a quilted down coat would need quilted pieces. The coat would not necessarily be quilted in all of its parts. It might just be quilted in the body of the garment, or even part of the body (think of the way that only part of the Viborg shirt consists of doubled layers). A modern person would probably think first of making a quilted coat by quilting some fabric, cutting pieces from it, and then making the pieces up into a coat, but I'd bet that, if one was doing all the work by hand, it would be easier to decide what portions of the garment to quilt, and then layering extra fabric only for those parts and quilting only those parts.

    One of the most exciting things about Viking era costume is that we know so little about what actually *was* worn that whenever a new theory or reconstruction is proposed, it's necessary to reexamine most of one's prior assumptions to check the plausibility of the new idea. Of course, that's also what makes studying costume for this period so frustrating. :-)

  7. I've made a couple of quilted coats and watched a classmate make a down vest. I know modern sewing machine techniques influence our choices but sometimes the physics of the garment and the materials used dictate choices. Sometimes techniques *may* be transferrable between modern and historic sewing.

    The first quilted jacket was a modern jacket made of prequilted fabric cotton/linen with unknown batting, parallel quilting lines were about 1.5" apart . I carefully unpicked quilting lines in the seam allowances, pulled loose ends to the back side, knotted the ends of each quilting line together, trimmed out the batting from the seam allowances,and stitched it with a sewing machine as if it were ordinary fabric. The inner seam allowances were simply zig-zagged and pressed open. The outer edges were encased in bias tape. It was time-consuming but not too hard. The shoulderhead needed more pins than I typically use but otherwise modern sewing machine techniques worked.

    The second was a gambeson for SCA fighting. I cut the cotton batting the shapes I wanted as finished pieces with a few custom-shaped to make the shoulders extra padded, sandwiched the batting between oversized linen layers, hand-quilted in lines designed to fight gravity and allow maximum shoulder rotation, trimmed the excess linen, folded the linen seam allowances over twice to the inside and hand whipped them to the inside all the way around each piece. Peronel (sometimes on MedCos?) does her jackets for Kentwell similarly with linen canvas as the inner layer. The pieces were then seamed with whip stitch the way Laura over at Attack Laurel does her embroidered jackets. That was also time-consuming but not too hard. (Yes, the husband really does wear hand-stitched clothing with his armor ... it's his "nice" historic clothing that is machine stitched.)

    The process was completely different for the classmate who made a modern hunters down vest from a kit. The kit came with precut nylon shell pieces and dozens of small packets of down feathers. He started by melting the edges of all the nylon shell pieces to prevent raveling. He layered the lining and outer shell together then sewed a row of adjacent,three-sided squares (the fourth side left open)in the middle of the piece. He inserted a feather packet in each square and sewed the fourth side. Then he repeated the process in rows until he got to the edges. He did the construction seams over the summer (outside school) so I didn't see any of those details. I'm not sure how to generalize from his sleeveless vest to attaching sleeves to shoulders.

    Down doesn't behave nicely. It tends to fly everywhere. There is no way to put down between two layers of nylon and then sew it. The kit had some tips to encourage the down feathers to behave.... maybe freezing the little packet reduced static ... but there was something else I can't remember. It's been too many decades since high school home-economics class.

    I guess the point of this long comment is that the type of fluffy layer may dictate the construction method more than modern versus ancient sewing methods.


  8. Beth: thanks for the information on what it's really like to sew garments with down inside. You've definitely given me food for thought.