Saturday, December 4, 2010

Apron Dresses--Getting The Blues...

Most people who make Viking era costumes are aware that wool is an easy fiber to dye with natural vegetable dyes.  They, therefore usually choose to wear wool dyed (either by vegetable or modern chemical means) in various vibrant shades that can be achieved with natural dyes:  reds, blues, yellows, greens, oranges, even purples.  I have done so myself. 

But proof that our forebears could have done something in a particular way is by no means proof that they did things in that way.  As  I learn more archaeological textile evidence comes in from Scandinavia, and from northern Europe in general, I wonder whether clothing colors weren't more stereotyped than most costumers and reenactors would like to believe.  

  • The two largest apron dress fragments known (i.e., the pleated fragment from Køstrup, and the folded one from Pskov) were both the same color--blue.  (The fragment appears lighter today; apparently the chemical process by which woad dyes fabric partially reverses itself when the fabric is buried under the right conditions, as noted in this post and one of the articles referenced in it.)
  • The next largest fragment, from Hedeby (though not so definitively identified as part of an apron dress), was dyed brown.
  • To the extent she could identify color in the Birka textiles, Inga Hägg found only two colors: brown and dark blue (as discussed in Hilde Thunem's article in progress about the evidence for Viking apron dresses).
  • Viking age finds made in the Baltic areas (Latvia, Lithuania) show a pattern; white undergarments (shirts, women's shifts) over which clothes are worn in...dark blue and brown.  This is particularly true of Latvia, where testing has revealed that overdresses and tunics were  dark blue and other garments were either made from unbleached linen or from undyed wools. Colors other than white, dark blue, or the browns and grays of undyed wools (red, yellow, green) appear only as accents, e.g.,, as stripes and other motifs found in woven belts.  
  • Most of the apron dress loops that survive are of undyed linen (whether or not any other surviving portions of the garment were also of linen). 
Not all of these textiles have been analyzed for the presence of dye, but some have, tending to confirm the trend.

There are certainly archaeological textiles that were dyed in other colors, such as the reds of the Evebo find.  But it is striking that all of the finds that are likely to have come from apron dresses or similar overdresses seem to have been either blue or brown.  This restriction may be due to the limitations of our samples and other information, but it might reflect genuine information about such garments.  Were apron dresses blue or brown because they were *supposed* to be--just as Victorian men's suits were typically black?  Maybe Viking women didn't wear red?  Maybe green was too difficult to get right, or yellow insufficiently high-status to use in such a garment?

There's certainly food for thought here, and I will be keeping this evidence in mind the next time I make an apron dress--or wear one of the bright, non-blue apron dresses I already have.

EDIT:  I am currently re-reading one of the articles Hilde Thunem mentioned in her comment on this post.  It has enough material of potential, if indirect, interest that I will be devoting another post to it.


  1. Linen clothes from Gnezdovo female burial C-301 found in wooden box and most probably being remains of the apron dress, seem to confirm your theory - both in tabby weave, one is undyed , one dyed blue. But on the other hand, finds of the whole piece of garment are unique, and colours of the scraps of clohes found in excavations of settlements vary. For example F. Pritchard writes about woolen clothes from Dublin 'The range of dyestuff found on these fabrics include madder, woad and lichen purple. In addition, a yellow vegetable dye of uncertain species has been identified on a 2.1 lozenge twill (...)The dye is similar to that of some clothes excavated in Norway where it was combined with woad presumably to produce a shade of green and where it occurs in both the late Roman Iron Age and the Viking period (...) Colour effects occasionally remain visible to the eye. One piece, for example, has red (lichen purple) and black (pigmented wool) strips of varying width.' I guess some of the clothes could be blankets, hangings etc. but some of them could be remains of garments as well.
    Maybe the blue colour of the clothes from the burials have something to do with showing wealth? Or some magical meaning was put into that? Or just other dyes decompose easier?
    Thanks for starting the topic and sharing your views on the matter, as you wrote, that's certainly food for thought here!
    P.S. In case anyone asks, my apron dress is blue, lol.

  2. Thanks for the information about the Gnezdovo find--that was something I was not aware of before.

    I was aware of Pritchard's work. However, so far as I know there's no clear indication, to date, that any of the Dublin finds represent apron dresses (and not other kinds of garments, including garments worn by men). Also, I don't know to what extent testing for dyes has been conducted on any of the Birka samples. That can matter a lot, because though "colour effects occasionally remain visible to the eye," more often they don't. Unfortunately, testing for possible dye content costs money, and thus it is not done as often as we amateur researchers would like. :-)

  3. It seems that almost any "warm" color looks some shade of brown after a thousand years in the earth...
    Some more color info:
    Geijer described one of the Birka fragments (W33, from Bj 1090, see p.36 of Birka III) as being reddish-brown with blue stripes, and Hägg identified it as a part of an apron dress.
    Another fragment (W22, from Bj 837), though identified by Hägg as not an apron dress but some kind of shawl or overgarment, was chemically analyzed and turned out to be dyed green with weld and woad (s. Birka III p. 35).

    Though I like the idea of stereotyped clothing colors a lot. It really begins to look more "right" when you restrict your color palette (be it to particular shades or to natural dyes only, as is the custom in many reenactment societies here in Russia).

  4. It seems that almost any "warm" color looks some shade of brown after a thousand years in the earth...

    According to the article I found in NESAT X and referred to in my post, *all* dye colors look brown after a thousand years in the earth except for madder--which still looks quite red.

    I remembered the striped fabric from Birka, but for some reason I thought it was blue with reddish brown stripes--the difference being whether it was mostly blue or mostly red.

    I *don't* like the idea of stereotyped clothing colors. But I'm not interested in supporting a wrong and artificial idea of what the Vikings did. If they did use particular colors for particular items of clothing, so be it.

  5. This is really food for thought, thank you! And the reactions to your post are just as interesting!

  6. I hope you don't mind me just jumping in and commenting in your journal.

    I am glad to see someone else asking themselves that question. I started to wonder about the exact same thing when I realised that although e.g. the reconstruction of an aprondress at the historical museum in Stockholm is red, the finds I have been able to find information on is either blue or brown. (And then I started to see uniformly dressed Viking women in brown or blue pass before my inner eye ;-)

    There are some challenges with only following the archeological evidence though. As you say, colours disappear in the ground. So when Inga Hägg says that it was very difficult to identify the colours in Birka, I read (admittedly between the lines ;-) that there could have been more colours than the blue and brown, but those were the ones she managed to identify.

    The other complicating factor is that the few fragments of the aprondress aren't exactly a statistically viable sample space. We might be seeing patterns that just isn't there...

    I have found some refererals to articles on dye by Penelope Walton: "Dyes and Wools in Iron Age Textiles from Norway and Denmark." Journal of Danish Archaeology 7 (1988) and "Dyes of the Viking Age: A Summary of Recent Work." Dyes in History and Archaeology 7 (1988). Perhaps they could be useful if you want to read more about colours that could have been used? I haven't read them myself, so I can't say anything about whether they actually answers the question though.

    - Hilde Thunem

  7. Hilde, I am delighted and flattered that you stopped by. I have found your research articles immensely interesting and useful--as I hope my posts reflect.

    You're quite right to observe that we may be seeing patterns that aren't there because of the limitations of the available archaeological evidence. That's why I considered the Latvian material, though that may be misleading for other reasons (including, but not limited to, the fact that it comes from a different culture).

    I have a copy of Walton's article from the Journal of Danish Archaeology but not of her Dyes in History and Archaeology article. My recollection is that the JDA article does not discuss textile remains in the context of what type of garment each may have been, but I could be misremembering and it's possible even so that it may say something of relevance to the apron dress color question. Thanks for reminding me of the article; I'll re-read it and edit this post with any useful information I find.

  8. "I'll re-read it and edit this post with any useful information I find."

    Thank you.That would be very good. I'm definitively interested if you find anything more that shed light on this, and I'm probably not the only one. I'll just keep stalking your blog :-)

    - Hilde

    (And thank you for you kind comment about my articles.)

  9. Please, stalk my blog anytime! (After all, I've been stalking your website to keep up with your progress on your articles.) :-)

  10. Just a thought on a really obvious modern analogue: Jeans. Can one get them in any color of the rainbow? yes. Are 90% of the denim leg tube garments, in the history of ever, dyed indigo blue? Also yes. Is it possible that blue and brown were the "normal" colors for apron dresses, and any deviation from that would be considered novel, festive, trendy, or otherwise worthy of note, because it was non-standard? Though I think that there is a tendency for us to justify arbitrary color choices with "I'm the fashionable Norse lady," I think there may be room for some variation.
    Back to modern jeans: I, personally, take some fashionable risks, if they interest me, but much of the time, just can't be bothered to think that much about it. I would estimate that I have probably owned one pair of non-blue jeans at any given time in my adult life, balanced against 4-8 pairs of actually blue jeans. I would also guess that each blue pair gets worn 2-3 times as often as each non-blue pair. What I think I am getting at is this: If you are only going to make one viking outfit, the apron dress should probably be blue or brown, but if you are making an entire viking wardrobe, one or two apron dresses in other colors probably would not be entirely unreasonable.

  11. Hi, Corey! Welcome!

    Whether there is "room for variation" may depend not only on what wearing an apron dress meant to a Viking woman but also on the economics of dyeing fabric in period. We can't assume that the Viking attitude toward variety in dress is the same as ours without evidence that we don't have. However, I do agree with the idea that, based on what we know now, one should make one's first dress in blue or brown.

  12. Re: your comment about blue jeans. Yes, nowadays you can get them in any color of the rainbow, but when they were first made you could only get them in one color--indigo blue. Something to think about in light of our apron dress discussion.

  13. I think that the crux of the discussion still lies in our lack of knowledge about what an apron dress MEANT in Norse society: until we know that, a lot of this is guess work. If it was a symbolic garment, on some level, then color deviation seems somewhat less likely, to me. If, however, wearing of the apron dress was a fashion/function choice, then I feel that the idea that it had a normal color, but not a definitive color, has a little more room to breathe. We know that other dyestuffs were available, but we don't know if they weren't used on this garment because of some cultural taboo, or if it was just considered too expensive for a working item of clothing - in the apron becomes my dishtowel, and hand towel, and hot pad, and then needs to be washed a lot sense. Blue and brown would come in at the top of the cheap and relatively colorfast list for period dyestuffs, I think.

  14. Period blue (from woad) and period brown (from tannin-containing substances such as oak galls when not the natural undyed color of a fiber) had good light and washfastness, but I don't think blue can automatically be considered a "cheap" color in Scandinavia during the Viking age. Too many important people in the sagas are depicted as wearing it, and the samples of blue fabric we have come from relatively wealthy graves.