Saturday, January 22, 2011

Medieval Garments Reconstructed--Has Arrived!

A few weeks ago, using an Amazon gift card I received as a quid pro quo for taking a survey, I ordered a copy of the English language version of Medieval Garments Reconstructed, the new book by Else Østergård, Anna Norgard and Lilli Fransen describing the construction and replication of the more intact Herjolfsnæs finds.  

It arrived on Thursday, and I have been eagerly looking through it.  What I didn't realize when I ordered the book is that the authors not only recreated the cutting and stitching of the original garments, but they also spun the thread and wove the cloth to period specifications.  Each item reproduced is shown in a color photograph, along with a color photograph of the reproduction, and a scale-drawing of the pattern for the garment discovered by the researchers.  The authors indicate in a forward that the book was inspired by the fact that readers of Ms. Østergård's book, Woven Into The Earth, "desired additional pattern drawings, with instructions on how to produce a garment either as an exact reconstruction [i.e., as the authors did] or as an adapted reconstruction [i.e., from ready-made cloth but using the same pattern and types of stitches]."  (p. 9).

Other interesting surprises include:
  • A photograph of buttons made for one of the garments from the same wadmal used to make the clothes.  They are described as nearly flat, and crafted so the top surface is smooth while the gathering needed to make the button shape is all concentrated on the bottom.  (p. 14)
  • A color photograph of tablets for tablet weaving found at the site.  They are made from bone, and etched with simple designs.  (p. 13)
  • An odd circlet, crafted from human hair using two twisted strands of hair.  (p. 11)
  • A willow basket with a handle found on the site.  (p. 10)
Because my personal costume interests lie earlier in time than the medieval period, I do not expect to make any of the garments in the near future.  But later on, I may.  It is fascinating, and impressive to me, to have in one slender volume enough information to reproduce actual items of everyday medieval clothing.

If I find any other surprising facts as I continue to read the book, I will of course blog about them.

EDIT: I have finished my first read of the book. It turns out that the authors did not use period techniques in the sewing of the garments. The cloth (a 2/2 twill in white and brown, used for all the reconstructions regardless of color of the original) was woven on a modern horizontal loom, and the reconstructions were stitched with a modern lockstitch sewing machine. Finishing was a combination of modern and period techniques, as follows:
The necklines and some of the sleeve hems are finished with a matching cotton bias binding, sewn on first by machine and afterwards blind-stitched by hand. The bottom hems of the garments have been blind-stitched by hand. There is therefore no visible stitch on the right side of the garment.  (p. 42)
I assume the authors were precluded from making their reproductions entirely with period techniques by time considerations. Nothing, of course, need stop the reader from using period techniques throughout.


  1. Which chunk of time does this book cover?

  2. Which chunk of time does this book cover?

    The authors don't look at what they are doing as covering a specific time period. Instead, they view the book as a handbook that shows the reader how certain, specific pieces of clothing found at Herjolfsnæs must have been made and gives guidance as to how the reader can attempt similar reconstructions.

    The most honest way to answer your question is to list the items that they reproduced, and discuss the estimated dates for each, to the extent there are any. The numbers below are the museum accession numbers for the various garment finds.

    Body garments: D5674, D10580, D10581, D10584, D10585.1, D10586, D10587, D10593, D10594.
    Hoods: D10596, D10597, D10600, D10602, D10605, D10606, D10608.
    Caps: D10608, D10610.
    Stockings: D10613, D10616.

    If you own a copy of Woven Into The Earth, you can track down what each of these items looks like.

    The new book doesn't get into questions of dating, but Woven Into The Earth indicates that only a few of the garments have been radiocarbon dated, a process that tends to give a probable date range for the item rather than purporting to pin down a particular date. D10581 was dated in this way to 1380-1530 C.E. D10594 is dated to 1280-1400 C.E. None of the stockings, hoods, or caps have been dated, but all of the hoods listed above have liripipes (long, hanging tails) and all of the caps are pillbox-style caps. The oldest garment at Herjolfsnæs that was radiocarbon dated is not one of the ones chosen for reproduction because it is so incomplete; it was dated to the end of the 1200s, C.E.

    That is the best answer I can give in light of what the authors of the new book did and what they say about what they did.

  3. Thanks! I do own Woven into the Earth, but alas, all of my things are in storage in Scotland just now while I am in Sweden. But it sounds like things are generally 13th to 15th Century, which is also later than my normal periods of interest (Neolithic through 12th Century).

  4. But it sounds like things are generally 13th to 15th Century, which is also later than my normal periods of interest (Neolithic through 12th Century).

    That's correct.

    Actually my "normal periods of interest" are pre-12th Century too! But pre-modern clothing finds that are complete enough to make an accurate reproduction possible are so rare that I felt I had to have the book anyway.

  5. I wrote down some of my thoughts on the book today at:

    I think the book is a great companion to Woven into the Earth, but although the writers suggest it could be used independently too, there is some rather relevant info left out - like the timing that you pointed out and the theories on what dress had been worn by a woman (even if that is hard to determine).

  6. Thank you very much for your short review - I am still waiting for my copy and it's nice to get a short glimpse at the content :)

  7. Racaire: If you're anxious for previews of the book, you should check out this post, where I give a link to the David Brown Book Company/Oxbow Books site. DBBC/Oxbow has PDFs of several of the pages from the book, including pages with pattern drawings and photographs.

    I hope you get your copy soon! I'm really enjoying mine.

  8. Elina: I saw your post! It was very good; I left a comment for you.

    As I said on your blog, I think the authors really assumed that anyone truly interested in the subject would get a copy of Woven Into The Earth, so they didn't have to repeat themselves. Still, it's unfortunate that they did things that way, since not everyone may be able to afford both books.

    My biggest regret about the book is that the authors did not use the actual period sewing techniques on any of the garments. That would have resulted in a reproduction that would approximate (depending on how closely they reproduced the fabric) the way the garment fits and moves, which would have been very instructive. If I ever replicate any of the garments, I will definitely check out which techniques were used on the relevant piece, so I can use the correct hand-stitches.

  9. Hi Cathy, Would you please provide an email address for contact? I'm working on a project with a costume artist and former curator of costume and textiles in the Philadelphia area that may be of interest to you. Or please send an email to

  10. maedermade: Thanks for thinking of me! I will send you e-mail.

  11. Still waiting for my copy of the book - but I made a reconstruction of one of the dresses from Woven Into the Earth - there are pictures and notes here if you are interested.
    It is all handwoven and handsewn - and it fits and moves beautifully, though it is *very* warm. The notes say where I moved away from an exact reproduction and why.

  12. Cathy; Thanks for the link to your page! You've made some beautiful reconstructions for yourself.