Saturday, February 26, 2011

Viking Shifts--The Problem of the Sleeves

I've been reading Hilde Thunem's updated article on Viking women's shifts, and it reminded me of another issue that perplexes me; the issue of the sleeves.

Here's the problem.  At Birka, there are a number of 10th century finds in women's graves of pleated linen undergarments.  Most of those finds involve small portions of very finely pleated material, either inside a tortoise brooch, or preserved along the blade of a knife or shears.  Thus,  scholars, costumers and reenactors have generally assumed that the garment, which likely was a shift, would have been pleated by folding the pleats, basting them in place, wetting the garment, and then allowing it to dry before removing the stitching.

There lies the question.  Would the sleeves  of these shifts have  been pleated as well?  If they were, would the sleeves have been pleated in the same direction as  the pleats in the body of the garment?

The Historiska Museet's reconstruction shows the sleeves as having been pleated in the same direction as the body of the shift--that is, vertically, down the body of the garment.   You can see pictures and their write-up (in Swedish) here.

The Historiska Museet's shift reconstruction, however, assumes that any other garments that were worn over the shift (such as an overtunic and an apron dress) were graduated in length so that the pleated parts of the shift show prettily at the hem and at the sleeve-ends.  Though the result is extremely attractive, there is no corroboration whatsoever, either in the art or the period finds, for such a reconstruction.  (Though there isn't any evidence that Viking women didn't wear clothes with graduated hems and sleeve ends to show off pleats, either.)

So what is the evidence that the sleeves of the Viking shifts were pleated?  As I understand it, there are only three categories of evidence for the arms of Viking sleeves, and all are annoyingly indirect.  1)  Some of the Scandinavian graves where tools such as shears were found near the arm of the skeleton have crusted, pleated textile remains on them.   2)  The Adamklissi monument shows at least one Slavic woman in a round-necked, pleated shift with pleating down the length of the very short (i.e., modern t-shirt length) sleeves.  3) the pleating fragments found in the Birka tortoise brooches generally bend, in one direction or the other; it's not known which side each brooch was found on, but it's possible the pleats bend toward each shoulder, which may support a pleated sleeve theory.

With regard to the grave find evidence, Ms. Thunem's essay notes that there are four graves at Birka with pleated remains at a level that could indicate that they are sleeves.  In one of those graves, the pleats are running perpendicular to the arm--and the position of that fragment in the grave is such that the linen is fairly likely to have come from a sleeve.  That makes some sense to me, since it would be easier to pleat a narrow portion of a garment such as a sleeve from the cuff upward (resulting in pleats perpendicular to the arm) than it would to pleat it. parallel to the body.  However, only that find appears to indicate perpendicular pleats, and other such finds could be from the body of the garment instead from an arm.

Short sleeved shift

"Faltenklied" shift
The Adamklissi relief sculpture is equally ambiguous.  showing Slavic shifts.  The one Slavic shift for which I know we have physical evidence, had silk sewn on the flat cuff ends--indicating that the sleeves of that garment were *not* pleated, even though the neckline was, at least, pleated to a band.  The Adamklissi monument shows two kinds of sleeves; short tailored sleeves (image on the left courtesy of Wikimedia Commons) and full, draped or "Faltenklied" sleeves (image on the right, original also from Wikimedia Commons).

The sculpted relief showing short-sleeved shift depicts the pleats running over the top of the shoulder, in a manner that suggests that the sculptor was not working from life, or even from a memory of what pleated sleeves look like, but sculpted them that way because he knew the shift was "pleated." This  theory is supported by the fact that a pleated sleeve, if made wider than a conventional straight sleeve, would flare outward and would not hug the arm the way the sleeves on the second shift does.  On the other hand, if the sleeve was not made wider than a normal short sleeve, the pleats would tend to flatten out and, once exposed to body warmth and pressure, would be gone in no time--assuming that the presence of the pleats didn't make the sleeve too narrow to get the arms through.

I believe there are even more problems with using the "Faltenklied" shift  as a potential model for the pleating style of the Birka shifts or other Viking era shifts.  First of all, it's clear that the Faltenklied-wearing figure is a man--he has a full beard and a thick mustache.  The monument itself suggests that women wore a different garment, for which the Faltenklied figure would not be a model.  Second, the Adamklissi monument was built in 109 C.E., when draped clothes were still the predominant dress in Europe.  Unlike the woman's short-sleeved shift I've shown above, which is similar to shifts that were worn into later times (i.e., the Pskov shift), there is no evidence that anyone was still wearing draped, sleeveless garments, either as outerwear or otherwise, by the ninth and tenth centuries C.E. (the Viking age).  Third, and perhaps more importantly, it's by no means clear from the sculpture that the draping on the arm and the draping over the shoulders were part of the same garment.  It could also be that the garment over the shoulders was a sleeveless tunic, of the type men wore in classical times, and the pleating over the arm was part of a cloak or other outer garment that was draped partly over the shoulder and partly down the arm. 

As for the pleats inside the brooches, the finds indicate that the portions of the garment inside them were some distance from the arms and much closer to a neckline that may well have featured a neckband stitching pleats in place.  Without any indication as to whether the pleats pointed toward or away from the shoulder, it's difficult to make any inferences as to what these pleats say about the nature of the sleeves.
My belief, at this point, is that the pleated shifts generally did not have pleated sleeves, even if the body of the garment was pleated.   I've said before, I think the Slavic sleeves were pleated, perhaps very finely, to a neckband, and any pleats in the body radiated from the neckband.  However, it's also possible that the only permanent pleats were those sewn to the neckband; owners might have chosen to pleat the remainder of the body by basting in pleats with temporary stitches, pulling the pleats tight, wetting the garment and letting it dry to "set" the pleats before removing the thread.  If that was how it was done, the result would be a garment that one could wear with a full set of pleats for special occasions, but it might also be worn without pleating the rest of the garment because the neckline pleats were permanently fixed. 

A pleated long-sleeved shift becomes much more practical if one makes the garment with plain, straight sleeves and confines the pleating to the body of the garment. The existing evidence doesn't strongly indicate that the sleeves of the Birka shifts were pleated, and the Pskov shift seems to have had a pleated neckline and straight sleeves (the find included two deep cuffs, red silk on a blue linen similar to the neckline).

Of course, there may be evidence of which I am ignorant, or have overlooked.  If that is the case, I hope that one of my readers will enlighten me.


  1. Might it be significant that the Pskov sleeves seem to taper? If the cuffs are as deep as Peter Beatson suggests (footnote 12 here), then on my arms that's almost up to my elbow. The upper arms still may be pleated?

    But that's wild speculation on my part.

  2. Might it be significant that the Pskov sleeves seem to taper? ... The upper arms still may be pleated?

    I suppose the upper arms might have been pleated. But it would be difficult to make the pleats extend down to the sewn-on cuff, even if the upper part of the sleeve was a lot fuller. I have a hard time seeing any point in pleating half a sleeve that was already trimmed, nearly to the elbow, in silk.

    Of course, that's speculation too. :-)