Monday, September 19, 2011

Jacqui's Orkney Hood

The other day, I found an interesting article about the Orkney Hood, a roughly Viking era textile found more than 100 years ago in the Orkney Islands. A more detailed web version of the article may be found here.  A color photograph of the hood, from the National Museums of Scotland's website, may be seen here.

The article is by Jacqui Wood, a British archaeologist whose primary interest is the prehistoric period. Unlike most finds that old, the Orkney Hood is a complete garment, and Ms. Wood was commissioned to make a replica of the Orkney Hood, and wrote the article to describe what she learned in the process of making the replica. One example is how she learned that the hood was woven with threads of unequal thicknesses:
However when the weaving was complete and I measured the fabric and it was at least 20 cm too long! This was turning out to be a very challenging project. I had to go back to my measurements and re- think where I had gone wrong. It had to be something to do with the thickness of the weft threads as the width was the right measurement. I had wrongly assumed that all the weft threads in the fabric were the same thickness I found when I calculated the widths of the chevrons to the number of rows that there were in fact four very different thickness of yarn used for the weft. This was very noticeable with hindsight the 42 row band measured 4 cm where- as the 38 row band measured 5 cm. I ascertained that the four distinct yarns were as follows 7 rows per cm, 8 rows per cm, 9 rows per cm and 10.5 rows per cm. These different thicknesses of yarn were erratically distributed throughout the fabric.
Ms. Wood notes that the discrepancy of thicknesses is likely due to the fact that four different spinners made the thread used in the hood:
Having had some experience teaching groups of people how to spin on a spindle whorl I have found that people find their own thickness of yarn that they find easy to spin. Most students acquiring spinning skills find that they can easily spin an even yarn at their own personal thickness, some very fine yarn and some much thicker. Whereas a skilled spinner can spin any yarn thickness to order the average spinner tends to spin always at the same thickness. I suggest that therefore that there were four distinct spinners making the yarn for the hood. This would account for the uneven chevrons of the pattern. If a fine thread was added after a thick one this would form a ridge in the weaving and be noticeable, but if one always changed the direction of the chevron when a new yarn was added the difference is unnoticeable, as I found to my cost when making my first replication of the weaving.
I lack the skills at weaving to make these kinds of discoveries myself, so I am all the more impressed when someone who can weave engages in the process and documents what she finds. The rest of Ms.  Wood's report contains more discoveries of this type, and I recommend that anyone interested in weaving, or in the clothing of the early Middle Ages read it.

EDIT: Although it was once suggested that the hood might belong to the Viking Age, ingaborg correctly reminded me that the hood has since been carbon-dated to between (roughly) 200 and (roughly) 600 C.E., as Wood's article itself notes.  My apologies for the error.


  1. I may be misremembering, but I thought the Orkney Hood had been carbon-dated to pre-viking? 215 - 650 A.D.ish.

  2. You're not misremembering. I wrote this up too fast, and did not check the sources I knew of properly. (It comes of trying to do a blog update when I had too many other tasks this weekend.) The VA attribution was the older one, done before the C-14 dating. Thanks for calling it to my attention.

  3. How interesting - the evidence for communal weaving and sewing in really early textiles is something that never fails to fascinate me. Medieval stitch and bitch sessions!

  4. Yes, it's often assumed that women worked communally on garments during the Middle Ages, but rare that the physical evidence so clearly demonstrates the fact; thanks for pointing that out!

  5. Hi,
    Thank you for your interest in my work. It was a very challenging project but very rewarding in the end. It is only when you replicate an item that you discover its secrets.

  6. Hi, Jacqui! Welcome to my blog.

    I agree that replicating an item is the best way to learn about it. But for those of us who lack the skills/time to do so, works like your article are a Godsend. Thank you for doing the work, writing up your experience, and making it available on the Internet.