Sunday, December 2, 2012

A Few Thoughts About Loops

Although I haven't been sewing much, I've continued to read and think about the construction of Viking Age "apron dresses". As I locate and read more information about archaeological textile finds, I have more questions to ask and more things to think about.

My favorite scholar, pearl, has drawn up a chart showing the fiber context of the loops found inside of tortoise brooches for a number of Viking Age grave finds; you can download a copy from her webpage here.

Her chart (which includes the loops from the Køstrup, Pskov, Hedeby and Adwick-le-Street finds as well as the various loops found in the Birka graves) shows that an overwhelming majority of the apron dress loops found for which the fiber type has been identified are linen. This is even true in a number of cases where sufficient scraps of the rest of the apron dress survive to determine that the apron dress itself* was made from wool. That we have been able to glean this information is fortunate, because the loops are often the only linen fragments that survive in a particular grave (because the bronze of the tortoise brooches in which they are usually found creates conditions that permit the preservation of linen).

But it is odd. Apron dress loops are typically small (about 1 cm wide, and the surviving pieces are at most about twice that in length). Why wouldn't they be made from scraps of the same fabric that was used to make the apron dress?

Pearl notes that most of the graves with surviving apron dress loops contain evidence that a linen dress was worn underneath the apron dress, and says "It is tempting to suggest this was intentional, and the linen straps perhaps blended in with the linen dress worn underneath?"

That's an appealing hypothesis, but both the typical size and shape of the surviving loops found in brooches and reenactor experiments indicate that the front loops of the apron dress were likely to have been completely covered by the tortoise brooches and would not have shown at all when the dress was being worn. As for the rear loops, how much they would show from the front or back would depend upon how long the back loops were. If the back loops were very short, as they are on Shelagh Lewins' recreated apron dress, not even the back loops would be visible from the front, and they might be invisible even from the rear. Moreover, a shawl, coat, or the woman's hair or headwear would probably hide whatever portion of strap might show at the top of the woman's shoulders or on her back.  If the loops wouldn't show, whether or not the loops matched the shift/underdress is a moot point.

So what other reasons might there have been to prefer linen to wool for apron dress loops?  Linen can take more friction and tugging than wool, but I don't think that's the answer either.  Apron dress loops don't receive that much stress, because the apron dress is partly supported by the brooches and partly supported by the woman's body, and the brooches can be pinned into the undergarment for extra support (Charlotte Blindheim has identified at least one grave where this seems to have been done).  

No, I think that the information in pearl's chart supports a different hypothesis for the preponderance of linen loops--economy.

When a modern seamstress makes a dress, she will often choose a cheap fabric for a lining or other hidden part of a garment, even if that fabric does not match the rest of the garment. The shortage of surviving linen fragments in Scandinavian graves doesn't rule out this hypothesis, since it has been becoming clear over the last 30 years that the relative paucity of linen fragments is due to the fact that linen survives much more poorly than wool in Scandinavian soil conditions.  Linen might well have been used for more items of clothing than wool in the Viking age.

Pearl's table already provides one ground supporting this hypothesis.  It shows that in most of the graves containing some textile fragments from a possible underdress, the fragments show that the underdress was made from linen--suggesting that linen was inexpensive enough to be routinely used as undergarments, instead of wool.

Other supporting information can be derived from the evidence summarized in pearl's chart.  Her table also identifies which of the Birka graves show evidence that the apron dress was made from linen instead of wool.  By comparing the number and richness of the non-textile finds in the "linen" graves to those in the "wool" graves, it should be possible to obtain some indication as to the linen graves were poorer in grave-goods than the wool graves--and thus whether the use of linen for the apron dress may have been an economy measure.

There is a very handy on-line database that makes it fairly easy to do such a comparison of the Birka grave finds. Ulf Bodin at the Historiska Museet in Stockholm has compiled such a database and made it publicly available through the museum's website; that database can be found here

Pearl's chart shows 7 graves with textile fragments indicating that the outer apron dress of the occupant was wool (Bj. 464, 465, 511, 521, 597, 838, and 857), and 4 graves showing that the outer apron dress was linen (Bj. 563, 602, 901, and 1087). I need to look at the lists of items from each of these graves carefully, and think about them.  There may be useful tentative conclusions to be drawn, even though the total number of graves for which all of these categories of information are known is small.

* Or, perhaps, I should refer to such an item as the outside of the apron dress or the outermost apron dress, because some of the evidence is equivocal about whether certain linen pieces came from an apron dress lining or a separate, inner apron dress. Arguably, there is evidence for both. Hilde Thurem's website about evidence for the construction of the apron dress explains this issue very clearly.

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