Sunday, December 1, 2013

An Aside on Viking Lucets, Courtesy of Pinterest

Photo of cord from Petterson article.
Followers of this blog may know that over the past few months I have become an active user of Pinterest, the on-line picture collection service. (A link to my Pinterest boards is available on my sidebar.)

I didn't start pinning because I enjoy looking at pictures of interesting costumes and artifacts--though I enjoy eye candy as much as anyone. Instead, I began pinning pictures of the costumes and artifacts in which I am interested to see whether I can discern any useful trends or similarities when all of the images are on the same "page", so to speak, and can be examined together.

One of my Pinterest boards is "Viking Lucets", a collection of images of items believed by some to have been used by Vikings to make lucetted cord. Very recently, I found (and promptly pinned) two images on Pinterest that suggested to me new hypotheses about that subject.

Gina B's chart (used with permission).
The first of these images (see above) is a good close-up picture of a fragment of cord, found in one of the Barshalder graves, that many people believe to have been made with a lucet or an analogous device. Because it's not possible to adequately explain my insight without the photograph, I have included it here; it is from an article by Kristen Petterson in TOR magazine.

The other image (also above) is a chart showing cords made from the same type of string by three different methods: lucetting, 5-strand fingerloop braiding, and 8-strand plait. It was created by Gina B of Soper Lane, a site which addresses the making of laces and ribbons and other "small" wares during the Middle Ages. Although I had visited the Soper Lane site before, I might never have found this chart if someone hadn't pinned it, since it was buried in a blog entry posted in 2002, long before I became aware of the "Viking lucets" controversy.

In that blog post, Gina summarized the results of her research into the hypothesis that the lucet was used in Europe in the 15th century. She said, on the subject of using the appearance of any surviving laces to deduce the means of construction:
My own observations into the structure of the lucet cord and other forms of braiding have shown various similarities between cords made using different techniques. Many of these similarities would make identifying a technique superficially quite difficult.

Visually, the lucet cord, 5-loop round fingerloop braid, and 8-strand plait all resemble each other. When making a single colour lace by each of these methods using the same material, very slight differences are seen in the structure

The lucet cord, being made of one element and by forming knots, tends to be tighter and smaller in its cross section than the other two laces.

The 8 strand plait tends to appear somewhat rounder than the other two.

All are square laces.
(emphasis mine). Gina went on to say that it is very difficult to tell what technique was used to make a particular lace if you don't have a starting end to examine. Just as thought-provoking were Gina's comments about the ease of making laces by each of these three techniques:
Of the three, the 8-strand plait is the most time consuming for an individual to make, whilst the fingerloop braid is probably the quickest. Both the 8-strand and the fingerloop braid have limitations in the length which can be easily obtained. For a long lace, the 8-strand would require the use of bobbins, whilst the fingerloop requires a second person to maintain the tension. Both of these also require careful pre-measuring of the warp to achieve any particularly long lace; this in itself creates its own problems. The lucet cord, on the other hand, is the easiest method by which to create a very long lace, without pre-measuring, and without help.
(emphasis mine).  Now consider the following:
  • Although the Barshalder lace is a "square lace", lucets are not the only way to make square laces, as Gina's chart shows.
  • Lucets are the easiest way to make a very long lace, and could be made for that purpose by a person working alone.
  • All the evidence we have indicates that the Vikings did not use laces as a method of clothing closure.  The uses they may have had for laces--suspending pendants or beads, hair ties, or fastening parcels--would not require very long laces, unlike laced garments such as dress bodices.
Moreover, in my opinion the lace remnant found at Barshalder looks more like the 5-loop fingerloop braid specimen from Gina's chart than it does like a lucet cord, but my biases might be coloring my perceptions.

Even without comparing Gina's lace illustration and the Barshalder specimen, the fact that 5-loop fingerloop braiding also generates square laces provides a good reason to reconsider the "evidence" that lucets were used by the Vikings.  The squareness of the Barshalder lace has been cited in discussions on the Norsefolk_2 list at least, as evidence that the lace was made with a lucet.  The Barshalder cord could have been made by the fingerloop braiding process, which would be even less likely than lucet cord to leave evidence in the archaeological record.*   In my opinion, the fact that square laces can be made by other means, coupled with the lack of evidence linking actual specimens of appropriately-shaped cord to any of the devices presumed to be lucets, greatly weakens the case for the use of lucets by the Vikings.

In addition, I am pleased to have found this insight through the use of Pinterest, which is often dismissed as a "scrapbooking" site or a sales tool.  The Interest is not indexed, but Pinterest makes it possible for individual researchers to collect, and label, images in ways that make new insights possible, and hopefully people deciding whether to use Pinterest will keep that possibility in mind.

*   Cords shaped like lucets can, as I have discussed in a prior post, be made with knitting needles or with the tube-shaped pronged device now usually called a "knitting nancy." However, there is no real evidence that knitting was known in Northern Europe before the late Middle Ages, and so far as I know, the Viking era artifacts shaped somewhat like modern knitting nancies were not found in conjunction with surviving fragments of cord.


  1. Like you, I found Gina B's argument very compelling. Unless something terribly obvious (e.g. archaeological in-progress lucetting, or a square cord that is unravelling in a way that proves it is made from a single thread) appears, I also now believe that lucetting is an anachronism in Viking and medieval reenactment. (For practicalities sake, I do concede to use lucet cord on my garments (as I have a lot leftover from before I questioned the authenticity, and because it looks enough like 5-loop square fingerloop to appease me) but I no longer demonstrate it at events.)

    The one main benefit lucetting appears to have is, as you have said, that very long lengths can be made by a single person with no extra equipment or assistance. However, I suspect this might have been less of a requirement historically as a) most historical cord uses I can think of require a defined length (and things that would require an indeterminate length would probably be better done with rope / some sort of plied cord) and b) historically, people seem to have been far, far less concerned with doing things the quickest way possible, compared to modern people. I guess mass manufacturing has made us lazy and less likely to appreciate / knowledgeable of how *long* most handwork takes.

    At least in a medieval context (which I'm far more familiar than Viking), there are several options for making cords/laces: free-end braiding, fingerloop braiding, tablet weaving (flat or tubular) and plying (i.e. rope). I don't see the need to invoke lucetting unless some extraordinary evidence appears.

  2. Hi, Panth! Thanks for the comment.

    I suspect that the late medieval period is about the earliest that a long continuous length of cord would start to be attractive. At that point, you were starting to see front-laced bodices, and those laces would likely need to be longer than prior uses of lacing (including the bliaut, for which we have documented lacing on the sides, which by definition would only need to be half as long as a front lace).

    1. Even a front-laced bodice doesn't take *that* much cord, particularly if you lace it completely open and closed upon each wear, rather than using an extra-long lace and leaving the lace in. It's easy enough to fingerloop that length with a partner to beat the shed (which is a method we see in illustrations). If you do narrow tablet weaving, then that length is simple without any assistance.

      I'm rather confused as to why side lacing needs half the lace length than front lacing. Yes, it's a little shorter as it starts at the base of the armscye or a little below, but it still extends down to a similar point. The lace length is still significant (and greater, say, than can easily be fingerlooped without assistance and without getting massive tension differences between either end of your lace).

    2. Panth, you have a point. Corsets take much more cord but are (or were by the Victorian period) laced differently than medieval bodices. It all depends upon what constitutes a "long" lace for purposes of doing fingerloop braiding, and I don't have enough experience with the technique to judge that. (Gina did note that you can fingerloop a longer lace "with a partner" (as you note above), but not alone--and the advantage of the lucet is that it can do long, long cords with no assistance.

      As for front-lace vs. side lace, that may depend on the build of the person and the style of the dress. I'm short, and somewhat short-waisted, so on me, the distance between the bottom of the armscye and the waist (the area involved with side lacing) is very short--a bit more than three inches, while if I'm front lacing a dress the area involved is significantly longer. Your mileage, and that of other women, may vary.

  3. Thank you so much for this! It was all news to me, and of course fascinating.