Monday, January 20, 2014

Yet Another Apron Dress: Hedeby II

Wool herringbone twill for smokkr**
The theme of the second Historical Sew Fortnightly project for 2014 is "Innovation".  This challenge is meant to encourage costumers to construct garments that were innovations during their period of interest.  Defensible examples include the fontange (Baroque period), anything knitted (late medieval), bra-like garments such as those found in Lengberg Castle (also late medieval), and a type of garment of which I have made many versions--the Viking era apron dress.  That is going to be my project for this challenge, and I'd like to discuss here why I think the apron dress is an "innovation" and provide some background about my planned design.
Early La Tene fibula*

The origins of the apron dress, or smokkr (currently believed by many to be the term the Viking age Scandinavians used for the apron dress, and thus used here) are shrouded in obscurity.  However, there is evidence that the ancient Greek peplos and the Roman stola were both suspended from small loops, and from this and other information Inga Hägg has suggested that the smokkr was descended from those garments.

Pair of tortoise brooches*
There are two innovations to the peplos that are clearly associated with the Scandinavians of the Viking and pre-Viking ages.  The most obvious innovation associated with the smokkr is that, unlike the peplos, the smokkr was fastened not with stick pins or long fibulae but with two oval convex shelled brooches", usually referred to today as "tortoise" brooches.  Unlike earlier brooch forms which had to be pinned on top of the clavicle or shoulder for comfort, tortoise brooches can lie flat against the front of a woman's torso between breast and shoulder, permitting a closer fit of the overdress above the breasts and through the armpit area without an awkward bunching up of fabric.

The other innovation associated with the smokkr are  the various (and, so far, sketchily evidenced) attempts to make the garment more fitted. than a peplos ever could be.  Archaeological finds suggest at least two different types of techniques were used to make apron dresses more fitted, namely, a series of small, shallow pleats (Køstrup, and various Norwegian finds) and sewing together the garment from a number of specially shaped pieces (Hedeby).  Both techniques allow, in different ways,  for a closer fit through the bust while providing extra width at hip level. There are also finds suggesting an entirely different technique, namely, putting suspension loops on a flat sheet of fabric that was somehow wrapped around the body (Birka, Pskov).

That being said, it still remains a mystery exactly how smokkrs were constructed because the size of most textile remains associated with them is so small.  Perhaps that is why they have fascinated me for so long. I spent many years thinking about apron dresses and constructing different designs to assess their practicality.  What I did not do was to attempt a single Viking era costume, from the skin out.  That is the project I am finally embarking upon after years of thought.

Photo from the Historiska Museet's website
This "Viking outfit" project was originally inspired years ago by this reconstructed costume, commissioned by the Historiska Museet in Stockholm; a photograph of the costume appears to the right.  Because the reconstruction features a pleated shift, a caftan coat (not shown in the image I linked to here) and a garment with a silk-and-tablet weaving decorated panel on it, I thought of this outfit as a "Birka" outfit, and yearned to make my own version of it.

However, I did not start to work on the project right away, but continued thinking about it, and the more I learned about the Historiska Museet's reconstruction,  the less respect I had for it.  That was largely due to the fact that, contrary to my initial belief, the Historiska Museet's reconstruction does not attempt to create a particular costume that might have been worn by a Viking woman at a particular place and time; its components are based on different finds from different parts of Scandinavia, and some of those components have at best only a debatable relationship to the original.  For example, the blue tunic with the silk and tablet-weaving decorated panel on the torso is loosely based upon the fragment from Birka grave 735, which Inga Hägg believes comes from two different, caftan-like garments that were worn by two different people buried in that grave.  The red apron dress is based upon the Hedeby fragment, and the head cloth the model is wearing appears to be pure invention, unsupported by any archaeological finds.

Then I learned, from Eva Andersson's study of textile tools and production at Hedeby and Birka that Inga Hägg's analysis of the Hedeby finds show that there may also be support for the Viking "caftan coat" in the Hedeby finds as well. 

In short, the longer I thought about how I would reproduce the Historiska Museet's reproduction, the more clearly I recognized that the museum's reconstruction of a Viking woman's costume was at best based upon speculation and at worst was little better than fantasy.  In light of that conclusion, I figured that I might as well make a costume based upon my own speculations about Viking costume, based upon years of reading, thinking, and upon my own apron dress experiments, that tries to incorporate elements that are consistent with one region and does not combine different regions and periods.  The most likely costume that would include a shift, tunic, smokkr and caftan coat would be a Hedeby costume, so I've decided that my project is now to complete a "Hedeby" outfit.  

That brings me to my decision as to what kind of pattern to use to make the smokkr for this Hedeby outfit.  As the different smokkr patterns displayed on my Pinterest board show,  a wide variety of different patterns have been inspired by the Hedeby "apron dress" fragments.  Many, if not most, of these designs are at least consistent with the archaeological evidence and result in attractive, practical-looking smokkrs, though the evidence is scant enough that it cannot be said to "prove" that any particular pattern was used during the Viking era.

For all we know (and all we may ever know) such a diversity of smokkr patterns may be period.  Perhaps, during the Viking age, women varied the number and shape of pieces they cut to make their smokkrs to conform better to the size and shape of their bodies and the amount of fabric they had available.  The fact that some smokkrs were made from fine, luxurious wools is persuasive, if indirect, evidence that this is likely to have been the case.  Modern costumers know that if the cloth chosen for a particular project is expensive and the quantity that can be purchased is limited, one must exercise ingenuity in cutting and piecing that fabric in order to get the best use possible from it.  That principle must have applied to an even greater extent during the Viking age, when all fabric was handwoven from handspun fiber.

So I have decided, in making this Hedeby dress, to heed the lesson I learned from my last Hedeby smokkr, namely, that as for any clothing project, the pattern must be designed with the wearer's body in mind.  It is clear from the photographs of my last Hedeby dress that the pattern proposed by Peter Beatson and Christobel Ferguson produces too narrow a dress to fit my pear-shaped body properly.  This might be because the Hedeby fragment was not designed for an adult; at least one historical costumer has suggested that the Hedeby fragment may come from a garment worn by a young girl, and thus is not inappropriately shaped and/or sized for a mature woman.

That being said, I still think it is possible for a smokkr based on shaped pieces can include, or even be primarily based upon, rectangular pieces.  It will simply be necessary to include other types of pieces in the pattern to fit women, like myself, with wider hips. Though I am still working out the details of how to apply my measurements to this design idea, I am now planning to use a design similar to Hilde Thunem's second pattern, which combines a front rectangular piece that uses Køstrup-style center pleating with wedge-shaped side pieces and triangular gores inspired by the Hedeby outfit.  At least here the finds combined to make the dress both come from Denmark!  A picture of Hilde's finished smokkr may be seen here. Hilde recently revised her smokkr essay to include the personal observation that this type of design can easily accommodate a second trimester pregnancy, and I suspect that quality would have been a very desirable feature for Viking women.
My primary reservation about Hilde's design is that I'm not convinced it will display my shape, which is shorter and more bottom-heavy than Hilde's, to advantage.  So I plan to alter her concept by using wide front and back pieces (with the front piece containing a central, pleated section) with narrow, possibly triangular side pieces and triangular gores.  I don't think this variation is inconsistent with the limited archaeological textile evidence.  Triangular gores have been found in other Viking age garments.  Many costumers have assumed that the main Hedeby fragment was cut in an asymmetrical trapezoid shape, but Else Østergård and other people studying the Herjolfsnaes garments discovered that false seams (long straight tucks made to imitate a seam) and curved seams played a substantial role in the styling of these garments, so it is possible that the fragment that has inspired so many apron dress designs was shaped by deterioration along a false seam, rather than by cutting.  In addition, many of the Herjolfsnaes garments were sewn from rectangular front and back pieces and triangular gores and side pieces.  It is far from inconceivable that the sewing techniques used at Herjolfsnaes had their roots in the Viking age, and it will be interesting to apply a similar approach to an apron dress. 

I think my original choice of fabric remains defensible for a Hedeby smokkr.  Back when my idea was to make a Birka outfit, I wanted to make the smokkr from diamond twill wool, as is found in the wealthier Birka finds, but I could not find a diamond twill wool that was both affordable and wasn't excessively coarse.  I ultimately settled for the red wool herringbone twill shown above, which, unlike most modern herringbones, does not use a light-thread-dark-thread contrast to showcase the weave.  At the time, the subtle quality of the tonal weave struck me as at being evocative of the Birka diamond twill finds.  Now I know that according to Hägg (as reported by Andersson), 2/2 twill weaves predominated at Hedeby, which makes herringbone twills seem more appropriate for a Hedeby smokkr.

As I've said before, I'm coming to believe that Viking smokkrs were only made in blues and browns.  However, wool can be dyed with Viking period materials in a rainbow of colors, including reds, and the red of my herringbone twill is not implausible for a wool garment in period, though it would be somewhat expensive.  It is hard to photograph this fabric in such a way as to show the true color, but the above photograph is not too far off.  The actual color is a medium-intensity red with a slightly orange tone.  It was referred to as "rose" by the Internet seller from whom I bought it, but it looks more like brick red to me.  I like this shade because it blends really well with the blue I plan to use for the tunic and the gold I plan to use for the caftan coat, it doesn't clash too badly with the copper color I use for my hair, and it will be fun to wear the red smokkr with those other, boldly-colored garments when I finally get them made.

This project will be very different from my earlier apron dress projects.  Instead of making a particular apron dress design to try to show whether a particular technique was or was not likely to have been used in the Viking age, I am attempting, within the limit of period-plausible techniques I know, to adopt a pattern that will achieve the most attractive and comfortable garment I can make with my fine fabric.  That seems to me to be the approach a Viking age woman would have taken, though such subjective motivations are unlikely ever to be provable.

EDIT:  (1/26/2014)  I doubt I'm going to finish this project by February 1, because (1) I'm still waffling about the exact pattern to use and how I'm going to do the pleats, and (2) I've been offered a contract position that will require me to work full-time for the foreseeable future.  However, there's always Challenge #8 and the "Re-Do" Challenge that should let me finish this project!


Andersson, Eva. 2003. Tools for Textile Production from Birka and Hedeby. Birka Studies 8. Excavations in the Black Earth 1990-1995. Stockholm.

Beatson, Peter & Ferguson, Christobel.  "Reconstructing a Viking Hanging Dress from Haithabu."  Published on the authors' own website at

Fransen, Lilli, Nørgaard & Østergård, Else. Medieval Garments Reconstructed:  Norse Clothing Patterns, pp. 30, 36-37.  Aarhus University Press (2011).

Geijer, Agnes. Birka III. Die Textilfunde aus den Gräbern. Almqvist och Wiksells boktryck (1938).

Hägg, Inga. "Some Notes on the Origin of the Peplos-Type Dress in Scandinavia." Tor, I (1968), pp. 81-127.

Østergård, Else.  Woven Into The Earth:Textile finds in Norse Greenland. Aarhus University Press (2004).

Raymond, Catherine.  Loose Threads:  Yet Another Costuming Blog.
       "Apron Dresses--Getting the Blues..."  published December 4, 2010 at
      "Apron Dresses--More of the Blues", published December 11, 2010 at

Thunem, Hilde.  "Viking Women:  Aprondress."  Published on the author's own website at  Last updated by the author; October 21, 2013; last accessed January 1, 2014.

vanden Westhinde, Catrijn.  "An apron dress pattern based on the Hedeby fragment." Published May 6, 2007 on the author's blog, A Dressmaker's Workshop, at  Last accessed January 13, 2014.

* Image from Wikimedia Commons. 
** Photograph taken by myself.


  1. I was in Lund, Sweden, for a geology conference earlier this month. While there I met up with a geologist friend of mine who lives in Trondheim, Norway, and does a fair bit of Viking reenactment there, and we took some time off from the conference sessions one afternoon to check out the Lund historiska museet. They have a display there of hundreds of broaches of varying shapes and sizes, a very small percentage of which are the tortoise shell variety. My friend commented looking a the display how frustrating she finds it that there are so many different types of broaches available in the archaeological record, yet most reenactors choose the tortoise shell sort, even though they are rare compared to everything else. I had never thought about that point before, and now I wonder if the relative abundance in that display is an accurate record of the distribution of types amongst the finds (in which case tortoise shell broaches are WAY over-represented by people doing this period at the SCA events I have been at), or if they were just chosen because the person putting together the display thought that the change in size and shape across the display was pretty, and liked the effect of having so few of the larger ones.

  2. What a beautiful wool!

    I'm very interested in your speculations about the colours of apron dresses based on finds. Definitely something interesting to think about.

  3. Oh, I need to get a picture of my latest try to send you! I did a fitted style using a twill weave and it's rather flattering (you know that super fitted red one on the blonde going around Pinterest? It fits very similar to that). No openings, just using the innate properties of a woven wool and a twill weave. I'm really curvy and have no desire to look like a pile of laundry or a wool muu-muu, so I'm quite pleased with the fit.

    1. Well, I mean there's a top and bottom opening, but no closures.

    2. synj-munki--Your latest apron dress sounds great! I'm familiar with the Pinterest image you mean (repinned it myself). Feel free to send a link1

    3. I have to take a picture, first.

  4. Ooooh, exciting! It'll be really interesting to see what you come up with! :D

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  6. Cathy, you said,..."the head cloth the model is wearing appears to be pure invention, unsupported by any archaeological finds." I have to tell you I ran across a YouTube while looking for some Traditional music and dances that seemed to be dying out in East Prussia where my family originates and low and behold I found this exact same head covering...a fleeting view to be sure, and not archaeological evidence but still interesting... @00:35. At least it would appear that it is or was actually worn in this way. Hope this may help in your quest for a "viking outfit." I love you blog and visit it often, thanks!

  7. Hi, Ute! Thanks for your comment, and the link, and the compliment! I'm glad you enjoy my blog.

    By saying that I thought the headcloth worn by the woman in the Historiska Museet's reconstruction was "pure invention" I did not mean to suggest that women have never worn such a headcloth in any culture. I only meant to indicate that there was no evidence suggesting that women might have worn such a headcloth in that way in Scandinavia during the Viking age. That's where the "invention" part comes in.

    The video is interesting, and the costumes shown in it are beautiful, but I don't see that they are particularly relevant to this discussion. Most "traditional" costumes are based on what people wore in the 18th-19th centuries. Without a broader knowledge of how the costume evolved, it's impossible to conclude from it whether East Prussian women wore such a headcloth during the 9th-11th centuries, let alone whether other cultures of the period, such as the Viking/Scandinavian ones, might also have worn it.