Monday, December 25, 2017

The Køstrup Dress: The Woven Band

Hilde's photograph of the surviving Køstrup band (used with permission)
For quite some time, I've been doing some thinking about modern reproductions of Viking age finds that are clearly associated with tortoise brooches, and (in all probability) with the smokkr or "apron dress", the sleeveless overdress that appears to be characteristic of Viking women's costume.  In doing so, I have been inspired by the work of independent researcher Hilde Thunem.

Hilde reads three of the languages in which many of the archaeological papers relating to Viking Age Scandinavian costume are written, namely, Norwegian, German, and English.  She has written several long, excellent papers of her own, summarizing that research and drawing her own conclusions from it.  Her paper on the smokkr may be read on the Internet here.

Hilde's conclusion seem to be based largely upon the analysis of Danish researchers Rasmussen and Lønborg, who did a detailed analysis of the Køstrup find.*  Based upon Hilde's summary in her essay (the Rasmussen and Lønborg work does not seem to be available in English), Rasmussen and Lønborg conclude that the band was fastened only to the front loops, and not to the top edge of the apron dress.  It is clear that the band was fastened to at least one of the front loops, because, as the photograph of the actual Køstrup band shows, one of the loops is still attached to that band.  But as Hilde notes, there is no consensus as to how the wool strings (also shown in the above photograph) were attached, and the extent that they were attached, to the tablet woven band and/or the smokkr itself.

Although it's clear from Hilde's comments about wearing her reconstructed dress that it's neither awkward nor impractical to sew a tablet-woven band just above the top edge, above the pleated section, something about the look of the finished result bothered me.  It bothered me because I couldn't figure out why a Viking woman might have designed her dress this way.

Top edge of Hilde's smokkr, showing band attachment (used with permission)
So I started thinking about Hilde's Køstrup smokkr design from a functional perspective. By that I mean I've been trying to think about each element of the dress's design and what purpose it serves.

For example, the straps and loops on the dress allow it to be fastened on the body without all the clumping and bunching of fabric that happens when you pin a strapless, tube-shaped peplos dress on the shoulders through several layers of cloth.

Similarly, the tortoise-shaped brooch is an improvement over the disk and cross-bow shaped brooches previously used because it can accommodate a number of straps for the dress and for hanging tools and accessories without sticking out awkwardly from the woman's body.  The smokkr design, coupled with tortoise brooches for fastening, also makes it easier to unpin and repin one shoulder in case the woman needs to pull the front of her dress down while remaining clothed (e.g., for breastfeeding purposes).**

Then I thought about the pleated area and the tablet-woven band above the pleated area at the top of the gown.  What purpose do those features serve?

Hilde's blue smokkr illustrates one possible, logical purpose of the pleats; they allow a close, attractive fit of the gown across the breasts while allowing for at least a bit more fullness around the torso, achieving what some of us call today a "figure skimming fit". The result is particularly flattering on a pregnant woman, as Hilde's own photographs of her dress (modeled while she was pregnant) indicate.  Moreover, there are at least two northern European finds from the late medieval period that use sections of small pleats in a similar manner, to create special shaping for a dress.  One is the Uvdal find from Norway, and another, which I learned about from Katrin Kania's blog, is a dress reconstruction based upon a pleated textile find from Turku, in Finland.  So it is not absurd to conclude, as Hilde did, that the pleated apron dress finds from Scandinavia represent early attempts to use pleated sections of fabric in women's dress design.

But why place the tablet woven band above the top edge of the dress?  It seems to me that placement of the band must be due, at least in part, to the pleats in the section of the dress that lies between the brooches.***

My Køstrup dress, made at a time when I had little information
about the band's attachment and size, and the size of the dress pleats.
(Photo by my husband, cropped by me)
When I made my version of the Køstrup dress over a decade ago, I didn't have very much information about the size of the pleats, or the length of the area they were supposed to cover, so I extended the pleated area from brooch to brooch, and made the pleats very deep--about an inch or so.  Then I stitched a piece of purchased trim (a substitute for the tablet woven band) right on top of the pleats, to help hold them in place.  Stitching the band down in this manner achieved that purpose, all right--but the top edge of my dress looks lumpy and weird, as the photograph to the left shows.

So it seems reasonable that the Køstrup band might have been fastened to the dress above the pleats to avoid mashing them down and crushing them.  And that's what Hilde did.  She sewed the tablet-woven band to the lower loops on the apron dress.  Her photos appear to indicate that the bottom of the band rests approximately a centimeter above the top edge of the dress.

But Hilde's reconstruction, unlike the band on the original Køstrup dress, does not have strings (thin cords, actually) sewn to the top and bottom of the tablet-woven band.  The presence of those strings in the original find is another detail I was unaware of until I read Hilde's paper about the Køstrup dress.  That fact may make Hilde's reconstruction less useful in understanding how the tablet-woven band was fastened to the original dress.

The existence of those strings suggests an alternative reason as to why we do not see evidence that the band was stitched to the apron dress.  The stitching may have passed into the very top edge of the pleats and just through the strings, or between the strings and the edges of the band, without entering the band at all.  Most of the wool string does not survive either--making it difficult to look for holes made by stitching thread to prove or disprove this hypothesis.  Hilde's essay notes that there are finds from Birka that are ornamented only with a string or cord sewn along the top edge (Grave Nos. 511, 563, 838, 954, 973, 1083, and 1084).  It might be useful to know what type of stitch was used to fasten the string to the edges of these Birka smokkrs.

Just as Nille Glaesel disagrees with Hilde about how the Køstrup pleats were formed and stabilized, she also has a different view from Hilde about how the tablet woven piece was fastened to the top edge of the Køstrup dress. Ms. Glaesel notes that Rasmussen and Lønborg suggest, in their research paper on the Køstrup find, that the top of the dress was finished by folding the top half-centimeter of the cloth to the reverse side and stitching it in place (page 4).  However, Ms. Glaesel observes that, in a Viking era fabric such as the 1/1 tabby of the Køstrup find, the warp was "hard spun" and prone to fray unless it was "secured" with a piece of another fabric.  Thus, she believes that a piece of another fabric--probably linen, for no such fabric survives--was fastened to the tablet-woven band, and the band was stitched to the top of the apron dress along the edge of the linen piece sewed to the band.  But Ms. Glaesel does not indicate where the wool strings fit into this view of the Køstrup smokkr's construction.  Moreover, if a linen strip was sewn  to the top edge of the smokkr to "secure" that edge from fraying, it would be more likely, not less likely, that stitch holes in the smokkr's top edge would be apparent, and they are not.  There is no fraying apparent on the top edge of the smokkr's pleats, which more strongly supports Rasumussen and Lønborg's view that the top edge of the fabric was folded over before the pleats were made.

I think the key to understanding the placement of the tablet woven piece on the Køstrup dress is knowing that there were strings positioned on both edges of the band.  Although the strings and band may well have been sewn to the loops first, as Hilde has done with the band on her dress, the fact that the strings were present may explain why there are no apparent stitch holes in the band itself, and suggests a different theory as to how and where the band may actually have been attached to the dress.

The maker of the Køstrup dress could have "secured" the band-with-attached-strings to the pleated top edge of the smokkr by tacking the lower string to the top edge of all, or just some, of the pleats. The sewing needle need not have pierced the string--it might have encircled the string and entered under neath a thread at the top edge of the fold of each pleat, where it would be hard to detect a hole.  Alternatively, the needle might have passed between the strands of the string (which the photographs clearly indicate was plied) in a way that would not leave a hole.  Either way, the string would then be tacked to the band, and another string tacked to the band's top edge. The way the strings have come loose from the original Køstrup band suggest that they were never sewn very tightly or with closely-spaced stitches, either of which would have been more likely to leave holes.****

In short, I believe that there likely was not a large visible space between the bottom of the band-and-strings-combination.  I think the strings were lightly tacked to the band, and the band-with-strings was, in turn, lightly tacked to the top edge of the smokkr and stitched more firmly to the front loops of the dress.  Though it is difficult to tell even from the excellent photograph Hilde has provided, it looks to me as though parts of the string can be seen on the lower left-side of the photograph, still tacked to the band.  If that is true and my own biases are not misleading me, that supports my view of how the band was fastened to the smokkr.

I think my rose-red herringbone wool smokkr project has found a mission.  I can make my own Køstrup smokkr using the same type of pattern Hilde used, but adding wool strings (assuming I can find or make suitable ones) and attaching the tablet-woven band in the way I've just suggested.

Apologies to anyone who saw this piece on my blog or on Google Plus several weeks ago, when I posted an incomplete version by accident and then removed it.

*      Rasmussen, L. and Lønborg, B. 1993. Dragtrester i grav ACQ, Køstrup. Fyndske minder, Odense Bys Museer Årbog. 

**    My own experiences with wearing peplos dresses with different kinds of brooches as well as apron dresses with tortoise brooches confirms the difference in convenience in pinning and re-pinning one's overdress. It is much easier to repin an apron dress, where the pins only need go through loops of cloth, than it is to repin a peplos, which requires one to pin one's brooches through two folded edges of cloth (front and back).  This convenience advantage remains even if one is wearing one or more bead strings with the brooches, provided you allow the strands to sink to the bottom of the brooch pin during the fastening process. 

***   I agree that the pleated section of the Køstrup smokkr was located in the center front of the dress, not under the arm or in an otherwise non-central position.  Because I am focusing on the question of how the tablet-woven band was attached, I do not discuss the evidence for the central location of the pleated section here.

**** It is an interesting question whether research has been done as to the extent to which stitch holes remain in fabric after the thread from the stitching has disappeared in the grave.   Such research might also help answer the question of how the Køstrup band was fastened to the smokkr.

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