Sunday, February 11, 2018

To Make A Bag

Having discovered on Etsy a reasonably-priced pair of wooden bag frames based upon one of the Hedeby finds, I impulsively decided to make my own Hedeby bag.  Naturally, the Historical Sew Monthly challenge where this fits best is the November challenge, but perhaps I can delay completion of this project item until October, the month before (which is permitted under the HSM rules).

What I have already discovered is that I am thinking about the construction of these bags in a significantly different light than I did before I had actually planned to make one.  Before I sat down to plan how I wanted to make the bag, I was looking at the idea of bag-making in terms of what would be possible, based upon materials and processes we know were available during the Viking Age.

Once I had ordered my reproduction wooden pieces (they aren't really "handles," as I may have called them, because it is not possible to hold the bag well just by using them; the cord or strap threaded through them is the only real handle such bags have), my thinking changed.  I began to consider what would be most likely given what I know about Viking textile technology and other material culture practices.

Part of this change was driven by additional information I obtained from Kristine Risberg's post about her Haithabu bag project.  From that post, I learned that one of the Haithabu frame pieces was found with wool ("fabric or yarn", according to Kristine) through holes which are in a natural place to use to fasten the bag to the frame.  That suggests that wool was used to fasten the frame to the bag, which in turn suggests that at least some of these bags may have been made from wool.

Even more interesting is that similar bags, with bone or antler frames instead of wooden ones, appear to have been used on leather food bags from Lappland, according to an early article by Arvid Julius.  The idea that the Viking bags were also used for food is supported, to some extent, by their sizes.  The Lapp (i.e., Sami) bags discussed by Julius were 20, 22, and 24 centimeters long which is close to the size of my reproduction (about 23 cm/9 inches long).  However, some of the Hedeby frames were much larger.  According to Kristine, the examples in the Haithabu Museum "are described by Westphal to "have a length of 181-495 mm and a thickness of 7-13 mm". The thickness of my piece is within that range, but its length is on the small end of the range. 181 - 495 mm equal 18.1 - 49.5 cm, or about 7 - 19 inches. In other words, the Haithabu bags were somewhere between lunch bag size and shopping bag size.  The Birka frames were largely incomplete fragments, but the one set of fragments that appear to constitute a single frame are 282 mm or 28.2 cm (11 inches) in length--within the range of the Haithabu frames though near the lower end of the range.  At 9 or so inches, my bag would be among the smaller bags based upon these finds, but I am content to make a (roughly) lunch bag sized container for this project.

The Sami frames were ornamented with simple carving, while the Haithabu and Birka examples were plain, their shaping being the only ornamental element.  Viking Age tools and useful articles differ greatly in how ornamental they are.  For example, most Viking needlecases and spindles are plain, though some examples bear simple decoration.  The wooden Viking frames fall on the low side of the decorative spectrum, which suggests that the bags they were part of were not adorned in a showy manner.  The likelihood that these were utilitarian items is further supported by the fact that, to the best of my knowledge, none of them came from graves--the Birka examples, for instance, were found not in any of the graves, but in an underwater area that was long known "to contain wooden logs and cultural layers."  With these facts in mind, I selected the components from which the bag would be made. Pictures of them appear with this post, and my rationale for each will be discussed below. 
WOOD: The birch frames

The elements to be decided upon for making the bag include: (1)  the type of wood for the frame;  (2) the material from which to make the body of the bag; (3) whether to line the bag and, if so, what material to use; (4) the color, weight, and (if using fabric) weave of the materials for the bag; (5) what material to use for the handle (e.g., fiber cord or leather strap), and how long a length of cord/strap to use, and; (6) how and whether to decorate the bag, and what materials to use for decoration.  Here's the reasoning I used to make each of those decisions.

BAG:  Wool felt fabric for the bag itself.
WOOD:  The frame pieces of the original finds that Kristine discusses in her post are typically ash or maple.  It is possible to purchase reproduction maple frames, but they tend to be more expensive ($30-$40 USD per pair).  The crafter from whom I bought my frame pieces uses birch and stains them walnut-colored, but I did not like the look of the staining and thus asked her not to stain my set.  (In addition, staining the frames I received would make it very obvious that that the wood grain on them runs vertically, instead of horizontally across the length of the frame as is true of all the original finds of which I've seen good photographs or drawings.)  The low price ($15 USD for frames that are about 9 inches/23 cm long) led me to go with the birch frames. 

BAG MATERIAL:  Strong, water-repellent, light, easily available--wool, the workhorse fabric of the Vikings, is a logical choice for a food bag.  The only drawback, if we're assuming the frame bags were used for food, is the possibility of moth damage, but that can be evaded with care and with using the bag solely for foods that are already wrapped or have natural protective coatings (such as apples or eggs).  

There are many different types of wool fabric, and that would have been true even in the Viking Age.  I purchased a fairly thick felt, since it seemed unlikely that a fine wool, suitable for elegant clothing, would have been used for a mere bag in the Viking Age.  Fine wool scraps might have been used for ornamenting an item, or for making small items such as hats or mittens, but a bag of the size that would match my frames would be need to be bigger, at least 9 inches wide and as much as 24 inches long--more than a mere scrap.  I selected a dark brown (the actual color is much darker than it shows in the photograph here) because such a color could be easily achieved on wool during the Viking Age, either with dyes or by using the wool of a dark brown sheep.  I have seen pictures of some lovely herringbone wool Haithabu-type bags, and I was tempted by vendors who were selling some truly lovely herringbone twills on line, but herringbone twill wool is not that common a fabric in the Viking Age, and I suspect such wool would be reserved for clothing or other items more display-oriented than these simple bags seem likely to have been.

LINING:  Linen for lining.
LINING: The Sami bags, being leather, would not necessarily need to be lined. However, what limited indication we have is that the Vikings made their bags from wool.  Since food stains on wool tend to attract moths, leading to fabric damage, it would make sense to line a wool food bag in a material other than wool.

The other commonly used fabric in the Viking Age was linen. We have no information that the Vikings used linen, waxed or dry, to wrap food, though there are hints in some of the Birka graves that linen was used as linings for dresses, underclothing, or both. But linen is not subject to moth damage, which would make it useful for a wool food bag lining.  If one uses a "bag" style lining (i.e., a lining that is sewn separately from the outer bag and sewn to it only at the top), it would be possible to remove the lining and replace it with a new one if the old one became too damaged or soiled in use.  In addition, I had a suitably sized scrap of linen in a plausible period color, so a linen lining was a reasonable choice.

COLORS:  Substances were available in the Viking Age that could dye wool in many cheerful tones of the primary colors.  Originally, I thought I would use dark blue wool for the bag, since I had some large scraps of blue coat-weight wool on hand, and it's a color I really like.  However, judging by the fine wool smokkrs found at Birka and Køstrup, blue seems to have been a prestigious color during the Viking Age.  In contrast, the frame bags do not seem to have been heavily decorated items, and not the type of item one ornamented to flaunt one's wealth.  So it seemed best to stick to a color consistent with the undyed wools available to the Vikings, which came mostly in grays and browns.  
HANDLE:  Cotton cord; not authentic, but expedient.

With regard to the lining, linen is difficult to dye with the materials and techniques of the Viking Age, and a utilitarian bag would not need a fancy colored lining.  Most of the scrap linen I have on hand is either white (to mimic bleached linen) or light blue (a prestige color, again).  I do have some medium-weight linen in a light antique gold color that did not seem too fancy but would still make a pleasing contrast with the dark brown, so I chose that for the lining. 

HANDLE:  Wool cord didn't seem like a good material to use for the handle of a bag that might hold rather heavy objects (such as apples), because wool tends to stretch with use and would be vulnerable to breaking from stress.  Leather stretches much less and is much stronger, but an appropriate weight and color of leather would have significantly increased the cost of the project.  A quick search of my stash produced a length of heavy cotton cord in a cheerful yellow color, with a diameter just small enough to thread through the holes in the frames.  Though it's unlikely the Vikings had access to significant amounts of cotton, and equally unlikely that a bast fiber such as linen, ramie or hemp could be dyed that shade of yellow with Viking Age dyes, I selected the cord because it was suitable for my budget for the project.  

As a practical matter, the cord for one of these frame bags has to be at least long enough so that the bag could open fully.  Medieval pilgrims' bags had straps long enough to allow the bag to be carried over the shoulder, and since many existing frames indicate bags too large to hang on one's belt or easily carry in the hand, it is fortunate that I have enough cord to make it possible to use the proposed bag as a shoulder bag.

ORNAMENT:  Finer wool fabric for trim.
ORNAMENT:  I have seen photographs of reproduction bags on the Internet that were decorated with scraps of silk and/or embroidery.  If such bags were used as the Viking equivalent of a lunch bag, I suspect that such effort would have been deemed inappropriate.  But I could not tolerate the idea of making a totally plain bag, and suspect that many Viking women would have found some way to make even such a bag a bit less plain.  The fragments of apron dress from Birka that are trimmed with a simple wool cord indirectly support this idea.  So I bought a small piece of amber-colored wool, which I figured would harmonize with the other yellow components of the bag.  I will cut a piece of that wool that is about two inches (5 cm) wide, and stitch it around the top of the bag, just below the straps securing the frames.  That should look attractive without requiring the kind of effort that likely would have been reserved for formal clothing and other forms of status display during the Viking Age.  Alternatively, I could use the amber wool for the straps fastening the bag to the frame, but think that using the stronger felted wool would be structurally more sound for that purpose.

The best thing about a bag project is that its small size and geometrically-shaped pieces mean that it will be quick to assemble.  If I do not decide to save it for the November HSM, I should probably have it finished pretty soon.  When I have it completed, I will post pictures on this blog.


  1. Could you not submit your bag for the April challenge? The instruction is "Create an item where the closures are the star of the show", and your birch frame pieces should count. It's the closure method that makes these bags distinctive, after all.

    I'm really looking forward to seeing your finished bag. I enjoyed reading about your research and the logic you've used to determine how the bag should be made, and the colours you've chosen are beautiful.

    1. Stella: I thought I responded to your suggestion, but see that Blogger has not registered a response.

      I could submit it for April, though April is a busy month here, as taxes are due in the middle of the month. I might finish it in March and submit it when April starts; that falls within the rules.

    2. Ah yes, I'd forgotten the tax year. That does complicate things.

    3. For the last two years, I spent most of tax season too ill to want to do anything (and thus spending what energy I could muster on taxes). I'm hoping this year will be different.