Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Speculation on Apron Dress Decoration

Although there are several posts I mean to write about apron dresses, I have been seriously lacking in sufficient concentration to do so lately. Instead, I will simply make a few notes that occurred to me as I read Hilde Thunem's latest (July 15, 2010) revision of her essay on the evidence for Viking era apron dress design.  Many of the latest changes relate to evidence for how apron dresses were trimmed or decorated.  These notes are mostly to clarify my own thoughts about the information provided in Thunem's essay, which I commend to the attention of any interested readers; please feel free to stop reading here if the subject bores you.

The latest updates to Thunem's draft include more information about the finds from the female graves at Birka than I'd previously had.  One theme is that, of the eight Birka grave finds that have significantly-sized apron dress fragments, all appear to feature some kind of trimming:  either an added silk band on a woolen or linen dress (graves 464, 834, 835); a woollen tablet-woven band (grave 1090); or a braided string of some kind (graves 954, 511, 973, 1083, 1084, 563, 838).  The Køstrup find also appears to include a tablet woven band (though this is not clear from the photograph of the find that appears in Ewing's Viking Clothing, and the Pskov dress definitely used rare, colorful, patterned bands of silk as trim.  Interestingly, Thunem notes that Anne Stine Ingstad has reported on a find from Kaupang that appears to show a piece of tablet-woven trim sewn to another piece of cloth, and that Ingstad mentions that a similar find that was associated with an apron dress was unearthed at Vaernes. 

It is possible, of course, that at least some of the silk-band and braided-string finds are remains of bands or strings used to hang tools from a brooch, and were never attached to the apron dress at all (and Thunem observes that Hägg raises this point).  Kirsten Petterson's article, which I referred to in this post, discusses a find from the cemetery at Barshalder that appeared to have used a "lucetted" string to hold beads, and strings were also found in connection with the Vaernes find (see my last post).  Much depends on the position in which the band or string was found, and the location of the bands or strings found in some of the Birka graves is ambiguous, as Thunem notes.  Still, there seems to be some support in the Birka finds for modest ornament of these types.

Of some interest in this regard is Thunem's observation that the apron dress finds appear to have been hemmed by turning down the edge of the fabric by about 4-5 mm and stitching it in place.  The edge was folded down on the inside surface of the dress, but Thunem reports an interesting comment by Hägg in this regard:  "Inga Hägg comments that the hemming stitches would usually be invisible on wool, but would show up clearly on linen, which may account for the positioning of the band."  So there may have been a reason to sew something down on top of the stitched area, at least on wool linen dresses.

Thunem also reports an interesting comment by Ingstad that may suggest evidence on an issue where little evidence has been found--namely, the length of apron dresses.  One of the fragments shows that a cord was sewn to the edge of a tablet-woven braid that in turn was sewn to a fragment.  Thunem reports that, according to Ingstad, the tablet-woven bands sewn to clothing "would have run along either the top or the bottom of the garment. Ingstad believes that the woollen string sewn to the edge of the band indicate that the band and string was placed at the bottom of the smokkr. She cites that similar strings have been used to protect against wear in Norwegian and Danish folk costumes."

If Ingstad's theory is correct, it would suggest that apron dresses were floor length, since the obvious reason to protect the bottom edge of a garment is to protect it from friction with the ground or with floors.  However, if the cord was sewn on to protect the hem from friction, it would likely show some kind of wear from brushing the ground.  Thunem does not report such an observation by Ingstad.*  (I guess Ingstad's report needs to get added to my list of reports to seek out.)**

*A contrarian might say that the cord would show no wear if the dress had been specially made for the funeral.  However, the fact that such a dress was made from wool and trimmed in wool, instead of even more luxurious fabrics, coupled with the fact that apron dress finds usually feature textile tools or personal items such as needlecases or earspoons, suggest, at least to me, that Viking women were buried in clothes they had worn in life, even if the clothes were their best outfits.

**No, pearl, that's not a request!


  1. You note that Kirsten Petterson's article mentions "a find from the cemetery at Barshalder that appeared to have used a lucetted string to hold beads..."

    This would be an important discovery, if true. AFAIK there is still considerable skepticism about the reports of "lucets" from Norse contexts, especially since to date there have been no confirmed reports of strings that were unambiguously made by lucetting rather than (for instance) tubular tablet weaving or braiding.

  2. Hi, Chris! Thanks for stopping by.

    I've just put the word "lucetted" in quotes because your comment has convinced me that I was being a tad misleading.

    The string is there, and its relationship to the beads in question clear enough, even given the quality of the black and white photo in my PDF of the article. But the question is whether it was made with a lucet or not.

    Petterson's article is cited as evidence that it was, but the article itself suggests that the string might have been made with a device that is more like what a lot of people call a "knitting nancy." I posted my own discussion of the question as to whether the Vikings used the lucet here.

  3. Really wonderful post!...I think nobody can be brief as like your post! Thank you for bringing a well thought out and reasoned comment to the discussion.

    All the comments are seem superfluous.We’re all eagerly waiting for your next article of course.

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  4. Thanks, Claudia!

    I was away this past weekend (it's a holiday weekend here in the US) but I plan to do a short post on more dress design speculation, and hopefully one on my costuming activities soon.