Tuesday, June 28, 2016

The Køstrup Dress--The Pleats

A few years ago, Hilde Thunem published a web article about her examination of the surviving fragments from the Køstrup smokkr or apron dress, and updated her broader essay about Viking apron dresses to include a discussion of how she believes that dress was made, with pictures of an apron dress she made for herself based on her in-person analysis of the Køstrup fragments. 

Last year, I found a paper on the web by Nille Glaesel, who many people consider to be an expert on apron dress construction, about her theories of how the Køstrup smokkr was made.  Like Hilde Thunem, Ms. Glaesel has also had an opportunity to examine the Køstrup finds.  Unlike Ms. Thunem, Ms. Glaesel has significant experience, not just with sewing period clothing but also with weaving tablet-made bands and using a warp-weighted loom to make fabric.  Her experience leads her to some interesting conclusions that are different from Hilde's. (Because the paper is located in the files of a closed Facebook group, I am not comfortable with making it available for free download here. Interested readers of this blog may wish to seek and obtain admission to the group "Scholarly Discussion on Viking Age Clothing" to obtain a copy.)

In the meantime, I would like to summarize Ms. Glaesel's approach and conclusions here, as they provide excellent food for thought, not only about apron dress construction in general, but on how to make deductions based on archaeological finds.  Since I began writing this post, I have found descriptions of two other reconstructions of the Køstrup smokkr and have incorporated them into this discussion.

Ms. Glaesel titled her paper, "The Køstrup Apron Dress Interpreted by a Crafter".  As was true for Hilde Thunem, Ms. Glaesel's experience in making apron dresses has greatly influenced her conclusions about the construction of the original.  Unlike Hilde Thunem, Ms. Glaesel not only sews her own Viking clothing, but she also has experience with weaving cloth on a warp-weighted loom like the looms used by Viking women, and her experience in weaving cloth has significantly influenced her thoughts about the construction of the Køstrup smokkr.

Nille Glaesel's paper discusses several different issues that relate to how the Køstrup smokkr, but in this post I will only comment on what is perhaps the most obvious question, namely, how the pleats in the center front of the smokkr were created and secured.

The Smokkrs.   Hilde Thunem had some difficulty coming up with an effective method for securing the pleats on her Køstrup smokkr.  After an initial unsuccessful attempt to fix pleats in position by steaming, she ended up creating her pleats by drawing linen threads through the relevant section of fabric, and then anchoring them with stitches placed on the inside of the garment, perpendicular to the pleats (see Alternative 3 in the construction section of her paper).

In contrast, Ms. Glaesel believes that the pleating found in the Køstrup fragment was created while the dress fabric was still on the loom, by pulling certain threads in the woven fabric tight while the fabric was still on the loom and then steaming the fabric to set the pleats after the weaving was complete (page 5, see also page 21). Because she believes this is how the pleating is done, she also believes that the pleats ran the entire length of the dress from top to bottom, and that the pleated section was sewn into the dress after the pleating was completed--though she admits that she cannot tell whether there is evidence of a seam beside the pleated portions (page 6).

Jenn Culler, in making her own Køstrup reconstruction, mostly agrees with Hilde Thunem.  Like Nille Glaesel, Jenn is a weaver (though she used a modern loom, not a warp-weighted loom, to create the fabric for her smokkr). Jenn has said that she believes that the method of creating the pleats while the dress is on the loom is "far more tedious of a process than simply drawing the pleats on a thread after the garment is crafted."  She believes that stabilizing stitches made on the inside of the garment are plausible, even though stitch holes do not appear on the surviving pleated fragment, in part because "[s]titches added from behind could penetrate the web of the textile, without impaling individual weaving threads."*  The stabilizing stitches for Jenn's pleats are whip stitched on the inside of the garment.

Finally, Kristine Risberg took a somewhat different approach to making and stabilizing the pleats on her Køstrup smokkr.  Kristine, like Jenn, drew up the fabric into pleats with linen thread, which she left in place "because I don’t know if the pleating would hold should the thread be removed." However, she also chose to back the pleated area with a piece of linen--an approach Hilde originally tried but ultimately rejected.  It should be noted, however, that Kristine's approach resulted in pleats that are much wider than the pleats on the original Køstrup dress: 8mm wide, instead of 2-3 mm wide.

My Thoughts.

For my part, I think that the very narrowness of the original pleats is inconsistent with the idea that any kind of lining or backing was used for the pleated section.  If such a lining was used but dissolved in the grave, the resulting pleats would now appear wider and looser than they actually are, as Kristine's smokkr indicates.

I also think that it is likely that the pleats were formed by drawing threads through the pleated areas, and likely kept in place with stitches taken across the back side of the pleated area.  Why?  Because it seems likely to me that the time it would take to boil enough water to produce a suitable amount of steam, and the effort it would take to attempt to steam the pleated fabric above the open-fire-heated cauldrons used for cooking, would have made efforts to steam-set such pleats impractical.**  That would be particularly true if, as Nille Glaesel believes, the pleats extended all the way from the top of the apron dress to its bottom hem (an issue as to which there currently is no evidence whatsoever).  

I do not have difficulty believing that linen gathering and stabilizing stitches would have dissolved in the grave.  It is generally believed that linen undergarments, at least, were quite common in Viking times due to the presence of scraps preserved near metal grave goods and by the discovery of linen-processing tools.   Except for tiny scraps preserved by proximity to metal items, however, linen is not found in Scandinavian graves.  In addition, Hilde notes that there are gaps in the weave of the tablet-woven band at the top of the Køstrup dress, a feature best explained by the dissolution of linen or other vegetable fiber threads underground. 

As for Nille Glaesel's suggestion that the pleats were formed as the pleated strip was being woven,   I am inclined to believe this method of pleating viable (because Ms. Glaesel is the only one of the reconstructionists who has woven fabric for her apron dresses on a warp-weighted loom, the type used during the Viking age), but any argument that this was the method actually used on the Køstrup smokkr is refuted by the fact that the pleated area does not show seams on both sides of the pleated area.  I do not see how the weaving method  Ms. Glaesel proposes could be used to pleat only a portion of a larger sheet of fabric, and that is the only possibility that would be consistent both with pleating the fabric while it was on the loom and with the lack of seams on both sides of the pleated section.   In addition, as I said above, I do not think that it would be practical to set pleats in fabric with steam using Viking age technology, and Ms. Glaesel proposes this technique also.

So at this point, I believe that Jenn Culler's method of pleating and stabilizing the pleats is most consistent with the available evidence.*** Unfortunately, a definitive conclusion to these questions will not be possible unless another, better-preserved pleated apron dress find is located.

Nille Glaesel's paper also discusses the question of how the tablet-woven band found in the Køstrup grave was fastened to the top of the smokkr, but I will talk about that in another post.

*   See this blog for yet another reconstruction which uses construction techniques similar to Jenn Culler's.

** Volker Bach noted, in Compleat Anachronist No. 156 (Society for Creative Anachronism, Second Quarter 2012) that it is nearly impossible to reach a full rolling boil using the cooking technologies available in the Carolingian Era: 
"Carolingian cooks mostly used woodfires, and it is likely that the most common technique was boiling or simmering in clay pots. These would slowly have built up to a gentle heat. Cooking food at a rolling boil is almost impossible in them, and their results are best replicated by gently baking a cooking container or cooking on a gentle heat. ... Metal cookware was probably confined to larger households. ... Still, a cooking vessel suspended over a fire is not going to produce the concentrated heat of a modern stovetop unless it touches the flame directly." (p. 26).
In Daniel Serra and Hanna Tunberg's book, An Early Meal:  A Viking Age Cookbook and Cultural Odyssey (ChronoCopia Publishing AB 2013) the authors note that boiling in metal cauldrons over a wood fire was a common food preparation technique among the Vikings (p. 23) but they do not state or even suggest that a rolling boil was used.  Moreover, the authors state that most of the foods cooked would have been porridges and stews, and these are foods typically cooked (even today) by long simmering, not vigorous boiling.  The point is that boiling water hard enough, and for long enough, to produce sufficient steam to fix pleats in fabric, should not be assumed to have been a simple matter with Viking era technology.

*** No, I did not reach this conclusion because of my fondness for using whip stitching in sewing period clothing!  Also note that, despite her original attempts to steam-set the pleats in her smokkr and to stabilize the resulting pleats with a backing of linen, Hilde Thunem's final smokkr deals with the pleats in much the same way as Jenn Culler's--i.e., creating them with drawn threads and stabilizing them with stitches taken on the inside of the garment.


  1. This is why I think there's so much value in making reconstruction garments. Making reconstructions provides insights into what is practical, what isn't, and what best fits the archaeological evidence, that you can't really get any other way.

  2. Fascinating interpretation. Viking isn't really my period, but your scholarly descriptions and discussions are always interesting.

    The only point I can add is that it is quite possible to get a very hot fire with an open wood fire. Personally, we've had a fire hot enough to sublime butter, and that was using a reenactment fire box (i.e. metal tray on legs, used to protect the ground) which is less efficient than putting a fire on a hearth or the ground. Whether it was *practical* or *desirable* to make a fire hot enough to steam-set pleats is another question. But it's quite *possible*.

    1. Thanks for stopping by.

      I suspect that the temperature at which butter sublimes is much lower than the boiling point of water, however. In addition, the butter would be directly in contact with the iron pot. To steam pleats, you need to heat water enough to produce steam *above* the pot. I'm not sure how long that would take even with a hot wood fire (one *without* a fire box, as so far as we know the Vikings did not use them), and even assuming sufficient steam, you have to figure out how to suspend the fabric above the cauldron withou injury to the fabric or yourself.