Handsewn Viking Clothing from Birka

The second of my 2019 Kingdom Arts and Sciences championship entries was clothing.

In the documentation, I make note of the fact that I am thinking about taking apart some of the overdress. That is currently taken apart and in the pile of things to do when I have the brain to do it. This whole Covid situation as rather sapped my will to work!

I must also thank Lady Dominique de la Mer, without whom my documentation would not be nearly as nicely worded.

 

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As with much of my life, pug stalkers are a think.

“Clothes make the man. Naked people have little or no influence on society.”

– Mark Twain

Intro – I Need Some New Clothes

For people, from CEOs to reenactors, clothing is an important identifier of who we are and what we try to portray. Now, as in the cultures we recreate, clothes mark our status and our history. Some reenactors are fortunate, having paintings, sculptures, or full extant pieces of clothing; while those doing Western European Vikings are less lucky. There’s some art, descriptions from a few travelers, and a small number of carvings, with overall little in terms of extant clothing. The limited number of primary sources makes it more challenging than in later eras to recreate something that could be considered ‘accurate’. However, I consider this to be one of the most enjoyable parts of the process of learning about a culture.

In this, my primary goal was to come up with a pattern for an underdress and overdress that I could then replicate without much fuss. I wanted to take into account the parts of my body that I may not have been the most happy with, and to come up with a design that helped to emphasize other parts of me. Consequently, fabric, color, and stitching were all secondary concerns to the design.

 

Historical Evidence

For Western European Viking research, Birka is an important site. Located in what is now modern-day Sweden, it was a trading place, and appears to have been a location that had quite a bit of trade and interaction with other cultures. We find items from all over Europe, as well as further east to Asia. The presence of a very large number of graves filled with all sorts of material, as well as a handful of well-preserved bog bodies, have proven to be an excellent source of insight on day to day living. Not only do we have grave goods, but we also have tools that encompass all aspects of making those day to day items.

Tools, ceramics and metalwork survives, but textiles are far more perishable. The vast majority of fabric simply did not survive. There are some later articles of clothing, but the full pieces of clothing that exist for the period we are concerned about are quite limited. Commonly accepted (at this point) trends in historical recreation have Viking women wearing an underdress (serk) and an overdress (smokkr).  The overdress is held up by brooches. This interpretation appears to be heavily influenced by art, extant pieces from somewhat later and larger-than-scrap pieces from Haithabu harbor. 

Based on the evidence available, limited as it is, appears to make sense. I admit, my current interest is not on the anthropological question of why the Viking had particular fashion choices, but the practical aspect of clothing construction.

For the underdress, there are a number of possible options based on the materials and contemporaneous dress in other regions, as well as better documented clothing in slightly later periods. I opted to go with a long-sleeved version, as it completely covers both my tattoo and the watch I always wear. I like that the pattern is cut mostly along straight lines, as fabric was expensive and economical use would have been important in period. In gravesite, a pin or brooch around what would be the neck appears to indicate the use of slitted or keyhole neckline, which I used when designing the pattern. As for fabric, linen was certainly a viable option, as tools for flax processing have been found. It’s also easily available, and reasonably priced. I intend on using silk when making a second iteration of the pattern.

For an overdress, most reconstructions appear to rely heavily on a few pieces out of Haithabu, another Viking settlement in modern-day Germany, where a fragment of a dress panel has been found. Thor Ewing’s Viking Clothing goes into several reconstruction options for the clothing, notably the smokrr, and his notes in turn informed Agnes Geijer’s design, which consists of a pair of rectangles that overlapped and hung on the front and back of the body.  By comparison, Inga Hagg’s design is slightly more fitted. These appear to be the most commonly accepted interpretations, with Hagg’s being a bit more in-use. As I prefer the look of a shaped garment, I used Hagg’s version as a starting point for my design. Surviving wool fabric have been found, but due to the Atenveldt climate, and the comparative expensive of wool when compared to linen, I decided to make it the overdress out of linen.

Several graves in Birka, most notably grave 517, contain fragments of pleated linen. However, it is not clear what garment the pleating was for, or where on the garment the pleating would have been placed. Most reproductions that I have seen assume they would be on the front of the garment, and some place it on the underdress.. I dislike the underdress interpretation for several reasons: I feel it would result in a strange fit and look around my chest – and not being small chested, this tends to be something I seriously consider. In addition, some of the art could be interpreted as indicating that women had a separate piece on the back of their clothing, worn as a cape or train. However, in looking at the art, I believe that it may be a single piece that is simply pleated differently. Additionally, it’s possible that different women wore different styles, depending on location, age, social/marital status and personal taste.

That, as well as taking into account the Oseberg textiles, which may indicate the overdress as being longer in the back, gave me a good idea of what I wanted to do for the final dress.

 

Initial Thoughts

My body type is closer to that depicted by Peter Paul Rubens than by Edgar Degas. I have an emphatic, strongly hourglass shape, and a mostly flat back. When selecting and designing clothing, I need to take into account my chest and belly. Therefore, for this project I wanted to create a garment that was both historically accurate, and that would create a flattering shape from the back, and that would have clean forward lines. (Between my Viking tortoise brooches, festoons and my body shape, for forward section of my garb has ample visual interest and adding pleating would only gild the lily.) I also wanted, perhaps for personal reasons, to have an apron dress that was lower in the back. I thought it was an interesting idea and it accounted for some of the designs in period illustrations.

An additional insight that occurred to me as I worked, was that while pleats are a bit of pain but they’re also great for fitting. They’re a useful way to pull fabric in closer, but without cutting it, so that the wearer is not limited to that size or smaller later. 

 

Creation in Period

Whilere there are very few extant textiles in Birka, we do have a number of surviving tools and objects that could have used to construct how items may have been made. Birka contains a significant number of items associated with textile production, as well as crafting tools. Eva Andersson’s Tools for Textile Production was immensely useful in researching this, as the text broke down items that were found and the numbers of them.

Fiber – wool or linen – must be processed and then spun into thread. Anderson’s research indicates that this was probably done by hand, via a drop-spindle. The resulting thread would then be woven on a warp-weighted loom and the fabric would cut and then sewn by hand. In period, the needles would have been iron, the thread linen or wool. The extant pieces are made of wool or linen, but due to the climate of southern Arizona and cost, I chose to use linen.

 

My Creation

The Hilde Thunem design that I based my dress on is not a terribly complex garment and made sense given the options and evidence available. The tunic is a variation on a T-tunic, with the addition of gores and gussets for a better fit. The overdress is rectangular, with an angled cut on the front panel, and I have decided to keep the train based on interpretations of items such as the Oseberg textiles. There are several images that have been used to interpret the train or the pleats on the back – though admittedly completely towards the ground. ( I really want to do a full length, completely pleated, underdress. But I confess, it frightens me immensely, and I’m not totally sure how I’d manage it. I suspect it will be mostly wet pleated. Also, a few people have already done it and describe it as more trouble than worth.)

I wanted to keep to a primarily rectangular construction, in the hopes of limiting waste

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I swear, I used lots of rulers for this.

fabric. This is, in part, because later I want to try making pieces out of fabric no wider than about 30-36 inches, which seems to be about what most period fabric was in width. In addition, fabric was expensive in period, giving seamstresses a good reason to be efficient with garment design. I suspect that the use of pleats helps with this, as they allow for fitting to the body without needing to cut off fabric.

I began by taking a set of basic measurements – bust, hips, height, bicep, and arm – and then transferring those to muslin fabric, accounting for about a ¾ inch seam. The muslin tests were useful, because they allowed me to determine what I would need to alter in order to make sure that everything fit properly. I ended up determining that my initial measurements were not as accurate as I wanted them to be, and I needed to alter the muslin garment to ensure the final piece had the desired fit.  Upon sewing everything together, I determined that I had mismeasured somewhere, and so needed to add size almost everywhere. This went both better and worse than expected – it ended up giving me some more measurements to play with, but it also meant that the underdress

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Unhemmed, poor lighting, but damn if it’s not one of the comfiest I own.

somehow ended up shorter than I anticipated. As luck would have it, however, I like it – but did not want it to be the case for my final project. I also needing to add a band along the top of the overdress, as I found I did not like how it looked when I finished the seam without it.

 

Using the muslin that was made for the initial test, I then lengthened it appropriately and modified my overdress with the intention of having more pleats in a different style. Everything on the final version was sewn by hand using a stitch that was found in the period – specifically, however, at Haithabu. 

Issues and Thoughts

When I started this, I thought that I would be able to use only items and information from Birka. Oh, how wrong I was. Instead, I found that a large amount of the reconstructions rely on finds from other sites of a roughly contemporary period – notably Haithabu. 

On the initial test version, I used box pleats because I find them aesthetically appealing, but there are other pleat types that may be more historically accurate (and/or easier to work with). The textile fragments seem to be all of a much smaller, tighter, form of pleats. Consequently, I went with a modified accordion pleat for the final

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No, I don’t really know what I’m doing!

version. It was intended to be smocked, but I will admit, I ended up reverse engineering my pleats and consequently over-engineering them. (More and more, I think I will eventually end up taking them out and then redoing them correctly. I love the fit, but the choices I made are a bit… aesthetically irritating.)

 

The piece was sewn together entirely using linen and cotton thread. Reinforcement of the thread was achieved by copious amounts of waxing of said thread. (Leading to an eternal hatred of the Dritz-brand wax.) All the stitches used are ones that can be found in Hagg’s work on Birka. It took about a month of work, on and off, and assuming I am able to do 6 inches of whipstitch in 2.5 minutes – the underdress was about 10 hours of nothing but sewing, and the apron another 6. This time is conservative, and likely underestimates some aspects (pleating) and does not take into account steps such as pinning all the clothing pieces together, or the running stitch used to loosely join the pieces together.

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Not lying when I say I overengineering the pleating…

 

 

Conclusion

This was a very enjoyable project, both in studying and recreating a historical garment and in making a flattering garment. My body’s been changing, and this is an interesting way to see if there is anything else that fits me and flatters my body in a way that I want. (Not to mention, it does help to force me to make more clothing!)

That said… gods, I really do need to redo the pleating.

Bibliography

* Andersson, Eva. Tools for Textile Production from Birka and Hedeby, 2003. Stockholm: Intellecta DOCUSYS

*Ewing, Thor. Viking Clothing. Tempus Publishing, 2006.

*Gromer, Karina, and Antoniette Rast-Eicher. “To Pleat or Not to Pleat – an Early History of Creating Three-Dimensional Linear Textile Structures.” Annalen Des Naturhistorischen Museums in Wien, Serie A, vol. 121, 2019, pp. 83–112.

* Hägg Inga, and Ingmar Jansson. Kvinnodräkten i Birka: Livplaggens Rekonstruktion på Grundval Av Det Arkeologiska Materialet …Uppsala University, Institute of North European Archaeology, 1974.

*Hägg Inga, et al. Berichte über Die Ausgrabungen in Haithabu. Die Textilfunde Aus Dem Hafen Von Haithabu. 1984.

*Østergård Else. Woven into the Earth: Textiles from Norse Greenland. Aarhus Univ. Press, 2004.

* Thunem, Hilde. “Viking Women: Underdress.” Viking Women: Clothing: Underdress (Serk), 10 Mar. 2014, http://urd.priv.no/viking/serk.html.

* Thunem, Hilde. “Viking Women: Aprondress.” Viking Women: Clothing: Aprondress (Smokkr), 25 Apr. 2017, http://urd.priv.no/viking/smokkr.html.

* Strand, Eva Andersson. “TOOLS AND TEXTILES. PRODUCTION AND ORGANISATION IN BIRKA AND HEDEBY – Eva Andersson Strand.” Viking Settlements and Viking Society. Papers from the Proceedings of the Sixteenth Viking Congress, Reykjavík and Reykholt, 16th -23rd August 2009, https://www.academia.edu/12880829/TOOLS_AND_TEXTILES._PRODUCTION_AND_ORGANISATION_IN_BIRKA_AND_HEDEBY_-_Eva_Andersson_Strand.

 

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