(Appeared in the January/February 1998 Bolt)
Dear Viking Answer Lady:
How did the Vikings ornament their clothing? Did they use embroidery? What type of thread would they have used? And what colors?
The Vikings loved intricate ornament in their metalwork and woodcarving, so it is no surprise that the Scandinavians of the Viking Age used ornamental techniques on their clothing as well. The earliest ornament for cloth was probably originally designed to strengthen seams and garment openings at the cuff and neck which take hard wear. Tablet woven headers used in weaving fabric on upright looms would have served this purpose, and also provided decorative accents, and separately woven tablet bands were used for ornament and utility as well. Embroidery was also used for early reinforcement of seams: usually the stich-work is a interwoven herringbone type of stitch that may have developed from round braiding techniques, but which was executed with a needle passing through the cloth. Although the earliest Viking textiles do not show purely decorative or pictoral stitchery, the Vikings soon borrowed embroidery techniques from surrounding cultures and adapted them to the interlaced and zoomorphic designs found on more durable artifacts. It is surmised that the embroidery style which has been found in the Norwegian and Icelandic archaeological remains was imported from the Anglo-Saxons, while decorative stitching from Eastern Scandinavia seems to have been influenced by the Baltic, Russan, and Byzantine peoples. In their embroidery, the Vikings used wool, linen, and silk, as well as metal wire or lamé. However, the silk or metallics would probably all be couched so that the maximum amount would lay on top. Colors include woad blue, madder red, lichen purple, and an unidentified yellow, as well as walnut shell brown, and walnut+iron black. Check with a dye book or your local dyers to see what range of colors you can get with these dyes...
it's pretty extensive, especially when you add in the possibilities achieved by various mordants. Vikings used alum (clubmoss), iron salts (copperas), and possibly copper sulfate (achieved by dyeing in a copper pot) as well as the various combinations you can get by overdying with one or more colors.
Embroidery stictches known during this period in Northern Europe include satin stitch, split stitch, and stem stich, plus a variety of couching techniques. One technique peculiar to the Vikings was a loop or mesh stitch called osenstich by Gejer, usually done in gold or silver. Embroidery designs that we have documented from grave finds includes: a pattern of animal heads on a servant's gown, the marvellous Mammen cloak, which used an interlace design of foliage or acanthus, with human masks appearing in the spaces, plus animals and birds in the pattern.
There were also a number of finds where the
embroidered designs are purely geometrical, such as a broken lozenge design. Undoubtedly
many more embroidered decorations were present in some of the textile fragments which have
been found, but while the textile may have survived, at times the thread or floss used to
embroider the fabric has rotted away. Some archaeologists have discovered fabrics with
many holes pierced through which strongly suggest a now-absent embroidered design. It may
at times be very difficult to determine from the archaeological finds exactly how the
original embroidery may have appeared. For example, below is an example of an actual
fragment of the Mammen cloak embroidery on the left showing the colors as they appear now.
On the right is a modern reconstruction of the embroidery. Unlike the original Mammen
cloak in which the embroidery was done on a strip of silk samite and then appliqued down
to the base fabric, the reconstruction has the embroidery directly upon the woolen cloak.
There are several other emboidered motifs found in the Mammen textiles. Line drawings of
these and other Viking embroidery patterns are available on Þóra Shartooth's webpage,
Some details of a reconstruction based on the Mammen textiles are shown here.
In addition, there are fourteen extant Icelandic medieval/renaissance embroideries that use the laid and couched technique of the Bayeux Tapestry. In Icelandic it's called refilsaumr, or "refil stitch,": refil is the Old Norse/Icelandic word that signifies a horizontal frieze-style wall hanging. The Icelanic pieces are variously dated; the earliest piece seems to be from the second half of the fourteenth century. Many are Renaissance, and some are even post-period. For an excellent detail photograph of the Bayeaux tapestry stitch, front and back, see the Bayeaux Tapestry page located at http://blah.bsuvc.bsu.edu/bt
Scandinavian decorative stitching techniques
were not only performed on textiles. The leather belt (right) from the Vimose bog find
utilizes a stitched design adapted from a Roman original on a leather belt end. There are
other unusual ornamental treatments that are attested in the archaeological record. The
first are "passements" which are, in effect, gold or silver lame cord (made of
flat metal wire wrapped around silk, probably imported from the Orient or Middle East)
where the cord is literally made into knotwork. Dame Alisha Macleod (currently Queen of
Ansteorra), does an excellent modern adaptation of this. She draws out the design on a
thick sheet of corrugated cardboard, using a different color for each strand. Then she
starts constructing the interlace, using straight pins stuck through the lame into the
cardboard to hold the intersections. Lastly, she paints the top side with that fabric
stiffener stuff. This side, when dry, becomes the backside. The finished passement trim is
couched down, with attention especially to fastening the interstices. The highest class,
richest garments would have a band of silk samite attached to it, topped with either a
passement or tablet-woven trim made of silk brocaded with gold or silver lame. This type
of tablet weaving is the most common surviving trim, but probably belonged to fairly
wealthy folks (the poorer people's trim didn't survive, not having all that metal and silk
in it!) Þóra Shartooth also has an excellent article discussing the metallic woven trims
on her webpage at http://www.cs.vassar.edu/~capriest/metaltrims.html The Vikings were able
to get ready-made gold studs and gold sequins via trade with Byzantium and the Continent,
which were used to ornament clothing. Applique was extremely common, not only the
passements were appliqued, but also decorative cutout shapes of tabby or samite silk.
Geijir, Agnes, "The Textile Finds from Birka," in N.B. Harte and K.G. Ponting, eds. Cloth and Clothing in Medieval Europe. London: Heinemann. 1983. pp. 80-99.
Gudjonsson, Elsa. Traditional Icelandic Embroidery. Reykjavik: Iceland Review. 1985.
Margeson, Susan M. Viking. Eyewitness Books. New York: Alfred Knopf. 1004. ISBN 0-679-86002-9 on page 29.
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