Viking Clothing: A Brief Overview

Greetings, all! Sorry to be a bit late with this one.

Last weekend I had the privilege to attend a lecture on medieval clothing by Gale Owen-Crocker, who is a professor emeritus at the University of Manchester and is an expert in Anglo-Saxon clothing and literature. She has become famous among the reenacting and historically minded communities for her research, and it was through my connection to that community that I heard about the event.  It was just fascinating and I learned so much from her about medieval clothing production and dress. Coincidentally, I recently finished reading a book called Silk for the Vikings by Marianne Vedeler, who is an Associate Professor in Archeology at the Museum of Cultural History at the University of Oslo. I very much enjoyed the book and I recommend you buy it if you find this post, Viking trade, or Archeology at all interesting. With these two recent events in my mind, and with the number of questions I am asked at the Field Museum about my spinning, I thought I would share what I know about Viking clothing and textile production.

Now, as a small disclaimer, clothing and textiles in the Viking period is not my primary area of research, though I do research and practice period hand crafts like spinning and historical garment construction. I will be drawing primarily on the work of Professors Gale Owen-Crocker and Marianne Vedeler for this article.

Viking Clothing: Form, Function, and Production

Clothing. It’s what keeps us from running around naked. But more importantly, it serves as an outlet for personal identity. Clothing, or rather fashion, serves as a marker of socio-economic class, culture, and status. Perhaps many people in the US will throw on a pair of jeans and a shirt and think nothing of it, but most of us understand the importance of dressing nice for a job interview or that someone wearing a fur coat is most likely very rich. We can identify on sight the difference between a businessman, a movie star, and a hipster. As well, people from different cultures and faiths have different standards as to what is appropriate and not appropriate to wear. While past people and cultures clothed themselves in different ways than today, they too wore certain items to denote status, wealth, gender, and personality.

The main problem with studying Viking clothing, as with many other aspects of Viking history and culture, is that we know so very little about it.  Viking art depicts few images of human beings in common clothes of the day, and what images we do have were not drawn with a sense of scale or anatomical accuracy. Similarly, few Viking clothes survive except for fragments behind broaches or large “cakes” – piles of fabric buried in graves which over time became fused together as the fabric decayed. Placement of jewelry, pins, and other items on human remains in graves give some indication for how the Vikings dressed, but not a lot. Gale Owen-Crocker indicated that portions of her reconstructions of Anglo-Saxon garments were entirely speculative – such as the backs of garments or the length of skirts. Were there laces in the back of dresses? Fancy designs? How baggy were their pants? What did their underwear look like? Because of the lack of archeological evidence and the style of drawing in the medieval period, we just don’t know how aspects of their clothing looked, and by extension, how they were patterned, sewn, fastened, and worn.

The written evidence for clothing in the Viking period is equally sparse, from what I’ve read of the literature. This lack of evidence can be explained by several factors. First, the majority of the written evidence we have about the Vikings was written by foreigners or Scandinavians who lived after the Viking period, and these authors seemed more concerned with deeds than dress (did I mention they were all men?). Only the exceptional was considered worth recording, such as a particularly fine garment or a rather strange one. The fact that Ragnar Lothbrok was called “Lothbrok,” or “Hairy-Breeches,” means that most people did not wear pants like he did. Now and again we will hear of someone wearing an especially beautiful garment, or wearing lots of precious silk, but there is nothing indicating HOW the garments looked or how they were constructed.  But then again, if you were to record a very important event now-a-days, it would be weird to mention clothes in great detail unless what the person was wearing was exceptional. For instance, you would not say “the President spoke on the TV tonight, and he was wearing a suit.” We all know that a president in Western European culture is supposed to wear a suit. But you might point out that he was wearing a bright poka-dot tie because that is not what you normally see a president wearing. Similarly, if he was wearing a gold plated tie, you would note the wealth he is displaying. It’s not quite the same analogy because we display wealth and status slightly differently in today’s world, but I hope the general idea makes sense. The chroniclers and saga writers did not write down the specifics of clothing because to them it was normal, everyday fare.

Similarly, there is not a lot that we know about clothing production and design in the Viking period. This fact may be due in part because women were responsible for the majority of clothing production. Historian and editor Nanna Løkka points out that women stand at the margins of saga literature and historiography, and that because of this fact much of women’s contributions to Viking life has been lost. I have not had the chance to read the anthology that Nanna Løkka coedited called Kvinner i vikingtid (“Viking Age Women”) – because it’s in Norwegian – but from what I could glean about the book’s contents it seems to be a very informative work about Viking women’s contribution to history and daily life. I feel very strongly about including daily life in the study of historical cultures, and that aspects of history like religion, warfare, and politics cannot be fully understood without knowledge about how the average man and women lived, ate, dressed, and produced products. So with that in mind, let’s look a little at what we know about clothing and textile production in the Viking Age.

How Clothing Was Made

The majority of what the Vikings wore was wool and linen cloth – especially wool.  According to Gale Owen-Crocker, medieval sheep shed wool year round, which could be picked off the sheep the way we pick hair off our dogs. The resulting fibers are softer because they are not cut like modern sheep hair. From there, the wool is combed to prepare the fibers for spinning. Spinning throughout the medieval period was done on a drop-spindle, which is at its most basic level a stick with a stone attached to it which acts as a fly-wheel and makes it spin faster. Spinning wheels were not introduced until after the Viking period and even then they never fully caught on. In the Viking period, therefore, all of the threads needed for weaving were twisted – aka spun – by hand. This is a long process which requires teasing out the wool fibers to the right thickness so that they catch the spin of the spindle. From analysis of wool fibers in Viking burial finds, fabric had single and double warp threads (which means two threads were spun together, or triple the work), depending on the thickness and strength required. It takes many many hours to make a decent amount of thread, as I know from experience as a spinner. Spinning flax into linen is the same process as spinning wool fibers, but turning the flax plant into fibers that one can spin is a much more labor intensive process. My understanding is that it involves soaking the flax plants to separate out the fibers desired for cloth making, but to be honest I am much less of an expert on the subject. As for silk, we’ll get back to that in a moment.

Here’s a video from an expert spinner and researcher, Lois Swales, who is demonstrating Viking spinning techniques:

After the fibers are spun out into yarn, they are then woven into garments. Viking looms were warp weighted looms, meaning that the warp (or vertical) threads were tied to doughnut-shaped stones so that they would hang taught for weaving. Weavers then took weaving swords and moved another thread horizontally through the separated warp threads. Different designs could be made in the weaving by adding several bars to the middle of the loom to separate out the warp threads in different patterns. For smaller ribbons and border trims, weavers would use small tablet looms, in which the threads were pulled through holes in square cards and then the weaver twisted the cards to open different pockets in the warp threads (like what the bars did on the larger loom). In this way the weavers made complicated patterns, some of which have been found in remaining textile fragments.

To get a scale of how much time and effort textile production took, here’s a small excerpt from an interview with Viking Historian Nanna Løkka on Viking women (quoted in an article by Cathinka Dahl Hambro):

“The textile production was probably organised hierarchically, where women supervised other women in extensive collaborative work. Løkka adds, ‘The larger Viking ships used 100 square meter sized sails. In order to produce that, the women needed 200 kilos of wool from approximately 2000 sheep, and it required hundreds of working hours. We are talking about more than just a small-scale family business.’”

Main article: http://www.medievalists.net/2015/04/15/the-viking-women-who-disappeared/

Therefore, because of the effort, cost, and availability materials for textile production, of most of what the Vikings wore would have been made at home or in the community with products which could be produced locally. Linen, made from the flax plant, worked well as undergarments and clothing which directly touched the skin, because it was easy to wash. Wool contains oils which make the textile slightly waterproof, and it is also harder to wash (like today, right?). Therefore, wool would be worn for outer garments the way that we wear coats or sweaters today. Silk cloth was reserved for the wealthy, since it was produced abroad and was extremely hard to make. I will not go into the details of silk production, but from what I gather from Vedeler’s book and other sources silk worms can be very finicky creatures.

Vedeler’s book, Silk for Vikings, discusses her analysis of the silk artifacts in Oseberg ship burial, which was one of the richest Viking burials ever discovered. She also discusses the silk trade and silk production in the Viking Age, and how it related to the silks found in the Oseberg burial. Silk is as especially interesting find in burials, although relatively rare. According to Vedeler’s analysis of silk burial finds, silk was sold in Scandinavia both as wholecloth and as thread, which was then tablet woven by local Scandinavian artisans. One way she could identify the relative location of the silk textiles was by the patterns on the fragments, since some were Scandinavian while others were reminiscent of Zoroastrian or Middle Eastern designs. She determined therefore that the majority of the silk products that were found in Scandinavia were produced in the Middle East, although a few finds in Sweden came from China. As well, silk cloth fragments found in burials were of varying qualities of silk, with several different types of weaving and spinning techniques.  This cloth, however, was not cut into whole garments, but were cut into thin strips with no regard to the original pattern. These strips were then sewn onto the main wool garment as border decoration, as there was evidence of sewing holes in the remaining  silk fragments (the thread and original fabric having disintegrated). While this treatment of the fabric might seem strange to us today, they used silk in this manner because it was so expensive. They could not afford to waste fabric trying to match the pattern, let alone make a garment from it. The fact that the Oseberg noblewomen were buried with cases of silk, not just fragments on their garments, means that they were very wealthy indeed.

So with that all in mind, what did the Viking’s wear?

The basic garment design for men and women were pretty similar, as it was designed using basic rectangles, squares, and triangles. Modern clothes today are shaped so that they fit tight around the body, but cutting out these weird designs wastes fabric. By using simple shapes, more fabric is preserved. Researchers speculate that the front and back of Viking clothes were made using a rectangle of cloth with a hole cut for the head in the middle. The sleeves were another rectangle, and gores (or fabric to widen the space between seams) of squares and rectangles were used for the armpits and sides of the skirt. Women wore a full length underdress and a tube shaped outer dress that was either pinned to the undergarment at the collarbone or hung from straps which were pinned in place. (They didn’t have buttons). Men wore a shorter version of the women’s dress, which made it tunic length, and then either baggy or straight pants depending on regional fashions. Men also wore leg wraps made of woven wool which made the lower leg have a fitted look of modern skinny jeans. Shoes were made of leather, and socks were made of wool that were knit using the nålebinding technique (the precursor to knitting). They also wore over-cloaks which were pinned to one shoulder, and they even wore a special cloak pin which had a different design from the pins used to hold up their main clothes. Leather belts from which they hung basic items completed the ensemble, along with jewelry, which women hung from the pins on their dresses and men in the form of pendants or torques. I presume they wore linen tighie-whities under everything, since these were the same people who had ear spoons and fine combs that they carried with them constantly. And there you have it, simple Viking dress.

(Sorry, I really could not find any good pictures of Viking garments. Google betrayed me.)

Now this is only a brief premier into Viking dress, so forgive me if I did not fully cover a particular aspect of the textile production process to your liking. If you want to learn more about anything I covered here, please check the links I list below or message me in the comments and I could write more on the subject. For now, I hope you enjoyed this post!

-The Valkyrie

For more information:

Vedeler, Marianne. Silk for the Vikings. Ancient Textile Series Vol. 15. Oxbrow Books, Oxford: 2014.

The Viking Answer Lady on Clothing: http://www.vikinganswerlady.com/clothing.shtml

The article I quoted about Kvinner i vikingtidhttp://www.medievalists.net/2015/04/15/the-viking-women-who-disappeared/

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