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This article describes my reconstruction of the costume that might have been worn by a Viking woman in the late 9th century a.d. Her origin would have been in Denmark or perhaps southern Sweden. In this first version of the writeup, I am not quoting references properly, just giving some notes on inspiration/sources. My apologies, but at present it's all I have time to do.
Click a thumbnail to view a larger image.
There is extensive evidence for Viking women (by which I mean Scandinavian women in what we call the Viking Age) wearing pairs of bronze oval brooches. Many finds have small cloth loops which have been preserved by contact with the metal brooches. Occasionally these are also attached to fragments of cloth which we assume formed an overgarment, referred to variously as apron-dress, hangerock, traggerock or smokkr. We don't know what the garment was called in its day, so all names used now are guesses or just handy labels invented by archaeologists (usually German). "Smokkr" is Thor Ewing's suggestion, and is at least a word that was in use at the time. Anyway, these garments are usually interpreted as some kind of pinafore, and the straps that go up from the top of the brooch as commonly interpreted as long and going right over the shoulder. I've tried this arrangement and find it problematic in practice: the brooches pull down and the back of the dress rides up. If you add suspended beads, tools, needlecase etc. as suggested by various graves, this problem is exacerbated. Also it is frankly a bit of a pain making all these long loops and attaching them.
The loops in the graves are, as far as I know, always short - only the area near the metal has been preserved. So making the upper loops long is a pure guess. The smokkr shown above uses short loops instead, which are consistent with the archaeological finds. I've also been inspired by the 12th Century cloak found at Leksand in Norway to make the loops just long enough to fasten with the brooches, but no longer. This dress is a direct development of the Germanic peplos as worn by Anglo-Saxon women a few centuries before (and also in a pagan context). The main difference is the addition of the loops so that the fastening brooches don't pierce and damage the cloth.
I have also pleated the front of the dress and attached a tablet-woven band, this arrangement having been inspired by a tenth-century find from Køstrup in Denmark which includes part of the front of an apron-dress, with pleats and tablet-weaving, brooches, suspended tools, and a little bit of side seam indicating that the garment was a closed tube not an open rectangle. Lena Strid has kindly allowed me to show here her photograph of the Museum of Denmark's reconstruction of the Køstrup dress. This reconstruction is no longer on display, but Lena's photograph shows that the reconstruction uses "conventional" long straps at the back that come over the shoulder. The tablet-weaving in the museum's reconstruction is based on the original find, but I have not yet learned the required technique to reproduce it - which is a particularly ingenious method allowing a wide range of coloured motifs to be woven. In other respects the two reconstructions (mine and the museum's) are very similar, except that my dress is green where the original was blue, and also my tablet-weaving extends beyond the brooches whereas on the original, it is only between the brooches.
The body of my dress is fine wool. The colour is similar to the green stripe of a nalbound Roman child's sock that I saw in the Ashmolean Museum, Oxford - a different historical period entirely, but at least it will have been naturally dyed so the colour is not implausible. It would have been expensive as the fabric must be dyed first with woad (blue) and then with yellow (various plant dyes). The top edge of the smokkr is trimmed with a 3-way plait of coloured wool.
I find this dress to be comfortable and practical. It keeps my shoulders warm, while leaving my arms to move freely. The loops are made of the same fabric as the underdress, so are almost invisible. I can hang any amount of "bling" from the brooches and they stay firmly in place. It is of course only one possible interpretation of a selection from the evidence, and furthermore I think it very likely that smokkr styles varied with time and place.
The front of the smokkr is trimmed with a tablet-woven band which in turn has been sewn onto a fine silk cloth band. The motifs are from the Mammen find (10th century Denmark). I have woven my version in a simplified technique: double-faced weave in fine red and white silk with soumak (blue silk) and brocade (artificial gold thread). The original had silver brocade as well!
So-called "tortoise" brooches are the defining mark of the viking-age woman, and have been found in thousands of graves. As far as I know, they have only been found in pagan burials. It is generally assumed that the brooches were worn by living women. In England, they appear to pass out of use within a generation or two of immigration, perhaps because nobody was making replacements for those buried with the settlers, and perhaps also with Christianisation. These bronze brooches were made by Markus Neidhardt, who trades at www.replik.de.
The needlecase was made in ivory by Russell Scott, who assured me that the ivory came from a reputable antiques dealer and that no elephants were harmed on my behalf. Yes I'm entirely against killing elephants. I'm also against waste and am happy for something that is more than 50 years old to be given a new use. It is inspired by finds from Birka in Sweden and is trimmed with silver.
The knife was made by Adam Parsons and is based on a find from 10th Century York. The blade and bone handle were found and Adam believes that there must have been wood 'spacers' that have not survived. I can confirm that his reconstruction is elegant and very convenient to use. I made the leather sheath under his instruction; again this was based on finds from York.
The underdress is twill nettle fabric. The tablet-woven trim is linen and is a copy of one of the Snartemo finds. The Snartemo graves date from the migration period, Norway, so are a bit before the Viking age but I felt they were more appropriate than 19th or 20th century designs.
The hat is an enlarged version of a Coppergate cap, made in linen and trimmed with a wool plait. I made it larger so that it would protect the back of my neck, and to some extent my face, from the sun.
The slippers are copied from a shoe I saw in the Museum of London, attributed to Vikiing-age London. They are leather turn-shoes.
The socks are sewn in Shetland wool using the stitch found in the Coppergate sock - i.e. Anglo-Danish. Really I should learn one of the more sophisticated stitches that a Scandinavian woman would have used. Knitting had not been invented back then. Shetland sheep are a very ancient breed: it is thought that the Vikings brought them to the Shetland Islands. Norwegians call the technique nalbinding or naalbinding, which literally means "binding with a needle".
The pouch was inspired by Thor Ewing's book, Viking Clothing, in which he suggests that the little metal hooks found in graves may have been used as pouch fasteners.
The belt is tablet-woven wool, again using a double-faced technique. I invented the motifs. There is some debate among re-enactors regarding whether women wore belts. Finds from the British Isles combine metal belt fittings with tortoise brooches (e.g. Doncaster, Orkney). However I have been told that women in the Scandinavian homelands did not wear metal belt fittings (or at least, we have not found graves with female accoutrements and metal belt fittings). However, I have not been able to substantiate this last statement - but I cannot point to a find that contradicts it. Although I portray a woman from Denmark who has settled in East Anglia, and so by that argument could wear a leather belt with metal fittings, I usually wear a tablet-woven belt as it avoids argument. Also I enjoy tablet-weaving.
All photographs copyright Alister Perrott 2010.
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