VikingGold day in Oslo

Goal: Study Viking textiles and techniques used in Viking times

Participants: Oda Klempe/Sølv, Nina Skarra, Cathrine Wessel/With & Wessel, Hege Bratsberg, Franz Schmidt, Bente Kristiansen (Ingulf Os), Marianne Vedeler, Ingun G. Klepp, Tone S. Tobiasson

We started in the dark textile room in the Viking museum where some of the finds from the Oseberg ship are displayed, but also from other finds. The fragments have to be protected from light and oxygen, but Marianne gave a good description of the materials, mainly wool and silk. One thing became apparent early on: The slight asymmetry they seem to weave in; which to our eye looks haphazard. Noticeable a stripe is slightly "off", though this is more typical for Medieval times than in the Viking era.

Once we came to the Cultural Historic museum we were able to study the items from their magazines closer. Here we could see the weaving-patters, and look closer at the actual fibers – though of course not touch. Here there were some heavier cloth, which probably came from a lower class user, but also some materials that seemed to be like corduroy, woven and then shaved and certainly something used by a rich person.
The pleating with a very special technique generated interest, also the possibility for a silhouette that could be explored, as the pleating clearly had followed the body curving. Marianne had some illustrations of how these pleats might have been used in dress in the 12th and 13th century.

At the very modern facilities at Økern we saw the most amazing small woven pictures with a detailing that was exquisite, they have most likely been part of a longer tapestry and show fantasy-figures along with more recognizable figures. The yarn is very fine and Marianne explained more about how they separated the cover-wool from the bottom-wool of the pre-historic sheep. They used the soft bottom-wool, but also utilized the shiny and coarser cover-wool which they used in textiles alone, but also to strengthen and to give a very special sheen to the cloth.

A blanket (which had been crushed when the Oseberg find’s roof caved in) had a very interesting pattern (see below). One of the dyed tapestries in a rich burgundy was inspiring because of the distinct color. But the diamond twill weave was by far the most typical in the collection shown.

This technique seems to be widely used both in earlier times and during the Viking area. This makes the cloth very sturdy and with some stretchable quality, which is the basis for forming apparel. We also saw fragments of a wool sail; which brought to life the drama and the grandeur of the time.

Looked at the yarns and woven materials from Bente and Ingulf; spun at Selbu spinneri and woven at Krivi Vev. Which brought about a big discussion about the value-chain and what was possible or not with Norwegian spinners and factories. Marianne also mentioned that because of the careful sorting of the fibers, they could produce a very fine worsted yarn quality. This makes for a more compact yarn which is ideal for weaving. Norwegian mills are mainly set up for woolen yarns, not worsted – but it turns out that Sandnes has just bought a worsted machine.
In the discussion that followed the tour of the museums, there was perhaps too little focus on actual dress of the period; which could be something to explore further. Looking at silhouettes (as those created by the pleating) but also the “likeness” of the sexes. Men and women’s clothing evidently did not differ as much as today until around year 1000, when a change occured. The distinction between under- and overwear could also be explored more.

The weaving-techniques themselves (the diamond twill) are very much used in cloth today, so this does not sufficiently differentiate Viking textiles from modern. But the exceedingly thin wool thread (which we saw being spun in Shetland from indigenous wool) was unique. Bente and Ingulf explained that they had used cotton in the warp because Selbu spinneri had not been able to spin thin enough yarn so far. Extracting the parts of the wool fleeces for their special uses, as they do in Shetland (where they also sort on shades) is labor intensive and not part of the current classifying system In Norway today. This means that one needs to either go outside the system (Selbu/Hillesvåg does this) or find a way to change the system. If one wishes to use the pigmented spælsheep wool the way Vikings actually did.

There was also some talk of the «varafell», the throw or cape that Icelandic tradesmen brought to Norway in Viking times, and because of the pelt-weave they are water-repellant. With & Wessel are exploring this for actual products; but the using the standing Opstad loom is too expensive; so the next step is to explore how this would work on a flat loom. This is of course a rather rougher material, and does not reflect the finesse we find in so much of the cloth we saw.

Other possible explorations are decorations (silk and gold detailing), tablet-woven bands were usual and beautiful; surprisingly they have been found on the inside of garments where only the wearer would know about them, even though it may have been a practical reason. (In the Oseberg grave they even found a tablet-woven band in the making.) So the significance of these bands must have been important.