Viking Age Embroidery from Oseberg

Osebeg embroidery detail

A hidden gem of Viking Age embroidery is a series of fragments from the Oseberg boat burial. These fragments were published by Arne Emil Christensen in 2006, but to the best of my knowledge they have not been published in English and are not commonly known in the SCA.

The fragments from Oseberg are some of the most complex embroidery pieces documented to Viking Age Scandinavia. The fragments include a variety of motifs, such as animal figures inside roundels, vines, spirals and a cross. These designs were worked in multicolored silk using stem stitch, satin stitch, split stitch and surface couching. The base cloth has disintegrated, but was probably linen (Christensen 399). The scale of the embroidery is quite fine – for example, the roundels are only about 4cm across. Based on the location of the fragments with the bodies it appears that most of the embroidered fragments were attached to items of clothing; however the underlying fabrics are so fragmentary that the placement of the motifs is not clear. It appears that the Oseberg fragments were cut from a larger piece and appliquéd; some of the fragments preserve a folded edge with embroidered stitches on the back side (Christensen 391-392). The motifs and level of detail in these fragments imply that the embroidery may have originated in England (Christensen 401).

This embroidery is based on two Oseberg fragments: one fragment has a motif of two animal figures, each within a roundel; the second fragment has a vine motif. Because I wanted a larger final piece while still maintaining the original scale of the design, I added a third roundel and combined the two designs such that the vines fill the spaces around the roundels. The design is not contained within the ‘frame’ of the embroidery to mimic the original aesthetic in which the motifs were cut from a larger piece. The final design was drawn by my wonderful fiance.

Like the original, this piece is done in silk thread on linen, and uses stem stitch, split stitch and surface couching. It is not evident from the images available to me where each stitch was used, so I chose the stitch placement based on personal preference. The embroidery was done using various silk embroidery threads from my supply; since the colors of the original fragment are not specified I chose a variety of period-appropriate colors. Based on the Regia dye equivalency, the colors used would be obtainable using Viking Age dyes, including woad, madder, weld and kermes.

I chose to attach this embroidery to a Viking Age apron. This garment is worn with the smokkr (often called an apron-dress) and paired oval brooches. The primary archaeological evidence for this garment is the existence of a second set of fabric loops preserved inside the bottom of the oval brooches (Ewing 31). Also, several contemporary depictions of women appear to wear a narrow apron attached to the brooches (Ewing 38, 51, 52, 69). It appears that this apron was highly decorated (Glæsel 54) and may have been worn on ceremonial occasions.

The apron is made of red wool and the edges are hemmed using overcast stitch. The deep red color of the apron could be obtained using a long dye bath with madder and lichen (Trimble). To mimic the use of the extant fragments, I cut out the finished embroidery and appliquéd the patch onto the apron. The stitch used for this applique is not specified; I used running stitch.

References

Christensen, Arne Emil. Osebergfunnet Bind IV Tekstilene. Forfatterne, 2006.

“Dye Equivalent Colours.“ Regia Anglorum http://www.regia.org/members/dyes.htm

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

Glæsel, Nille. Viking Clothing. Alf Jacobsens Boktrykkeri, 2010.

Trimble, Bjo. (Maestra Flavia Beatrice Carmigniani). Personal communication.

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2 thoughts on “Viking Age Embroidery from Oseberg

  1. last time I checked most of the textiles from oseberg were horrendously badly documented – esp if you compare the original report of the other finds.

    I like the design, but I think it needs a border, even if only a plain bit of tablet weave to define the edge. I think you’re very brave with the white background – it looks fab but I’d dribble my dinner down it in an isntant

    • Thanks for your comment.

      Christensen’s book is a great source for the Oseberg tapestry and embroideries; it has great pictures plus English summaries of the various textile finds.

      I may have to re-visit the idea of a border. I initially decided against it because I didn’t want to distract from the embroidery.

      I have only worn this to one feast, and I covered the embroidery with a napkin before I ate!

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