Orange caftan

The final layer of my elevation outfit is an orange caftan. The garment consists of four panels and two side gores, plus simple rectangular sleeves with gussets under the arm.

Picture of me just before my elevation. Photo by Ludwig.

Picture of me just before my elevation. Photo by Ludwig.

I have seen a lot of discussion about the neckline shape of the woman’s caftan, so I will include my thoughts on the topic. I have seen two general ideas – one is that the caftan was cut with a open neckline to show off the paired brooches and swags of beads, the second is that the garment had a high neckline that could be folded back to show off the jewelry. The fragments of this garment type from Birka are very small so there is very little archeological evidence to support either idea.

Back view of the caftan. The seams are finished with running stitch in yellow silk, so you can see the general shape of the pattern pieces. Photo by Kara.

Back view of the caftan. The seams are finished with running stitch in yellow silk, so you can see the general shape of the pattern pieces. Photo by Kara.

Evidence from Birka

Much of the information available on the Birka caftan is available in Inga Hägg’s article “Viking Women’s Dress at Birka: A Reconstruction by Archeological Methods” in Cloth & Clothing in Medieval Europe. This is an older book (published in 1983) but the pictures of the extant fragments are still very useful.

Fig. 17.24 is a diagram of a round brooch with loops of silk preserved around the pin and Fig. 17.21 is a picture of an extant silk fragment the contains a small loop attached to the front opening. The fabric in Fig. 17.21 shows the design of the oval brooch impressed from the backside, which indicates that the layer was worn over the brooches. These fragments point to a silk-trimmed outer garment (typically called a caftan by archeologists) that was held together by a brooch at about the same height as the oval brooches, which was pinned through small loops of fabric attached to the garment.

Fig. 17.22b shows a silk fragment with a hemmed edges that sits partially covering an oval brooch. Since the hemmed edge sits on top of the oval brooch, this seems to support the theory of an open neckline. While it is not conclusive, it is interesting that none of these fragments show any evidence of fabric folded back at the neckline.

Cultural context

One argument I have heard against the open neckline is its impracticality in cold weather. This leads to several interesting question – particularly the strength of fashion as an influence on Viking Age clothing and our interpretations of the garment’s purpose. Viking Age women wore jewelry and decorated their clothing so I think it is safe to say that fashion (rather than just practicality) did influence clothing choices. I also feel that we as reenactors need to be very careful when interpreting the role of each garment. For example, this garment has been called a caftan or coat by archeologists, however it doesn’t necessarily follow that the garment was worn primarily for maximal warmth (for modern context, consider the differences between a blazer and a parka – the both fall into the general category of ‘coat’ but each serves a very difference purpose). Since the evidence indicates that the women’s caftan was closed by a single brooch – and therefore hung open for most of the length in front – it doesn’t seem likely that its purpose was maximizing warmth.

Hägg’s article “Mantel och kjortel i vikingatidens dräkt” (Capes and tunics in Viking Age dress), suggests that the caftan layer was worn under the cape or mantle that is generally seen in period depictions of women. This suggests that the open neckline would be covered by an additional layer when needed for warmth.

Foreign influences?

There may have been foreign influences for this garment, but these influences are not clear cut and do not provide an obvious answer to the likely shape of the neckline. There are several example of women’s front closing garments in various cultures that might have been known to people at Birka, which was a major trading center.

There several example of Frankish women’s front-closing garments. The robe of Arnegundis (6th century) appears to have been closed with a brooch at the throat. This doesn’t really help with our question since the Birka example is fastened by a brooch below the level of the paired brooches. Another Frankish example, the robe of Bathilde (7th century) has a complicated pieced layout with a folded over cowl collar. In the descriptions I have seen, this garment was not closed with a brooch at all, so again the similarities to the Birka examples are limited.

Alternately,  the Birka caftan may be evidence of Eastern influences, but this view seems primarily based on assumption that the female garment is associated with a male garment style (also from Birka) that is closed by a row of buttons and is associated with Eastern style belt fittings. Hägg includes line drawings of various Russian and Estonian coats in “Mantel och kjortel i vikingatidens dräkt” but does not specify if they are male or female garments. Again, there doesn’t seem to be enough evidence about neckline style for female caftans to provide a conclusive answer.

And so . . .

In my research for my caftan I did not find a conclusive answer to the neckline question, so I went with my personal preference and decided to use an open neckline for my caftan. Maybe I will try a high neckline for the next one and compare 🙂

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Blue diamond twill smokkr

The second layer of my elevation outfit (over the natural white serk that I wore for my vigil) was a smokkr in blue diamond twill wool. This smokkr is made using the five-panel pattern I developed based on fragments from Hedeby and Birka; for this dress I did not include the dart from the Hedeby fragment.
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This garment is totally hand sewn (thanks to Viscountess Whilja and Mistress Caterucia for their help!). The top front is decorated with a tablet woven band, and the bottom hem is edged in contrasting silk.
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The straps are made of strips of the same wool as the garment, folded twice to encase the raw edge and then sewn using whip stitch.

Hedeby serk construction

My vigil dress is great for demonstrating the cut of my Hedeby serk because the seam lines show up easily on the white fabric.

This pattern is part of my ‘fragments’ project, where I created speculative patterns based on the diagrams of Hedeby clothing fragments in Inga Hägg’s Die Textilfunde aus dem Hafen von Haithabu.

Hedeby style serk

Full length shot of Hedeby style serk

This dress pattern has two main panels (front and back) with a round neckline and inset sleeves, and two gores on each side:

Detail of sides gores

Detail of sides gores

side gore 2

Detail of side gore

One particularly interesting aspect of the Hedeby harbor finds is the existence of several examples of 10th century pieced sleeves.

left sleeve flat

Back view of the left sleeve, showing three-piece construction.

Right sleeve, showing fit and location of seam

Right sleeve, showing fit and location of seam

 

My Vigil (food, clothes, etc)

As with all aspects of my elevation, I wanted to add a Norse flavor to the standard SCA event.

To that end, I added a formal welcome from my Laurel, Mistress Taisiya, when His Majesty Sven and Their Royal Highnesses Conrad and A’isha arrived for the invocation of my vigil. This type of welcome and the offering of mead by the Lady of the house is common in early literary and artistic traditions, and it perfectly established the environment that I wanted..

After the welcome, Sven released me as his squire, which was very emotional (yes, I am about to cry in this picture).

Sven releasing me as his squire, with my vigil tent in the background

Sven releasing me as his squire, with my vigil tent in the background

Sven returning the three (wooden) cows that I gave him in 2003 as surety for my squiring oath.

Sven returning the three cows that I gave him in 2003 as surety for my squiring oath.

When I became Sven’s squire I researched early Irish tenant relationships and learned that it was common for a tenant to give livestock to a lord as surety for an oath. Once the oath was fulfilled, the livestock was returned to the tenant; if the oath was not fulfilled the livestock was forfeit. I decided to incorporate that aspect in to my squiring, so I gave Sven a string of three (wooden) cows. When Sven released me he stated that while my path has changing since I swore my oath to him, he considers my elevation to the Order of the Laurel as fulfillment of my oath and returned the cows to me.

Next, Taisiya released me as her apprentice, and then the Herald read the vigil invocation.

Taisiya removing my apprentice belt.

Taisiya removing my apprentice belt.

Thanks to the help of my friend Viscountess Whilja, all of the new garments made for my vigil and elevation are totally hand sewn. In fact, she put aside many of her own projects in order to sew my vigil dress. Thanks Whilja!

I wanted to embrace the tradition of simplicity for the vigil dress, so I chose a fabric of natural wool. However, I did want some depth so I used a diamond twill fabric purchased from Naturtuche (have I mentioned how much I love their fabrics?).

The pattern of the dress is based on preserved textile fragments from Hedeby harbor (evidence for round neckline, inset sleeves, side gores and pieced sleeves) and has parallels to the cut of medieval dresses from Greenland.

My vigil tent was a A-frame style appropriate to the period, and was furnished with a table and several benches, and lit with beeswax candles. For vigil tokens I gave glass lampwork beads.

My vigil book was made by Duchess Anna from the Kingdom of the Outlands, the binding and cover design are based on the St. Cuthbert/Stonyhurst Gospel.

My vigil book

My vigil book

The book table was lit by a Viking Age appropriate oil lamp (a floating wick in a ceramic bowl).

The food for my vigil was cooked on site by Baroness Colette de Montpellier based on recipes from An Early Meal by Daniel Serra and Hanna Tunberg. I greatly appreciate her enthusiasm and willingness to spend the entire day cooking. Everything was delicious – as evidenced by the fact that there were no leftovers 🙂

The menu included:

Roast beef baked in dough, served with berry sauce

Pork loin roll stuffed with pickled kale

Kettle worms (pork and beef sausages)

Pork and wheat berry pottage

Fresh cheese

Aged cheeses (made by Baroness Ceara ingen Chonaill)

Hazelnut treats with fruit jams (cloudberry and gooseberry jams)

Handsewing

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I am currently working on the first garment I have ever made totally by hand – I have been hand-finishing my garb for several years now, but this is the first piece with the seams done by hand.

I decided to starthem in progress small so I am making a hood based the find from Skjoldehamn, Norway. This find has been dated to the 10th or 11th century.

My hood is made of navy blue wool lined in unbleached linen. I sewed the shell using navy silk thread and sewed the lining using linen thread. I find that I like working with linen sewing thread, which is interesting since I hate embroidering with linen floss. The seams are done in running stitch, with the seam allowance folded to one side and secured using whip stitch.

As of right now, both the lining and the shell are assembled, and I am working on  finishing the face opening using blanket stitch through a single-fold hem on each layer.