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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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

 

Viking Age head-coverings

Post updated May 2015, May 2016, and April 2017 with additional pictures

I have been thinking about head covering options for female Norse re-enactors quite a bit recently, and I have also seen several questions come up in various on-line conversations. Because there is very little concrete evidence in this area, there are a lot of gaps that need to be filled with conjecture. These are my conclusions, but I would love to hear the views of other people who have studied this topic!

First of all, did Viking Age women wear a head covering? There is not enough evidence to give a conclusive answer to this question, and the answer might also vary based on social class, formality of event, weather, or other factors that we haven’t considered.

I don’t think that pagan Scandinavian women necessarily had religious pressure to cover their hair, but I feel that the evidence points toward styled hair and/or a head covering of some type. Styling the hair and wearing some type of head covering would have been practical; wearing hair up keeps it out of the way and covering it helps to keep in clean. I think that the available evidence supports the idea that loose, uncovered hair isn’t very likely in a Viking Age context.

Some pre-Viking Age archaeological finds provide support for the idea of head wear in general; bog bodies from Arden Mose and Haraldskjaer both include sprang caps. These finds indicate that head coverings did not arrive in Northern Europe with Christianity, so religious pressure is clearly not the only reason the women wore head coverings. There is also archaeological evidence of head-coverings during the Viking Age (headbands, scarves and caps from Dublin, cap from Jorvik, tablet woven headbands with evidence of a veil underneath from Birka), although the archeological record gives very little information about how these items were worn.

Most pre-Viking and Viking Age depictions of women show a knot with streamers at the back of the head. Many of the representations are difficult to interpret, but there are a few cases in which it is clear that the knot is hair (others could also be a scarf or veil wrapped around the head). This is often used as evidence that Norse women didn’t wear any type of head covering, but it is important to consider that these figurines are generally thought to represent goddesses and the knotted hairstyle might have had social or religious significance. There is no archeological evidence for the knotted hairstyle, but there is pre-Viking Age evidence for elaborate hairstyles – Arden woman’s hair was worn twisted and wound around the head (under the sprang cap) and Elling woman’s hair was arranged in an elaborate braid which was tied in a knot.

There are many discussions of women’s head coverings in various sagas and in the poem RígsÞula. In general I think this supports the idea that most women wore some type of head covering, although it is important to remember that this evidence is not conclusive since these stories were not written down until several hundred years after the Viking Age.

Taking all this evidence in to account, I feel the there are several different options for women doing Norse re-enactment, including styled hair and various head covering options. I do not see any evidence for long hair worn loose.

Some options:

1. Styled hair – several Valkyrie figurines are depicted with long hair worn in a knotted ponytail, and one Iron Age figurine seems to show a women with buns on each side of her head. There is also the possibility of hairstyles inspired by Arden woman or Elling women.

Braided hairstyle based on Valkyrie knot (styling and hairpiece by Viscountess Lorissa)

Braided hairstyle based on Valkyrie knot (styling and hairpiece by Viscountess Lorissa)

Two buns based on Danish figurine (hairpieces made by Viscountess Lorissa)

Two buns based on Danish figurine (hairpieces made by Viscountess Lorissa)

Knotted hairstyle, created using a fall to add length (picture of Mistress Aldgytha)

Knotted hairstyle, created using a fall to add length (picture of Mistress Aldgytha)

2. Knotted scarf – some Valkyrie figurines look like they could be wearing a knotted scarf around the head. There is also saga evidence of a twisted or knotted scarf (for example, in Viglundar saga a linen bandage wound around the head is compared to a woman’s head cloth). Because this style would be unlikely to leave any archaeological trace, it is difficult to tie to a particular location.

Knotted headscarf. In this style the scarf is wrapped around the head, and the tails are twisted together and coiled at the base of the neck.

One option for a knotted headscarf. In this style the scarf is wrapped around the head, and the tails are twisted together and coiled on the back of the head. If you style you hair in a bun, you can use the bun as the center of the knot. This scarf is rectangular, 52cm by 165cm

Back view of the above style.

Back view of the above style.

knotted scarf

Another option for wearing a knotted scarf – in this style the ends of the scarf are gathered at the nape of the neck and tied in a knot. This style results in a very distinct knot at the nape of the neck. This scarf is rectangular, 83cm by 147cm.

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Back view of the style above.

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A third option for wearing a knotted scarf (back view) – in this style the front corners of the scarf are tied together at the nape of the neck, and then those ends are tied again to confine the tails of the scarf.

3. Draped scarf or veil – This style is similar to the depiction of the Virgin Mary in the Book of Kells and some Anglo-Saxon women, so I suggest this option particularly for re-enactors depicting the British Isles.

draped veil

Veil worn draped loosely around the head and shoulders.

3. Headband – headbands of silk and wool have been found at Dublin, and several graves from Birka have remains of metal-brocaded tablet weaving around the head. Evidence from Birka indicates that the headband could be worn horizontally around the head, along the hairline, or around the crown of the head.

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Silk headband decorated with brocaded tablet weaving

4. Cap – extant examples from the British Isles only (Dublin and Jorvik), so this style is also primarily for re-enactors depicting women from the British Isles.

Dublin cap

Cap based on extant example from Dublin.

Cap based on extant piece from Jorvik. The Dublin styles are rectangular with a peak at the back of the head.

Cap based on extant piece from Jorvik.

Another way of wearing the Jorvik hood

Another way of wearing the Jorvik hood

5. Headband and scarf – there is evidence from Birka of a scarf or veil worn under a tablet woven headband. In the extant examples the headbands are brocaded with metal threads, however it is possible that tablet woven headbands without metal brocading were also worn in this fashion. Headbands and scarfs of silk and wool fabric were found at Dublin, so it is possible that this style worn in various areas of the Viking world. Depending on how the scarf is worn, this style also has parallels with contemporary Anglo-Saxon and Rus women’s costume.

Front view of headband and knotted scarf

One way of wearing a headband and scarf. In this case the scarf is tied with a distinct knot at the back, and a woven headband is tied following the hairline. The headband helps hold the scarf in place. This scarf is rectangular, 54cm by 260cm.

Tablet woven headband, worn over knotted scarf

Side view of the style show above.

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Another way of wearing a headband and scarf. In this case the front corners of the scarf are tied or pinned at the base of the neck, and the tails hang freely. A brocaded tablet woven headband is worn along the hairline.

veil and headband

Another option – in this case the brocaded tablet woven headband is worn horizontally around the head.

Some resources on this topic include:

Hägg, Inga “Die Tracht.” Birka. Untersuchungen und Studien. II:2. Systematische Analysen der Gräberfunde. (Ed. G. Arwidsson). 1986, 51-72. (discussion of brocaded headbands from Birka)

Heckett, Elizabeth Wincott. Viking Age Headcoverings from Dublin. Royal Irish Academy, 2003. (caps. headbands and scarves from Dublin)

Current projects

Sorry for the silence, but the last few months have been crazy. In addition to planning a wedding, at Crown Tournament I was invited to join the Order of the Laurel (the SCA’s highest award for arts). Well, of course that means I need new clothes . . .

I am planning a Birka-inspired outfit to use the wonderful brocaded tablet weaving that my honey got me at last Estrella war. The outfit will consist of a linen serk, diamond twill wool smokkr, and a silk trimmed wool caftan.

I decided to order the fabric for my vigil dress and elevation caftan from Naturtuche (www.naturtuche.de) and I highly recommend them to anyone looking for beautiful, light weight wools in color and weaves appropriate to the Viking Age. Their customer service is wonderful and their products are to die for!

 

Fun with Google Translate

What is a poor monolingual girl to do when many of the articles she wants to read are not in English? Get them translated of course! I have a wonderful friend helping my with some Swedish articles (Thanks Whilja!!!) but there are also a few articles published in German that I would love to read.

I am currently working on translating Inga Hägg’s article “Die Tracht” from Birka II:2 Systematische Analysen ger Gräberfunde. Since I don’t speak any German, I am typing the article in to Google Translate one paragraph at a time. While the program is not perfect, I have discovered that sometimes breaking up the German compound words helps the program recognize the words. However, sometimes the English translations doesn’t make much sense. And there are some words that it just doesn’t recognize.

Do I know any German speakers that are willing to help me out with a few words and phrases?

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.