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Thursday, September 16, 2021

Viking Samples


I've been doing quite a lot of research this year around Viking Embroidery. This is partly a result of the folding of the British Embroidery Study Group of the SA Embroiderers' Guild a couple of years ago. I promised the last couple of members of the British Group that the World Embroidery Study Group would incorporate British topics into our program.  My own particular interest, which goes back to my university undergraduate days, is with early English history, literature and language, so I have been scouting around Viking and Anglo-Saxon embroidery. I have a presentation on Viking Embroidery ready for the World Embroidery Study Group in October and have been asked to repeat it for a Certificate Course workshop in February 2022.  The latter means having a project for the group to work on.

Our knowledge of this era is largely built on the work of Margarethe Hald, textile historian and curator of the National Museum of Denmark whose definitive work was published by the Museum in 1980. Margarethe Hald died in 1982.

Subsequent books in the field acknowledge and draw on this work, which is, of course, out of print. When I looked, several months ago, there was only one copy on offer for sale in the world. There are four copies in Australian libraries, one here in South Australia at Flinders University. A Guild friend and alumna of Flinders, generously applied for an alumna borrowing card and borrowed the book for me. We are immensely privileged to have access to it.
Fortunately for us, there are numerous relevant excavated burial sites in Scandinavia and a couple in England, many containing textiles. In the acid soil of Scandinavian burial sites, animal fibre survives while plant fibre deteriorates faster, We know that Vikings were weavers and stitchers, who constructed clothes, mainly from wool but also skin and fur. The pieces were shaped and joined using running or back stitch, and the seams reinforced, either inside or outside the garment with a range of stitches. They also valued textiles and those wealthy enough imported silk, linens and embroidery from their trade routes to Baghdad, Constantinople and England.
For the workshop I procured just over a metre of dark brown woollen twill from the Historic Fabric Store in Sweden. The popularity of Viking re-enactments in many countries provides a supply of products attempting to replicate or imitate. It is not always easy to tell the difference. 

My plan is to provide students with a roughly A4 piece and the pattern, on printed solvi, for a reconstructed design from the Mammen Cloak, one of the few surviving  embroideries agreed to be Viking, along with some Appleton's wool in the colour range thought to have been used. It is believed the cloak was originally covered with embroidery, mostly in linen, which has not survived in the acid soil of the Swedish burial. The embroidered fragments that survived were all embroidered in wool. All are stem  stitch. 

I've worked my sample as a pouch. I used the Viking method of running stitch seams, reinforced on the outside by the stitch believed to have been used on the Mammen cloak.  

This is what it looks like inside - not very tidy, but it does hold the seam folds down, out of the way.

On the back of the pouch I decided to applique a sample of this design from a 10th century embroidery of spun silver on red silk in the Valsgarde burial. It isn't clear to me whether this part of the design was worked in couching or stem stitch. From illustrations it looks like stem. 

I located some red silk scraps in my stash. I chose one that was russet and stitched it on to some cotton fabric so it would fit in a 6" hoop. I then created a cardboard template of the design. I thought it might be easier to trace around a template than use other methods of transfer on the coloured silk.  It worked.
I've sourced some silver French gimp bullon perle wire that I thought might work for couching. It is not, however, even remotely close to spun silver in look or function - a much later thread design. In the end I settled for a silver metallic thread.

Initially I tried a softer, darker metallic, to outline the design in stem stitch. It was hard going and not the right colour or look. I  tried the silver metalic couched, then unpicked the dark outline.

The result isn't brilliant, but passable, I think, to give the idea of the original, which is thought to be the decoration on another cloak, probably imported to Scandinavia from Byzantium - either whole, or as pieces that were appliqued on locally.                
It seemed appropriate to appllique it to the back of the pouch. It's a bit wonky, but then, so was the original. I'm thinking that the woollen embroidery and the seam join will be the basis of the workshop. These are both directly attributable to Viking workmanship (or perhaps workwomanship). I will prepare some silk strips on calico backing that students can take home and work if they wish to try the example of silk work valued and imported by Vikings.
 I will eventually line the pouch and add a (very non-Viking) zip, but I will leave it unfinished for the workshop, so students can inspect the inside to see the seam neatening.

I have also purchased a set of Naalbinding needles and briefly tried them out, along with a lucet (which at the moment I have mislaid). Naalbinding, practiced by Vikings, predates both knitting and crochet and uses a needle to create fabric.  Certificate Group students may like to try these out and incorporate them in some way.  As I have indicated, my presentation to the World Embroidery Study Group does not include a project, but it will be useful to get their feedback on what I have planned.  There may be a later post around braiding, Naalbinding and weaving.

A friend from my university class in Early English Literature and Language commented that our studies were entirely based on the history of largely male activities - mainly fighting and writing - and that knowledge of textiles may go someway to redress the balance. We do know that there were Viking women warriors. There does seem to be agreement that the work of gathering, preparing, weaving and constructing garments, sails and furnishings from wool was executed by Viking women, perhaps not exclusively, but there's a way to go before we have a thorough knowledge of Viking women's lives. Someone, somewhere, I'm sure, is working on it.

In the meantime,  I can return to my knitting!

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