This document was originally written as a class handout for a Society for Creative Anachronism, Inc., event in the East Kingdom in November 1991. It has been updated for publication here.
This document is provided as is without any express or implied warranties. While every effort has been taken to ensure the accuracy of the information contained, the author assumes no responsibility for errors or omissions, or for damages resulting from the use of the information contained herein.
Permission is granted to make and distribute verbatim copies of this document for non-commercial private research purposes provided the copyright notice and this permission notice are preserved on all copies.
© 1991, 1999 Carolyn Priest-Dorman
This is an intentionally brief, general, and un-footnoted précis of information on making four basic types of Viking women's garb from the ninth and tenth centuries: ninth-century Western Scandinavian (Denmark/Norway), ninth-century Eastern Scandinavian (Sweden), tenth-century Western Scandinavian (Denmark/Norway/ British Isles) and tenth-century Eastern Scandinavian (Sweden). More in-depth information will be available in early 1992 (January or March) in the upcoming Compleat Anachronist, "Women's Garb in Northern Europe, 450-1000 C.E.," co-authored by Mistress Marieke van de Dal and me. Documentation on everything presented herein will be laid out clearly in that work. Of course, you can always ask for further information!
The following items were more or less common to all the areas and periods considered below. Of course, regional variations in patterning and execution existed, but the presence of these items helps make up the overall Viking look. They are:
Please keep in mind these few commonalities as well. First, archaeological evidence seems to point toward long sleeves on the smock, gown, and caftan layers, regardless of all that saga talk about "white arms"; however, no real evidence exists concerning the hemmed length of any layer of garments, although common sense seems to dictate something long enough to keep you warm (but short enough not to trail in the muck). Second, the "Viking kerchief" is undocumentable; rather than wear one of those, I encourage you to either try one of the documentable styles of headwear listed below, or just go bareheaded if it's your persona's preference. And third, the Viking apron-dress was held up with straps and those large tortoise brooches; it was a full-fledged overgarment and not a sort of abbreviated tabard.
The basic fibers of Viking garb were wool and linen, with occasional trimmings made of imported silk or caps made of tabby weave silk. As a general rule, the later period (the tenth century) saw more use of linen and silk than the earlier one. Also, the British Isles and Swedish cultures made more use of linen than did the Norwegian and Danish, as nearly as we can tell.
Linen was generally undyed and tabby-woven, although some linen twills have been found in the Danelaw. Look for plain tabby weave when you're searching for linen or linen-substitutes. Wool, on the other hand, was generally dyed and either repp-woven (tabby with unequal numbers of threads in warp and weft, for a ribbed effect) or twilled in a variety of ways--plain, herringbone, chevron, or broken lozenge. Look for textured weaves when you're searching for wool or wool-substitutes, preferably weaves that are not overly napped and fuzzy. If you can afford it, worsted wools are a really good choice, and they frequently come in good colors. Imported silk was usually a multicolored patterned twill weave, which is hard to duplicate, but the local silks, woven from imported fibers, were usually tabby-weave and can be duplicated by suit-weight silks or lighter silk noils. (China silk is far too flimsy!)
Speaking of colors, the documented colors in the Viking textile palette included the following: deep reds from madder, blues from woad, two varieties of yellows, greens from overdyeing with yellow and woad, purple from a variety of sources (madder/woad, lichens, lichens/woad, lichens/madder), and deep brownish/black from walnut hulls. Other colors are likely to have been used, such as the range of golden-browns available from a variety of plant sources, but they have not yet been identified on surviving textiles. Additionally, the uneven distribution of archaeological finds of various colors suggests that certain areas may have used different predominant colors: purple in Ireland, red in the Danelaw, and blue in Scandinavia.
Appliqué work was by far the most common method of adorning a garment. Tablet-woven bands--either plain, multicolored, or metal-brocaded--were very common. Silk fabric cut into strips was also used as trimming, as was fur in some areas. The merchant community at Birka affected several bizarre types of appliqué metalwork, including looped wire meshwork and knotted strips worked from silver wire. Trimming was frequently used on the sleeves, neck, and chest region of the gown and caftan layers. The apron-dress layer was often trimmed around the top edge; narrow braid or cording sometimes covered the seams, if any. Generally speaking, trimming was not used on the backs or bottoms of garments.
A few examples of embroidered Viking garb exist, in the media of wool, silk, and metal thread. Generally this kind of embellishment is reserved to the gown layer or the caftan layer.