The Woman Dressed in Blue: a Textile Find from the 10th c. Icelandic grave and its reconstruction. By Marianne, Guckelsberger and Marled Mader.

Based on The Lady in Blue-Bláklædda Konan, National Museum of Iceland Project The Lady in Blue-Bláklædda Konan: the textiles. National Museum of Iceland.

 The reconstruction

The woolen textile fragments inspired me and my friend Marled to make a hypothetical reconstruction of the landnáma woman’s dress, based on information from the National Museum in Reykjavík exhibit in May 2015, photographs and our own research and expertise. The recreation was made in January and February 2016 during an artists’ residency in Blönduós, Iceland, where we spun, dyed, wove and sewed the dress.

The woolen textile fragments tested positive for indigotin, which lead us to assume that the dress was dyed blue with woad (Isatis tinctoria), since indigo imported from India did not enter Scandinavia until the 1600s. The yarn was spun z/z in warp and weft and woven in diamond twill with 11/10 threads per cm2. Fabric woven on a warp weighted loom has a tell tale starting border, which is an integral part of the fabric and not sewn on afterwards. The landnáma woman’s starting border has dark brown stripes at the edges and a light brown stripe in the middle.

A third fragment found under the brooches was a 2/2 twill vaðmál of coarsely z/s spun yarn, also dyed blue with woad. Counting only 4-6 threads/cm2 it stood in stark contrast to the other fabric. It is assumed that these were the straps of the dress.

Facts we based our project on

  • linen shift, tabby, z/z, white
  • woolen dress, diamond twill, z/z, 11/10 thr/cm2, woad
  • straps, 2/2 twill, z/s, 6/5 thr/cm2, woad
  • starting border, tablet woven, light and dark brown

Marled is a weaver and dyer, specialized in Celtic, Viking and medieval textile reconstructions, Marianne is a spinner, dyer, a beginner weaver and teacher of nalbinding, finger looping and traditional Icelandic wool work at Heimilisiðnaðarskólinn in Reykjavík, Iceland.

The yarn for our reconstruction was spun from Icelandic rovings on a Lendrum spinning wheel. For practical reasons (read: we had miscalculated the amount of white yarn we needed) we used a brown warp, while the white weft would later be dyed blue with woad. Both warp and thread were singles.

The wool of the Icelandic sheep, brought by the settlers and belonging to the “Northern short-tail breed group”[1] is characterized by a double-coat of long outer hairs tog and downy soft under wool þel. Traditionally the tog was spun into a fine strong high twist warp thread, which could withstand the abrasion and tension on the warp-weighted loom. The inner hair þel, downy, crimpy and insulating, was spun into a soft weft yarn with a low twist. This is generally best achieved with the long draw spinning method.

To give the reader an idea of the immense work load of the landnáma women: for one m2 of fabric with an equal density in warp and weft of 10 threads/cm2 she had to spin 2 kilometers of yarn – on a hand spindle!

Blue

The Blönduós Textile Center has a large dyeing space with a stove, sink, pots in all sizes etc. Here Marled and I dyed our handspun weft singles with woad pigments, the result being a beautiful blue with the slightest touch of grey.

There is no evidence that woad was ever cultivated in Iceland in Viking or medieval times, in fact not until a few years ago when dyers in Iceland started to grow their own. Woad was likely imported from Norway were it was an important export article during the Middle Ages.

img_0697

The colour blue is frequently mentioned in the Icelandic sagas, mostly when clothing of men going to battle is described, of women with supernatural powers, and in connection with death. In Iceland 65% of the heathen female graves contained blue textiles and only 31% of the male graves.[2] Woad seeds and four indigo positive textile fragments were found in the 9th c. Oseberg grave of a high ranking woman and her female companion.[3]In the Swedish trading town of Birka, graves contained diverse fabrics of blue yarn such as a finely woven dark blue one and one with blue, red and brown stripes of 5 mm.[4]

Even the Norse in Greenland used textiles dyed blue with woad, most probably imported from Norway.[5] The Icelanders settled in Greenland in 1000 AD and lived there for almost 500 years in very much in the same agricultural and fishing tradition as in Iceland. They did not blend with the Inuit and did not use skin clothing but continued to raise sheep and produce vaðmál. Whether the blue fragments were dyed in Greenland using woad balls imported from Norway or came as finished cloth is impossible to say, but a few balls of woad to keep the wife happy would not interfere much with a cargo of Norwegian iron and timber on which the Greenlanders heavily relied.

These examples may indicate that the colour blue was not as rare as is sometimes maintained, but used quite frequently, though possibly within specific social groups or at specific life stages. The blue dress of the Ketilsstaðir woman thus does not come as a surprise but shows that many Viking age women wore blue at least on certain occasions.

Two spinning traditions in the Blue dress

A yarn spun clockwise (or sunwise) has a z-twist, a yarn spun anticlockwise (or withershins) has an s-twist. A textile is described as z/s woven when the warp is spun z, and the weft s.[6] In a z/z textile the yarn for both warp and weft is spun clockwise. At the beginning of the Icelandic settlement cloth was predominantly z/z spun in a variety of patterns (tabby, 2/2 twill, diamond and other twill variations), but was soon superseded by a different tradition where warp threads were tightly z spun, and the weft in s . This produced the Icelandic vaðmál, which by the 12th c. had become Iceland’s main trade commodity and the basis of its economic system. Spin directions are cultural markers linked to geographic regions and represent women of different ethnic origin. In Iceland women from the British Isles, Scandinavia and Continental Europe with their z/s tradition rapidly superseded the Norwegian tradition of z/z.[7]

The changed spin directions could be directly linked to a new technology or a different type of spindle, since top whorl spindles spin s yarn, bottom whorl spindles spin z yarn). Different directions are often culturally linked to perceptions of right and wrong, the cosmological order and other magical beliefs[8], a fascinating subject, which cannot be discussed here.

The Ketilsstaðir dress being spun in z/z and the shoulder straps in z/s makes it a snapshot of this time of transition, when women of different origin collaborated in the making of the Blue Dress.

Weaving

After the yarn was dyed the weaving began. The Icelandic landnáma blue dress was woven in diamond twill, which is consistent with textiles from important Viking centers like Haithabu, Birka, Oseberg and others.img_0695

Marled set up the loom for a diamond weft. The original fragment at the National Museum of Iceland shows oblong diamonds, which could be the result of a finer warp thread than ours. The final length of our cloth was 3,40 m, the width from shoulder to shoulder or 65 cm, counting 568 threads.

Though I had made an effort to spin a hard thread with a high twist, in the beginning the weaving proved difficult. The sheds would not open properly and the yarn was sticky. We resorted to make a sizing from ingredients we found in the kitchen, oil, starch and water, smeared it on the warp and let it dry overnight – and it did the trick. After that there were few if any broken threads.

Sewing thread and seams

While Marled wove, Marianne spun the sewing thread. Selected tog locks, white, long and shiny, were combed twice on double teeth combs, then the tops were z-spun with the highest ratio on a Lendrum spinning wheel. Plied in the opposite direction they made a strong, thin s-twist sewing thread. Where people had access to beeswax, they would pull the thread across a lump of wax to make it smooth and appear thinner. In Iceland, where there are no bees, balls of yarn were instead wound on a lump of and boiled in water.[9] Lumps of beeswax were also found in the Oseberg grave and some of the textiles showed remnants of beeswax, apparently to strengthen the warp.[10]

The front and back pieces were sewn together from the right side with small, almost invisible stitches. The edges were folded down towards the wrong side, a filler thread placed along the edges and sewn down onto the fabric with tight overcast stitches and reinforced with a double row of small running stitches. Using this method the seam allowance can be kept to a minimum of less than a centimeter.

The Blue Dress fragments are too small to study the sewing techniques, but comparative material of a slightly later date from Norse Greenland show the applied methods in great detail, due to the costumes’ excellent preservation in the permafrost, and we may safely assume that the Blue Dress was sewn in a similar way.

The time-tested techniques of our foremothers in Iceland and Greenland show their intimate knowledge of the properties of the fibers they used, their sense of beauty as well as their practical yet attractive solutions in the garment construction.

The cut of the Blue Dress

Textile archaeologists and reenactors still have to find a complete dress in order to make a statement about its construction. As respectful and cautious reenactors we decided on a minimalist version, consisting of a front panel, a back panel, two side gores and the shoulder straps. As there are only rectangles and triangles there is practically no cut off waste except when straightening the seams. The front and back panels reached from just below the arms to mid calf, about 110 cm. The panels were sewn together from the top to about below the breast, where the side gores were inserted. These were made from the rest of the fabric folded lengthwise and cut diagonally. The result is one whole triangle and two halves, which were sewn together. In order to achieve a symmetrical look a false seam was made along the middle of the whole gore, a method often found in Norse Greenland garments.

As mentioned above we do not know what a female Viking dress looked like, nor do we know what the items of their clothing were called, but concerning the dress a stanza in the Eddaic poem Rígsþula provides a clue.

Sat þar kona,                       The wife sat by him

sveigði rokk,                        plying her distaff,

breiddi faðm,                       swaying her arms

bjó til váðar;                         to weave the cloth,

sveigr var á höfði,              with snood on her head

smokkr var á bringu,      and smock on her breast,

dúkr var á halsi,                  and scarf on her neck.

dvergar á öxlum.                studs on her shoulders.[11]

Could the word smokkr designate the female Viking dress? Etymologically the word is related to the verb að smjúga, to slip, to snuggle. In modern Icelandic smokkr means wrist warmer, but also condom; both are cylindrical in shape and tight fitting. Applied to the dress, a smokkr would then mean a relatively tight fitting garment, not a wrap around dress and definitely not an apron dress. The word dvergar stands close to the smokkr and could designate the brooches. This assumption is supported by modern Icelandic dverghagur, an adjective to describe a man who is skillful and dexterous like a dwarf. The two brooches with their intricate decoration fit well into this line of association. The text would then describe a relatively tight fitting, closed, sleeveless garment, and the shoulder straps held up by two oval brooches. Since there is no archaeological evidence for the length, we opted for a practical mid calf length in order to walk, work and bend unhindered.

Tablet woven starting border

A telltale feature of a cloth woven on a warp-weighted loom is the starting border. img_0699Since we wove our cloth on a modern loom, we had to mimic a ‘starting border’ that was integrated into the cloth after the weaving. Dyeing z-spun, s-plied yarn with Parmelia omphalodes lichen resulted in two brown shades; light brown for the edges of the border, dark brown in the middle. The dyed yarn was then aligned along the upper edge of the front panel and set up on 12 tablets. The remaining warp of the cloth now formed the weft of the border. Thus the starting border became an integral part of the fabric, it is not sewn on afterwards as one often sees in reenactment.

The shoulder straps

The structure, feel and look of the shoulder straps are very different from the rest of the dress. They are woven in the typical Icelandic vaðmál, a 2/2 twill with z/s in warp and weft, whereas the dress is a diamond twill with z/z in warp and weft. Counting only about 6/5 threads/cm2, the straps are also much coarser. Both the dress and the shoulder straps were dyed blue with woad. Marled wove two separate straps about 6 cm wide, then I folded the edges towards the middle and I closed the seam with overcast stitches.

img_0698The shoulder straps of the Ketilsstaðir dress are made of one piece each, but the archaeological material shows that variations are possible. There could be two narrow straps instead of one wide, they could have a filling as in the Kostrup find, the straps could be made of twisted cords as in Værnes or even of linen or silk as in Birka[12].

Implements

To take measurements a thread would have been sufficient, fish bones can be used as pins, and the pattern can be taken from a disused garment. How do you cut a thick vaðmál cloth? The settlers had scissors but these were smaller than blade shears used for shearing sheep, measuring only about 14 centimeters. They look more useful for trimming hair or beard, while the bigger and stronger shears might have been used for cutting fabric.[13] Sewing needles from metal, mostly bronze, were most precious possessions, kept safe in a needle box of metal, bone, quills or even swans’ feet and kept sharp with a whetstone.

Final thoughts

While we were spinning, dyeing, weaving and sewing our recreation of the Blue Dress from Ketilsstaðir, thoughts often travelled back in time to the Icelandic landnáma women. We used a spinning wheel and a modern countermarch loom, but these women spun on a drop spindle and wove on an upright loom, both used in Iceland until the 19th c., not only all the fabric for inner and outer clothing, bedding, wall hangings, blankets and sails, but also for church tithe and taxes.

Our work taught us much about the incredible workload of these women and their working conditions. Spinning is technically not complicated but to spin on a hand spindle a high twist thin warp thread from tog that will withstand the abrasion and pulling forces of the warp weighted loom requires much skill and experience.

While we were working in a well lit and heated workspace, we imagined the longhouses made of turf, the clanging of the loom weights, the crackling fire, the smoke, the humming of rhymes as a memory device for the correct set up of the loom.[14] We had scissors, pins, measuring tape and a big table to work on, but how did women work then? Until well into modern times Icelanders who lived in traditional turf houses ate and worked sitting on the bedside; space constraints and the scarcity of wood made tables an almost unknown furniture. As Østergård suggests one might imagine that a door, taken from the hinges, temporarily served as a table to cut the fabric on.[15] The sewing can then be done sitting on the bed.

Our blue dress was not a replica in the strict sense that only ancient types of tools were used, not least because of limited time and budget. Nevertheless the result is a fabric as true to the original as possible concerning spinning directions, weaves, sewing techniques, material and appearance. Yet it comes to mind that for a true reconstruction environmental factors like temperature, work surface, lighting, sounds, clothing, etc. should also be taken into account in order to fully appreciate the ceaseless, diligent and beautiful work these women accomplished. Like food and shelter, the making of textiles was a vital prerequisite for the survival of the Icelandic settlers in a harsh sub polar environment.

Sources

Bender Jørgensen, Lise 2012. Spinning Faith in: Stig Sørensen, Marie Louise; Katharina Rebay-Salisbury (eds.) Embodied Knowledge. Perspectives on Belief and Technology. Oxbow Books.

Bláklædda konan – Ný rannsókn á fornu kumli. Bundled-up in Blue – The Re-investigation of a Viking Grave. 2015. Rit Þjóðminjasafns Íslands 38 / Publications of the National Museum of Iceland 38.

Geijer, Agnes 1938. Birka III Die Textilfunde aus den Gräbern. Uppsala.

Hayeur Smith, Michèle
2014. Dress, Cloth, and the Farmer’s Wife: Textiles from Ø 172 Tatsipataa, Greenland, with Comparative Data from Iceland. Journal of the North Atlantic. Special volume 6.

Kristján Eldjárn 2000. Kuml og haugfé í heiðnum sið á Íslandi. 2nd ed. Reykjavík.

Osebergfunnet 2006. Bind 4, Tekstilene. Christensen, Arne Emil; Margareta Nockert. Kulturhistorisk Museum, Universitet Oslo.

Ostergård, Else 2009. Woven into the Earth. Aarhus University Press.

Rígsþula: http://www.archive.org/stream/elderorpoeticedd01brayuoft#page/206/mode/2up

Sigríður Halldórsdóttir 1995. Vefjarvísur Hugur og Hönd 1995:40-41. Rit Heimilisiðnaðarfélag Íslands. Reykjavík

Thunem, Hilde Viking Women: Aprondress

http://urd.priv.no/viking/smokkr.html#vernes

Þórður Tómasson 1967. “Teygjast lét ég lopann minn” Hugur og Hönd 1967:12-14. Rit Heimilisiðnaðarfélags Íslands. Reykjavík

Reykjavík, Jan. 2017 Marianne Guckelsberger © Marled Mader ©

[1] Else Østergård 2009:86

[2] Bláklædda konan – Bundled-up in Blue 2015:33

[3] Osebergfunnet bind 4, 2006:191

[4] Geijer, Agnes 1938:36

[5] Østergård, Else 2009:89

[6] Bender Jørgensen, Lise 2012:132

[7] Michèle Hayeur Smith
 2014:67

[8] Bender Jørgensen, Lise 2012:133

[9] Þórður Tómasson 1967:12

[10] Osebergfunnet bind 4, 2006:194, 213

[11] http://www.archive.org/stream/elderorpoeticedd01brayuoft#page/206/mode/2up

[12] Thunem, Hilde Viking Women: Aprondress

http://urd.priv.no/viking/smokkr.html#vernes

[13] Ostergård, Else 2009:94

[14] Sigríður Halldórsdóttir 1995:40,41

[15] Ostergård, Else 2009:94

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14 Comments Add yours

  1. SD Lyon says:

    Wonderful project and article! Am happy to hear Icelandic weaving tradition is being studied. I am a weaver and visited Iceland in 2011. While there was evidence of weaving tradition as I traveled around I could not find any one with details. Your reconstruction would be of interest to travelers. (I did find a typo-actually a word missing- in the sentence ” In Iceland, where there are no bees, balls of yarn were instead wound on a lump of and boiled in water.[9] “)

    Liked by 1 person

    1. mardoll9 says:

      Check out the social science
      projects that are fueling these creative endeavors!

      Like

  2. Miss Vicki says:

    May I ask what type of spindles were used? I find this most interesting as I am a spinner myself, but also I am confused by some of your statements regarding the spinning.
    You use the term hand spindle (which I don’t for a moment suggest is wrong), which isn’t one I’m familiar with but I would guess is the sort used held in the hand whilst twisting (as opposed to a drop spindle which is held suspended whilst it spins or a support spindle which spins with its point resting on something, often in a bowl). Am I right here, so far?
    I guess I’m asking because what I really want to know is, is there is some other kind of spindle I have never yet come across (I kind of hope so, this would be exciting for me)? Because for the life of me I cannot think of any kind of spindle which can only be spun in a single direction only, as you have implied is the case in this article. You state that top-whorl spindles always produces s-twist and bottom-whorl spindles always produce z-twist yarn. Now, this means that those spindles can only be set spinning in one way and I cannot see my way to figuring out what kind of spindle that could be true for. I can’t imagine any spinner with more than five minutes experience not being able to see that one could technically spin any direction they wanted, with any kind of spindle, if they thought about it. And you have thought about it, because you draw conclusions based upon it (I agree that twist direction is culturally bound up, it still is, but I must disagree that the presence of different twists indicates a change in technology).
    One of you is clearly an accomplished spinner, your yarn is lovely by the way, and obviously a lot of research has gone into your project, so I am more than willing to own that there must be something I’m missing here.
    Please set me straight, as I said earlier I am sort of looking forward to it if it means learning about a type of spindle that is wholly new to me 🙂
    Anyway, thanks for sharing this amazing project, I hope one day I might have the courage to participate in something this cool.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. mardoll9 says:

      I will refer you to our Facebook page and group where you can discuss this with the makers! https://www.facebook.com/groups/891493150918126/

      Like

  3. Susan Stewart says:

    Interesting, but a throw away line caught my eye. What evidence is there that period top whorl spindles could only spin yarn in one direction, while bottom whorl do the opposite? It’s certainly not true of modern spindles-I can and do spin both wool and tow flax in either z or s and ply them in the opposite direction using the same spindles (mainly top whorl with a hook, but also bottom whorl with the yarn secured with a half hitch)

    Admittedly it’s (apparently) possible to have a notch in a spindle tip cut that makes it easier to spin in one direction than the other, but that can be done just as well on top or bottom whorl spindles.

    So I would tend to ascribe the change to cultural shift rather than technological.

    Overall though an interesting exercise-I prefer spindle spun yarn for warp as I find it easier to get harder spun yarn that doesn’t stick together than I do with a wheel for some reason. (And I cheat and use two ply for the warp for strength, even on a rigid heddle loom that is less stressful on warp threads!)

    Liked by 1 person

    1. mardoll9 says:

      I am going to refer you to our facebook page and group Northern Women’s Art Collaborative where Marianne can answer you directly.

      Like

      1. I was going to leave a similar comment about spindle spinning directions, but I’m not interested in going to Facebook to read an answer. Could you consider quoting a reply from Marianne here?

        Like

  4. Dora says:

    incredibly interesting article. well executed. I love the little bits of background information about the houses and the general ambiance of the times.

    Like

  5. sweetk8 says:

    I’m not a weaver or spinner, but an historian 😉 I found the article and your work to be very interesting and informative! Congratulations.

    Like

    1. mardoll9 says:

      What do you work on? would you be interested in doing the researcher team? are you working on Arctic/Northern issues? women’s work?

      Liked by 1 person

  6. Jon says:

    Fascinating! It’s a pity that you ladies didn’t share a photo of one of you wearing the finished product.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. operacat says:

    How absolutely fascinating. I do admire the detailed research you have done into every aspect of spinning and weaving the yarn, and the detailed information about the colour blue and how it was obtained…….and about the conditions of life in medieval Iceland.

    Liked by 1 person

  8. Penelope Tyzack says:

    What an amazing painstaking project, fascinating, would be happy to wear the lovely dress myself!

    Like

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