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 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” 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!
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.
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. 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.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.
Even the Norse in Greenland used textiles dyed blue with woad, most probably imported from Norway. 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. 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.
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, 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.
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.
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. Lumps of beeswax were also found in the Oseberg grave and some of the textiles showed remnants of beeswax, apparently to strengthen the warp.
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.
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. Since 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.
The 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.
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. 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.
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. 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. 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.
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Thunem, Hilde Viking Women: Aprondress
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Reykjavík, Jan. 2017 Marianne Guckelsberger © Marled Mader ©
 Else Østergård 2009:86
 Bláklædda konan – Bundled-up in Blue 2015:33
 Osebergfunnet bind 4, 2006:191
 Geijer, Agnes 1938:36
 Østergård, Else 2009:89
 Bender Jørgensen, Lise 2012:132
 Michèle Hayeur Smith 2014:67
 Bender Jørgensen, Lise 2012:133
 Þórður Tómasson 1967:12
 Osebergfunnet bind 4, 2006:194, 213
 Thunem, Hilde Viking Women: Aprondress
 Ostergård, Else 2009:94
 Sigríður Halldórsdóttir 1995:40,41
 Ostergård, Else 2009:94