Excavating

After our annual visit to the Jorvik Viking Festival in February, I found myself increasingly fascinated by Viking culture, and specifically with Viking textiles and sewing techniques. I made myself a Viking costume – linen under-dress, linen long-sleeved over-dress, and the characteristic Viking apron dress (photos to follow, when I have the time to gather it all together, put it on and be photographed wearing it). Making clothes entirely by hand is absorbing, and actually doesn’t take that much longer than sewing by machine.

I became really interested in how textiles were made and used in tenth-century Europe, and I started to look for evidence of fabrics in the various Viking burials that have already been explored in Sweden and Norway. The main problem, of course, with fabrics is that they generally fail to survive long periods buried underground. Linen, in particular, tends to rot down to nothing relatively quickly – not surprising, given that it starts life as a plant in the first place.

Then I found that there are a handful of sites – notably Mammen (Denmark) and Oseberg (Norway), plus a few others – where not only fabrics have been preserved, but also examples of embroidery, appliqué and other techniques. Textiles are central to any culture – we all handle them every day, and we use them to convey various cultural messages about status, individuality and community.

I wondered how I would interpret these fragments of cultural messages, if I were to stitch something similar to the shreds of decorated fabrics that have been uncovered by archaeologists. So I’m planning to make four mixed-media books: one based on excavations; one based on reconstruction; and two based on the Oseberg ship burial, looking at clothing in the first, and home furnishings in the second.

I’ve begun work on the first one, interpreting the fragments of fabrics that have been uncovered. I’m collecting images, drawings and photocopies in a sketchbook, and then taking single examples to work up into 8″ square pages using fabric, thread, paint and paper. The first sample page I’m showing here is based on a fragment of braid found in Birka:


And my interpretation of it:

The base is hand-made paper, with fabrics layered, stitched and painted to convey the impression of something buried. The braid is made from hand-dyed silk yarn, with a little gold paint brushed over the surface. I thought I would have to use some sort of stabiliser (Vilene or similar) before sewing on  the paper, but it’s surprisingly robust, and soft enough to stitch quite heavily without any need for support.

I added little stone chips and beads to suggest the stones and grit in the earth that would have held the braid. Strange to think that something so fragile could survive burial for so long, and that it would one day look again on daylight.

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13 Responses to Excavating

  1. Chloe says:

    Just wonderful! So happy to see your work again ☺️

  2. mof70 says:

    Amazing as usual. I love the use of seed beads an look forward to the next page.

  3. May I be one of the first to say how pleased I am that you are back to Stitchinglife? An exciting project, Karen!

  4. Amanda House says:

    Great twiddly bits Karen.

  5. Love this idea, and your interpretation, did you use a pattern to make the clothes. The embroidery reminds me a bit of celtic knots. I have been watching the TV series Vikings and love the dresses the women wear though I have no idea how accurate an interpretation they are of what might have been worn. My bother tells me that the Viking men didn’t wear their hair in funny top knots, wore helmets into battle and were a lot cleaner than the English.

    • Karen says:

      Hi Debbie, thanks for stopping by. No, I didn’t use a pattern, just read around the internet (I googled ‘make Viking dress’) and just used my own measurements. The cutting out is mostly rectangles, with long triangles for the gores. I haven’t seen the TV series or any of the costumes they used.

  6. taichi2012 says:

    How wonderful to see someone blog and actually say something. I get discouraged reading blogs that are every 3 months or so–and then say nothing. I am getting out my Viking textile books ( yes–I have some) You have inspired me!! Isn’t that what it is all about–inspiring each other. thank you for blogging again. Janet Wright, Friday Harbor Wa USA

    • Karen says:

      Hi Janet, thanks for stopping by and for your kind words. I’d love to know what books you have on the subject. I recently read Silk for the Vikings, by Marianne Vedeler, which is excellent. And yes, mutual inspiration is always good 🙂

  7. It’s always fascinating to see how other people respond to something we know. I’ve been to Jorvik (although not since it re-opened – must go back!) and I’ve spent some time talking with researchers and re-enactors. There’s always more to find out, and always a new detail inspire! I am looking forward to watching this project of yours develop!

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