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:
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.