Samite silk

One of the best sources for Viking textiles is the Oseberg ship burial, which dates to around 834 AD. Two women were given a splendid burial in a purpose-built chamber on a ship, which was then interred. The grave appears to have been robbed in antiquity, so most of the women’s jewellery is missing. The textiles, however, remained largely undisturbed, and there is evidence for clothing, bedlinen, and decorative tapestry/embroidery, with some truly astonishing fabrics.

Some fragments of fabric appear to be samite silk, of varying qualities, and probably from Byzantium or Central Asia. Samite silk is made with a complex twill weave, and some of the Oseberg silks were catalogued and sketched by Sofie Krafft in the early 20th century. I collected a few in my sketchbook and had a go at reproducing some of the patterns.

I can totally vouch for the complexity of these designs. I needed the rubber much more often than the pencil!

I wanted to create a double page spread in the mixed media book, since there were so many fragments of patterned silk, and I wanted to preserve that feeling of tiny scraps of precious fabric. I didn’t want to embroider the designs on fabric because I felt that it wouldn’t have looked quite right. I also wanted something that felt a bit more ‘found’ than contrived. I found, after some experimentation, that I could draw the designs on a small piece of silk taffeta with a fine pen, and that I could also use coloured pencils on the fabric. Silk taffeta is very strong and smooth, so it takes colour and line quite well.

I’ve roughly stitched the samples onto a background of hand-dyed open weave cotton fabric, with small bits of scrim, paper, and silk sari yarn to suggest the edges of something eaten away by time.

Since I’m using the pages of this first book mainly to collect design elements and patterns, I’m already thinking ahead to how I might use some of the motifs in these fabrics in later works.

I have big plans for later books, but for now I’m really enjoying this one.

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2 Responses to Samite silk

  1. This I really like. It flies in the face of our easy assumptions about that period in history, too.
    And how effectively the line works on the silk!

    • Karen says:

      Thank you! There are lots of examples of the Oseberg silks online, and many of them have incredibly complex designs.

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