Going a Viking
Tunics are the basic garment for the viking age. Both men and women worn tunics with long tapered sleeves eased with small square gores. The neckline was often a key hole, although women's could be square or rounded. Women's tunics and under tunics were longer then men's typically ankle length. Men's were instead knee length, paired with trewes or straight leg breaches.
Women of the viking age have a signature garment called an apron dress or Smokker in swedish. It resembles in many ways a modern sundress with loops of centimetre-wide linen, usually secured with oval brooches. The garment was without closures other, and was pulled on over the head. Instead of being fitted it was secured with a slim belt and embellished with embroidery or strings of colorful glass beads and metal findings.
Statistically, fewer finds of known clothing-related textiles exist for Viking men than for Viking women. Much of the information presented here comes from single, elaborate inhumations such as the Mammen oak cist burial (Denmark) and the Evebø stone cist burial (Norway), both of which have excited international interest leading to write-ups in English. From the Bronze Age onward, it seems that the basics of men's clothing in Scandinavia changed little, consisting of trousers, tunics, coats, and cloaks. While the materials composing the garments changed from hide and leather to wool and, ultimately, linen, the cut changed more slowly, if at all. Decoration, on the other hand, seems to have changed quite a bit.
Many textiles in the Viking Age were made of worsted wool in twill patterns. These wools were carefully woven, supple, attractively textured, and often dyed in very bright colors. Oddly enough, as time went on and the warp-weighted loom was supplanted by the horizontal loom beginning near the end of the tenth century, later period Viking wool fabrics became coarser, fuzzier, and thicker than earlier period ones. This is because the process of extensive fulling and napping was reintroduced to the textile industry.
Certain areas also had ready access to linen, such as England, which produced it, and Sweden, which imported it; as fragile and rare as linen remains are, there is nevertheless much more archaeological evidence for the use of linen in those areas. Silk was available all over the Viking world by the ninth century, and it was liberally used by some of the people buried at Birka in the mid- to late-tenth century. Although there is no evidence of cotton yet from Viking graves, it is known that in the tenth century the Byzantine army issued a cotton padding garment, the bambakion, as part of its outfit. Varangians, at the very least, would likely have experienced this garment.
Some fabrics, such as linen and some naturally-pigmented wools, were most often used undyed. Many wools, however, were dyed in attractive colors, and there are a few examples of woad- or madder-dyed linens. The most common colors which have been found in dye analyses of Viking Age fabrics are red, mostly from madder; blue, from woad; yellow, from weld and an unidentified yellow dye, possibly either broom or a tannin-based dye such as onion skins; purples and violets, from lichens or from overdyeing with some combination of lichens/madder/woad; and greens, from overdyeing with an unidentified yellow dye plus woad (Walton 1988, 17- 18). Some evidence of brown from walnut shells has also been found, as well as one or two pieces that were intentionally dyed very dark brownish-black with walnut shells.
The chemical evidence seems to point to a preponderance of particular colors appearing in particular areas: reds in the Danelaw, purples in Ireland, and blues and greens in Scandinavia proper. Although it is carefully hedged, there is a hypothesis in the scientific world that this might possibly reflect regional color preferences rather than archaeochemical factors.
Iconographic evidence in such forms as the Gotlandic picture stones and the Oseberg tapestry suggests that the Vikings wore at least two types of leg coverings: a wide, knee-length, baggy type and a narrow, full-length, more fitted type. Unfortunately, not many finds are clearly identifiable as trousers, and in most cases the cut of the garment is not obvious from the remains.
Several finds of trousers with their sophisticated Migration Era cut requiring three separate pieces for the crotch gusset alone, by themselves can serve to disprove any claims that early period garments are simple and untailored. At the ends of the legs, the Thorsbjerg trousers extended into foot coverings, just like children's pajamas.
The remains of a Migration Era man buried in a mound at Evebø farm in Gloppen, western Norway, provide proof that multicolored plaid was not unknown in the Scandinavian world. This man wore trousers in a pattern of 15x15cm plaid, in at least three colors--red, green, and blue.
The tenth-century caulking rags excavated from Hedeby harbor yielded some garment fragments believed to be the remnants of the crotch of a pair of baggy men's trousers, also known as "knickers," "plus fours," or Pumphose. The fragments from Hedeby were of fine wool tabby in a crepe weave. They suggest that the pair of trousers were of two colors: some of the fragments are dyed yellowish, others red.
The remains of one pair of trousers found at Birka were probably of the short and baggy variety. The trousers were of linen (or lined with linen) with little metal eyes set into their lower edges; the stockings were wool, with little hooks sewn onto them. The stockings were hooked to the lower edges of the trousers just below the knees. These little hooks used to connect the trousers and stockings, called "garter hooks" in most of the literature, show up all over Northern Europe in early period, from Birka to Winchester and even in Jorvík. they seem to have been most consistently used in Saxon areas. It is not always certain how they were used, however; often they were used not on trousers but on the garters that cinched them. This undisturbed and unusual example of their use is one of the things that makes the Birka find so valuable.
Undertunics or Smocks
A fair amount of information is available on the cut of the smock layer during the Viking Age. Most of the smocks found have been of wool, although many women's smocks made of linen were found at Birka. It is likely that smocks in the Danelaw and Ireland could have been made of linen. Many fragments of linen garments have been found at ninth- and tenth-century Jorvík, most with flat-felled seams which, as Penelope Walton says, are suitable for undergarments.
The Migration Era jarl at Evebø wore two tunics, one over the other. His knee-length, red wool undertunic was trimmed at neck, wrists, and hem with complex wool tablet-weaving patterned with beasts of various descriptions in yellow, red, and black . The cuffs were secured with bronze wrist clasps.
The smocks worn at Hedeby seem to be of two basic types. Both types share the elements of rounded neckline, rounded armholes for set-in sleeves, and separate front and back panels sewn together at the shoulders. They differ in the construction of their side-seams: one type has narrow, slit sides, and the other has wider construction with inserted gores for fullness at the hem. Most were wool, and some were dyed. Sleeves tapered in width at the lower arm, so that they fit fairly snugly at the wrists, and they could also be cut in more than one piece to achieve a more complicated taper.
There is less to go on with the Birka smocks, but a few facts are evident. Some of the Birka smocks seem to have had keyhole necklines rather than rounded ones. The front and back panels were cut in one piece and not sewn together with shoulder seams (Hägg 1974, 108). This construction makes them much closer in design to the current SCA conception of the T-tunic than the Hedeby smocks are; however, judging from earlier Scandinavian finds of tunics, they probably had separate sleeves sewn to the body of the smock.
Underdresses were simple affairs predominantly plain in the C9th. but chiefly pleated in the C10th. The garment was ankle length and fastened (in the C10th.) at the throat by a simple round brooch. Pleated fragments have also been recovered as far away as Viking York.
Pleated underdresses were not unlike modern pleated skirts but no complete pattern survives. It is thought that these were body length pleated tubes of linen closed at the neck, to which two smaller tubes pleated concertina like, were added for the arms; These 'pleated tubes' are closed around the neck by a draw string. It is difficult therefore to see how a brooch would be employed to close the neck. Unless the brooch was purely for show, perhaps it closed the over garment, or perhaps the earlier unpleated dress? Many of these small round brooches have a ring fixed to the back, and in some graves this ring is fixed by a chain to the tortoise brooches chain arrangement. Such a chain to the underdress would be awkward unless the overdress was not worn or if the brooch attached to the over dress.
The pleated arm tubes have been reconstructed both with pleats lengthwise down the arms or laterally around the arms (as depicted by Flemming Bau). The latter is reminiscent of Saxon male and female dress with rolled sleeves and of the Mammen grave find with its double rolled cuffs. Inga Hägg has shown by examining the material corroded to the back of the brooches, that the pleats must have run laterally around the arms. .
In general, it is probably safe to extrapolate from the information available on smocks in order to get some idea of how tunics and coats could have been cut in the same times and places. As is the case with the smock/undertunic, both wool and linen overtunics are represented in the finds.
The Evebø jarl's overtunic was wool, possibly blue, decorated at the neck with tablet-woven wool bands patterned with animals in two colors. Somewhere on this tunic some silver clasps were attached, but, due to the slightly irregular procedures followed in this excavation, it is unknown whether they were cuff clasps or clasps for front of the tunic (Magnus 1982, 68). Because the red undertunic was so elaborate, with its tablet-woven trims, the blue overtunic may not have been an overtunic (i.e., a pullover garment) at all but rather a coat (i.e., something that opens down the front): then the silver clasps would have been used to clasp it together on the chest.
At Jorvík in the ninth and tenth centuries, strips of plain tabby-woven silk in bright colours were used to edge overgarments, much the same way as one might use bias tape today except that the silk was cut along the grain, not diagonally across it. There is ample evidence for usage of figured silk samite strips as edgings at Viking Age Dublin. The Mammen grave revealed a similar use of samite strips. The fashion is also represented at ninth- and tenth-century Birka, where several overtunics, both men's and women's, were ornamented with strips of this type of samite plus, in several cases, metal-brocaded tablet-woven bands on the chest and arm areas.
Grave 735 at Birka, dating to the mid-tenth century, revealed a unique ornamental overlay in a combination of samite and many strips of silver-brocaded tablet weaving. The overlay consisted of eight parallel bands sewn horizontally on a rectangle of silk. This particular man's grave is the find which has inspired drawings of men in Rus riding coats in many Viking picture books, including Almgren and the cover of the Osprey Elite Series book on the Vikings. However, as is often the case in secondary works, the illustrators got it all wrong. The man buried in Grave 735 was not wearing a buttoned coat; he was wearing a closed-front overtunic of bluish-green wool with the elaborate overlay appliquéed on the chest (Geijer 1938, 166). Although the shape of the finished overlay is not entirely clear from the reconstruction, Hägg suggests that additional strips of silk and tablet weaving ran up his arms as well as around the arms of the tunic.
Another tenth-century Birka overtunic was of linen decorated with long vertical strips of brocaded tablet-weaving from shoulders to calves (Hägg 1986, 69), which must have looked somewhat like Byzantine clavii. It was also trimmed with Chinese self-patterned damask silk (Geijer 1983, 86); at the time the man was buried, the silk would have been several hundred years old!
There are two basic manifestations of the coat layer in Viking archaeological contexts. For ease of differentiation I call them the "jacket" and the "coat." The jacket wraps around without a fastening device, while the coat is buttoned. It is possible that they simply represent variations of the same garment; they do not appear to have been worn together.
The jacket is found in several spots in the Viking world, and it seems to have a very old tradition. An early defining example of the type is the human figures depicted on the Sutton Hoo helmet, who are dressed in what look like bathrobes. This garment consisted of a short tunic open all down the front with diagonal, overlapping flaps. There is supporting evidence from Saxon graves in both Europe and England for a clothing layer of this type, ornamented on the lapel and down the front with gold-brocaded tablet weaving. It is thought that the garment may have had some military or ritual significance (Owen-Crocker 1986, 114-115).
The jacket fragments found at Hedeby were made of plain 2/2 twill. The complete garment is thought to have been hip-length and trimmed with fake fur made of wool along the hem and down the front edges (Hägg 1984, 204).
The coat, also known as the "caftan" or "Rus riding coat," may have been an explicitly eastern (Swedish/Rus) phenomenon. We have solid evidence of it only at Birka in the ninth and tenth centuries. It is a long coatlike overgarment, buttoned from neck to waist and decorated with specialized and elaborate metal trimmings. The remains of five such coats were found, each with a row of cast metal shank-buttons; several other coats were identified which, while they had the right sort of elaborate trimmings, had no associated buttons. Wood or bone buttons, however, would leave little or no trace in a burial, and it is likely that these coats were also buttoned. It is thought that this garment was borrowed or adapted from the Byzantine skaramangion, which was the standard day garment for the Emperor and his court .
Our old friend, the man in the coat on the cover of the Osprey Elite book, makes another appearance here to warn you about misunderstanding the coat layer at Birka. The trimmed lapel/collar this man is wearing is an artist's misinterpretation of the Reverskragen, or lapel, which was found in some of the other graves at Birka. The Reverskragen probably belongs on a jacket, not a coat. Also, the archaeological evidence from Birka does not support the conclusion that the coat was ornamented with crosswise bands on the chest, as many illustrators depict it: the overlays are found in one piece on the breast, which could not happen if the garment they decorated were a coat that buttoned. However, coats were frequently decorated with strips of metal knotwork mounted on strips of silk samite; tiny metal studs held the silk to the garment.
The basic elements of the Viking cloak ensemble are a rectangular cloak and a cloakpin. Cloakpins can be of the pennannular type or of the ring-headed pin type. Cloaks come in a variety of weights and weaves, from lightweight patterned twills to the heavy napped "fake-fur" types known as rogvarfelðr.
The Evebø jarl was wrapped in an elaborate lightweight rectangular cloak with fringed edges. It was red plaid with blue and yellow stripes in a 12x12cm repeat. At the edges were tablet-woven bands of either blue or green with beasts in either yellow or red. No cloakpin was found. Fragments of red and undyed tufted wool, possibly from fake-fur cloaks, were found at Jorvík. Also, Grave 750 at Birka revealed the remnants of a heavy cloak with blue and red pile as long as a thumb.
The wool cloak found in the Mammen burial included fancy embroidery in two colors of stem stitching. The motifs included two different versions of repeating human faces and hands in a variation of the "gripping beast" style, as well as a scrolling leafy motif that looks very Saxon. The cloak was also strewn with gold foil paillettes or spangles.
The men's burials at Birka included cloaks worn to the grave or deposited near the body. These cloaks were most frequently thick, heavy blue ones worn pinned at either the shoulder or the hip. Several burials included a cloak deposited near the body. Of the five men's burials dating securely to the ninth century, all wore cloakpins at the shoulder. Several cloaks from the tenth century were found pinned at the hip rather than the shoulder, and some were deposited next to the body instead. Hägg thinks that the practice of burying the cloak elsewhere in the grave than on the body might have arisen because clothing the body in the cloak would obscure the man's burial finery worn underneath it. However, this hypothesis assumes that Birkan finery in the tenth century would have had to be somewhat more glitzy than in the ninth, which is not necessarily the case. Additionally, this practice is not unknown in earlier times: the Sutton Hoo burial also included a cloak deposited separately.
Indications of other garments in use during this period are few and far between, but they do exist. The caulking rags from Hedeby included some remnants thought to be a man's vest. They were made of thick, napped wool; the vest would have been hip-length and fitted fairly close to the body.
Cross-gartering in the Frankish and Saxon sense is not generally believed to have been practiced in Viking dress. However, strips of fabric widely agreed to be leg-wrappers have turned up in various locations around the Viking world. At Hedeby several strips were found which had been woven to a 10cm width (i.e., not cut out of a wider fabric); they were woven in various twill techniques, with a purple herringbone twill as the finest example. Similar strips have also been found at many north European sites. These leg-wrappers would have been worn by spirally wrapping the strip around the calf starting just below the kneecap and finishing at the ankle, where the excess can be tucked into a shoe.
Hats and Headwear
At Birka three classes of headwear have been identified. At least two types definitely correlate to a specific other garment: the hats are found in graves where the coat, whether with or without metal buttons, is also found. The first type, found in both ninth and tenth centuries, is a peaked hat, at least partly made of silk, with either metal knotwork running up the center front of the peak or a silver, funnel-shaped ornament at the top of the peak and silver mesh balls dangling from the pointed end. The second is a more sedate tenth-century innovation also worn with the coat; it seems to be a closer-fitting, round low wool cap decorated around the circumference of the head with one or more strips of metal knotwork or braided spiral wire. A relationship between the hat and coat is frequently emphasized by the use of similar knotted trim to decorate both the hat and the coat. Type C headwear at Birka consists of a metal-brocaded, tablet-woven fillet or headband--perhaps the hlað mentioned in the sagas. Of all three styles, The last is the only one that appears in graves without the coat layer.
A really unusual piece of headwear was found with the Mammen burial. It has been reconstructed as a padded circlet of tabby silk decorated with brocaded tablet-weaving. Rising from the circlet are two triangular silk "pennons," with gold-wire mesh in the center of each. The headwear also has slivers of whalebone in it, probably to help it stand up straight. It might have looked somewhat like a bishop's mitre in silhouette. This burial also yielded bracelets of brocaded tablet-weaving on a ground of padded silk (Hald 1980, 106), possibly also in imitation of ecclesiastical garb.
In the Orkney Islands off Scotland a complete wool hood was found which has been tentatively dated to the Viking Age. Its one-piece cut it is more simple than the hoods of the Middle Ages; the hood section is squarish with no tail, and the cowl is small and conical. It was made of herringbone twill trimmed with deep bands of textured tablet-weaving in two colors, and it had twisted fringing a foot long.
While the leather itself may not have survived, there is plenty of evidence for metal harness-mounts on leather straps in Viking Age burials. Similarly, belt buckles, strap-ends, and belt-slides are also common finds in Viking men's graves, even if the leather upon which they were mounted has disintegrated. Viking Age belt buckles do not appear to have been as elaborate as the Sutton Hoo buckle or the other famous early Saxon buckles. Most were simple bronze ovals with a protruding tongue and a flat plate to rivet to the leather; they would not look particularly out of place on a modern belt. Some buckles were carved of bone.
Various types of belts were found at Birka. Some leather belts were mounted all along their length with wide flat metal plaques; the one in Grave 1074 had two hanging ends, also with mounts. These belts were worn mostly by the men who had cast-metal buttons on their coats. A couple of elegant belts found at Birka were made out of silk samite decorated with a hanging fringe of silver-wire knotwork. Again, they seem to have been worn by some of the men buried wearing the coats with metal buttons. Since only fragments survive, it is difficult to know what the completed appearance of such a belt would have been; they seem to have been about 6cm wide, with knotwork on the short edge. Perhaps the belt was tied at the waist and the two ends hung loosely; the knotted edging may have functioned in place of strap-ends, weighing down only on the hanging ends of the belt. Remnants of belts were not found in graves of men who wore overtunics at Birka (Hägg 1986, 69); it is impossible to know whether these men did wear belts, or from what materials they might have been made.
Many female graves contained rich adornments to carry them into the afterlife. Many of these were every day items, some however may have been only for show. The list is long but includes: Keys, Comb, Needle case & needles, Small Seax or Knife & Whetstone. All these were pierced and hung on chains or braids from the brooches. Some were hung in their own peculiar way, the Seax and Needle case often hung horizontal. Many of these articles were richly decorated.
The chains were unlike modern chain links, a decorative woven wire effect was often used. As well as securing personal adornments to the body, sometimes the small round under dress brooch tethered by a chain running to one of the tortoise brooches. The tortoise brooches themselves were sometimes chained together, this particularly makes sense in the apron arrangement that excludes the bib as without the bib or chains to the brooches the body apron will tend to drift apart.
Instead of chains sometimes the brooches suspended necklaces of beads of glass amber or jet. Incidentally, ALL amber and jet beads were carved or polished, so rough chipped fragments must be avoided
Both "soled" shoes (made with separate soles stitched to the uppers) and "hide" shoes (upper and sole cut in one piece and then stitched to itself) were known in the Viking Age. Most shoes were either half-boots or ankle shoes; some were slip-ons, some tied with leather lacing, and some used lappets with cylindrical leather buttons. A few examples of half-boots exist from Hedeby close by means of three wide lappets . Goatskin was often used for shoes, as was deerskin, calf, sheep, and cowhide. Socks are rarely found but the few examples that exist are made of Naalbinding.