Viking Age textiles

Drop spindle whorl decorated with runic letters

Drop spindle whorl decorated with runic letters

In a previous post I looked at some of the textile-related (and actual textiles!) from Iceland’s Viking / Settlement Age while discussing Needle Coiling / Nålbinding. This post will be about some of the other textile-related finds at the National Museum in Iceland.

The spindle whorl above is from Hruni in south Iceland. “It is inscribed with runes which read: I belong to þóra. In the early 13th century a certain þóra was mistress of Hruni; she is mentioned in Sturlunga saga”.

Drop spindle whorls

Drop spindle whorls

In the photo above – in the foreground are a pair of shears made of iron. These date to the earliest settlements in Iceland, though the design “remained common into the 20th century for shearing sheep”.

There are a  number of drop spindle whorls behind the scissors(most of them on long pegs representing the wood that would have been with the whorls, but has since deteriorated away. One shaft remains also in this display.  “Spindle whorls were generally made of imported soapstone or Icelandic stone. The spindle whorl, placed at or near the top of the shaft, served to retain the momentum of the spin. Spindle whorls are often found in graves and on farm sites”.

Behind that are some rough rocks – these are listed as loom weights in the display, used to pull the vertical threads taut on the warp-weighted loom. “Such stones are often found on early Icelandic farm sites, indicating where the loom stood”.

Just barely visible in the photo above is also a whalebone sword-beater “used by a weaver to beat the weft on the warp-weighted loom, which remained in use in Iceland into the 19th century”.

Needle case

Needle case

The display with the whorls, loom weights, and sword beater also had a shelf with smaller items.  These included this elaborate bronze needle case above, and the items in the photo below.

Needle case, needles, and textile fragments

Needle case, needles, and textile fragments

At the top of this photo are remnants of clothing from a woman’s grave. “The bands are probably the shoulder straps of an over-tunic. One of the fragments has a multicoloured tablet woven pattern. The fragments survived underneath the oval bronze brooches in the grave; textiles from this time are rarely found”. The display is all about wool working, but the material of the textiles is not identified – still I presume it’s wool. The display isn’t dated either, and I can’t make out the pattern of the tablet weaving, but I can definitely see that it has multiple colours.

Below the textile fragments on the left is the needle case, and below that are (bronze?) sewing needles found on old farm sites.  Beside those are whetstones “for sharpening needles and small blades”. These are “often found in graves and farm sites” and “all whetstones appear to have been imported”.

Textile fragments

The Iceland National Museum also had some actual textile finds on display in this area – a very large single mitten, a pair of much smaller mittens, and a shoe. All of these were made using woven fabric rather than the needle coiling from a previous display.

Textile fragments

Textile fragments

The display said “Few textiles have survived from the early centuries of Icelandic history, but remnants of clothing have been found on farm sites and in graves where soil conditions are favourable. The garments are usually made of homespun cloth or vaðmál. Knitting was not introduced to Iceland until the 16th century”.

The large mitten was “sewn from vaðmál” and dated to the 9th or 10th century. The smaller pair of mittens are listed as a child’s mittens, also sewn from vaðmál, and fastened together with a woolen cord. These are dated to the 10th or 11th century.

The shoes “sewn from scraps of vaðmál, probably slippers. Woolen shoes appear to have been common in the middle ages”, and these were found in West Iceland and are dated to late medieval ages.

Textile fragment showing an uneven twill

Textile fragment showing a twill

There were also a number of individual textile fragments including this undated piece with a clear twill weave. Many of the pieces had one colour of warp, and a different colour of weft, and some seemed to have stripes of colour. (Though this wasn’t identified in the display, and may have been a stain from the minerals where it was found.)

Drop spindle whorls

Drop spindle whorls

The display above and below is another showing spinning whorls and sword beaters.  None of the items are dated, and the photo below also includes some more loom weights.

Drop spindle whorls and loom tools

Drop spindle whorls and loom tools

Warp-weighted loom

I hadn’t seen one of these looms in person before, so I found this display really interesting. When I was in Victoria, I even had the chance to weave on a warp-weighted loom thanks to one of the demonstrations by a local SCA woman.

Warp - weighted loom

Warp – weighted loom

The display said “the warp-weighted loom was familiar in Europe in ancient times. Looms of this kind remained in use in Iceland until the 19th century, longest probably in Öræfasveit in the south of Iceland. In a day’s work, a good weaver could produce an ell (alin), around half a metre  of metre-wide cloth”.

Warp - weighted loom

Warp – weighted loom

The display described how the loom was used:

“The woven cloth passes over the beam placed between the two uprights, while the warp is stretched tight by loom weights at the bottom. ”

Warp - weighted loom

Warp – weighted loom

“Heddle rods which lie horizontally, are lifted to the front of the heddle rod supports to open the shed through which the weft thread, wound onto a weft roll, is passed.”

Warp - weighted loom

Warp – weighted loom

“A small pin beater is used to even out the warp and then the weft is beaten with a large whale bone sword beater”.

Warp - weighted loom weaving - the lower fabric was woven first, and is an uneven twill. The top fabric is more recent, and is an even twill

Warp – weighted loom weaving – the lower fabric was woven first, and is an uneven twill. The top fabric is more recent, and is an even twill

I took a close up of the fabric that was produced by the museum – the bottom fabric is a bit rougher because of the rougher weft yarn, but the top fabric is actually quite nice – not too different from the weaving I did on a floor loom in the past.

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