Vikings, silk and silkworm

by Chrissie

Why Vikings and silk?

There is still snow laying on the ground and a fresh breeze is tingling my cheeks and nose. It seems that time is just passing by and soon the first medieval festivities will take place. That is exactly the reason why I wanted to start so early for planning on sewing a viking- or medieval gown. I might consider the remains from textiles which have been found on ship Oseberg which has been found in a large burrial mount. I haven’t decided for the style of the gown so it might be possible that i could sew a gown from the medieval from another region. This article is mostly for myself to take some notes of the things I read in order to plan this project carefully.

If I have made some mistakes in citing some of the sources please don’t hesitate to contact me. I would be happy do adjust the flaws.

Oseberg Viking Ship

ID 114515695 © Ashrafulalam | Dreamstime.com

Epoch

The Viking Age started with their first raid on juin the 8th in the year 793 on the church of St. Cuthbert on the island of Lindisfarne just off the Northumbrian coast. The era of the Vikings ended in the 11th century.

Materials for clothes

I’m interested in the materials which Vikings have used to make their clothes. It included linen wool and flax. However, flax was used for sails on the ships rather than for clothing itself.

Where did the silk came from?

The silk which has been found in graves in Scandinavia came mainly from the Byzantine Empire and Persia. Byzantium, which had very strict restrictions on manufacturing silk ran a lively trade with this precious material. The production and trade of silk were controlled by impirial guilds in Constantinople. It is unnecessary to mention that the silk with its highest quality was produced for the emperor. Private guilds made silk in a slightly lower quality.

For the purple color murex snails were used. However this color was strictly reserved to the Emperor and the penalty for misconduct was death.1

What is Samite?

Samite is a very precious fabric and often it contained silver and gold thread. Samite was used from the 4th until the 16th century. Most samite was found in womens graves. Today samite is still used for robes in churches.

Bishop in samite robe

ID 86579635 © | Dreamstime.com

Patterns and designs on textiles

There are lots of different patterns. Some of them are geometrical ones. In the book «Silk for the Vikings» from Marianne Vedeler it is told that there was a bird with a tiara in its beck. In Old persian the bird is called “Shahrokh” which means “King of birds» whereas it is also translated as “Kingsbird” in the book “Silk for the Vikings”.

If you are interested to know more and especially to see some pictures of those fragments found on the Oseberg ship then search on Pinterest for Oseberg and Sophie Krafft. She has drawn the fragments of the fabric with its patterns.

Woven ribbons

Ribbons were also found. Some of them even contained silver threads.

How was the silk used?

Of course there weren’t gowns made from silk. Mostly stripes were sewn onto the gowns as embellishments.

Let’s jump into the present day

Historic fabric replicas

Surprisingly I have found a fabric shop in Prague, Czech Republic which sells replicas with a pattern exactly as the one to be found in Oseberg. Although the fabric is not made entirely from silk. This brocade is made from silk and rayon, even so the pattern is the very same as Sophie Krafft drew it which I found rather exiting.

Also you have the possibility to order a fabric with a design you choose if you buy approx. 54 yards. Amazing, isn’t it?

Differences between linen from these days and those in the past

Linen from past days was woven by hand and that is the reason why it contained lots of small irregularities. Today linen is produced by machines. If you rather like your dress to look original, then you should choose linen which is woven by hand. You might find some nice ladies selling some fabric from their great-grandmothers. But, be careful! The linen could have damages due to wrong storage. The width of the fabric is between 21-29″ this depends on the weaving loom which has been used (look at the picture). Here are a few tips on buying and caring for antiques linens.

weaving loom

ID 33131769 © Pavel Parmenov | Dreamstime.com

Colors of fabric are also important. Sometimes they have a meaning for the social status. For their production plants or animals have been used.

Historically accurate vs costs

Also I have to think about the costs of the material. Is it more important to be historically accurate as much as possible or do I want a cheaper outfit?

Ribbons

As I mentioned the ribbons were woven by hand. I remember to have woven once before, a long time ago. But my weaving skills are far from achieving any kind of pattern whatsoever. So I’ll leave this part to the professionals for sure. On Etsy you’ll find some ribbons which are woven by hand.

Some thoughts about the silk production

caterpillar of silkworms

 ID 33597938 © Mykola Ivashchenko

Silk is produced out of cocoons from caterpillars.  There is the silkworm of mulberry trees. He feeds exlusively on the leaves from the mulberry tree. There is also the tussah silk moth and the chinese oak silkworm.  They produce sericin and fibroin. In order to unroll the fiber the glue has to be removed. This happens with hot steam or hot water. The caterpillars are throwed into boiling hot water and the silkworms inside it are dying. Now you might argue a worm can not feel pain. If you think otherwise, there are also alternatives which are also mentioned on petauk.  I was surprised that one can not be sure to get silk procuded without harming the animals when buying silk with the label “Peace Silk“. But in my opinion one must always be aware and choose a merchant who is trustworthy. Let’s be honnest, at the end of the day it will be the same as it is with most things on earth: only the money counts. So definetely I am going to check out some alternatives beside “Peace silk”, maybe silk-cotton.

Conclusion

It goes without saying that I know lot’s of things are missing in this article and there are tons to discover. Maybe I could give you some new inputs or you would like to explore some of the stories yourself. Eventually you’ll end up learning some new techniques, who knows?

I am trying to keep focused but I realized I still have lots of work to do for my research on a medieval dress.

Sources

[1] Silk for the Vikings
Autorin: Marianne Vedeler
ISBN: 9781782972150
Published by: Oxbow Books

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