Reconstructing a Viking Hanging Dress from Haithabu
Peter Beatson and Christobel Ferguson


Introduction

From study of archaeological material and artistic representations, the characteristic Scandinavian female attire is understood to be a pinafore dress with a straight top margin across the breast, suspended from shoulder straps which were fastened with a pair of large oval brooches (Fig. 1):


Figure 1 - The authors. On the right is Christobel in ‘typical’ Scandinavian female attire [1] - with an apron over her Haithabu hanging dress, both fastened with brooches.
Design - Peter Beatson.  Construction - Christobel Ferguson.  Jewellery - Birka Traders.
Photo credit - Alex Scheibner (Talerwin Forge, 2008).


Description of find

Two pieces, probably of the same garment (Fig. 2), recycled as rags and discarded in the harbour at Haithabu (Hedeby). The largest piece (14A) is trapezoidal, 30cm high and broadening from 16 to 23cm, where the lower edge is torn away. The top margin, which is made from the selvedge of the fabric, is turned under once and fixed with an elaborate hemming seam. The sides - one is cut straight and perpendicular to the selvedge, the other somewhat curved - must have been seam positions, as they still bear traces of stitch holes. Parallel to the straight edge, and starting about 7cm from the top, a simple dart has been formed using running stitch, and a braided cord has been applied to the ridge thus formed using whip stitch. About 15cm below the top edge, where the dart is deepest, the fabric is noticeably worn and felted. Other wear is apparent near the top margin.

The smaller piece (14B), 12 by 25cm, does not match to the torn edge of 14A, but bears traces of the dart and of one side seam which indicate it was from the same piece of the garment.



Figure 2 - Dress fragments H14A/B from Haithabu. Left - exterior, A= top margin (hem); B= applied braid; C1= straight seam; C2= curved seam; D= dart; W= worn area (extent in grey). Right - inner side of same.



Construction details


Technical description of weave - Wool, fabric is ~1mm thick. Finely woven tabby (1/1, Z/S), 15(warp) x 8-10 (weft) threads per cm. Simple unreinforced selvedge. Originally artificially coloured, but now brown.

Upper margin seam (Fig. 3) - A selvedge is turned under about 1cm. It is hemmed down with alternating backstitch using a 2-ply woolen thread (z-spun S-plied). Stitch length is 7-8mm and interval is 3-5mm.




Figure 3 - Upper margin and seam.


Side seams - Insufficient remains to show the type of seam, but the stitch interval is 5-6mm. At Haithabu, construction seams are most often overcast using whipstiches.



Figure 4 - Dart construction.

Dart seam and applied cord (Fig. 4) - The dart is formed by pinching a fold from 2 to 5mm deep and securing it with running stitch using a single z-spun woolen thread. Stitch length is 3mm and interval is 5-6mm.

The cord, diam. 1-2 mm, is braided from six 2-ply woolen threads (z-spun, S-plied) - three yellow and three red (Fig. 5). It is whipped to the edge of the dart with a 2-ply (z-spun S-plied) woolen thread, stitch length is 2mm and interval is 2-3mm.



Figure 5 - Braiding, six strand plait.


Garment reconstruction

H14A/B is probably the side panel of a hanging dress. It was a fitted, tailored garment, as shown here by use of a shaped seam and a dart. To prevent the dress slipping, the upper edge fitted tightly around the chest. Ingenious use of a selvedge made this margin firm, and the sewing technique with which it was hemmed acted like modern zig-zag stitch, able to stretch without breaking.

The position and extent of the zone of wear is suggestive of the use of a belt or waist tie, a item of Viking women’s wardrobe which is rarely attested in the archaeological record [2]. At the same point the dart is deepest, suggesting its function is to help define the figure.

Though most parts of the dress are missing a tentative reconstruction can be made by considering evidence from other finds. A large part from the front of another hanging dress (or apron), preserved by contact with copper alloy jewellery, was found in grave Bj597 at Birka (Fig. 6):



Figure 6 - Dress fragments from grave 597 at Birka, inside view. B= outline of right brooch; E= matching marks from brooch in the fabric; H= hemmed upper margin of worsted wool fabric; L= linen loops around iron brooch pin, woolen threads adhere to the lower set; S?= possible position of a side seam.

From this remnant it can be determined that the front brooch loops were set 20-22cm apart, and the fabric extended at least 4-5cm further to the sides.  In another Birka grave, Bj464, the side seam was actually preserved in this position (Fig. 7):

» Figure 7 - Brooch and dress fragments from grave 464 at Birka, outside view. S= crease showing position of a side seam.

From these two Birka finds an overall width of about 30cm for the front panel can be inferred.

Pattern

The basic principle of early medieval tailoring was to piece the garment out of simple rectangular and triangular parts, in such a way as to minimise or even eliminate wasteage of valuable material.


Using all of the abovementioned remains as a guide, a pattern based on four fairly equal rectangles is suggested (Fig. 8):



Figure 8 - Suggested layout and construction of the Haithabu hanging dress.
G= offcuts that can be used to gore the skirt.

When the side panel is placed with curved edge frontwards, the decorative cord marks a line down the side of the body.

The triangular offcuts from shaping the side panels can be inserted in the rear seams at the lower edge to give a wider hem, resulting in total usage of the fabric.



Brooch loops

There is now no trace of the loops of the Haithabu dress.  Hägg suggests that the worn-out spot near the upper edge is where a loop was attached, but in our reconstruction it seems more likely to be where the arm and body rubbed together.

Hägg’s analysis of the many remains at Birka show that - as a rule - brooch loops were of linen even for woolen dresses.  They are tubes, 1cm wide more or less, made by doubling a narrow strip of cloth and turning in the edges. The front loops are very short so that the lower rim of the brooches overlaps the upper edge of the dress (see Figs. 6 & 7 above).  They are sewn to the inside of the dress, with the raw ends tucked inside the top hem.



References

Inga Hägg. Die Textilfunde aus dem Hafen von Haithabu. Berichte über die Ausgrabungen in Haithabu 20. Wachholtz: Neumünster 1984.

Inga Hägg. Kvinnodräkten i Birka. Livplaggens rekonstuktion på grunval av det arkeologiska materialet. Aun 2. Uppsala Institute for North European Archaeology: Uppsala 1974.





NOTES

[1] Clothing commissioned for the VIKINGS exhibition at the Australian National Maritime Museum in 2005-06. PB.

[2] Two examples: a belt and strapend from an inhumation at Valtos, Lewis (Scotland); and a strapend in a Birka cremation. PB.


‘Reconstructing a Viking Hanging Dress from Haithabu’, written and webbed by Peter Beatson.

(c) Birka Traders 2008. Not to be copied without permission.

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