Norse North Atlantic Textiles and Textile Production: A Reflection of Adaptive Strategies in Unique Island Environments
Paper by Michèle Hayeur Smith
Given at the 3rd International St. Magnus Conference on April 16, 2016
Textile production was a key industry for the Norse colonies of the North Atlantic during the late Viking and Medieval period. In Iceland, textiles were so important that they were used as currency, used to pay tithes, taxes and fines throughout the medieval period. They were also traded both locally and internationally. Although their production was largely the product of women’s work, standards for the production of textiles intended for use in commerce and for legal payments were legally regulated by men and recorded in the law codes.
In Greenland, textiles took on a different character and were used predominantly for clothing and other domestic applications. Here, adaptive strategies devised by women weavers focused on combating the increasing cold temperatures of the Little Ice Age. Not only did women weave cloth that was weft-dominant and densely beaten, but they also mixed other fibres in with sheep’s wool. The most common admixture was goat but occasionally other materials have been found. This strategy may have been undertaken to “stretch” an already depleting stock of wool or as a way to make cloth better adapted to environmental pressures. The Faroe Islanders devised yet another strategy, and while cloth does not appear to have been used as currency in ways similar to Iceland much of it may have been exported to Norway during the early medieval period, as the paucity of finished textiles in the Faroese collections is striking yet raw wool is not.
Recent pilot research in Bergen, Norway, suggests that much of the textile assemblage found in the urban harbour-site of Bryggen, a hub of North Atlantic trade throughout the medieval period, stems from these North Atlantic colonies. This paper examines these separate yet interconnected records of women’s production and the distribution and use of their products across the North Atlantic as evidence for local adaptation within social and environmental contexts of trans-North Atlantic dimensions.
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