By Megan Murray
Today’s cultural image of a Viking is of a hulking man fit with a horned helm and piles of fur. Is there a better way of creating clothing that melds fantasy and reality?
My interest in Norse garb started with the tv show Vikings. The show hooked me from the start. It brought to life a past full of colourful characters, heart pounding action, and the impacts of clashing cultures meeting and adapting to one another. As expected with any modern reimagining of a bygone time Vikings does take liberties with historical accuracy in their costumes for the main characters, especially as the seasons progressed.
However, the program was still a much more accurate, and to me interesting, depiction of the Norse people than I had ever seen in the media. My first foray into historical costuming was making a cosplay of the character Lagertha, a warrior shield maiden who dominates the battlefield, while still being a loving mother and skillful ruler. This became the inspiration for my business Valkyrie Custom Wear, and Vikings inspired clothing remains some of my most requested items from customers.
Historically accurate Viking garb patterns tend to be simple and practical. Made up of rectangles and triangles to make the most of the valuable material. Using basic shapes in this way keeps measurements simple and allow for less fabric waste than a pattern that has curved seams to create the form in a garment. Cloth was a much more valuable resource than it is today, due to incredible effort it took to harvest fibers, spin them, and finally weave them into completed cloth.
Creating with historical patterns like this for my shop stock is something that I’ve been doing more often as time goes by. Now I find myself leaning towards more accurate historically based designs for several reasons. For one the style of the historical patterns has become more appealing to me as a creator the more that I study them, but also from an environmental and financial standpoint those styles of designs (while a bit more time consuming) allow for me to be much less wasteful with my fabric. The pieces fit together in such a way that very little, or sometimes even no scrap fabric, needs to be thrown away after a project.
The standard outfit combination for a woman in the Viking Age between the years 800 AD to 1066 AD (at least when not doing battle) would typically be as follows:
One, the base underdress. The underdress would have been made from linen, commonly not dyed, as wool would be too uncomfortable and scratchy to be worn over the whole body. this dress would have been designed as a loose fitting shift with a full length skirt that had extra triangular panels in it to flare out, and long sleeves.
Two, the overdress. This dress would be more stylistically diverse, and also the part of the outfit with added details and colours. The most common design was a wool apron style dress held by shoulder straps and metal broaches at the front. This style of overdress is the next garment that I will be working on creating. There was also an overdress that was a woolen version of the underdress. The skirt of the garment would be full length with the same neckline and long sleeves. Both the green embroidered wool dress and the orange multi-paneled overdress pictured are exemplifying this long sleeved overdress style.
Lastly, after the overdress, there could be several accessories added to a Viking Age outfit. When wearing an apron dress, there were often strings of amber or glass beads hung between the broaches. Different styles of head coverings were popular with women of the period. There was also a style of overcoat or kaftan worn as an additional finishing layer at times.
While much of the Viking outfit would have been derived from they could have found in their native Scandinavian homeland, they were also extensive traders. Archaeological digs of Viking settlements have uncovered evidence that they traded for goods such as silver, silk, spices, wine, jewellery, pottery and glass. These traders would travel all through Europe and in some cases as far east as parts of Asia.
Natural dyes are something that I have started experimenting with in the past few weeks. Various flowers, teas, berries, and many other natural ingredients have beautiful colours and can create surprising tones on fabrics when used to dye linen or wool from a natural light cream colour to a whole host of vibrant hues.
My first personal dyeing test was done with walnut. Walnut is one of the easiest materials to make a home brew dye, as the walnut husks contain a naturally strong pigment. A range of rich browns can be obtained by changing the amount of time the garment soaks, applying heat, or applying mordants (a substance that is combined with dye to fix it to the material). My use of walnut dye was done on white linen and used the hot coals of a fire to apply heat to the mixture while the fabric soaked, and as you can see it resulted in a medium cool-toned brown.
Brown is far from the only colour the Viking people would have been able to dye their fabrics, though. Something that could be improved in historically set television shows, is more colouring in costumes. People didn’t live their lives in only browns and greys. Natural dyes have been around for centuries, and the Norse people would have had a host of colours available to them. Nettle would have been used to create a soft green. Madder root could give them red, orange, or pink depending on the concentration and dye technique used. Yellow onion skins would have provided golden yellow hues to their fabric.
My dye experiments will continue with materials found and gathered locally, next on the list is buckthorn berry to try and get a green or purple dye, and after that goldenrod for a bright yellow.
Viking age techniques and styles have provided such inspiration for my shop. I look forward to creating more pieces in the future and expanding my skillset so that eventually I can be weaving some fabrics, dyeing them, and creating the garments all myself if I so desire. Creating these historical based clothing items for people’s special events, be that a wedding, lamp event, or reenactment is a privilege, and I hope only to improve my accuracy and technique as I move forward. Of course, with the occasional bit of fantasy thrown in on specific pieces, because who wants to follow the rules all the time?