Importance of Spinning & Weaving in Viking Culture
"Mightily wove they the web of fate, While Bralund's towns were trembling all; And there the golden threads they wove, And in the moon's hall fast they made them." Völsungakviða, Helgakviða Hundingsbana I, The Poetic Edda
As we have mentioned in Part 1: Sheep, wool was as much a key to the success of the Viking peoples as their ships. The preparation and processes of turning the wool into fabrics was a laborious and time consuming activity for Viking era women, but it was also an essential part of life. The importance of spinning and weaving in Nordic society is reflected in its integration into Norse mythology; from the Norns of fate spinning destiny to the practice of Seiðr. The word 'Norn' itself is derived from the proto-Germanic for 'twine', while the idea of the smørkatt or snakkur, a small magical creature which steals milk is depicted in Norway and Sweden as a ball of yarn, and as a spindle with yarn in Finland.
There have been a high number of textile samples found from Viking Age Scandinavia, namely the sites of Birka (Sweden), Hebedy (Denmark) and Loddekopinge (Sweden) which, derive from very fragmented remains within burial sites where the textiles have been largely preserved around metal objects such as broaches and cloak pins. In addition to burials, at Hebedy textile fragments have also been discovered in the harbour and within the settlement itself. At Jorvik, textile samples have been found on a site in Coppergate suggesting a specific area of more commercialised textile manufacture. The abundance of these Viking Age textile finds yield evidence of the raw materials, techniques and manufacture thus we can gain a better picture of the types of textiles used within the various contexts of Viking Age activities.
The archaeological finds from Viking Age sites across Northern Europe and Scandinavia show the majority of the textiles produced between the 8th and 11th centuries were of wool, (also found were flax and silk fabric remains). And within the wool textiles found, there was a variety of qualities from the more abundant coarse to finer textiles found in grave sites. At all archaeological sites an abundance of textile making tools were found, including spindle whorls, loom weights, bone needles, tablets, scissors and wool combs.
The raw wools used within the Viking Age textiles can be categorised as coarse hairy or hairy medium (similar to modern day Swaledale), although better qualities were found, but in much smaller quantities. Over two thirds of the raw wool fragments from Coppergate were white, with only one third showing pigmentation compared to other areas in Europe such as Saxony and Frisia where three quarters of wool fragments show either brown, grey or black natural pigmentation.
The vast majority of the wool finds are of worsted wool from the tog layer of the fleece. Wortsed wool produces a tighter, hardier and stronger wool fabric, which is best suited for keeping out the wind and rain. These yarns are formed using straight parallel fibres and are spun using a short draw.
To get the wool fibres straight and parallel it is required that the raw wool be carded or combed. We know that carding as we know it today wasn't in use until the later medieval period, and archaeological evidence supports the use of combing to straighten the wool fibres. In Coppergate and Norway wool combs consisting of a double row of iron teeth set into a rectangular wooden block have been found, while in other areas of Norway and in Denmark combs with one row of teeth on a cylindrical head have been recorded.
Once the fibres have been combed, they are ready for spinning into yarn. This was done by hand using a drop spindle (the spinning wheel was invented in China, and didn't reach Europe until around 1100AD). All the Viking Age sites of Birka, Coppergate, and Hebedy produced a huge number of spindle whorls of varying sizes and shapes. Ceramic whorls were most commonly found in Hebedy, stone whorls in Birka and Coppergate, and black clay whorls have been recorded at various other Viking Age sites across Scandinavia. The variety of spindle whorls found within each site suggests several different thicknesses of yarn were being produced, with the lighter whorls producing lighter/thinner threads and the heavier whorls producing thicker/coarser threads. This is reinforced in the analysis of spindles, which ranged from 150mm to 300mm and of varying thicknesses. The shorter spindles also lend themselves to the spinning of finer yarns.
From the textile fragments we can also determine that yarns were produced both S(counter-clockwise) and Z (clockwise) spun and used in different combinations during the weaving of the fabrics.
Amongst the textile fragments found were evidence that a wide variety of fabrics were being produced. The looms weights found in Hebedy and Birka were suitable for the manufacture of the types of textiles found. Amongst the woollen textiles found were Tabby, Twills (both coarse and fine), and Broken Twills / Diamond Twills. The warps were generally hard spun, while the wefts were soft spun, and Twills of various types seemed to contribute the vast majority of finds. The finer quality twills were usually Z/S spun and the medium quality twills were Z/Z spun.
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