CategoriesCookingDaily Living and Pastimes

Making Early Medieval Soft Cheese (Skyr)

You can prepare Viking-age skyr as either a soft cheese or yogurt. The name skyr originates from the Old Norse word skera “to cut.” A fitting term that describes the coagulating protein, separating and cracking apart as the soured milk heats up.

Making skyr is relatively simple, even over an open fire. Although, temperature regulation can be tricky, you’ll have a passable soft cheese in a few hours. Depending on how long you drain the cheese determines whether you’ll have a runny yoghurty cheese, or a crumbly cottage cheese, and how acidic tasting it will be.

Ingredients for Skyr

Measurements are in metric/British Imperial units.

  • 2L / 3 ½ pints of un-homogenised whole milk
  • 300ml / 10 ½ fl oz crème fraîche

You can use either raw or pasteurised whole milk, but if using the latter make sure you buy un-homogenised. The fat is thicker and creamier and perfect for cheesemaking. Crème fraîche is basically soured cream that we can use to inject all the sourness and acidity we need.

Making Skyr

Step 1:

Sour your milk. If you use raw milk, you can leave the milk out at room temperature for 24 hours to sour on its own. For pasteurised milk, add a drop of lemon juice or vinegar or other edible acidic solution (we’ve used liquid from a pickle jar before!), it’ll be ready in minutes.

soured milk is poured from a jug into a pot with crème fraîche

Step 2:

Mix the soured milk and crème fraîche together in a pot or saucepan. In our experiments using an open fire, we used a clay pot. On the stove, use a low heat.

Step 3:

Heat the mixture gently without stirring. On a fire, place the pot to the side and turn the pot regularly. You may want to cover it to stop ash getting into it.

A pot of dairy product is placed next to a fire

Step 4:

The fats curds ahve risen to the top of the pot

When the mixture is at the right temperature, it will look yellowish and the curds will crack. If it starts frothing, it’s too hot – it’ll probably still work, but results will vary. Now it is time to drain the whey.

Take the pot from the heat and scoop the mixture into a cheesecloth. A loosely woven linen is most practical. Stick the cloth over a bowl while you do this: you can keep the whey to add to stocks or broth, or as a protein rich drink.

Pour the skyr mixyure into a cheesecloth.

Drain for 6-12 hours depending on the consistency you’d like.

Skyr soft cheese ready to eat

More On Skyr and Whey

Sheep’s milk appears to be the preferred cheese making diary product in Anglo-Saxon Britain. What’s more, sheep’s milk is richer in milk solids than cow’s milk, meaning more cheese can be made for the same quantity of milk. It probably no coincidence that the Month of May in the Anglo-Saxon Tiberius calendar shows a shepherd tending his sheep.

Image form the cotton tiberius manuscript - shephers tending their flock in a line drawing style.
May: tending sheep, Cotton Tberius B. v, fo. 5r

Cheesemaking is important in Viking households too. The sagas suggest that it was a substantial part of women’s work, with some houses having their own dairy room (skyrbúr) for cheese, or even a separate out building for a serious operation.

Historically, the use of whey was important in food preservation, and adding much needed protein to food in lean months. Enormous coopered barrels have been discovered in Viking settlements such as Hedeby and in burials such as Oseberg. These may have been whey vats. A 13th century Norse saga describes a whey vat that is so vast that a grown man can hide in it.

In Anglo-Saxon Britain, food rents included cheese, and workers were allotted a portion of whey. The cheesemaker received an entitlement of “100 cheeses” provided she made the lord butter from the whey. Female slaves were paid a penny or whey in the summer.

Further Reading

A delicious accompaniment to early-medieval soft cheese or skyr are flat breads. We also made a tutorial on how to make them, check it out.

  • Banham, D. Faith, F. (2014). Anglo-Saxon Farms and Farming.
  • Friðriksdóttir, J K. (2020). Valkyrie: The Women of the Viking World
  • Hagen, A. (1992). A Handbook of Anglo-Saxon Food: Processing and Consumption
  • Jochens, J. (2015). Women in Old Norse Society.
  • O’Sullivan, M. Downey, L. (2018). Cheese-making. In: Archaeology Ireland, Vol. 32, No. 4 (Winter 2018), pp. 38-41. Available at
  • Palmer, N. (2019). A Cheese-monger’s History of the British Isles.
  • Pearson, K L. (1997). Nutrition and the Early-Medieval Diet. In: History Faculty Publications. Old Dominion University. 1. Available at
  • Serra, D. Tunberg, H. (2013). An Early Meal: A Viking Age Cookbook & Culinary Odyssey.
CategoriesClothingDaily Living and PastimesRe-enactment

How to Make Viking Clothes

This is a quick start guide on how to make Viking clothes. The guide covers the basic patterns and hand-sewing techniques needed to make clothing for most people who lived in north-western Europe in the Viking-age. This is a starting point for simple first impressions in Viking reenactment, or accurate costume for TV and film, cosplay etc.

The typical person in the Viking-age was a subsistence farmer, apprentice or labourer, and this guide reflects that reality. For a more generalised view of Viking-age clothing, see our article on Viking Clothing and Jewellery.

Table of Contents

Hand Sewing Techniques

Even the poor­est peo­ple in the Viking–Age so­ci­eties of North­ern Eu­rope were good tai­lors — they had to be. Most peo­ple lived in rural communities, and even if they lived in an urban area, they might not have the money or surplus goods to trade for com­pleted gar­ments. Be­cause of this, I sug­gest plenty of practice at seam­ing and fitting. We’re not going for a ‘rustic’ look, but a quality garment. Old tea tow­els and bed­sheets are good to prac­tice on.

A picture of Viking-age shears or scissors discovered at the excavations in York.
Iron shears from Viking–Age York
© York Archaeological Trust for Excavation and Research


Viking age people had access to most of the same tools to make clothes as today, albeit somewhat cruder. Delicate fish-bone needles have been found along side chunkier iron and copper-alloy needles; scissors or shears retain the same long straight edges as today, but are made from iron; wooden, bone and copper-alloy pins came in all sorts of sizes; and there’s evidence of woollen and linen thread, alongside silk and metallic foil used in decorative bands and expensive accessories.

What you’ll need:

  • Sewing needles
  • Scissors or shears
  • Dress-making pins
  • Measuring tape
  • Tailors chalk or fabric marker (for drawing out patterns or making adjustments). You might also want to test your patterns on paper – something Viking-age people didn’t have access to, but useful if you don’t want to cut into expensive fabric straightaway, or want to reuse patterns later.
  • Thread: a good rule of thumb is to use linen thread on linen fabric and woollen thread on wool (and silk on silk etc.) One option is to pull threads from your fabric for truly invisible stitches. When you are practising, use a thread of a contrasting colour to the cloth.

Run your thread through a beeswax block to stiffen the thread, pre­vent knots and to help wa­ter­proofing.

Stitches to Master

These are stitches discovered in archaeological excavations that show how viking clothes were made. They will serve as the base for seaming, felling, and hemming. Fully explaining them is beyond the scope of this article, but there are many comprehensive hand-sewing tutorials online.

Illustration of a running-stitch, a common technique used to make viking clothes.

Running Stitch

Running-stitch is a simple and common technique where you pass the needle in and out in a single line. It’s important to use as small a stitch as possible as it’s easy to pull them out.

Back Stitch

Back-stitch is a strong stitch best used on seams that experience a lot of pulling, such as side seams. The back stitch goes back along the line, making a short loop that is difficult to pull out.

An illustration of a whip stitch used in making viking clothes

Whip Stitch

Also called Overcast or Oversewing, whip-stitch is used to close two edges of fabric, either in seam treatments, felling or hemming. The technique makes a loop of diagonal stitches.

An illustration of a blanket stitch used to finish viking clothes

Blanket Stitch

Blanket or Buttonhole-stitch is used to finish raw or cut edges. It’s similar to the whip stitch, but you catch a loop (like making a knot) to lay the thread along the edge, protecting it from fraying. The closer together the ‘L’ shaped stitch, the more secure the cut edge will be.

Seams and Seam Treatments

The simplest seam when making Viking clothes is just two pieces of fabric layered together and sewn with a running- or back-stitch (called a butted– or bound seam). When it’s turned inside out and pressed, the seem will look smart on the outside, with stitching and excess fabric hidden on the inside of the garment. But, the raw or cut edge of the fabric is likely to unravel or fray during use, especially if using linen, or wool that has a loose weave. To combat this, we use a seam treatment. Make sure you leave enough excess seam allowance when you cut your fabric to be able to do these techniques.

An illustration of a 'stand up seam'

Stand-up Seam

The stand-up seam is a common seam treatment and one of the easiest to make. Sew your seam together using a running or back stitch (as the explained above), then fold the cut edges inward towards the seam (press with an iron if it helps). On the join of the fold, use a whip stitch to catch all 4-layers and secure it. On thicker fabric, it may feel too bulky, so you could instead use a blanket stitch to secure the cut edge.

An illustration of a felled seam.

Felled Seam

A felled or spread-seam starts with a butted seam as explained above, but rather that folding the edge in as with a stand-up seam, we spread the edges away from the seam and whip-stitch the raw edges on one side, or both sides (optionally folding the edge in on itself). This makes the inside of the seam very comfortable, but you will have stitching visible on the outside, so be as neat as you can, using small stitches.

An illustration of a lapped seam, as seen at viking excavations at Hedeby/Haithabu

Lapped Seam

Lapped seams are similar to modern ‘flat-felled’ seams. You lay the edges over each other then either: whip-stitch the raw edges or; fold the edges under and lap them together, then whip-stitch the fold. It should look the same on the inside and outside of the garment.


The hem is where you treat an unjoined edge. Viking-age hems are almost always folded inward and then whip-stitched. On lighter material, such as fine linens or silk, the edge can be rolled in. On bulkier material, hems may have just been blanket-stitched. Occasionally we see the use of herringbone stitch on either the ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ side of the fabric.

Illustration of a rolled hem, whip-stitched.

Herringbone Stitch

Herringbone-stitch is like a double-row of back-stitch. This type of stitch has been found on Viking-age fabrics and may have been used on the inside or outside of the garment in a decorative way, especially on hems in the place of a simple whip-stitch.

Viking Clothing – What You Need

Through the ex­am­i­na­tion of archaeological fragments, art, lit­er­a­ture, and ac­counts from the pre and post Viking–Age, we can de­ter­mine that there are a few dis­tinct gar­ments, depending on whether you dress as male or female.

Shirt or Serk/Skyrta

The serk or skyrta, we as­sume, is an under–gar­ment. For male dress (skyrta), it appears to be just longer than waist-length, while the female version is a gown (serk) that is just slightly-shorter than ankle-length. They’re both shorter that the kyr­tle, an over-garment, and are prob­a­bly close fitting at the neck and wrist to allow the larger kyrtle to be comfortably worn over it.

There is evidence for both woollen and linen under-garments. A linen shirt from Viborg is made from two layers, with a tight neck-hole finished with a tie, and tapered to fit at the sleeves. A woollen shirt from Skjoldehamn in the north of Norway has multiple gussets and a stand up collar, and another from Guddal shows similar construction.

The neckline on the female serk may be pleated

Tunic or Kyrtle

The Kyrtle is a woollen outer-garment with a large skirt – it’s length is below the knee for men, and to the ankle for women. It could be hitched up at the waist with a belt. The sleeves, while still tapered to fit, can be slightly bag­gier so they can be rolled up.

It’s not clear from ar­chae­ol­ogy how Viking-Age peo­ple lay­ered cloth­ing exactly, but fragments ad­hered to the un­der­side of metal brooches and buck­les on the top­most layer sometimes have multiple fabrics. This indicates that, at least at the time of burial, people wore an under and outer layer.


An­other part of the un­der­wear is the breeches and hose, or trousers. Again, much of our knowl­edge comes from pre and post Viking–Age finds, such as the Thors­berg trousers and Dät­gen breeches, but there is some con­tem­po­rary archae­ol­ogy. There’s a frag­ment of woollen hose found in Hedeby, and fragments of an elab­o­rately dec­o­rated pair of woollen trousers from Skjold­e­hamn.

Woollen leg wraps may have been worn to protect the trousers or the bare calf while working in the fields, and there are several fragments of coarse cloth that are candidates for belong to this garment, along with fasteners.


Along with the main clothing, there is evidence for headwear such as caps, hats and religious garb such as wimples. There are complete mittens made from wool for cold hands, and one of the most in­ter­est­ing and com­plete finds from York is a woollen sock wo­ven us­ing a tech­nique called Naal­bind­ing. On top of that, any cold or wet weather is best survived with a large shawl or cloak, and sturdy leather shoes.

Male Costume

Serk: wool or linen, mid-thigh length.
Kyrtle: wool, knee-length when hitched up with a belt.
Trousers: wool, ankle-length.
Leg Wraps: wool, enough to wrap your calves.
Belt: leather with a iron or copper-alloy buckel.
Hat: wool.
Cloak: wool, fixed with a copper-alloy pin.
Shoes: leather turnshoes.

Hrafn and Snorri wearing typical viking-age clothing.

Female Costume

Serk: wool or linen, above the ankle.
Kyrtle: wool, ankle-length.
Hose (optional): wool, fitted to your feet and to come above the knee.
Leg Wraps (optional): wool, enough to wrap your calves
Belt (optional): wool braid, leather depending on impression, though this seems to be rare.
Cap or Wimple: wool or linen for the cap, linen for wimple.
Cloak or Mantle: wool, fixed with a pin.

For more elaborate dress, specifically for Scandinavian female impressions, check out this great article on the Smokkr, a woollen over-garment fixed with beautiful oval brooches.

Making a Viking Kyrtle or Over-Tunic

As discussed above, the Kyrtle is the main outer-garment of the Viking-age person. It is made from a medium to thick wool, perfect for inclement weather protection, and to last as long as possible.

Textiles and Colours

Viking-age fabrics are commonly found woven in a Plain or Tabby Weave, or in a Twill Weave, usually 2/2 twill or 2/1 twill. To judge the fineness of a fabric, we use a measurement called sett. The sett is how many warp and weft threads there are per square centimetre (or inch, depending on where you are in the world). For wool, we also describe its hairiness. Hairy fabric has short curly fibres that are often coarse and scratchy, finer fabric has longer fibres that feel soft. For your kyrtle look for a medium-hairy fabric with a sett between 10 and 14 (ie. 10 to 14 threads per cm in both directions).


Period fleece was prepared for spinning in a process called ‘combing,’ where the selected fleece is drawn through the teeth of large iron combs. This produces a ‘worsted’ yarn that is made of mainly long, straight fibres, giving a soft texture. Later medieval, and modern wool yarns are often made by ‘carding’ the fleece, which produces a ‘woollen’ yarn that is made of short, curly fibres, giving a ‘hairy’ texture.

There were plenty of ‘hairy’ textiles from the Viking-age, probably made by adding more teeth to the combs for speed of processing, but modern people don’t often like wearing it close to the skin! It can be hard to tell the difference via a photograph, so always try and handle the fabric to see if it is soft or hairy, or look at the product description carefully (or ask the manufacturer) before buying. Fulled fabrics are not common in the Viking-age, so avoid buying them (if you can’t see the weave, it’s probably fulled or felted).

Types of Weave

Tabby Weave or Plain Weave is the simplest type of woven fabric. The warp (vertical) and weft (horizontal) threads cross at right angles, aligned so they form a simple criss-cross pattern.

In twill weaves, the weft is staggered to the right or the left, creating a diagonal effect. For a 2/2 Twill Weave the weft goes under two warp threads, then over two.

In 2/1 Twill Weave the weft goes under two warp threads, then over one the weft goes under two warp threads, then over one

Most woollen fabrics, especially those intended for hard days of manual labour were probably undyed. Undyed colours range from bleached grey­ish white to a muddy green–brown.

Undyed wool colours

However, access to gardens with dyestuffs, or trade through urban centres meant that other colours were available. Wool takes dye pigments very well, and if a person had access to a lot of dyestuff, or a mordant to help fix the pigments to the fibres, colours could be quite vibrant. Madder and woad based dyes were the most abundant, giving a brick read and light/mid blue respectively. Other plants like tansy and weld give yellowish-green colours. More rarely, certain lichens give a pale purple/lilac colour.

Kyrtle Pattern

This pattern is based on interpretations of fragments found at Hedeby, and shares similarities with other finds, such as Skjoldehamn and Guddal, and medieval garments from Greenland. The period silhouette in art indicates a wide skirt, achieved by added 2 or more triangular inserts (gores).

The Hedeby fragments suggest an inset sleeve, contouring to the shoulder, and tapered at the wrist. One set of fragments from Hedeby also shows a pieced arm, perhaps to extend an otherwise tight fit.

Some interpretations suggest that the body of most early-medieval tunics are are ‘poncho cut.’ in other words, it’s made from one long piece of fabric and folded in half before cutting the neck hole.

To add a fuller skirt, you can add more gores. An interpretation from Hedeby has a separate skirt sewn to the body at the waist, in which case it can be made from many pieces.


Measure whist wearing a thickish layer as this is outerwear. Add an extra 3-5cm for seam allowance. Medium sized people need about 2m x 1.5m of fabric.

  1. Length: For men, from the shoulder, over the breast to the knee. For women, from the shoulder, over the breast to the ankle.
  2. Arm length: From the point of the shoulder, over a bent elbow (teapot!), to the wrist.
  3. Bicep: Around the thickest part.
  4. Wrist: Around the thickest part of the hand.
  5. Chest: Arm-pit to arm-pit over the breast.
  6. Shoulder to Arm-Pit: From the point of your shoulder to under your arm-pit.
  7. Gores: For men: waist, from the hip to the knee. For women: waist, over the hip to the ankle. The pattern above uses 2 gores in the sides for a simple Viking-age silhouette, but you can add 4 (or more), in the sides, front and back for a fuller skirt if you wish.
  8. Neck: All around the lower part of the neck, then half the measurement.
  9. Waist (Optional): You can make a more fitted garment by measuring your waist, wrap the tape around you, and halve it (allowing for seams).

When cutting fabric, keep the bottom blade of your shears on the cutting surface. This will allow them to glide smoothly through the fabric. If you can, use clamps or weights to help the fabric move less when cutting or measuring. If you are cutting two or more layers at once, think about getting a rotary cutter.


There are many necklines shown in period art work, and a few remain from the surviving fragments. The simplest neckline is a circle, just big enough to fit your head once hemmed. A nice variation of this is a circle just about the size of your neck with a split down front (keyhole), or offset to the side, where you can attach a thong, or use a bead as a fastener.

The ‘boat shape’ is common in art work, where the neckline is cut along the fold of the material and rounded off on the front and back to make it comfortable. The Kragelund tunic (left) has the boat shape over the front and back instead, giving it a distinct look.

The Skjoldeham tunic has a large ‘V’ neck, with decoration lining the cut.


Sewing the kirtle is straightforward. Start by sewing the sleeves into the arm holes, then stitch from the under arm to the waist. Use back stitch for this. Sew up the sleeves, then add the gores. Finish off by hemming the sleeves, skirt and neck, and felling the seams.

Making a Viking Shirt

The shirt pattern is a simple rectangle design, but otherwise follows the same measurement/construction method as the Kyrtle. The main difference between the male and female pattern is the overall length, and the need to add gussets for the longer female serk. For men, it should be above the knee, for women, it can be longer. In both cases it is shorter than the kyrtle. Additionally, skyrta/serks are fairly well fitting underwear, especially around the neck.

Textile and Colours

The shirt is best made from linen, although if you find softer, long-fibred wool, it’s not a supper itchy experience, and it’s that much more authentic for lower-status folk.

Use a medium weight, undyed tabby (plain weave) linen, or light weight tabby wool. Get one with a sett of 15-20 threads per cm for linen. Most linens would have been undyed in the Viking-age. Flax fibres do not hold much pigment, so without expensive mordants as fixatives, the colour appears washed out, or quickly fades. As the garment sits close to the skin, it will get very apparent sweat marks without thorough washing, which will also fade the colour.

Shirt Pattern

This is a hugely simplified ver­sion of the Vi­borg shirt without the lining, and is also similar to the T-tunic of antiquity. You can ei­ther cut two wide rec­tan­gles, or fold the fab­ric over and cut just the neck hole like a pon­cho. Insert square gus­sets un­der the arms for ex­tra space. The sleeves ta­per to the wrist, be­ing quite close fitting. For a female variant, add in triangular side gores to fill out the skirt (see the kyrtle pattern above) use a circular neckline and use pleats/gathers to fit the neck-hole nice and tight – there’s fragments of pleated material from Hedeby, Pskov and Birka that suggests this was a style used.

A Note on the Viborg Short

The Viborg shirt is a much more complicated garment than the simple pattern above. it is made of two layers of linen in the body, sewn together with a running stitch. The arms are made from two pieces, rather than one tube. The skirt is made of two pieces, one wider than the other to form an overlap, but it doesn’t have side gussets. The double layered body means that the neck hole consists of two flaps that are tied through a loop on each side.


Measurements are taken the same was as the Kyrtle above: around the chest, under the armpits, this will give you the width. Keep this garment more or less square, and slightly wider than the shoulder. Remember to leave allowances for seams, and refitting! Optionally, you can add in pieces to make a wider skirt, or add in a standing collar (best on wool shirts): this type of construction is seen on the Skjoldeham shirt.

Medium sized people need about 1.75m x 1.5m of fabric.


Sewing the serk is broadly the same as the kyrtle, but if you use square gussets, attach them to the sleeves first, then set the sleeve in. For the longer serk or gown worn by women, you can include gussets in the sides for a fuller skirt.

Making Viking Trousers or Breeches

Besides the Skjoldehamn trousers, fragments of legwear from Hedeby and earlier Iron-Age footed-breeches indicate possible methods of construction.

The legs, however long, are cut as tubes with a single seam — either inside or outside. Trousers have a large seat, and some bagginess for the behind. A separate waist belt is attached and folded over to incorporate a drawstring, or additional loops are sewn on to accommodate a belt.

Textiles and Colours

As with the kyrtle, choose a medium-hairy woollen fabric of around 10-14 threads per cm. Twill woven wool works best as the fabric stretches well in the bias. Again, colours are best plain, or using the simple dyes available to early-medieval people.

Trousers Pattern

This pattern is based on a find from Migration Period Germany (Thorsberg) which are form fitting and comfortable, with durable seam placement.


Add a 3-5cm seam allowance to each measurement.

  1. Length: Waist to ankle, measuring down the side of your body. These should sit high on your waist, not low slung on your hips.
  2. Hips: The widest part around your hips.
  3. Waist: Around your waist, over your belly button.
  4. Seat: From your belly button, between your legs, to your waistline on your back.
  5. Thigh: Measure loosely the widest part of the circumference of your thigh.
  6. Knee: Measure loosely the circumference of a bent knee.
  7. Ankle: Measure loosely the circumference of your ankle (we will cut a split to get your foot in).
  8. Seat Length: Measure from your waist at the back, to below your buttocks.
  9. Crotch Length: Measure from your waist at the front, under your legs to below your buttocks.

Also, measure ankle to knee, ankle to thigh, thigh to waist.

Trousers are basically two tubes (legs) attached to two rectangular gussets (a large square for the bottom, narrow rectangle for the crotch). The Waist band is sewn on separately and can either be made as a tube for a drawstring, or you can sew on 6-8 belt loops.

Short breeches should fall just be­low the knee, long trousers should be fitted at the an­kle. There is a small cut to al­low the foot through, which is re-en­forced with a blan­ket stitch.

Medium sized people need about 1.5m x 1.5m of fabric.


Sewing the trousers can be a little more complex than the tunic or shirt, so take your time, and use pins or tack-stitches to get the right shape. Try them on a lot!

  1. Pin the legs together along the curved edge from ankle to thigh, leaving 10cm at the bottom for the ankle slit. The garment will not sit perfectly flat or even at the ankle – this is ok, you’ll hem the ankle and tidy up later.
  2. Tack stitch (long running stitch) the seam and try the leg on to make sure it fits, adjust where needed, then back stitch the seam. Repeat for the other leg (remember to mirror the fold as you’ll get two of the same legs!)
  3. Pin the seat into the legs – start at the top and work down the curve from hip to thigh/crotch. You will not keep it perfectly square – this is good, you want a lot of stretch.
  4. Pin in the crotch – it will connect to the seat, and the remaining parts of the legs. The leg seams will fall to the sides.
  5. Tack together and fit, adjust as you need, then back stitch together.
  6. If you find they are too tight in the thighs, add in triangular gores to the inside of the legs.


  1. Turn the trousers the proper way out (as if you are wearing them). On the outside, place your waistband so the edge of the waistband and top edge of the trousers meet (the widest part is at the back, the join is at the front – especially important if you use a drawstring!) Back stitch just below the edge, to the waistband is like a flap all around the waist.
  2. Now fold the waistband up and over the edge and to the inside of the trousers. Roll the edge (so it is on the inside) and whip stitch it on.
  3. Whip stitch the belt loops equally around the waist.

Making Viking Legwraps

Legwraps, some­times called winingas or putees, are cloth strips that protect the lower leg. They need to be at least 2m long and are 10-20cm wide, whether they are woven as a single item, or cut and hemmed. A twill or herringbone wool is the best fabric as will be stretchier while you move around. Alternatively, a smaller tablet-woven band could be used.

Legwarps can be fasted with hooked tags, common throughout the Viking world, or tied with a band or thong. Project Forlog has a great page on the use of hooked-tags as clothes fasteners.

Cloaks and Shawls

illustration of a man in a cloak.

A ba­sic cloak is a sim­ple rec­tan­gle of thick wool. The fab­ric is tabby wo­ven or a sim­ple twill. The edges are finished with a blan­ket stitch, or if woven as a single piece, finished plain or with twisted warp-ends. In terms of size, the length should be about the same as the wingspan of your outstretched arms, and wide enough to wrap around your torso.

Period artwork shows men pin the cloak on their right shoulder. Use a copper-alloy brooch or pin.

a ringed pin
A ringed pin from Got­land in the British Mu­seum

Icons of female figures show a sort of shawl, where the rectangular or square-woven cloth is wrapped around the body and fastened at the front. It might look something like this:

Making a Jorvik Cap

Thorunn in a cap

Most women’s caps found in the Viking age are a simple rectangle of cloth folded over and sewn on one side. Caps can be made from wool, linen or silk. The Jorvik cap is made of silk, and the hems are rolled. The rear corner has a line of stitches that follows the contour of the head.

Cap Pattern

The cap is a simple rectangular head covering with a tie under the chin. You can make it out of wool or linen. Cut a rectangle to the following dimensions:

  1. Length: From your chin, to your right ear, over the crown of your head, down to your left ear and to your chin. (approx 60cm for medium sized head)
  2. Width: From your forehead to the back of your skull, then half it. (approx 20cm for medium sized head)


  1. Fold in half
  2. There are two methods to round the corner:
    1. Pictured: Sew an arc from the middle of the fold to the back edge and continue to sew the back seam. Cut off the excess and treat the seam.
    2. Sew the back edge, then pull the top in. Whip stitch the outside to create the curve.
  3. Finish the back seam and hem the open edges
  4. Optional: Add a tie — a loop of braid, or folded strips of linen.

Wimple Pattern

Alternatively, Christian women wear a wimple, a formal head scarf, in period artwork. The wimple is a a long semi-circle of cloth.

  1. Length: is the length of out stretched arms
  2. Width: at it’s thickest point is 1/4 to 1/3 the length. eg. If length is 100cm, with would be 25cm or 33cm.

You can use a bone, wooden or copper-alloy pin to secure, or use a tablet-woven band (sometimes called a fillet).

Loffy in a wimple

Making a Viking Hat

Several hats are present in the archaeological record or the Viking-Age. The two simplest to make are a 4-panel hat based on a find from Birka, Sewden, and a ‘pillbox’ hat from Leens, Netherlands. Other headgear also exists, such as hoods.

4-Panel Hat Pattern

4-panel hat diagram

To make the hat, first measure your head circumference from around your forehead, tops of ears and back. Divide by 4 to get the short edge size of the panel. Now measure from ear to ear and half the measurement for the height of the panel from the short edge to the point. Draw the long edges in towards the point. (Remember to add a few centimetres for seam allowance to each side.)

Sew all 4 pieces together, and hem the bottom edge.

Pillbox Hat Pattern

pillbox hat diagram

To make the hat, first measure your head circumference from around your forehead, tops of ears and back. This is the circumference of the circular crown panel, and the length of the rectangular headband panel. The height of the rectangular headband panel is about 11cm (not including seam allowance).

The Leens example is made of 3 pieces, with two semi-circles stitched together to form the crown. It is attached to the headband with a whip stitch. Th eseams are decorated on the outside with a herringbone stitch, and the hem is decorated with a visible running stitch, also on the outside.


The accessories listed here are personal items that finish off a costume. These are key items for the fit of clothing — usually functional as well as decorative, and some essential for any work or trade.


Shoes from the Viking-age are made of leather and are usually of the turnshoe construction. The upper is cut as one piece then stitched to the sole inside out around a last — it is then turned the right way out so that the stitching is on the inside.

Turnshoe diagram
Based on examples found in York. A single piece for the foot and ankle is sewn to a separate sole in most cases. There are variations with slightly taller uppers and 3 toggles, and those with shallow uppers that look like slippers.

Knife and Sheath

A knife is of course a great utility. Made of iron, sometimes with a hard steel edge, the knife or seax could be anywhere from a couple of inches to the size of a machete. These smaller knives aren’t adapted for warfare. They are tools that are used around the house, or out in the fields and woods.

The handle would be of wood, some set with bone, sometimes with copper-alloy or iron fittings. Housing the knife is a leather sheath. Wet leather wrapped around the knife forms the sheath, where we cut to shape and stitch one seam. In some cases metal fittings protect the stitching.


Men wore a gir­dle around the waist, usu­ally of leather. The strap is about 1/​2 inch to 1 inch in width and tied (with split ends) or buck­led. Belts are often made with two thin layers stitched together. Buck­les are made from bone, iron, lead-alloy or cop­per-al­loy. Buck­les are sometimes ac­com­pa­nied by a strap-end which pro­tects the leather and pro­vides ex­tra dec­o­ra­tion. Many metal items in the Viking–age were stamped with a ring and dot mo­tif, or scored with ‘dogs teeth’ markings.


The best preserved sock is from York and made from wool with a technique called nalbinding. The knot­ted con­struc­tion makes them ex­tremely hard wear­ing, and quite wa­ter­proof. Then there’s simple sewn socks using normal woollen textiles, found at Skjoldeham in Norway.


Spindle whorls are a common find in archaeological excavations, indicating the importance of spinning yarn from fleece at home. Spindles are made from bone, wood and clay and mounted on a wooden rod, the fleece is drawn into thin strands as it’s spun. Women spent a good portion of the year spinning yarn from fleece, so this is an essential item for female impressions.

For more information about textiles and clothing of the Viking-age, check out our article. We also have a summary of Viking Children’s clothing. Now ensconced on this blog, this page will be easier to edit and we intend to add pages covering other garments, such as the apron-dress or smokkr, the Klappenrock jacked, caftans and more.

Further Reading

This guide is for new reenactors starting out, and those putting together simple costumes of early-medieval/Viking-age people, rather than an academic work. How­ever, if you are in­ter­ested in finding out more about Viking–Age cloth­ing and ac­cou­trements, please find a se­lec­tion of books and on­line ar­ti­cles below.

CategoriesClothingDaily Living and PastimesMaterial Culture

Viking Clothing and Jewellery

Textiles were an essential part of living in the Viking-Age. Every Viking household would need to be able to spin fleece, weave cloth and sew together their own clothing. There were no clothes stores as we have today, and even the very rich made the the most of ‘homespun.’ This article explores what the Vikings wore, and what clothes were worn by who.

This content was written to compliment Key Stage 2 history topic ‘The Viking and Anglo-Saxon struggle for the Kingdom of England to the time of Edward the Confessor.’

What do we know about Viking Clothes?

Textiles seldom survive in the earth when buried for a 1000 years. Archaeologists find small fragments of textiles though, sometimes adhered to metal items like brooches or buckles. Rarely, complete or almost complete garments are found where the soil is favourable to the longevity of the fibres, such as in bogs. These fragments help us piece together what the clothes looked like, what they were made of and how fine they were. Occasionally we can even find out what colour they were dyed.

We can also get an idea about what clothes looked like from art work. Painted manuscripts, engravings, carvings and embroideries can give clues to the fit and finish of a garment. Some people in the Viking-Age also wrote about what they wore in stories such as the Viking Sagas. We can find out information from wills and legal documents where precious clothing has been passed down after a death in the family. However, we have to be careful when looking at art or in literature as the artists and authors could be exaggerating or making things up to impress their audience, or they may be telling a story a long time after the event.

What were Viking clothes made from?

People of the Viking Age wore simple, well-fitted clothes. In the cold climates of Northern Europe, clothes were usually made out of wool. Fleece was spun and woven at home or bought from a weaver in budding market-towns. Many people kept livestock such as sheep and traded their fleeces. White sheep were the most prized as their fleeces could be dyed with natural pigments extracted from plants, herbs and mosses, such as madder, woad and lichen. Some dyes were very expensive but make bright colours. Crushed Kermes insects could produce a deep crimson for example, but access would be restricted to the wealthiest people.

Clothes could also be made from linen grown and then woven from the fibres of flax, and occasionally hemp. Linen is a hard-wearing but quite soft fabric. It’s best used for under-clothes, bedding, or as a lining to a more elaborate garment. Most linens would have been plain and undyed (as it’s much more difficult to get colour fastness with linen than wool), but perhaps bleached with wood ash (lye) and boiling water.

Silk textiles have also been found from the Viking-Age. Silk would have been a precious commodity. It was almost as expensive gram for gram as silver as it was imported from the east, usually via the powerful Byzantine Empire. One of the most common uses of silk was for decoration in braid or trim. Silk garments such as head coverings have been discovered, as well as fragments that possibly belonged to coats. Silks have been discovered woven with intricate patterns, and with brocade textures.

Who made clothes?

The women of a household were responsible for spinning the yarn from fibres, weaving the fabric (perhaps on a ‘warp-weighted loom’) and then sewing the garment. Most families would make their own clothes in this way. Spindle whorls are a common find in archaeological excavations, indicating the importance of spinning yarn from fleece at home. Spindles are made from bone, wood and clay. They’re mounted on a wooden rod and the fleece is drawn into thin strands as it’s spun.

Once the yarn is made, it can be dyed straight away, or woven into fabric on a loom. Yarn is secured in two directions: warp and weft. The weft thread is woven under and over the warp thread with a shuttle, and the yarn is then beaten to keep it straight and neat. For large fabrics like sail-cloth, beaters were sword-sized pieces of iron! Sewing needles look very similar to the kind you can buy today, but they were often much thicker and made of materials such as fish bones, iron or copper.

While home dying may have occurred, the amount of dyestuff required to get a solid colour may have been too costly for most folk to dye a whole garment, but they may have dyed yarns used in decorative braid. Most dyed garments were probably ‘washed out’ with pale earthy shades. In larger urban centres such as Jorvik (modern-day York), dying would have been a professional occupation. Yarns would be dyed with a variety of natural dyes and fixed with expensive mordants. Madder, which produces red and woad which produces blue was reasonably common in Anglo-Scandinavian dye-works.

What were other uses for textiles?

In addition to making decorative braids (with techniques such as tablet weaving), and embroideries, Viking-Age people also made domestic items. Textiles were used for sacking for grain and other commodities, and sails for ships. Linen can been used to transport food, herbs and spices in small bags and pouches. Waxed linen can be used to cover storage jars.

Leather and Skins

Leather was also an important material in the Viking-Age since it was both tough and, if properly treated, fairly waterproof. It was used for all sorts of everyday items such as shoes, belts and pouches, scabbards for swords and knives, and possibly clothing. Leather items, and evidence of leather workshops, have been found in the excavations of a number of Viking-Age towns. Animal skin and fur may have been used to line garments such as hats to provide an extra comfortable layer. Animal-fibre pelts has been found in graves in Cumbria ands associated with clothing.

It may also have been used as a cheaper and lighter alternative to metal armour. Soaking leather in hot melted beeswax and then drying it makes the leather extremely hard, and able to resist glancing blows from weapons. Although there is no firm evidence for the use of this sort of leather armour by the Vikings, the technique was used both before and after this period, and some archaeologists and historians now think it likely that the Vikings used it as well.

Leather items were often plain and functional, but they could also be highly decorated. An attractive raised effect could be obtained by carving a design into wet leather with a sharp knife, then working round the knife marks with punches. Among other uses, animal hides could be used to write on (parchment), or to strengthen shields (rawhide).

Male Viking Clothing

Male clothing consisted of a simple knee-length woollen dress called a kyrtle. This garment would be brought in at the waist with a leather belt. The belt could be used to hang useful items such as a knife or pouch. Men wore a pair of short woollen breeches (shorts) worn with hoses (leggings), or longer trousers that were tightly fitted at the calf and ankle so they could be worn with leg wraps. Leg wraps, or winingas, would protect the bottom of the trousers whilst travelling or working in the fields.

Shoes and ankle boots have also been discovered. They’re often made from one piece of leather with a separate sole stitched on (turnshoes), and fastened with a toggle. In cold weather, a long, thick woollen cloak or mantle would be worn, fastened with a pin or brooch. Unlike today’s clothes, a hood was a separate item — again made in wool. These would be very tight around the head so that they wouldn’t blow down in the wind. In the summer, it is possible people wore smaller hats of wool, or even a wide-brimmed hat made of straw.

Richer people would wear similar clothes, but they may have been dyed a bright colour and made of finer fabrics with complex weaving patterns. Some kyrtles would have panels or gores in the skirt to make it much wider, showing off the extra fabric and colours that they could afford. In art, the king and his advisors are depicted wearing long gowns of bright colours, decorated with braid or embroidery at the sleeves and hems.

Jewellery made from copper-alloy, silver and occasionally gold was also worn. Pendants, elaborate belt fittings, bracelets, twisted-wire arm rings and finger-rings have all been discovered. Poorer people seem to have copied the fashions of the rich using less expensive materials. Clay, wood and bone rather than precious metals and stones.

Female Viking Clothing

Female clothing included a close-fitting, long woollen gown that would hang to the ankles. Unlike male clothing, it is rare to find evidence of a belt, so it is suggested that either women simply didn’t wear one, that it may have been a simple woven band, or that they wore a shoulder bag. Just like their male contemporaries, leather shoes were worn, as was head gear.

A simple head scarf, hood or wimple made of linen seemed to be common, especially amongst Christian women. Occasionally, the wimple would be fastened with a fillet — a woven band — or with pins. There are several finds of silk hoods, especially in Dublin, which alludes to the importance of this item of clothing. It’s quite likely that women wore their hair long, or in braids. There’s also some evidence of married women tying their hair into a knot, anchored with a pin.

Apron Dress, Hangerok, Smokkr

Some Scandinavian women wore a unique dress called a ‘smokkr’, ‘hangerok’ or apron dress. There is much discussion between academics about what this garment looked like. Was it a decorative overdress? Or was it an important accessory like an apron? What is clear is that two oval brooches were fixed at the shoulders, where hung a string which could hang useful items such as a chatelaine set (often with a tooth pick, tweezers and ear spoon), knife or shears. Richer finds see glass beads and silver pendants.

Pagan grave finds in Scandinavia see a plethora of jewellery and accessories, far more so than in male graves. Glass beads, amber and other precious stones and silver all appear in one form or another. In one grave in Birka (Sweden) there was 136 beads, mostly on one necklace!

It is likely that women wore similar travel cloaks as men. But, there are depictions in art of large cowls which may have been worn as an alternative. Like male clothing, wool was the predominate fabric, but richer people would show off their wealth with silks and colours made from expensive dyestuffs.

Viking Kids Clothing

Viking children’s clothing was probably just smaller versions of adult clothing.
Check out our article about making Viking clothing for kids here!

Tablet Weaving: one way of decorating Viking Clothing

Tablet weaving is one of the oldest known weaving techniques, traceable back to at least the early Iron Age. The woven braid produced was used to decorate clothing as a trim, or to cover seams. It’s also possible that braid was used as belts or girdles for women.

The tablets are small flat squares, usually made of wood but bone and metal tablets have also been found. They have a hole in each corner through which yarn — wool, linen or silk — known as the warp is threaded.

The tablets are held in the hand similar to a pack of cards, laying parallel to the warp threads, and are then turned backward or forward by half or quarter turns. This action twists the four threads on each ‘tablet’ into a single strand, which is then held in place by the weft thread. The weft thread is then passed between the warp as it turns. By varying what colour the warp yarn is and the directions in which the tablets are turned, intricate warp patterns can be created. These patterns are called ‘threaded in’ patterns.

We don’t know exactly how the Vikings kept the warp threads under tension, but they may have fastened them to a frame. One such frame was found in the Oseburg ship burial.


A technique called ‘brocading’ could further be used to enhance tablet weaving. This was achieved by using a second weft thread, which runs over some or all of the warp threads, creating a pattern on the surface of the braid. Brocaded tablet-weaves were usually of silk, using gold or silver foil for the brocaded pattern. This type of tablet-weave was very expensive. It was used to decorate expensive garments worn by the rich.

Viking clothing: A blue broken diamond weave fabric edged with a  silver and silk brocade tablet woven band.

A further method of tablet weaving that could be used was the double face technique. With this method the cards are threaded with only two colours. This method is used to produce lettering and patterns which are the same on each side, but with the colours reversed.

Further Reading about Viking Clothing and Jewellery

Articles on this site are predominately aimed at children and teachers reading for their Key Stage 2 ‘the Viking and Anglo-Saxon struggle for the Kingdom of England to the time of Edward the Confessor’ syllabus. However, we aim to make sure our articles are accurate and up to date. Below is a list of reading for any budding expert on the subject. If there are any queries about, or possible corrections, for any of our articles please contact


Bender Jørgensen, L (1993). North European Textiles until AD 1000
Cameron, E. Carlisle, I. Mould Q (1997). Craft, Industry and Everyday Life: Leather and Leatherworking in Anglo-Scandinavian and Medieval York
Ewing, T (2006). Viking Clothing
Heckett, E (2003). Viking Age Head-Coverings From Dublin
Larsson, A (2008) Viking Age Textiles in Brink, S eds (2008) The Viking World
Ostergaard, E (2004). Woven into the Earth: Textile Finds in Norse Greenland
Owen-Crocker, G (2010). Dress in Anglo Saxon England
Oye, I (2009). Textile-production Equipment in Skre, D eds (2009) Things from the Town: Artefacts and Inhabitants in Viking-Age Kaupang
Rabiega, K (2019). Viking Dress Code: Textile and leather clothing in Scandinavia
Walton-Rogers, P (1997). Textiles, Cordage and Raw Fibre from 16-22 Coppergate
Walton-Rogers, P (1997). Textile Production at 16-22 Coppergate


CategoriesClothingDaily Living and PastimesMaterial CultureRe-enactment

Viking Kids Clothes

Part of the fun of belonging to a community of Viking Reenactors is bringing the family along! That means making our 5-year old Viking kids clothes. In fact, we’re up to his third Viking costume. We know precious little about children’s’ clothing in the Viking Age, so really we are just scaling down the little we really know about adult viking clothing!

Excavated remains of textile fragments belonging to garments are staggeringly rare, so it’s hard to drawn solid conclusions about the tailoring. But, we do have significant hints from places like Skjoldeham, Guddal, and Hedeby, where pieced fragments show the general shape and seam treatments. Some things we can glean from contemporary artwork – manuscripts, jewellery etc.

We wanted to approach “Hikke’s” Viking kids clothes in the same way we approach Viking adult clothing, so we read the last costume works (such as Viking Dress Code by Kamil Rabiega), chose the materials carefully, and hand sewed all of his clothes.


Hikke’s first costume was when he was just a few months old. A friend, and member of the group, made a simple t-tunic of linen, and a woollen outer garment based on the shirt from Skjoldeham, Norway, complete with decorative front-neck panel and collar. It’s worth mentioning here that throughout history, children (male and female) wore simple shifts or gowns, with no legwear. This is likely also the case in the Viking-age. Before a child is toilet trained, there may have been a ‘napkin’ worn to collect waste. Again, there’s no evidence in the Viking-age, but we have to collect the poo somehow! 😬 For pragmatic reasons, we did make some wool trousers to cover his modern nappie.

A year later, and growing at pace, he still mostly fit into the woollen clothes as we left significant seam allowed and large hems, but the shirt needed to be replaced. So into the stockpile of clothing hand-me-downs we went! In the hot summer we found a simple linen kyrtle in club kit. It’s a wide-skirted and knee-length tunic. This silhouette is seen in many early medieval manuscripts (on adult figures).


The next year was the pandemic, so with an 18 month break, he needed an entirely new outfit! This time we went for a simple woolen kyrtle and again raided the club-kit for a shabby looking linen undershirt.

The bonus of being in an established group that it has had many families over the years. That means there is an abundance of Viking kids clothing! (Though some would be gently retired from excessive wear, or just because they were made with a different understanding of Viking clothing).

We made legwear, also in wool, based on the cut of the Thorsberg trousers. This cut is very practical, with a large crotch and butt panel, and gussets in the legs. These proved to be remarkably hard wearing, coming through the hardest of pre-schooler trials! We also started to accessorise. We made a hood, again based on a find from Skjoldeham, Norway, and bought a superb belt buckle (which I’ll talk about later).


In 2023, Hikke has once again had a growth spurt so we made him a whole new set of viking kids clothes. This one was a little more well thought out, now that he has properly proportioned limbs. 😅

We made a linen undershirt in a t-tunic style, and a Kyrtle made of a 2/2 twill wool with a bead neck-fastener. We also made with mittens from the same material. The Kyrtle and tunic are patterned with a simple poncho-cut with the neck hole cut into the length of fabric. Sleeves and side gores are then added in. This is a simple cut that creates the look of the silhouette seen in period artwork. Gores are seen from extant garments and fragments.

The Kyrtle doesn’t have the close fitting tailoring (rounded shoulders, separate skirt etc.,) or front and rear gores seen on other period garments. This is mainly for practical reasons. He still needs to be able to grow into it for the rest of the year! The Kytrle is completely hand-sewn using period stitches and seam treatments. Parts are sewn with thread made from the same yarn as the fabric itself!

Once again, we made leg wear. A pair of Thorsberg-style trousers (of course!) and breeches or ‘braes’ – shorts basically. But Hikki often goes around without anything underneath!


The mittens are patterned from a couple of finds. That of the child’s mittens from Heynes, Iceland. These were kept together with a sewn-on lace that could be threaded through their sleeves to stop them from losing them. Second was a mitten from the Lendbreen glacier in Norway and the cut of the pattern is based on it.

The bead is based on the blue bead of the man in grave 511 at Repton. It was worn on a necklace with another bead and a Thor’s Hammer. In this case we’ve used the bead for a neck fastening. It’s a simplified version of the silver-bead fastener and braided loop on the shirt from Skjoldehamn, Norway. The bead was made by Tillerman Beads.

The antler buckle which we bought last year is based on a find at the excavations of Fishamble Street in Dublin (NM E190:6273). It’s decorated with ring and dot incision and the tongue is held in with a metal pin. It was made by Gear and Graith.

Making Viking kids clothes isn’t a daunting task, and with help from a family oriented group, it’s easy to keep your children involved. (Even if sometimes they just need some peace and quiet in a tent with a tablet!) If you are looking for a new family adventure, want to get started in re-enactment, then check out our website for more information, catch us at our weekly training in Leicester, or drop us an email at!

CategoriesCookingDaily Living and Pastimes

Making Early Medieval Flat Bread

One of the most exciting things about ‘Living History’ is exploring the methods of making something using the tools and materials of the people we’re trying to represent. One of the most fulfilling things to do – mainly because it’s yummy – is cooking.

Although no surviving written recipes exist from the early medieval period, we gather information from remains of bread and the cereal used to make it. Coupled with the finds of domestic ware like pots and pans, mill stones and threshing tools, we can build a picture, and make our own experiments.

For example, cereal husks survive in the archaeological record, so we know that some breads were made of wheat, barley, rye, and spelt, and some were made from pulses (peas and beans) mixed with oat flour. Archaeologists have found bread in the Viking world, such as in burials at Birka, Sweden. They discovered a small biscuit-like bread full of protein in a cremation burial in Jämtland, Sweden. It may have been mixed with blood (the protein) to create something akin to black pudding.

Various kernals of cereal in a container - wheat, oats, barley etc.
Ceral husks before the kernels are harvested and ground into flour.

Leavened Bread

Some breads were leavened (like modern fluffy bread that rises), but probably using a sourdough starter as domestically grown yeast hadn’t yet been adopted. Sourdough is made from a culture of flour, water, and wild yeast that lives on the flour or is blown around by the wind in the environment.

Leavened breads would require a large clay bread-oven to get an even heat for the loaf to raise. Ovens such as these are passively described in an 8th Century biography of the abbot of Wearmouth and Jarrow called the Life of Ceolfrith.

Flat Bread

Much simpler is a flat bread, or cake – kaka in Old Norse, and what Old English speakers would call cycel (pronounced ‘kytchel’) which is where we get the word ‘cake’ and ‘kitchen.’ It’s suggested in Sally Crawford’s Daily Life in Anglo-Saxon England that these can be cooked on hot stones, the hot ash of a fire, or on a frying pan or skillet.

For our experiment, we used wheat, which needed to be ground into flour. There’s evidence of small hand-turned quern stones throughout the early medieval world, which suggests that grinding flour was a part of the daily routine of bread-making.

A rotary quern stone used for grinding grain into flour.
A small rotary quern that we used to grind the flour.

One thing to note here is that reproducing historical food is often full of ‘ifs.’ While we know certain ingredients existed, they certainly weren’t distributed evenly – it’s not like Vikings could pop to Tesco. Without modern techniques, farmers in the north of England would have a tough time growing wheat, whereas the south has the perfect soil and weather conditions for that crop. People in areas of poor soil, or urban areas might make flour from garden crops such as beans and peas, or oats.

Trading towns may have had access to a larger variety of grains with which to make bread, as well as ingredients to add to it. Contaminants might also be a factor in geography. There’s a fair bit of evidence that weeds such as corncockle got into the flour, so there may well have been plenty of upset tummies! So, with that in mind, ‘if they had access to wheat, they may have made…’

Viking Flat Bread – The Recipe

Start with flour and add a little water until you form a dough that isn’t super sticky. If you over do it, add more flour. Water is a interesting resource here – there’s plenty of myths surrounding potable water (that is, water that is safe to drink). Water procured from flowing streams or rivers that aren’t downstream from waste or latrines would be fine to use in cooking. We could potentially use salt water to flavour the dough (there’s an experiment!)

Knead the dough until everything is mixed and form it into cakes. If you are cooking on an open fire, let it burn down to the embers – you don’t want ash and grit in your bread.

Viking flat breads being cooking in a large iron pan over an open fire.

Use an iron pan or skillet. The pan is dry – not oiled – put it on the fire for a few minutes to warm up, then place to one side. The pan can’t be too hot else you’ll burn them or have them fire-welded onto the pan!

Archaeologists have discovered pans like the one pictured at Winchester and York (or bits of them anyway), but there’s loads of flat skillet-type pans from around the Viking world. The above isn’t too dissimilar from a wok.

The flatbreads take a couple of minutes on each side. Enjoy with butter, cheese, or salt. The Saxon Forager has a gorgeous recipe with oats and butter.

A freshly cooked viking flat bread on the end of a spatular.

Further Reading

Like making bread? Consider making some soft cheese to accompany it! Here’s our tutorial on making early-medieval soft cheese or skyr.

  • Banham, D. Faith, R. (2014). Anglo-Saxon Farms and Farming.
  • Crawford, S (2009). Daily Life in Anglo-Saxon England. p101-107
  • Hansson, A. (2002). Pre- and protohistoric bread in Sweden: a definition and a review. In Civilisations Vol 49.
  • Karg, S. (2007). Food: The Rest of Europe in Graham-Campbell, J. Valor, M eds (2007) The Archaeology of Medieval Europe Vol. 1.
  • Serra, D. (2013). An Early Meal-A Viking Age Cookbook & Culinary Odyssey.
CategoriesDaily Living and PastimesGamesLiteratureMaterial Culture

Early Medieval Board Games: Hnefatafl

This is the first in a series looking a Viking-Age board games.

Hnefatafl is classified as a war game by board game scholars. There are many variants of hnefatafl, which often fall under the category of ‘tafl’ or ‘taefl’ games. Despite often being called “Viking chess” in popular media, hnefatafl has no relationship with the game of chess introduced into western Europe at the turn of the first millennium.

Hnefatafl is a game that is played with unequal sides or forces: the smaller force (the defenders) has a king piece whose aim is to escape to a corner square of the lattice board. The larger forces (attackers) task is to capture the king to stop it from escaping. The rules were not written down contemporarily with the origins of the game, however, it’s most likely hnefatafl was played in its most basic rule set in Scandinavia, Britain and Ireland. Early 20th Century scholar Harold Murray recognised a game recorded by 18th Century Swedish botanist Carl Linnaeus called tablut as a ‘tafl’ game.

Carl Linnaeus's drawing of Tablut, a variant of Hnefatafl played by the Sami in the 18th Century.
Linnaeus’s drawing of tablut (1811)

Linnaeus noted tablut in his diary in July 1732 during a tour of Lapland, he commented that it superficially resembled chess, played on a board of 9×9 cells with two forces: the white or Swedish with eight defenders and a king piece, and the dark opposing side or Muscovites with sixteen attackers. The aims are as described above, each piece moves the same, orthogonally, and all are captured by being sandwiched between two opposing pieces in the same row or column.

It is not disputed by academics that tablut is hnefatafl because it matches both archaeological and literary evidence. The Norse sagas give references to playing board games, but most do not describe the rules as this was not the purpose of the story, it was assumed people knew the rules already. If a character in a story written today is playing chess the rules are not described because the assumption is made that the reader knows how to play.

Hervarar saga contains two riddles that relate to gaming. The riddle goes :

‘Who are the maidens who fight around their defenceless lord? The darker ones defend all the time, the fairer ones advance’.

The second riddle goes:

‘What is that beast all girdled with iron which kills the flocks? It has eight horns but no head’

The first riddle’s answer is hnefatafl, the second answer is the hnefi (the king piece is often referred to at the hnefi, although it means ‘fist’ in old Norse). These riddles share elements of the tablut game described by Linnaeus with two sides, one involving a king piece, one side attacks and the other defends. Fridthjof’s Saga gives reference to a double-attack being possible, which supports tablut, as a double attack suggests to surround a piece on two sides to take it out of the game. The archaeological finds of gaming pieces particularly from Scandinavia support Murrays claim as elaborate hnefi pieces are found alongside game pieces that are designed for uneven sides.

For example the image below shows the game pieces from Birka grave 523, which has one anthropomorphic king piece, fourteen decorated with spirals and five plain dark glass.

Blue glass gaming pieces, possible used for Hnefatafl, including anthropomorphic king piece discovered in Birka grave 523.

There are numerous lead gaming pieces from the Viking winter camps in Lincolnshire, along with copper alloy pieces in a similar style. Glass gaming pieces from Lindesfarne, Northumberland and Dundurn Hill Fort in Scotland have similar qualities, suggesting a wide distribution of fashion.

hnefatafl board with a mix of similar pieces but in different materials - glass, copper-alloy and lead.

There is evidence for different sized variations of hnefatafl throughout Britain and Ireland. In Ireland the Gaelic terms Brandubh and Fidcheall are mentioned. Brandubh means black raven and could signify the shape of the king piece, although no archaeological evidence supports this so far. Fidcheall means ‘wood sense’ and could be the equivalent to the term for table being used as the name of the game in old English. The old Irish poem Scela Cano mac Gartnain tells of King Cano and his retinue sailing to Ireland in AD 668 with ‘fifty well armed warriors, fifty well-dressed ladies and fifty liveried gillies each with the silver leads of two greyhounds in his right hand, a musical instrument in his left and a fidcheall board on his back along with the silver and gold playing men.’

The Ballinderry board found in Ballinderry, Co. Westmeath, Ireland in 1932, supports this. It was found broken in two parts 8ft apart and has been dated to the 10th century. What is interesting about this board is that it is built with the intention to be travelled with. It is a pegged board so the pieces stay in place when played on a rocking boat or wagon. It also has two decorated projecting heads, one human one animal that can be used as handles on unstable terrain. Both fidcheall and brandubh are listed in Irish laws of the 7th and 8th centuries.

Gaming board found in at Ballinderry, Ireland
The Ballinderry board

The game tawlbwrdd occurs frequently in ancient laws of Wales, however, it was not described until 1587 by Robert ap Ifan. He provides a drawing of an 11×11 board and includes a description of the rules that are very similar to Linnaeus’ tablut. Ifan, includes extra rules, including moving one of your pieces between two of the oppositions pieces and not being captured, you have to say ‘I am your liegeman’ for your piece to safely move into that space though!

Tawlbwrdd means “throw board” and could suggest the use of dice with the game, however there is limited evidence of dice in conjunction with a ‘tafl’ game. One example was found at Keythorpe Hall in Leicestershire where two dice were excavated with forty-six bone playing pieces. The majority of gaming sets that could be a ‘tafl’ game include no dice. This does not mean dice were not used as there have been games known to use dice that have been found archaeologically missing their dice, such as the Gloucester Tables Set, a late 11th century backgammon board.

The etymology of the name tawlbwrdd may possibly answer the question about dice. Tawlbwrdd is possibly a misunderstanding for the name of the original game by borrowing and confusing taefl in old English and tafl in old Norse meaning board with the welsh tawl. Thus making tawlbwrdd mean “board-board” and therefore not indicating the use of dice within the game. Ifan’s account supports this, he states that when a piece is captured it is thrown from the board ‘ai daflu or gwarau’ [and he is thrown from the game]. Taflu is the lenited or softening form of daflu.

Replica bone dice
Reproduction bone 6-sided dice with ring-and-dot scoring decoration

The Anglo-Saxon evidence for ‘tafl’ games comes from an Irish gospel manuscript of the 11th century and can be seen below. It is played on an 18×18 lattice board with forty-eight attackers and twenty-four defenders and is called alea evangelii or ‘game of gospels.’ It was known in English court during the reign of Athelstan AD 925-39. Here the game has taken on Christian symbolism: there are seventy-two men because the number of items in the harmony is seventy-two and it is played on an 18×18 board because, four evangelists, four gospels and ten canons equals eighteen.

 alea evangelii as it appears in corpus christi manuscript
Corpus Christi College Manuscript 122

The earliest date for hnefatafl is from evidence of the 5th century AD board fragment found in a grave from Wimose, Denmark. Murray states that it was played by Scandinavian people from 400 AD and brought by the Norsemen to Iceland, Britain and Ireland, where it then spread to Wales. However, there is limited evidence of hnefatafl being played earlier. This evidence is that of conical playing pieces that were not used in the Roman period except for one exception, dating from 1st to 4th centuries AD found amongst an assemblage of Roman gaming pieces in Spain. An excavation at Cnip has a conical piece that dates from first century BC to the first century AD. Pieces from the Shetland isles have also been found, however, because they are all pre-Viking in date (before 6th century) a hnefatafl identification has been avoided.

See also Remembering Hnefatafl, the 1000-year old Viking game murdered by Chess.

Further Reading about Hnefatafl

  • Ashton, John (2007) Linnaeus’ Game of Tablut and its Relationship to the Ancient Viking Game Hnefatafl
  • Bell, R. C. (1979) Board and Table Games From Many Civilisations
  • Hall, M (2007) Playtime in Pictland: The Material Culture of Gaming in Early Medieval Scotland
  • Parlett, David (1999) Oxford History of Board Games