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
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.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org.
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