What to think about when making historical clothing

Lately I have received a lot of questions regarding how to make different historical clothes, if I can make viking clothes for people and if I can show people how to make clothes. Earlier I actually made clothes for people, but as it is a lot of work, I stopped doing this last year. Instead I’ve assisted people in making their own clothes. Still, I receive lots of questions and I’ve decided to make several posts on how to make different garments on your own.

I have also wanted to write something about making historical clothing in general, but with the Viking period as the main focus. What we use as sources, what to think about, and what textiles and colors to choose. So, this post will be an overall introduction on what to think about when making historical garments and how I think when I make my garments.

Also, this post will be a place where you easily can find all the “How to make”-posts, showing you how to make different Viking age garments. But, please be patient. It may take a little while before all the posts are done. There will eventually be links to click on for a more in-depth description of how to make the different garments.

These are the garments I will make “How to”-post on:
As it takes time to make these posts (I have to both write, take pictures, record and edit movies and make the garments myself), they will come as soon as they are ready. Keep an eye out here, or follow me on social media.

∴ How to make a simple under dress or tunic
∴ How to make a dress or tunic with S-shaped sleeves
∴ How to make an apron dress
∴ How to make a peplos
∴ How to make a Dublin cap
∴ How to make a cloak
∴ How to make a hood
​∴ How to make a tunic
∴ How to make trousers

What do we base our historical clothes on?
First, I would like to point out that we don’t have many garments left from the Viking age. In fact, we only have a few handful of close to intact garments. Some examples are The Viborg shirt, the Kragelund tunic, the Moselund tunic and the Skjoldhamn tunic and trousers. These are all from the transition period between the viking age and the medieval period. We also have some later findings, from the early and mid-medieval period, like the Guddal shirts and the Herjolfsnes findings. It is also useful to look at older findings when we are trying to recreate garments. The Huldremose lady is one example on earlier than viking age findings. The Huldremose lady probably died some time between 160 BCE and 340 CE. These are all very useful to look at in an attempt to recreate the clothes of the vikings.

The Skjoldhamn trousers. Photo by Dan Halvard Løvlid.
The Viborg shirt. Drawing by P. Nørbo and Jørgen Kragelund.

Because the majority of the textiles we have preserved are only small fragments, we really do not have much to work with. It is really hard to base a garment on these little pieces of textiles. That is why it is good to have those few whole garments to look at and inspire us too. Fashion came and went a little bit slower then than in our modern time. The fragments and the garments still do not give us that much to go after. We must therefore look to other sources as well. We can use art from the period for example. On small figures from the viking age (Uppåkra, Tjørnehøj, Nygård, Tissø, Öland, Lejre, Björkö – just to mention a few), on some rune stones and in some embroideries from the period we can get an idea on how people dressed. We can also go to the written sources – the sagas. They also gives us a few descriptions on what the garments could have looked.

Valkyrie from Haaby, Denmark, 9th century. Photo: Asger Kjærgaard, Odense bys museer.

Silver figure from Tissø, Denmark. Photo: Nationalmuseet, København.
Figure from Björkö, Sweden. Photo: Historiska museet, Stockholm.

Above: Drawings from the Oseberg embroidery drawn by Sofie Kraft.

Although this may sound like a lot of sources, we still know very little about how the vikings actually dressed. Most of the fragments of textiles that we have is found in what we believe is graves of rich people who belonged to the highest rank in society. The fragments that we find is often related to metal objects that has been lying firmly against the fabric and therefore preserved it. The more metal objects, the more textile is preserved, and more metal often means more wealth. One should therefore keep in mind that these graves generally show how the richest people dressed. The small figures I mentioned a bit up may be depictions of gods or high-ranked persons. The sagas were often written some hundred years after the events actually took place so the descriptions may be colored by the time they were written. We don’t know. But we have something to grasp and all these small leads can help us make pretty good interpretations of historical garments.

It probably goes without saying that we must guess a little when it comes to making garments based on the textile fragments that we have. There are a few good articles covering textile fragment from the viking age. I highly recommend Hilde Thunem’s articles “Serk” and “Smokkr”. They describe the most important findings when it comes to underdresses (serk) and apron dresses (smokkr). A quick search on google will give you other great articles as well. Just remember to use source criticism.

In our attempt to recreate the past, it is important that we think about what we do and why we do it. Why do you do reenactment and living history? What can you learn from it? How can you do reenactment and living history in a way that you can learn something and so that others can learn something?

A good tip before starting on your garments, is to think through what kind of person you want to interpret. What type of person do you want to show, and from what societal rank? Which geographical area do you want to show and what time period? Do you want to show a person of the time period in general, or do you want to show a specific individual? The more spesific you are, the better. A great way to start is to set limits to oneself within the historical framework. Another great way to do reenactment and living history, especially if you are experienced, is to recreate a finding or a grave and to convey the person in the grave with all the belongings.

Then there’s the question about whether to do a reconstruction or a replica of a garment or just to based your garment on one or several findings. Let me explain! I would like to point out that there’s a big difference between a replica or a reconstruction of a garment or an object and that a garment or object is based on a finding. A replica or reconstruction is when you do everything exactly as the finding – from using a tread in the same size as the one that was used on the original garment, weaving the fabric exactly as the original, plant dye it if the original textile was colored, use the same stitches as on the original, to use replicas of jewelery which may have been found in connection with the clothes. If you base your garment on a historical piece of fragment, you are less restricted and can therefore use a little more imagination. But hold yourself in the reins! You still want a historical piece of clothing that is as true to the original as possible, will not you? So, always try to keep within reasonable limits.

Silver embroidery from Valsgärde, Sweden, 10th century.

If you want your garments to be close to historical correct, you should use a textile that they actually used in the viking age. When you think about viking clothes you might think of thick and rigid textiles, and many even imagine potato sacks… The vikings were very, very skilled craftsmen and they could spin very thin thread and weave very fine and thin fabrics with beautiful patterns. The fabrics that are found in graves varies of course based on how rich the persons in the graves were. We have plainer weaves also, of course. Just to mention some weaving techniques that have been found we have tabby, plain 2/2 twill, plain 2/1 twill, diamond twill, herringbone and chevron. You can read about what patterns they used (and what graves they were found in) in the article “Cloth Weaving Patterns’“. This article lists where the different weaving techniques was found. You should read it! I noticed that there are a few findings that are missing, but the most important are mentioned.

Mainly they used wool, linen and some silk. The silk was often imported and they often had vivid patterns and colors. The silk is often found cut into narrow strips regardless of the pattern on the fabric. In the Oseberg ship they found a lot of cut silk. Also in Birka and Pskov they have found silk fabric. Keep in mind that these graves were rich graves.

Silk fabric from the Oseberg ship burial. The picture is borrwed from Caroline Mawer‘s blog.

When it comes to colors, we know that the vikings knew how to dye with plants and such. Some colors were easier to get your hands on and some you had to pay a lot to get. Ordinary people, free farmers and others probably had plainer colors and natural colored wool, like brown, grey and other colors that the sheep may have had. The richest had stronger, richer colors like red and blue for example. There are many examples of colored textiles found in different graves.

When it comes to the shape of the garments, it has changed a lot throughout the different periods of history. Especially the general shape of the women has been quite distinctive. It has changed a lot too during the history. During the Viking age it seems that they knew the tailor trade quite well. Depending on the geografical area and the period within the Viking age, the garments change very little. It seems like practical means were important as well as the aesthetics. Decorative details as different shaped necklines (Skjoldehamn, Guddal and Viborg are good examples here), silk fabric details (Oseberg), and braided decorative bands (Skjoldehamn, again) were some ways to “pimp up” the clothes.

Did you get through the whole post? Wow, that’s impressive! Now that you have some meat on the bones, I hope you are eager to make your own historical garments. As an ending, I would just like to say that you can of course make your clothes as you wish and based on what you wish. This post is only meant as a pointer to help you understand how serious reenacters think and what to think about if you want to do serious historical dissemination like we do. I really do hope you found this post interesting, inspiring and helpful.

If you have any question regarding how to make your viking clothes, what to think about, what findings to base your clothes on or anything else, please do not hesitate to write me!

– Tonje Årolilja

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