December 8th – Seam smoothers and linen smoothers

Christmas is getting closer by the minute it feels like, and it is time to tidy, clean, change the bed linens, polish silver and brass and iron all the table cloths. I remember when I was a child, my mother would hurry around, making everything perfect for Christmas. As she would iron the table cloths late the night before Christmas, I was always thinking about how they would iron back in time, before the electricity came.

Ironing, or smoothing, is something that is really old. Who likes wrinkles on their textiles anyway? You have probably seen the old irons from the 1600’s and 1700’s which was meant to heat on a oven or to put burning embers inside, but did you know that they “ironed” or “smoothed” their clothes back in the Viking Age too?

As long as people have used textiles for clothes, bedding and other things, they have needed to keep it smooth and nice. For that, they have had various things to help them. Jawbones of horse or preferably cow were used to smooth surfaces like for example shirt chest and waistbands. A pig tooth was for example used to smooth seams.

Photo: Anne-Lise Reinsfelt, Norsk folkemuseum Erkännande-DelaLika (CC BY-SA)

In the Viking age and also even longer ago, they didn’t use the kind of irons we know today. They used something called a smoothing stone or a seam smoother. Smoothing stones were helpful equipment to smoothen both garments and seams. They were usually made of glass, but also of wood and naturally shaped stone. Most smoothing stones made from glass is made from dark glass with a black, blue or green color. The shape is similar to a bun – rounded on the top and flat on the bottom. The flat side often reveals a snapped-off blow mark from the production.

Smoothing stones have been found in a number of women’s graves, mostly from the Viking age. Geographically, one finds the strongest concentrations around Vest-Agder and up to Møre og Romsdal, as well as in Akershus and Hedmark.

Smoothing stone made from glass from the Viking age, Namsos, Trøndelag (T10653).

Photo by Ole Bjørn Pedersen, NTNU Vitenskapsmuseet, CC BY-SA 4.0

Smoothing stone made from stone from Pre-roman Iron Age, Ørland, Trøndelag (T27073:15).

Photo by Ellen W Randerz, NTNU Vitenskapsmuseet, CC BY-SA 4.0

Sometimes there are a special type of whalebone plates found in graves from the Viking Age. These may have worked as an ironing board when the clothes were smoothed, but there are no real evidence for this.

A whalebone board and a smoothing stone made from glass (B6657). Viking age, Voss, Vestland.

Photo by Ann-Mari Olsen, Universitetet i Bergen, CC BY-SA 4.0

When using a smoothing stone, they placed the palm against the rough side of the smooth stone and rub the smooth side against the clothes that needed smoothing. Under the clothes they may have placed a board or plate made of hard wood or whalebone. The smoothing stone was often used to smooth finer linen such as headliners and shirts. It was used at the same time as mangle wood and iron.

The use of these smoothing stones continued into the Medieval age and into modern times. They were used alongside the more modern equipment that came in the Medieval period and which was used until we got electricity here in Norway.

Besides the irons, we have something called ‘mangletre’ and ‘rullestokk’ in Norway. The word comes from German ‘mangeln’ and means to roll and smooth clothes. ‘Mangletre’ is a flat plank of wood. The ‘mangletre’ and the ‘rullestokk’ would be used together to smooth clothes. They would roll the fabric around the round piece of wood and then they would use the flat piece to roll the round piece with the fabric on until it was wrinkle-free. The oldest known ‘magletre’ is in the National Museum in Copenhagen and is dated to 1590. In Norway there are several dated ‘magletre’ from the 17th century. In 1700 they become more common.

Photo: Anne-Lise Reinsfelt, Norsk folkemuseum Erkännande-DelaLika (CC BY-SA)

Mangletre seen at the top and rullestokk at the bottom in the picture.

Do you use a smoothing stone while sewing your historical garments? Are you planning to iron your fabrics before Christmas? Have you ever heard of ‘magletre’ and ‘rullestokk’ before?

Information from:
Store norske leksikon

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