Thursday, September 1, 2011

Viking Age Russian Dress Documentation

This dress is from a recent excavation of Viking age (around 10th Century) clothing from a chamber grave in Pskov, Russia. Since there were only a few pieces of the actual dress that survived through the years, even the scholars were unable to completely understand or decide how the dress might have been constructed. I had to work with what knowledge I already had and research into various other finds from that time period such as reconstructions, illuminations, and engravings that depicted things that this find was unable to ascertain. This is my interpretation of the Viking age Russian dress using what information was preserved.

Looking at the silk and linen scraps that were preserved well enough, there are certain things that we can see for certain. The main body of the dresses were linen and the silk was only used as decorative trim. The linen used was a tabby weave that differed only slightly in the coloration from the under dress. There are many possibilities as to why the coloration differed: difference in sun exposure between the two pieces or the fabric having been dyed at separate times instead of the entire outfit having been cut from the same piece of fabric. The apron loops were made of 3cm of linen at a length of 8cm, folded and layered and sewn to be 1cm thick when finished. There was also a gathered neckline that was preserved, made of linen, that belonged to the under dress. The most exciting part of the entire find, though, was the preservation of the actual stitching. Not only was there remains of thread in the fabric, but there were needle holes showing where things had been attached at one point.
The only problem seen here is that, although we can easily depict the width of the over dress and all the decoration, most all of the linen had degraded and could not be saved, so the actual length of the over dress can not be deciphered. There is also the question of having the 100cm of front facing and straps so far away, how the dress could possibly remain on the shoulders without needing to pin the dress directly to the under dress. Due to this fact, it is almost impossible to visually decide how the over dress would be worn.

With the length undetermined in the find, I had to use other sources to determine what length I should make both the under dress and the apron style dress (see appendix). Since the apron was seen much like a caftan, I decided the length should be similar. With women, that meant cutting the length to somewhere between mid-calf and knee. I wanted to keep with the longer of the lengths, so mid-calf. The under dress, again as there was no real knowledge other than the neck gathering and the cuffs, I decided to keep the length of usual under dresses and make it to the ankle. The underwear dress was usually always a white or off white color and might have just a small amount of embroidery of red on the sleeves. The coloration choices were typical in Slavic tradition as they felt the red around the openings of garments would help to keep the evil spirits out of the body. Here we are seeing the same typical blue fabric with red silk decoration that makes me wonder if the under dress itself was atop another dress. As I am uncertain, I am sticking with what the find gave us, which is a blue linen under dress and the apron dress.

Why was there a large drape in the front? As far as I can fathom, the fact the under dress had a draw string neck which, accompanied with a long opening down the front of the dress, the drape could possibly be there in the form of a nursing/maternity dress. The drape could be as much for comfort as well as keeping a child warm while nursing. There is also the possible influence from two different worlds. First, we have the Scandinavian, who the obvious design of an apron style dress could have come from as Pskov is very close to the Baltic Sea. But, being in Russia, it is also a tradition that the more fabric you were able to show off, the wealthier you were. This one of the reasons that Russian sleeves were usually very long, to cover the fingertips. Because of this reason, it makes sense to bury someone with their 'wealth' in this manner. And since women were expected at a very early age to get married and make children, having a dress decorated in fine and expensive silks like this would make sense. If you were going to be bearing and feeding children but also desired to show your wealth, it would be easiest to do with a fine dress that you would wear often.

How would this outfit have been worn worn? The author of the article in the Archaeological Textiles book feels that the opening had to have had a plastron, or a long bib, added that was fastened with additional straps through the brooches. They continue to say that “An apron of exactly this kind is believed to be discernible on a figurine from Tisso in Zealand, Denmark.” Although this seemed to work to keep everything together, the idea of the bib being shown on the outside of the apron didn't make sense to me. With the so much silk collected and sewn onto the linen dress, it didn't make sense to cover it up with an unadorned bib. I decided they had to have this bib, though, because the brooches were not meant for piercing through fabric as it only caused your garments to wear faster than they needed to. The bib would hold everything together easily, and if it were tucked in then it wouldn't cover up all the silk. Then, I thought, the bib made perfect sense to protect these silks from wear and soiling. The bib probably came out when work needed to be done or one was eating and was tucked back away when they were in company or otherwise needed to look their best.

How can I make it fit me? The dress was decided to be tubular in deisgn, based off the ideas of the Scandinavian Hangerock, states the article. I decided to go with the Scandinavian design since it had two main features: it was created from one length of fabric, folded in half, and there was a short seam that pieced the length of fabric together. Having a slit down the right side of the dress would allow for ease in movement. The scraps left us with the knowledge that the dress was 200cm around, evenly divided between the front with the drape and the back area. To correctly form this to myself without it either falling off my shoulders or causing drapes under the arms between the straps, I had to correct the measurement at the back. Not knowing if the amount of fabric used was significant in any way, I decided to keep all 200cm around and merely change it so the back was 60cm and gave a more fitted appearance. This changed the drape from 100cm to 140cm in the front. If the drape was simply a show of wealth, this extra length made sense. Wealth didn't necessarily mean they had the money to purchase so more fabric than others. Wealth was seen as not needing to cut away as much material in order to use the scraps to make other small things. Since I didn't need that extra 40cm for anything, it made more sense to leave it on the dress.

For the under dress I used a linen-look fabric. I did this for two reasons. One, it was cheaper than linen and I have monetary constraints. Two, unlike the apron dress part, there was really nothing they were able to discern about the making of the under dress, so I used this as a mock up until I can afford enough yardage of linen to make the under dress again and transfer the silk to the new dress. The dress design I used is the typical dress design I have found for Russian dresses. It is a simple rectangle with a hole cut out for a neck (though in this case I made it into a neckline that can be drawn together and gathered instead of a button or various other types of closure). The sleeves can either be simple rectangles, though mine tapered since the cuff seen in the find was a tapered sleeve cuff. A gusset lay in the armpits of the dress with two gores down each side to full out the skirt of the dress. It is a very simple pattern and I know it was used and worn as early as the 12th century. Since I did not have any information of the actual making of the viking age dress in the find since the linen did not hold up over time, I had to go with what knowledge I already had for dresses in the earliest time period I know of.

The silk used was all cut from the same design, the same piece of fabric. They were able to discern the design on the silk through microscopic analysis to find they belonged to a Byzantine style of textile. All pieces of the fragments fit together, composing a complete repetitive design repeated twice in the length of cloth. The scene depicts Bahrarn Gur hunting. Similar designs were seen could be seen throughout Europe. Zubkova gives an example of the upholstery of part of St. Ambrose's throne, now housed in Milan, Italy. Although of the same design pattern, the silk that was used was cut so as to bring out particular colors: a blue and a purple that were stitched decoratively together to create the detailed trim of the over dress, and a red for the hem and cuffs of the under dress. The measurements of the detailed trim were as follows: 9-10cm x 100cm for each of the blue sections in the front, 6cm x 100 cm for the purple section in the front, and 5cm x 100cm for the blue section that wrapped around the back. The under dress had red silk cuffs measuring 12.5 cm in length and a hem of red silk measuring 5cm.

The particular pattern that was seen in the silk was not one that I could find, so I decided it was more important to keep with the color scheme that was found instead of the design or even the type of silk. This created only minor issues due to the fact that the only silk I could find in the colors needed was in the form of two different types of silk when the find specifically claimed it was one piece of silk cut into colors. But, as I said, I was concentrating only on finding the correct colors. All fabrics were purchased which would not have been that strange in Russia. Not many of the houses were large enough to hold a loom within. It is possible that women had someone else make all the cloth and traded for it. The silk, especially, was noted as to having been found all over Europe, which means it was probably purchased or stolen. As this dress is a Viking age dress and found in a grave in Pskov, a city near the Baltic Sea, there is a high probability that the people living there both had cultural influence of Slavs and Vikings and may have stolen the fabrics used to make the dress. That, though, would have gotten me arrested. So I purchased mine.

The stitch used for most of the dress was the back stitch, a very stable and strong stitch. The dress showed that the front of the stitch was 2-3 times smaller than the back: in their case it was 1mm on the front and 2-3mm on the back. I was unable to keep my stitches as even or as tiny, so I have a whole new respect for the seam smiths from ages ago. Knowing how much the silk was shredding on me, I can understand why they would do the stitches so small since in that manner it would not only seam together the pieces of silk but also keep it from devolving any more than it possibly already has. As shown in the pictures that are drawn up of the find, there is a good thin portion of the silk missing from the pattern in between cuts. That easily could be from the shredding of the silk or, further, from the decay. Due to the fact that most silks or embroidered embellishments were able to be removed from the original dress to either hand down or sew onto a new one if the old one was worn, I decided I would do a simple tacking of the silks to the dress for ease of removal. It wouldn't make sense to use the back stitch with what a strong stitch that is.

To accompany the outfit, I decided on making a simple headdress like I have seen in sketches of various archaeological finds in Russia. They are usually a simple band of fabric with temple rings on the sides. This can be worn straight on the head, but as I am married I decided to keep a veil covering my hair as that was mandatory for married women and then place the band over top. I used the linen that was used to make the dress and added some of the silk for a bit of decoration on the band.
Overall I feel this was a fairly good representation of the find from Pskov, Russia. There are certain things I might change for next time, such as the types of silk I use and perhaps even weaving my own linen and dying it myself for the dress, but I am over all pleased with the process.

A huge thank you to Mhari and Siobahn. Without them, this dress would not have been possible as they were my cheer-leading squad and tech support.


Beatson, Peter. “New Disovery of Viking Age clothing from Pskov, Russia.” Christobel & Peter's Homepage. (February 2011).

Kies, Lisa. “Fabric Treasure.” Lady Sofya la Rus. (February 2011).

Kononenko, Natalie. Slavic Folklore: A Handbook. Greenwood Press: London. 2007.

Pouncy, Carolyn Johnston. The Domostroi: Rules For Russian Households in the Times Of Ivan the Terrible. Cornell University Press: London. 1994.

Pushkareva, Natalia. Women in Russian History: From the Tenth to the Twentieth Century. M. E. Sharpe: Armanok, NY. 1997.

Sepanov, Julia. History of the Russian Traditional Suit. (February-April 2011).

Zubkova, E. S., Orfinkaya, O. V., and Mikhailov, K. A.. “Studies of the Textiles from the Excavation of Pskov in 2006.” North European Symposium for Archaeological Textiles X. Oxbow Books: London. 2010.