Norse Clothing and Vikings in the SCA

This post is about the research I did for my Norse outfit, and I want to talk a bit about my feelings on wearing "Viking" clothing in the SCA.

A few months ago, after hearing that Artemisia's Spring Coronation would be an all-Viking affair, I thought I would branch out and try making a more "legit" or accurate Norse/Viking outfit. I specify Norse because I knew that I wanted to try to make all of the items Scandinavian, and avoid anything that was decidedly Hiberno-Norse, Jorvik-found, etc. I wanted to focus on what an upper-class or even noble woman from a Scandinavian culture would have worn in the 9th to 10th centuries. Some SCAdians tend to use the term "Viking" to describe their garb, but as that term is typically used to describe an occupation, I have been trying to say Norse instead of Viking for my outfit. I'm clearly not going a-Viking in my pretty clothes!

The biggest resource I used for this outfit was the Viking Clothing Facebook group. There are some serious experts on there, often the best in the business, if you will. People who are able to look at the archeological finds, people who have studied these textiles for decades. I relied on their knowledge, yet I didn't take everything as gospel. Many of the experts disagreed with each other quite often. Many "experts" would make claims they couldn't back up with sources. But in general, there are certain things that everyone agrees on, sometimes begrudgingly, because they are tired of reenactors making the same styles again and again. They have a file section in their group that lists and provides scholarly sources.

My hairstyle is based on the Elling Woman grave find, a couple centuries earlier than the Viking Age, but a documentable hairstyle. Norsewomen may have worn head coverings but I wanted to try a hair style first. My hair isn't long enough for the Valkyrie knot ponytail.

For the sake of this blog post, I am going to say that everything I learned can be found or discussed on that FB group. I highly suggest joining it. They are known for doing it as historically-accurate as possible, sometimes to a borderline unreasonable point in my opinion (more on that later in this post). I'm not going to list educational, scholarly sources in this post. Did I use them? Yes. Can you find them easily online? Yes. Join the Viking Clothing FB group and research like I did. It's all very easy to look up. The information is out there, and it didn't take me long to absorb and memorize a lot of it.

I have compiled a basic list of what items I made, if it is documentable for the period, where I deviated from agreed-upon accuracy, and why I made it less accurate. This is by no means an exhaustive list of everything I read on the subject, but it's enough to talk about the items I made. If you think I'm wrong about a "Fact", please consult the Viking Clothing FB page to see if they covered it, or ask me about it and I'll find the documentation. When I say it's a "Fact", I don't mean that's the only way it was done. I simply mean we know it was done at least once and for this time period, that's enough for me (for this time period, not for later periods).

1. An underdress. Facts: the Norse used linen for underlayers; they had natural purple materials for dye; pastels are possible from second dyebaths; linens weren't usually as bright as wool layers because they were subject to more frequent washing after wearing against the skin; they had fitted tunics where the shoulders were not squared off like rectangular construction; they had keyhole necklines; they did split-stitch.

 Evidence of purple garments in Norway and Denmark. Yes, it's not as prevalent as Dublin/York/London, but there is proof. 

 Fragment of a tunic found at Hedeby, showing they had fitted shoulders.

What I did: I purchased 5.3oz linen from Fabrics Store in a Silver Thistle color. I used my body block pattern to make it just fitted enough to slide over my head with no closures. It is two rectangles in front, one in back, and three gores (two sides, one back). It is shaped in the armscye and has a keyhole slit neckline that is held shut with a pin. I chose to do some split-stitch embroidery on the neckline and wrists. I used split stitch because the Norse used it, and it is considered a functional stitch that is not solely decorative. Neckline, cuffs, and hem are all sewn by hand.

2. An apron dress. Facts: Norsewomen probably wore another layer over the underdress and they could have had straps made from loops; we don't know how long they were because a full one doesn't exist, which also means no pattern to say there is only one way to construct them; they could have been made from wool or linen; herringbone or chevron twill wool was used for garments; the dresses likely weren't embroidered over seams (hard to adjust for size when you sew over the seams three times to decorate them); true dark blacks likely weren't available but dark gray could have been (they had dark gray sheep); narrow tablet-woven trim was used; narrow silk edging was used.

 Fragment of a garment found at Hedeby that could be an apron dress.
Loops on top of a garment edge, Birka grave 597.

What I did: I used a heavy cotton flannel with a herringbone weave instead of wool. I had it on hand and the cotton flannel mimics wool extremely well. It is dark gray, not black. I did two rectangles (front and back) and three gores (two sides, one back). There was no other way to cut the fabric as I had less than two yards of directional fabric. The trim is a linen tablet-woven band (.5" wide) from the White Wolf and the Phoenix, in purple and white tones. The silk edging is plain white silk. The widest silk edging found was 1.18" inches, and mine is 1" wide. All of the trim was sewn on by hand. The hand sewn loops (narrow tubes) are sewn onto the front and back of the dress, and are held together with the brooches- long loops from the back meet the short loops in front.

 3. A caftan. Facts: fragments of garments believed to be coats were found at Birka and Hedeby, although they were likely men's coats; again, wool with a herringbone weave is documentable; light gray was easily found on sheep; narrow silk tablet-woven trim has been found; silk was used to edge garments.

What I did: The caftan is the hardest layer to document of the garments I made. They are very popular in the reenactment community for both men and women. The Norse would certainly have had warm woolen coats but we don't know how they were constructed or what they looked like. I decided to make a style I've seen on many people but it has little documentation. I used gray herringbone wool flannel from Dorr Mills. I again used my body block pattern because I wanted the coat to be fitted and flattering. It's more probable that a Norse coat would have been less fitted and more blocky, but I wanted it to be snug. I added silk facing, although it is about an inch wider than we know the Norse used for edgings. The trim is .75" wide, silk, tablet woven, and in a diamond pattern. The pattern is not based on a particular extant item, but it is similar to some with a diamond pattern. The trim was made by Sir Brynjolfr of Artemisia. The closure is a solid silver clasp with three circles on each side.

 A close up of the trims. The amber necklace was borrowed from HE Katya.

4. Jewelry. Facts: some Norsewomen owned oval shaped brooches; the brooches have been found attached to the loops that could be on apron dresses; sometimes beads could be worn with the brooches; beads could be precious gems or glass or bone; Thor's Hammer (Mjolnir) pendants have been found and may have been worn by women.

What I did: my brooches were purchased from Raymond's Quiet Press. They have Odin's face on them and are based on a Finnish find from the Viking Age.  My "coronet" is not far off from this diadem that I read is from the 9th-12th centuries and is called "Viking", but I need more documentation for it. I purchased a three-strand woven metal circlet and glued cabochons onto it; I found the diadem picture later which was a neat find, but I have no serious attribution for it. I have a gold plated Thor's Hammer pendant and a little bone bird pendant attached to my festoons- we'll pretend it's a raven! The beads are mostly glass with some real stones and some bone.

5. Accessories. Facts: the Norse wore leather turnshoes; textile belts were worn but we don't know if they were worn with apron dresses; fur was a product used by the Norse and has been found in fragment with garments; wooden bag handles have been found.

What I did:  I am wearing a full, cased arctic fox pelt. While we have no evidence that a full pelt would be worn, there is evidence that fur was used with garments (grave finds). I just think it looks really cool, I'll admit it. My shoes are leather turn shoes with leather lacing straps from Boots by Bohemond, which are based on several extant shoes from the 9th-10th centuries. My belt is inkle woven, which I have read is not documentable for the Norse, but I already owned it and it matched my outfit. I made a little herringbone linen bag with Etsy-purchased Hedeby-style wooden handles.

My Hedeby bag, using leftover tablet woven trim for the straps.

Now that I have blathered on about the layers, I want to talk about how far I think SCAdians should be willing to go to make historically accurate "Viking" garments. Here is how a conversation on the Viking Clothing FB group goes:
Newbie: "I want to do embroidery on my Norse garb because I see it on everyone else's."
Expert: "The Norse didn't do embroidery so neither can you."
Newbie: "But what about the Oseberg burial / Mammen finds / Birka / etc ? They found embroidery on that."
Expert: "Okay yes, there is that example, but only the wealthy could afford it or import it."
Newbie: "So you're saying they had embroidery then... got it."
Expert: "But unless you're portraying nobility you shouldn't do it."

Here is my problem with that. In the SCA, if we choose, we all get to start off as minor nobility, or Good Gentles. We are allowed to decorate our clothes as far as our budgets allow. It seems that for many of the strict European reenactment groups, not everyone gets to pretend to be nobility or royalty, so their outfits must reflect their lower status. This is not so in the SCA. Just because embroidery, or jewelry, or trim, or silk, was expensive back then and only worn by the highest status person, does not mean we should discourage SCAdians from wearing their bling. We get to portray nobility and royalty in our society, so I say, wear whatever you want regarding "high status" items and decoration. That being said, try to pair your Norse bling with high-quality textiles like finely woven wool and linen. We don't wear diamond necklaces with workout gear, right?

A couple of high-status Norsewomen, wearing their bling proudly with high-quality textiles.

Now I'd like to talk about where SCAdians could draw the line at historical accuracy. Let me give another example of a conversation on the Viking Clothing group:

Brave Person: "Here is a picture of a new outfit I made, what do you think?"
Expert: "Did you weave the fabric and dye it yourself? Did you use only natural dyes available to the Norse? Did you raise the sheep and shear it and was it a breed the Vikings had? Did you cast the jewelry yourself? Was it based on an extant find? Show me a picture and prove it. I don't care if it's hot where you live, I wear wool year round and I don't overheat."

Seriously. That is how it goes. I can understand when a person who makes something "Norse inspired" gets told that their Celtic embroidery, cotton dress with grommets, or Vikings TV show copy isn't what the group is all about. I totally respect that. But where do we, as SCAdians, draw that line? I like to be accurate within reason. I consistently strive to do better once I know better. But I am now of the opinion that when it comes to "Viking" clothes, cutting some slack is fair, because the archeological evidence is not extremely easy to interpret or discover. 

Many of us do not have the time or budget to do things 100% accurate, even if we had all the knowledge to do everything from scratch ourselves. While I might suggest that a person save up to afford linen over cotton, I will certainly not expect someone to weave their own fabric or dye it themselves with plants they pulled out of the ground in Sweden. These are skill sets acquired after years of study. It is unreasonable to expect someone to be skilled at every aspect of the creation process. I believe the SCA is pretty fair in this regard. I have encountered some Laurels in the SCA who really can do all the things listed, and make something entirely from scratch, and this is phenomenal. But most of us don't have the knowledge or time to go this far. I respect it, and I admit that I may not ever go so far as to shear a sheep I raised in my backyard and use my own urine to set the dye from the cochineal insect I gathered off a cactus. Did I get that right? I had to Google it.

But while doing my research, I came across some people who do not cut any corners and do everything exactly as found in a grave in one location and one time period. If we all did this, we'd be wearing a Viking uniform. I highly respect the people who have the time, budget, and knowledge to make everything as accurately as possible. However, I am glad that the SCA doesn't hold itself to such high standards- I cannot meet them regarding Norse clothing (or maybe any other era despite my hard work). I think there is room for improvement in the SCA, and once you know better and can afford better, do better. I am trying to meet this goal every day.


  1. And if you did collect the insect off cactus that is an issue as cactus arenative to the New World... *wink*

  2. Bravo, love your style and your approach to historical recreation, very inspirational indeed! I've been reenacting for 35 years doing many impressions, heard it all from the self-proclaimed experts and stitch Nazis. You are a true historian.

  3. Ah, yes, Viking Clothing on FB. I know it well. They can be ruthless, and sometimes downright mean. They seem to forget that we don't have the luxury of having extant examples, grave goods, and research in our own back yards and in our native language like many of them have. I've recommended them as a resource to others with the warning of read and research but don't comment or post unless absolutely necessary.

    Your garb looks amazing. I stumbled upon your blog as I'm doing my own research into more accurate colors for my next set of Norse garb.

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