Monday, May 18, 2009

A 9th Century Viking Caftan

As I've mentioned earlier, my daughter has recently decided that she would like to wear Viking Era clothing. In putting together her wardrobe, I decided that she should have a warm, outer layer for winter. Some quick research led me to the caftan. Carolyn Priest-Dorman (Mistress Thora Sharptooth, in the SCA) defines the woman's caftan as, "The outermost layer of garb, it's a long-sleeved long coat which was pinned together at about the solar plexus with a large brooch; it ... was heavily ornamented," A Quick and Dirty Guide to Viking Women's Garb in the 9th and 10th Centuries.


Although entire pieces of clothing were not found in the Birka, Sweden excavations, which cover the 9th and 10th Centuries, archaeologists were able to gain a lot of knowledge about several different tunic-style garments such as smocks, tunics, and coats. Several construction details that were common in most of the pieces included the front and back panels being cut in one piece (i.e. no shoulder seams) and triangular gores added to widen the skirts, (Priest-Dorman, Viking Tunic Construction. ) Ms. Priest-Dorman includes the following conjectural pattern:

I used this pattern, although I did not taper the sleeves because I was making this caftan for a child and I wanted to be able to adjust the cuffs as she grew. I did fully line the caftan with the same fabric I made it out of to add warmth and to protect the embroidery. Ms. Priest-Dorman mentions that linings were found in all of the clothing layers except for the smock (Quick and Dirty).

I chose a simple, geometric design for the embroidery on this caftan. An embroidered design based on circles was found at the Oseberg burial site:

(Ingstad, The Textiles of the Oseberg Ship.) Drawing by Tone Strenger.

My design is not a copy of any known embroidery, but I think that it would be pleasing to the Viking eye.


I chose a lovely, light-weight, dark brown, tabby-woven wool flannel to make and line the caftan. The archaeological record repeatedly finds that wool was one of the basic fibers used to make Viking Era clothing, (Priest-Dorman, Colors, Dyestuffs, and Mordants of the Viking Age: An Introduction. ) The construction seams were sewn with a sewing machine using standard machine thread. The running stitch embellishment and the laid threads of the couching are wool yarn. I used sewing thread as the couching threads.


Although I machine-sewed the seams, I did finish the seams using running stitch. Inga Hagg found a seam treatment very much like this from the Hedeby (northern Germany) archaeological excavation (Jones, Archaeological Sewing. figure 21)

As I mentioned earlier, the caftan was often heavily ornamented. Embroidery was not the most common form of ornamentation, although there were several examples of embroidered caftans found at Birka. Embroidery was worked in wool, silk, and metal threads. Again, this is a garment for a child, so I chose wool because it is harder wearing than the other fibers. Stem, chain, herringbone, split, and couching stitches are all documentable embroidery stitches for the Viking Era (Quick and Dirty).


I cut out two copies of the pattern from the wool fabric and sewed the lining together on the sewing machine. For the outside of the caftan, I sewed a seam, then finished it by hand using running stitch before I sewed the next seam. When the shell was sewn together, I then chalked the embroidery design onto the fabric.

I laid the motif with a colored wool yarn, using matching sewing thread to couch down the threads.

When the embroidery was finished, I matched the right sides of the lining and the shell together and sewed the lining in. I trimmed the hems to match and folded the edges in together and overcast them to finish the hem. For the cuffs, I trimmed the cuffs to match, and then turned the raw edges to the inside and used a running stitch to hold the cuffs together. Lastly, I added a final line of running stitch through the coat and the lining to tack the lining down and add shape to the finished coat.


I bought the wool fabric already dyed. In the Viking Age, the color could have been achieved by either using the wool from a brown sheep or using walnut shells and possibly iron as a mordant (Priest-Dorman, Quick and Dirty). I used natural, un-dyed cream-colored wool yarn for the running-stitch embellishment.

My daughter and I had fun with the couching yarn colors. She wanted rich, warm colors, so we decided on browns, red, yellow, and orange. Instead of buying yarn in those colors, we took un-dyed yarn and dyed it in the kitchen. In the Viking Age, browns were achieved using walnut shells: a dye rich in tannic acid. Allison and I used tea, another tannin-rich material, to create the two shades of brown. The yarn that we dyed the lighter shade was kept in the dye bath (a very concentrated steeping of tea) for about five minutes. The darker shade was kept in the same dye bath for close to half-an-hour. Rich, vibrant reds were available to the Vikings by using madder as a dying material (Priest-Dorman, Colors, Dyestuffs, & Mordants). We used something a bit more accessible and child-friendly: Cherry Kool-aid. We mixed several packages of Kool-aid into a bowl of boiling water. We then put our length of yarn into the bowl and let it sit until all of the color had moved from the water to the yarn. We used lemonade for the yellow. It is known that the Viking dyers had a good, bright yellow, but so far, chemical analysis has been unable to figure out which dyestuff they used to make it. This yellow is known as "Yellow X," (Priest-Dorman, Colors, Dyestuffs, & Mordants). We used orange Kool-aid for the orange yarn. I am not entirely certain that the Vikings would have been able to achieve this particular shade of orange. They understood over-dying (dying a piece one color, and then putting it into a different dye bath to blend the colors), so perhaps they could have mixed Yellow X and madder to create a good orange (Priest-Dorman, Quick and Dirty). Nevertheless, Allison is happy with the colors on her caftan.

This piece was entered into the Open A&S competition at Gulf Wars 2009, and at TRM Loric and Diana's Coronation. It received good feedback, especially in regards to encouraging children in the Arts and Sciences.