Viking Age Tapestries: 3. Fabrication17 min read

Column, The Tapestry Series

This is part three in a series on Viking Age tapestries. Part 1 is a brief introduction, Part 2 a brief history, Part 4 an inventory of Viking Age tapestries and Part 5 is has bonus material on modern day tapestries.

We are halfway through the series and we are still discussing European, Viking Age tapestries with narrative designs. It’s now time to find out how the early medieval Europeans went about producing their tapestries. Who ordered these wall hangings, who made them and how?

Function

The fabrication of a tapestry depends on the needs, wishes and sizeable purse of the medieval patron.[1] If he or she is in need of a status symbol, the tapestry is the perfect object to combine beautiful art with practicality. It is a strong, durable and very flexible piece of cloth that can easily be stowed away and taken out when guests arrive. This happens, for example, in Njáls saga when the women take out the wall hangings for the arrival of an important guest.[2] Also, it’s easy to pack for the road which is a real perk for medieval aristocrats who often travel between their homes and domains.[3]

Shape

Medieval tapestries come in many shapes and sizes. Perhaps less known are the small weaves used for cushions, furniture covers, or bands to beautify clothing.[4] Much better known are doorways covered by large (vertical) rectangles, church or castle walls covered by lengthy oblongs.

Bayeux Embroidery
Bayeux Embroidery Stitch (Wikipedia)

The oblong shape is usually explained in relation to the shape of castle halls and churches. The obvious sample here is the Bayeux Embroidery (technically not a tapestry, by the way). This cloth is just under 70 m (!) long and 50 cm wide, fit for an impressive great hall.[5] Researchers suggest that the shape of the Bayeux is reminiscent of Roman reliefs and carvings.[6] Indeed many elements refer to the Classical world. Some we still understand, some are lost to us now but will have been understood by the medieval audience.[7] Furthermore, I also like to think that the oblong shape creates an inherently continuous story. Take, for example, the way the scenes overlap and how the decorative bands keep the story together.

Scandinavian Oblongs

A few early Scandinavian tapestries are oblong, too. Yet the reasons we have for the Bayeux shape do not seem to fit the northern samples. The region has never been a part of the Roman Empire.[8] And despite early signs of trade,[9] Scandinavian history is not as influenced by the Roman and Classical world as the Anglo-Norman world is when the Bayeux piece is made.

Why, then, are there oblong tapestries in Scandinavia? I had trouble finding an online academic study to lead me in the right direction. So, I share my hunch with you; this shape effortlessly fits the interior of a typical Scandinavian longhouse. They might have hung above the benches along the walls, near the fireplace, for example. Some would have been of plain and made of coarse wool, these are called the tjeld. The refil is a narrow band, with woven and embroidered designs and would be hung above the tjeld.[10] 

Patronage and Labour

Gerberga of Saxony (Wikipedia)

Patronage is one of the most difficult things to prove for tapestries of the Viking Age. The early weaves lack the clear signs of ownership of the later period, such as heraldic symbols.[11] The exception to this idea is Gerberga’s battle flag from c. 960. Gerberga was the sister of the German emperor and embroidered a cloth that states ‘Gerberga made me’ in Latin.[12]

We know from part two in this series that the nobles and the clergy were the wealthiest people at the start of the Viking Age. Therefore, most patrons of tapestries will have been from either class. Nobles are often patrons and benefactors of religious centres as well, making it a complex web of who actually orders the tapestry. It does also explain to a large degree why the religious symbols and narratives are so dominant in the designs.

And it’s not just the men who are patrons. Women are patrons and artisan-weavers in their own right. Weaving and embroidery is practiced not just by lower class women, but high-ranking women as well.[13] Further evidence that women are in control of many aspects of weaving goes further than just Gerberga’s feat. Medieval women do control the money for household activities if one considers they are benefactors of nunneries,[14] and can export cloth from Iceland to Norway as Icelandic records show.[15] A third example to support this, is an early medieval Irish law stating that women can enter into binding contracts with craftsmen.[16]

Toward the end of the Viking Age, things start to change. Tapestry production takes off in terms of quantity and quality and its fabrication moves from the homes to professional, urban workshops with male designers and weavers,[17] though it seems that entrepreneurial women are also able to join and earn their way by weaving tapestries.[18]

The Myriad of Designs

Along the Silk Road

A tapestry design comes down to what the patron considers beautiful or relevant. At the start of the Viking Age there is a variety of motifs to choose from for the European weavers and their patrons, with thanks to the silk trade from Asia.

It starts the kesi in China with its narrative designs. The earliest of these silk tapestries date back to the Tang dynasty (7th-9th c.).[19] The kesi are exported when the Tang emperors start China’s foreign trade and monopoly of the silk trade along the Silk Road. Their partner in this successful business model are a nomadic people called the Sogdians. They trade raw silk, silk bolts and silk tapestries from China via Persia all the way to Byzantium, and back again.[20] Unsurprisingly, Sogdian tapestry art therefore includes Chinese influences. Historical records show that Chinese craftsmen lived and worked in the Sogdian city of Bukhara.[21] Further evidence is the use of  typical elements from the kesi such as flowers, vines, ducks and lions that also appear in Sogdian tapestries where they further developed in arranged, symmetrical animal pairs, and hunting scenes.[22]

The provenance of design gets really blurry by the time the Sogdians reach the Sasanian court in Persia. The Persians, too, use animal hunting scenes but give them their own twist by making them combat or fighting scenes.[23] The Sogdians travel onwards to Byzantium, but the Sasanians already have a close relationship with the Byzantine empire. They are frenemies at best. Despite Chinese attempts to keep sericulture a secret, the Sasanian and Byzantines both get a hold of silk worms to start their own sericulture.[24] At the same time, Byzantine weavers end up in Sasanian textile workshops.[25] This intensive exchange between these two cultures, and the lingering influences of the Chinese and Sogdian designs, make it hard for researchers today to distinguish the origin of the tapestry based on the narrative design only.[26]

From the Mediterranean to Europe

The Byzantine empire is the go-between for silk trade with Europe. In time, their tapestries not only include Asian motifs, but their own religious motifs,[27] some of which are from the Coptic weaving traditions in Egypt.[28] With the rise of the Islamic civilisation in the seventh century, new motifs are added such as Kufic script and geometrical designs.[29]

This incredible and myriad of design motifs reaches Europe by the start of the Viking Age. The early imported and local tapestries show many Asian and Oriental motifs, but these very slowly fade out over time as more religious and local historical or epic scenes are included. Remember that Scandinavia uses pagan symbols for a longer time, and Al-Andalus Islamic elements for as long as there is Arab rule on the Iberian Peninsula.

With local production increasing, local design elements are exchanged more frequently, too. The Baldishol tapestry, for example, is a Norwegian tapestry but its Romanesque style reminds of the Bayeux Embroidery.[30] The themes of the tapestries include historical/epic stories though are still strongly influenced by Christian elements.[31] Some designs in Scandinavia are the topic of hot debate whether they are pagan, Christian or both. Last but not least, the German tapestries from the end of the Viking Age also strongly refer to Christian elements or historical imperial grandeur such as Charlemagne’s Frankish empire.

Finally, what also caught my eye whilst compiling the inventory, is the direction in which figures look or walk in the designs. Perhaps there is no significance to this, and I’m being silly. But perhaps there is? I have not been able to find a clear pattern. In some they walk or look to the right and in others to the left and in the Skog piece they come from both directions.

Fabrication

Fibres & Yarns
The Norwegian spælsau sheep (Wikipedia)

A medieval tapestry is made from animal or plant fibres and its colours are from natural dyes. The choice of fibres is determined by what is easily available locally or via trade. Until recently, it was thought that the European medieval tapestries only contained wool, flax, and silk in exceptional cases. This is quite straightforward considering the lively wool trade between Norway, England and Iceland.[32] An example of using local material is the Baldishol tapestry made from Norwegian spælsau sheep[33] that produces a particularly soft and shiny wool.[34] Another sample is the recent reassessment of the Överhogdal tapestries that sheds new light on the use of hemp in tapestries. These pieces are now confirmed to contain hemp and a local hemp production has been uncovered near the place where this tapestry was found.[35]

Once the fibres are collected they are spun into yarns on a spinning wheel or needle. The quality of the yarn is determined by skill; a high quality yarn has thin and regular threads, but this is a time-consuming process.[36] The skill of spinning  in the earlier tapestry is more crudely and has a weave that not as tight as in later tapestries.[37] After the yarns are then finished they can be dyed. The early colours are based on natural dyes from animals and plants and are limited in number.[38] Quite logically, the earlier tapestries show fewer colours than the later ones.

Weaving & Techniques

With the yarns dyed and ready, it is time to prepare the loom for weaving. The loom is a wooden frame, either large enough to weave standing or sitting,[39] or small enough to be held by hand such as the tablet looms from the Oseberg ship burial that suggest highly skilled weaving.[40]

The first set of yarns fastened on the loom is the warp and they can have weights at their ends (warp-weighted loom). The next set of yarns is the weft and is woven through the warp. A discontinuous weft is typical for a tapestry weave due to the use of colours and design. If necessary, the tapestry can be further strengthened with another ground weft through the warp that is invisible to the eye. In general, the weaver works facing the back of the tapestry and occasionally beats down the strings until the warp is completely covered by the weft.[41]

With the right tools and materials, the warp and weft in place, it is time to weave the tapestry. There are many techniques available in the Middle Ages, here are a few used in European tapestries:

Tapestry weave – the basic weave, for small and large wall hangings, or other items such as cushions and shrouds.[42]

Soumak – evolved from an ancient finger weaving technique, whereby the weft wraps around a single or pair of warps.[43]

Brocading – decorative threads are woven in such a way that it becomes a raised pattern.[44] Embroidery on a tapestry weave does the same. The difference is that brocading is a weave and embroidery needs a needle and is therefore not considered a weaving technique.[45]

Samite – “slightly shiny silk fabric with a diagonal rib in its structure” from the back cover of Margaret Scott’s famous Medieval Dress & Fashion.[46]

As there is skill in the spinning of the yarn, there is also skill in the design and weaving techniques. Perhaps it is a matter of taste, but the Oseberg figures do seem quite crude and are unevenly distributed compared to the more rounded and finished figures of later tapestries, such as the symmetrically aligned figures in the Skog tapestry,[47] or the fine figures in the Baldishol tapestry.

Ongoing Research

Each chapter in this piece is a discipline by itself within textile research. I have barely scratched the surface here. It is an understatement to say that it is hard to prove the origin of a tapestry by its patronage (not enough evidence), design (too many possibilities) or fabrication (Oriental techniques were also used in Europe) alone. Yet, combining these three criteria produces promising results in current academic research. Scholars and expert weavers continue to deepen their (and our) knowledge and open our eyes to the significance of historical textile evidence. The cultural exchanges and borrowings the tapestries teach us about, add to and refine our current knowledge of archeological evidence and manuscript recordings.

Until now, Europe tapestry fabrication in the early Middle Ages has only been mapped by region; such as the Anglo-Saxon world,[48] Scandinavia[49] and Northern Europe.[50] It would be amazing to see this kind of mapping extended to the rest of Europe and linking it to Asia in more detail. At the same time, what a complex, time-consuming and intriguing job that will be!

For now, I leave with the promise of showing the inventory in the next part.

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