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Wool In The Viking Era by Chris Moore




Wool in the Viking Era


History of wool use in the Viking Era has scattered information. Excavation sites such as Birka, Hedeby and Kaupang in Skiringssal, have uncovered different types of textiles along with other items. Burials typically showcase a plethora of items, but textiles rarely survive.. Like the Egyptians, the Scandinavian people believed that these items would be helpful and necessary for the deceased. Textiles, shoes, clothing, and in certain cases the tools used to make such items. For example, a woman's gravesite had sewing and weaving items with her.




Wool Fabric pieces, diamond twill weaving.

Medievalists.Net, Photo: NTNU University Museum


A well known discovery of Viking era clothing, the Thorsberg trousers, gives us great insight to the material, construction, and even dyes used. It’s one of few mostly intact artifacts recorded. With the continual discovery of Viking era burial mounds, settlements and even ships, we are fast gaining more and more knowledge about the Scandinavian peoples of that time. Wool was critical to their survival in those harsh and freezing environments. Depending on usage, it could also be woven in lighter weights. Wool was so important in society that it was used as a sort of currency in trade. Other uses were tithes, offerings and purchasing goods. To clothe a family, it took about a year to weave cloth for clothes!




Thorsberg Trousers. www.archeologienadosah.cz


Colors have been chronicled as well as what was used to dye the fibers for clothing, giving us a very good idea that the people then enjoyed colorful clothing. Blue was most common, followed by yellows, greens, orange, and browns. Natural wool was also used, and the wool ranged in natural tones. White, gray, and browns were typical of the sheep native to their lands. Most of the common folk would make and dye their own clothing, while the wealthier most likely bought or traded for theirs. They would also have clothing dyed from imported dyestuffs, like the plant Madder to create luxurious reds. Colorful clothing was definitely popular, and clothing was even embellished with woven trim, beads, or even pearls.


Discovered Colors in Wool Textiles


Firstly, Madder. This was rare and hard to find in Scandinavia at the time. It made a wonderful red color. Red cloth was typically imported from other countries, making it expensive. It is also known as 'Dyer's Madder', and can grow to about six feet high.





Photo: skjalden.com



Compounds found in wool is as follows:

  • Galium boreale (purple/purple tones) From Northern Bedstraw

  • Isatis tinctoria L. (Indigo/blue tones) from a plant called Woad

  • Juglans regia (Yellow) Walnut

  • Rubia tinctorium L. (red tones) Madder plant

  • Xanthoria parietina (Oranges and yellows) common yellow wall-lichen, also called shore lichen

  • at least one lichen that yields purples, possibly from Ochrolechia tartarea, “Cudbear” (Vivid purples)


Dye Stuffs, and Mordant

What are dyestuffs and mordants? These are the technical terms used in dying. For this article, the dyestuffs are materials like plants, roots, bugs, and lichen. Usually the mordants were dissolved, and the textiles being dyed were left to sit in sunlight. Mordants were used as a fixative that “set” the colors. In this case, it was ammonia, copper, and iron. The most common and accessible mordant was ammonia. The process to create dye was quite simple, and the most common method. Below is a simple rundown of the common practice. Gather your roots, or plant leaves, or lichen. Chop them up, and/or crush them. You want to be as thorough as possible in this process and you would most likely need a lot of your dye stuffs. Gather up the mushy mess, as that is what you will have by now, and squeeze it into a palm sized ball. Squeeze out the juices as best as you can, then set them in a place where they can dry out. The next step would be to dissolve it in a very common liquid that has endless supply and never runs out. No, not water. If you’ve read this far, you may know where this is going.


Fermented urine. Yes, pee. Human or animal, it doesn’t quite make that clear, but that is what brings the magic to making those wonderfully colored clothes. That is your Mordant, and sets the dyes to the textile. Let that all sit in the sun, as those balls need to dissolve. Once that is done doing it’s thing, you are now ready to dye your wool fibers, or wool cloth. Congrats!


In the next blog installments, you will see wool processing in action. From examples of carding, to dying, felting, different types of spinning and weaving of these fibers. Some of these will have a more modern take, for times’ sake. As you read above, it can take quite a long time from start to finish. However, the tools presented are still used today by all sorts of textile artists.





Works Cited

“Viking Women: Weaving History and Progress.” Lenny Letter, 26 July 2018, https://www.lennyletter.com/story/viking-women#:~:text=Wool%20cloth%20was%20used%20as%20currency%2C%20for%20taxes,the%20currency%20was%20created%20by%20peaceful%20women%E2%80%99s%20weaving. Accessed 9 Apr. 2022.

Medievalists.net. “Viking-Age Embroidered Textiles Found in Woman's Grave.” Medievalists.net, 16 June 2021, https://www.medievalists.net/2021/06/viking-age-embroidered-textiles-found-in-womans-grave/.

Osten. “Jak Obléci Vikinga.” Jak Obléci Vikinga | Archeologie Na Dosah, 2015, https://www.archeologienadosah.cz/clanky/jak-obleci-vikinga.

“Plant Dye Colors in the Viking Age.” Nordic Culture, 21 Feb. 2022, https://skjalden.com/plant-dye-colors-in-the-viking-age/.

Christensen, Christian. “What Did the Vikings Wear? the Truth about Their Clothes and Dress.” Scandinavia Facts, 7 Sept. 2021, https://scandinaviafacts.com/the-viking-dress-code-what-they-wore-and-how/.



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