A question that is often asked of Regia members by members of the public is "They wouldn't have had cloth that fine and soft would they?". Well I have recently been doing a project on Anglo-Scandinavian cloth with particular reference to finds from York at the Archaeological Resource Centre there. This project has involved researching textiles not only from York but also from other Viking Age sites to enable me to draw parallels. I hope that the information I have accumulated will be of use to Regia members and others interested in this period.
One of the most important things to remember is that the recovery of textiles from digs is quite rare and is even rarer for large quantities of textiles to survive. This is due to the fact that textiles require anaerobic conditions, i.e. to be waterlogged and without oxygen, in order for them to survive. As some of you will know there are very few sites in Britain that have these conditions, but `ghosts' of textiles sometimes survive in the corrosion products of metalwork, particularly on jewellery. The evidence preserved in these corrosion products is, however, generally very small, but it is still of use as the weave and thread size can usually be detected, though often with difficulty.
Normally very fine textiles are found in graves and coarser textiles on settlement sites. This does not mean that people were only buried in fine cloth, but wore coarse clothes in life. What it suggests is that the finer cloth found in graves is cloth worn every day as clothing and that the coarser fabrics were used for everyday tasks and industrial purposes. In a town such as York or Dublin these coarser fabrics would also include sail-cloth and tarpaulins. Occasionally fine cloth is found on settlement sites e.g. Hedeby in Schleswig-Holstein where the cloth had a secondary use as caulking for boats after the cloth had served its useful life as clothing and it was not feasible to mend it any more.
Obviously the quality of clothing worn would diminish with lower ranks, but even the slaves were not wearing very rough 'sack- cloth' as people have thought in the past and some still do today. Slaves would also probably wear their master's cast-offs, which would be reasonably fine, though they may have been very patched and worn thin in places. However this does not mean that slaves were going round wearing highly decorated, but patched, clothing. The slaves would receive the underclothes, i.e. under-tunics, undresses, work clothes etc., to be worn as overclothes. If the upper classes did 'hand down' their more decorated garments then it would generally have been to the classes immediately below them or to their children. However this handing down of decorated garments does not seem to have happened. Of the most heavily embroidered garments, the habit was to donate them to the church, which were consequently embellished even more for the bishops etc.
From sites in York and elsewhere in Europe, particularly Scandinavia, very fine cloth has been recovered, typically with counts of between 14x11 and 24x12 threads per cm. (first number = warp, i.e. threads hanging down, second number = weft, i.e. threads passing through). More often than not though, the greater number of textiles recovered from sites are of medium fineness, typically with thread counts of 10x7 to 15x9 threads per cm. These are, nevertheless, still reasonably fine fabrics and much finer than some of the cloth some public expect us to be wearing.
Evidence from York and later Saxon London have shown that the majority of wool used was of a 'hairy medium' type, meaning that the staple - the length of the individual fibres - was quite long allowing very fine yarn to be spun and, consequently, very fine fabrics to be produced, though they would not be exceptionally fine and it is quite possible that they would still have quite a rough, but smooth, feel to them. It does seem though that the people in the places settled by Scandinavians were using more hairy wools than those in the Anglo-Saxon settlements, so maybe here we are seeing an early north/south divide.
These hairy wools found on Scandinavian sites seem to equate with the modern mountain breeds of sheep; so maybe we are seeing here the ancestors of these sheep, which would appear to have been brought to Britain by Scandinavian settlers. We do not know what sort of breed was native to the Anglo-Saxon areas of England in this period unfortunately, but we can assume that it would be reasonably similar to the breeds living there today. All of these wools would produce quite fine cloth though, and if the cloth were fulled then the cloth would be even finer and smoother. Fulling mills from the later Viking period have been found in Britain, particularly in Fair Isle and the north of Scotland so it is highly possible that the Vikings and the Anglo-Saxons were producing fine fulled cloth. Obviously they were able to import even finer cloth, and silks, from the Mediterranean and even further afield, but it is often difficult to distinguish these imported cloths from native cloths in the archaeological record.
There is also a tradition in the north of Scotland and the Orkney and Shetland Isles that the cotton grass which is often in wetland in upland areas was spun and made into a type of fine cloth, but we cannot tell whether this is truth or just myth as fibres such as cotton and linen survive even more rarely than wool in archaeological record.
I hope that this short article has been of interest and that the Bibliography below will produce further material for those of you who wish to pursue this topic further.
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