[My Chamber of Textile Thoughts. No: XLV | By Viveka Hansen]

The approximate first thousand years of the Nordic Iron Age (500BC-600AD) was a period when textile related finds first decreased then increased in the Malmö area, compared to the previous Bronze Age. The many archeological excavations in the past two decades have also been able to unearth a variety of tools, fragments, seeds etc making it possible to add new facts and draw conclusions of the development of this period. This second article of the textile history of said area in southernmost Sweden, will discuss the introduction of dyeing from the knowledge learned via local excavations and comparisons with some extremely well-preserved Danish bog finds.

Textile fragments in twill have been found at excavations in the Malmö area, a weaving technique which gives more variation compared to the plain weave which was known here as early as the Nordic Bronze Age. The depicted fabric is a historical reproduction of such a woollen twill quality; which in technique, material, density and design has aimed to be as authentic as possible compared to qualities from the Iron Age. The fabric was hand-woven in 1986 by Peter Anderson, using the wool of the Herdwick sheep. Photo: Lars Andersson, The IK Foundation & Company, London.

Textile fragments in twill have been found at excavations in the Malmö area, a weaving technique which gives more variation compared to the plain weave which was known here as early as the Nordic Bronze Age. The depicted fabric is a historical reproduction of such a woollen twill quality; which in technique, material, density and design has aimed to be as authentic as possible compared to qualities from the Iron Age. The fabric was hand-woven in 1986 by Peter Anderson, using the wool of the Herdwick sheep. (Photo: Lars Andersson, The IK Foundation & Company, London.)

Notice: Place names in italic are geographical areas, today within or very closely situated to the city of Malmö.

The oldest period of the Iron Age in the Malmö area gives few if any clues of textile traditions or the population’s clothing and everyday life – which is also the case for many other researched Nordic settlements of this time. Reasons for the decrease in finds are somewhat uncertain, but a substantially colder climate and more rain is believed to be a major factor. In other words, the heavy clayey soils of this region made the former farmers’ grounds impossible to cultivate, so for hundreds of years they had to settle elsewhere on higher and drier places. However a general description of textile related finds from some other Nordic settlements can shortly be summarised as; primarily locally produced fabrics in twill or plain weave made of wool from black, brown or greyish sheep, and an introduction of dyes. While all sorts of skins were still important for larger garments as skirts or capes and other clothing, suitable for the cold climate.

The period 100-600AD is much richer in finds, including some new developments for the textile production in the area. Awls made of iron was one such tool – a stronger material than the earlier ones of bronze and bone – used in preparing holes for the stitching of skin garments. One of these awls has been located as a burial find from the Höjahögen in Malmö and a similar tool in a grave situated at Limhamn. At the latter mentioned excavation a half-moon shaped knife was also unearthed, which is believed to have been used for the skin/leather/fur craft. Furthermore, various research from the Nordic area have come to the conclusions that larger garments of skin to some extent diminished during this period and instead came into fashion as a luxury material for accessories like collars, hats or mittens. The upright loom had now simultaneously developed to become the main tool for producing garments and other necessary furnishing textiles for the home. This circumstance can be proved through several finds, for example from excavations at Fosie the archeologists registered a large amount of loom weights, spindle whorls, bone needles and a scissor of iron. Other finds include textile fragments, particularly from Kristineberg, where nine tiny pieces of woollen fabric (1,5cm x 1,5cm or smaller) were unearthed in two graves. The fabrics could be categorised into two types of twill – circa 10-12 warp threads/cm respectively 15 threads/cm. A similar find was located in a female grave from Hindby; where twill woven woollen fragments have been preserved because of the close proximity to dress fibulas of bronze.

Several plants were known for the dyeing of yellow during this period, but dyer’s weed (Reseda Luteola) is believed to have been the most common plant, due to chemical analysis on excavated textile finds in both Scandinavia and Great Britain. While clubmoss (instead of alum in later periods) is thought to have been the main mordant for textile dyeing of yarn and cloth. For dyeing of blue – woad (Isatis tinctoria) – was at least already in use around 2000 years ago in the Nordic area. Depiction of plain weave in two colours: (Helen Hodgson, 2001).

Several plants were known for the dyeing of yellow during this period, but dyer’s weed (Reseda Luteola) is believed to have been the most common plant, due to chemical analysis on excavated textile finds in both Scandinavia and Great Britain. While clubmoss (instead of alum in later periods) is thought to have been the main mordant for textile dyeing of yarn and cloth. For dyeing of blue – woad (Isatis tinctoria) – was at least already in use around 2000 years ago in the Nordic area. Depiction of plain weave in two colours: (Helen Hodgson, 2001).

There is only clear proof for that wool was spun for the population’s need of clothing and other textiles, no flax fibres or fragments have been found in the area from this part of the Iron Age. Nevertheless large amounts of flax seeds were unearthed at several excavated settlements, so maybe flax was by now not only used for cooking, but also for the weaving of linen fabric. From a larger Nordic perspective local production of linen cloth was introduced about 200AD and first became common approximately 400 years later. At the same time, the more widespread research in the Nordic area also indicates that sheep started to be bred around 100AD, due to obtain better qualities as well as more varied types of wool for the textile production. White and light-grey wool seems to have been desired, probably not for the wish of white clothing, but instead that a white or light-grey wool was ideal for the developing fashion of dyeing woollen yarn or cloth into various colours.

This very well-preserved Danish Iron Age bog find from “Huldremose”, originating from the 2nd century BC can give good insight and be a comparison into a woman’s clothing from a wider geographical Nordic area. The more than 40 year old female was once buried fully clothed along with all her garments – consisting of a checked woollen skirt and scarf together with two skin capes – have been studied in great detail by the National Museum. Her clothing of wool was also dyed, explained by the museum in the following way: ‘The long period in the water of the bog has turned the clothes brown. Colour analysis has shown that originally the skirt was blue and the scarf was a red colour’. (Courtesy of Nationalmuseet in København, Denmark.)

This very well-preserved Danish Iron Age bog find from “Huldremose”, originating from the 2nd century BC can give good insight and be a comparison into a woman’s clothing from a wider geographical Nordic area. The more than 40 year old female was once buried fully clothed along with all her garments – consisting of a checked woollen skirt and scarf together with two skin capes – have been studied in great detail by the National Museum. Her clothing of wool was also dyed, explained by the museum in the following way: ‘The long period in the water of the bog has turned the clothes brown. Colour analysis has shown that originally the skirt was blue and the scarf was a red colour’. (Courtesy of Nationalmuseet in København, Denmark.)

Northern bedstraw (Galium boreale) is a useful plant for both sustainable yellow and red dyes on wool. Carbonised seeds of several Galium species have also been found in excavations in Lockarp, Svågertorp and other places close to settlements in the Malmö area, together with other seeds believed to have acted as cultivating plants. That some species of this genus was used for textile dyeing is one likely possibility! Northern bedstraw in late June. (Photo: Viveka Hansen.)

Northern bedstraw (Galium boreale) is a useful plant for both sustainable yellow and red dyes on wool. Carbonised seeds of several Galium species have also been found in excavations in Lockarp, Svågertorp and other places close to settlements in the Malmö area, together with other seeds believed to have acted as cultivating plants. That some species of this genus was used for textile dyeing is one likely possibility! Northern bedstraw in late June. (Photo: Viveka Hansen.)

All textile production was not local, wide-spread and far reaching trade was well-developed during the Nordic Iron Age. A piece of clear evidence for this early commerce was found during an excavation at Västergård in connection to the building of the Öresund bridge, described as followed by the Malmö Museum: ‘According to the conservators, the object consists of a metal core which is entwined with a type of textile fibre, the find was located close to the cranial remains.’(No: MHM9149, in a translation from Swedish). The metal core of the thread suggests that the person at time of his/her burial was dressed in exclusive imported fabrics, while there is no proof for that spinning thread either with metal as a core or entwined around a textile material was known in the Nordic area at this time.

To be continued… &

Please see previous post in this series:

Sources 

  • Hansen, Viveka, Förhistoriska och Medeltida Textilier i Malmö, Elbogen pp. 73-144. 2001. (A large number of primary and secondary sources were studied for this article. For full Bibliography; please see the Swedish article.)
  • Nationalmuseet, København, Denmark (The Woman from Huldremose)

PLEASE REFERENCE AS FOLLOWS:

Hansen, Viveka, ‘The Nordic Iron Age – Clothing and Dyes’ (I 2), TEXTILIS (August 27, 2015); http://textilis.net/ (Accessed: Day/Month/Year)