A Viking-Age Ladies' Sewing Basket

By Ásfríðr Ulfvíðardóttir/ Rebecca Lucas.

When sitting at displays or events, to keep my hands busy I will try to spin wool, or sew clothes. But it began to feel wrong that I was sewing with thread on a plastic spool, so I tried looking for alternatives but could only find information about the renaissance (de Holacombe and de Neuville, 2006) or later periods, where there was more artwork and written sources to refer to. Faced with the task of putting this information together, it is styled in the same manner as the Filum Aureum's Period Workbox article, however with different sources and conclusions.

Baskets and Boxes

Surprisingly, there is a wide range of boxes, including basket-woven ones that date from the Viking Age. Legged chests, often called 'sea chests' include two from the early 9th century Oseberg burial (Roesdahl and Wilson, 1992; 269-70), 10th century Cumwhitton, Cumbria (Watson, 2009-10; 16) and the Mastermyr chest from 11th century Gotland (Arwidsson and Berg, 1983). Bentwood boxes, made by wrapping a thin piece of wood around a base include the late 9th century Gokstad 'backpack' (Schuster, 2009), 16-22 Coppergate, York (York Archaeological Trust, 2009 search term 'box') and a box from Heddeby (Hall, 1984; 91). Finally, there are remains of at least three coil baskets, one from Lund, Sweden, one from the Oseberg find, Norway (SCA Basketry, 2009; Universitetsmuseenes Fotoportal, 2010), and a 30x60mm undated example from the Farm Beneath the Sand, Greenland (Østergård, 2004; 42-3).

However, there are two containers that we know for certain were being used to house sewing tools, a bucket-like wooden box found on the Oseberg ship (Lewins, 2003 and Brøgger, 1921; 6) containing balls of thread and wax, and seeds of flax and woad, (Brøgger, 1921; 6), and a small chest of maple from Cumwhitton containing 'various tools for textile working,' possibly including some needles (Watson, 2009-10; 14, 16).

Due to the lower costs of buying a coiled basket over a wooden chest or bentwood box, I use a basket with coiled lid.

Coiled basket with lid
My coiled basket. Originally from Ikea, where it is called Fryken.
For a photo of the Oseberg basket, search for 'Bastarbeider fra Oseberg' at the Universitetsmuseenes Fotoportal site.  

Scissors, Snips, Shears, Awls and Knives

Scissors, shears and snips are all found in the Viking-Age archaeological record. The difference between snips and shears is mostly size -- snips are good for cutting thread or light fabric, but shears would be used for heavier textiles. Scissors, almost identical in shape to modern, plain kitchen or sewing scissors have also been found.

Shears
My own shears!  

Scissors:
SHM 19732SHM 11570SHM 11570
Photos by Yliali Asp (left) of SHM 19732, and Sara Kusmin (centre and right) of SHM 11570.
Shears:
SHM 5208SHM 22293SHM 22293
Photos by Yliali Asp of SHM 5208 (left), Matthias Toplak of SHM 22293 (centre and right).
Snips (arbitrary classification of shears 15cm long or smaller):
SHM 5208SHM 12360SHM 11570
Photos by Yliali Asp of SHM 5208 (left), Elisabet Pettersson of SHM 12360 (centre) and Sara Kusmin of SHM 11570 (right).
Used under a Creative Commons license.

For a photograph of shears from the Oseberg burial, search for 'saks Oseberg' at the Universitetsmuseenes Fotoportal site.  

Needles and Cases

Although bone needles are more commonly seen in some re-enacting circles, possibly because they look more exotic and therefore more historic when sewing, both bone and metal needles were used during the Viking Age. Just like today, different sizes and types of needles are better suited to certain tasks over others, so a chunky bone needle may be excellent for naalbinding, but poor for sewing.

Bone Sewing Needles:
SHM 5208SHM 5208SHM 5208
Photos by Yliali Asp, of SHM 5208.
Metal Sewing Needles:
SHM 3421SHM 34000SHM 32458
Photos by Yliali Asp, of SHM 3421, SHM 34000, and SHM 32458.
Used under a Creative Commons license.  

Bone and antler needles can be fragile when particularly small and fine, and whatever the needles' material you would want to keep them together in a safe place lest you accidently step on them! The answer is then a needlecase.

A needlecase-style for 'Viking' ladies, that has been gaining popularity in recent years, is a vertically-hanging hollow bone, with a strip of leather running through, into which the needles are inserted. A stopper on the end of the thong keeps the protective bone case from falling off. I admit, I am yet to be convinced that they were used during the Viking age, but there is modern ethnographic evidence of the Saami and Inuit using a similar arrangement.


Examples of this style of needlecase, from the McCord Museum:
IMG: Inuit NeedlecaseIMG: Saami Needlecase and AccessoriesIMG: Saami Needlecase Close-up
Click on images to enlarge
Left: Needlecase. Western Arctic Inuit: Inuvialuit. Circa 1857.
Ivory, glass beads, sealskin, sinew
24.5 x 6 cm
Right: Needlecases. Arctic Saami. Circa 1850-1910.
Bone, cord
9 x 1.3 cm
Photographs from SaamiBlog and the McCord Museum, under a Creative Commons License.  

Looking at the needlecases at the SHM website, however, the hollow bones are used to store needles, but appear to be suspended horizontally. The clue is in the holes that piece one side of the bone tube, half-way down its' length. This matches up with sheet-metal counterparts that have also been found, either with identical piercings, or with a loop attached at the same point. It is likely that this loop would then attach to a chain or string, and attached to ones' clothing. (Hägg, 1996) The needles were inserted into a scrap of cloth, which was then stuffed inside the case to keep it in place. (MacGregor, 1985; 193) An alternate technique is to place the needles inside, and then stuff one or more of the ends with unspun wool (Goslee, 2009 quoting MacGregor 1997) or a bung (Beaudry, 2006; 71).

It is my personal opinion, that this horizontally-worn needlecase design is more likely to have been worn by a Viking-age Norse woman.

Bone needlecases, showing chain attachment:
SHM 9259SHM 21802SHM 21802
Photos by Yliali Asp (left) of SHM 9259, and Sara Kusmin (centre and right) of SHM 21802.
Bone needlecases, with perforations in the middle of the case:
SHM 5208SHM 5208SHM 5208
Photos by Yliali Asp (left and centre) and Sara Kusmin (right) of SHM 5208.
Metal needlecases
SHM 2976SHM 28364SHM 10501
Photos by the SHM of 2976, Yliali Asp of SHM 28364, and Eva Vedin of SHM 10501.
Used under a Creative Commons license.  

Thimbles

According to Beaudry (2006; 89), the earliest thimbles found in Europe date from the 9th century, and it is highly likely that it was a ring-style of thimble, instead of the typical domed type used today (ibid.; 93).

Making and Storing Thread

Note: There isn't anything written about thread production, yet.

Spindle Whorls
SHM 5208SHM 5208SHM 5208
Photos by Yliali Asp of ceramic (left) and amber (centre) whorls, and Sara Kusmin of stone whorls (right) SHM 5208
Spindle Sticks
27739
Bronze spindle whorl with fragment of wooden spindle, by Elisabet Pettersson. There is also a 12-13th century example of a spindle stick at the York Archaeological Trust photo library. Search for 'spindle'.
Used under a Creative Commons license.  

Of course, after one has made the thread, one needs to stabilize or 'fix' the threads through various processes, and then store it. The Oseberg burial contained a wealth of tools for this, including a niddy-noddy and swift (Pulsiano and Wolf, 1993; 99), as well as completed balls of thread (Brøgger, 1921; 6). Østergård suggests one way of making these balls is with a shaped stick called a nostepinne or nøstepinde (2004; 52).

Niddy Noddy
Photo of the Oseberg niddy-noddy by Cassandra. Used under a Creative Commons license.

For a photograph of the swift (yarn-winder) from the Oseberg burial, search for 'garnvinne' at the Universitetsmuseenes Fotoportal site.  

Measurements

By the time the Icelandic law code, the Grágás, was written down in the 12th century, the standard cloth measurement was the ell. It was equivalent to 490 mm (Østergård, 2004; 63), or about 19 2/8" (Ward, 2010). However this does not answer how measurements were obtained, and then transferred to the fabric.

Maintenance: Whetstones

Needles and blades had to be kept sharp, and the solution was to use a whetstone (Østergård, 2004; 112). Made of sandstone, these whetstones were from local or imported Norwegian quarries, and are often strikingly beautiful because of their striped surface. They could be pierced, and threaded with a metal ring or cord so they doubled as jewellery. Although reproduction whetstones are expensive, their modern equivalents can be purchased cheaply at fishing and tackle shops -- for sharpening fish hooks -- although they are not nearly as attractive.

Pierced whetstones:
SHM 7250SHM 5404SHM 21802
Photos by Yliali Asp (left) of SHM 7250, Sara Kusmin (centre) of SHM 5404, and SHM of 34000 (right).
Used under a Creative Commons license.

For a photograph of a whetstone from the Oseberg burial, search for 'Nålebryne Oseberg' at the Universitetsmuseenes Fotoportal site.  

Maintenance: Wax

A lump of wax, found in a bucket of sewing and weaving tools from the 9th century Oseberg burial (Brøgger, 1921; 6), may indicate that lightly waxing a thread may have helped with sewing. Today, handsewers may run their sewing thread across a block of beeswax in order to smooth the thread, making sewing easier. As beeswax was considered an expensive commodity at the time (Avdusin and Puškina 1988; 30), however, it is impossible to say what use the Oseberg wax lump was originally intended for.

Bibliography