‘Hidden in Plain Sight’ Norse Women Textile Producers

‘Clothes maketh the man’ is an old saying. It means that what a man wears will be a declaration of his status, of his place in the power structure and of his ambitions. But the maker of the clothes and the one who selected what he would wear in the Viking period would be a woman.

Christina Lee of Nottingham University, in her talk ‘Hidden in Plain Sight’, at the 5th St Magnus Conference on Friday 16th April 2021, described the role of Norse women in the Northern isles of Scotland during the Early Medieval period.

Today we are reassessing many images we have of what we think of as ‘Vikings’ including appreciating that there were female warriors. Christina Lee commented that in gender we are still measuring women by male ideas. She turned instead to look at women who kept the communities going through the grind of daily life.

Christina Lee wondered if, when family groups migrated from Scandinavian countries to the islands of Scotland, the women had any say in that decision. There is some evidence in the Sagas of women migrants but what did these women do?

There are also Viking graves and these contain grave goods. Christina Lee reflected that some of these goods may not identify where the woman came from. Isotope evidence is being used to define where the woman grew up. The isotope data from the grave at Westness, Rousay, Orkney shows that the woman was not originally from the island but perhaps came from Denmark.

The viking grave at Gurness, Mainland, Orkney located where it is now perched perilously close to the edge of the coastline is, remarks Christina Lee, a special link between the old and the new – between the sea and the land.

Viking grave Broch of Gurness

Previous talks at the St Magnus Conference focussed on the important role of woman as ‘Housewife’. The woman ran the household and dealt with the accounts. In settling in the islands women were establishing the homes, governing the farms and were also part of the economy – as textile workers.

Flax was used to produce linen. There is evidence of flax growing at Poole, Sanday, Orkney and at the Bay of Skaill, Mainland, Orkney. The islands have ideal conditions for growing this crop.

spindle whorls from The Cairns Broch Excavation Credit: B Bell

Textile tools include spindle whorls. Women were passing on knowledge and skills to each other. They were adopting new techniques .

ogham spindle whorl Orkney museum

At Jarsholf, Shetland, there is evidence of large scale textile production.

It was assumed that the textiles being produced by women were mainly for their own households but Jarsholf and the Broch of Birsay, Orkney, would indicate that there were workshops producing textiles for wider distribution. These could be fine and complex materials.

Viking clothes Uig Museum Western Isles Credit: B Bell

Women controlled the making of textiles and as a consequence – what men were wearing. The style, the colours, the fabric, the very ‘look’ of the man was the result of choices made by a woman.

Textiles were also used for medical purposes – for bandages, poultices and dressings. Very little is known about this aspect of early Medieval textiles.

This was another thought provoking talk as part of the St Magnus Conference 2021 which was hosted by the Institute of Northern Studies at the University of the Highlands and Islands. The talks have been recorded.

To find out more about the history of textiles: Centre for Textile Research University of Copenhagen

You may also be interested in this: Norse Women in Scotland

Reporter: Fiona Grahame

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