Wednesday, 29 July 2015

What my Bronze Age ancestors wore

The next HSM challenge theme is Heirlooms and Heritage.  I've approached this challenge by looking at the types of garments my Bronze Age ancestors wore.  Up to 1875, my father's family* lived in Denmark.  Dad's family came from Møn, where they were farmers as far back as there are Danish census records available.  I can't find any records of my ancestors prior to the 17th century, but Møn has been inhabited since the Palaeolithic.  It has a lot of funerary monuments from the Neolithic through to the Bronze Age and although people were highly mobile at that time, it makes sense to think dad's ancestors were in around that general area.

I have a couple of bronze items on my to-do list, but didn't want to make them for this challenge because I have no way of knowing what socio-economic status my ancestors had.  I settled on reconstructing the Borum Eshøj belt.   Belts are a utilitarian item that everybody uses, regardless of their location or social status, and the belt from Borum Eshøj is a very interesting textile.  It's not a unique item - the Egtved Girl had a similar belt, as did the man from Trindhøj - so while I'll never know for sure if my ancestors wore belts like these it does seem reasonably plausible.

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Photo found here.

The first question was what wool to use.  New Zealand produces lots of lovely wool, but over the centuries selective breeding has resulted in sheep whose wool is very different to the kind of wool used in Bronze Age Denmark.  Back then, sheep had a double coat consisting of longer, waterproof guard hairs and shorter, fluffier insulating hairs.  The long hairs made stronger yarn, but the shorter hairs made warmer woollier yarn.  So I went looking to see if Bronze Age type sheep were still around, and I found that they are, more or less.  Bronze Age European wool was a lot like Soay wool.  Soay sheep are a primitive breed which retain the characteristics of their Bronze Age ancestors.  However, I couldn't find a source of suitable Soay wool.  Faroese sheep would also be a possibility, but all the Faroese wool I found online was blended with Merino and other things.  If I want a Merino blend I can save myself some money and get a perfectly nice local one, which is what I ended up doing.

I bought fairly chunky yarn in natural fleece colours, so they would look as much like the original as possible.  Borum Eshøj textiles were not dyed and are quite coarse with 3 - 5 threads per cm, but this does not mean they were unsophisticated. The Borum Eshøj belt encorporates both S and Z spun yarn, to create a zig-zag effect in the weave.  The technical term is a shadow stripe, and it was a popular way to decorate textiles in Bronze Age Europe (see NESAT X).  All my wool is commercially made S spun yarn, but the idea of making the belt without that cool shadow stripe really irritated me.

Did you know that if you're careful, you can pick apart commercially produced yarn and re-spin it so that it is Z spun?  I re-spun some of my wool into Z yarn, because apparently I don't know what's good for me.

On the left S spun commercial yarn, on the right my new Z spun yarn.

*I don't know as much about my ancestry on my mother's side.  Given that mum's family is from England, it's a good bet some of her Bronze Age ancestors lived in Denmark too.


  1. Wow! I can't wait to see this project!

    1. Thanks! I haven't quite got the warp set up, but so far it's looking good. I aim to do a couple of posts about the weaving process and finishing off the tassels at the end.