Tuesday, 24 November 2015

A small project for November

This month's HSM challenge is Silver Screen - make something inspired by a costume from a movie or TV show.  My original plan for this challenge was to make an Egyptian bead dress (a historicized version of a costume Theda Bara wore in Cleopatra), but in order to get that done in time for the deadline I would have to have started sometime around July.  I didn't.  So I've had to scale back my ambitions and find a less time-consuming project.

The idea of taking something blatantly, egregiously unhistorical and turning it into something actually attested in the archaeological record really appeals to me, and that was always what I wanted to do for this challenge, but as I say I ran out of time.  Then one day I was flicking through my copy of The Viking Way while I waited for some code to compile, and I came across the Hedeby masks.  And I remembered that episode of Vikings, where the French emperor Charles and his daughter Gisla have those outstandingly unhistorical masks.

Vikings gets a lot of flak generally for its historical inaccuracy, and for good reasons.  I understand the process and the considerations involved, but I find Vikings hard to watch because it departs so far from reality.  As far as those masks go I'm not aware of any historical reality behind them and I have no idea why the writers chose to give the characters masks*, but the vikings did have masks and I thought a historically accurate viking era mask would be a fun little thing to make.  As always with Vikings, the reality is much more interesting, and much stranger, than the TV show.  In reality, viking masks looked more like this:

Reconstruction of a 10th century viking mask made from felt.

This mask is based on a 10th century one from Hedeby.  The original appears to represent a sheep and I tried to make mine look like a sheep too, but I should probably point out here that we do not know for sure the Hedeby mask was meant to be a sheep.  It's a bit ragged now and may have been bent a bit out of shape, but it certainly looks like a sheep.  Here is the original Hedeby mask:

From page 172 of The Viking Way by Neil Price.

The masks found at Hedeby were probably used in rituals relating to the god Odin.  It's a standing joke in archaeological circles that any object whose purpose isn't immediately apparent must be a ritual artifact, but in this case we can be reasonably confident the masks were associated with worship of Odin.  There's a good discussion of this in The Viking Way, and we actually have a 10th century description from Constantine VII of a dance that involved animal skins and masks.

The original Hedeby mask has a fuzzy nap, made by brushing the surface of the felt with some kind of a stiff brush.  My version also has a nap made by brushing the felt surface in the direction the sheep's fur should go.

The Challenge: Silver Screen.

Fabric: A piece of felt 25 cm by 25 cm, which I made from the wool I had left over from my Borum Eshøj belt.  It's easy enough to make felt from yarn if the yarn is thick and made from real wool; you simply un-spin the yarn and felt the resulting strips of un-spun fiber.

Pattern: The Viking Answer Lady provides a gridded diagram of the Hedeby sheep mask.  I played around with it to make a pattern that takes into account the shape of the surviving fabric and is bilaterally symmetrical, as the mask would have been originally.

Year: Somewhere around the 10th century.

Notions: Linen thread to sew up the nose and help shape the head.

How historically accurate is it?  I think it's very accurate.  Maybe even 90% as the pattern is directly based on a 10th century artifact.  The felt I made is wool, but it may not be exactly like wool used in the viking age.  I'm not sure about that.

I made the felt with soap and a sushi mat, which of course isn't the authentic viking way.  I don't know how they made felt, but I do know how cloth was fulled in the middle ages and I therefore suspect the felting process involved urine.  There's a limit to how far I'm prepared to go in the pursuit of historical accuracy.

Hours to complete: Two, including making the felt and messing around with the pattern.

First worn:  I tried to take some photos of me wearing the mask, but this was not a success as it turns out the eye holes on the original aren't quite in the right place for me to see out of them.

Total cost:  Effectively $0 since the wool was left over from a previous project.  This piece of felt would have used a couple of dollars' worth at most.

*If this was Fargo or perhaps Game of Thrones I would be inclined to think the masks had a symbolic significance, but Vikings is not that clever.


  1. Your mask looks a lot like a sheep, to me! So much so that it's... rather adorable! I wonder what such a mask would have been worn with in period. Perhaps simply undyed wool clothing?

    1. It is adorable. It's so cute and fuzzy. I know some scholars hypothesize the Hedeby masks were worn with hoods (the standard early medieval type), but there isn't any hard evidence. There are some depictions of people in what look like masks on bracteates and the Oseberg tapestry, but you know what those things are like. It's hard to make out the details.

    2. Yes. Viking art is the very opposite of representational. Sigh. Perhaps dark hoods and undyed clothing...but it's unlikely we'll ever know for sure.

  2. You have done a fabulous job on this - well done you! A very dear friend asked if I could make this for him. I have been trying all day to make it and just cannot get it at all! I drew out the pattern using the grid from the Viking answer lady. I can't work out how to sew the nose ( if I've even cut it right!) Please please can you help? Did you make a tutorial/pattern I could buy? Many thanks. Helen x