Sunday, 1 November 2015

My October project

I've been looking forward to October's HSM challenge, but October hasn't been a good month for me and I've only just got the project completed.  October's challenge is Sewing Secrets:

"Hide something in your sewing, whether it is an almost invisible mend, a secret pocket, a false fastening or front, or a concealed message (such as a political or moral allegiance)."

The brocaded tablet woven bands from Birka were between 6 and 15 mm wide, my version is about 13 mm.

This is an adaptation of a brocaded tablet woven band from Birka.  What are its secrets?  For starters green and gold are the colours of my alma mater, Victoria University of Wellington.  The pattern also includes a runic cipher, a kind of magic inscription meant to bring good luck.  For this challenge, I wanted to explore the concepts of runic codes, and magic in viking age textiles.  In the viking world there was a strong association between textiles and magic, and their literature contains plenty of references to textiles with magical properties.

This diagram shows the rune symbol I used and how it works.  It combines the letters G and A, which are the initials for gibu áuja, or "good luck" in Old Norse.  I wove the runes in groups of four in a decorative pattern.

I chose this symbol mostly because it's very easy to work it into the kind of pattern we see a lot in Norse tablet weaving.  Norse tablet weaving designs used geometric patterns composed of straight lines and 45 degree angles, which is the type of design tablet weaving is naturally inclined to produce.

Magic and religion in the ancient world interest me, because to understand what these concepts meant to the people who believed in them we have to think about how they viewed the world.  Our ancestors weren't stupid or gullible, but they did have a worldview that is in some ways quite alien to us.  We think of the supernatural as something separate from the natural world, but to people in pre-industrial cultures it was just another aspect of the natural world*.

The word "rune" means a secret or mystery, so runes are certainly an appropriate subject for this challenge.  They were often written in code or using ciphers that combine more than one letter.  Sometimes inscriptions that make no sense at first glance are encrypted, or are magical formulae, but not all runic inscriptions were magical.  Many were written for very mundane reasons and sometimes the runes were encrypted just for fun.  This runic code from Bergen is too good not to share!  The men’s beards contain a coded message.  The beards indicate each letter's position in the alphabet, so for example the third beard from left is th, and the next one is á.

Photo: Aslak Liestøl, Museum of Cultural History, University of Oslo

Anyway, we’re getting a bit off track.  My project is, shall we say, speculative.  I'm not aware of any Viking textiles with runes woven into them.   As a technique, tablet weaving lends itself well to incorporating complex designs like lettering, and there are some examples of Anglo-Saxon tablet weaving incorporating writing in the early medieval period.  I'm referring here to the cingulum of Bishop Witgarius and St Cuthbert's maniple.  The inscriptions on these items aren't actually spiritual; they record the names of the women who made and donated the garments.  This use of text to secure bragging rights is common in viking runic inscriptions too, but of course just because Anglo-Saxons did it doesn't mean Scandinavians did it and my runes aren't a signature.

There doesn't seem to be any reason why textiles with runes couldn't exist, but with no hard evidence to go on it definitely falls into the "you can't prove they didn't" category.  That said, runic inscriptions have been found on a wide variety of viking objects, so I say why not?

The Challenge: Sewing Secrets.

Fabric: About 30 cm of brocaded tablet woven band.

Pattern: My own, based on a design from Birka.

Year: If it were at all historically accurate I think it would be early viking age, since the runes are an older style of writing.

Notions: I couldn't afford to use real silk and gold like the Birka bands, so I used synthetic gold thread and mercerized cotton.  To me mercerized cotton looks more like silk than viscose thread, which is unnaturally shiny and has a synthetic look that I don't particularly like.

How historically accurate is it?  Um.  As I've discussed above it's a fun concept, but can't actually be documented for the period.  And the materials aren't accurate either, so maybe 25% at best.

Hours to complete: Not sure sorry.  I've been doing a bit here and a bit there since August and lost count.

First worn:  N/A.

Total cost:  I already had the imitation gold thread, and I seem to remember I paid about $5 for the ball of crochet cotton.

*If you want a good, intellectually-satisfying-but-also-entertaining discussion of why our ancestors believed some of the things they did, I recommend the Tony Robinson series Gods and Monsters.  For an in-depth discussion of magic in the Viking age, try Dr Neil Price's The Viking Way.  Hard to get hold of unfortunately, but worth the effort.  For a really detailed look at rune magic I suggest Stephen Flowers' doctoral dissertation Runes and Magic.


  1. Stunning! I've been naughty this month--I'm still working on my September project in the few minutes when I've gotten a chance.

    1. Some months are like that, especially in your line of work. I'm really looking forward to seeing your September project.