One of the most common questions people ask about viking age, and medieval textiles, is:
what about checkered textiles? I will try to answer this question as best I can (at the moment. Remember, these are what I have come across, but I haven’t read all that’s out there).
Different times will have different fashions when it comes to textiles. Patterned textiles is no exception. Some ages prefer to have it made with colours, like using different colours of the weave to form a pattern, other times prefer to let the weaving speak for itself. So what evidence do we have?
For the viking age the material is, as always, pretty scarce. There are a few things being hinted at, though, in my opinion. But let’s not jump ahead, let’s go to the sources. This is what I have been able to find:
1. A checkered black and white fabric from Oseberg. I don’t know which context this came from, as I have not yet read the appropriate litterature. I have not found any evidence that this is from a piece of clothing, though. My guess is that it’s part of a blanket. Anyone who can, as the FBI say, either confirm or deny that has my gratitude. 😉
2. A big rectangular piece of cloth from Skjoldehamn. It was wrapped around the body, and has with a great deal of probability been a blanket. It is also a lot older than the other textiles, being from around the year 1000, while the rest of the outfit should, according to data in Lövlid (though somehow not the conclusion Lövlid comes to himself) be dated to the late 12th century.
3. Cloth from Hedeby/Haithabu. These fragments are all found in graves. The three graves 159/1960, 27/1963 and 182-185 all contained fragments of blue linen with either white or red stripes forming checks. The blue/red fragment in 159/1960 has been interpreted as a shirt, and so has the blue/white in 27/1963. The blue and red fragment in 182-185 came from a decorative band, according to Hägg (Hägg 1991:212). Also a linsey/woolsey fragment (or actually several fragments) was found i grave VI/1930. It’s a fine woolen chevron twill with a checker pattern formed by one weft and one warp thread in a light colour. These are probably linen.
4. Fabric from Birka, grave 757 there is a tabby linen fragment with a white and a red thread followed by six blue threads. The cloth had 20 threads to the centimeter (Geijer 1938:15). My personal guess is that this too is a shift/serk.
5. Fragments from Elisenhof in Germany, 8th century. Fragment E-76 is of a 2/2 (woolen?) twill in black and brown checks. Reputedly the pattern is, from the edge: 13 black, 24 brown, 8 black, 8 brown, 8 black, 18 brown, ripped edge. And in the weft: ripped edge 17 brown, 14, black, 18 brown, 14 black, 14 brown, 6 black, 6 brown, 4 black, 14 brown, 4 black, 4 brown, 4 black, 13 brown, ripped edge. 10 threads per centimeter. Source stated is Hundt 1981:15,41,103.
There is also another fragment from Elisenhof called E-414a, but here it’s a woolen tabby of reddish brown and black checks. The warp pattern is: 27 red, 4 black, 4 red, 4 black, at least 25 red, 4 black, 4 red, 4 black, 4 red, 4 black at least 23 red, and then there’s a rip in the fabric. The weft sequence is: 4 black, 4 red, 4 black, 4 red, 4 black then red until the fragment ends.(Hundt 1981:15,159)
So what can we see in this information? Well, for starters, we see that I have not been able to dig up sources for checks in more than 3 colours in the same fabric. The Irish, which the vikings had a great deal of contact with, wore their own style of checkered mantle, called a brat. A book called Lebor Gabála Érenn, ‘The book of the taking of Ireland’, a pseudo historic text written in the second half of the 11th century speaks about multicolored brats and their way of distinguishing the poor form the rich:
”By Tigernmas were purple and blue and green first put upon garments in Ireland. By Tigernmas were first made checkerings upon garments in Ireland – one colour in the (single) garment of slaves, two colours in the garb of peasants, three in the garments of hirelings and fighting men, four in those of lordings, five in those of chieftains, six in those of men of learning, seven in those of kings and queens.”
The vikings had lots of dealings with Ireland and with the cultural mixing and the resulting Gall-Ghàidheil I don’t think it’s that far fetched to imagine the Hiberno-Norse in variegated cloaks.
So – to sum up the viking age, what is a plausible use for checkered fabric?
As you can see, the material I have been able to gather points to the evidence for checkered fabrics during the viking age being fairly slim. However, we do have some pieces of evidence that with relative certainty can be sorted into two groups:
1. Shirts and shifts in blue/red/white simple checkered linen. This seems fairly safe.
2. Blankets and cloaks. This can refer, I think, both to an actual cloak, but also to a blanket. It’s interesting to note that the word ”plaid” is Gaelic for ”blanket”. So, at the same time this use of checkered fabrics is consistent with a use of checkered fabrics for bedding later in the Middle Ages, but also points to checkered fabrics being used as cloaks in an Irish, Scottish and possibly Hiberno-Norse setting, and when it comes to pattterns we have some ”sort of tartan-ish” fragments, mainly the Skjoldehamn blanket and the unidentified fragments from Elisenhof, although they seem to be quite far away from many Scottish contemporary clan tartans. This is no great surprise as they are hundreds of years later in their Clan form.
This article is to be translated at a not so much later date. 🙂 I will also try to keep it updated if new pieces of evidence comes along. I will try to add more sources very soon.