while men's jackets, wrapped and belted in the style found in Hedeby, or in the case of Birka, fastened with buttons, are extensively (for viking garments) documented, women's Kaftans, or long coats, are not even a little. There are instances at birka, where silk loops, of the kind used to fasten a garment, have been found in a brooch positioned below the breasts. There was a hemmed piece of wool found running over the edge of a tortoise brooch. That and worked silver bands around the wrist area, not obviously associated with a serk, and decorative bands possibly associated with a lower hem, are about the the sum total of the evidence. Figurines are, notoriously, difficult. Women are shown wearing large triangular wraps which obscure the upper half of the clothes, leaving which layers are which at the bottom, debatable at best. But, considering the existence of a similar men's garment, and the practicality of another layer in a cold climate, it's not a far leap.
The presence of the single closure under the bust, the partially covered tortoise brooch, along with the practical difficulties of closing a garment over bulky brooch and beads, and the impracticality of covering your knife, keys, needle case, etc with a garment, argue for a sort of scooped cut away neckline, going around the broochs. This allows for the continued display of beads, and makes it possible for the chatalaine items to fall over the outer garment, thus remaining accessible. Some argue a high neckline could have been allowed to fold open, and while this is certainly possible, the shaped neckline of the hedeby mens coat, and the fact that the one fragment found over a tortoise brooch was hemmed, not folded, argues some against this.
The general consensus then, is that this was a long sleeved, calf length at least garment, with a scooped neckline, possibly trimmed with silk, held closed beneath the breasts with probably a Trefoil brooch threaded through loops. I will fully admit that this is the shakiest of all the viking garments in terms of evidence for it, and that building a full fledged garment from the very miniscule facts we have is questionable at best. Some people decline to admit such a garment even existed! But, my previous arguments about practicality stand, and I decided to make one anyway.
Having set my hand to the plow, so to speak, I looked through my woolens, determined to use one of the larger pieces. I had a large peice of very soft grey, in a very pretty color, that I've been using as a mantle since the beginning of my little viking adventure more than three years ago. It had been in my mind to upgrade it into a kaftan for some time. But grey is very boring for a viking. They weren't much for undyed wools, and from chemical evidence liked flash and bright colors. Besides, the grey would have made a kaftan of scanty length. I also happened to have a chunk of heavy orange in plausible madder, which I quite liked ,but was too heavy, and too small to do almost anything with. That and the bag of wool threads my mom had given me, in shades of orange and red (originally intended for a color wheel that she never completed), sparked an idea: I would embroider the grey, to give it some flash, and then border it with the orange.
Of course there is the usual difficulty about large scale embroideries on viking garments, which can be argued ad naseum. I decided that I didn't care if it wasn't the purest interpretation of a garment already based on slightly dodgy evidence, and went for it. Animal themes are common in what embroidery we have remaining from the viking era, as well as in their artwork. I looked a lot of images, and decided to render a pair of my favorite birds, ravens, on the shoulders of the garment. I took the shape of the raven from a carving showing Odin with one of his birds perched on his shoulder (9th century rune stone from the isle of Mann), embellishing it from several brooches in raven form.
I particularly loved this little brass piece. it was listed as a horse harness ornament, but I was unable to find a specific date, or location for it. I loved how all the feathers had different textures in the tail. I decided to use different textures in all of the tail and wing feathers of my ravens, and try to use stitches to imitate textures found of pieces of raven jewelry.
I cut the kaftan in a very basic style similar to the hedeby coat. Straight fronts and backs with a sloped shoulder, with a center back gore, and side gores to provide fullness in the skirts. Since it's desireable to have the over layer slightly open in the front to display any decorations on the smokkr below, and since the coat didn't need to wrap like the hedeby coat, I did not use a split front gore. The sleeve has a slightly shaped head, and a underarm gusset, Because of fabric shortages the sleeve is a bit wodgy. The gosset is long and tapered at one end to give me more upper arm room, because I could fit that on the fabric I had, but not a wider upper sleeve. Considering the extremely funky piecing we've seen on some extant pieces I am going to call this totally period. Then I turned all the edges under, and whip stitched them down to finish the edges, using modern cotton thread in a matching color of grey. on a nice thick wool, it's easy to pick up the threads on the inside without your stitches showing on the outside.
Transferring it onto wool was, as usual, a lot of fun. wool is a super huge pain. I ended up measuring and marking reference points, then drawing the ravens on free hand with a fine tipped sharpie marker.
I chose to use chain stitch for the outlines. I worked the ravens on the cut out back piece before putting it together both to ensure I had enough embroidery thread to do the outlines all in once color (since I was working in a limited supply) and because then I didn't have to wrangle the whole coat around I did not use a hoop for any of this work. Although a hoop can be an invaluable tool, I don't generally care for using one in the first place, and particularly dislike it when working on wool. There are some situations in which it's unavoidable, but the way I work a lot of my outlining stitches make it somewhat counterproductive.
With the ravens outlined, I started on putting the kaftan together. My original plan was to use a decorative stitch both to construct and embellish. I had used van dyke stitch to construct a hood for Kitten earlier in the year, and it had both gone quickly and looked pretty. Since I was using one of the cousins of that stitch for this I decided to work it the same way. I ran the first half of the center back gore, from the point down. The ends didn't line up. This was odd, but I decided I hadn't measured correctly, and started the other side, working from the point down as well. This time the OTHER edge was longer. This was clearly not an issue of mis measurement. I laid the piece out flat on the floor, and the issue was clear to behold: the stitching was pulling up one side of the work as I went. Since I had worked both sides tip down, one seam had pulled up the gore, the other side the back of the kaftan. it was terrible and rumply, and steaming wasn't going to solve it. At this point the whole thing went into bad project time out for a few months.
Once I was over sulking and wanting to kick things. I took out all the stitching I had done, carefully, so I could re-use the wool thread (remember limited thread and no way to get more!) and (grumpily) basted all the seams. Then I went back and worked all the seams in the decorative stitch. It was really hard to get this as even as I wanted it to be, and I'm still not entirely happy with the outcome. I love the look of the stitch but don't love how un tidily I ended up working it.
|Working the decorative stitch is a two step process.|
In between running the seams I worked on the ravens, being sure that all of the colors of thread used in the seams were also represented in the embroidery on the back. I used a feather texture worked in cloister stitch, a couched lattice work, spiraling split stitch on the lower beak, and bayeux stitch on the upper beak. I needed one more texture. I decided to run a series of tall and short osberg loops down the last feather to recreate the stamped circles used on a number of the brooches.
|The first step of osberg loop stitch: pin all those loops!|
(so many pins)
The bodies of the ravens looked empty and sad without any fill, after I'd filled in the feathers, so I used spirals to loosely fill in some of the upper bodies and sort of flying wedges of couched thread in the spiral of the wings. Again, textures taken off pieces of raven jewelry, which had knotwork or circles worked to fill in the bodies or portions of the body.
Once I had run all the seams on the body, I had to attach the trim to the bottom. I had cut wedges and rectangles that continued the shape of the pieces of the main coat, I sewed them together and felled the edges down with white wool handspun.
|Whip cord braiding in progress with my|
Of course no images of me actually wearing the garment seem to exist, but I did get some nice ones of it in outside light to share with you. It is a lovely sweepy flowy thing, and I do enjoy wearing it. It's also VERY warm. With the addition of my mittens and hood I am warmer than in a mundane outside jacket wearing it! And of course, for a really cold day I could add a cloak on top of this, plus wool stockings under my gown and possibly nallbound socks over them and under my turnshoes for outside wear.