Wednesday, May 27, 2015

Viking Women's Garb: Serk

I've been absent for a couple of months both from the blog and in general from sewing. We are expecting the arrival of baby #4 sometime after thanksgiving, and i have spent the last ten weeks or so prostrate with morning sickness. The clouds do seem to finally be breaking, and although I'm not exactly back to my normal self, I am capable of doing more than just barely keeping up with the little folks and praying for my husband to come home. I've missed two historical sew monthly challenges, one of which I may do later because I was really excited about it (Make do and mend for the War and Peace challenge). On the up side the current challenge is "practicality" and the everyday clothes worn by viking women absolutely fit that definition. And viking women's clothes (10th century) is what  I am currently running out at breakneck speed to be ready for The Wars of the Roses XXXVI, for which I volunteered in february before the onset of pregnancy and it's attendant sickness. Needless to say I'm a teensy bit pressed for time, and will not be doing anything in the way of embellishments on this garb. Luckily, embellishments can be added as time goes on. I expect to spend many pleasant evenings in future trimming and embroidering these garments.

*Note. Please forgive lousy photos in this post. My SD card for my camera has died and so I am relying on my cell phone camera which is kind of lousy.*

Viking women's garb consisted of an underdress, or Serk, made in linen or wool, with a "apron dress" or smokkr over the top, which is a more or less fitted tube of fabric suspended by loops over the shoulders which are fastened with a pair of large brooches. Sometimes the serk appears to have been layered, with a linen undergarment and wool overgarment. The front of the the Smokkr could be flat, or in some cases pleated. Strings of beads were strung between the brooches (typically the large oval "tortoise" brooches) at the shoulders, and a number of small household items such as a knife, keys, needle case, comb, or ear spoon, could be suspended by chains from either one of the tortoise brooches or from another brooch pinned at the ribcage. Over this ensemble a caftan, sort of long coat with an open neckline might be worn, That will be an upcoming project for the fall most likely.

Of course, this is all extrapolation from fairly fragmentary grave finds. Most fabric in a grave deteriorates entirely unless protected by proximity to a metal object, so many of the grave finds are just layers of fabric, and fabric loops, inside the backs of brooches, or pieces of fabric where a knife or bowl was laid in the grave. Some pieces are significantly larger than this but we have no complete or even mostly complete extant garments. Wht we do know is extrapolated from the fragments we have, and from pictoral evidence, which is all very stylistic. It's an educated guess, a putting together of many disparate pieces to try and get a squint at the whole. 

This is my first actual set of SCA garb. I'm starting whith what will be more or less home base for me, as my persona will be 10th century viking (at least that's where I'm starting and how i'm dressing my family.....) I'm sure I will branch out, because: All the pretty clothes! But this is where I'm starting and where I expect to spend most of my time. It's practical, it's comfortable, it comes with layers to adjust for temperature. You are not smothered or squeezed by extraneaous bits of headress or corsetry, and the jewelry is amazing. There is no down side to viking garb that I can find. We can't even prove that the women universally covered their heads, at least not before they became christianized. (I have crazy hair. I will be covering my head probably.) 

So, to start at the beginning, working from the bottom layer out with the serk (we do think that viking women wore some kind of undergarments. Perhaps even trousers beneath their skirts in winter. But I'm going to stick with my good modern undies for the moment.) Serks came in several manifestations and differing styles of cuts, much like mens tunics did. we believe they were worn long, but how long would likely have depended somewhat on personal preferance and social status (trailing garments not practical for working in). Some had pleated necklines, but these seem to be mostly an eastern viking fashion, centered on the wonderful finds from Birka. I'm personally scottish isles vikings, and the finds from the western reaches of the viking sprawl have been mostly un pleated, and that is what I am going with. As always in researching this I am deeply indebted to the work of Hilde Thumen who has gathered a lot of the original language sources and compiled and translated the pertinant facts. Her articles are fascinating, informative, and backed uup by the original sources that are not acesible to me since I don't read the languages they were writen in. Her article here gives you a great start at understanding a good deal of the evidence we have Viking Women: Underdress 

Because many viking garments were made with shaped pieces and set in sleeves I have chosen to make a serk with widely gored sides, a keyhole neckline, and pieced and set in sleeves. I believe this is congruent with the avialable evidence. I also chose to use 3/4 sleeves. We have little evidence as to the length of sleeves, although we do know at least some of them were long enough that bracelets were worn over the ends of them. We also can reasonably say, I think, that short sleeves were not a thing that was much done, since they don't appear in pictoral evidence. There is some saga evidence that women of lower class may have worn shorter sleeved garments at least while laboring. I am letting practicallity in this case be my guide. This serk is mostly for summer wear, and I find 3/4 sleeves more comfortable in summer.

 I was originally going to use colored linen, and dye it myself, but queasiness prevents me from currently standing over dye pots, so that will be a project for a later date. I am actually somewhat cheating here, because I found a 60/40 linen/rayon blend, in a color achievable with natural dyes, for 40% off. I caved and bought enough to make myself a serk, and hopefully enough for summer tunics for the husband and kids. I don't feel too badly because it really looks and acts a good deal like linen. Like the cotton linen blend I use for white undergarments, it's not quite as crisp, but it's a decent facsimile. 

The major setback in this project was discovering that my base bodice pattern, which would have given me shoulder slope, an armscythe, and a sleeve cap to fit it, has gone walkabout some time in the beginning stages of organizing my new work area. So I decided to just sort of cut by eye, sewed, and fit this on my body. Which really, REALLY, is not the reccomended method. I can mostly get away with it when I'm sewing for myself or one of the kids, because I'm familiar with the way those patterns should look and fit. And in a garment that is not heavily fitted it can work out ok (I have no pattern for tank tops for my daughter, for instance.) The down side is that it almost always takes twice as long, five times as many fittings, and the results are almost never quite as polished. This has on the whole worked out well, but it would have been quicker and easier with a pattern to adapt from. Next time I will have found my pattern and if I haven't I will draft a new pattern and not lose that one. 

I started by tearing the rectangles for the front and back of the garment, and facing the slit of the keyhole neckline. Original evidence suggests that there were varying lengths of slits in keyhole necklines, some the typical short slit just to get your head through, and some going almost down to the navel; held shut at the throat with a small pin. At first this seems ridiculous, why would you need a slit that long? But if you have a child who is nursing it becomes the essence of practicality: undo one should brooch, push down the smokkr, and with the long opening in the front you can just push the serk out of the way to feed your child. With another baby on the way, for me ability to breastfeed is an important consideration. I am choosing to use the long slit.  

With the keyhole slit faced, I pinned the two squares together on my shoulders to establish the line of the shoulder seam. then I cut with a half inch seam allowance, and sewed the shoulders together with a flat felled seams. The felling portion (the second seam) in all of the flat felled seams in this garment have been sewn with a machine basting stitch. I will eventually embroider the seams with colored linen thread, and then just pull out the current basting. Then i measured how much I needed under the arms to make a roomy garment with room for the expansion in my chest measurement caused by breastfeeding. The gores in this garment go right up to the armpits, which is something you see suggested in several period reconstructions. Normally this is not my preferred construciton as it creates more bulk aroudn the waist. An eye to my expanding waistline though makes this a very useful garment shaping. I cut two gores for under each arm, and sewed the bias side of the gore to the straight side of the front panel with a flat felled seam. This means that the seam will not sag and grow. You should always attempt not to sew two bias edges together in a long seam that will be pulled down by the weight of the garment. With the gores in I marked the armpit and shoulder point with pins, and cut an armscythe by eye. 

Note ever present helper
With the body done except the neckline, I added a single gusset to the side of each sleeve. When I held it up for an idiot check against my arm, I decided that it wasn't wide enough at the the sleeve back, and added a longer triangular piece to make width where i needed it. Then I cut the top to a likely shape, basted it into the body of the serk, and tried it on. it was close, but not quite right. I pinned the areas where it needed adjustment, took it out, re-cut it, cut the second one to match, and then pinned and sewed the sleeves in using flat felled seams. I'm pretty sure I've mentioned before that from extant evidence flat felled seams seem to have been popular in viking undergarments, so this is a practical and historical way to finsih your seams. The flatness and abscence of interior seam allowances is particularly nice in a garment you wear against your skin, and they're very sturdy. It's an ok sleeve. certainly servicable. I would have preferred a little more fullness in the sleeve cap, but
it's not a terrible defect.

With both sleeves in, so that the set of the shoulders was finalized, I put the serk on and pinned the neckline. Then I made a 1/4 inch rolled hem and sewed it down by hand on the inside. Typicaly in this type of garment I use a facing. But without a pattern and with a sloped shoulder a facing would have been harder to cut accurately. Also I thought the rolled hem might be cooler for summer wear.I was going to just leave this to be trimmed and embroidered later, but I very carefully turned up and hemmed the sleeve..... to the outside.... Once i discovered that it was either rip it out and do over, or put trim over it. I decided that as I had a lovely piece of handwoven thai silk I would just use strips of that to trim the sleeves, and a narrow strip to trim the neck. the sleeves were a quick project, but the neck took way longer than I expected. Historical evidence shows that while garments were trimmed with strips of silk, it was cut on the straight of the grain (which makes sense in terms of efficiently using a fabric). Getting that all smoothly fitted around the neck, even a narrow strip, was fiddly and time consuming.

That was the end of the basic construction, all that remained was the hem. Although grave evidence is scant, pictoral evidence shows women in long dresses, some trailing. Trailing dresses not being practical for everyday work, the assumption is that these were special occasion robes worn by great ladies, and that the more common gown was around ankle length. this is a comfortable practical length for working and walking. I have hemmed many gowns by myself, by measuring equally down from the waist and marking. It is easier however with a second set of experienced hands. I had my mom, who is very gracious and helpful in these situations, come over and pin the hem for me. Then turned it up and stitched it down by hand. The hem will recieve no decoration. From the evidence I can find the hems of viking women's serks were rarely (if ever) decorated, which is sensible. hems get a lot of wear, not to mention dirt. it's not the place to spend time on trimming and decorating if you're going to be using the garment for more than swanning around in. Of course few hems survive. so this is dodgy research at best. You could probably make a case for decorating the hem, but to me it is impractical for a working dress.

I did add one very practical for me and very historically innacurate detail. I basted a large muslin pocket onto the outside of the dress at hip level. This will be acessable either by hiking up the outer gown or via an open side seam in the over gown. If it works out well I will replace it with something more invisible (probably a welt opening made with leftover scraps.) This gives me a place to stash my cell phone, ID, Cash, and keys while I'm at events without ruining the silouette of my garb or having to carry a shoulder bag/basket everywhere I go.

One layer down, on to the overdress! And again, I apologize for the lousy photos in this post. Hopefully I will have a functioning camera again for my next post! 

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