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The Bronze Age String Skirt

Dear Viking Answer Lady:

My question is about Viking cord skirts. I would like one for summer wear and for pagan events. I have seen a drawing in a book once and just thought it looked pretty. I'd like to occasionally wear something other than a apron dress. If you could tell me anything else about these, I'd be appreciative.

(signed) Stringing Along

Gentle Reader:

Cover of Ed Fitch's 'The Rites of Odin' From time to time I run into the misconception that the Vikings used a short string miniskirt as summer wear. This idea seems to have originated in a "New Age" book on Viking religion by Ed Fitch, Rites of Odin.

On the cover, the book shows a supposed "Viking warrior woman" dressed in a string skirt, and inside the book Fitch shows the string skirt and claims that it is Viking Age summer wear. Unfortunately, as with many other things in this book, Fitch has it all wrong! This is NOT a Viking garment. This is a good reason to be cautious when using New Age books purporting to discuss runes or Viking religion. There are in fact a few that contain useful, carefully researched information. But the rest might as well have done their research by watching Kirk Douglas in The Vikings. The only way to determine how accurate (or not) one of the various New Age books on these topics is would be to check the information using reputable, scholarly sources.

The string skirt is actually a woman's garment from the Bronze Age in Denmark (c. 1700-500 BC). To get a true understanding of how far removed from being "Viking summer wear" this is, note that the Viking Age is usually dated from 793-1066 AD. The string skirt predates the Viking Age by about 2200 years. Note that this about the same amount of time as has elapsed between the days of Republican Rome and the present -- and consider how much change is possible in over 2000 years.

Drawing of the Edgtved find immediately after excavation. Egtved excavation photo.
Left: Sketch of the Egtved Girl's possessions. Right: Photo of the Egtved Girl's log coffin during excavation.

Reconstruction of the clothing of the Edgtved Girl. The string skirt, therefore, is not a Viking Age garment at all.

There is, however, considerable evidence for the string skirt during the Bronze Age. Perhaps the best example would be the Egtved Girl. The Egtved Girl was buried ca. 1400 BC at Egtved, on the peninsula of Jutland in Denmark. The Egtved find consists mainly of the possessions of the woman who was buried here -- very little of the body itself remained, as seen in the field sketch made of the find in the 1920's, above.

The string skirt also appears in Bronze Age art. This garment is seen in small bronze figurines of young female acrobats, small-breasted figures wearing the string skirt, caught in the moment of performing a backflip.

Bronze Age 'acrobat' statuette from Grevensvaenge, Denmark Drawing of a Bronze Age 'Acrobat' Statuette
Left: Bronze acrobat figurine wearing a string skirt. Right: The Norwegian parson Marcus Schnabel sketched this drawing of the bronze figurines found at Grevensvćnge, Denmark. In the middle, shown upside-down, is one of the female acrobat figures in a string skirt.

Photo of the Egtved String Skirt The string skirt itself is based upon a warp-faced tabby band. One technique for producing this type of woven belt is inkle weaving -- although it should be noted that the inkle loom used today dates to 18th or 19th century England.

The Danish Bronze Age string skirts were created by producing a woven band in which the weft threads are allowed to extend past the edge of the warp on one edge, forming long loops of thread which make up the skirt. A thread is "chained" around the individual loops near the bottom to keep the strings from tangling uselessly into knots. The woven band becomes the waistband of the skirt, which is simply wrapped around the waist and the ends tied.

By the Viking Age, the standard method for creating woven strips and bands was tablet weaving, also called card weaving. The "tablets" or "cards" are small squares of rigid material, such as thin pieces of wood, bone or antler, with holes drilled through each corner through which warp threads were passed. The tablets are held in the hand like a pack of cards, parallel to the warp, and turned back or forward by half or quarter turns. This action twists the four warp threads which are threaded through the holes in each tablet into a cord that can be locked into position by a weft thread inserted between the turns.

Photo of an inkle loom Diagram of tablet weaving
Top: Modern Inkle Loom, used to produce a warp-faced tabby weave. Bottom: Tablet weaving was used in the Viking Age.








Bibliography

  • Barber, Elizabeth. Prehistoric Textiles: The Development of Cloth in the Neolithic and Bronze Ages with Special Reference to the Aegean. Princeton: Princeton University Press. 1991.
    Buy this book from Amazon.com today! Buy this book today!

  • Barber, Elizabeth. Women's Work: The First Twenty Thousand Years -- Women, Cloth and Society in Early Times. New York: W. W. Norton and Company, 1994.
    Buy this book from Amazon.com today! Buy this book today!

  • Buell, Janet. Bog Bodies. Time Travellers Series. New York: Twenty-First Century Books. 1997.
    Buy this book from Amazon.com today! Buy this book today!

  • Deem, James M. Bodies from the Bog. Boston: Houghton Mifflin. 1998.
    Buy this book from Amazon.com today! Buy this book today!

  • Fitch, Ed. The Rites of Odin. St Paul, MN: Llewellyn. 1990.
    Buy this book from Amazon.com Buy this book today! (Just recall that it's not very accurate)

  • Gerry, Kathryn B. String Skirt, Europe, 6000 BCE Accessed 13 July 2000.

  • Gerry, Kathryn B. String Skirt, Europe, 6000 BCE, Methods and Construction Accessed 13 July 2000.

  • Glob, Peter Vilhelm. The Bog People: Iron-Age Man Preserved. Trans. R. Bruce-Mitford. New York: Cornell University Press. 1969.
    Buy this book from Amazon.com today! Buy this book today!

  • Hald, Margrethe. Ancient Danish Textiles from Bogs and Burials: A Comparative Study of Costume and Iron Age Textiles. trans. Jean Olsen. Archaeological-Historical Series Vol. XXI. Copenhagen: The National Museum of Denmark, 1980.
    Buy this book from Amazon.com today! Buy this book today!

  • Harding, A. F. European Society in the Bronze Age. Cambridge World Archaeology. Cambridge Univ Press. May 2000.
    Buy this book from Amazon.com today! Buy this book today!

  • Kristiansen, Kristian. Europe Before History: The European World in the 1st and 2nd Millennium. New Studies in Archaeology. Cambridge University Press. 1998.
    Buy this book from Amazon.com today! Buy this book today!

  • Mohen, Jean-Pierre and Christiane Eluere. Discoveries: The Bronze Age in Europe. Harry N Abrams. November 2000.
    Buy this book from Amazon.com today! Buy this book today!

  • National Museum of Denmark. Klćdedragt (Bronze Age Women's Clothing) Accessed 13 July 2000.

  • Priest-Dorman, Carolyn. Egtved Girl and the "Viking" String Skirt Personal correspondence. 14 July 2000.

  • Prior, Natalie J. Bog Bodies: Mummies and Curious Corpses. True Stories. Allen & Unwin. 1997.
    Buy this book from Amazon.com today! Buy this book today!




Weaving Resources

Inkle Weaving

Tablet Weaving

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