Friday, 18 December 2015

Ode to the Distaff II: Bonus picture!

As I kept spinning from my rolled up wad of wool, I eventually came to the point when I hade to re-roll it to make the cloth tighter. When I put it back onto the distaff, I arranged it in the same manner as in the image of the Virgin Mary from the National Museum of Hungary I showed in the previous post. It puts the wool in a really comfortable position for drafting, escpecially when having the distaff standing straight up in a floor stand, so I thought I just post a picture of it. My wool is a lot more untidy than the Virgin's, but it works great for the fluffier and less even weft thread I'm spinning at the moment!

The Virgin Mary spinning with a free-standing distaff, the Nationl Museum of Hungary, c. 1410, and my sloppy version of her distaff...

Saturday, 5 December 2015

Ode to the Distaff

Handspinning has completely taken over my spare time lately. I work full time and commute for a total of three hours every day, so I need to set goals for my crafting to actually get things done. If I don't, I will just collapse on the sofa when I come home in the evening and do nothing. Sad but true. So a while ago, I decided to try to spin for an absolute minimum of eight hours per week (with a spindle - wheel spinning doesn't count). It's not much, but it's something and it has made a little difference - I'm getting faster for one thing! And since spinning for me partly consists of collapsing perching primly on the sofa anyway - see video below! - it's not even particularly taxing to keep it up.

These days, I almost always spin with a distaff if I have the choice, twirling the spindle with one hand and drafting with the other. It wasn't love at first sight when I started learning this traditional and time-honoured technique, though. I think 'complete and utter frustration' sums up my initial feelings quite accurately. All aspirations of thread control went out the window and it was like starting all over again with only thick-and-thin, useless yarn as the result (useless for my purposes, that is. I don't do art yarn. Not at the moment, anyway). It took a fair amount of practice, but once I got the hang of it, it quickly became my preferred way of spinning. I went from total frustration to 'No more suspended spindling for me, EVER!' in less than 3 months.

The distaff is a fantastic tool - it works as a third hand. Judging from how spinners are depicted in contemporary art, it also seems to be virtually ubiquitous to medieval spindle spinning (there are a few exceptions, of course, like in this early 13th century manuscript, and perhaps this one from the 14th century). Even when more or less suspended spinning is shown - as in this rather rare depiction of a top whorl spindle, for example - the distaff is still there, and the one-hand drafting technique, too:
British Library, 'The Rutland Psalter', Add MS 62925 fol. 86r, c. 1260.
With a distaff to hold the fibres, my hands are free to draft and twirl the spindle and it gives me a much better workning position than suspended spindling without a distaff does. I also find that it's much easier to control the amount of twist that goes into the thread this way (which is kind of important when you spin yarn for historical purposes). In addition, it completely removes the problem of back-spin - that annoying phenomenon when your thread has eaten all the momentum of the turning spindle and it starts going the other way while you're still busy drafting. Many medieval spindle whorls are small with a low moment of inertia, which means they spin fast, but stop turning really quickly and you have to restart them a lot to avoid back-spin when you're spinning suspended. And guess what - the distaff/spindle in hand-technique more or less takes the 'drop' out of 'drop spindle' (a term I've never really understood anyway - it has no Swedish equivalent; here we just have 'sländor' (spindles), plain and simple). Now I don't mind using my precious clay whorls on our hardwood floors at home, because even if the thread breaks, I don't drop them anymore.

Here's a video of me spinning warp thread for weaving, with a distaff made out of a broom stick. When I've spun a length of thread, I stop drafting and add extra twist to it. As I relax the thread to unhitch the half hitch that keeps it on the spindle, I simultaneously check the twist by feeling the resistance as the thread curls back on itself.
More and more medieval reenactors use a distaff and hand-held spindle when spinning these days. It's becoming quite a trend among historical fibre geeks! Usually, I'm not a huge fan of reenactment fads. Far too often they are based on scant sources and result in odd over-representations when suddenly the whole reenactment community is doing the same thing. And people often end up copying other reenactors rather than looking at the sources themselves, which is not the way to go in my opinion. But when it comes to distaffs and spinning, it's a trend that simply can't go wrong! It's raising the authenticity in reenactment displays by showing tools and techniques that were actually common and widespread both geographically and over time.

In art, medieval distaffs appear to be around a metre in length, held under the arm, tucked into the belt, held between the knees while sitting or sometimes mounted on a stand. The Roman or ancient Greek tradition of short, hand-held distaffs doesn't seem to be the way to go for medieval spinning. I've found one medieval image - or rather a sculpture - with what might be a hand-held distaff. It's St Gertrude of Nivelles, a 7th century saint often portrayed spinning and surrounded by rats. However, it might just be that the rest of the distaff has broken off, but I couldn't tell by looking at the statue whether that was the case or not. It's a nice rat, though...
St. Gertrude of Nivelles, wooden sculpture,1390-1400. Originally from Pfarrkirche St. Michael in Spiringen, Switzerland. Swiss National Museum, Zürich. Pix by Vix.
As far as I know, not a whole lot of finds have been identified by archaeologists as distaffs. I mean, a lot of the time they would just be plain sticks, so there's not much to identify really. There's a medieval one from Schloss Gottorf in northern Germany (see below), though, and several distaff heads have been found at medieval Novgorod in Russia. From Staraia Ladoga, also in Russia, there are reported finds of distaffs from as early as the 9th century. Both the ones from Novgorod and those from Staraia Ladoga seem to be 'bat distaffs' with a top section shaped like a paddle, a type that remained popular in Russia well into the 19th century (Sherman 2008). It's not a type that seems to be depicted in European medieval manuscripts, though, and although similar distaffs exist here in Sweden from post-medieval times, I've decided to stick with the straight stick version for now. Although Novgorod traded a lot with Europe through the Hanseatic League in the Middle Ages, I'm personally a little wary of using finds from such a relatively far-off place when my focus is southern Scandinavia/northern Germany (on the other hand, the huge amount of well-preserved wooden objects makes it very difficult not to glance eastwards to Novgorod every once in a while...).
Medieval distaff (and also spindles and parts of niddy-noddies), Schloss Gottorf, Germany. Pix by Vix.
There are many ways of dressing a distaff. The most commonly depicted versions in medieval manuscripts appear to fall into two (very!) broad categories:
- the more or less fluffy fibre bundle, often tied in place by a narrow band
- the cone-shaped fibre bundle, either tied with a band or with some sort of cloth (?) cover, or both. More images of medieval distaffs and spinning can be found over at my Pinterest board Medieval Fibre Preparation & Spinning, where I've also tried to add the original source for all the pins.
'The Holkham Bible', British Library, AddMss 47682, fol. 4v & 6r, 1320-30.
A nun (St. Gertrude?) spinning in the company of a helpful cat. 'Maastricht Hours', British Library, Stowe MS 17, fol. 34r, 1st half of the 14th century.
British Library, MS Royal 10 E IV, fol. 49v, early 14th century.
Another one of those rarely depicted top whorl spindles! 'The Taymouth Hours', British Library, MS Yates Thompson 13, fol. 23v, 2nd quarter of the 14th century.
Could this perhaps be an image showing the elusive practice of spinning dyed wool (see this previous post)? 'Ormesby Psalter', Bodleian Library, MS Douce 366, fol. 71v, c. 1310.
Basically, it's perfectly possible to achieve all these different shapes using a simple straight stick as a distaff. The cone-shaped ones may have some sort of structure underneath, perhaps like a 'modern' (19th century) cage distaff or something similar, but it's difficult to tell from the contemporary images exactly what's hiding under the fibres.  

In some cases, it's obvious that the images show flax being spun rather than wool - if the spinner (or monkey, in the case of the illuminated manuscript below) is running the thread through their mouth, it's a pretty good indication of flax (or hemp) spinning, since it's commonly spun wet.
A monkey spinning flax. British Library, Additional 18851 f459, 1480s.
But sometimes people claim you can tell what fibre is being spun in an image just from the shape of the fibre bundle on the distaff. I'm not so sure. Medieval images just aren't detailed enough and most distaff shapes can actually be created with either wool or flax. It's just a matter of how you arrange the fibres. Wool can be gathered into long, thick tops that look very much like flax strick (hackled flax bundles) when tied to a distaff and flax, on the other hand, can be wrapped like candy floss around the distaff head. Which ends up looking rather round and fluffy and wool-like. Long fibres that hang straight down may of course be flax, but then again, this is what my distaff looks like when I'm spinning worsted wool:
Combed wool from the double-coated Värmland sheep, a Swedish landrace breed.
And this is how I go about dressing it:
Top left image: hand-combed tops rolled into little 'bird's nests' for storage. Bottom left image: a wide band of woollen cloth (150x10 cm) with pieces of the tops arranged in layers. Right image: the band and wool rolled around the distaff and secured with a pin and a linen tie. A similar way of doing this can be found at Katrin Kania's blog A Stitchin Time: How I dress my distaff.
Here's another way of getting the fibres onto the distaff; this works very well for industrially prepared tops or for hand-combed wool, but carded rolags can also be tied to the distaff in this way.
Combed tops (or their modern counterpart) can also be wound around the distaff, as may be the case in this image:
'The Queen Mary Psalter', BL Royal 2 B VII, fol 158, between 1310 and 1320.
Modern carded batts or hand-carded (or even just teased) wool collected into a big pile can be rolled into a nice little package like this...
...which looks a lot like the distaff arrangement in this image...
'Speculum humanae salvationis'. GKS 80 2o, fol. 6r, the first half of the 15th century. Det Konglige Bibliotek, Copenhagen, Denmark.

...and also like the Virgin Mary's fibre bundle in this image (but without the angel):

Virgin Mary, pregnant and spinning. Anonymous, c. 1410. Hungarian National Museum, Budapest.
The package can be attached to the distaff at a jaunty angle as in the image above, or simply stuck unceremoniously onto the top of the distaff as it is:
There! Let's start spinning already!
As long as the fibres aren't too sticky, I've found that almost anything goes when it comes to dressing a distaff. A great messy tangle is fine - as long as it's possible to pull the wool off it one-handed, it'll work - but it will affect the thread. Snags, neps and sticky fibres on the distaff naturally make a less even thread, while carefully prepared wool really helps in spinning a smooth thread. Like so many other things, the end result owes so much to the preparations. I often use the tie around the bundle to control the flow of fibres, adjusting it to give me just enough resistance to draft against when I want a non-fuzzy thread. I personally find it helps with a little bit of resistance when I want a smooth thread, but for fluffier yarn I just let twist do most of the drafting for me. At the moment (in between sessions of spinning for weaving), I trying to learn how to do a proper woollen long draw, which of course requires yet another slightly different one-handed drafting technique. I'm starting to get some usable thread out of it now, and it's good practice for the day when I finally get myself a great wheel...

Textiles tools from medieval Novgorod:

Medieval Clothing and Textiles, Volym 4: "From Flax to Linen in Medieval Rus Lands" - Heidi M. Sherman, 2008.

Dressing distaffs:
How I Dress My Distaff- A Stitch inTime

So what IS just sogreat about adistaff? - 15th Century Spinning

Monday, 19 October 2015


Life's full of challenges, and some of them are all about textiles...

The Historical Sewing Fortnightly/Monthly
After an enthusiastic start in early 2014, I think I can safely say that I utterly failed to complete any more of the Historical Sewing Fortnightly's challenges, even when it changed to its current monthly format... Alas, too many things to do; too little time to do them in.

The Manuscript Challenge
In August 2014, I joined the Manuscript Challenge and failed to complete it within the specified year. I did a little better than with the Historical Sewing Fortnightly, though. For the Manuscript Challenge, I choose this picture from the Weltchronik in Versen: MS BSB Cgm 5, fol. 44v. The manuscript is from around 1370 and belongs to the Bayerische Staatsbibliothek, Regensburg, Germany.

Rebecca. Weltchronik in Versen, c. 1370. Bayerische Staatsbibliothek.

It's Rebecca from the Bible, looking fashionable in a lovely red dress lined with ermine, worn over a green dress, and with an amazing kruseler that looks like a decorated cake. What's not to love about this image?!

My plan was to weave the fabric for the overdress, dye it with madder, spin the sewing thread and sew the whole thing by hand. I also decided to weave the fabric for the green underdress, while buying the fabric for the kruseler. I had never made a kruseler before (they're bit out of my fanciness league, at least one as sumptuous as this) and I didn't want to risk messing up a handwoven fabric on this first attempt.

I did actually finish the first part of the challenge - the red overdress. It's my Weaving Vadmal-dress. It turned out more rustic-looking than I imagine Rebecca's dress to be, because my fabric is on the coarser side and it's cut a lot more...economically. Obviously I left out the ermine lining altogether. 

The kruseler, then. Well, it's an ongoing project that I drag out from underneath the big pile of UFOs (UnFinished Objects) every once in a while to work on it for a few hours. At the moment, it's just a bunch of wide linen strips that need to be hemmed. Let's just say I'm not overly excited about hemming about 10 miles of linen strips, and leave it at that... 

The green fabric is still hanging around somewhere in the planning stage. I have one or two (perhaps even three) projects for the Big Loom that I'm much more excited about and it might get bumped even further down the queue. I do have the yarn, but I'm in no hurry to do anything about it for the time being. 

To sum things up, the most accurate status for my Manuscript Challenge right now would probably be Dormant But Not Dead.

But then something else came along about a month ago...

The Herjolfsnes Challenge!
The warp that was in my loom when the Herjolfnes Challenge was announced was already meant to become fabric for a Herjolfsnes 39/D10581 dress, so I joined straight away. I don't expect the fabric to be anything like the original, though. The wool's not quite right, and I don't have enough weft yarn to make the typical Herjolfsnes weft-faced 2/2 twill either. I will just have to make do with a generic medieval twill. Which will be red...bright madder red, quite the opposite of the undyed fabrics used for the Herjolfsnes garments. I will put the challenge efforts into the cut of the garment, and the seams and finishing techniques rather than the fabric itself...

Yep, that's the warp yarn. It's quite red.
I have these old, full-scale Herjolfsnes patterns from Nationalmuseum in Copenhagen that I have been meaning to try out for years and, encouraged by the Challenge, I finally dug them out only to discover that one of them was actually for Herjolfsnes 39 (although it certainly didn't look it at first glance). 

Full-scale Herjolfsnes patterns from Nationalmuseum, Copenhagen, with suspiciously long sleeves in the line drawing of number 39... I bought these some 10 years ago and the museum doesn't sell them anymore.

So I decided to use the ready-made pattern rather than making my own. When I checked its measurements against those given for the preserved dress, they seemed to be pretty close. These patterns were made by Else Østergård and Lilli Fransen and I think that they are pretty much the same as the ones that ended up in their book Medieval Garments Reconstructed (Nordbomønstre. Dragtsnit fra middelalderen in Danish).

Project sketch for my challenge dress.

I made a cotton mock-up to test the pattern. The only alteration I made was to add 25 cm to the bottom of the dress, so it would reach the floor. Other than that, I used the original measurements.

I didn't have enough fabric to make both side panels reach the floor, and I had to skip one of the sleeves, but there was enough of the dress to decide that the fit was absolutely perfect! And look at those draping folds in the middle picture. I'm SO looking forward to making this dress!

I got so enthusiastic about the Challenge that I couldn't wait until I had finished weaving the fabric. I wanted to make something straight away. In my stash I found a piece of old handwoven twill and decided to make it into an 'in-between challenge', to practise the seams and finishing techniques. The choice fell on hood number 72/D10602 as it was included in the full-scale pattern.

The pattern given for the hood 72/D10602 in Medieval Garments Reconstructed is bigger than the original to make it possible to pull it over the head without adding an opening (the original is just too tight for that).
Trying out the 'sømmesting' which is described as an invisible stitch sewn from the right side
in Som syet til jorden (Woven into the Earth).

Finishing the hem with a tabby-woven edge.

The finished hood, with close-ups of the woven edge.

Fabric: handwoven and fulled 2/1 twill.
Seams used: 'sømmesting' from the outside for the assembling seams, overcast stitches to sew down the seam allowances, two rows of slanted stab stitches around the face opening, singling around the lower edge.
Weaving: 'foot weaving' (ordinary tabby) around the lower edge, done with the same handspun thread used for the sewing.

Differences from original hood: 

Size (see above).
Sewing thread is Z-twisted instead of S-twisted.
2/1 instead of 2/2 twill
The edges weren't preserved on the original so the finishing techniques are taken from other Herjolfsnes hoods.

Nordbomønstre. Dragtsnit fra middelalderen (Medieval Garments Reconstructed) - Lilli Fransen, Anna Nørgaard & Else Østergård, 2010.

Som syet til jorden (Woven Into the Earth) - Else Østergård, 2003.

Friday, 18 September 2015

Dyed in the Wool

Lately, I've been spamming Facebook and Instagram with prettily arranged collages of differently coloured dyed-in-the-wool...wool. I bought it from The Mulberry Dyer at the market during this summer's big reenactment event, the Battle of Azincourt 1415-2015.
I'm not really a big event person - I turn into a shy, anti-social clam and usually end up with a migraine to boot - but I'm very happy I went to Azincourt this summer. I mean, a 600-year anniversary only happens once!
Why did the reenactor go to France?
To stand slouching forlornly in a muddy field. In the rain. Apparently.
Photo: Karolina
I also spoke more French at (yes, at...) bemused strangers than I've ever done before, which is very unlike me but in A Good Way. And I really enjoyed the market at the event.

As usual, some of the stuff being sold was mostly for the tourists, but a great many merchants were there for the reenactors, which was really nice. As more and more merchants arrived, those of us staying in the camp could actually say "Let's go down to the market and see what's new today!" Some of my fellow Swedes went shopping crazy, but I tried to stick to my (questionable? stupid? vain?) decision to stay away from All That Fancy Stuff. We don't do personas like they do in the SCA, but I'm quite sure "medieval me" wouldn't be anywhere near a high status lady. My reenactment group Albrechts Bössor portrays a company of mercenary gunners and I myself (obviously) have a strong leaning towards textile crafts like spinning and weaving on a more or less professional level. So no overly conspicuous consumption for me, as long as I hang around with mercenaries or do the work of a middle class artisan/craftsperson...
But I did spoil myself with a small, slightly 'out-of-chatacter' item, something I've wanted for a very long time: an ink pot.
The Azincourt Loot. Wool, a wooden mug, the ink pot, thread reels and spindle whorls

Well, back to the wool. I really like spinning dyed wool, it always puts a smile on my face to look up at the distaff and see a brightly coloured ball of fluff sitting there. The spinning of dyed wool is never shown in medieval artwork, though (not that I know of), but it was done. There are medieval finds of raw wool from Hull, England, that were dyed with an indigotine dye (most likely woad) (Armstrong & Ayers 1987) and according to John Munro, dyeing could take place during any stage of fabric production; as wool, as thread and as finished cloth (Munro 2003). The 15th century English translation of the 13th century manuscript De doctrina cordis - The Doctrine of the Hert  - says that cloth that was dyed in the wool never lost is colour, "but þe cloth þat is died in cloth, it wille oft tyme chaunge colour" (Woolgar 2006, 160). The Doctrine of the Hert is a devotional text for nuns, so the statement is probably used allegorically, but it's still an indication of the actual practice of dyeing in the wool and that it was considered to create a good and fast colour.
The wool turned into big rolags. IT'S SO FLUFFY!!!

The wool I bought from the Mulberry Dyer was dyed with madder (the red and pale pink), woad (the blue) and woad/weld (the green) on white Shetland wool. She didn't have very much dyed wool to sell at Azincourt, so I simply picked the shades that I could get more than 10 grams of. My first thought was to use the yarn as singles to add stripes to a fabric on the Big Loom, but I eventually decided to make the yarn two-ply instead and use it for tablet weaving.
Spindle and distaff collage. The colours, THE COLOURS!

Most of the green thread was spun at the 100 Jahre 14tes Jahrhundert event at Ronneburg at the end of August. My distaff was nicknamed The Muppet, for obvious reasons. Who knew muppets were such a joy to spin?! ;-)
The Muppet (much diminished) and me at Ronneburg. Photo:

The Muppet also forced me to stretch my meagre skills of speaking German to the limit as it generated quite a few questions from the visiting public: "Ich spinne. Handspindel. Rocken. Schafwolle. Gefärbt. Mit Reseda und Waid. Ich mache faden." I also did a bit of wool combing, but it was too frustrating not being able to quite explain what I was doing (one member of the public thought I was making a wig!), so I decided to stick to spinning after a while. The result of the combing will be the focus of a future blog post though, but for now I'll just post a few more gratuitous pictures of pretty wool.
Oh, and while I have your attention - check out this insightful blog post about historical threads, written by some friends of mine:
The Crucial Thread (text in both Swedish and English)

It's not easy being green. The Muppet: spun, wound onto reels for plying, and plied

And here's how I make the big rolags:

The commercially prepared and plant-dyed wool is much too sticky to spin as it is when using a distaff and the one-hand drafting technique seen in medieval depictions of spinners. It needs to run smoothly from the distaff into the thread, so the sticky fibres have to be separated. I do this by drafting the top into a much thinner one. From this top I then pull off shorter lengths of fibres and arrange them next to each other in a big fluffy pile before rolling them up and attaching them to the distaff. Now the fibres will be all mixed up when I draft and that's the way I want it. This particular type of Shetland wool has pretty short fibres and although it's perfectly possible to both comb it and spin it worsted style, it doesn't really make what I think of as a true worsted thread, not in medieval terms (for that I want longer and hairier wool). So I prefer to spin it as a woollen thread.


Armstrong, P. & Ayers, B. 1987. Excavations in High Street and Blackfriargate. Hull old town report series no. 5. East Riding Archaeologist vol. 8.

Munro, J. 2003. "Wool and Wool-Based Textiles in the West European Economy, c.800 - 1500: Innovations and Traditions in Textile Products, Technology, and Industrial Organisation". In Jenkins, David T. (ed.) 2003. The Cambridge history of western textiles. 1. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press
Woolgar, C. M. 2006. The Senses in Late Medieval England


Tuesday, 7 July 2015

Weaving Vadmal VI - The Dress

At long last, I'm finally able to post a few pictures of the finished dress made from my hand-woven, fulled and plant-dyed fabric of the previous posts!

I had hoped to get some nice photos of it during Albrechts Bössor's spring march/fighting practice in early May, but it was so cold then that I never removed my overdress during the three day camping-in-the-forest event. It even snowed a little!

But the sun came out for a bit so I could hitch up my overdress without freezing my legs off!

This past weekend, however, was the opposite of cold. It was also the re-launch of Medeltidsdagarna at Hallands Kulturhistoriska Museum, an event that Albrechts Bössor have been proud to attend for several years with our living history display. For some reason, the Varberg event always tends to be very, very hot and this year was no exception. It was well over 30 degrees and we had our camp pitched on top of the ramparts with little shade during the day. Needless to say, I didn't have to worry about the overdress this time... So here it is: the (almost) finished dress!
Staying cool in wool, with a reed hat
Picture (cropped) by

Me talking about medieval textiles during our 'From sheep to hem'-display
(Från får till fåll - it sounds a lot catchier in Swedish...). Picture by Karl

I still have to do the buttons for the sleeves, but other than that, it's done!

Here you can find more pictures from Medeltidsdagarna; Albrechts Bössor are in quite a few of them!

Friday, 27 February 2015

Weaving Vadmal V - The Finished Fabric

In medieval times, the fulled fabric was stretched on tenterhooks while still damp to get its final shape (from which we get the English expression 'to be on tenterhooks'). Not having a tenter around, or even a wall on which to nail my fabric, I had to make do with the slightly more modern finishing treatment of rolling it on a plastic tube instead. And re-rolling it once a day until it was completely dry. Normally, this wouldn't have been a problem. As it happened, me and boyfriend J-E were leaving to go backpacking in Switzerland the day after I returned from the fulling mill... No time for the fabric to dry.

Rolling the fabric (or keeping it stretched out) while it dries is rather important to get a good finish and remove any wobbliness introduced into the fabric by the violent fulling process. Skipping this stage was not something I wanted to do after spending so much time and effort on my fabric... Letting it dry on the plastic tube was not an option either; I didn't want to risk it going mouldy in my abscence! Eventually, I resorted to a kind of speed drying that worked surprisingly well: The house we live in has room for drying laundry in, equipped with a great big hot air fan. I stayed up all night (more or less), re-rolling my fabric every couple of hours, letting it sit on the plastic tube in the drying room in between.

Fabric. On a roll!
The result was that, by morning, my fabric was completely dry and had been stretched and rolled just as many times as it would have been had I done it the proper way. And it was nice and smooth too. Success!

After two weeks of trains, medieval churches struck by iconoclasts and quite a few alps and weird biscuits, I was back home and ready to cut my cloth. 

Swiss Collage: Best train ride ever! - Neuchâtel tomb - Happy Swiss biscuits
I used the body block I made for my supportive shift as a basis for cutting out the pieces. I've made enough dresses of this rather simple late 14th century style for myself to know how they work on my body, so these days, I usually do the fitting on myself with the real fabric, skipping the mock-up stage. I prefer dresses without back and front seams, so all the tweaking to get the fit right is done in the side and shoulder seams. Cutting with a little extra seam allowance in those areas gives me enough room to do the necessary adjustments. For this dress, I wanted to have lacing down the front, but I still put all the shaping into the side seams. I calculated that I could get at least two long-sleeved dresses out of my fabric, and probably something small like a hood, if I cut it economically. Eager to get going, I cut. 
Pattern pieces
The first cut! The brown thread marks one of the three weaving faults in my cloth...
And then realised that I should probably have added at least another centimetre of extra seam allowance since I was going to dye the damn things too! Mordanting and dyeing the cut pieces would almost certainly wreak havoc on the raw edges and ruin my precious seam allowance... Ah, well. I threw them in the dye pot anyway.

I had enough madder left for a weak 14% dye. This wouldn't be the bright red I got on my sample, but I was fine with that. I just didn't want a completely grey dress... Still, I was surprised by how strong the colour ended up – not a muted, watered-down pink like I had expected, but a cheerful orange, only tempered by the dark weft! The edges did fray, but not too badly. The seam allowance on the Herjolfsnes garments is about 7 mm and there was at least twice that left, so I had no reason to complain. 
Both the colour and the frayed edges turned out a lot better than expected
Despite this vadmal project, spinning was really my main focus last year (I just realised I've spent almost 5 years just practising spindle spinning! My blog post from 2010 sounds awfully naive, now!). I finally mastered (well, sort of) spinning with a distaff, which seemed like a necessary skill to accquire if I wanted to spin the way it was done in medieval times (there are practically no medieval depictions of spinners not using a distaff) and I tried my hand at producing sewing thread.
A slightly hairy thread...
I could probably make it thinner with more practice (after all, the 2-ply sewing thread from the Herjolfsnes garments is less than 1 mm in diameter), but it turned out to be a perfect thickness for my vadmal fabric as it was. My sewing thread has a lot of give in it; I think this will be a very good thing for a tight dress. The thread will take a lot more strain before breaking than the 2-ply linen I usually use for hand sewing.

All that's left now is for me to finish the dress... And decide what to do with the rest of the fabric!

Felling the shoulder seam à la Herjolfsnes

To sum things up: 
My version of a medieval vadmal fabric ended up with the following technical specifications after fulling, drying and dyeing: 

Weave type: 2/1 twill 
Warp: light natural grey 1-ply wool, z-spun, 9 threads/cm 
Weft: dark natural grey 1-ply wool, z-spun, 10 threads/cm
It was fulled in cold water for approximately 4 hours, with a total shrinkage of 10% (width) 
Finished width: 82 cm 
Finished length: ca 11 m
Dress pieces dyed with 14% madder.

Next time: Weaving Vadmal VI - The Dress

Thursday, 1 January 2015

Weaving Vadmal IV - Fulling

Two days before the vadmal weaving class were suppose to go the fulling mill in Skrekarhyttan, I realised had woven a lot less than I thought I had. A lot less as in only about half of what I had in the loom... Six metres of fabric do not a medieval dress make (well, it does actually, but I wanted all of my fabric fulled), so I promptly decided to take some extra time off from work just to be able to finish it. Subsequently, I spent two of the hottest days in July this year indoors, sweating in the loom and weaving like mad. 6.4 metres in two days - I'm happy (and a little proud) to discover I still had speed weaving in me after all these years of not weaving at all...

Two hours before my ride to the fulling mill came to pick me up, I cut the fabric out of the loom. 
The fabric taking a short rest on the sofa. I would have liked a rest too, but I had to go pack for a weekend of fulling...
The fulling mill (link to photos by Vikers Hembygdsförening) was built in the 1990s, but based on an old design. In the beginning, it was even powered by a water wheel, but these days it runs on electricity (but the electricity is actually generated by the very stream that used to power the mill!). I tried to find out a bit about the history of fulling mills in Sweden, but didn't get very far back. There were water powered fulling mills here in the 16-17th century. A sign at the mill in Skrekarhyttan claimed there weren't any earlier than that, and I haven't found anything to contradict that yet. In Europe, of course, water-powered fulling mills were all the rage in medieval times, but I suppose we kept doing it the old-fashioned way with our feet up here in the north a while longer. One of the Swedish words for fulling - stampa - literally means to stomp/step on. A fulling mill is simply called stamp - "a stomp".
The mill with its fulling tubs
It was an extremely hot day outside, but it was nice and cool by the fulling tubs. There were three of them, hollowed out of a single tree trunk. Each tub could take about 40-50 metres of fabric and it was quite hypnotic to watch as the fabrics went round and round while being pounded by the heavy "stompers". We used water from the stream outside to wet the cloths. The people of the local handicraft guild who take care of the mill these days said they usually heat the water first, but the wood stove used for that wasn't safe to use when we were there. Cold water worked just fine, too. 

I shot this slightly shaky and out-of-focus video of the "stomp" at work: