Monday, August 10, 2015

Handsewn Linen Serk (Viking-Era Underdress)

When I first started doing Viking-era costuming, I focused on the apron dress, and regretfully used my Medieval underdresses pretty much interchangeably. Looking back at them now, I have to flinch a little when I see a large neckline, more suitable for a wide-necked cotehardie, paired with a poorly fitted overdress. I've been doing better, and it's all a learning process, but I thought it was time for me to buckle down and create the most authentic underdress I could with proper color and construction, hand sewn in the correct thread.
Illustration: Pirkko-Liisa Lehtosalo-Hilander:
Ancient Finnish Costumes, p 50

I wanted to try some different patterns and designs for my next underdress, but the more research I did, the less appealing they became. I was most interested in the Eura dress style, which Pirkko-Liisa Lehtosalo-Hilander based on grave 56 at Luistiari.

In "Viking Women: Underdress" Hilde Thunem explores this format, and she states, "All that was left of the underdress in grave 56 at Luistiari was fragments of the sleeves," and that when combined with other factors it "is therefore a somewhat suspect source for a Viking serk."

The other examples I was interested in seemed to also suffer from the same problem: Their designs had a lot more to do with extrapolation than solid extant examples.

Illustration: Kyrtles/Cotes Type 1
by I. Marc Carlson
So for the design of my new underdress, I decided to go with what Marc Carlson describes as Nockert, Type 1. This includes the Bocksten Bog Man's Kyrtle (Middle 14th century), the Kragelund Man's Kyrtle (1045-1155 CE), and Skjoldehamn Kyrtle (1100-1210 CE). They're all essentially the same pattern but with some different piecing, although I decided to run with the front slit in the Kragelund version (also featured in Østergård's Woven into the Earth) because it looks cool and I hate having things too close to my throat.

This style is very well represented, and I saw either identical or very close versions on Þóra Sharptooth's site, as well as in Nille Glæsel's book and on the Hurstwic site. Some versions include the front gores, while others leave them out. I decided to leave them out, mostly because I ran out of fabric.

Once I decided which pattern to use, I needed to choose my fabric and color... or lack thereof. According to Thor Ewig in Viking Clothing, "Dyes have not been confirmed on linen cloth from the Viking Age. Linen is usually only preserved through the action of metal salts, which can give it a blue cast, but on analysis none of these blue linens have yet shown evidence of dyeing. Cheap linen will have been left in its natural greyish or brownish hue, whilst high quality would usually be bleached rather than dyed," (157).

However, he goes on to continue, "Nontheless, although linen does not accept dyes as readily as wool, dyed linens may have been available, even if relatively rare. Pliny knew of blue, red, and purple-dyed linens in Roman times... Some of the Birka linens, which have not yet been tested in the lab, were very possibly dyed. The Medieval Icelandic poem Sigurðarkviða inn skamma refers to 'foreign linen well colored' (valaript vel fáð, st.66) and the blue serkr worn by the noblewomen," (158).

So with my choices most likely natural, bleached, or blue, I went with a bleached fabric. 

When it came to the choice of my sewing thread, Ewing also covered that base, saying, "Thread used for sewing is usually a plied yarn matching the fibre of the cloth; thus woollen yarn sews wool and linen sews linen,” (158).

I referred back to Jennifer Baker's wonderful stitching type handout and decided to use a (possibly overkill) backstitch to join the pieces, with a flat fell finish. I love the additional strength this gives my seams, and you can't beat how neat and clean it looks when it's all laying nice and flat.

Even the gores are behaving themselves. I'm so glad I read the section on sewing in Østergård's Woven into the Earth, because it led me to a big "ah-ha!" moment in terms of sewing gores flat. She covers this technique on pg. 99, and includes additional versions with gussets on pg. 199.

I also used my favorite hem-stitch on this dress, although some of my hems were so small that they actually became rolled hems.

All in all, I'm pretty proud of this project. It brings together a lot of the skills I've been learning and refining this summer, and without that additional study I wouldn't have been able to create something so much more authentic.


Baker, Jennifer. "Stitches and Seam Techniques Seen on Dark Age/Medieval Garments in Various Museum Collections." 2009. <> 11 June 2014.

Carlson, I. Marc. Some Clothes of the Middle Ages: Kyrtles/Cotes/Tunics/Gowns. 2003. <> 14 August 2014.

Ewing, Thor. Viking Clothing. Gloucestershire: Tempus Publishing, Inc. 2006.

Glæsel, Nille. Viking Dress Garment Clothing. CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform. 2010.

Østergård, Else. Woven into the Earth: Textile Finds from North Greenland. Denmark: Aarhus University Press. 2004.

Priest-Dorman, Carolyn. "Viking Tunic Construction." Þóra Sharptooth's Resources for the Re-enactor. 1997. <> 5 January 2014.

Short, William R. "Clothing in the Viking Age." Hustwic. 2014. <> 14 August 2014.

Thunem, Hilde. "Viking Women: Underdress." 10 March 2014. <>

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