Saturday, August 15, 2015

Hedeby Harbor Wooden Handled Bag

Think about those wonderful “magical moments” we have in the SCA, where for just a minute you lose of track of where and when you really are and feel transported. It’s hard to do that when you’re toting around your modern purse! Accessories can mean the difference between a costume and clothing, so period purses jumped their way up my priority list.

I decided to make a Viking-era wool bag, sewn by hand in period stitch types with wool thread, out of fabric colored with madder, a period dye. The wooden handles are hand-carved from ash at the same scale as the original piece from Hedeby Harbor. The band and strap are tablet-woven from silk using a pattern from the Oseberg Ship Burial.

Before I started on the final project, I decided to test the waters with a trial run in linen, using a thin pair of walnut handles purchased from the same lady who made my loom. 

The construction was all linen, with a woven trim both for an accent and the strap. I used fabric tags to attach the handles because, on the pieces I saw on Pinterest, I liked the look better than the yarn versions.

This project taught me that I chose too flimsy of a linen for the construction, that the tabs were annoying to sew and felt less secure, and that the linen trim I chose to use for my strap had a tendency to roll and show its ugly side.

When I decided to start the final project, the format that finally caught my eye is based on the “objects of unknown function” in the Haithabu Museum. In Die Holzfunde von Haithabu by F. Whestphal, the author speculates that they are purse handles, or Taschenbügel. 

Photo by Tom Nordulf from the Haithabu Museum

As evidenced by the picture below, there are several examples which have survived. Of all those extant pieces, only one pair has been found. Now, Whestphal used the example of that pair to extrapolate that the others may have started as pairs as well. Almost all the replicas I’ve seen has followed that format, so I decided to follow suit in my version to see how well it would function.

In Die Holzfunde von Haithabu by F. Whestphal, pg. 81
In the museum image above, the handles were made from (from top), ash, maple, and ash. Of all the images I could find, only one even hinted at how the bag may be attached to the handle: Figure 66 in Die Holzfunde von Haithabu, which is also shown in the museum image.

The length of this particular piece was 181mm, with a height of 48mm, and a thickness of 9mm. To get as close as possible to that, I scaled the image on my computer and traced it onto graph paper. I then used Grandpa’s Old Timer pocket knife and a jig-saw to do almost all the work. I did use a drill briefly to gain access to inner sections and speed up the process after a slip of the knife led to a trip to the ER, 4 stitches in the palm of my hand, and a month of recovery time. 

Finally, after cutting out the profiles, I rounded the edges and added the incised design lines, which make the arches pop. A little sanding and polishing later, and it’s on to the next stage: Mordanting the fabric and dyeing the wool. This project was a great excuse to explore period dyes, and I decided to start with madder.
In Viking Clothing, Ewing notes, “…This picture of red clothes as a mark of rank or luxury is confirmed by archeology, where madder-dyed clothes are found only in graves of the highest status,” (168). In Viking: Dress, Garment, Clothing, Glæsel also says, “Madder was a prized dye. The Oseberg Queen’s dress was dyed with madder,” (26).  I ordered chopped madder roots and alum from AcrossGenerations, and then got to work.
I had two pieces of wool I was considering for the project: a light cream and a gray. I took samples along the way and even tossed in some of the wool thread (Brown Sheep’s “Indian Warp”) I picked up from White Rock Spinning and Weaving to sew with. Here you can see the fabrics in the alum mordant bath, which allows the dye to bond better with the fabric.

I soaked the 4oz of dried madder roots overnight. The next day, after applying the alum to the wool, I strained out the roots and poured the dye into the pot.

I took samples along the way, and recorded the different colors I obtained. Unfortunately, I was not very impressed with the color the gray wool became.

Luckily, one of my friends had some madder she wasn't using. The two batches were quite different – the original 4oz was dried but still fairly fresh, and it was mostly the thicker roots. Emma’s was about 4 years old and a mix of wide and thin pieces. The original batch yielded brighter colors, where Emma’s batch yielded some lovely browner tones.

Once the fabric was dyed and washed, it was time to move on to the sewing. I decided on a simple three-piece construction with one long rectangle in a “U” shape and two sidepieces with their bottoms rounded. While I prefer to sew with linen, in Viking Clothing Thor Ewing says, “Thread used for sewing is usually a plied yarn matching the fibre of the cloth; thus woollen yarn sews wool and linen sews linen.”

The colored sewing thread I originally planned to use lost its definition and felted somewhat in the dye bath, so I used the un-dyed original yarn for the hidden stitches. For strength, I used backstitch and then flat-felled the seams with the fluffier, colored yarn. 

I decided to add a contrasting band of un-dyed gray wool at the top of the bag, which allowed me to hide away all the knots and make it look a lot cleaner. Wool was used to attach the handles to the bag, in the same kind of way that the original appeared to be. I chose wool for this as well, because as evidenced by the archeological record, protein-based wool is much more likely to survive the centuries than plant-based fibers like linen, so for those scraps of thread to survive on the extant bag handle, it would be incredibly unlikely to be linen. Hem stitch was used to hold the gray wool’s edge down until the silk tablet weaving could be attached, to make it even prettier. 

Now for the tablet weaving! The band’s design and fiber content (silk) is based on a thin band from the Oseberg Ship Burial. The pale green silk is Gutebrod Bros, size F. I didn’t have a silk thread that contrasted enough for the design, so I dyed some of their light gray size FFF with a blue RIT dye which is supposed to look like blue dyes of the period.
Margareta Nockert's Osebergfunnet, Tekstilene

According to Vedeler, “The Oseberg grave chamber is dated by dendrochronology to the year c. 834, giving the silks this year as a terminus ante quem. (This means that the silk must have been made before this date.) It is possible, and not unlikely, that these silks changed hands through one or more generations, prior to the burial,” (3).

On Shelagh Lewins’ website she lists both an extrapolated pattern for the extant band and a slight variation which alters the rotation of a single card.

I chose to make both, although I did eliminate one non-essential card for the sake of symmetry. Mina, our new rescue kitty, decided to "help."
Such an innocent expression! Once both bands were completed, all that remained was to sew the decorative band down and attach the other band to the handles as a strap.


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

Crockett, Candace. Card Weaving. Interweave: Canada, 1991.

Dean, Jenny. Wild Color: The Complete Guide to Making and Using Natural Dyes. Watson-Guptill Publications: New York, 2010. 

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

Glæsel, Nille. “Natural Coloring.” Viking Dress Garment Clothing. CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform. 2010.

Lewins, Shelagh. “Tablet Weaving for Dark Age Re-enactors: The Narrow Oseberg Band.” Shelagh’s Website. 2015. <

Priest-Dorman, Carolyn.“Colors, Dyestuffs, and Mordants of the Viking Age: An Introduction.” Þóra Sharptooth’s Viking Resources for the Re-Enactor. <>

Vedeler, Marianne. “Silk from the Ship Burial at Oseberg, Norway.” Silk for the Vikings. Oxbow Books: Havertown, PA 2014.

Westphal, Florian. Die Holzfunde von Haithabu. Wachholtz Verlag Neumünster: 2006.

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