Open May 25, 2012

Brown University senior Anya Eber is working with Haffenreffer Museum Research Associate Dr. Michèle Hayeur Smith on her National Science Foundation grant exploring the social significance of dress in Iceland and the role of women in textile production. Researching archaeological textile fragments from the southern Icelandic sites of Skálholt and Bergthórshvoll, Eber has reconstructed garments from these fragments that provide new glimpses into what Icelanders wore from the 15th to the 18th century and into the skilled work of Icelandic women as weavers and creators of clothing.

Clothing in Iceland, AD 1450-1800
Brown University senior Anya Eber is working with Haffenreffer Museum Research Associate Dr. Michèle Hayeur Smith on her National Science Foundation grant exploring the social significance of dress in Iceland and the role of women in textile production. Researching archaeological textile fragments from the southern Icelandic sites of Skálholt and Bergthórshvoll, Eber has reconstructed garments from these fragments that provide new glimpses into what Icelanders wore from the 15th to the 18th century and into the skilled work of Icelandic women as weavers and creators of clothing.

Reconstructed Icelandic Mitten from Skálholt, Iceland, ca. AD 1600-1700
In Europe during the 15th through 17th centuries, many mittens were sewn with a two-part pattern. The mitten’s body was sewn together first, then attached to a separate thumb piece. This construction allowed for greater mobility of the hands. The fragment excavated from Skálholt appears to be the body of a mitten torn along its seams and missing the thumb. This reconstruction shows what the original mitten may have looked like. It is sewn out of wool similar to the original, with hand-stitched seams.

This original mitten fragment (not pictured) is from the National Museum of Iceland. It was excavated in 2007 at the site of Skálholt, Iceland’s southern bishopric. The mitten is made from two pieces of woolen cloth woven in a 2/2 twill and sewn together.

 

 

Reconstruction of an Icelandic Collar from Skálholt, Iceland, circa AD 1600-1700
Recovered from 17th century layers at the site of the cathedral school in Skálholt, Iceland, the circular shape of this textile mirrors later examples of traditional Icelandic collars. Around 1790, collars worn around the neck like a ruff became part of Icelandic national costume. These collars were constructed from two identical woolen circles sewn together, often over paper or felt, and covered in velvet. The tops of these collars were often lavishly embroidered, as in this reconstruction.

Secrets worn close to the heart
Icelandic women occasionally folded personal letters into the woolen circles of their collars. Sewn into the garment’s structure, these letters were secrets known only to their makers. Love letters or other letters of a personal nature were kept close at all times by wearing the collar around the neck.

The original textile (not pictured) is in the National Museum of Iceland’s collection. This fragmentary collar was excavated in 2007 at the site of Skálholt. Made from wool, it was one of the structural elements in a traditional Icelandic collar. With a diameter of 20 cm and a circular opening measuring 12 cm in diameter, this textile matches the measurements of other preserved Icelandic collars.

This cross-section shows the parts of an Icelandic collar
1.  Velvet top cover: Generally heavily embroidered black velvet
2.  Woolen circles: Usually made of 2/2 twill like the excavated example, these gave the collar its structure
3.  Secret letters: Icelanders often stuffed letters inside the woolen circles as personal keepsakes and to add stiffness to the collar.

 

Most of the material archaeologists find comes from trash heaps or burials. Few items are in perfect shape; many archeological artifacts are damaged. Consequently, it is often hard to tell what the original object looked like. Textiles are particularly difficult to work with. Frequently only a fragment of the larger garment survives and the archaeologist has to work with a single seam or a ripped section of cloth. Look at this last piece and see if you can figure out what it was.

Reconstructed Hood
While it is unclear what garment these fragments represent, one possibility is that they were part of a hood. Hoods were common articles of clothing during the late medieval period in Greenland and Europe. Iceland’s cold climate probably made them popular there too. Piece C is sewn in a way that indicates it may have been the opening of a hood framing the wearer’s face. A number of the other fragments are harder to identify – these may have been patches.

This is reconstructed from a set of fragments currently in the collections of the National Museum of Iceland (not pictured). The fragments were excavated at the site of Bergthórshvoll in southern Iceland. They are woven from wool and appear to have been part of the same garment. Using accelerated mass spectrometry (AMS) dating, the pieces of cloth were dated to the period AD 1445-1524.

Many people in medieval Iceland were poor and patched their clothing in numerous places. Are there so many pieces in this group because they represent a complex pattern for a garment we now see only in pieces? Or could it be that the clothing item was patched so many times there were patches on patches?

THANKS TO:
This exhibit displays the research of Brown University student Anya Eber, working with Brown University faculty and staff. This research was funded by a grant from the National Science Foundation’s Office of Polar Programs, Arctic Social Sciences program (award no. 1023167) to Dr. Michèle Hayeur Smith, principal investigator of the grant “Rags to Riches, An Archaeological Study of Icelandic Textiles and Gender in Iceland, AD 874-1800”. All photographs by Dr. Michèle Hayeur Smith, Haffenreffer Museum.

Special thanks to the National Science Foundation’s Office of Polar Programs (Arctic Social Sciences), Dr. Gavin Lucas – Háskolí Íslands (University of Iceland) and Fornleifastofnun Íslands (The Icelandic Archaeological Institute), Hildur Rosenkjær for her insights into early modern garments, and Þordís Baldursdóttir for conservation assistance.