Flax in the Viking Age

From flax to linen

After more than 15 years of working with the crafts of the Viking Age, the staff at Ribe VikingeCenter have accrued a broad range of experiences with the tools and the processes that formed part of daily life, one thousand years ago. Experiences like these are rarely available to professional archaeologists, but are nevertheless greatly important to our understanding of life in the past.

Therefore, much can be learned by combining the forms of practically oriented knowledge that are found at Ribe VikingeCenter with the research-oriented knowledge possessed by professional archaeologists. For this reason, in 2010, the University of Southern Denmark collaborated with Ribe VikingeCenter on a project concerning flax in the Viking Age.

This project has led to the publication of a scientific report (in English), which can be downloaded from the bottom of this page.

Flax in the Viking Age

In archaeological contexts, textile fabrics are generally preserved only in small fragments, attached for instance to rust and oxidation on the backsides of metal jewellery found in graves. However, a systematic study of these fragments reveals that upwards of 40% of all known textile recoveries from the Viking Age can be recognized as linen. Apparently, then, linen was in common usage, but perhaps particularly for formal wear. In Viborg, a shirt has been recovered from the 11th century, which gives an impression of how clothes would have looked. This find, which is unique for Northern and Central Europe, has only been preserved due to very specific soil conditions. Several locations have been discovered throughout Denmark where linen seems to have been produced on a near-industrial scale. Linen was a commercial good in the Viking Age.

The project

The goal of the project has been to document the rather complex work that takes place before an unsown flax seed becomes a finished shirt, and thus to understand the total amount of work that goes into producing a shirt of the Viborg type.

Results indicate a total of 3-400 work hours for a single shirt. It takes more than 10 km of hand spun yarn to complete the garment, and the spinning alone represents approx. 200 hours of work for a skilled artisan. These are large numbers, even though the shirt found in Viborg happens to be rather small and would scarcely have fit on a grown man. A considerable portion of women's time must have gone into securing that everyone was clothed. In light of this, it is no surprise that Danish genealogists know the maternal side of the family tree as 'the spinning side.'

The practical side of the project has been in the hands of Birgit Thomsen, Ribe VikingeCenter's most experienced textile expert, as well as lecturer Bo Ejstrud and a group of post-graduate archaeology students from the University of Southern Denmark. In addition to this, the project was assisted by archaeologist Stina Andresen who has studied archaeological finds of linen in Northern Europe of the same period.

Download 'From flax to linen. Experiments with flax at Ribe Viking Centre' (flash required)

Download 'From flax to linen. Experiments with flax at Ribe Viking Centre' as PDF.