The Sons of Lugh Viking era living history group have added colour and drama to our Festival every year. Visit their demonstration area to see ancient fibre crafts such as spindle spinning, nalbinding and tablet weaving.
Thank you to Kathryn Drummond of Sons of Lugh for this story of the making of a linen shirt.
The Gift of a Shirt – A Historical Perspective
In the modern world, a shirt is a nice gift to give someone. It’s practical, thoughtful and fashionable and costs about $50 (or the equivalent of a few hours of work), more or less. But was it always that way? During the Viking era, what we would think of as a very simple shirt was considered a very special gift indeed. To understand why it was such a treasured gift, let’s take a look at the steps it takes to make a linen shirt.
The first step to a Viking linen shirt was growing a crop of linen flax; linen flax is related to the flax you see all over Manitoba, but the plant is taller, so that the fibers you get from it will be longer. When the crop was ready, the plants were pulled out of the ground by the roots rather than being cut, to maximize the length of the plant fibers. The plants were dried and then the seeds were removed by threshing. The growing and drying took several months.
The dried plants were laid out on the ground and dew retted. Dew retting is the process of softening or rotting the outer layer of the plant by allowing the dried plants to be repeatedly wetted with dew and then heated by the sun, causing the outer layer of the plant to ferment. This step took about two or three weeks and could be quite smelly! The retted plants were bundled and then dried again,a process called stooking; this made the outer layer more brittle, so that it could be removed more easily.
The dried stems were crimped, or beaten with a wooden mallet against a wooden board. This breaks apart the layers of the plant, revealing the long plant fibers inside. A wooden scutching knife was used to separate the chaff, or outer layer of the plant from the inner fibers. The long bast fibers were straightened and separated from the shorter tow fibers by combing the inner fibers through a heckler, or bed of nails. The tow fibers wouldn’t have been used to make the shirt, but might have been spun into a lower quality thread, used as stuffing for mattresses and cushions or used as tinder to start a fire.
The long bast fibers were then wet-spun into linen thread. It took about 10 km of fine linen thread to make one shirt for a small person; this represented at least 200 hours of spinning with a drop spindle!1 The linen thread was woven into fabric, using a warp–weighted loom . This fabric would have been woven to the width and length needed to make the shirt and would have taken a few days.
The pattern for a basic shirt of the time consisted of rectangles and triangles to make the most efficient use of the very valuable fabric. The hand sewing would have only taken a day or two. Once the shirt had been made, it might have been embellished with a decorative band made using a technique called tablet weaving,which would only have added another day or two of work.
All told, it has been estimated that one shirt represented approximately 400 hours of labor 1, which is 10 weeks of eight hour days. The average Canadian salary in the manufacturing sector in 2016 was $56,446. So, in today’s terms, that simple shirt was a $11,000 gift ! No wonder it was such a treasure!
At the Manitoba Fibre Festival, make sure to visit with the Sons of Lugh to see some of these traditional fibre skills and more in action.
The Sons of Lugh is a Manitoba-based Viking re-enacting group that was founded in 2005 by the McFarland-Welbourne family and has since grown to almost 30 members in various parts of Manitoba, including Brandon,Winnipeg and Gimli. The aim of the Sons of Lugh is to learn historically accurate skills and present them to the public. We participate in several events throughout the year to bring our passion for this era to others.