– from a crafter’s perspective.
Back in the early viking age a rich woman was buried in an amazingly beautiful viking ship in Tønsberg, south in Norway. 834 A.D.
The grave mound was excavated in 1904, and is to my knowledge the most well-equipped grave we have ever found from the vikings.
A ship, sledges, a wagon, a bed, a tent, all kind of kitchenware and food, horses and other animals were all parts of the findings. The list goes on.
Everything is decorated in a way that we today hardly can understand the range of. Art and well skilled craft all over.
Most of the findings are known to the world today, but there is still a hidden treasure that deserves to come out.
It is the women’s work. The Oseberg Tapestry.
The Oseberg tapestry decorated the grave chamber. Sadly, only 20% of the tapestry is out of the mud cake’s today. Maybe we will never get the technology to excavate it all, but we do have the software that can follow the fibre on the surface of the mud cakes and follow the thread down through the mud. In essence, it is possible to get the whole story of the tapestry.
The tapestry consists of several pieces whıch we do not know the order of. In the picture above the tapestry is composed by using the known figures only in a random order. Research is most definitely needed!
Unfortunately, there has been almost no research on this piece of art, and I’m really surprised, because this is, in fact, the only story told by pagans (or Norse people) in Viking age and in “Viking-land”.
The story told by Viking’s , In viking age and in “viking-land”
We do not know the story behind the tapestry, but it seems like a ceremonial procession. Many different figures are presented. Many of them are women, Valkyries, warriors, gods in different shapes, horses with wagons, –some maybe with a chest covered with nice carpets–, horses, tents and a lot symbols for the believe and lifestyle of the viking age.
So dear student’s and scientist out there: You have a very interesting research project here!
My work with the Oseberg Tapestry is from a craftsmen’s perspective.
It has been a “truth” that the Oseberg Tapestry was woven with a technique called gobelin and soumak. – So I started with that.
Since the pieces are only 16-13 cm at the widest, I tried out the little loom (maybe) which is also found in the Oseberg grave. It was perfect in size.
The figures are small,- very small! The horse is from ear to foot, typical 7-8 cm or 3 inches. The women are typical 3,3 cm or approximately 1 1/2 inch.
I made a 30 cm warp with 10 threads per cm and made two heddle rock on the little loom and wove 5 cm plain before I started the figures. And then came first challenge:
Challenge 1: I used a printed paper with the pattern that I hang behind the warp. What would the vikings have used?
Challenge 2: Regarding the soumak technique. Here you weave one row white plain, then you add the coloured pattern yarn for one row. That means that one here have to handle 17 balls of yarn for the fill and 24 for the stem stitch around the figures at the same time!!! Additionally, one should also be able to deal with 4-8 figures at the same time. That is a without a doubt a challenge!!!
Challenge 3: When it comes to the wheel and other round shapes I think soumak is almost impossible to use, since the shapes become closer to squares than circles.
The soumak is useful for shapes with straight 0°, 45° and 90° angles.
In Overhögdal in Sweden there is a Tapestry som c. younger than Oseberg that use the soumak technique, and there it is perfect because the lines are straight.
Överhogdals bonaden in soumak technique.
However, Oseberg on the other hand has round and very organic shapes. The wheel for instance.
If you take a closer look at the wheel in the Oseberg tapestry, you can see that the stem stitch follow round the wheel like the illustration under to the right,- blue box. That is embroidery. If it was soumak the stem stitch would have turned direction at 6, 9, 3 and 12 o’clock like in the green box under, – which it in fact does not..
At some figures where the shape get narrow or pointy the “weaving pattern” stops and a stem stitch fill is used instead. For instance in the train in the women’s dress.
If that pattern was done on a loom there would have been no reason to not to continue the pattern all the way out in the point, because you use the warp to make the pattern so you are independent of the little space in the point.
Challenge 5: The soumak technique demands, what look like stem stitches to be parallel with the weft in the figures. -You can see that in the Overhögdals bonaden above.
BUT that is not always the case in the Oseberg tapestry. Take a look..
Challenge 6:The soumak technique. You add the decor yarn (yellow) between each weft by laying it around some weft treads. It looks like stem stitches. You go from left to right and back after next weft. Therefore the “stitches” are diagonally opposed to each other. It looks almost as if it is knitted? You can see that at the Ôverhøgdalsbonaden above.
If you instead of soumak do stem stitches as embroidery, the stitches will be parallel as in the illustration under. And that is how it looks like in the Oseberg Tapestry.
Challenge 7: In the book Osebergfunnet IV, 2006, it is described that the decor thread goes from one figure to the next. That is a weak and not at all clear sentence. It could mean that the decor thread is running from figure to figure between every weft, nevertheless I think it means that the decor thread goes from one finished figure to another, – and that only makes sense if the tapestry is embroidered.
Challenge 8: I was lucky and got the possibility to see the originals of the Oseberg tapestry in Oslo. I wanted to see if I could find proof of my new theory. Within the first seconds of looking at it in a microscope I saw that the warp at two different places on a little piece (25a) was pierced by the decor thread. That can only be done with a needle. And you do not use needles in weaving soumak.
Challenge 1: Lack of paper to draw the detailed composition on
Challenge 2: Deal with ap. 40 balls of yarn and deal with many figures horizontal in the loom
Challenge 3: Difficult to get the “stem stitches” laying around organic shapes.
Challenge 4: The pattern are stopped in narrow places,- no reason to do that in a loom.
Challenge 5: The “stem stitches” do not follow the weft always. Something the soumak technique demands.
Challenge 6: The “stem stitches” in the fill are parallel with each other, not diagonally opposed to each other as would be the case in the soumak technique.
Challenge 7: The decor thread goes from one figure to another.
Challenge 8: The decor thread sometimes perforates the warp thread.
Thanks to some clever women from Afghanistan that once helped me to make the tapestry for Lofotr, I got much more curious with respect to just how itorıganally was made. These smart women thought it was weird that I absolutely wanted to weave the tapestry, instead of embroidering it, so they cheated on me, and when I was not in the workshop they quickly wove 5-10 cm of the base fabric, and then embroidered nicely and perfect round shapes. One shape at the time 🙂 – of cause!
I think The Oseberg Tapestry are embroidery, not soumak.
So girls and boys: Time to embroider amazing treasure from our For-mothers.
3 thoughts on “The Oseberg Tapestry”
Thank you! I thought embroidery immediately. Your test makes it more clear. I am am a weaver who makes real weaved tapestries, not embroidered wallhangings.
I have always thought of the Oseberg Tapestry to be a tapestry in the same sense as the Bayeaux Tapestry- as an embroidery. I like your arguments, too. Lucky you to have seen the original! I’ve just started researching Viking womens’ clothing. It was interesting to see the woman without the cape.
Good work on sussing out specifics on the weaving.
So does anyone sell reproductions/reconstructions of the Oseberg Tapestry or others? I had read about the Bayeux-styled Njall’s Tapestry project out of Iceland when last looking for something like this.