Nålbinding – learning to knit like a Viking

In Danish the word means ‘needle-binding’.  And judging by some of the photos that you can find on Pinterest, there’s been quite a rediscovery of this technique by modern crafters.

Nålbinding predates our modern knitting and crochet by more than a thousand years.  It’s a method which requires the yarn to be threaded through the eye of a needle and then coiled through the neighboring stitches, so unlike knitting it doesn’t unravel.  The textile that it creates is thick and strong but also stretchy, so great for socks and mittens – the items most commonly found by archaeologists.  The earliest known examples come from a mitten at a Swedish site and a sock at a Coptic site in Egypt – both apparently dating to around the 4th century CE.

Nalbinding mittens image


nalbinding image


Nålbinding was a popular craft in the Viking era, and surviving examples have been discovered in sites from Finland, Norway, Sweden, Denmark and Iceland, many dating from the 8th to the 11th centuries.  In her description of the excavations at the Coppergate site in York, Penelope Walton Rogers describes one single specimen – the only nålbinding found so far in Britain.  It was a worn sock, uncovered near a 10th century wattle building, although whether it came over from Scandinavia on a Viking’s foot, or was crafted locally is the topic of some speculation.

Coppergate sock


A number of different stitches have been identified in the archaeology, and these are named for their find-sites.  For example, there is the York stitch, the Oslo stitch, the Mamen stitch and the Coptic stitch.  And given the free-form nature of this technique, it makes sense that there would have been a lot of improvisation, with different communities coming up with their own variations.


Weald and Downland Open Air Museum

I recently visited the beautiful Weald and Downland Open Air Museum in Sussex http://www.wealddown.co.uk/ where dozens of historic buildings from the Medieval up to the Victorian period have been rescued, transported and then re-built on the site.  You can walk around and through these wonderful buildings, and also take classes in heritage trades and crafts – everything from blacksmithing and stone carving to making your own cheese, coracle or longbow.  I was there for a workshop being offered in nålbinding, and spent the day learning to knit like a Viking!

As the only left-hander in the group, I clearly needed some extra coaching … but our instructor Judith Ressler was very patient, and the examples of her work were inspiring.  Have a look: www.medievalwoolcraft.com

Another participant brought along this book by Ulrike Classen-Buttner, which is full of history and archaeological photos as well as patterns and instructions.

Nalbinding book image


The basic shape for nålbinding can be either a tube (good for socks and mittens) or a round (starting in the centre – good for hats and mats).  In the class we learned the Oslo stitch, but it seemed as if some of the other stitches might be variations of this one.  I’ve just finished a second attempt at a glasses case … better than the first!

nalbinding glasses case 2nd







Walton Rogers, P.  1997.   Textile Production at 16-22 Coppergate: The Archaeology of York: The Small Finds.  York: Council for British Archaeology.



Great how-to Websites




Helpful YouTube videos





Posted in Ancient Designs, Nalbinding, Viking Weaving | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

The ancient (and modern) practice of sharing yourself through craft

Anthropologists and archaeologists are often interested in how research from a related field can bring new insight, especially on the level of theory.  And this has come home to me in the past few weeks while I’ve been attending a series of lectures about the art and literature of the English Renaissance.

The reason I’m spending so much time at lectures is that for the year that I’m here in Cambridge I am employed through the Disability Resources Centre as a note taker, working with some amazing students at the university who need additional support.  As a bonus, I am learning more about English literature than I ever expected to!

The idea which has crossed over from anthropology to archaeology – and to English literature – is referred to as ‘distributed personhood’, a term popularized by Alfred Gell in 1998.  He was writing about art and anthropology, and proposed the striking idea that after objects are made, they act on the world as an extension of the maker.  Other writers and researchers have applied this view to their own fields, with an emerging sense that it can relate not only to a work of art, a tool or a weapon, but also to a piece of music, a dance, a story …  We distribute ourselves whenever we make an impact on our world.

Jason Scott-Warren (whose lectures I have been enjoying this term) talks about the derivation of the word ‘technology’ as coming from the Greek tekhne, which means both ‘art’ and ‘craft’.  As he points out, the two words have very different connotations to us now, with art representing a high level of aesthetic achievement, and craft suggesting the simpler production of useful things.  But as late as the Medieval period, “art was a craft –  a technical proficiency that transformed the natural into the human and artificial” (p 17).

The word ‘art’ simply meant skill, and an ‘artful weaver’ was one who showed expertise, and subtle technique.   So it follows that craftwork, like artwork, distributes the presence of the crafter, fanning outwards to all who will ever see or use the objects they have made.

Arjun Appadurai, in his Social Life of Things talks about all the identities that an object can assume in its ‘lifetime’ as it is passed from hand to hand, generation to generation.  It might at different times be a commodity, a gift, an heirloom, a memento or a ritual object.   But Gell goes farther, and suggests that objects are not just passively handed along, they have agency, extending the artist’s (or artisan’s) reach across distance and time.  People take action through the things they create, this way distributing their personhood.


Photo credit: NHMV

Textiles in the Hallstatt Salt Mines

This makes me think about the amazing collection of textile fragments found in the salt mines near Hallstatt in Austria, and dating to the early Iron Age, around 1500 to 1400 BC.  When this large site was excavated, archaeologists found over 700 textile fragments at the bottom of the shaft and in the underground caverns.  They believe that since there were no entire garments, and some pieces appeared to be torn into strips, these were already recycled scraps of cloth when they were taken into in the mine, most likely used as rags for cleaning or slings for carrying tools.  When the mine was abandoned, all sorts of garbage and debris was dumped into the shafts.  And with the salt and airless environment, it was preserved for over 3,000 years before being uncovered by archaeologists in the 19th century.  Today hundreds of these fragments of cloth have been painstakingly cleaned and preserved – and are now in the Natural History Museum of Vienna, prized examples of some of the oldest textiles found in Europe.

I expect the weavers would be astonished at the long lifetime of those scraps of cloth: once clothing perhaps, then rags, disposed of in a disused mine, then excavated in the 19th century.  And in the 21st century they are displayed with care, and admired by crowds of visitors.  Such a reach of presence – of their ‘distributed personhood’ – could hardly have been imagined!

Does it make you wonder about the items that you have woven?   Maybe the scarf that you gave as a gift to your sister or daughter will many years later be passed on to their own son or daughter.  And 50 years after that it might be given to a thrift store, to be passed along to warm someone you will never know …   In 3000 years maybe it will be in a museum as an example of 21st century craftwork!



Appadurai, A.  The Social Life of Things, 1986, Cambridge University Press: Cambridge, UK.

Chua, L. and Elliot, M. (ed’s.)  Distributed Objects: Meaning and Mattering after Alfred Gell, 2013, Berghahn Books: New York.

Gell, A.  Art and Agency, 1998, Oxford University Press: Oxford, UK.

Harris, S. et. al.  Cloth cultures in prehistoric Europe, Archaeology International, issue 12, 2009.  www.ai-journal.com/articles/10.5334/ai.1206/galley/6/download

Naturhistorisches Museum Wien.  http://www.nhm-wien.ac.at/hallstatt/en/site

Scott-Warren, J.  Early Modern English Literature, 2005, Polity Press, Cambridge: UK.


Posted in Ancient Designs, Celtic Weaving | Leave a comment

Creativity and Inspiration


For as long as textiles have been created – whether by braiding, felting or weaving – craft-workers have been combining the functional requirements of the cloth with creative ideas.  This may have been to enhance the textile’s warmth or strength, to introduce different fibres, or to change the look of the textile with new dyes, pattern weaves, manipulation or sewing techniques, but I find it inspiring to consider just how inventive these early crafters were.  In cultures around the world and across thousands of years, there have been artisans – their names now long forgotten – who have not only provided us with practical solutions as diverse as woven baskets, felted boots and card woven bands, but have devised ways to make them exquisitely detailed and beautiful.


Grass storage basket from the 18th Dynasty reign of Thutmose II, 1492–1473 BCE

felted boots

Felt boots from one of the Pazyryk Tombs in Mongolia, 300 – 238 BCE

merovingina tablet weaving

Fragment of Merovingian card weaving from France, 7th century

Howard Gardiner is a contemporary psychologist who has written at length about creativity, and he points out that for many creative people, the ground-breaking leaps of imagination are rare in life.  They spend most of their time applying their skills to all kinds of small everyday problem solving, and this incremental ‘practice’ seems to prepare them for the moments of great inspiration and novelty when big ideas do come along. (3)

It’s easy to see how this could have applied to weavers in pre-modern eras, when the spinning of yarn and production of cloth would have been time-consuming activities.  The ‘everyday problem solving’ might have been for labour-saving efficiencies or durability of wear.  But there is plenty of evidence to suggest that it might have been just as much for artistic expression – to make their work more interesting and enjoyable to create, and to produce a beautiful product that would be appreciated when it was done.

This seems to be the view of Elizabeth Barber, who describes how elaborate the weaves were in Bronze Age and Iron Age textiles.  “Whenever we catch a glimpse of central European fabrics they are fancy … plaids and checkers on top of zig zag and diamond twills” (1).  They were also finished with highly ornamental borders and embroidery.  Barber suggests that this pride in craftsmanship was consistent with the care which would have been taken by others in the making of sculpture and the decoration of pottery.  Because of the perishability of cloth, though, this artistry has not always been as recognized.  And yet, Barber points out, not only in Europe but across Asia, Africa and the Americas, ancient textile workers “have been pouring their creativity of design into the cloth that they needed to make anyway for a hundred household uses.” (2)

… and Inspiration

In a way, I see it in my own working as well.  Each project suggests the next, and unexpected discoveries lead to new ideas.

The Christmas holiday has been a wonderful chance to be at home with family, friends and neighbours.  It has also meant that for a few weeks I am re-united with my loom and can finish warping up the work that I abandoned back in September.  I don’t expect I’ll have time to finish weaving this scarf before I leave for Cambridge again, but I have made some progress!


The warp is bamboo in two shades of blue, with a sett of 16 epi.  And the weft is a fine silk-wool blend.  I was a bit spontaneous in deciding on a weave structure this time.  Obviously there’s a diamond twill there, but with a border of point twill along the selvages and a symmetrical combination of bigger and smaller diamonds interlocked.

I have decided to improvise a little now, and for the next few projects move progressively further away from the designs which have been found in archaeological textiles.  This will mean trying out some interesting variations based on the basic building blocks of tabby, twill, check and stripe.  For example, in the past few months I have been captivated by the knitting of Kaffe Fassett.  His work is a wonderful example of exuberant creativity!  So my next challenge is to translate his vividly warm colours, patterns and textures into my own weaving.

KF coat

Image credit: Pinterest


(1)  Barber, E.   Prehistoric Textiles.  Princeton: Princeton University Press. (p 293)

(2)  Barber, E.   Prehistoric Textiles.  Princeton: Princeton University Press. (p 298)

(3)  Gardiner, H.   Creating Minds.  New York: Basic Books/Harper Collins.


Archaeological Images






Posted in Ancient Designs, Tablet Weaving | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

The Huldremose Woman has more to tell us

There is an interesting story I’d like to share – which has emerged from the research of Margarita Gleba and Ulla Mannering.  Their articles are referenced below.

It was sometime in the 2nd century BC, and a woman living in north-eastern Jutland, Denmark was about 40 years old – an advanced age in this period.  We have no knowledge of the circumstances of her death or how she came to be buried, but her body was concealed in the water-logged bog for more than 2000 years.  Then in 1879 a farmer was cutting peat when he was shocked to come across her body.  This Huldremose woman (as she came to be known) was surprisingly well preserved, fully dressed with her long woollen skirt, scarf and two woolly sheep skin capes.  The farmer’s first impression was of coming across a crime scene.  Local officials were sent for to exhume the body and bring it to the nearby farm house.  Then the police chief and doctor were called in to report the grim discovery.  It was not until they made a closer examination of the body that it became clear how ancient this find really was.

Danish landscape

Photo credit: http://www.kobenhavnergron.dk/

Iron Age clothing

This discovery offered a rare opportunity to understand the clothing of the Iron Age in Northern Europe and Scandinavia. The woollen skirt is a complex construction of checked twill with 7 to 10 ends per cm.  It has a tubular tabby selvage at the hem and a waistband of warp-faced rep tabby, seamlessly woven into the rest of the skirt. The scarf is also woollen and woven in a different checked 2-2 twill with 6 to 7 ends per cm.  Originally it was secured with a bone pin.  The capes are pieced together with the fleeces of several sheep, and one of them even had a hidden pouch with a comb, woven band and leather thong inside.

This was already a stunning insight into a pre-historic time, and has given valuable information to textile archaeologists.  But the body was re-examined in 2010 by Margarita Gleba and Ulla Mannering, and their account turned up a few surprises!

Huldermose woman

Photo credit: The National Museum of Denmark.

New insights into old finds

It just shows how valuable it can be to go back to earlier finds with new technological methods.  The Huldremose woman, “one of the best preserved and best dressed [of the] bog bodies” still seems to be revealing new secrets.

The reason that Gleba and Mannering went back to this particular find was that they wanted to conduct strontium isotopic tracing analysis of the Huldremose textiles.  In a nutshell, strontium is a kind of isotope found in organic matter – it is taken up by plants from the soil, and by people (or sheep) through eating the plants.  So it can be used to figure out the plant, the wool, or the person’s original geographic location. This is a valuable tool for archaeologists who want to explore trade, migration or geographical provenance.

Gleba and Mannering found a tiny thread of plant fibre in the peaty material next to the body, so    they did their strontium analysis on this as well as fragments from the scarf, the peat from which the find had come, and the woman’s body.  The wool of the scarf was found to be of local origin, but the plant fibre thread – and possibly the woman – were not.  This challenged the conventional wisdom that in this time and region, societies were isolated and self-sufficient.  Here was a woman who may have come from as far away as Norway or Sweden.

The vanishing undergarment

The thread of plant fibre was a puzzle, and now the researchers began to question their own findings.  The only plant fibres that had ever been found preserved in bogs were from heavy rope.  But further tests confirmed that this was the real thing.  A strand of thread from a woven shirt or undergarment – it still had the distinctive zig zag shape of a thread that came from a woven piece.  After a close re-examination of the body, they were surprised to find that subtle impressions could be seen of a fine tabby weave on her chest, shoulders and back.  The scarf and skirt were clearly twill, so this was something different.  It seemed that there was another garment which had vanished from sight over the centuries – rotted away in the wet bog.  It was a tabby-woven plant-based cloth: maybe hemp, nettle or linen.  On very close inspection, they found more threads of this garment on her skin.

Dyed cloth

There were more surprises.  Archaeologists believed that people of Scandinavia during this pre-Roman period used only naturally coloured wool: black or white, brown or grey, as it came off the sheep.  But new tests on the wool in the scarf and the skirt suggested that these textiles had been treated with vegetable dyes.   The skirt would originally have been blue and the scarf a shade of red.

If it is true that some ancient bodies found in the bogs were among the poorest of their society -their fate the result of being banished, or murdered – this does not seem to one of them.  Here is a woman in a costume of quality dyed cloth, capes made with a dozen sheepskins sewn together, amulets around her neck and even an indentation on her finger that showed she had been wearing a ring.


The revelations kept coming. In subsequent testing the plant fibre of her undergarment has turned out to be not linen or hemp (the likely candidates) but nettle.  So this turned another theory on its head. Flax and hemp were cultivated crops in this era, but nettle is only known as a wild plant, so this raises the new idea that nettles would have been gathered in the wild and then retted, processed and spun to make cloth.  More research has followed up on this line of thinking, and now textile fragments dating back as far as the Bronze Age, nearly 1000 years BC have also been identified as being woven from threads made of nettle.

I think this is an amazing story of tiny clues unravelling big discoveries.  It suggests that there may be many more collections of ancient textiles which deserve to be revisited with the newest technology.  Clearly yesterday’s conventional wisdom will always need to be open to re-examination.

And an interesting project for any spinners out there who have run out of fleece.  Gather some nettles – a combination of spinning and weeding!

Great Websites




Bergfjord, C, U. Mannering, K M Frei, M Gleba, A B Scharff, I Skals, J Heinemeier, M L Nosch, B Holst, Nettle as a distinct Bronze Age textile plant, Scientific Reports 2, Article number: 664 (2012)  http://www.nature.com/articles/srep00664?wt.mc_id=FBK_SciReports

Frei, K M, Skals, I, Gleba, M & Lyngstrøm, H. The Huldremose Iron Age textiles, Denmark: An attempt to define their provenance applying the Strontium isotope system. Journal of Archaeological Science 36 1965–1971 (2009).

Gleba M, Mannering, U (2010) A thread to the past: the Huldremose Woman revisited. Archaeological Textile Newsletter 50:32–37.

Posted in Ancient Designs, Celtic Weaving | Tagged , | Leave a comment

A change of focus … and a bit less weaving

I don’t have any of my own weaving to show you this month.  The fact is that for most of the next year I’ll be away from home – and away from my loom!  But the good news is that my husband is going to be doing an MPhil at Cambridge, and I will be working part-time at the university.  So all’s well – I will be surrounded by some truly great libraries and museums, and for the next few posts I can focus on the academic side instead of the hands-on weaving.  And there is some exciting work going on the field of archaeological textiles, so this will be very interesting.

Posted in Ancient Designs | Leave a comment

Diamonds and Broken Diamonds

Diamond twill is an ancient weave which has been identified in textiles dating back thousands of years.  I think it is a beautiful, symmetrical and versatile pattern that combines well with borders in a point twill, or with variations of beautiful ‘bird’s eye’ designs.  (It also works quite well with a stripey warp, as you can see below!)

close up diamondsdiamond twill

But the surprising reality is that during the Celtic Iron Age this weave was almost unknown.  Lise Bender Jorgensen, in her survey of weave patterns for this period in Europe, describes the diamond twill as “exceedingly rare”.  In pre-Roman sites across Northern Europe and Scandinavia, where textiles are found at all, about 10% of them are broken diamond twill – almost the same weave, but with an offset of one thread in each repeat.  (Tabby is still the most common weave, followed by diagonal twill, which together account for 2/3 of all pre-Roman textile finds.)

broken diamond twill 2
broken diamond twill

My first thought was … why?  Why would this broken diamond twill be so much more popular than a straight symmetrical diamond twill??  On my trusty Louet Spring, I have recently woven both patterns, and the straight diamond twill is certainly a more natural rhythm, and simpler to count out.

During the period of Roman occupation the picture was completely different.  In fact, the opposite was true, with fragments of broken diamond twill virtually unknown in the excavation of Roman forts, while evidence of diamond twill is common.  Vindolanda, in northern England is great example of this.  It was built by the Romans in the first century AD as a frontier fort on the northern edge of their territory.  Early levels of occupation have been uncovered which pre-date the construction of Hadrian’s Wall nearby, and it is in these early levels that more than 600 fragments of textile were found.  60% of them were diamond twills.

lbjk                     lbjl      not broken                                                              broken

(Thank you Medieval Textiles Study Group! http://www.medievaltextiles.org/)

My search for an answer was complicated by the terminology of different writers.  Some ignore the distinction between the two weaves altogether while others use ‘lozenge twill’ as a synonym.  Bender Jorgensen explains that since the true diamond twill is almost non-existent in the Celtic period, she will use the term ‘diamond twill’ to denote broken diamond twill and ‘lozenge twill’ to mean diamond twill …

In the end, an explanation finally emerged from a re-reading of Marta Hoffmann.  And of course it leads back to the warp-weighted loom, which was the almost universal weaving technology across Northern Europe and Scandinavia from as early as the 8th BC.  In her ground-breaking 1964 book “The Warp-Weighted Loom”, Hoffmann describes the mechanics of weaving on a weighted warp, and explores this very question of diamonds and broken diamonds.  She reports that others experimented with weaving these patterns directly on a loom, and discovered that with the string heddles tied as they are onto the hanging warp threads, it is not possible to have a weft float go over more than two warp threads.  So that would make the true diamond twill impossible.  The Romans introduced the vertical two-bar loom, with the warp anchored at both ends, so this freed them from the limitations of a weighted warp, and meant that it was possible for them to have the longer floats.  Hence their symmetrical diamonds.

So that seems to be the answer!

Posted in Ancient Designs, Anglo Saxon Weaving, Celtic Weaving, Viking Weaving | Tagged , , , , , , | 4 Comments

A warp-weighted Tablet Weaving Loom

I’m enjoying teaching myself about tablet weaving, through some reading and a lot of trial and error.  Over the past few months I’ve spent quite a while experimenting with ways to make sure that I’ve got the right tension on the warp.  And after a few false starts, the very ancient idea of using loom weights occurred to me, and it seemed like a new solution!


The first method that books suggest for tensioning the warp is to gather the entire warp and knot it to a door handle or a hook on the wall, then attach the working end of the warp to a belt around the weaver’s waist.  This backstrap method seems to be popular, but it has not worked for me.  I like to be able to stand, sit or move away from the weaving without having it attached to me.

So the next thing I tried (Method Two) was to create my very simple loom from a board with a handle at each end.  My intention was to gather up the warp threads and tie them to the two handles while I worked with the cards in between.  The problem with this emerged fairly quickly.  As I wove, the twisting built up behind the cards and the tension increased.  I had to untie the warp at the back often to untwist everything, and then I had to re-tie the warp and try to make the tension the same again.

Method Three was something I came across in my reading.  (I can’t remember where …)  It was to tie the entire warp to a weight and hang this over the edge of the table I was working on.  This way the tension did not increase with weaving, or even with advancing the weaving at the working end.  However, the twisting still built up behind the cards.  Using fixed fishing swivels for each card solved the problem of twist build-up, but didn’t have the advantage of using a weighted warp.

Then came my bright idea, I thought:  Method Four!

weights on loom

I admit it seemed unlikely that I had come up with a new innovation in a craft that has been around for 10,000 years.  But I decided that instead of using one big weight, I would try using a separate lead fishing weight for each card.  In the end this was not heavy enough, so now I am using a metal ring for each card and I can attach as many weights as I want to each.  Three 1-ounch weights per card seems about right.  Now the twisting does not build up behind the weaving and the tension is steady for all the cards.  Brilliant!

close up












And then a few weeks after my inspired new discovery, I came across Luther Hooper’s book, Weaving with Small Appliances (Volume II) published in 1923.  It is available now online at: http://www.cs.arizona.edu/patterns/weaving/books/hl_tablt.pdf  And there on page 38 he suggests exactly the same thing.  So of course I am not the first to come up with this after all.  But it is still a great idea!

Posted in Ancient Designs, Anglo Saxon Weaving, Celtic Weaving, Tablet Weaving, Viking Weaving | Tagged , , , , , , , | 6 Comments

Celtic Knots

I found an interesting pattern for weaving a Celtic knot design, so I am giving it a try.  (Thank you Robyn Spady. http://www.weavezine.com/content/kiss-me-i%E2%80%99m-irish)

celtic braid

Of course it won’t be authentic as far as Celtic weaving design goes.  As I have written about already, Celtic weaving originated in pre-Roman Europe and consisted largely of checked patterns and twills.  The secret to weaving this kind of supplementary-weft structure (like brocades and damask) was unknown outside of Asia and the Byzantine Empire until the draw loom was finally introduced to Italian textile artists in the 12th century.  Still it is a nice experiment!

The evolution of Celtic Art

I have been doing a bit of reading about Celtic art, and knot work in particular.  There is a wealth of opinion out there in books, articles and websites, with almost no common ground between the two dominant camps:  academics, archaeologists and art historians are in one corner and the romantic enthusiasts of all-things-Celtic in the other.

The conclusion of those who have studied the artifacts in depth is that Celtic sculpture and metalwork displayed knot work purely as decoration.  The same is true of the extraordinary patterns seen in many Hiberno-Saxon illustrated manuscripts.  The most famous of these is certainly the Book of Kells, an illuminated copy the Gospels which was created by monks around 800 AD.  The pages are filled with complex knot work, scrolls, braids and other patterns which are mathematically precise and beautifully drawn, with bright colours and elaborate calligraphy.

Book of Kells detail celtic trinity symbolceltic hearts

http://library.nd.edu/medieval/facsimiles/facsintro/irishmss/details/d6.html  https://www.pinterest.com/purplefaerey/celtic-knotwork/

The romantic enthusiasts have suggested that the never-ending pattern of knots might suggest eternity.  Or maybe that the endless crossovers suggest the inter-connectedness of the physical and spiritual worlds.  The early Christian church seems to have adapted the ancient triangular knot as a symbol of the Holy Trinity.  And as recently as the past couple of decades, jewelers have begun weaving heart shapes into the knot work.

At this point I began to realize that Celtic culture could not be confined to the history books – it did not come to an end in Britain with the Norman Conquest.  A Celtic revival began among artists and writers in the 19th century and it continues to this day.  Traditional designs, legends and religious themes are honoured even as they are adapted and embellished.  And artists and others are free to ascribe symbolic meaning to Celtic knots, even though there is no historical evidence of the Celts themselves making the same symbolic associations.  There is a timeless beauty in these patterns, and I expect this alone would account for their enduring popularity.

Posted in Ancient Designs, Celtic Weaving | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

The earliest Scottish Tartan

I am ready to get back to weaving Celtic designs again, after a couple of months of working on those two blankets.  This time, in recognition of the resounding vote by the Scottish in last week’s British election, I am weaving a Falkirk tartan – generally described as being the earliest known example of a tartan.

Falkirk Tartan

In reality, it would be more accurate to call it the earliest known example of Celtic checked cloth to be found in Scotland.  Similar checked twills have been found in the excavation of Celtic sites all over Europe, particularly in Hallstatt burials.

More amazing still are the ‘tartan’ designs found with the mummies of the Tarim Basin.  These mummified remains are of tall, fair-haired Caucasians, but were found in the northern desert region between Tibet and Mongolia and dated from the 2nd millennium BCE.  Elizabeth Barber describes the extraordinarily well-preserved cloth wrappings found with these mummies, and the colourful checked twills are remarkable similar to modern tartans.  Archaeologists have been astonished by this find – to learn more it’s really worth reading Barber’s account of the excavation in “The Mummies of Urumchi”.

Anyway, back to Scotland.  In 1933 some road-builders were digging into a hillside near Falkirk, Stirlingshire, a few hundred yards from the Antonine Wall, when one of them came across a clay jar and broke it open with his spade.  Inside was a hoard of almost 2000 Roman coins dating from between 83 BCE and 230 CE.  The opening of the jar was sealed with a wad of cloth, and when this was spread out it was found to be a two-tone checked twill of typical Celtic design.  Based on the coins, this cloth has been dated to the 3rd century, and today it can be seen in the National Museum of Scotland in Edinburgh.

Falkirk Tartan

This is a striking design with the same colours and proportions in both the warp and weft, and with a reversal of the twill with each stripe in the weft – but it was a modest start compared with the tartans that would follow.  It was not until the 16th century that colourful tartan designs became popular, and this seemed to coincide with the introduction of chemical dyes which provided stronger tints, and at a far cheaper price.  During this period, formalized tartan designs were associated with the different regions of Scotland, rather than with clans.  And it was at this time that the Border tartan became popular with landowners along the Scottish borders and in Northumberland.  In fact this design, a black and white hounds tooth check, seems to be loosely based on the Falkirk tartan.

Posted in Ancient Designs, Celtic Weaving | Tagged , , | 1 Comment

The Celts of Iron Age Europe

Sometimes discussion of the Celts can inspire romantic or fanciful notions which bear little relation to the archaeology of the European Iron Age.  In fact, archaeologists and historians continue to debate the meaning of the word ‘Celt’ as it relates to these Iron Age cultures, since it doesn’t seem to correlate well with either their ethnicity or socio-political identity (Smith 2015).  Still, most academics agree that there are common features of these Celtic tribes, including a related family of languages, and a shared artistic style which is particularly visible in the ornate metalwork of their weapons and jewelry.  The European Iron Age is a period from the 8th century BCE to the 4th century CE, when a variety of tribal cultures extended from as far east as Galatia (in modern Turkey) to Central Europe, Britain and Ireland.


By 700 BCE, the Greeks, Phoenicians and Etruscans were spreading trade networks north into Europe and building Greek colonies in Corsica, Massalia (Marseille) and Emporion (on the Spanish Mediterranean coast, just south of the modern French border).  The ‘Barbarians’ living along the northern shores of the Mediterranean  were soon very familiar with these traders who made themselves at home and launched trading expeditions further inland.  These seafarers from the eastern Mediterranean brought luxury goods, and were able to trade them for furs, hides and even sides of cured ham, for which the area of Massalia was apparently famous.  Another vital resource was minerals, especially silver and tin, which were imported by sea from south west Spain and as far north as Cornwall (Cunliffe 1994: 345, 338).

Hallstatt Culture

Traders travelled north along the Seine, Rhone, Saone and Danube Rivers, and found that the northern reaches of these rivers were dominated by strategically placed hill forts.   These Hallstatt settlements controlled access to much of Northern Europe north of the Alps.  The name derives from the excavation of an Early Iron Age settlement in Hallstatt, Austria, and became the type-site for this period.  It was characterized by fortified settlements, or hill forts, which were ruled by powerful chiefs.  Their wealth and influence was apparent by the abundance of precious ornaments and weaponry found in their graves, and also by the imported luxuries like ivory, amber and black-figure Attic pottery, which shows that they were trading with the Etruscans, Greeks and other Mediterranean civilizations (Cunliffe 1994: 347-8).  The illustration below is of a site located in England, but it’s a wonderful example of the type of hill fort which was once common across Northern Europe.  The flat area in the centre would have been filled with roundhouses, workshops and barns for food storage, so that the community could be provided with both safety and food security behind these fortified ramparts.

hill fort photo

Old Oswestry: a large and impressive early Iron Age hill fort in the Welsh Marches near Oswestry in north west Shropshire. It was designated as a scheduled monument in 1997 and is now in the guardianship of English Heritage.


Contact between the Hallstatt culture and neighbouring regions resulted in a spreading area of influence, and over time warfare grew among these chiefdoms, with raids on each others’ hill forts  (Cunliffe 1994: 352).  There was also contact northward to the people of modern Scandinavia, which lead to the Nordic Iron Age – a long period which extended from the 5th century BCE right up to 8th century.  This period would be the foundation for the Viking era which followed, and which spanned the early 9th to the 11th century.

La Tène Culture

These Hallstatt elites began to decline in the late 6th and early 5th centuries BCE, as newer chiefdoms emerged in the Marne-Moselle region to their north.  Rather than hill forts, these new communities lived in small villages, and across a wide area.  They continued to be ruled by elite groups, who traded to increase their wealth and influence, but they also developed new craftwork traditions combining the imported Etruscan styles from the south with unique designs of the northern Celts in the British Isles.  They began to create the distinctively Celtic artistic style of the Late Iron Age (VSLM 2015).

This new culture was again named for a type-site where first excavations took place.  In this case it was near the Swiss town of La Tène, and now La Tène culture is broadly identified with archaeological sites across Western Europe from around 450 to 50 BCE (Moscati et al, 1991).  The La Tène included over a dozen different tribes, including the Helvetii from the region of Switzerland, the Parisii of northern France, and the Icenii and Trinovantes of southeast England (whose legendary queen Boadicea led a failed rebellion against the occupying Romans in 60 CE).  These La Tène Celts appear to have dominated Western Europe from the Pyrenees across France, Belgium, Germany, and east to Hungary and Turkey.  The tribes who inhabited Britain during this period are now often referred to as Insular La Tène, and evidence of their settlements have been found throughout Britain and Ireland, and as far north as the Orkneys, Hebrides and Shetland Islands in Scotland.  None of these tribes had a written language, so were all pre-historic.  Everything that archaeologists have been able to learn about them has either been from the material evidence they left behind, or from the later writing of Romans, who moved north in conquest over the European mainland and southern Britain around the beginning of the Christian Era.


Celtic Tribes in 1st century Northern Europe.

Image credit: Wikipedia

Celtic Languages

The independence of all these Late Iron Age tribes is clear from their social and political diversity, but historians agree that they shared a common family of languages.  On the European mainland these included, for example, the now extinct languages of Gaulish and Celtiberian.  In Britain, Ireland and parts of France, there were two broad groups of Insular Celtic languages: Goidelic and Brythonic, and many of these are still spoken today.  Irish Gaelic, Scottish Gaelic and Manx are all Goidelic language, while Welsh, Cornish and Breton are Brythonic languages (CSR 2015).

Celtic Design

Another common theme across La Tène societies was the evidence of shared artistic styles; It is this which is now commonly referred to as Celtic design (Cunliffe 1994: 367-9).  Particularly striking is the fine craftsmanship of their metalwork, which can be seen in iron, bronze and gold artefacts.  There were ornate helmets, weapons, shields and horse trappings in the graves of the elite.   There were also beautiful domestic artefacts.  Bronze jugs, bowls and platters were decorated with spirals, geometric designs and the unmistakable patterns of braiding and interlacing, and there were also many examples of jewellery and fibulaeFibulae are the practical, and often elegant, clasps which were worn by men and women to secure their cloaks.  They were, as a result, highly visible on the wearer and often featured intricate images of animals, vines, leaves and abstract designs.

Whether we are to refer to these as ‘Celtic’ societies is a matter for historians and archaeologists to debate, but there is a general consensus that they shared a family of languages, as well as a style of artistic design and craftsmanship which was emblematic of the pre-Roman cultures of Britain and much of Northern Europe.

 silver torc

Ipswich Torc:  Gold torc with loop terminals. The neck-ring consists of two fluted bars twisted together. The terminals are decorated in relief with Tène II style curvilinear motifs of bosses and scrolls, within a border of two corded bands lying close together. The terminals were cast onto the neck-ring using the lost wax method.



The Wandsworth shield boss:  Copper-alloy shield boss with repoussé ornament in the form of stylized bird-heads.



The Braganza Brooch:  Gold fibula, of long-footed form decorated with the figure of a naked warrior, wearing a Celtic helmet, with scabbard suspended from his waist and carrying a sword (scabbard and pommel are both of La Tene type), with another figure of a hunting dog jumping up to him. The eyes of both figures were originally inlaid with glass ‘enamel’. The arched bow has eight curls and the side panels are elaborated with running spirals and loops, also originally inlaid with blue glass ‘enamel’. 



Cunliffe, Barry 1994.   Iron Age Societies in Western Europe and Beyond, 800 – 140 BC.  in Cunliffe, B.  (ed.)  The Oxford Illustrated History of Prehistoric Europe, 336 – 372.  Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Celtic Studies Resources.  http://www.digitalmedievalist.com/opinionated-celtic-faqs/celtic-languages/ .  accessed 2/14/2015

Moscati, S., O.H. Frey, V. Kruta et al. (eds). 1991.  The Celts.  The Archaeological Sources. New York : Rizzoli.

Smith, Heather.  Celtic Clothing During the Iron Age – A Very Broad and Generic Approach  https://www.academia.edu/1488040/Celtic_Clothing_During_the_Iron_Age-_A_Very_Broad_and_Generic_Approach   accessed 2/14/2015

https://dismanibus156.wordpress.com/2008/01/30/the-celts/  accessed 2/14/2015







Great Websites






Posted in Ancient Designs, Celtic Weaving | Tagged , | 1 Comment