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.

Traders

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.

https://theheritagetrust.wordpress.com/category/hill-forts/

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.

Hallstatt_LaTene

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.

http://www.britishmuseum.org/research/collection_online/collection_object_details/collection_image_gallery.aspx?partid=1&assetid=1184977&objectid=1362782

 shield

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

http://www.britishmuseum.org/research/collection_online/collection_object_details/collection_image_gallery.aspx?assetId=229397&objectId=831342&partId=1

 fibula

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’. 

http://www.britishmuseum.org/research/collection_online/collection_object_details/collection_image_gallery.aspx?assetId=477031&objectId=467441&partId=1

References

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

Illustrations

https://theheritagetrust.wordpress.com/category/hill-forts/

wikimedia.org

http://www.britishmuseum.org/research/collection_online/collection_object_details/collection_image_gallery.aspx?partid=1&assetid=1184977&objectid=1362782

http://www.britishmuseum.org/research/collection_online/collection_object_details/collection_image_gallery.aspx?assetId=229397&objectId=831342&partId=1

http://www.britishmuseum.org/research/collection_online/collection_object_details/collection_image_gallery.aspx?assetId=477031&objectId=467441&partId=1

Great Websites

http://www.kelticos.org/

https://www.britishmuseum.org/research/collection

https://theheritagetrust.wordpress.com

http://www.nhm-wien.ac.at/jart/prj3/nhm/data/uploads/mitarbeiter_dokumente/Groemer/2012%20Mag_Colours_fertig_o_H_17_LR.pdf

https://dismanibus156.wordpress.com/2008/01/30/the-celts/

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

Tablet Weaving

Tablet weaving (also known as card weaving) is an ingenious technique for taking long bundles of warp threads and passing them through perforated tablets, then manipulating these to make strong patterned bands.  Historically this was done with either a back strap method or a structured loom.

To weave with this technique, each card is normally threaded with four warps, although it can also be done with sets of cards with two, three or six holes.  The wider the band, the more cards you would need.  Looking at the diagram below, for example, the holes 1 and 2 are up, while 3 and 4 are down.  But after one pass of the weft through this small shed, some or all of the cards can be either flipped over or dialed forward or back.   This will create a new shed with a different combination of warps up and down.  It is a surprisingly creative and flexible method, because unlike a solid loom with fixed heddles, here the weaver has a nearly limitless number of choices for arranging the re-arranging the warp threads in complex patterns.

tablet weaving diagram

http://www.tabletweaving.dk/

Earliest Evidence

For a while in the early 20th century, there was a debate surrounding the ‘discovery’ of tablet weaving dating back to the New Kingdom of Egypt, more than 1000 years BCE.  However, the archaeologists making this claim seem not to have had the chance to examine the famous “Ramses Girdle” themselves, and were working from photographs.  More recently, Peter Collingwood has carried out a detailed analysis of this artefact – for example looking for the tell-tale twists in the warp threads – and he has discounted the earlier view that it was tablet woven (Collingwood 1996).

Archaeologists have found early examples of woven bands dating to the Neolithic period, which, as Elizabeth Barber comments, “could have been woven with cards, but do not have the twisting to prove it” (1992: 119).  The earliest evidence of the weaving tablets themselves being found was in the excavation of the Deibjerg Bog in Denmark, and these date to the 1st century BCE.  However, there appears to have been a long history of expert tablet weaving before this, and it may just be that the tablets themselves have been lost to the archaeological record.

Elite Celtic Burials

These unique woven bands have been found in Europe in a number of graves belonging to Celtic kings and chieftains of the Early Iron Age, and date back to the 8th century BCE.  Some of the most famous of these sites are near the port of Hallstatt in Austria, at Hochdorf in modern Switzerland, and at Apremont in eastern France (Gleba: 2008: 138-139).

All of these early Celtic societies came to be known collectively as the Hallstatt culture, and the wealth of finds within their elite graves included luxury goods, both domestic and imported.  There were gems, furs, elaborate jewellery, metalwork and furnishings, and there were also textiles of extraordinary craftsmanship – even silks imported from the eastern Mediterranean.

This pattern of richly-furnished elite burials continued to be a boon to archaeologists as they uncovered similar sites across Europe from the Late Iron Age and on into the Viking era.  The dead were often wrapped in a multi-coloured cloak edged with intricate tablet-woven borders, and the greatest example of all of these chieftains’ cloaks is known as the Thorsberg mantle.  This was found in a bog in Norway and dates to the second century CE.  It is a masterpiece of construction, with a colourful blue checked textile woven on a warp weighted loom, and a tablet-woven border on all four sides which is so wide it is estimated to have needed a pack of 178 weaving tablets to create (Barber 1992: 119).

There is a common misconception that the culture of pre-Roman Europe was one of rustic simplicity, but the textiles of the Hallstatt graves suggest a high level of skill and artistry.  The Hochdorf Chieftain’s grave dates to the 5th century BCE and has some textiles which are not only designed in a complex patterned weave but are also extraordinarily fine, with up to 25 threads per centimetre (Jorgensen 1992: 55).

Oseberg Ship Burial

One of the most outstanding examples of an elite grave is the Viking ship burial near Oseberg, Norway dating from around 834 CE.  Under a massive burial mound was found an entire ship with two women lying on a raised bed.  Around them were many domestic furnishings such as farm equipment, kitchen equipment, sleds, domestic animals, and personal belongings such as clothes, shoes and combs.  There was also an array of tablet woven bands and even a partially-woven band still on a tablet weaving loom with a long warp threaded through fifty-two cards (Preist-Dorman 1998).

Warp Weighted Looms

The warp weighted loom has been identified in European archaeology dating back to the Neolithic period, more than 4000 years BCE, so it would be fair to say that in Northern Europe and Scandinavia, this has been the dominant weaving technology for 5 of the past 6 millennia.  Except for the period of Roman occupation, when the vertical 2-bar loom was in favour, the warp weighted loom has been by far the most common.  As the name suggests, these large upright looms used clay or stone weights to tension the warp threads, and because of their size they were usually operated by two weavers working side-by-side (Hoffman 1964: 90-91).  A defining feature of cloth woven on such a loom is the tablet-woven ‘header band’ which was used to anchor the warps in place at beginning of weaving.  It stretches  across the top of the loom with long extended wefts (like a very, very long fringe at one side of the band) becoming the warp for the loom.  Historians agree now that whenever cloth is found with this dense header band at one end, it is certain that it has been made on a warp weighted loom  (Hoffman 1964: 151, Geijer 1979: 67).

warp weighted loom 2

(Image altered by author:  original by Walton Rogers 1997:1751)

Roman header for ww loom

(original illustration from Hoffman, M.  1964: 154)

For a wonderful demonstration of how this all works on a real warp weighted loom – with video – have a look at this site.  It is in French, but the images are very clear:

http://fairefildetouspoils.over-blog.com/page-3997362.html

 References

Barber, Elizabeth. 1992.  Prehistoric Textiles. Princeton University Press.

Collingwood, Peter. 1996.  The Techniques of Tablet Weaving.  NZ: Random House.

Geijer, A.  1979.   A History of Textile Art.  London: Parke Bernet.

Gleba, Margarita 2008.  Textile Production in Pre-Roman Italy.  Oxford: Ancient Textiles Series, Vol. 4, Oxbow Books.

Hoffman, M.  1964.  The Warp Weighted Loom.  Oslo: The Norwegian Research Council for Science and the Humanities/NorskFolkemuseum.

Jorgensen, Lise Bender 1992.  North European Textiles until AD 1000.  Denmark: Aarhus University Press.

Priest-Dorman, Carolyn  1998.   “Scutulis Dividere Gallia”: Weaving on Tablets in Western Europe”. DigitalCommons@University of Nebraska – Lincoln. Textile Society of America Proceedings, 1998.

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

 Illustrations

http://www.tabletweaving.dk/

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

Hoffman, M.  1964.  The Warp Weighted Loom.  Oslo: The Norwegian Research Council for Science and the Humanities/NorskFolkemuseum.

Great Websites

http://fairefildetouspoils.over-blog.com/page-3997362.html

http://www.midrealm.org/mktag/projects/pelagiaTWintro/content.html

http://www.forest.gen.nz/Medieval/articles/Oseberg/textiles/TEXTILE.HTM

http://www.tabletweaving.dk/

http://www.weavershand.com/

Posted in Anglo Saxon Weaving, Celtic Weaving, Tablet Weaving, Viking Weaving | Tagged , , , , , , | Leave a comment

The Warp Weighted Loom

The warp weighted loom has been found in European archaeology as far back as the Neolithic period, more than 6000 years ago, so in Northern Europe and Scandinavia this has been the dominant weaving technology for 5 of the past 6 millennia.  The distinctive feature of this type of loom is the use of clay or stone weights to tension the warp threads.

It is constructed with two upright posts joined together by two beams, a lower cross-beam for stability and an upper cloth beam.  The warp hangs vertically, and can be as much as 4 metres wide, allowing two weavers to walk back and forth as they pass the weft yarn through the hanging warp.

warp weighted loom

Photo credit: Flickr

Loom weights

Loom weights have been found in many parts of Western Europe dating back to the 8th century BCE, and were first seen in Britain during the Bronze Age (Harrington 2007: 338).  By the early Iron Age, there was evidence of loom weights – and consequently of warp-weighted looms – at many sites associated with the Hallstatt and La Tène cultures (Hoffman 1964: 19).  The wooden parts of the loom and the cloth itself are very likely to have decomposed in the ground, but loom weights, since they are made of either stone or roughly-fired clay, are durable signs in the archaeology.

 As a tensioning device for warp threads on the loom, the most important features of loom weights are their width and their weight.  All other qualities of a loom weight such as size, shape, material and decoration are a matter of cultural or design choices.  The Mycenaean preference was for teardrop shaped stone weights while the Romans had pyramid shaped.  Some embossed lead weights have been found in Classical Greek sites and in Anglo Saxon and Viking Britain   they were annular (ring-shaped) clay, as in this illustration.

Sets of loom weights are usually a uniform size, but these sets can vary tremendously.  Early medieval weights have been found from .3 kg to as much as 2 kg, and experimental archaeologists  have found, not surprisingly, that lighter loom weights are best suited with weaving finer cloth and heavier loom weights with coarser cloth (Martensson et al. 2009).

 Loom-Weights

http://jorvik-viking-centre.co.uk/about-jorvik/gallery/

Tools Associated with the Warp-weighted Loom

Sword beater:  Because the warp hangs directly from the cloth beam, each throw of the weft must be snugly beaten upwards to the cloth.  The tool for doing this is the sword beater, a length of smooth bone, iron or wood which is pushed upwards.  This tool has been found in women’s graves dating from the early Anglo Saxon period, although at times they were mistaken for weapon swords by early archaeologists (Walton Rogers 1997: 1755).

sword weaving beater  http://www.britishmuseum.org/research/collection_online/collection_object_details/collection_image_gallery.aspx?partid=1&assetid=1213312&objectid=613357

 Spear Beater:   From the 7th century, the ‘spear-shaped beater’ came into use.  This was very like the sword beater except that it was longer and had an elongated handle for using with two hands (Harrington 2007: 339).  These spear-shaped beaters are seen not only in Anglo Saxon graves but in Anglo-Scandinavian sites such as York.  Again, there areexamples of spears being found in women’s graves  which were mistakenly identified as weapons, when in fact theywere weaving beaters (Walton Rogers 1997: 1753).

Double-ended Pin Beater:  This is sometimes described as a ‘cigar-shaped’ beater because of its size and shape – wider in the middle and tapered at both ends.  This can be used to stroke the warp threads into alignment and untangle or re-position threads as necessary (Hoffmann 1974: 135, 320, 419).  This tool has been seen alongside loom weights in the Roman period (Wild 1970: 66, 134, 156) as well as in Anglo-Saxon sites like Sutton Courtenay in Oxfordshire and Maxey, Northamptonshire (Addyman 1964: 64).

double ended pin beater

http://thanetarch.co.uk/journal/?p=1841

 Tablet-woven starting border

Textiles associated with the warp-weighted loom have a distinctive common feature:  the tightly woven starting border. This foundation of the warp is woven off the loom itself with a tablet-weaving technique (see page on Tablet Weaving for more on this).  It is then mounted on the cloth beam with all the warp threads anchored in line.   This is the conventional way of warping a warp-weighted loom, so when it’s seen in the archaeology, it’s a sure sign that the cloth has come from this type of loom (Geijer 1979: 67).

weaving headercard weaving headerheader on beam

http://fairefildetouspoils.over-blog.com/page-3997362.html

The warp weighted loom continued to be in use in Scandinavia and Iceland well in to the 20th century, and it is thanks to Martha Hoffman’s thorough research that this craft has been so well documented.  In her ground-breaking book The Warp Weighted Loom, she not only traces the history of this weaving technology but interviews and photographs weavers in remote Swedish communities who continued to use these looms in the 1960’s.

hoffman w w loom image

image from: Hoffman, M.  1964

References

Addyman, P. V.  1964.  A Dark Age settlement at Maxey, Northants.Medieval Archaeology 8: 20-73.

Barber, E.  1991.  Prehistoric Textiles.  Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Geijer, A.  1979. A History of Textile Art, London: ParkeBernet.

Harrington, S.  2007.   Stirring Women, Weapons and Weaving.  In Hamiton, S., Whitehouse, R. and Wright, K. (ed.) Archaeology and Women: Ancient and Modern Issues, 335-352.  Walnut Creek, CA: Left Coast Press.

Hoffman, M.  1964.   The Warp Weighted Loom.  Oslo: The Norwegian Research Council for Science and the Humanities/NorskFolkemuseum.

Martensson, L., Nosch M. and AnderssonStrand, E.  2009.   Shape of Things: Understanding a Loom Weight. Oxford Journal of Archaeology 28: 373–398.

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

Wild, J. P.  1970.  Textile Manufacture in the Northern Roman Provinces.  Cambridge: Cambridge Classical Studies.

Illustrations

www.flickr.com

http://jorvik-viking-centre.co.uk/about-jorvik/gallery/

http://www.britishmuseum.org/research/collection_online/collection_object_details/collection_image_gallery.aspx?partid=1&assetid=1213312&objectid=613357

http://thanetarch.co.uk/journal/?p=1841

http://fairefildetouspoils.over-blog.com/page-3997362.html

Great Websites

http://norwegiantextileletter.com/

http://fairefildetouspoils.over-blog.com/

Posted in Anglo Saxon Weaving, Celtic Weaving, Viking Weaving | Tagged , , , | 2 Comments

Blankets in Tabby

I have warped up the loom now for two blankets in double weave, so when they’re off the loom they will be twice the width of my reed.  This project was inspired by a family holiday last summer to the Island of Mull in Scotland.  I went into the Ardalanish Weavers mill and shop in the south of Mull.   http://www.ardalanish.com/  Years ago I visited them to buy yarn for weaving a McLean tartan, but today they don’t carry tartan colours any more.  Now it’s all the natural wool straight off the sheep, in a huge variety of browns, greys and cream.  I’ve added a stripe of a beautiful blue dyed Shetland as well for accent.  These blankets will be woven in tabby (also known as plain weave) that mainstay of ancient textiles from the earliest records.

tabby blanket

Tabby Weave

It appears from the archaeology that people have been weaving cloth for as long as they have had a reliable source of wool or linen – so from the earliest introduction of agriculture.  The first image of a loom of any kind comes from a ceramic dish dating to the pre-dynastic Badari culture of Upper Egypt, in the 4th millennium BCE.  This appears to be a ground loom, in other words one where the warp is simply pegged to the ground.   But according to Elizabeth Barber In her book Prehistoric Textiles, earlier signs of weaving have been found.  There are impressions on clay of plain weave – the simplest weave structure – which have been discovered in two Neolithic site in northeast Iraq: Jarmo from nearly 7000 BCE and Tell Shemshara from the 6th millennium BCE.

Lise Bender Jorgensen, in her encyclopedic Textiles in Northern Europe to 1000 AD, writes that based on archaeological finds, tabby (plain weave) was the only weave in the Neolithic period, with the introduction of twill appearing with the Urnfield period of the late Bronze Age in central Europe, roughly 1200 BCE.

And although weavers have gone on to create a nearly endless variety of complex weave structures, tabby continues to be a staple for many purposes since it is stronger and lighter than most other weaves, and can be woven with just two harnesses … or even with the simple technology of a rigid heddle loom.

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

Broken Diamond Twill

I am weaving broken diamond twill this time – iconic weave of the Anglo Saxon and Viking periods.  The loom is warped up with Shetland wool again with a sett of 12 ends per inch, but this time with black warp threaded in a 2/2 broken point twill.  The first sample is woven with the same weight of combed Shetland in the weft.  In the second I have used a soft carded wool/mohair blend for contrast.

This is described as a ‘broken’ diamond because the symmetry of the diamond is off-set by one thread in each repeat.  This particular weave is based on the design of one of four textile fragments found in Sutton Hoo, the 7th century ship burial of an Anglo Saxon king near Woodbridge in Suffolk, England.

2 broken diamond twills

Thank you to the Medieval Textile Study Group for the draft for this Broken Diamond Twill at:  http://www.medievaltextiles.org/samples2003web.pdf

According to Elizabeth Barber in her wonderful book Prehistoric Textiles, the earliest example of a twill of any kind comes from a burial in Alishar in Turkey, dating from the late 4th millennium BCE.  It is another thousand years before we see another scrap of twill in the form of an impression on pottery in the settlement of Ochamchira, on the Black Sea coast.  And after that it is not until the Hallstatt salt mines of the early 1st millennium BCE that archaeologists found twill again in a large number of fragments of cloth. (Of the 117 pieces of cloth uncovered in this site, 75 of them were twills.)  This shortage of finds is probably not so much due to the rarity of the cloth, but to the fact that wool and linen – the two main textiles of this early period – were very likely to decompose in the ground.  Only in exceptional circumstances have they been preserved.

Broken diamond twill first seems to have appeared in an archaeological excavation in Gerum, Sweden, and has been dated to the Bronze Age.  Another example comes from the Iron Age burial at Huldremose in Denmark.  Both of these are believed to have been an imported luxury from Syria, which was a celebrated centre for weaving in this era.  (So you’d think there would be examples of this in the archaeology in Syria, but no textiles at all have survived in this region due to the dry climate.)

Gale Owen Crocker, in her book  Dress in Anglo Saxon England, describes the discovery of this weave in archaeology.  After these 2 isolated examples, diamond twill is not seen again until the early Roman era, in a settlement in Mainz, Germany, and then in a number of Roman frontier forts.  (But unlike the earlier examples, Roman weavers consistently preferred a symmetrical diamond twill, without the offset.)  This was also seen in a few Roman sculptures where a diamond shape has been etched on the clothing, suggesting that this was familiar design.  Its popularity increased in Northern Europe during the period of Roman occupation, in fact the diamond twill was apparently the predominant type of textile found in the Vindolanda fort at Hadrian’s Wall.

The fragments of cloth in the Sutton Hoo burials are some of the earliest and best examples of broken diamond twill in the Anglo Saxon period.  Other examples were also uncovered in fragments of clothing found in York and in London.

But it is during the Viking era that the finest example of broken diamond twill are seen in the remarkable Birka cloth.  This was named for the elite Viking graves around the town of Birka in Sweden where it was first discovered, although it has since been found in elite graves throughout Scandinavia and Viking Britain.  This was a luxury cloth, made with imported silk and the most delicately spun wools.  There seems to be some consensus now among academics that the coarser copies of these designs were locally woven, but that the very finest examples continued to be imported from Syria.  Agnes Geijer, who documented the textile finds from Birka in 1938, described the incredible thread count of these broken 2/2 diamond twills as being 48, 50 and even 60 threads per centimetre!

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

Ancient designs on the floor loom

I have warped up the loom in natural undyed white Shetland wool with a sett of 12 ends per inch, so it is a nice chunky proportion that weaves up quickly.  Initially, I tied it up in a simple 2/2 twill, for the herringbone variations and the basket weave.  The terms ‘herringbone’, ‘point twill’ and ‘chevron twill’ all seem to have been used by different people to refer to the same pattern:  a twill with periodic reversing of direction (either in the treadling or the threading through the heddles) so that it makes the diagonal line in the weave reverse.

I re-tied the treadling for the rippenköper, which needed a 3/1 twill, and this seems to have been a more uncommon design – historically a 2/1 twill for rippenköper was more usual.

4 weaves final

Going clockwise, starting from the top left, these are:  basket weave, herringbone stripe, rippenköper and small point twill.

Lise Bender Jorgensen has provided us with a tremendous resource in her book, North European Textiles to 1000 AD, and this is my source of information for everything that follows here:

Twill  is a weave where a diagonal line is formed in the cloth because the weft passes over and under more than one warp.  A 2/1 twill means it goes over 2 and under one.  A 2/2 twill has the weft going over 2, under 2.  After plain tabby, this is most common kind of weave, and the ‘floats’ in the weave add both warmth and drape to the cloth.  It has been found in some of the earliest examples of Iron Age textiles.

Herringbone stripe refers to a reversal of the twill in the weft at intervals.  It can also be described as a  ‘point twill’ or ‘chevron twill’.  Although these terms are often used to describe a reversal in the warp, Bender Jorgensen describes it as being a reversal “in one system”, so either warp or weft.   Examples have been found among the textile fragments in the Hallstatt salt mines, which date from the early 1st millennium BCE.

Basket weave has doubled warps and doubled weft, so that it looks like an over-sized tabby weave.  In antiquity, this pattern has only been found in Roman Europe and in the eastern Mediterranean, so it’s believed to have been brought to Europe by the Romans.

Half-basket weave has doubled warp threads and a tabby weft.  This weave was also strongly associated with finds in the Roman provinces and in particular with Roman uniforms.  The earliest example of a half-basket weave in Europe was found with a Roman legionary’s helmet in the Haltern fortress in Germany, dating to 9 CE.

Rippenköper is a different kind of twill variation.  It can be a 2/1 or 3/1 twill that alternates with a 1/2 or 1/3 twill to create an interesting textured stripe in the weft.  It was often a luxury textile, done in a very fine sett, and was a popular weave in the Merovingian period, in post-Roman Europe.  It was often a very fine monochrome cloth, in wool or silks.

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More tablet weaving

I have been experimenting with different yarns for tablet weaving … and there has been plenty of trial and error!  But I’ve learned a few things.  Some are life-lessons I have resisted for years, like: it is much easier to get it right the first time that to fix things once they are all wrong.  And a related lesson:  read the instructions really carefully.

Also, Shetland wool is a bit of a challenge in this work.  It is not very strong and has a tendency to snap in the warp, and it is also very sticky so the tablets do not turn so easily.  Warp threads need a stronger yarn.  The Celts and Vikings must have been so excited to discover their imported silk for this – it’s strong, brightly coloured, and so smooth and slippery that the tablets turn without any resistance!  I have turned to embroidery silk and cotton.

double rams horn

There are all kinds of patterns for tablet weaving from simple to really mind-bending.  For now I’m working on something called a Double Ram’s Horn which is quite amazing.  Sometimes all the cards move in the same direction, and sometimes certain ones go forward while others go backwards.  (Multi-tasking is not yet an option when I’m doing this, I need to focus!)

I have posted a new page to this site now on the history and archaeology of tablet weaving. The next page I’m working on will be a backgrounder on the European Iron Age, and about how Celtic culture emerged in this period.

Stay tuned: February I warp up the floor loom and will start weaving some wonderful Anglo Saxon and Viking designs: Herringbone, Broken Diamond Twill, Basket Weave and Rippenkoper.  I think I’ll be on safer ground here.

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The tablet weaving in action

When I get it all written, I’ll load a few pages of background on the history and archaeology of all this weaving  –  including tablet weaving (or card weaving, as it’s also known).  Basically, it is a technique of twisting densely-set warp threads around a narrow weft.  It’s possible to create surprisingly complex patterns this way using very simple materials, and it’s ideal for weaving long strong bands.  The Chinese used them for making horse reins and girths.  The Celts and Romans used them for decorative trim on cloaks and other clothing, and for re-enforcing the edges of aprons and blankets.   But at its most basic, this is a very simple technique.

With any weaving, the essential feature of a set-up is to keep the warp threads straight and under firm tension. In the past, tablet weaving warps were commonly tied together to a hook on the wall, or a tree branch, and secured at the working end by attaching them to the weaver’s belt.  This way, just by leaning forward and back the weaver could adjust the tension of the warp.

But this same anchoring of the warp can be done in a variety of other ways; one of the most practical that I’ve discovered is to have a “plank with two handles”.   I’ve also added a couple of little refinements: I put felt pads underneath so that the back of the screws don’t scratch the floor or table top.  And when I was reading Candace Crockett’s book, “Card Weaving”, I saw a drawing of a Cossack soldier weaving with cards, and he had a comb attachment to prevent the warps from pulling in.  So that seemed like a brilliant idea, and I have hot-glued a comb onto my loom as well.

The second essential feature with weaving is to have sheds that will separate some of the warp threads from others.  Threading the weft through these sheds creates the cloth.   The genius of tablet weaving is that the cards themselves do all the work here, and can make sheds for a dazzling variety of designs.  (If you want to be amazed, check out tablet weaving/card weaving on Pinterest!)

The cards are usually about 4 inches square with rounded corners and 5 holes, one in each corner and one in the middle.  Traditionally these were made of wood or bone, but now it’s often cardboard or plastic.  I’ve also seen pictures of playing cards that have been cut into squares with holes punched in them, which seems like a great idea!

I’m beginning to enjoy this!  I’ve started on a simple zig zag to get the hang of turning the cards.

card weaving loom in action

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Making a tablet weaving loom

According to the web sites, I can tie my warp to a door knob and proceed with tablet weaving without any loom at all.  I tried that, but I think I need more consistent tension … and I need to let people in the door sometimes!   I have bought a plank of wood and two very nice handles, and I am planning on building a portable tablet weaving loom this week-end.

2015-01-03 11.07.54

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Celtic, Anglo Saxon and Viking Weaving

I am a weaver with a degree in archaeology, and I am planning on bringing these two areas of expertise together.  Should be interesting!

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