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The Vikings are coming

Excellence in leather tailoring and other works of the needle dates back to the Stone Age in Scandinavia. However, the adoption of textile weaving techniques in Scandinavia only occurred in the Bronze Age, relatively late in the scheme of human development. Nevertheless, as is evident in the remains from Migration and Viking Age burials, the art caught hold rapidly and took many elaborate forms.

Possibly because of the late onset of textile weaving in Scandinavia, the tradition of decorative textile embroidery seems also to have been established late. Judging from what remains of Scandinavian textiles, at the beginning of the Viking Age only faltering steps had been taken toward decorative textile embroidery. The tjald (hanging) and refil (a figured frieze like the Bayeux Tapestry) of the Viking Age were composed not of embroidery but of wool-on-linen tapestry weaves accented by soumak. The same is true for household furnishings such as pillowcases, cushion covers, and tablecloths; all the evidence points to a strong tradition of decorative polychrome mixed-fiber weaving rather than one of needle-worked surface ornamentation.

Embroidery as we understand it wasn't really adopted by the Vikings until the first half of the ninth century. At that point the pervasive influence of the foreign cultures with which the Vikings intermingled so freely began to assert itself in both technological and art-historical ways. In textile and clothing ornamentation, the Vikings began half-heartedly to imitate their neighbors at that time. Two distinctive embroidery styles emerged, a style influenced by the lands to the west (represented mostly by finds at Bjerringhøj and Jorvík) and a style influenced by the lands to the east (represented by finds at Birka and Valsgärde).

The western-influenced style might have been learned from the Anglo-Saxons. It was most often composed of fiber-on-fiber stitchery and involved stitches that are known in the modern world, such as stemstitch, couching, chain stitch, and raised herringbone stitch. One of the earliest finds of such embroidery from a clearly Viking context is on the gowns of the two women in the Oseberg ship burial in Norway, which has been recently and securely dated to 834 . Unfortunately, the information available so far on the textiles from this find is scanty and tantalizingly vague in many respects. It is therefore hard to classify the embroidery as "eastern" or "western" in influence, but judging from what little else we know--that there was silk appliqué and embroidery on the queen's gown and some sort of freehand fiber-to-textile embroidery in the form of animal masks on the servant's it seems to fit the "western" model more completely than the eastern.

Also in the ninth century, the eastern-influenced style of embroidery was on the rise. This style, represented at Birka in Sweden, was more likely Kievan Rus, Byzantine, or Slavic in origin. Like other forms of eastern Viking ornament, it depended heavily on silver wire or thread for its decorative effect. In fact, eastern Viking embroidery (more properly, "textile surface decoration") involved only one or two techniques which are likely to have been worked with a needle, i.e., stemstitch, surface couching, and possibly some forms of ösenstich (mesh stitch), of which several varieties have been identified. However, properly understood, ösenstich is not primarily a needle technique, even though it makes use of the same topology as some common embroidery stitches. It is much simpler to work with the wire by itself instead of going to the trouble of threading it through a needle first (Jensen, passim). Briefly described, ösenstich requires using a wire approximating a 26-gauge beading wire to work rows of closely-spaced mesh stitch into strips of tubing, flattened metallic trimming, or three-dimensional shapes such as teardrops. The finished wire constructions were sometimes sewn to garments as ornaments. The most common of the ösenstich variants was worked somewhat like a Vandyke stitch.