23 November 2019

A lower class tunic - Part 2: Choosing a Pattern

As I discussed previously, my husband and I needed new head-to-toe outfits for our trip to the Battle of Wisby this year. This involved making my husband a new tunic. This series discusses that project.

As with most of my recent costuming, I decided to turn to the Herjolfsnes finds for inspiration. However, this resulted in a slight problem...

All of the Herjolfsnes garments were preserved because they had been used as shrouds, sometimes having been cut up a bit (e.g. sleeves removed) first. Thus, although they were associated with skeletons we have no way of knowing if the skeleton they were wrapped around was someone who would have worn such a garment in life. It is highly plausible that often this was not the case.

This means that we have no way of knowing which garments belonged to men and which to women. Elsewhere in Europe, clothing was distinctly gendered. This was, as far as I'm aware, also true of Norse Greenland. Certainly, imagery from 14th Century Iceland (e.g. the Flateyjarbók manuscript or the Reykjavik antependium) indicates that, at least there, modes of dress and gendering of dress was similar to elsewhere in Europe.

Some theories have been made about the gender of the wearer of some of the Herjolfsnes garments. Norlund considered No.s 38 and 39 to be women's garments and No.s 40-43 to be men's garments (WitE, p. 128). These identifications were made based on a variety of reasons including the presumed gender of the skeleton the garment was wrapped in, the length of the sleeves, the height of the pocket slits and other garments that they were found with (Norlund considered certain hoods and caps to be men's and thus identified the body garments they were associated with as men's also).

Østergård argues against some of these, saying that No. 42 is more likely a woman's garment due to its narrow armscyes and cuffs (WitE, p. 128). She also suggests No. 45 is a woman's garment due to its short sleeves and length (WitE, p. 129). I've also previously discussed how I don't really believe Norlund's assertion that No. 39 is a man's garment.

I find it also interesting that assertions of gender are made based on the sleeve length, armscye circumference, cuff circumference and overall length of garments. We know that the Herjolfsnes community was not a distant outpost consisting of just fishermen or just explorers. There were farms there, churches and priests (WitE, p. 13). The community at Herjolfsnes reflected the full spectrum of human life. This is also reflected in the fact that children's garments that have been excavated (i.e. No.s 44, 61 and 62). However, no one ever seems to consider that some of the 'adult' garments could be short and/or slender because they were for adolescents. That alone, IMO, makes guessing the wearer's gender near impossible based on garment measurements.


Anyway, that is a very long way of saying that I wanted to base my husband's tunic on a Herjolfsnes garment that was probably a man's, but couldn't really bring myself to believe any of the prior assertions about which garments were men's or women's. So, how else could I choose a pattern?

Ultimately, I ended up looking at hem circumferences. Partly, I did this because I did not want a huge hem wafting all over the place -- a large hem might be an indicator of a woman's garment and in any case it wouldn't look like my inspiration images and would also probably irritate the heck out of my husband. However, I also partly chose this because ... fabric and money. Getting out to Wisby was going to be expensive enough as it was, without purposely making our garments more fabric-guzzling than they needed to be.

So... back to the source material, back to WitE and MGR (the English versions in both cases). From the adult garments of types Ia-Ic, I got this information:

  • No. 33 -- "The original width along the bottom hem was c. 2700 mm" (WitE, p. 155).
  • No. 37 -- "...its fullness is 1800 mm" though it is fragmentary (WitE, p. 159).
  • No. 38 -- the tapering side gores "increase the fullness of the garment to 3400 mm" at the hem (WitE, p. 161).
  • No. 39 -- "The fullness measured along the bottom edge is 3600 mm" (WitE, p. 163).
  • No. 40 -- fragmentary, but "The original fullness of the garment below may thus have been c. 3480 mm" (WitE, p. 166).
  • No. 41 -- the side gores "increase the fullness of the garment to 4060 mm, measured along the bottom edge" (WitE, p. 168).
  • No. 42 -- the side gores "increase the fullness of the garment to 3335 mm, measured along the bottom edge" (WitE, p. 171).
  • No. 43 -- the side gores "increase the fullness of the garment at the bottom to 2020 mm" (WitE, p. 175).
  • No. 45 -- the side gores "increase the fullness of to 3050 mm measured along the bottom edge" (WitE, p. 179).

From this, I made the slightly unorthodox choice (in Herjolfsnes reproduction circles) of going with No. 43. This would be a bit of a challenge, as No. 43 is described fairly sparsely in WitE and is not one of the garments with patterns in MGR. However, I was not aiming for a strict Herjolfsnes reproduction for this garment. I was mainly using the Herjolfsnes inspiration as a source of chest circumference to hem circumference ratios, plus as an excuse to make more garments with fun side gores that reach the armscye and front/back gores with M-shaped tops.

So, No. 43 it was!

Next, to buy fabric, measure my husband, make a pattern, create a cutting pattern and ... frantically sew in time for Wisby!

Part 1: Pictorial Research ~ Part 2: Choosing a Pattern ~ Part 3: Drafting the Garment
Part 4: The Finished Tunic (to come)


  1. That's some really cool research! I never knew about using old clothes as shrouds, nor the difficulty of working out what the clothes were without a real context for the people who wore them. Also, the gendered assumptions of archaeologists (assuming women are smaller, and that woman's garb is more closely fitted) which isn't necessarily accurate.

    Thank you for writing - I learned some things x

    1. Thanks for your kind comment.

      I don't know whether using clothing as shrouds was a common practice. Certainly, from the graves that have been recovered from Greenland it seems to have been a common practice there. However, that may well have been due to difficulties with sourcing material in this isolated location. In the rest of Europe, proper shrouds (i.e. a cloth especially for that purpose) seem to have been the standard thing, especially for those who could have afforded it.

      And yes ... oh boy did/do archaeologists have some assumptions about gender. Especially archaeologists of the 19th and early/mid 20th Cs...