Needles were used for creating garments from fabric, embellishing constructed garments (embroidery), and repairing worn and damaged clothing. Needles were required in a range of sizes since Viking-era garments were customarily constructed using thread of a similar weight to the fabric being sewn. Larger needles were made of bone, metal or wood; small needles similar to those used today were made from metal, usually copper alloy or iron (Mortensen 1998, Andersson 2003). Needlecases of bone, copper alloy or silver were used to protect these small, fragile and expensive items (Andersson 2003).

Most of the metal needles from Birka were fragmentary and poorly preserved (Andersson 2003). Of the 67 that were preserved (38 of which were in needlecases), only a few could be measured. Most were 40-50 mm in length, although one was 105 mm. They were very small in diameter, like modern needles, suggesting that these needles were used with thin thread.

The material from York described by Mainman and Rogers (2000) augments the scanty finds from Birka. In the Anglo-Scandinavian levels at York, most relevant to my reconstruction of Viking textile tools, 243 needles were found. Nearly all of these were iron, with a few needles of copper alloy or bone. The complete needles ranged in length from 49 - 59 mm, and in diameter from 0.7 - 2.2 mm (approximate 21-11 gauge wires).

Construction materials and methods

Most Viking needles were made from iron or copper alloy wire. Wire-drawing was well-established by the 10th c., and a drawplate was found at Birka (Coatsworth and Pinder 2002). I decided to experiment with copper alloy since it is softer and easier to work. I was unable to find brass or bronze in the size I wanted, so most of the needles are made from 18-gauge copper wire. The larger (and yellower) needle is from 16-gauge brass wire.

I straightened a 5-6 cm section of wire by pulling on both ends, then hammered one end flat. After annealing the flattened area, I punched a hole using a small nail as a punch and a block of wood for the backing. The hole-punching process required repeated annealing and punching from both sides to get a clean hole without ripping out one edge. Even with great care, I was only able to get a good hole about half the time. The process I used follows closely the method of needle manufacturing at medieval Winchester, England (Biddle and Elmhirst 1990).

Once the hole was punched, I filed the needle to a point. I rested the needle in a grooved block of wood to keep it straight and hold it in position while I filed. MacGregor (1985) describes similar pinner's bones with grooves used to hold pins while points were filed. Similar technology was used through the 18th c. I finished the needles first with sandpaper, then with a rag dipped in pumice to give a finish that could have been obtained with Viking-era technologies. I smoothed the insides of the holes with a damp string dipped in pumice. I hardened the needles by tapping with a mallet.

The tools I used to construct and finish the needles are the same ones used by the Viking metalsmith. The Mastermyr chest, a set of Viking blacksmith's tools, contained tongs, hammers, a lead pad for punching on, files and rasps (Roesdahl and Wilson 1992). Pumice and "sandpaper" made from dipping leather into fine sea sand may have been used to smooth bone and wood (MacGregor 1985), and could equally well have been used on metal. Powdered chalk on a damp or oiled rag may have been used to polish amber at York (Panter 2000).

Discussion

These needles are of a size and shape consistent with 10th century Viking material, although most of them are made from copper rather than copper alloy wires. Copper is somewhat softer than bronze or brass, which made it easier to experiment with needle-making. This softness makes it more difficult to sew with them, since it is easy to bend the eyes.

I had a difficult time punching the eyes, and had to redo most of them at least once. It was also very easy to rip out the eyes while filing and polishing. Some of the copper alloy needles from York were made using the methods I employed. Mainman and Rogers (2000) describe an alternate method that was used for the others. Instead of punching the flattened end of the wire, it was cut in half, then the end was soldered back together leaving a gap for the eye, creating a "long-eyed" needle instead of a "round-eyed" needle. This working method would eliminate problems with punching, and might make it easier to polish the inside of the eye if it were done before the ends were soldered. Use of a jig to keep the punch centered on the wire, or simply more experience, would probably help as well.

Metal needles were an important possession of Viking women of all classes. They were needed for garment construction, embellishment and repair. The needles I created as part of a set of Viking textile tools are of a size and shape useful for sewing fine wool or linen, or embroidering with wool, linen or silk.

References

Andersson, Eva. 2003. Tools for Textile Production from Birka and Hedeby. Birka Studies 8. Excavations in the Black Earth 1990-1995. Stockholm.

Biddle, Martin and Elmhirst, Linden. 1990. Sewing equipment. Pp. 804-817 in: Biddle, Martin. Object and Economy in Medieval Winchester. Oxford University Press.

Coatsworth, Elizabeth and Michael Pinder. 2002. The Art of the Anglo-Saxon Goldsmith. Fine Metalwork in Anglo-Saxon England: Its Practice and Practitioners. The Boydell Press, Woodbridge.

MacGregor, Arthur. 1985. Bone, antler, ivory and horn: The technology of skeletal materials since the Roman period. Croom Helm, London.

Mainman, A.J. and N.S.H. Rogers. 2000. Craft Industry and Everyday Life: Finds from Anglo-Scandinavian York. Vol 17: The Small Finds, Fasc. 14. York Archaeological Trust.

Mortensen, Mona, 1998. "When they speed the shuttle" The role of textile production in Viking Age society, as reflected in a pit house from Western Norway. NESAT 6, Goteborg University Department of Archaeology.

Panter, I. 2000. Amber working tools and techniques. Pp. 2501-2519 in: A.J. Mainman and N.S.H. Rogers. 2000. Craft Industry and Everyday Life: Finds from Anglo-Scandinavian York. Vol 17: The Small Finds, Fasc. 14. York Archaeological Trust.

Roesdahl, Else, and David M. Wilson. 1992. From Viking to Crusader: The Scandinavians and Europe 800-1200. Rizzoli, New York.

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