Viking Textile Tools: Silver Needlecase

silver needlecase

Needlecases are very frequently found in female graves of the late Viking period (MacGregor 1997). Fine metal needles would have been fragile and expensive, making a needlecase to protect them an important item. Positioning in the graves demonstrates that they were an important accessory as well as a functional tool. Needlecases were often suspended from the girdle or from one of the brooches supporting the apron dress. A few needlecases have the remnants of chains attached, while others do not, suggesting that now-decayed textile cords might have been used to suspend them. The Viking custom seems to have been to carry frequently-needed and personal objects - shears, needlecases, knives, toiletry items, etc. - suspended about ones person. With that arrangement, they are always handy, and are unlikely to be mixed up with items belonging to others. Needlecases were worn this way through at least the medieval period (Egan and Pritchard 1991).

Many needlecases have been found at Birka - 69 from graves, and another 71 in the surrounding area (Black Earth; Andersson 2003). The length of these needlecases ranges from 40-80 mm, and most are 50-70 mm. Of the 69 grave finds, 38 contained up to 5 metal needles. Most contained textile remnants, often unspun wool, used to hold the needles in place, since none of these needlecases had caps (MacGregor 1997) . The Birka finds, and Viking needlecases in general, were usually bone or copper alloy, although there were two silver needlecases found at Birka (Andersson 2003).

Construction methods

Marten Stenberger (1958) says of Viking metalworking techniques:

Die technischen Methoden, die bei der Herstellung der auf Gotland gefundenen Silber- und Goldgegenstande aus der Wikingerzeit zur Anwendung kamen, sind dieselben wie heute: Giessen, Hammern, Feilen, Schweissen, Ziehen, Drehen, Loten, Treiben und Pressen sowie ferner Winden und Flechten.

The technical methods, which were used during the production of the silver and gold articles found on Gotland from the Viking age, are the same as today: casting, hammering, filing, welding, drawing [wire], turning, soldering, driving [?punching] and pressing as well as furthermore winding and braiding. (my translation)

With the obvious exception of power tools, the processes are much the same today as they were 1000 years ago. Even the hand tools are quite similar. 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). Although this set of tools was for ironworking, similar but finer equipment would have been possessed by the non-ferrous metalworker (Tylecote 1990). Theophilus, writing in the 11th century, describes jewelry-making as requiring a very similar kit: a furnace and bellows, anvils of many shapes, hammers of many shapes, pincers including snips, drawplates for wire, and triangular, round and square files (Dodwell 1961). Antler hammers that may have been used for silversmithing were found at Birka (MacGregor 1985).

I used very similar modern hand tools for constructing this needlecase; no power tools were used. I have no metalworking experience whatsoever; I learned to work with silver in order to make the needlecase for my set of textile tools. I found books by Tim McCreight (1997) and especially by Sharr Choate (1970) to be extremely helpful.

Theophilus suggests soldering silver using winestone as a flux, which the editor explains is cream of tartar (Dodwell 1961). I experimented with this using the cream of tartar sold for cooking, but could not get it to work. Instead I used borax as a flux. Theophilus mentions the use of borax (parahas) as a flux for niello work, and it was commonly used by Anglo-Saxon jewelers (Coatsworth and Pinder 2002). Theophilus describes soldering by setting up the metal, flux and solder and putting the entire piece into the fire. Not having a furnace available, I used a butane torch. The silver solder he recommends is composed of 2 parts silver, 1 part copper; I used a commercial solder made up of 2 parts silver, 1 part brass, which is as close as I could come to a period formulation without alloying my own.

I did most of the finishing work with modern sandpaper, but the final smoothing and polishing was done with a rag dipped in first pumice, then rottenstone. I wanted both the appearance and the experience of a finishing method that could have been used by a Viking silversmith. Little information on metal finishing is available. MacGregor (1985) discusses methods that were probably used on bone implements. Initial shaping and smoothing would have been done with files and knives, and pumice was used to smooth bone and wood. “Sandpaper” made from dipping leather into fine sea sand may have been used; this is the equivalent of what I did with the rags and polishing agents. Powdered chalk on a damp or oiled rag may have been used to polish amber at York (Panter 2000). MacGregor also suggests that horsetail (Equisetum) stems or coarse fishskin might have been used. Equisetum arvense is native to AEthelmearc, but is not available in the winter.


While researching Viking needlecases, I found an example from a grave at Birka that I was especially fond of (Fig. 1), and decided to make a similar one.

I started with 22-gauge sterling silver sheet. Sheet silver probably would have been hammered out by a silversmith between two plates, but because of my inexperience I decided to skip a step and buy both sheet and wire instead of starting from stock. To shape the cylinder, I created a block from a piece of hardwood by drilling holes at different distances from the edge, then cutting the block in half and smoothing the inside of the holes (Fig. 3). The only power tool I used was the drill for these holes. I placed the sheet over the shallowest groove, placed a dowel on top of that, and hammered on the dowel to begin shaping the cylinder. I continued hammering it into deeper grooves until the edges met. The needlecase is 5 cm long, the same length and approximate diameter as the Birka needlecase in Fig. 1.

Figure 1. Needlecase from a mid/late 10th c. woman’s grave, Birka. Length 5 cm.

Birka needlecase

The spirals were shaped from 14-gauge sterling silver wire. Wire-drawing was well-established by the 10th c., and a drawplate was found at Birka (Coatsworth and Pinder 2002). I fastened everything together with binding wire and arranged it carefully for the soldering step. After I finally got the pieces attached, I finished the needlecase as described above.


The suspension chain for the needlecase is in trichinopoly, sometimes called Viking wire knitting (Wilson and Blunt 1961, Peterson 1998). The structure of the chain is related to naalbinding, and is made in a spiral by repeatedly looping the end of the wire back through one or more loops in the rows above (Fig. 2). Flexible trichinopoly chains were used for suspending jewelry by Viking and Anglo-Saxons, while chains made of stiffer wire were used as armbands.

This chain was made from 26-gauge fine silver wire. Fine was used instead of sterling because it is softer and work-hardens more slowly. I “knitted” the chain onto a 4-loop starting wire. When working in this way, only short lengths of wire can be used, as the entire length must be pulled through the stitch east time. The ends are tucked inside, and work continues with the new length. After I finished I pulled the chain through sequentially smaller holes in a wooden drawplate to smooth and tighten the structure. I should have stopped one hole earlier, as the last hole produced a nice appearance but forced the joins to protrude slightly. The ends of the chain are formed from loops of the same 14-gauge sterling silver wire I used for the spirals on the needlecase, and are crimped on. The loop that is permanently fastened to the needlecase is also threaded through the chain for additional stability.

Figure 2. Trichinopoly structures (Stenberger 1958).



I had a difficult time with the soldering, and spent far more time than I had expected. Despite pulling the cylinder closed with binding wire, and careful cleaning and fluxing, I was never able to get the seam entirely closed. I finally had to stop working on it, because I was afraid that I would loosen the spirals, which were also very hard for me to attach. I expect that more experience would have made the soldering easier - I learned to solder with a torch specifically for this project. Since the seam is still open, I arranged the needlecase so that the seam is on the back (body side) when worn, hiding it from view.

The tuft of wool jammed into the needlecase does hold the needles securely, so no caps are needed. Its a bit difficult to get the needles in and out; I’m continuing to experiment with different amounts of wool until I find an arrangement that works well.

Needlecases were worn as functional accessories by women of all classes during the Viking era - everyone needed to sew, if only for repairs. The material and design of the needlecase varied with the status of the woman wearing it; an elaborate silver needlecase like this one would have been worn by a high-status woman, while lower-status women would have had needlecases of bone or copper alloy suspended from iron chain or cord. Thus, the needlecase served as a status symbol as well as a convenient place to store frequently-used items.

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