Wednesday, October 13, 2021

The Valkyries' Loom

"The warp is made / of human entrails; / human heads / are used as weights; / the heddle rods / are blood-wet spears ... "

The Valkyries' Loom by Michèle Hayeur Smith begins with lines from this famous poem in Njáls Saga, of valkyries weaving a web of war. But Hayeur Smith is not interested in valkyries--or warfare. She didn't write a book like The Real Valkyrie, my exploration of warrior women in the Viking Age. She doesn't even confine herself to the Viking Age.

Her book, a study of "Female Power in the North Atlantic," as its subtitle says, has a much broader scope. She is taking on a thousand years of women's work--a thousand years in which women's ability to transform wooly sheep into woven cloth determined the success, or failure, of societies.

The poem, she says, "suggests that powerful magic and the control of fate would be realized in these weaving huts through textile production."

Hayeur Smith nearly proves that supposition true. She does prove, through a careful examination of archaeological data, myths, and literature that textile production was indeed a female magic, and a source of female power in Iceland and Greenland for many centuries.

Let's begin with the sheep: the Northern (or European Vari-Colored) Short-Tail sheep. It has a coarse outer coat and a fluffy undercoat "soft as merino wool." Today, Icelanders mix the two, to create the lopi yarn used to knit Icelandic sweaters. For a thousand years, though, Icelandic women combed the wool, using the strong outer hair for the warp and the soft inner hair for the weft when weaving cloth on their standing looms, in which the warp was weighted (not by human heads, but by stones) to keep the web taut.

From the 800s to the 18th century, every farm in Iceland had a warp-weighted loom. To keep her family of four well-clothed, Hayeur Smith calculates, the average woman spent 260 days of each year, working 8 hours a day, just spinning yarn and weaving cloth.

A medium-sized farm of 10 people needed 2 women working at clothes-making full-time (8 hours a day) for 325 days each. A chieftain's estate (20 people) and a bishop's manor (40 people) needed 4 and 8 women, respectively, assigned to textile work 8 hours a day, 325 days a year.

Dyeing the cloth was extra. (Many of the archaeological samples Hayeur Smith examines tested positive for indigotin--they were dyed blue, using the woad plant.)

Cutting and sewing the garments took even more time.

And that's just for basic clothing--no fancy embroidery or tablet-woven borders or silk applique (as we know the Vikings loved).

Bedding was also extra work. Bags and bandages were extra, as were shrouds to bury the Christian dead. These, Hayeur Smith suggests, might have been made out of old clothes. Many of the archaeological finds she examines in Greenland are clothes that were patched with old scraps. "People were reusing every fragment of cloth to repair or salvage garments," she notes. Using accelerated mass spectrometry, for example, she finds that the crown of one tall wool hat from Greenland was 150 years older than the hat's sides.

Hayeur Smith barely touches on the woman-power needed to weave sails--without which no Viking ever went anywhere. These, too, were woven from sheep's wool on warp-weighted looms, in a weave much like that used for clothing. (Sailcloth was then treated with animal fat and red ochre to make it windproof.)

Not only did Iceland's women keep the ships sailing and the people clothed. By studying the spin direction of the yarn, the types of weaves, and the thread counts, Hayeur Smith concludes that "during the medieval period, Icelandic women were weaving money in abundance."

From 1050 to 1550, a standardized weave of wool cloth called vaðmál was used instead of silver for both local trades, taxes and tithes, and as foreign exports. Vaðmál comes from váð (stuff, cloth) and mál (a measure), meaning “cloth measured to a standard.” Quality was critical. The earliest Icelandic laws controlling how it was made and assessed date to 1117. An illustration from a 15th-century lawbook suggests women had a role in both: In the picture, a woman holding some cloth challenges a man carrying a measuring stick. "Are you the King's steward?" she asks.

"Because vaðmál was a currency produced by women," Hayeur Smith concludes, "it was not just a product traded by men but was the result of a symbiotic relationship between the sexes, in which both women and men were heavily invested." Vaðmál "provided a mechanism through which Icelanders could survive" after the country became a colony of Norway, in the 13th century, then Denmark, in the 14th. Vaðmál "linked Icelandic households to ports, markets, and consumers" in Europe well into the 17th century, when the textile trade was globalized, and even the 18th, when weaving was industrialized.

In Greenland, weaving went a different way. Cloth was never standardized. It never became a form of currency. Not only did Greenlanders recycle cloth, they wove many more kinds. Archaeologists have recovered samples of two kinds of plain twills, panama twills, diamond twills, pile weaves, and striped or checked cloth. Greenland's weavers were weaving for their families, not to pay taxes or rents.

And when Greenland's climate got colder, in the 14th century, Greenlandic women created a new weave, using much more yarn in the weft to create a denser, warmer cloth. "The invention of Greenland’s weft-dominant cloth," says Hayeur Smith, "was the result of women taking direct action to devise survival strategies in the face of depleting resources and climate fluctuations."

It wasn't enough. The Norse settlements in Greenland disappeared in the 1400s. Unlike the valkyries at their loom, Greenland's Norse women could not weave their own fates.

The Valkyries' Loom: The Archaeology of Cloth Production and Female Power in the North Atlantic was published by the University Press of Florida in 2020. It's a detailed, fact-filled, and eye-opening study of the power of women from the Viking Age to modern times. I highly recommend it.

For more on my book The Real Valkyrie: The Hidden History of Viking Warrior Women, see the previous posts on this blog (click here) or my page at

Disclosure: I am an affiliate of and may earn a commission if you click through and purchase the books mentioned here.

No comments:

Post a Comment