Essays, Textiles, The Viking Age Tapestries
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Viking Age Tapestries: 3. Fabrication

Last Updated 18 October 2020 

This is part three in a series on Viking Age tapestries. Part 1 is a brief introduction, Part 2 a brief history, Part 4 and Part 5 has bonus material on modern-day tapestries. We are at the halfway mark of the series. We are still discussing European Viking Age tapestries with narrative designs. Now, it’s time to find out how the early medieval Europeans produced their tapestries. Who ordered these wall hangings, who made them and how?


Fabricating a tapestry depends on the needs, wishes and the depth of the purse of a medieval patron.1 If this patron needs a status symbol, the tapestry is the perfect object. Expensive enough, so only the wealthy can afford it. Beautiful, too, with practical aspects. As a strong, durable and flexible piece of cloth, it is easily stowed away and taken out when guests arrive. This happens, for example, in Njáls saga when the women take out the wall hangings for an important guest.2 Also, it’s easy to pack for the road and that is a real perk for medieval aristocrats who often travel between their homes and domains.3


Medieval tapestries come in many shapes and sizes. Smaller weaves are used for cushions, furniture covers, or bands to beautify clothing.4 Larger, and better known, are the large rectangles that cover doorways, church or castle walls. The oblong shape relates to the shape of castle halls and churches.

The Bayeux Embroidery

Bayeux embroidery stitch (Source: Wikipedia).

The obvious sample here is the Bayeux Embroidery (technically not a tapestry, by the way). This cloth is just under 70 m (!) long and 50 cm wide, fit for an impressive great hall.5 Researchers suggest that the shape of the Bayeux is reminiscent of Roman reliefs and carvings.6 Indeed, many elements refer to the Classical world. Some we still understand, some are lost to us now but will have been understood by the medieval audience.7 Furthermore, I also like to think the oblong shape creates a continuous story. Take, for example, the way the scenes overlap and how the decorative bands keep the story together.

Scandinavian Oblongs

Thorgrim and Thorkel were getting their preparations under way and were about to hang up some tapestries in the house because the guests were expected that evening

Gísla saga Súrssonar (ed. Jane Smiley, pp. 519)

Among the early Scandinavian tapestries there are oblong shapes, too. These predate the Bayeux in a time when few large castles or churches exist in the region. Is there any chance of the Romans directly influencing the early Nordic weaves? No study I read for this series so far, indicates this. Despite the fact that Scandinavia was never part of the Roman empire, there are enough signs of cultural exchanges and trade between the northerners and Romans.8 Meanwhile, I will just stay with my hunch, it is more likely that the Scandinavian oblong fits the interior of a typical longhouse. They might have had a good place above benches along the walls near the fireplace, for example. The broader bands, called the tjeld, were plain and made of coarse wool. The refil is a narrow band, with woven and embroidered designs and hung above the tjeld.9

Patronage and Labour

Gerberga of Saxony (Source: Wikipedia).

Patronage is one of the most difficult things to prove for Viking Age tapestries. The early weaves lack the clear signs of ownership of the later period, such as heraldic symbols.10 The exception to this idea is Gerberga’s battle flag from c. 960. Gerberga was the sister of the German emperor and embroidered a cloth that states “Gerberga made me” in Latin.11 This is one of few examples where the medieval embroider signs her own work on a large piece of cloth. Gerberga belongs to one of the prolific noble families in Europe, giving her the means to buy and make such an item.

The nobility, along with the clergy are among the wealthiest people (see Part 2). In most cases, they are patrons for the tapestries, too. And Gerberga’s feat is not unique, for there are more examples of medieval women who are patrons and artisan-weavers in their own right. They are more entrepreneurial than one might think. Icelandic women export their produce and sell it in Norway,12 and Irish women may sign binding contracts with craftsmen.13 After the rise of trade towns and urban centres, the tapestry production moves from the home environment to professional urban workshops. Male craftsmen dominate these workshops, but even here women can still join and earn their way by weaving tapestries.14

The Myriad of Designs

Along the Silk Road

The choice for a tapestry design comes down to what the patron considers beautiful or relevant. At the start of the Viking Age, there is a variety of motifs to choose from for the European weavers and their patrons. Partly based on their own art traditions and partly based on new influences that reach Europe via the silk trade with Asia. The origin of the Oriental narrative designs starts with the kesi in China. The earliest of these silk tapestries date back to the Tang dynasty (7th–9th century). Of course, silk and tapestry weaving in China is much older than this, but the Tang emperors are the first to see economic benefits in starting a foreign trade with a monopoly on silk.15 

Their partner in this successful business model is a nomadic people called the Sogdians. They trade raw silk, silk bolts and silk tapestries from China via Persia all the way to Byzantium, and back again.16 Unsurprisingly, Sogdian tapestry art, therefore, includes Chinese influences. Historical records show that Chinese craftsmen lived and worked in the Sogdian city of Bukhara.17 Further evidence is the use of typical elements from the kesi such as flowers, vines, ducks and lions that also appear in Sogdian tapestries where they further developed in arranged, symmetrical animal pairs, and hunting scenes.18 

The provenance of design gets blurry by the time the Sogdians reach the Sasanian court in Persia. The Persians, too, use animal hunting scenes but give them their own twist by making them combat or fighting scenes.19 The Sogdians travel onwards to Byzantium, but the Sasanians already have a close relationship with the Byzantine empire. They are frenemies at best. Despite Chinese attempts to keep sericulture a secret, the Sasanian and Byzantines both get a hold of silkworms to start their own sericulture.20 At the same time, Byzantine weavers end up in Sasanian textile workshops.21 This intensive exchange between these two cultures, and the lingering influences of the Chinese and Sogdian designs, make it hard for researchers today to distinguish the origin of the tapestry based on the narrative design only.22

From the Mediterranean to Europe

The Byzantine empire is the go-between for silk trade with Europe. In time, their tapestries not only include Asian motifs, but their own religious motifs,23 some of which are from the Coptic weaving traditions in Egypt.24 With the rise of the Islamic civilisation in the seventh century, new motifs are added such as Kufic script and geometrical designs.25 This incredible myriad of design motifs reaches Europe in the early medieval period. The early imported and local tapestries show many Asian and Oriental motifs, but these fade out over time as more religious and local historical or epic scenes are included. Remember that Scandinavia uses pagan symbols for a longer time, and Al-Andalus Islamic elements for as long as there is Arab rule on the Iberian Peninsula.

With local production increasing, local design elements are exchanged more frequently, too. The Baldishol tapestry, for example, is a Norwegian tapestry but its Romanesque style reminds of the Bayeux Embroidery.26 The themes of the tapestries include historical/epic stories though are still strongly influenced by Christian elements.27 Some designs in Scandinavia are the topic of hot debate whether they are pagan, Christian or both. Last but not least, the German tapestries from the end of the Viking Age also strongly refer to Christian elements or historical imperial grandeur such as Charlemagne’s Frankish empire.

Finally, what also caught my eye whilst compiling the inventory, is the direction in which figures look or walk in the designs. Perhaps there is no significance to this, and I’m being silly. But perhaps there is? I have not been able to find a clear pattern. In some, they walk or look to the right and in others to the left and in the Skog piece, they come from both directions.


Fibres & Yarns

Norwegian spælsau sheep (Source: Wikipedia).

Animal and plant fibres and extractions form the basis of medieval tapestries. They are used to make yarns and dyes to colour the yarns. Many European wall hangings contain wool, hemp, flax and in exceptional cases, silk. This stock comes from local produce, or by trade such as silk. The lively wool trade between Norway, England and Iceland28 does not exclude the use of local wool. The Norwegian Baldishol tapestry uses wool from local spælsau sheep29 that is particularly soft and shiny.30 An example of local hemp produce recently came to light in a new reassessment of the fibres in the Swedish Överhogdal tapestry.31 

The spinning wheel or spinning needle turns fibres into yarns. This is a time-consuming process. And the spinner’s skill determines the quality of the yarns. Earlier tapestries show crudely spun yarns, but later on, thin and regular threads characterizing the high-quality yarn.32 In the early days, there were few techniques to extract material for the natural dyes. This limits the variety of colours33 and explains why the older wall hangings show fewer colours than the later ones.

Weaving & Techniques

With the yarns dyed and ready, it is time to prepare the loom for weaving. The loom is a wooden frame, either large enough to weave standing or sitting,34 or small enough to be held by hand such as the tablet looms from the Oseberg ship burial that suggest highly skilled weaving.35 The first set of yarns fastened on the loom is the warp and they can have weights at their ends (warp-weighted loom). The next set of yarns is the weft and is woven through the warp. A discontinuous weft is typical for a tapestry weave due to the use of colours and design.

If necessary, the tapestry can be further strengthened with another ground weft through the warp that is invisible to the eye. In general, the weaver works facing the back of the tapestry and occasionally beats down the strings until the warp is completely covered by the weft.36 With the right tools and materials, the warp and weft in place, it is time to weave the tapestry. There are many techniques available in the Middle Ages, here are a few used in European tapestries: 

Tapestry weave – the basic weave, for small and large wall hangings, or other items such as cushions and shrouds.37

Soumak – evolved from an ancient finger weaving technique, whereby the weft wraps around a single or pair of warps.38 

Brocading – decorative threads are woven in such a way that it becomes a raised pattern.39 Embroidery on a tapestry weave does the same. The difference is that brocading is a weave and embroidery needs a needle and is therefore not considered a weaving technique.40

Samite – “slightly shiny silk fabric with a diagonal rib in its structure” from the back cover of Margaret Scott’s famous Medieval Dress & Fashion.41 

As there is a skill in the spinning of the yarn, there is also a skill in the design and weaving techniques. Perhaps it is a matter of taste, but the Oseberg figures do seem quite crude and are unevenly distributed compared to the more rounded and finished figures of later tapestries, such as the symmetrically aligned figures in the Skog tapestry,42 or the fine figures in the Baldishol tapestry.

Ongoing Research

Each chapter in this piece is a discipline by itself within textile research. I have barely scratched the surface here. It is an understatement to say that it is hard to prove the origin of a tapestry by its patronage (not enough evidence), design (too many possibilities) or fabrication (Oriental techniques were also used in Europe) alone. Yet, combining these three criteria produces promising results in current academic research.

Scholars and expert weavers continue to deepen their (and our) knowledge and open our eyes to the significance of the historical textile evidence. The cultural exchanges and borrowings the tapestries teach us about, add to and refine our current knowledge of archaeological evidence and manuscript recordings. Until now, Europe tapestry fabrication in the early Middle Ages has only been mapped by region; such as the Anglo-Saxon world, Scandinavia and Northern Europe.43 It would be amazing to see this kind of mapping extended to the rest of Europe and linking it to Asia in more detail. At the same time, what a complex, time-consuming and intriguing job that will be! For now, I leave with the promise of showing the inventory in the next part.


  1. Thomas Campbell, ‘How Medieval and Renaissance Tapestries Were Made | Essay,’ The Met’s Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History. Last Accessed 19 June 2016.   ↩
  2. George W. DaSent, ‘The Story of Burnt Njal,’ Icelandic Saga Database. Last Accessed 26 February 2017.   ↩
  3. The Art Institute of Chicago, ‘The Use and Function of Tapestries,’ The Divine Art | Four Centuries of European Tapestries. Last Accessed 09 February 2017.   ↩
  4. Madeline Jarry, ‘Tapestry,’ Encyclopaedia Britannica. Last Accessed 19 June 2016.   ↩
  5. Gillian Vogelsang Eastwood, ‘Bayeux Tapestry,’ TRC Leiden. Last Accessed 06 March 2017.   ↩
  6. Gale Owen–Crocker, ‘Stylistic Variation and Roman Influence in the Bayeux Tapestry’. In: Peregrinations: International Society for the Study of Pilgrimage Art. Volume 2.4 (2009), pp. 52. [pp. 51–96] .  ↩
  7. Carola Hicks, The Bayeux Tapestry: The Life Story of a Masterpiece. (New York: Random House, 2011), pp. 55.  ↩
  8. Bjørn Myhre, ‘The Iron Age’. In: The Cambridge History of Scandinavia: Volume 1 Prehistory until 1520. Edited by Knut Helle (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003), pp. 60, 69–70 [pp. 60–93].  ↩
  9. A. Kjellberg, ‘Textile, Furnishing’. Medieval Scandinavia: An Encyclopedia. Edited by P. Pulsiano and Kirsten Wolf. (Abingdon: Taylor & Francis, 1993), pp. 640–641 [640–643].  ↩
  10. Madeline Jarry, ‘Tapestry,’ Encyclopaedia Britannica. Last Accessed 19 June 2016.  ↩
  11. Pierre Alain Mariaux, ‘Women in the Making: Early Medieval Signatures And Artists’ Portraits (9th–12th C.)’. In: Reassessing the Roles of Women as ‘Makers’ of Medieval Art and Architecture (2 Vol. Set), Edited by Therese Martin. Visualizing the Middle Ages. (Leiden: BRILL, 2012), pp. 399 [pp. 393–428].  ↩
  12. Nancy L. Wicker, ‘Nimble–Fingered Maidens in Scandinavia: Women as Artists and Patrons’. In: Reassessing the Roles of Women as ‘Makers’ of Medieval Art and Architecture. Edited by Therese Martin. Visualizing the Middle Ages. (Leiden: Brill, 2012), pp. 899 [pp. 865–902].  ↩
  13. Jenifer Ní Ghrádaigh, ‘Mere Embroiders? Women and Art in Early Medieval Ireland’. In: Reassessing the Roles of Women as ‘Makers’ of Medieval Art and Architecture (2 Vol. Set). Edited by Therese Martin. Visualizing the Middle Ages. (Leiden: BRILL, 2012), pp. 94 [pp. 93–128].  ↩
  14. June Hall McCash, The Cultural Patronage of Medieval Women: An Overview. (Athens (GA): University of Georgia Press, 1996), pp. 11.
    Grete Jacobsen, ‘Crafts | Textiles’. Medieval Scandinavia: An Encyclopedia. Edited by P. Pulsiano and Kirsten Wolf. (Abingdon: Taylor & Francis, 1993), pp. 115 [pp. 113–115].
    Margaret Wade Labarge, ‘Stitches in Time: Medieval Embroidery in Its Social Setting’. In: Florilegium, Volume 16 (1999): pp. 84, 88–89 [pp. 77–96].  ↩
  15. The Editors of Encyclopædia Britannica. ‘Kesi | Chinese Tapestry,’ Encyclopaedia Britannica. Last Accessed 22 February 2017.   ↩
  16. Etienne de la Vaissiere, ‘Sogdian Trade | Growth,’ Encyclopaedia Iranica | Online. Last Accessed 22 February 2017.
    Rebecca Woodward Wendelken, ‘Wefts and Worms: The Spread of Sericulture and Silk Weaving in the West before 1300’. In: Medieval Clothing and Textiles. Edited by R. Netherton and G. Owen–Crocker. Medieval Clothing and Textiles. (Woodbridge: Boydell and Brewer, 2014), pp. 60 [pp. 59–78].  ↩
  17. James C.Y. Watt, Anne E. Wardwell, and Metropolitan Museum of Art, When Silk Was Gold: Central Asian and Chinese Textiles. (New York: Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1997), pp. 23.  ↩
  18. Madeline Jarry, ‘Tapestry,’ Encyclopaedia Britannica. Last Accessed 19 June 2016.  ↩
  19. Mina Moraitou, ‘Animal Motifs’. In: Byzantium and Islam: Age of Transition, 7th–9th Century. Edited by Helen C. Evans with Brandie Ratliff. (New York: Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2012), pp. 172.  ↩
  20. Nazanin Hedayat Munroe. ‘Woven Silk,’ The Metropolitan Museum of Art, I.e. The Met Museum. Last Accessed 27 February 2017.   ↩
  21. Xinru Liu, The Silk Road in World History. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010), pp. 81, 91, 122.  ↩
  22. Matteo Compareti, ‘[Sasanian Textiles]|(–textiles),’ Encyclopaedia Iranica | Online. Last Accessed 27 February 2017.  ↩
  23. Xinru Liu (2010), pp. 81, 91, 122.  ↩
  24. Madeline Jarry, ‘Tapestry,’ Encyclopaedia Britannica. Last Accessed 19 June 2016.   ↩
  25. Nazanin Hedayat Munroe, ‘Early Islamic Textiles: Inscribed Garments,’ The Metropolitan Museum of Art, I.e. The Met Museum. Last Accessed 27 February 2017.   ↩
  26. Madeline Jarry, ‘Tapestry,’ Encyclopaedia Britannica. Last Accessed 19 June 2016.   ↩
  27. Richard Koch, ‘Sacred Threads: The Bayeux Tapestry as a Religious Object’. Peregrinations: International Society for the Study of Pilgrimage Art, Volume 2.4 (2009), pp. 146 [pp. 134–65].  ↩
  28. Michele Hayeur Smith, ‘3. Weaving Wealth: Cloth and Trade in Viking Age and Medieval Iceland– Proof’. In: Textiles and the Medieval Economy: Production, Trade and Consumption of Textiles, 8th–16th Centuries. Edited by Angela Ling Huang and Carsten Jahnke. Ancient Textiles Series. (Oxford: Oxbow Books, 2017), pp. 27 [pp. 23–40].  ↩
  29. Per Hofman Hansen, ‘Baldishol–Tæppet,’ Last Accessed 27 February 2017.
    Ingrid L. Nødseth, ‘Wool,’ Ingrid Lunnan Nødseth. Last Accessed 27 February 2017.  ↩
  30. Nordic Fashion Association, ‘Norwegian Sheeps Breeds,’ Nordic Fashion Association. Last Accessed 27 February 2017.   ↩
  31. G. Skoglund, M. Nockert, and B. Holst, ‘Viking and Early Middle Ages Northern Scandinavian Textiles Proven to Be Made with Hemp’. In: Nature | Scientific Reports 3. Last Accessed 27 February 2017.  ↩
  32. Chrystel Brandenburgh, ‘Clothes Make the Man. Early Medieval Textiles from the Netherlands’. In: Journal of Archaeology in the Low Countries, Volume 2.1 (2010), pp. 52 [pp. 41–79].  ↩
  33. The Art Institute of Chicago, ‘Color in Tapestries,’ The Art Institute of Chicago. Last Accessed 08 March 2017.  ↩
  34. Rae Ostman, ‘Clothing and Textiles’. In: Ancient Europe, 8000 B.C. to A.D. 1000: Encyclopedia of the Barbarian World: Vol. 2: Bronze Age to Early Middle Ages (C. 3000 B.C. – A.D. 1000). Edited by Peter Bogucki and Pam J. Crabtree. (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 2004), pp. 433 [pp. 433–435].  ↩
  35. Elisabeth Arwill Nordbladh, ‘A Reigning Queen or the Wife of a King – Only?’ In: Ancient Queens: Archaeological Explorations. Edited by Sarah M. Nelson. (Lanham: Rowman Altamira, 2003), pp. 28 [pp. 19–40].  ↩
  36. Thomas Campbell, ‘How Medieval and Renaissance Tapestries Were Made | Essay,’ The Met’s Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History. Last Accessed 19 June 2016.   ↩
  37. Grace Christie, Embroidery and Tapestry Weaving. Third Edition Revised. (London: John Hogg, 1912), Chapter XV. The Gutenberg Project. Last Accessed 27 February 2017.  ↩
  38. Julia Carlson and Yael Rosenfield,‘Weaving Techniques | Sumak,’ The Metropolitan Museum of Art. Last Accessed 20 May 2018.   ↩
  39. Brocade Meaning in the Cambridge English Dictionary.’ The Cambridge Dictionary. Last Accessed 27 February 2017.   ↩
  40. Grace Christie, Embroidery and Tapestry Weaving. Third Edition Revised. (London: John Hogg, 1912), Chapter XV. The Gutenberg Project. Last Accessed 27 February 2017.  ↩
  41. Danièle Cybulskie, ‘A Five–Minute Guide to Medieval Fabrics,’ Last Accessed 02 March 2017.   ↩
  42. M.S. Dimand, ‘Mediæval Textiles of Sweden’. In: The Art Bulletin, Volume 6.1 (1923), pp. 13 [11–16].  ↩
  43. Gale Owen–Crocker, Dress in Anglo–Saxon England. (Woodbridge: Boydell Press, 2004).
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