Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Överhogdal Tapestry Technique-First Sample

Here is the first sample piece of the Överhogdal Tapestry Technique, as reconstructed by me.*

These tapestries are part of a Early Medieval Scandinavian tradition of supplemental-weft figurative weaving on narrow bands of cloth (sometimes called friezes), most likely intended to be hung just at or above eye level around the interior of a structure, and part of the wider European tradition that includes such embroidered wall hangings as the Bayeux Tapestry.

June 10: Loom warped, and even managed to do the starting border.

Warp and weft are mercerized cotton, which I find closer in tensile and tactile properties to linen than regular cotton (also, all I had to work with). The sett is 15 epi, with weft slightly thicker than warp, as per common in the Viking age for many weaves (definitely for wool anyway, I'm not as sure about linen having a slightly thicker weft typically). Pattern weft is a commercially dyed wool. Eventually, I'd LOVE to do a piece with wool dyed by me, but my skills at dyeing aren't good enough yet.

June 12: two of three figures for the Tir Righ army done (I forgot to take a picture on June 11)

The heraldry of Tir Righ is blue and white/silver. I had to fudge it a bit as white would not have shown up well even in bright daylight, never mind in a dark-ish longhouse by candle/lamp/firelight, and as far as I can tell, metal thread does not appear to have been used in these tapestries. The outline blue is a brighter and lighter colour than the blue used in the original tapestry, which was a woad/indigo blue close to navy in shade. This blue is closer to the heraldic blue of Tir Righ's colours. The light blue is close to a shade I've gotten with indigo.

The majority of figures do appear like this; as a rectangular outline in a dark colour, with a solid block of a different colour inside for the torso, and with the head differentiated from the torso by being left as just base cloth. There are some figures which have various kinds of lines in them to distinguish the torso from the head (eg. diagonal stripes). If I were to start this piece now, I most likely would have used one of those designs for these guys, so I could stick to blue and white.

June 13

Lines that run parallel or at an angle to the warp are wrapped in a spiral fashion. For those who are more familiar with embroidery, essentially the same thread-path as a satin stitch. Lines that run perpendicular to the warp, or large blocks of colour aresoumak wrapped (like stem/outline stitch).

In fact, when the tapestries were found and for decades after, historians and archaeologists thought the tapestries were embroidered, as you could produce the same appearance using satin and stem stitching. They realized that it was actually weaving when someone took a very close look at the cloth and realized the wool pattern thread never pierces either the warp and weft of the base cloth, or itself; something that even the very best embroiderer would find it damn near impossible to do.

It's interesting to note, if you click on the picture to see it larger, that the one small bit on this piece that is embroidered** does not look the same as the identical design element when woven. If you look closely at the feet of the bottom figure, and compare to the feet of the other two, you can see the difference. The only explanation I can come up with is that the needle pushes the base cloth threads aside to make room for it and the following thread, which then sits loose in the space left; whereas when weaving it, the wool thread is compressed between base cloth wefts when the weft over it is beaten down. As a result, it took fewer stitches to make the same length foot embroidered, than it took wraps to make it woven. I don't know if I would get the same result with a finer woven cloth.

June 14

They don't mention it in the sources I did find, but if you follow the path of a specific thread they probably also never cross over a base cloth weft and then cross back down. It would be impossible to cross wefts like that in weaving the pattern since the next weft(s) wouldn't have been put in place until the row was done, but does happen in embroidery, even when trying very hard to avoid it. Nor are there any places where the pattern weft is worked at a diagonal to the warp-weft matrix of the base cloth, judging by looking at close pictures of the front. As well, going back and forth across rows of the base cloth to build an image would be an inefficient way to embroider, though not impossible or especially unlikely.

June 15

Unlike soumak rug weaving which wraps fully around every pair of warp threads, often with every row pairing the warp threads the same (creating columns of wraps), in this tapestry technique the pattern thread is wrapped over six or nine warp threads and back under two or three, essentially wrapping over every other pair or trio of warp threads.

None of the sources I saw specify, but I'm guessing from how the technique works that it would be under-two, if you're wrapping over-six, and three if nine. My reasoning for this is that in the next row as you work the pattern thread back across the warp you are staggering the warp threads you wrap the weft under, using the pairs or trios you didn't wrap the thread under in the previous row. ie. You wrap over threads 1 to 6, back under 5&6, which now become threads 1&2 of the next 6 you're wrapping over. In the next row, threads 5&6/1&2 in your wrapping pattern are the threads that were numbered 3&4 in the previous row --like the way bricks are stacked. Likewise, over 1 to 9, under 7-8-9, which become 1-2-3 of the next over-wrap, and in the next row, your 7-8-9/1-2-3 are the threads that were numbered 4-5-6 in the previous row.

Because I'm pretty sure my sett was lower than the original, and my figures larger, I stuck to going over-six, under-two, as over nine made a rather large weft float. I also, in places where I had to cover seven warp threads or fewer than six, just went over seven, or fewer than six.

June 17 (I must have taken the 16th off)

In the Tir Righ army and the Valkyrie on the same side I actually did something different. When I started the first border, I was staggering the wrap-under as described above. I know I had read this description from Lena Elisabeth Norrman's Viking Women: The Narrative Voice in Woven Tapestry:

"In this technique, the pattern threads are laid over those of the warp and then snared back. The snares are turned around the threads missed in the previous row. The threads in the weft work from right to left, back and then from right again" (Norrman 2008, p. 124-5)

I can't remember if I actually consciously remembered the description when I started weaving, or if I just started weaving that way because it made physical sense to as the thread was being wrapped, because my subconscious was feeding me hints. Either way, when I went back to look at the picture to check something, it looked like the wraps were not staggered, so I started wrapping around the same pairs of warp threads each row, which resulted in the lines running across the figures parallel to the warp. This probably made the areas of soumak weaving even harder to beat down evenly with the base cloth only areas, than it would have been if I had done it right. (See the June 12 picture for the bulging of the weft)

June 18

Just after I finished the first Valkyrie I went back to the book to look for some reference to something, I found back the description of how the wraps are supposed to go, thought "..the hell??!?" and looked again at the picture and went "D'oh!" And switched back to staggering the soumak wraps. It's not very obvious on the loom in the design, but if you look at the Valkyries in the above and below pictures you can see the difference it makes! Especially where the train of the Valkyrie's garment meets the main body; it's far less stark a change and looks less awkward on the second Valkyrie.

Also, yes. Those are severed heads weighting the warp on the loom.... heh heh heh.

June 19

Another difference between the description and how I worked the figures was that to make a straight line at the edges of colour blocks and thick horizontal lines, as they appear to be in the original, rather than staggered edges, I would start sometimes start and/or end a line with a over-four wrap (ie if one row had 5 over-six wraps, the next line would be an over-four wrap, followed by 4 over-six wraps and another over-four, so the same number of warp threads were covered in both rows).

June 20 (Avacal Army in red and yellow)

Despite not having been buried (sealing it from the environment) and not being particularly well-cared for over the centuries (it was discovered kicked into a corner of a shed after being removed from the bottom of the wood-box during a thorough cleaning at the church in Överhogdal) the colours are quite vibrant. The blue is a very bright navy, the reds are truly red (with an orangish hint), rather than browning out, and the greens are equally bright.

My red is a bit more blue-toned than the original colour, and my green a similar tone, but lighter shade; I didn't have anything darker. The blue, as mentioned above, is a brighter, lighter colour of blue. And there's a second shade of blue; something that does not seem to have been done with any of the colours in the original tapestry. Interestingly, yellow does not appear in the original, though my yellow is a colour that would have been possible with weld at the time.

The stripes in two of the figures have two purposes. One was that I didn't actually have any suitable yellow thread. The yellow I used here (as well as the darker blue and the grey used for the swords and warp on the Valkyrie's loom) were pulled from some weaving scraps my friend Brynja gave me for stuffing and such, and I wasn't entirely certain I had enough to do the bodies. The other reason is that in the Norrman book, she discusses the idea that the figures she identifies as being likely representing females, based on her theory of what story the tapestries were meant to tell, may have a wider variety in appearance because their appearance was meant to convey that they were the focus of the story, rather than the more generic 'male' figures. Based on that notion, the Avacalian warriors are varied more than the Tir Righ army to indicate that the viewer should read the Avacalians as the focus of the story, and since history is written by the victors.... (We would have won if we hadn't been outnumbered!!!!)

And the finished piece. A proper documentation will follow when I rewrite the sucky documentation I wrote for the competition.

* "...by me" in this case means other people have researched and written about the technical details and have even done exact reconstructions, but as I was unable to find any of this information in English in the last couple of years while I was researching it off and on in an admittedly desultory fashion, I finally gave up and used a short description of the technique and a really good close-up photo of a design element to figure out how it was done for myself.

** I decided after finishing the first figure that it looked funny without feet and decided to add some. But since each of them took me a whole day to weave and I'd have had to redo the entire figure to weave in the feet, I wasn't inclined to unweave the figure just to put them in. Those who might like to try this technique and are scared by how slow it is, may be reassured that by the time I got to the Avacal army I was able to weave two figures a day.


Stand provided by the ever-talented Polar Bear, cat hair provided by the Usual Suspects.

Professional sniffestigating by Persephone.



Tool Inspection,

and Thread Herding by Tenzing. Jack was off at his day job, being a Grumpy Old Man-cat.


  1. Freaking BRILLIANT.

    As a 'traditional' tapestry weaver, I have somehow never managed to discover these friezes, and now I'm itching to try one! That Norman book is now going into my Must Buy NOW queue on Amazon, and I look forward to reading it cover to cover.

    Thanks for the clear explanations, too, since I would have read that bit about the snares and have thought they were describing a warp interlock! (Talk about 'doh!')

    Again, freaking BRILLIANT. *WELL DONE*

  2. Thank you!

    Also, while the Norrman book is a GOOD book, it's not going to help you weave these tapestries. I thought the 3rd chapter was excellent for discussing not only her own ideas of what the images in Part 1a and 1b* mean, but also discussing what other theories have said.

    It certainly was useful for helping me design the piece and future pieces I'm creating. But as for technical, there's very little, just what the different threads are made of, and a brief description of the technique in a couple places. It also helps if you're familiar with French feminism, metaphysics, Derrida, linguistic philosophy, representation in cognitive psychology and art as applied to understanding history through the eyes of contemporaries of the non-literate text, and oral-formulaic composition. And that's just the intro! :)

    The book is focussed on how the tapestries and the act of textile working itself function as non-literate textual voices for women in the Viking period.

    Apparently the book you really want is "Bonaderna från Skog och Överhogdal: och andra medeltida väggbekländer" (The Skog and Overhogdal wall hangings and other Medieval wall coverings) by Anne Marie Franzén and Margareta Nockert. It's in Swedish though. :( I have an ILL request out for it from UofMinn anyway, and a couple of friends who read Swedish. There's also a copy at the Smithsonian (if you want to ILL it too and don't want to wait for me to be done with it!) :)

    (*the top two pieces in most pictures, they appear to be part of one warping, as they have the same warp flaw running through both pieces, though they are not continuous with each other)