Vertical loom in the Viking style at Hedeby.

Viking Cloth Money: How Viking Women Wove Wealth

Michèle Hayeur Smith, an anthropological archaeologist at Brown University, earned a degree in fashion in Paris. Partly inspired by her anthropologist mother, who collected cloth from all over, Hayeur Smith took her experiences and applied them to her study of Icelandic Vikings and their laws regarding Viking cloth money, vaðmál or vöruvaðmál. Iceland used cloth money from the end of the Viking age, when raids and exploration died down, through the 1500s when international trade picked up.

The Archaeology of Cloth

Archeologists of the past tended to ignore cloth when it was present at a dig. Because they were mostly male, they didn’t think there was much to learn from the small patches that survived. The study of silver, jewelry, and metals took precedence over examining the brittle, decaying organic materials. Men just didn’t have the experience with fabric to understand what information they could find out from what people wore. They also tended to overlook the role that women played in society.

Viking Places to Weave

The Dyngja was a pit house, dug into the ground between 1.5 and three feet, outside the longhouse. It would be about nine by 15 feet, which is space for about three women to weave, and have a hearth for warmth and light. About 1000 CE, when the Vikings converted to Christianity, the women brought their weaving into the home, but those places would’ve retained their taboo features. The men would’ve shunned the area.

Warp-Weighted Looms

The Viking looms are not the horizontal looms that are in use today. Instead, the Vikings and Icelanders used a warp-weighted loom. This loom is vertical in composition and uses rocks with holes to weigh down the yarn.

Vikings, Weaving Superstition, and Law

One thing early archaeologists overlooked was the laws that Iceland had regarding vaðmál or vöruvaðmál. These laws were precise; yet, in the Viking culture, men would avoid weaving and the places where it was done, Dyngja. The literature of the age portrayed the men who hung around the Dyngja as villains and cowards. The superstition was such that men feared losing their masculinity and, possibly, their lives. With the expertise required to make the law regulating Viking cloth money and the male aversion to weaving, women had to be the ones to make the law, or at least play a significant role in its creation.

Viking Cloth Money

Icelandic women were weaving the cloth money to the exacting standards set forth in the law. The cloth was to be a tweed, or a 2/2 twill. The yarn could be spun in either a clockwise (Z-spun) or counterclockwise (S-spun) direction. The fabric had to be woven with four to 15 warp threads per centimeter. The entire cloth would be measured at two by six ells, about one by three yards. This cloth was worth a standard weight of silver.

Implications for Archeology

This study of Viking cloth money and other textiles helps expand the knowledge of the Viking world in general. By pointing out its importance, Hayeur Smith is creating a path that will help free current archeologists from the prevailing thought processes and open them to new ways of thinking. Society isn’t made up of only the male aspect. It also includes women, and Viking cloth money is a step towards recognizing the role women have played throughout history.


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