The Viking Apron-Dress: A New Reconstruction

By Ellisif Flakkari (Monica Cellio)
Copyright 1995 Monica Cellio

I have been trying, for some years, to solve the problem of what Viking-era women wore over their dresses. We know, from large amounts of archeological evidence, that they wore something; speculation on what it was has run from skinny apron panels to full, tailored garments. This layer is worn over a long tunic and is fastened by passing "tortoise" brooches through straps or directly through the cloth and closing them. (Strings of beads are often then hung from the brooches, as were some household and personal implements.) This article describes my attempts to find something that works and that is consistent with the evidence from tenth-century Hedeby, my primary area of interest.

Early Interpretations

The common SCA interpretation until recently has been "skinny panels": two cloth rectangles joined by straps at the shoulders and pinned to the underdress by brooches. This reconstruction seems to come in part from scholarship in the 1950s and 1960s, before some of the more recent finds. I have worn such garments and found them entirely impractical for even occasional use; how someone could go about her day, every day, wearing such a garment is beyond me. Among things, the panels flap around, provide no warmth, and get in the way of cook-fires, even when belted. Pinning the panels to the dress shortens the life of the dress due to the weight of the brooches; the weight also tends to pull one's clothing down in front, causing fabric to bunch up at the back of the neck. This is not a comfortable experience.

An interpretation that works better and is still consistent with the evidence from 30-40 years ago is the wrapped panels. Basically, rectangles of cloth are wrapped around the body and loops at the top are joined by brooches. This provides more warmth but tends to be bulky, and the panels move around enough in the course of moving about and working that I do not believe they are especially practical either.

Fortunately, neither of these appears (based on digs in the last 15 years) to be how they actually dressed, at least in Hedeby and to an extent Birka. Numerous digs from Birka have produced many examples of tailoring, and a find at Hedeby produced a valuable clue to this garment. These finds have set SCA scholars to work investigating various types of tube dresses, which are much more comfortable and practical than the rectangular aprons. Because this type of garment resembles a dress as much as an apron, Thora Sharptooth dubbed them "apron-dresses".

The Apron-Dress

A site at Hedeby contained rags that had apparently been used for caulking ships; these included an oddly-shaped piece that appeared to be part of the apron-dress layer of women's garb. The fragment is wool, straight on one side and straight part-way and then flared on the other, with stitch-holes on both sides and a hem at the top. There are signs of wear at the point where the flare begins, indicating the presence of a belt; the bottom of the piece is torn approximately 25cm below this point so the length is unknown. There is a felted hole at the top which is the probable location of a strap.

I have, over the years, experimented with reconstructions of the apron-dress that are consistent with this evidence. The first reconstruction, suggested by Thora Sharptooth c.1991, consisted of six pieces cut like the Hedeby piece, sewn straight to bias in a tube. This produces nice drape but, because straight is sewn to bias, the seams do not hang straight down but rather twist a little. (How significant this is depends on the angle of the diagonal cut, of course; this in turn is affected by the size of one's hips.)

The second reconstruction involved four pieces of this shape and two rectangular ones; I put the rectangular pieces in the front and back and the others on the sides. Because the rectangle was bounded on one side by a straight piece and on the other by a bias piece, though, this was no better.

I then tried the same collection of pieces but sewed bias to the rectangular pieces on both sides, which meant the straight edges got sewn together on the sides of the body. While this reduced the "twisting seams" problem in the front and back, it resulted in too little drape over the hips.

To complete the set (and because I knew very little about sewing theory at the time), I tried sewing the straight edges of the Hedeby-type pieces to the rectangles in front, leaving bias to be sewn to bias. The less said about the results, the better.

The Current Reconstruction

At about this point, the two people whod been teaching me how to sew (and letting me use their machines) provided a valuable insight: we only know that one piece of the apron-dress is cut like the Hedeby piece. We then realized that a pattern like that shown in Figure 1 would be entirely consistent with the evidence and would eliminate most of the problems that my previous reconstructions had produced. This pattern is also very cloth-conservative; it can be cut with essentially no waste if laid out as shown in Figure 2.

Figure 1 Figure 1

Figure 2 Figure 2

Gores were an addition I had not previously tried, though efforts to lay out the previous patterns efficiently resulted in enough waste cloth that they would have been feasible had I thought of them. We know that some dresses during this time had gores (see Hagg, Die Textilfunde aus dem Hafen von Haithabu, cited and quoted in Krupp & Priest-Dorman), so the construct was not unknown. While the bias-cut edge of the Hedeby piece might provide all the flare that was needed, I decided to try adding the gores to see what happened. The result is an apron-dress with nicer seam lines than I had previously achieved and nice flare. (Someone with smaller hips than mine could probably get away without the gores.)

We do not know, because the Hedeby piece is torn, how long the apron-dress was. I have found that apron-dresses that come to anywhere between the knee and mid-calf are comfortable and attractive.

The evidence from Hedeby suggests strap-holes; the felted hole was probably the hole through which a strap passed. The strap would then be sewn to itself. I usually make my straps by producing thin tubes of fabric; straps might also have been tablet-woven. On one occasion I made buttonholes on the top of the apron-dress, passed the straps through, and sewed each to itself to form a loop. (The brooch is then passed through the loops.) Most of the time I simply sew the straps to the top of the apron-dress; while this construction is weaker, it has thus far been strong enough.


I have made apron-dresses out of wool (which is consistent with the evidence) and linen (which works better in climates warmer than Scandinavia in the summer). Bright colors were often used for wool garments (see Priest & Krupp-Dorman). It is difficult to get linen to take a bright dye using tenth-century dyeing techniques. According to Krupp & Priest-Dorman, no examples of embroidered or metal-trimmed apron-dresses have been published. (Such decorations have been found on other garments.) Some apron-dresses were ornamented with woven or braided trim at the top.


I find the apron-dress to be a very comfortable and practical garment. There is still room for experimentation and research in this area, and I would be very interested in hearing from people who try this or other interpretations.


Inga Hagg, "Viking Women's Dress at Birka: A Reconstruction by Archeological Methods", in Cloth and Clothing in Medieval Europe, ed. N. B. Harte and K. G. Ponting, Heinemann Educational Books, the Pasold Research Fund Ltd, 1983.

Christina Krupp and Carolyn A. Priest-Dorman, Women's Garb in Northern Europe, 450-1000 C.E.: Frisians, Angles, Franks, Balts, Vikings, and Finns, Compleat Anachronist #59, January 1992.

Agnes Geijer, "The Textile Finds from Birka", in Cloth and Clothing in Medieval Europe.

Thora Sharptooth, "Archeological Perspectives on Viking Women's Garb", December 1990.

Thora Sharptooth, private communications.

Amaryllis Coleman and Ts'vee'a bas Tseepora Levi, private communcations.

About the Author

Ellisif Flakkari is a tenth-century Dane who collects jewelry, wool, and fine linen.
Monica Cellio enjoys music, cooking, illumination, and trying new things. Neither Ellisif nor Monica enjoys sewing, but both recognize it as a necessary evil if one is to be properly dressed.