The Embroidered Viking Tunic – Evening Wear For the Successful Warrior
This historically-inspired, men’s Viking tunic represents the kind of clothing an established warrior might wear when not raiding or defending his people. Details from illustrations, poetry, and archaeological finds have been carefully reproduced to offer a tunic that’s comfortable for a long day’s adventuring or an evening of mead and stories by the fire. The colour and trim set this garment apart. Its loose, three-quarter length sleeves, subtle, V-cut neckline, and low hem are adorned by colourful, embroidered trim. These features and their decoration were typical of the men’s Viking tunic, as are the slits to either side of the garment to allow for freedom of movement. This Viking tunic could certainly be worn under armor but to many Vikings, the exquisite cut and trim would make this a particularly fine item of clothing.
Clothing In The Viking Age
The Vikings were well-groomed, fashion-conscious people. They delighted in dyes and fabrics, practised skilful weaving, and made detailed, tablet-woven trim to detail the edges of their clothes when possible. A shirt such as this one would be suitable for a King, noble, or warrior of great renown. But clothing in the Viking Age had to fulfil another, more basic function. Although 8th Century Scandinavia was warmer than the present day, clothing still needed to be as insulating as possible. The hem of Viking tunics like this example, drop below the waistline to insulate core heat. In cooler weather, this tunic would be the first of several layers with a belt cinched around the waist to further trap heat (this tunic looks great paired with a period appropriate belt). The deep, plunging necklines without any means of lacing up, sometimes seen on cheap-looking, inferior Viking reproduction clothing would have been impractical in the kinds of weather conditions typical to Northern Europe, even in the summer months. Viking tunic makers employed several neckline variations that we can verify from historical sources, including examples of this subtle V type.
Colours, Patterns, And Materials
From the available evidence, we know that in addition to natural colours like this men’s Viking tunic, Scandinavians produced clothing of red, yellow, purple, and blue colours. Blue was probably reserved for the highest-status individuals due to its rarity and cost. Rather than the cotton used in this tunic for modern comfort, Scandinavian women used flax, hemp, nettle, and wool to produce cloth for sails, clothing, and domestic products like bags and straps. Flax requires huge amounts of raw material and many labour hours to produce a relatively small amount of cloth, so clothing, sails, bags, and straps were valued and made to last as long as possible. Some silks and cotton were imported from trade networks that extended beyond the borders of Europe and in the later Viking Age, kings and the wealthy may have dressed in these exotic textiles.
Many longhouses had an upright, warp-weighted loom, used to make household fabrics, sails, and Viking tunics like this example. Several women of the household and even thralls might be proficient at using this tool. In the absence of any large-scale industry and trade routes that were inaccessible at certain times of the year and potentially hostile at other times, the people of Scandinavia had to produce enough cloth from flax and wool for the entire population. Leather was used for shoes, mittens, hats, and application in armor and shield making.
Status In The Viking World
Archaeological finds support the idea the Vikings took great care of their appearance. Combs, straight-edge razors, tweezers, and other grooming tools were used by both men and women and their clothing was used to indicate wealth and status. Vikings had a fairly rigid class system. The jarl, or noble class and the karl class (workers, farmers, craftsmen, and warriors) could own weapons, property, and decorative clothing. The thrall class were slaves who did the dirtiest jobs and were taken in raids or bought and sold like property. Thralls could buy their way out of slavery if they saved enough money from side-industries that some practised in their free time. If a slave had weaving skills from the previous life from which they were stolen, their ability might give them a chance of earning freedom within their new environment. Some slaves may have taken up crafts like weaving, basket-making, or any number of other services that could have been useful to their community and earn them extra coin.
Status And Clothing
The highest-status people of Viking society could most effectively flaunt their wealth through clothing. Imported cotton and silks were rare but available to those with significant resources. Clothing for the average person, however, was made with local materials like flax and wool, with these materials accounting for the majority of archaeological textile finds. Regardless of status, most men wore a similarly cut shirt/tunic, similar to this one in design, and its colour, material, and adornment were indicative of the wearer’s class. Blue was the most expensive dye to produce and thus the most expensive fabrics were blue. Reds and yellow dyes were easier to produce because the pigments were plentiful locally. The natural fibre colour of this tunic is more representative of what most people would have worn in day-to-day life. Trim around the collar, cuffs and hem were also an important way to show status. Creating the kind of tablet-woven trims seen on this men’s Viking tunic required extra materials and was time-consuming. Having the time and resources to dedicate to this decoration put you in a higher status than anyone who wore plain, unadorned clothing.
Colours And Trim
Clothing during this time was already a valuable commodity, worn for as long as possible. This was because most fabrics were made from flax and wool, which both require immense processing to create usable yarn. But colours and ornate trim of the kind seen in this tunic would be especially prized and worn to show rank by powerful chiefs and their families. This garment is suitable for high-ranking warriors and nobility. This jarl class may have worn brighter, more ornate garments at certain times, but this Viking tunic seems a better reflection of what a noble or warrior might wear on a typical day.
Layers And Layers
In winter, this undershirt would be covered by layers of cloaks and jackets made from wool, sheepskin, and fur. Viking hats were lined with wool or fur for warmth and sometimes covered with treated leather for water resistance. Mittens and boots have also been discovered from Viking sites. The boots were of simple but elegant construction, using the turn shoe technique, where all the seams are kept on the inside of the shoe, making them less susceptible to wear and water.
Materials From Afar
We know Scandinavian people used local material such as flax, hemp, nettle, and wool to produce cloth for sails, clothing, and domestic use. But just how far their trade network extended may never be fully understood. Silks and cotton were imported from trade networks that extended as far as North Africa. And with reliable evidence that Vikings reached North America, it’s hard to guess just how far their trade network may have reached. If they were trading with merchants from the near east, whose own networks reached deeper into Asia, the Viking people may have had (admittedly limited) access to a huge range of international materials.
To some extent, our views on Vikings are still influenced by the terrified monks who first saw these painted warriors descend upon their monasteries from the sea. The monk’s terror and revulsion are perfectly understandable but there’s undoubtedly more to Viking culture than these battle-hardened raiders, concerned only with loot and glory. No society can function without a backbone of agricultural and social organisation. The reality, of course, is that very few Vikings were “Vikings” in the sense that they went on a vikingr – or adventure. Most were simply farmers, craftsmen, traders, hunters, weavers, brewers, and the host of other professions required for a culture to endure. Curiously, there does seem to be a conspicuous absence of any holy man/woman type figures in Viking society. People were free to pursue their own relationship with spirituality and the gods.
One Significant Difference
“Fear not death for the hour of your doom is set and none may escape it” Volunga Saga
The Viking attitude towards death is one of the cultures more idiosyncratic and (perhaps) influential factors informing our view of Vikings as fearless warriors. They believed that the time of their time was preordained and that one’s position in Valhalla was determined by conduct in the face of death. If fervently believed, this value system would instil warriors with a kind of fearlessness that those from a Christian background couldn’t hope to emulate. A Christian warrior might have carried his fear of death onto the battlefield with him. What if there were no priest to read him his last rites? What if his comrades were unable to give him a proper burial or his heathen enemies defile his body? A Viking warrior wouldn’t carry these kinds of concerns with him, certain that events were preordained and steadfast in his desire to meet death with courage
The accounts of many Christian historians continued to look for reasons explaining Norse expansion and the subsequent success of the Normans that went beyond resource scarcity and opportunity. Dudo of St. Quentin, a historian born in the 10th Century, spent several years at the court of the Duke of Normandy, grandson of the famous Viking warrior, Rollo, who became the first Viking Ruler of Normandy in 918 A.D. He believed that overpopulation, limited resources and a tradition of casting out a certain number of sons to ease the burden were responsible for the Viking propensity to expansion and conflict.
The Modern Take
There are current efforts within academia to reframe Viking culture and society without depending too much on the historical, monastic accounts, which (naturally) didn’t view Vikings in a positive light. Yes, the Vikings were fearsome warriors, but this could have been heavily influenced by their unique creation myth and worldview, in which existence was born of fire, will end in ice, and all that matters is how you face death.
Roots Of The Word
The majority of fighting men were from the Karl class who, in theory, could choose a trade, learn a skill from their father, or go on a foreign trip with other vikingar and become a vikingr. The use of these words, the former being a plural noun referring to a group of overseas adventurers, the latter a singular noun referring to one such adventurer didn’t take on the negative, piratical nature until several hundred years later when the Icelandic Sagas were written in the 14th and 15th Centuries. These sagas leave an indelible imprint upon our understanding of the Viking Age. And while they were written by descendants of the people of that age, the Icelandic sagas are not a contemporary source, often changing details, roles, narratives to fit the new philosophical framework that came along with their conversion to Christianity.
Viking In Historical Context
By this definition of the term then, only an adventurer who went on great journeys was a true “Viking”. These men went armed and armored into the outside world. Sometimes old trade routes with established, friendly relations were open to them, sometimes they had to sail into the unknown, ready for a hostile reception. Of course, sometimes they also went to raid and pillage the poorly defended monasteries of the east coast of Britain too. Again, it’s the English account of raiding Vikings that fixed itself most firmly in history, but evidence of seafaring, Germanic raiders in the Black Sea and Frisia can be reliably traced to the 5th Century.
Gods Of War
The unique mythology at the root of Viking spiritual life seems uniquely suited to expansionism, conflict, and conquest. Midgard was created due to the fight between ice and fire, the end of all things mean a great serpent rising out of the sea to destroy the land and a wolf eating the all-father. All change and creation itself were the results of conflict. We can interpret this differently when applied to modern life. Conflict is certainly still a generative force in our lives but we tend to think of metaphorically – the struggles of improving our career opportunities, maintaining physical fitness, taking care of family responsibilities etc. In the cold, resource-scarce environment of 9th century Scandinavia, the idea of conflict as a generative force in life probably took on a more literal tone. Struggle mightily with the wind and sea to go on trade runs, raids, and expansion quests, and you just might end up rich. Either way, the hour of your death had already been determined.
Ready For War
The Viking Sword, as it’s usually portrayed, was probably originally a Carolingian design, brought back from a raid or trading voyage. These weapons were inspired by the Roman spatha and would go on to be a primary influence on the knightly sword of the Medieval Period. But like in much of the rest of the world, spears were a cheaper, easier to manufacture weapon that made for an excellent primary arm when paired with a round Viking shield. Axes certainly were used, with the Dane Axe amongst the period’s most iconic weapons. The double-headed axe sometimes seen in Viking-related artwork is, however, thought to be primarily a work of fiction. Many Viking axes were weighted such that they could be thrown with some accuracy. This art was often practised for sport and may have come in useful for hunting and warfare.
“Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” Arthur C Clarke
It’s rare to get a glimpse into the area between science and magic that must have existed at times for historical groups of people. Vikings, for example, believed they could magically imbue their iron weapons with the bones of their ancestors and hunting trophies. And, in a way that can now be scientifically explained, they were right. The carbon content of the ground bone they hammered into the iron made a form of rudimentary steel that performed better than the standard bog-iron Viking smiths had been using. This intersection between science and magic must have seemed like proof positive of the supernatural in the 9th Century. It’s hard for us to imagine the historical context given our broad education (relative to the average Scandinavian from a thousand years ago) and understanding of metallurgy and material science. But the Viking smith who first made this discovery must have felt as though he’d been struck with the favour of the divine.
The Mighty Shield Wall
The shape of the Viking shield as it’s commonly referred to is familiar to historians under a variety of names. Its most iconic use before the rise of the Vikings was as the hoplon, the shield of the Greek Hoplites infantry units. The Viking version, however, was a centre-grip shield, using a metal boss to create space for the hand and handle. These round shields had limited effectiveness on horseback but when overlapped to form a shield wall in the way that Vikings often fought, made an excellent defensive line. The Skuldelev longship from Roskilde gave us valuable insights into how Vikings attached their shields to their craft. The Roskilde find indicates the use of a rack into which shields can be slotted to defend against incoming arrows and spears. Test sailings with a reconstructed shield rack showed that with shields in place, the craft’s manoeuvrability was seriously compromised, suggesting this was only done when facing imminent danger.
Material: The Viking Tunic is 100% Cotton
- S: Chest – 48 Inches, Waist – 53 Inches, Shoulder to Shoulder – 21.5 Inches,
- M: Chest – 53 Inches, Waist – 55 Inches, Shoulder to Shoulder – 23 Inches,
- L: Chest – 58 Inches, Waist – 62 Inches, Shoulder to Shoulder – 24 Inches,
- X-L: Chest – 59 Inches, Waist – 64 Inches, Shoulder to Shoulder – 25 Inches,