Iron Age Processing and its Effects on Yarn Production

As I said in my last post I was spinning for a rather large project. Here is the paper to go with the yarn for that project as it was presented this past weekend. This is not the full project and I will post that paper once the project is completed. 


The purpose of this paper is to discuss my attempts at recreating an authentic Iron Age wool thread, as well as explain the differences in yarns produced on an Iron Age spindle vs a modern spinning wheel. All wool in this experiment was processed in the same manner and from the same fleece. The only altered variable was the tool used to spin the fleece into yarn. I will begin by explaining my choice of fleece, the steps used to process it, with archeological documentation for why I made the choices I did, and finish by comparing spindle spun to wheel spun yarn.

I am attempting to recreate an Iron Age yarn, like those that have been unearthed in Greenland and Birka. In order to get as close as possible to extant yarns I chose to work with a primitive sheep breed whose ancestors would have been available in Denmark and Greenland. Namely the double coated Icelandic sheep. It is, unfortunately, impossible to get a fleece identical to what would have been available in period. All sheep have undergone centuries of selective breeding to produce more favorable fleeces or meat, but primitive breeds are the closest we currently have access to.

I selected Icelandic specifically because of its dual coat. Greenland and Icelandic textiles, specifically those referenced in Woven into the Earth, show several extant cloths woven with the coarse outer coat used to spin the hard and smooth warp threads, with the shorter and softer undercoat used as weft. This serves several purposes. The most pressing being a cloth that is strong while still being warm and able to be fulled, or lightly felted. Using the top coat as warp reduces the chance of breakage, and the long staple length compared to the undercoat means a smoother, harder, yarn can be produced without additional effort.

I also needed a fleece that was cut from the sheep, rather than rooed or shed. There is a notable difference in the quality of wool depending on how it was taken from the sheep.  Primitive sheep actually shed their fleece, alternatively it can be cut or rooed (pulled) from them at the end of the season. Modern sheep have lost this ability, making them more dependent on humans, but also producing longer staple fiber. Initially I was intending to find a fleece that had been rooed. However examining wool from Birka shows no root ends in the yarn, meaning the fleece had to be cut from the animal, not shed – therefore I went with a fleece that was sheared from the sheep.

These yarns are, on average, woven into fabrics that are between 14-22 ends per inch, or 30-50 wraps per inch for the warp threads for wool twills. Highly prized Vidmal cloth produced in Greenland has a higher weft density than warp density, and therefore has a weft one third to one half again as dense as the warp. For this project I have chosen to aim for the coarser end of Iron Age yarn, with a warp of 30 wraps per inch, and a weft of 45 wraps per inch.

For the actual fleece processing I purchased a raw (unwashed, uncombed) full Icelandic fleece from a breeder who does not coat their sheep. In the period I am attempting to recreate we have no documentation for sheep coating, therefore I wanted to avoid it. This meant the fleece I began work with was covered in dirt, vegetable matter, and dung.

To clean the fleece I opted to rinse it in the stream behind my house. We have later period references, mostly in art, of sheep being run through streams to remove the worst of the dirt prior to shearing. This practice continued in Australia and more remote parts of Northern Europe until the mid to late 1800s. Therefore it is reasonable to mimic this practice. To that end I placed chunks of dirty fleece in a strainer and dragged in through the running water. This allowed the water to flow through the fleece, and the dirt to be carried downstream. I then allowed the fleece to dry in the sun.

The benefit to this vs modern scouring methods is that quite a bit of lanolin was left in the fleece. This made the wool more sticky and difficult to spin, but also made it stronger and therefore will make the resulting yarn easier to weave and more water repellent.

After washing the fleece was dragged through wool combs to divide the top coat from the undercoat in order to produce the top coat warp threads, and undercoat weft threads. The top coat was then combed again in ensure all the fibers were lying in the same direction. This was to produce a worsted spun yarn. Worsted yarns are smoother, harder, and less warm than woolen spun yarns. The smooth and hard nature makes them perfect for warp threads, and indeed is the method of spinning most often seen in Iron Age textiles.

Here we begin the deviation in tools and processing. Up until this point the entire fleece received the same treatment in order to minimize variables and ensure the difference in finished yarn, if any, was due to which tool was used to spin it.

I was only able to achieve a worsted spun top coat yarn using the Iron Age spindle. My wheel could not achieve the amount of twist required with enough take up to wrap it around the bobbin. Therefore attempts at recreating an Iron Age warp yarn on a modern spinning wheel was a failure for me. My yarn kept either being too thick to be a proper replica, or pulled apart due to insufficient twist.

The spindle however allowed me more control over the twist, which meant I could achieve the thinner yarn without it falling apart. I was able to mildly over spin the long top coat fiber, so that when plyed the result was a strong, balanced, yarn that was consistent in thickness with extant finds.

I was able to produce a yarn with the undercoat on my spinning wheel. However the yarn produced was not even, nor was it fine enough to be considered a replica of the yarns found in Birka or Greenland. Adjusting the take up and spin speed did not correct the issue as the wheel needed to take the thread up faster than the correct amount of twist could be applied. The result is a very fluffy yarn that would be excellent for naalbinding or modern applications such as knitting, but would not produce the textiles found in Iron Age graves.

As with the warp yarn the issue of spin vs take up was solved when a spindle was used rather than a wheel. The spindle was able to produce singles consistent with those found woven into textiles in grave finds with far less effort than was applied attempting to recreate them on the wheel.

It is possible to create a thin enough single to fall within the acceptable size range using wool on this spinning wheel and get a consistent thread. Therefore it is not user error or being unfamiliar with wheel spinning that is causing the difference in yarn produced. However, that was achieved with commercially prepared top using modern fiber processing methods suited for hand spinning on a wheel.

Using fiber processing suitable to the Iron Age produces a fleece that is difficult to spin using a modern spinning wheel, but causes no such difficulties on a spindle. There is a marked difference in the yarns produced, even when controlling for all other variables. It is my conclusion, that in order to produce a textile that is on par with those from extant finds the yarn should be spun using a drop spindle.



Barber, E.W Prehistoric Textiles.  Princeton University Press. 1991.


Chisholm, Alec H. The Australian Encyclopaedia. 8. Sydney: Halstead Press. 1963. p. 86. Shearing.


Fournier, Jane and Nola. In Sheep’s Clothing: A Handspinner’s Guide to Wool. Interweave Press 1995.


Ostergaard, Else Woven into the Earth: Textile finds in Norse Greenland. Oxbow Books 2004.


Nosch, Marie-Louise, Feng, Zhao, and Varadarajan Lotika. Global Textile Encounters. Oxbow Books 2014


Strand, Eva A. Tools and Textiles – Production and Organisation in Birka and Hedeby. Viking Settlements and Viking Society Papers from the Proceedings of the Sixteenth Viking Congress. 2009.


Vedeler, Marianne. Silk for the Vikings. Oxbow Books. 2014.


Walton, Penelope Textiles, Cordage, and Raw Fibre from 16-22 Coppergate



Spinning Yarn

This is not a how to. This is a comparison post.

I’ve spend the last month or so spinning for a rather massive project. Also writing the paper to go with it. I’ve been busy, just not updating the blog to keep you lovely folks in the loop. The finished project is for a competition so I’m not posting all the details on that here (yet), but here is one of the pieces of it.

For most of us handspun yarn is handspun yarn and needs no further documentation. “I spun this” is impressive enough. AND IT SHOULD BE. I’m just the batshit Lady of the Tangleweb region of the Land of Extra and have no idea how to tell the scope creep imp to buzz off. Therefore I decided to see if I could recreate the most identical to extant yarn possible, using only tools available to an iron age textile artist.

Originally I was just going to spin with my extant spindle whorl that was dug out of the ground in the Ukraine and dated to roughly 850-900CE. That’s within 50 years of when I say my persona is, and from a region we know Saxon England had contact with at that time by virtue of both being the hot spots to go a Viking. So it’s reasonable to assume my little spindle whorl is comparable to those Aethelflied would have had access to. If not, it’s still an extant whorl, not a reproduction.

Then I thought, if I’m using the extant whorl I need to use an appropriate breed of sheep. And if I’m doing that then I should make sure I get it raw so I can process it correctly. So I bought an Icelandic fleece, rinsed it in a stream, picked the VM out, and proceeded to separate the top from under coats using wool combs.

NOW  I can start spinning.

First I combed the top coat so I could spin them in a worsted style. Namely all the fibers going the same direction. This is consistent with records of later period English woolens and textiles from finds in Greenland and Birka to the same era I’m attempting to recreate. On the spindle spinning like this produced a very fine, very smooth, very hard, yarn that I think will stand up just fine to being warp threads.


On the wheel… well not so much. I couldn’t generate enough twist on the wheel to hold the top coat yarn together. Trying to set the take up as low as possible, to generate enough twist, just ended up with the yarn plying back on itself and twisting too much fiber into the yarn. Trying to set the take up faster just meant the yarn didn’t get enough twist and just kept pulling apart. Could just be my own inability to properly spin with a wheel, but there are also English records about the time of the spinning wheel’s invention stating it could only be used for weft yarns, as the warp yarns were not strong enough.

The weft yarn was produced out of the fluffy undercoat that was carded and spun woolen style (all the fibers laying all willy nilly). This makes a softer, fluffier, and warmer yarn that worsted style spinning. The mixed spin style and fiber prep is referenced in a couple of different finds, namely Greenland, Birka, and Osberg. There are also references to finished fabrics being teased, or fulled, to raise a nap. That’s basically felting. Worsted yarns are much Much harder to felt than woolen spun. So for fulling to be a common practice the weft, in the very least, should be spun woolen style.

My first attempt resulted in yarn that was too thick. Not because of any tool issues, just because my hands are dumb some times. I should have gotten a yarn roughly 14-16 wraps per inch, and ended up with a yarn closer to 8 after I’d plyed it. Stubbornly I dyed it and tried to convince myself it was fine since the point of the project was to use the tools, and it was getting fulled anyway, so no one would know.

I would know.

I’m respinning my weft and getting much closer to what I wanted.

For the sake of comparison I also spun some of the undercoat on the wheel, using the same prep as I did for spindle spinning. It is a lumpy bumpy mess when I try to spin as fine as I need. I ran into the same take up vs twist issues as I did with the longer top coat. Only the undercoat is so fine and short that setting a higher take up just ripped the fiber out of my hands faster than I could add more fluff. It was easier than working with the top coat, but I did need to create a much thicker yarn to make it work.

My conclusions here are that, at least for me, I can not substitute wheel spun yarn for spindle spun if I am aiming for historical cloth. The difference, in my own handspinning, is painfully apparent.

Coats for Saxon Women

Are pure conjecture. As are coats for Danish, Norwegian, Finnish, and other Viking cultures. There I said it. We’ve got evidence for coats! We do. We have carvings on the helmet at Sutton Hoo showing warriors wearing what look like (to my entirely professional and serious eyes) fighting bathrobes. Observe:

Bathrobe of death

Note how they are crossed in the front and belted as opposed to clasped closed. We also don’t see this kind of garment on civilians or figures that are clearly female. I say clearly female because women fought too damnit, so they *might* have worn something like this, but not in a peaceful context. If you’re fighting and feel like making a killin’ robe you go right ahead, and feel free to stab anyone who complains that you’re in men’s wear. I mean, you’re already dressed for stabbin’ it’d be a shame for that to go to waste.

And so ends our solid documentation for jackets at all in this era. Everything else is conjecture. Not entirely baseless conjecture! We have things like brooches at throats, or mid chest. The issue is those could also hold closed shawls, wraps, or cloaks. The point is we’ve got nothing to support the very popular style of coat that’s cut close to the body, comes to about mid-calf, and is pinned closed mid chest but otherwise hangs open. For an image use your search engine of choice and look up ‘Anglo Saxon Women’s coat’ and you’ll get examples. Because we lack period images everything that comes up are private photos, and I’m not cool with putting some random person on my blog for the sake of saying their clothes are unsupported. That’s just rude as hell.

All that being said? Early period textiles are conjecture. From weaves, to colors, cuts, styles, materials, we’re making educated guesses. Our body of extant items is small enough that we *have* to guess. I can’t really support apron panels as a separate garment for Viking apron dresses, but they make sense and are pretty and plausible. We’ve got no clue how long under dresses were for Saxon women, or what color. We’ve got a couple images of the Virgin Mary looking like she’s wearing two different dresses, one shorter than the other. So we run with it. Necklines for women? Who knows! Veils, shawls, and the like cover them in every image we’ve got.

Coats for women make more sense to me than shawls and cloaks. Women worked and worked hard. It makes very little sense to navigate fire, looms, spindles, and the other day to day bits of womens’ lives while trying to keep a shawl or cloak wrapped around you to stay warm. I’ve done it. Trying to spin in a bulky cloak becomes a balancing act with sudden, jarring, bursts of cold air. Weaving on a warp weighted loom knocks the shawl off when you beat the weft up. Tending a fire with that much loose fabric, while entirely possible, is a pain. Those who came before us were not stupid. Coats with sleeves were, and are, an elegant solution to these issues.

Now, what about style? What arguments can we make here? Honestly the close fitting coat doesn’t really hold up. The style of it does! Just not the body skimming nature. You want a baggier coat for trapping more air between the layers to stay warm, and to easily cover whatever you’re wearing under it. Otherwise, what’s the point of a coat at all? A clasped in front cloak does make more sense for a woman than the crossed over warrior coat when you factor in baring children. A coat with a single clasp over the chest wouldn’t change how it fits or hangs over a pregnant belly like the crossed warrior coat above. If it’s baggy as opposed to body skimming (as I am arguing it should be) it could still cover the belly without needing to be remade or worn with additional bits and pieces. Breast feeding would be easier in the crossed over coat, it’s true. But it would still be easier in a baggy clasped coat over redrapping a shawl or cloak. A baggy coat just needs one clasp undone, baby tucked in, and the edges pulled back over mom and child.

In order to test my theory on ease of wear for a baggy clasped coat, I made one yesterday. It is quick and dirty (and ugly as sin to modern taste) but this sucker is *warm*, even being made out of a very light weight wool. It’s warmer than my modern winter coat. Which makes me mad because, again, this thing is ugly. But! It is a period herringbone twill, in all natural wool colors (plus blue and white twill edging, but the blue is a color we can produce with available dyes in period) and a plaid-ish pattern. With a thread count we’ve found in extant scraps. So it may be ugly as sin, but it’s documentably ugly.

I’m going to wear this thing next weekend to Falling Leaves and get joy out of the looks of horror.


Leg Wraps

A couple of years ago, in the beginning of this blog, I talked about making leg wraps for my husband. I mentioned that I didn’t care for the ace bandage style, mostly because I hate hemming and making those would involve approximately 86,000 years of hemming.

Now I have a floor loom. And the ability to weave complex braided twills. So now I weave leg wraps in a more traditional style. Well “traditional” anyway.

I have found no documentation for this particular pattern of twill, or even braided twills in general. Diamond, broken diamond, 3×2, 2×2 (less common)? Yes. Those patterns we have evidence for. This? Not so much.

The colors are also not period at all. But the person for whom they are intended picked the colors out himself and I’m not about to tell a guy who likes colors no.

I had to learn how to weave wool for this. I’ve only really worked in silk, and wool behaves Very Different. Initially I was getting almost a tapestry weave where the weft completely covered the warp because I was beating too hard and had it under too high of tension.

So here is my current project. 4 harness braided twill, roughly 10 epi warped, will wash out to about 12-14 epi. 9 yards finished length, or 4.5 yards per leg. About 13 picks per inch.

Day 7: Lamb and honey mustard sauce with barley pilaf

I am never making a rice pilaf again. Barley is where it’s at. Holy mother of tacos.

So barley pilaf is amazing. It’s the perfect mix of savory and sweet thanks to beef broth, salt, and cinnamon. A generous helping of butter makes this rich and creamy and stick to your ribs filling. This my darlings. This will be my winter comfort food.

Originally the book called for sauteed radishes in here as well. I… didn’t have anymore because I got excited and used them all earlier in the week. But I can picture the crunch and bite they’d give this and it is divine.

Lamb? Lamb was pan seared in butter, kosher salt, and garlic and friend of mine grew. I then topped it off with a honey mustard sauce (honey, yellow mustard, white wine vinegar, cinnamon. I used horseradish prepared yellow mustard because I wanted bite). Om nom nom.

Most sauced lamb I’ve eaten has had a very classic mint sauce, or a sweeter BBQ sauce. That tends to mask the musky taste lamb can get. This? This drags it out, plays with it, makes it a counterpoint to the mustard bite and really is a perfect pairing for the rich and creamy barley.

I am so glad I chose to end my week of eating like a Saxon with this meal. This? This was an utterly perfect way to go out with a bang.

Day 6: Aethelflied attempts chicken

Ok, here we go. This is my first attempt a saxon style meal without using my cookbooks. We’re going to make pan fried chicken thighs with spinach and cabbage.

I’m using:
Apple cider vinegar
Chicken Broth

I’m doing this all in one pan. Brown the chicken first, then drizzle in honey, add a couple teaspoons of vinegar, cover with the chicken broth, add the herbs (no spinach yet), reduce heat and simmer until the chicken is cooked through. Remove the chicken and let it rest. Toss your spinach into the same pan with all the tasty stuff and wilt it. Remove the spinach and add a touch of flour to thicken the sauce if you want. Drizzle the sauce on the chicken.

This…kinda worked? The mint is weird and I’m not sure it works in the spinach. Combined with the vinegar it leaves an after taste like faint mold smells. It’s just faint enough to leave that impression. If it were stronger it wouldn’t play nice with the other herbs though. So I’m not sure I’d put that in again.

The chicken is super tender. And the mint plays nice with the other herbs on the meat. I don’t like turning the sauce into a full on gravy. You can add flour and do it like I did if you want to, or you can leave the sauce thin like I should have.

I don’t hate it, it has a decently complex flavor, not sure I’m making it again.

Day 5: Sausage casserole

Not going to lie, this is the one I was most hesitant about. It’s basically bread pudding, with sausage, onion, and white wine vinegar. I love bread pudding. I love bread pudding so much I refuse to make it lest I mess it up and be faced with disappointing sorrow. So a savory bread pudding got some hella side eye.

Honestly? It kinda deserves it. There is so much going on here and I’m not positive it all works.

The spices (cardamom, cinnamon, salt) get over powered by the white wine vinegar. I can’t really make the sweetness out around the sour. The bread soaks up both milk and vinegar in a way that, while it’s not bad, I wouldn’t describe as good either.

The apples stay crisp through the baking, and play nice with the onions and sausage. But that’s a winning flavor combination in modern times as well, so I’m not so shocked about that.

I think if I were to do this again I’d halve the vinegar and use apple cider instead of white wine. This is a dish with potential, and may work really well in the late fall when it’s not 1,000,000 degrees outside. And it is a complete dish on it’s own, no sides needed. As is right and proper from something calling itself a casserole.