Since the materials from which clothes are made decay easily in the soil, the archaeological record has unfortunately been unable to provide us with even a single example of a complete Viking garment. Thankfully, however, enough fragments survive that, when considered alongside the more abundant literary evidence, we can get some clues about what the Vikings wore. Jewelry, of course, tends to be preserved much better over time, so we have an even more robust and detailed picture of what kinds of jewelry the Vikings wore.
The two primary materials from which clothing was made were wool and flax, with other animal fibers and plants such as hemp playing a more minor role. Wool was an ideal fabric for the Scandinavian climate because of its durability and its warmth even when wet. The sheep were mostly white by the Viking Age, so white was the color of most wool.
The Norse typically wore layered clothing, which was another fitting adaptation to their climate. Linen (the fabric that comes from flax) was surely the preferred fabric for undergarments due to how much more comfortable it is against the skin than wool. Silk was an expensive, imported luxury that only the wealthy could afford. Fur was often used for cloaks and trimmings.
The Vikings dyed their clothes with the hope of making them more colorful, but the dyes they used were of poor quality, and began to fade quickly after the garment had been colored.
Boots and shoes were made of goatskin or calfskin, and were tied around the ankle. Women and men wore hats and gloves made of wool or leather when the weather demanded it. Both sexes used a silk or linen band to hold their hair back when they wanted to do so.
Typical men’s clothing consisted of a shirt, trousers or breeches, and a tunic over the shirt. Shirts could fit tightly or loosely. The trousers varied in length, and when men wore short trousers, they usually wore woolen hose to cover up the rest of their legs. (That may sound effeminate to us today, but back then it was considered perfectly masculine.) The belts that held up these trousers had buckles made of bronze or silver. Knives and small pouches for carrying miscellaneous things were often attached to the belt.
In cold weather, men draped heavy cloaks over their shirts for extra warmth. These cloaks were fastened on the right shoulder with ties or an exceptionally heavy brooch, leaving the right hand free to handle weapons or tools.
Norse women usually wore a long chemise made of linen or wool, with a woolen dress over it. The dress fit snugly, extended from the shoulders to halfway down the calf, and was often long enough to trail behind the woman as she walked. It was held up by two straps that were fastened at the front by means of two brooches, typically large, oval-shaped ones made of bronze. A third brooch fastened the dress at the chest. When outside, women also wore hose and a cloak or shawl to protect them from the elements. Like men, women often had a knife and purse on their belt. Small tools they used in their work were sometimes hung from straps from their brooches.
Naturally, the wealthier a person was, the fancier all of this would have been, and the poorer he or she was, the simpler it would have been. Some wealthy people wore silk, furs, and clothing with lavish embroideries and even strands of gold and silver in it.
How the Vikings Made Their Clothing
As in most other traditional, pre-industrial societies, the creation of clothing involved lots of hard work and skill, and the task fell to women as part of their domestic responsibilities.
The first step in making woolen clothes was shearing sheep. This was typically done by the traditional method of tearing the wool from the sheep by hand (believe it or not, this is actually a painless process for the sheep – you can see a video of it being done here). The practice of using scissors wasn’t widespread. Then the wool was cleaned, sorted, and combed, until it took the form of the long fibers that make yarn what it is. It was next placed on a distaff – a wooden staff held in the left hand – and spun with a spindle until it became a spool of yarn. Then, at last, it was woven into garments, usually on a vertical loom with weights that kept the fabric straight as it was worked. When the garment had been woven, it was dyed in colors that available plants could provide. All of this was done by hand. The process was somewhat different for other types of fiber, but similarly demanded what to us seems like a colossal amount of time and energy just to make, say, a shirt or trousers.
It’s no wonder that households that could afford it bought commercially-produced fabric to save them the great trouble of having to make it themselves.