14 June 2015

Viking Age Pick-Up Double Weaves from Sweden and Norway

© Carolyn Priest-Dorman 2005

 The pick-up double weave technique flourished in medieval Scandinavia. Some of the earliest examples are narrow bands, while later examples are generally large coverlet-sized textiles. From a love of the patterns on them I was drawn inexorably into  a consideration of their structure and production methods. This particular research project centered around three questions. Did pick-up double weave date back as far as the Viking Age? If so, which of the modern versions of pick-up double weave was most likely to be the one used in the originals? And which type(s) of loom might have been used?

Early double weave textiles strongly resemble early Scandinavian tablet-woven textiles in their geometric patterning. For years they had intrigued me. I saw no reason why they shouldn’t date to the Viking Age, but most early assessments of their age identified them as somewhat later. Happily, more recent radiocarbon dating has assigned new and, to me, completely believable dates to these textiles. Not only are these textiles Viking Age, but at least one–the Marby fragment–is from the Early Viking Age (see Nockert & Possnert, 112-114, for the English summary of the dating). That part of the research project, at least, was easy!

This article focuses on a group of five double weave textiles executed in the same weave structure. Four of them are securely datable to the Viking Age, and the fifth seems to belong in the same category even though it hasn’t been securely dated. Each has a double warp system, half wool and half linen, and is woven with a double weft system as well. Each warp system interlaces with a weft system of the same fiber type in tabby structure, giving two separate layers; the two layers  interpenetrate, or exchange places, to build up the patterns. One side is colorful wool with white linen patterns, while the other side is white linen with colorful wool patterns.

Historic Examples

At least four securely dated Viking Age double weave textiles survive: the Revsund border, Överhogdal IV, the Marby fragment, and the Kyrkås hanging. Two examples (the Revsund border and the Marby fragment) are narrow bands in the 6-7" range. Överhogdal IV is a frieze about a foot wide, part of the Överhogdal group of textiles, a wall hanging stitched together of five narrower friezes woven in various techniques at different times, which was preserved at a Swedish church. The fourth is the Kyrkås coverlet, surviving in four fragments of which the largest is rectangular and roughly one meter square (Franzén & Nockert, 108).

Although I couldn’t locate any secure date for the Rennebu fragment, I consider it likely to be a Viking Age textile as well; it is very similar in size to the Revsund and Marby pieces, and in technique to the entire set of four pieces. However, it does differ in one important respect from the Revsund and Marby pieces: in addition to geometric  pattening, the Rennebu fragment has human figures worked in the weftwise direction, i.e., it was meant to be displayed horizontally like a frieze. Narrow horizontal orientation such as this is paralleled in early pictorial textile work by the ninth-century Oseberg tapestry and the eleventh-century Bayeux embroidery. The figures on the Revsund border, on the other hand, were meant to be displayed vertically. The Marby piece is inconclusive since it is entirely geometric in patterning and can be viewed without prejudice from either orientation.

These five textiles share several technical features. Most early woven textiles from Scandinavia involved fine singles threads; in contrast, however, most of both the linen and wool thread used in these pieces was two-ply and more coarse. All save the Marby fragment feature a striped wool warp, a design feature quite remarkably uncommon among indigenous Viking Age textiles. In four cases, including the Marby fragment, the wool weft is entered in stripes. Three of the five are striped in both systems. The Kyrkås coverlet is especially remarkable in this regard, with three colors of wool used in each system, yielding the startling effect of white linen patterning on wool plaid! All display quadrate geometric patterning, often involving interlaced elements, and some also have pictorial elements.

Structural Issues

Engelstad discusses the apparent historical relationship between loom type and double weave structure (see page 133 for an English summary). While she does differentiate between the warp-weighted and the two-beam upright loom, it seems clear that the pick-up double weaves under consideration here were more likely to have been woven on the warp-weighted loom. However, she doesn’t go into the mechanics at all. A warp-weighted loom would easily permit the wool and linen systems of the warp to hang each at its own tension. A two-beam loom, by forcing all the warp to be wound onto the same warp beam, would have permitted the wool warp to stretch out of all proportion to the linen. These cloths, particularly the narrow ones, could easily be woven on either a standard warp-weighted loom or an upright loom with a weighted warp, i.e., a warp-weighted loom that stands vertically rather than leaning.

Structurally, it is readily possible to distinguish between two major types of pick-up double weaves, the reversable and the non-reversable. Textiles in reversable weave have the same appearance (with opposite coloration) on both faces of the cloth, and the patterns tend to be blocky in appearance. Textiles in non-reversable weave are one-sided, with the back side often not at all resembling the front side; however, the technique  permits more curvilinear patterning than in reversable. Some modern names for non-
reversable double weave are bohusväv, finsketäcke, finnväv, täkänä, and Finnweave. However, Finnweave is also used in some contexts as a name for reversable double weave, which can confuse and mislead. The specific quality of reversability is more important than the name an instructor might use for the weave structure.

The Viking Age double weaves are all of the reversable type. Back before I knew they dated to the Viking Age, and mostly out of structural curiosity, I blew up the best photos I found in books (Branting & Lindblom was great for this!) and tried to identify the weave structure from views of the front face only. Subsequently as I read Franzén & Nockert, Nockert & Possnert, and then reread Engelstad, I discovered I had correctly identified the structure, although I hadn’t figured out anything new and I still hadn’t figured out exactly how to weave one.

After the Viking Age but still during the Middle Ages, the technique of non-reversable double weave became popular in Scandinavia; it was executed on treadle looms.  However, weavers there did not entirely abandon the technique of reversable double weave. In Gudbrandsdal, a district of Norway, people were working it on the warp-weighted loom “until well into the ninteteenth century” (Engelstad, 133). Unfortunately, no records of the specific methods they used appear to have survived. The Technical Bibliography, below, offers some suggestions for information on reversable double weave. Becker & Wagner from the Historical Bibliography is also useful for technical information; it is an English version of the Norwegian-language explanation by Signe Haugstoga first printed in Engelstad, with the same set of drawings.

The Överhogdal IV textile proves that warping over a cord is an (although likely not the only) appropriate method for this technique. The cord-loop method for warping is recorded in “Åklevev pa Oppstodgogn,” a documentary film shot by Per Gjaerder and Marta Hoffmann that was posted on the website of the Norsk Folksmuseum for a couple of years. This film of early twentieth-century weavers at the warp-weighted loom, and several others like it, was shot during the research that led to Marta Hoffmann’s publication of The Warp-Weighted Loom. It was thrilling to discover the museum had made them available for viewing (and devastating when they disappeared from the site), because they offered practical physical documentation of that rarest and most precious of information, how people go when they “go like this.”

Warping on a cord can be done very simply over two pegs or posts an appropriate distance apart. This type of textile requires a warp with pairs of threads in each system. Accordingly, a linen and a wool thread would be held together and wound simultaneously; every complete circuit of the two pegs would create one warp unit (two threads of each fiber type). When the right number of warp units have been wound, a cord is passed through the entire set of loops on the “far” peg, that is, the peg at which new threads are never started. The cord and loops are carefully lifted off and transferred to the loom.

Marta Hoffmann’s suggestion that pick-up double weave was probably woven on the warp-weighted loom using “not more than one heddle rod” is manifestly unsatisfactory. Even assuming that at most one free shed might be provided by either a shed stick (which she doesn’t mention) or by the main shed rod of the loom, it would still be necessary to pick out at least two of the required four separate tabby sheds, plus all the pick-up patterning, by hand. This method would be at least a level of magnitude more complex than the freehand rosepath method to which she compares it (Hoffmann, 186f). She also considers the meaning of the medieval textile designation “ferskeptr,” or four-shaft (Hoffmann, 209), mentioning that Engelstad suggests it might refer to a type of double-face weave (Hoffmann, 364, note 45). On a warp-weighted loom fitted with four separate heddle rods, each with its own set of brackets, it would be a laborious yet somehow familiar task for a modern weaver to weave reversable double weave. It would
be largely the same as working with a table or floor loom using a straight twill draw (1234...) and a skeleton tie-up. However, Viking Age weavers might have been able to exploit the basic shed separation provided by the shed rod of a warp-weighted loom to simplify the weaving method.

In my puzzling on the best way to weave a pick-up double cloth on a warp-weighted loom, I have begun to think that the simplest tool might be an upright loom with a weighted warp. It might even be possible for two people to work in tandem, one on each side of such a loom. Most considerations of the warp-weighted loom do not tackle the question of the angle at which such a loom may slant. Many such looms are (or were) leaned against a convenient wall or beam; the slant of the uprights combines with gravity to make the natural tabby shed large and easy to clear. It is only convenient to work from one side of such a loom, the side that slopes away from the weaver’s head. However, the specific angle at which any warp-weighted loom did slant is completely conjectural. It is likely to have varied from instance to instance. While it is likely that the angle of slant tended to vary within only a fairly small number of degrees, it is also possible that some looms did in fact not slant.

A full-size, or even oversize, loom would be required for wide pieces such as the Kyrkås coverlet. However, the small upright loom found in the Oseberg ship burial (dated to 834 CE) might be a perfect tool for weaving a narrow double weave band. I am pursuing this question in a practical way with my warp-weighted loom and my small Oseberg loom. If I am successful, watch this space for a report!

Historical Bibliography

Becker, John, and Wagner, Donald B. Pattern and Loom: A Practical Study of the Development of Weaving Techniques in China, Western Asia and Europe. Copenhagen: Rhodos International Publishers, 1987. A good technical discussion of the historic method, borrowing from the explanation in Engelstad.

Branting, Agnes, and Lindblom, Andreas. Medieval Embroideries and Textiles in Sweden, 2 vols. Uppsala and Stockholm: Almqvist & Wiksells Boktryckerei, 1932. Exceptional plates of some of these pieces, especially the Kyrkås piece, which was what sparked my interest in the topic. Authorship of Chapter II, “Swedish Double-Weavings and Double-Sided Weavings of Foreign Origin” is credited in a footnote to Viivi Sylwan.

Engelstad, Helen. Dobbeltvev i Norge. Fortids Kunst i Norges Bygder, Serie II  Publikasjon VI. Oslo: Gyldendal Norsk Forlag, 1958. Excellent historic survey of large numbers of historic Norwegian double weaves; includes a catalogue and an English summary.

Franzén, Anne Marie, and Nockert, Margareta. Bonaderna från Skog och Överhogdal och andra medeltida vägbeklädnader. Stockholm: Kungl. Vitterhets Historie och  Antikvitets Akademien, 1992. Best single source for technical as well as art historical information on this topic, although some of the datings they report have since been reassessed.

Hoffmann, Marta. The Warp-Weighted Loom: Studies in the History and Technology of an Ancient Implement. Oslo: The Norwegian Research Council for Science and the Humanities, 1974 [Robin and Russ Handweavers reprint; original printing 1966, Studia Norvegica 16].

Nockert, Margareta, and Possnert, Göran. Att Datera Textilier. Södertälje, Sweden: Gidlungs Förlag, 2002. The most recent word on dating. Some wonderful photos and a brief English summary, but not very technical.

http://www.norskfolke.museum.no/prosjekt/WebStar/katalog.html?kategori=10224&side=1&video=0 . Norsk Folkesmuseum, Oslo. This URL leads to what used to be the listing of the museum’s archival film footage relating to the practice of traditional textile arts in Norway. According to my notes, I was last able to view these films on 15 May 2003.

Sundstrom, Amica. “Tidigmedeltida Textilier från ett Hus i Sigtuna: en tekstilarkeologisk analys och diskussion.” Laborativ Arkeologi 2003-2004, University of Stockholm. http://www.archaeology.su.se/pdf/asundstrom.pdf, last accessed 26 February 2005. Brief consideration of these textiles as part of her survey of early medieval domestic textiles; two photos. 

Technical Bibliography

Atwater, Mary M. Mary Meigs Atwater Recipe Book: Patterns for Handweavers. Salt Lake City: Wheelwright Press, Ltd., 1969.

Black, Mary E. The Key to Weaving: A Textbook of Hand Weaving for the Beginning Weaver, Second Revised Edition, pp. 219-225. New York/London: Macmillan Publishing Company/ Collier MacMillan Publishers, 1980 [1957]. Some terminology confusion (she calls both reversable and non-reversable “Finnweave”), but still useful for the orderly way in which the double weave options are laid out.

Cyrus-Zetterström, Ulla. Manual of Swedish Handweaving, 2nd U.S. edition, trans. Alice Blomquist. Newton Centre, Mass.: Charles T. Branford Co., 1977.

Irwin, Allison. “Doubleweave Pick-up.” Handwoven, vol. XX, no. 1 (January/February 1999), pp. 36-39.

Janson, John. “Celtic Knot Scarf." Handwoven, vol. XXIII, no. 1 (January/February 2002), pp. 32-33.

Moore, Jennifer. “Doubleweave: a workshop in your studio.” Handwoven, vol. XXIII, no. 1 (January/February 2002), pp. 26-31.

Van der Hoogt, Madelyn. “A Pick-up Handbook for Handweavers.” Weaver’s, Issue 24 (Summer 1994), pp. 8-13, 48-52. See page 50 for the section on reversable double weave. Includes a lengthy bibliography.

Scorgie, Jean. “Patterned Double Weave.” Handwoven, vol. VII, no. 2 (March/Apri.l 1986), pp. 56-57.

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This article was originally published in Issue 43 (March 2005) of Medieval Textiles, the newsletter of the medieval textiles study group of Complex Weavers.  Some of the information may be a bit dated now, and my thinking has evolved a bit on some aspects of the problem.  Also, I have yet to reconsider the section on loom types based on what I have learned since about Norwegian folk tapestry looms.  Nevertheless, I'm putting the article up here in the interest of keeping my work together and accessible in one place.

Here are links to images of the textiles mentioned in the text.  None of these were available on the web when the article was originally published.
Even more remarkably, since I wrote this article the textile research footage from which Marta Hoffmann worked has re-emerged.  The Norsk Folkesmuseum channel at YouTube has reposted many of these very valuable films which show mid-century Sami women working with basic warp-weighted looms.  You can find the specific film mentioned above here at YouTube.  The section on warping over a cord begins at around 6:30.

I haven't been able to find a live current link to the Amica Sundstrom article.

Here are some additional bibliographical references that are relevant.

Keasbey, Doramay.  "Pick-Up Pattern: Five Techniques."  Handwoven, January-February 2011, pp. 46–49.  I haven't read this article on pick-up doubleweave yet, but Keasbey's technical articles are always useful.

Oscarsson, Ulla.  De gåtfulla Överhogdals-bonaderna [The enigmatic Överhogdal tapestries], trans. Anita Lahiri.  Östersund, Sweden:  Jamtli Förlag, 2010.  Although this only discusses the Överhogdal textiles I-III which are soumak and not double weave, this book does provide a list of early furnishing textiles that includes all the ones named in my article.  It also provides a post-Viking Age date for the Rennebu double weave (page 80).


  1. Thanks for posting this article here, and (especially) thanks for the links to pictures of some of the fragments on the web! (I was going to ask you if you knew how to find web images of the fragments, but now I simply have to thank you!)

  2. Hi Carolyn, thanks a lot for this great article! Recently i started pickup double weaving Andean style (as Laverne Waddington teaches on her website) and as i reenact Viking period sometimes i started wondering if this technique was used then as well. Your article is an great answer to it!