Greenland Gown Type 1b
Nørlund Numbers 38, 39, 40, 41, and 42
In May of 1921, Poul Nørlund, who would later become director of the National Museum, travelled to Greenland to lead an excavation at the Herjolfsnæs church ruin. By July, the ground had thawed enough to begin to dig. On the 11th, the first garment was pulled out of the mud. This would come to be the biggest textile find of the 20th century -- the Greenland Garments. All told, 70 pieces of textile were excavated from this site comprising seven distinct types of wool gowns, two types of hoods, wool hats, cloth stockings, and other fragments and smallwares, all dating to the settlement of Greenland.
A group of five garments are designed Nørlund Type Ib. Their new designations are D10580, D10581, D10582, D10583 and D10584. D10581 (#39) has been radiocarbon dated to 1380-1530 and identified by Nørlund as a woman’s garment. He designated D10580 as a female garment and D10583 as a male based on the well-preserved skeletons. D10582 was accompanied by a cap that Nørlund thought was a man’s, so he considered D10582 a man’s garment. However he also noted that the skeleton with which it was found appeared female, so D10582 may be either. D10584 he considered a man’s garment because of the long sleeves and the low position of pocket slits. However, the high placement of its center gore (to accommodate a pregnant abdomen?) and the small circumference of wrist opening and armhole throw this designation into question.
All of the Type 1b garments have oval or round neck openings and are designed to pull on over the head. They have four or eight underarm gores which allow them to be fairly tight-fitting on the torso and flare from the waist. Østergård warns us, however, that “close-fitting” must be taken in context and the garments not assumed to be particularly tight. Garments D10580, D10581, and D10584 have their center gores placed as high as the sternum, creating a perfect silhouette for a pregnant woman, but not one that could be considered “tight”.
This group of garments varies in length from 119 cm (46.85“) to 128 cm (50.39“). Waist widths range from 94 cm (37“) to 100 cm (39.37”) demonstrating that the garments were not form fitting.
Possibly the most well-known of the Greenland finds, the gown called D10580 (#38) is constructed from a 2/2 twill wool and is 123 cm (48.5“) long. It is now dark brown but evidence suggests that the original colour of the warp was dark grey and the weft was light grey. It has a front and back panel each with a 88 cm (34.5”) tall two-piece gusset inserted at center. On the front gusset, there is obvious piecing towards the bottom edge. There are apparently four bottle-shaped gores set into each side seam, very narrow at the top and increasing sharply at waist level. This gives this garment is false cognomen “The Ten Gore Dress”. It does not in fact have ten gores because the back side panels are joined with a false seam, making there only eight gores. Unlike any of the other garments, there are diagonally cut panels at the side seams instead of being laid bias to straight as all the others.
The right sleeve is 54 cm (21.25“) long and is pieced at the bottom. The seam of the sleeve ends in a long, uneven slit 10.5 cm (4.13“) at the front edge and 13 cm (5.12”) at the back. It is attractively bordered and appears to have been worn open. The left sleeve is 50 cm (19.7”) long and the slit is only partially preserved with piecing and evidence of braid trim in the slit and at the bottom. Both sleeves have 21 cm (8.25“) long and 14 cm (5.5“) wide gussets in the back seam, 16-17 cm (6.3”-6.7“) from the shoulder seam. The right gusset is in two pieces. On the right sleeve slit, there are two rows of stab stitching through a 7 mm (.25”) seam allowance which is held down with overcast stitches on the inside.
There are 17 cm (6.7“) long pocket slits cut parallel with the warp threads on the front of the garment. These are 2-3 cm (.75”-1.12”) from the seam of the front piece on the frontmost side gore. They begin at waist level. They were originally trimmed with braided cord.
The neckline is finished with two rows of stab stitching through the 8 mm (.3”) turning near the fold. The turning is then caught down on the inside of the garment with overcast stitches. This stitching all occurs on the inside of the garment and is not seen on the exterior. Østergård believes that there was also a braided cord along the outside edge to match the sleeve and pocket slit finishing but there are no traces of cord or stitching that would have held this cord around the neckline.
The hem of the garment was not turned under in any fashion. Instead a technique called “singling” was used to protect the cut edge and keep it from unraveling. Singling involves the sewing of a single thread through the weave of the cut edge of the garment to reinforce the weave. There is also a 7 mm narrow strip of tablet-woven piped edging. This is achieved by warping a small amount of cards and using the sewing thread as the weft. The sewing thread passed through the shed created by the tablets and stitches into the edge of the garment on each pass. This technique produced an edge that was only a few threads wide but substantially stronger than a cut edge.
This piped edging is also seen elsewhere on the gown, most notably on the long seams. Other long seams are sewn through with stab stitching and the seam allowances caught down on the interior. Some descriptions imply that a few long seams of this garment have the narrow seam allowances turned to the outside and overcast down.
This is the most finely sewn garment in the Greenland finds. It has a great deal of decorative stitches and we can learn much from its construction.
D10581 (#39) is a short-sleeved garment of 2/2 twill wool currently reddish-brown, but originally probably a tannin-dyed warp with an undyed weft. Like #38 it has a two-piece gore inserted front and back at the center line. This gore has a rounded top and is 82 cm (32.25”) long. The front of the garment is 123 cm (48.5“) and the back is 121 cm (47.6“). It has two gores under each arm making the bottom hem a total of 360 cm (141.75“). The neckline is vaguely V-shaped. There is an original patch on the chest that was once white.
The sleeves are 27 cm (10.6”) and 30 cm (11.8“) long. Both sleeves have 11.5 cm (4.5“) long and 11 cm (4.3“) wide gussets in the back seam, 14 cm (5.5“) from the shoulder seam. The left gusset is 13 cm (5.1“) wide. The right sleeve is sewn together from two pieces and has an oval patch. The left sleeve is edged with stab stitching through a 7 mm (.25”) wide seam allowance that overcast stitches secure on the interior. The center front and back gores are eased into position by a transverse piece of cloth sewn to their tops. This piece shows stab stitching at the top. Nørlund attributed the asymmetry of this garment to the wearer being a hunchback. To this he also attributed the patch on the front.
Nørlund writes that this garment was the mostly finely preserved of all the finds, but years of display have damaged it. He described two pairs of finely bordered eyelets on the neck vent, but only one can be seen faintly now.
D10582 (#40) is a fragmentary garment whose left front and sleeves are no longer extant. Its construction is not unlike the other garments discussed here.
D10583 (#41) is dark brown garment of 2/2 twill wool originally almost black in warp and weft. Like #38 and #39 it has a two-piece gore inserted front and back at the center line. This gore has a rounded top and is 71 cm (28”) long. The garment is 128 cm (50.4“) long. It has four gores under each arm making the bottom hem a whopping 406 cm (160“) around. As you can see from the illustrations, large portions of the right sleeve and side gore as well as the left middle gore are missing.
The left sleeve is 63.8 cm (25“) long. The seam of the sleeve ends in a slit 26 cm (10.25“) long. The right sleeve is 64 cm (25.25”) long. The seam of this sleeve ends in a slit 27 cm (10.6“) long. Both sleeves have 22 cm (8.6“) long and 13.5 cm (5.3“) wide gussets in the back seam, 11.5 cm (4.5“) from the shoulder seam.
The distinctive element of this example is the button- holes. Each sleeve has 16 horizontal buttonholes, each 7-10 mm long and spaced 15 mm apart, on the front of the sleeve slits. On the left sleeve, only seven remain because the sleeve is worn away. The buttonhole side of the slit is reinforced with singling. The stitches are sewn into the weft or every other weft. Along the outermost edge of the right sleeve there is 3-5 mm thick cord possibly attached by the singling. This is also apparent at the bottom of the sleeve. The buttonhole side of the slit is also edged with stab stitching through a 6 mm (.23”) seam allowance that is sewn down with overcast stitches on the reverse.
The side gores from the armhole to the waist are also stab stitched as is the neckline with its 6 mm (.23”) seam allowance caught down with overcast stitches. The shoulders seams are also caught down with overcast stitches.
Seven buttons from D10583 survive. They measure 10-12 mm (.39”-.47”) in diameter and are from the same material as the garment. They are cut from circles which was gathered together on the underside. They were sewn through with thread in concentric circles of tiny stitches to flatten them. They are not stuffed. Nørlund says they were glued together. It is not known if this is true.
Despite the fragmentary nature of this garment, it is easy to see that it was very finely sewn with many decorative details.
D10584 (#42) is dark brown garment of 2/2 twill wool that was originally similarly coloured. Like all the garments so far discussed it has a two-piece gore inserted front and back at the center line. This gore has a rounded top and is 84 cm (33”) long in front and 88 cm (35.5“) in back. The front is pieced on each shoulder. It’s 119.5 cm (47“) long in front and 128 cm (50.39“) long in back. and it measures 333.5 cm (131.3“) around the hem. It has two gores on each side, but those on the right are cut in one piece with a false seam down the center.
In the front side gores, there are 17 cm (6.7“) long pocket slits parallel to the warp threads 2-2.5 cm (.8”-1“) from the seam with the front panel. Because of the fragmentary nature of the garment, their distance from the top cannot be given, but they end 54 cm (21.25“) and 57 cm (22.5“) from the bottom edge, right and left.
The right sleeve is 43 cm (17“) long and 25 cm (9.85‘) at the wrist. It ends in a slit 12 cm (4.75“) long. The left sleeve is 53 cm (20.85”) long but one side is fragmentary. The seam of this sleeve ends in a slit 14 cm (5.5“) long. Both sleeves have 17 cm (6.7“) long and 7.5 cm (3“) wide gussets in the back seam, 12.5 cm (4.9“) from the shoulder seam. Along the bottom edge and along the slit two rows of stab stitching is sewn.
The hem of the garment was not turned under but instead there is singling 8-10 mm wide with 5 mm between the stitches. There is also a narrow strip of tablet-woven piped edging visible.
The neck opening is edged with a 5 mm wide seam allowance to the edge of which a braided cord is sewn. Remains of similar cord can be found around the pocket slits.
Nørlund commented that the garment when found had the skirt folded in attractive pleats. This is not surprising since the seams are done in such a away that the seam allowances face each other in twos. In other words, one seam allowance falls to the right, its neighbour to the left, and so on, alternating like this, with the effect that the drape of the garment hangs in permanent pleats. The side seams and the middle gore center seam face inwards as “normal”. Garments sewn in this way have a rather lovely drape if even the fabric from which they are made isn’t very drapey.
Forest, Maggie. Personal correspondence.
Fransen, Lilli, Anna Nørgaard and Else Østergård. Medieval Garments Reconstructed: Norse Clothing Patterns. 2011: Aarhus University Press, Denmark.
Hald, Margrethe. Ancient Danish Textiles from Bogs and Burials. Tr. Jean Olsen. Copenhagen National Museum of Denmark, 1980.
McGann, Kass. Sewing Techniques of the Medieval Period. Reconstructing History, 2004-08.
Nockert, Margareta. Bockstenmannen, Och Hans Dräkt. Halmstad och Varberg: Stiftelsen Hallands länsmuseer, 1985.
Østergård, Else. Woven into the Earth: Textiles from Norse Greenland. Aarhus University Press, Aarhus, Denmark, 2004.