Craft Like a Viking: Beads, Jewelry, and Yarn Crafts from the Viking Era | Beading

It’s fascinating to learn about the objects that people crafted over a millennium ago and try to piece together what those people may have been like. It’s our peephole into understanding cultures like the Vikings (from 793 to 1066 CE), who did not leave a written record of their daily life, their thoughts, or their beliefs.

ABOVE: Viking reenactors in “kit,” including the author herself!

The
majority of what we know about the Vikings has been learned from the stuff they
left behind: grave goods, mostly. My passion for learning about and recreating
objects from the Viking Era was kicked off by a visit to the Viking Ship Museum
in Oslo, Norway. Seeing the amazing riches from a ship burial of two
high-status women—so well preserved—captured my imagination and got me wanting
to learn more and get involved. The art style of the Vikings is still very much
alive and can be recognized in a lot of modern-day crafts, such as beading,
jewelry making, and yarn crafting.

A beaded necklace from the Oseberg Ship Burial. Photo: Joe Mabel
A beaded necklace from the Oseberg Ship Burial. Photo: Joe Mabel

Viking Beads and Jewelry

One of the few contemporary written sources that historians have about Vikings is the account of Ahmad ibn Fadlan, a 10th-century Arab traveler who encountered the Volga Vikings in what is now Russia. He said that they would “go to any length to get hold of colored beads,” which tickles me pink. Same here, Vikings, same here.

The Hon Hoard. Photo: Wanda Marcussen
The Hon Hoard. Photo: Wanda Marcussen

There’s a Viking treasure hoard that was found near Hon, Norway, that is made up of entirely gold, save for one bead treasure necklace. This, plus the rarity of bead finds in general, says to us that beads were highly valued by Vikings and were worn as a display of wealth and status.

Jet, amber, silver, and flame-worked glass are the most common materials in Viking bead finds. While Vikings did make their own glass beads, some beads have been traced to sources as far away as the Mediterranean and the Middle East.

Viking Wayfinder Necklace
Viking Wayfinder Necklace

Nowadays, beaders and jewelry makers also source beads and materials from all over the world. Glass beads come to us from the Czech Republic, Italy, and Japan. Gemstones are mined all over the world and turned into beads. The bead trade is truly global, and it always has been. When designing my Viking Wayfinder Necklace, I used lava stone beads from Iceland and a sterling silver Vegvísir pendant from Sweden.

Ouroboros Dragon Cuff
Ouroboros Dragon Cuff

A common theme throughout Viking jewelry finds is zoomorphism—the use of animal shapes and forms in art. Motifs of serpents, snakes, and dragon-like forms were popular in the Viking era and still capture the hearts of jewelry designers today. Michelle Leonardo’s Ouroboros Dragon Cuff is a show-stopping modern example.

lost wax casting
lost wax casting

Many of the techniques that Vikings used to make jewelry are still employed today. They strung beads on iron wire, the predecessor of our nylon-coated steel beading wire. They used the lost-wax method for making silver and gold jewelry from molds.

Viking Knit Bracelet
Viking knit bracelet

My favorite, though, is how they wove wire into ropes – still known today as Viking Knitting. Armed with some wire, simple tools, and Denise Peck’s Beaded Viking Knit Bracelet video download, you can master the ancient craft and make a very cool bracelet.

Viking
Yarn Crafts

Sheep (and
their wool) have always been a very large and important part of Scandinavian
life and culture. Without warm clothing and blankets, the Vikings would not
have survived the cold, harsh winters. Archaeological evidence suggests that
most of the Vikings’ clothing was made from wool, and only the more well-to-do
would have afforded linen underclothing for comfort, and some silk accents if
you were extra fancy.

Icelandic Star knitting
Icelandic Star

Nowadays it’s a lot easier to get ahold of comfortable, un-itchy garments to wear under our cozy warm woolens (the thought of wool underwear is giving me creepy crawlies). Our love for wool has never faded, and we have developed easier and faster techniques than the historical yarn-looping technique that the Vikings used, nalbinding. Scandinavian designs in knitting and crochet have carried through the ages and remain popular today. These two knitted sweaters feature Icelandic wool and Nordic patterns.

Grayling Cardigan Viking knitting
Graying Cardigan

Wool
provided more than just clothing for the Vikings, as well—the demand for woven
wool fabric for ships’ sails kept their upright weighted-warp looms working in
shifts, all day long. Just one sail for a 30-meter longship would have used up
the annual production of about 700 sheep. In the Viking’s heyday it would have
taken one year’s worth of wool from about 2 million sheep to provide sails for
all of the various boats in their fleet.

Learning about the history of the Vikings through their crafts, finding other like-minded history-nerd people, and beginning to participate in living history has turned Viking reenactment into a big part of my life. I have learned quite a few of the historical techniques the Vikings used in their daily lives, and it has pushed and challenged me creatively—something every artist strives for. I hope that the information I have shared with you in this article will inspire you to try your hand at something new during National Craft Month.

Meredith Steele
Technical Editor, Beadwork magazine

Bibliography

Marcussen, Wanda. “Vikings: Jewelry, Weapons & Social Change at The VIKINGR Exhibition.” Ancient History Encyclopedia. Last modified June 07, 2019.

Christie Ward. “Viking Beads and Necklaces.Viking Answer Lady. Last modified March 5, 2020.

HL Renart (the fox) of Berwick. “Glass Beads of the Viking Age.Dragon’s Laire. Last updated February 22, 2020.

Marianne Vedeler. “The Textiles Among the Oseberg Finds.Museum of Cultural History. Last modified, February 21, 2019.

Claire Eamer. “No Wool, No Vikings.Hakai Magazine. Last updated February 23, 2016.

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