When you think of Vikings, you probably mostly think of metal, wood, and leather: weapons, wooden boats, helmets (never horned, contrary to popular belief), and boots. But you should also think of wool and Viking weaving, because without it, Vikings could never have made their way across the sea to terrorize and, occasionally, legitimately trade with the rest of the world. Wool was the raw material for their clothing, their blankets, and even their sails. Basically, everything that made a seafaring life tolerable!
Wool had many advantages for people who spent a lot of time in the cold and damp, providing warmth even when wet. The kinks in the wool fibers trap pockets of air for insulation, and the scales of the fibers lock and tangle together when the fabric is wet-finished, helping the garment or blanket woven from it to repel water. In addition, the waxy lanolin that coats the wool fibers repels moisture. A final benefit is wool’s ability to go without washing. Even after weeks at sea, a woolen garment likely would have only required a rinse and a good airing-out. Not to say Viking weaving didn’t smell—their woolens probably reeked of wet wool, the sea, and worse.
Tightly-woven wool cloaks were a Viking wardrobe staple, often treated with oil to keep even more moisture at bay. They also would have worn woolen tunics, leggings, socks, mittens, and hats close to the skin as a final layer of resistance. Wool blankets would have also been a valuable commodity onboard a ship.
Even Viking sails were likely made of wool, which is hard to believe. Linen is a much more airtight option, but the Vikings didn’t use linen for sails. Instead, they found a way to make that wool really airtight. The wool was woven very tightly and wet-finished to full the fibers, then the sail would have been treated with resin. But part of the reason they were able to create woolen sails was because of the specific kind of sheep they kept.
Viking sheep were an unusually hardy breed: tough, small, and capable of living nearly wild off the land. These sheep had a double coat, with long, durable guard hairs protected a soft, insulating inner coat. In Viking weaving, those long guard hairs were most likely used as the warp, with the inner coat being used for weft. The fluffy nature of the weft would have made cloth that fulled remarkably well.
Viking weaving used huge amounts of wool, and may have even started their campaign of expansion and conquest partially to increase the amount of pasture land available for raising sheep. Never underestimate the ability of textiles to shape world history!
If you’d like to learn more about weaving and wet-finishing wool, check out Best of Handwoven: Yarn Series – Weaving with Wool!
Edit: We received a correction on on this BeWeave It! I mistakenly said, “Even Viking sails were likely made of wool, which is hard to believe. Linen is a much more airtight option, but the Vikings didn’t have linen.” Weaving Today member Vicki Bismire (an Australian SCA reenactor with a special interest in Viking textiles) kindly gave me some more information. According to Vicki, the Vikings absolutely did have linen, “however there are less linen finds in archaeology because it degraded differently from wool, so wool is more commonly found. The theory is that wool was used in sails because it is more durable in maritime conditions. However linen was definitely available, and commonly used in underclothing.” The above has been corrected. Thanks so much, Vicki!