Early medieval women’s headwear

When I was still regularly involved in the late Middle Ages reenactment, my girl friends and I always admired the early medieval outfits for their colours and rich, or even lavish decorations. Christianity posed some serious restrictions on women’s clothing in late medieval Europe. As women reenacting urban dwellers of that time we could not really wear much of jewellery, embroidery or head decorations (apart from the linen head-wear which was almost ‘compulsory’ as wearing your hair loose at that time of history was thought of as inappropriate and sinful). Once my group became more interested in the early medieval reenactment, I started to explore the topic of Norse and especially, Slavic head-wear fashion which, as it turned out, offered more possibilities for women to express their status, personality and aesthetic preferences.


Norse fashion

From Thor Ewing‘s book on Viking clothing, we learn that in the sagas it is mentioned that Norse women wore a narrow piece of linen or wool cloth twisted around the head. Silk would also be sometimes used though it was considered extravagant. In Birka excavations (is there something that has not been found there?:)) braided headbands were found in women’s graves. Some of them were worn simply around the head while others could have been attached to the linen head cloth. Ewing mentions tablet woven bands explicitly as a possible Norse women headgear. Tablet woven bands could have held the linen headdress in place or could have edged the top of it.


Rus and Slavs’ aesthetics

In Slavic and Rus cultures women’s headgear could have been even more ornamental. The main idea was the same – women wore a kind of linen cloth around their heads with different headbands to hold it. The headband could have been a stripe of leather or textile with silk much more common. It could be embroidered or decorated with glass or natural stone beads. Finally, similarly to the Norse fashion, a headband could be woven using a rigid heddle loom or weaving cards.


My project

Much encouraged by this archeological evidence of tablet woven headbands, I decided to weave a headband with swastika and cross motifs, both very old ancient symbols of the sun. In early medieval Slavic cultures (and even before) swastika-like symbols are called “kolowrat” and associated with the god Svarog. In Slavic mythology Svarog (and his different manifestations) was one of the main deities who ruled the sky, sun and created the tree of life – the axis around which the worlds of humans, gods and the underworld were built. The swastika and similar patterns are also commonly found on tablet woven bands from Scandinavia, for example on bands from Birka in southern Sweden or earlier bands excavated in Snartemo, Norway.

I used a very thin virgin wool which compliments the intricate pattern but as always with thin yarns, the weaving took ages. The ends are made into 8-strand braids after a 10th century silk braid sewn to a tablet woven band found in Durham Cathedral (the vestments of St. Cuthbert).

How to wear it?

Slavic and Rus women wore headbands like this with a set of temple rings attached to it. Temple rings are a very characteristic attribute of early Slavic women’s outfits. The name comes from the fact that they were worn on the head, near the woman’s temples. They had various shapes and sizes and could be made from iron, copper, bronze, silver and gold. There are so many varieties of temple rings excavated from Slavic women’s graves that archeologists thought it necessary to classify them into types. Temple rings were in fashion approximately until the end of 13th century.

Here is an example of a woven band with temple rings attached on both sides which is on display in the Historical Museum of Sanok, southern Poland. In the Middle Ages Rus people lived on these terrains, leaving numerous remainders of their culture such as bronze buckles and pendants, silver earrings, richly ornamented rings, gilded rings, temple rings and many other iron items.

Modern band (sadly, probably polyester) with temple rings (original finds) attached to it, Historical Museum in Sanok

For more information see

Thor Ewing,Viking Clothing, Tempus Publishing, 2006.

Medieval braids, http://www.stringpage.com/braid/medbraids/medbraids.html

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