How To: Wire Weaving

How To: Wire Weaving

I’ve had several requests to add my wire weaving handout to my blog. I’ve been teaching wire weaving for eight years and have taught it many times (seventeen official classes and hands on demos but I’ve also taught it one on one quite a few times as well.) I  also entered two different necklaces into competition for Glymm Mere’s 2009 and 2010 championships and was honored to become their champion in 2010 with my favorite piece. I will be including all of my handout information in this post but will be adding in some of my research as well. I will also be including some links at the bottom for the supplies needed if you would like to give it a try.

Completed 2010 necklace made of 24 gauge silver wire and pewter cones cast in soapstone.

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Wire weaving is a beautiful and surprisingly simple skill to learn. Examples of wire weaving being used as jewelry have been found in many Norse digs. These examples are from an eleventh century Sammi hoard found in Finland and 10th century Sweden.

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Research

The wire weaving that I based this piece on is located at the Swedish National Museum. I discovered a photo on just the very end of a necklace in a photo that was focusing on a beautiful Thor’s hammer. I discovered the location of the item and contacted the museum in order to find out additional information on the necklace itself. I emailed the museum asking about the necklaces and Lotta Fernstål responded. She informed me that there was
an online catalog of the museum’s pieces and instructed me on how to use it.

The catalog cards had a photos of the complete pieces and information that was unfortunately in Swedish. I asked Lotta if she would be willing to translate for me and she was kind enough to do so to the best of her ability as the card were very old and she expressed difficulty translating from old Swedish to English. The first and smaller piece was found in 1780 under a rock in Bredsätra, Sweden by a local farmer . A second and larger necklace that caught my eye with separate cones at the ends was found in 1870 by a ground worker in Skåne, Sweden.

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Necklace

The smaller piece had measurements above the photo which aided me in figuring out the size of the necklace as well as the wire itself. After taking measurements from an admittedly very old photo I came to the conclusion that the silver wire used to weave the necklace was about 24 gauge.

I needed to decide was the number of loops I wanted to use in this necklace. I have seen anywhere from four to ten or more used in extant pieces. It was difficult to determine the number of loops on the two pieces that I was basing this piece on because of the poor quality of the photos.

I have been looking into the difference in appearance in weaving the same gauge wire on different dowels. After examining the photos I decided that a 6 loop piece would be most accurate for the piece. I did two test pieces, both 24 gauge wire but one on a medium dowel and one on a small dowel. Using the smaller dowel made a huge difference in the appearance of the weaving. It has a much more compact and less stretched look when bringing the weaving down to the size of the extant piece.

Sample pieces with same gauge wire and same loops. Top 1/4 inch dowel, Bottom 1/2 inch dowel.

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Cones

I based the ends of this necklace on the second piece at the museum. This piece has simple cones finishing the ends. I decided to try making my own cones for this piece. I was having a very difficult time figuring out exactly how to create the interior of the cone. I knew that I would use either a clay or soapstone mold and cast them in pewter.

I attended the 2010 An Tir Kingdom Arts and Sciences Championship and discovered that Alicia le Wilfulle had cast bells which are almost the same as the cones that I had been trying to figure out! She was kind enough to share the book that she based her work on. The book is about Medieval Scandinavia and the pieces are from the 12th century (This has been so long ago now I’m not sure what book this was but I will update the post if I find it.) Though not the same time period this method does make perfect sense and I don’t doubt that it was used before the 12th century.

The soapstone molds have very definite areas to place something for the pewter to flow around. Alicia le Wilfulle had deduced that a piece of wood was the perfect thing! I used the same method when creating my cones.

Soapstone mold for cones.

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How To

Materials

My preferred wire is 24 gauge Artistic Wire. It is coated so it doesn’t tarnish and I have only rarely had it kink. There is generally enough in one roll to make a good length necklace. You can use between 22 through 28 gauge relatively easily. The higher gauge will tend to kink more easily and the lower gauge can get a bit tough on the hands. I really like the 22 gauge for a nice sturdy necklace. I use 20 to attach the weaving to the cones and create my loops.

You will also need a set of wire cutters, round nose pliers, a draw plate and a six inch dowel. I’ve used anywhere between 1/4 inch and 1/2 inch dowels. Different size dowels will give you a different look to your weaving.

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Beginning the Weave

Step 1. Wrap wire around two to three fingers as many times as you would like loops in your necklace.

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Step 2. Twist the wire about a third down the length and open up your loops to create a “flower.”

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Step 3. Bend your “flower” around your dowel.

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Step 4. Take your new piece of wire (no longer than an arms length or it will kink too easily) and loop it through the x where two loops meet. (see pictures)

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Step 5. Continue to loop your wire through each x. (see pictures)

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That’s all there is to the wire weaving itself. You can use as many loops as you like to make a more complex piece. I wouldn’t recommend less than four. It also gets pretty tricky after about ten.

Adding More Wire

Continue to weave until you have about an inch of wire left. Cut an arms length piece of wire. Take the end and bring it back through the last x that you looped through backwards. Fold it down and continue weaving. Once you’ve woven a few rows you can cut off the excess ends from the wire.

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Using Your Drawplate

Take your weaving off of the dowel. You should plan on having about 1/3 additional length once you run your weaving through your drawplate. Start at the largest hole in your drawplate and run the length through each hole until you are to the size you want. If you draw it too small it will lock into place and no longer be flexible so be sure you don’t over do it!

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Finishing The Ends

Once you are to your desired length cut off your “flower” and bring the end of your wire through the end of the weaving a few times. Take your 20 gauge wire and bring it through your weaving in several different directions to anchor it in.

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Bring your wire through your cone and pull it into place. Create a loop using the round nose pliers and the long end of your wire and wrap it around both of the wires that you pulled through.  Wrap it as many times as you can to make it nice and snug and snip off the remainder.

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Supplies

Shipwreck Beads

Firemountain Gems

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How To: Posament

How To: Posament

I get a lot of questions about how to create the knots used for posament. I created a handout showing step by step instructions on each of the common knots used. I’ve included a printable version of my instructions as well as a my documentation (because I forgot to add it to my previous post!)

I’ve also included some resources for purchasing tenntråd. If you have any other resources let me know and I’ll include them here. As always I’m happy to answer any questions that you have and would love feedback!

Happy knotting 🙂

Here is the documentation and instructions:

10th Century Birka Posament Final

Posament Binder

Resources for tenntråd:

Nordic Handcraft

Timeless Textiles

Types of Posament

Posament 6

Type A

Posament type A

 

 

Type B

Posament Type B

 

 

Type C

Posament type C

 

 

Type D
Posament type D

 

 

Type E

Posament type E

 

 

Type F

Posament type F

 

 

Type G

Posament type G

 

 

Type H

Posament type H

 

 

Type H and F

Posament type H and F

 

 

Small Square

Posament Small Square

10th Century Posament Based on Finds at Birka

10th Century Posament Based on Finds at Birka

This weekend I entered my posament work in the single entry competition at An Tir Kingdom Arts and Sciences and Bardic Championships. I had wonderful feedback and want to share my research and work here as well.

10th Century Birka Posament Based on Finds at Birka

HL Disa i Birkilundi

Andrea Harding

I have been admiring posament for many years. It is complex, beautiful and an interesting way to embellish your garments or other items. This is a technique that is found primarily in Birka Sweden during the 9th and 10th century. However, even in Birka posament is not incredibly common.

Posament is wire formed into pieces that are used to adorn various items. Extent pieces of posament are made of gold and silver. The gold is generally a straight wire but is occasionally found as spiral thread (wire wrapped around a fiber core) as well as twisted pieces. The silver is almost always in spiral thread form. I have focused primarily on the spiral thread or “tentrad” form of posament but did also experiment with the straight wire and formed wire types as well

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Straight Wire Posament (left), Twisted Wire Posament (center), and Tentrad Posament (right)

Materials

For my posament in the straight wire style I used 24 and 26 gauge silver and gold craft wire.

When working with the spiral thread I used several different materials. Initially I found an item called tentrad. This is a silver colored wire wrapped around a fiber core. I felt this would best represent the original pieces. I decided to make my own tentrad as well. The original posament is made with silver wire wrapped around a silk cord. I used 28 and 30 gauge silver plated craft wire as well as 28 gauge dead soft silver wire. For the core I used hemp, cotton and silk threads.

There are no tools that have been found that are exclusively associated with the creation of tentrad or posament. Most of the things needed would have been easily repurposed for other work such as needles and pins. I used both a 1mm and a .7mm knitting needle with a coiling gizmo to create my tentrad. The only thing that I used in making the posament itself were pins and a foam block to hold the pieces in place.

For the twisted wire project, I used a 28 gauge craft wire as purchasing the gold wire needed for this project would have been far too expensive. I did, however, purchase a foot of 28 gauge solid gold wire to experiment with so that I could get a sense of how working in gold would vary from the copper plated craft wire I was primarily using.

I backed the piece with silk as it was a material that was available to the people of Birka and I liked the idea of using the silk as the core of the coiled posament is silk as well. As with the tentrad, I also used straight pins, wire cutters and a block to pin to.

 Research

 My first goal was to get a better idea of what posament was used for and how it was created. I contacted Lotta Fernstål of the Historiska Museet in Stockholm, Sweden. I had spoken to her previously about a piece of wire weaving that is on display at the museum and she had been wonderfully helpful. Her colleague Anna Arnberg contacted me and said that Lotta was not available but she would be happy to help. Anna spoke to the textiles curator to get further information on the pieces. She was told that the pieces were most likely attached to some kind of clothing but that unfortunately none of the textile was found so they can’t be certain. She also said that posament has been found on things like scabbards and purses. From my own research I knew that the pieces are generally found in the waist and head areas. Posament being present in the head area indicates that it was also most likely used in hats and headpieces as well. Anna also provided me with a link to their online database showing all of the graves that have been excavated in Birka.

Having access to the museum’s amazing online database gave me an opportunity to see where each piece of posament came from. I wanted to get a better sense of just how rare posament was and if there was any sort of pattern in where it had been found. I was hoping to determine if it was something that everyone had access to or if it was reserved for those of higher status. The database is broken down into several sites on Birka. It gives you access to 1,103 graves that have been excavated and lists the inventory of each one including any photos of the pieces if available. I went through each grave individually so that I could note which graves had posament present as well as the type of grave it was found in.

There are four different categories of graves found on Birka. Chamber Graves are the largest and are primarily from the 10th century, they generally have more grave items found within them. Coffin and Non Coffin graves are from both the 9th and 10th centuries. The Coffin Graves are more modest than the Chamber Graves but many items are still found and the Non Coffin Graves are found with the least amount of items. Cremation Graves are also from both the 9th and 10th centuries and the items found can vary widely with many having no items found.

I found 44 graves containing posament out of 1,103 that I reviewed which means that only 3.99% contained posament. They were found in each grave type however 55% were found in Chamber Graves even though they were only 10% of this type of grave found on Birka. With such a large majority of the pieces being found in Chamber Graves it would make sense that this was something more common in the 10th century as that is the period of time they were utilized. According to research on the Chamber Graves significance in Birka they were not necessarily reserved for the wealthy but it is believed they were intended for those of high status in the community. This means that though posament could be found in small amounts throughout the community it was more likely to be found with those of higher status.

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Posament 3

While looking through the photo-graphical inventory of the graves I realized that there are very few pictures of posament showing its size. I found a few with units of measurement on the side and blew them up to actual size. What I discovered surprised me. The pieces were actually larger than I had initially assumed. The tentrad itself looked to be just under a millimeter and the pieces were up to two and a half centimeters tall. I had always pictured these pieces being much smaller than this and the recreations that I have found online were made with the factory-made tentrad that is available in Sweden which does not come in that large of a diameter. I contacted Lotta Fernstål once again to inquire about the size of the tentrad itself as well as the size of the pieces. She was able to get me in contact with textiles curator Amica Sundström. Amica was able to send me a picture showing the size of one of the pieces. Unfortunately it’s a bit blurry and the ruler isn’t directly up against the piece making it difficult to determine the size. The photograph is of a much smaller piece than the ones that I had been looking at previously and I find the variety in sizes that were found very interesting.

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Museum pictures showing size of posament

 After my initial research into straight and spiral posament I decided to also look into the twisted wire form. This third type is not very common even for posament standards. This is twisted gold wire used to create free form shapes. I was unable to find any pieces with measurement of this type.  Much like the other two types, the best information is simply the pictures that we have available to us. Unfortunately, there are a limited number of those as well because it is not generally on display for the general public.

For this part of the project I decided to focus on the third type of posament and more specifically on the formed posament piece found in grave BJ 832 in Birka. I have seen the same black and white picture of this many places and always assumed it was silver. As I looked further into it I was fortunate enough to meet Linda Wåhlander through Facebook who works at Historiska Museet. She had taken a couple of color photos of the piece. This was very exciting because there are rarely new pictures of posament!

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New color photographs of “Golden Deer” posament

As is generally an issue with posament there is no size reference for this piece. When speaking to Linda she told me that the piece was roughly 4 cm in size. This is the information that I based the size of my piece on.

Process for the Straight and Spiral Wire Posament

Posament can be broken down into a few different styles of knots. I will use the labels listed in Birka III for each of them (A,B,C,D,E,F,G and H.) These eight types are used in different configurations in most posament. Primarily the pieces worked in tentrad use type E-H.

There are so many different variations of posament that I couldn’t choose one style to try. I decided the best way to get a good feel of the process would be to work in both the solid wire and tin thread while trying several techniques. My final pieces included E, G, F, H, B as well as combinations of B/F, E/G and H/F. I also tried both small and large square pieces.

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Knot styles found at Birka

I first worked with parachute chord so that I could get accustomed to the knots that I would be using. This made it easier to see how I would need to manipulate the wire and the appropriate areas to tighten. After working with the parachute cord I then moved to hemp as it is smaller but still easier to manipulate.

I began working with 24 gauge silver wire and decided to go with knot G as that was the style I had begun working with. The pieces in wire that I have seen tend to have a more open look to them so I did not tighten them down completely. I also worked with a double wire because most of the examples show two wires being woven together as opposed to just one. This process was not as difficult as I had anticipated as long as you were careful with how hard you pulled the wire. I have done a lot of wire weaving so I am comfortable working with wire already. I believe this made it a bit easier.

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Working in parachute cord and straight wire

Braid style posament has been found in both flat and spiral wire. These can be between three and six strands wide. I decided on a four strand braid or type B made from the straight wire. This was the only piece that I kept pinned onto the foam block throughout the process because it was more difficult to keep together and uniform otherwise.

The most challenging piece was the braid and loop design made with a combination of type B and F. As I had no knowledge on how to construct the piece I simply looked at the original and used it as my diagram. This proved to be challenging but I am happy with the results.

After my practice work with parachute cord, hemp and straight wire work, I decided to try the machine made tentrad. This material can be found in Sweden as the Saami in Lapland still do a similar craft to those found in Birka. I am very curious as to the connection between the people in Birka and Lapland and tried to look further into the history of the Saami’s work with wire but was unable to find any information. I plan to research this further in the future.

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A Saami style bracelet (left) and posament created using machine made tentrad (right)

I used the tentrad to recreate the piece that I had contacted the museum about. It is a beautiful piece combining E and G using a double cord. Working with the tentrad was much easier than the straight wire. It is more similar to working with a fiber than working with a wire. I was able to work this piece without out using the block or pins and actually had enough left over to make a small single cord piece of type G.

During this work I was happy with my results but I wanted to investigate further. The machine made tentrad was the closest thing that I could find already made but I wanted to try to make tentrad myself using the materials found at Birka. I started by making a piece entirely by hand. I wound 26 gauge craft wire around a piece of hemp cord to get the idea of what this would entail. I was able to make about a foot of cord which was enough to make a small piece of type E single cord posament. The tentrad was a bit uneven looking and difficult to manipulate. I also ended up with a rather large blister on my finger and decided there must be a better way to do this.

I did a lot of research online on how tentrad could be made. There are machines that spin a fiber and run the wire down it creating guitar cords. This was a possibility but since there have not been any real posament tools found I felt this was not the right way to go. I started looking at making micro coils and realized that a Coiling Gizmo might be a good place to start. I purchased a Professional style coiling gizmo because it came with a pin vise that I could use to work on any sort of rod. It also came with a 1mm rod that I could start experimenting with.

The first process that I tried with the Coiling Gizmo was coiling wire directly on the cord itself. This didn’t work very well as the cord was constantly getting twisted and the unevenness was showing up on the outside of the tentrad. I was having to stop working every few minutes to untwist my cord.

I tried 28 and 30 gauge silver plated wire and settled on the 28 because it has a little more strength and is less fiddly. The 28 gauge also looks like a more accurate ratio between the size of the thread and the size of the coiled wire.

During this process I used three different types of cores; cotton, hemp and silk. I can understand why silk was used as opposed to any other fiber. The silk moves so smoothly that it makes the creation as well as the knotting processes much easier.

I began working with the 1mm rod to see if it might work. The rod was only about 16 inches long which was not long enough to create anything very useful so I decided to make the coil by starting on the end of the rod and working my way toward the pin vise. In this way I could simply push the coil of the end of the rod and continue working. This process created a much more uniform look that was much more accurate to the extant pieces. I was able to make several 3 foot pieces of tentrad and used them to create B and G type knots. Though I was able to get longer pieces there was an issue. Even if I worked the wire in the opposite way suggested by the tool I could still only create a piece of tentrad a few feet long. The issue was that in order to add the fiber core I had to thread a piece of wire all the way through the coil in order to bring the fiber back through. This only works up to a certain length as eventually your wire will get stuck in the center of the coil. The only way to solve this issue was to make the coil on a rod and it then be pushed off directly onto a cord.

As I could not find a way to drill a hole in a 1mm or smaller rod and long needles that I tried ended up sticking I decided to try a circular knitting needle. They have a plastic piece attached to the end therefore there was no bump for the coil to get stuck on like the eye of a needle. I found 1mm and .7 mm metal circular knitting needles and decided to give them both a try. I cut the plastic cord in half and then poked a small hole in it near the end to run my fiber through. The process worked very well! I was able to make a 145 inch piece of tentrad out of 28 gauge craft wire on the first try. It takes 1440 inches of 28 gauge wire to make 115 inches of 1mm or 144 inches of .7mm tentrad. This is 12.5 inches of wire per inch of tentrad for the 1mm and 10 inches of wire per 1 inch of .7mm tentrad. Each piece of over 100 inches in length takes at least six hours to complete.

My current process is to take a small strong beading thread and run it through the hole in the plastic, I then coil my wire onto the rod, pushing it off onto the cord as I go. When the piece is complete I remove it from the rod and attach my silk thread to the end of the beading thread. The coil is then slid onto the silk and the tentrad is complete. Each piece of tentrad takes roughly six hours to complete.

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Setup to make tentrad

I created several pieces of tentrad with this method using 28 gauge craft wire and silk thread. When I was confident enough in my method I used the dead soft silver wire and was able to finally create my silver thread with a silk core.

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Posament made with 28 gauge silver plated craft wire and silk thread

I used my silver thread to reproduce my favorite piece of posament that has been found. It is a combination of H and F style knots. I have only found one picture of the original piece. The photo is in Birka III and lists it as coming from 1125.

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Extent piece from grave 1125 (top) Posament made with silver tentrad and silk thread (bottom)

Process to create the Twisted Wire Posament

 Looking at the pictures I could tell that the wire was twisted before it was shaped. I could tell this because the twist is very consistent throughout the piece. If it would have been twisted as it was formed there would have been more inconsistencies. I also decided to use one long piece of wire as there is no evidence of multiple pieces being used. I took my wire and attached the ends to a stationary object (a chair), I twisted the wire at the other end until it was consistent down the entire length. I had a few issues with twisting. Until the wire is twisted to a certain point it can kink fairly easily and I needed to be sure to stay consistent with my tension. I also had one of the wires break on my first attempt because I had one side tensioned tighter than the other.

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Twisted wire ready to be formed

I decided the best way to construct the deer was to use a block with a pattern and form the wire there. I started by drawing out my deer, basing it on the extant design, and pinning it to the block. Once I had the basic shape pinned I began forming the wire. I went pin by pin, making sure to keep the wire secured as I created the outline.

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(left) Design pinned and ready to be formed (right) Outline of deer complete

The process of filling the inside took quite a bit of time. I wanted to be sure that it was evenly filled while leaving the decorative spaces on the body empty as well a the eye. I shaped the inner wire pinning to keep it in place and form the desired shape. this took a good amount of time as going back and forth with the wire while trying not to get caught up on the pins can be quite finicky. When complete I had used roughly 175 pins to create my desired shape. Then came the scary part, unpinning the deer.

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(left) Inside of deer in process (right) Completely shaped deer

As I unpinned the deer I became concerned that I would lose the shape. The pins would occasionally pull a piece of the wire straight and I would reform it as I went. When all of the pins were removed I was left with a solid outline with a mess of springy twisted wire inside. The wire, however springy and messy looking, had actually kept it’s desired shape.

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Deer unpinned and ready to be attached to fabric

It was now time to secure my wire to fabric. The extant piece was also mounted on fabric although I am not able to determine if it is wool or silk. Silk was used often to adorn garments and so I decided to use silk for this project. I stitched the wire onto the silk in a similar way to how I had pinned it onto the block. I first stitched down the outside and then carefully laid down the inner wire as well. This was difficult as the thread would get caught on the wire as I was stitching. Once the basic shape was stitched down I further adjusted my wire using the thread to manipulate the wire into its final shape.

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(left) Posament in the process of being stitched down (right) Completed Golden Deer

I decided to accent the deer with a piece of coiled posament that I had previously created. I stitched the coiled piece underneath the deer in order to give my new piece finished look that resembled the extant piece.

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“Golden Deer” from Grave BJ82 (top); Final Piece with Addition of Coiled Posament (bottom)

Conclusion

 I am very happy with the process that I created and the things that I have learned throughout this process. After I was done with my pieces I was able to get the posament chapter of Birka III translated. The only thing that it mentions about the creation process is that it was most likely done on some sort of rod or needle. I was so excited to discover that I was able to come to the same conclusion independently of the book!

In the future I would like to work on making my own rod to use during tinthread creation so that the thread is held more securely and there is less chance of losing it during the process. It would be interesting to try to work with smaller sized rods if possible as well.

I would like to do further work with the twisted wire form as well. I’d like to work on adding additional adornments such as mica underneath the blank spaces on the body and in the eye. I also believe that the twisted wire piece need to be a more solid piece independent of the silk.

I definitely plan to communicate further with the museum to see if I can get more information about the size of the tentrad and wire used in the extant pieces and possibly more picture with size reference.

References

Birka III; Agnes Geijer, 1938

Historiska Museet; Personal communication and website, www.historiska.se

Linda Wåhlander; Personal communication 

Posament: Pretty Knots from Birka; Annika Madejska, www.textiletimetravels.org

Silberknoten; Marieke Neumann, www.silberknoten.de

The Birka Chamber-Graves – Economic and Social Aspects: A Quantitative Analysis; Nils Ringstedt; Current Swedish Archaeology, Vol. 5, 1997

Viking Posament; www.tabbygram.blogspot.com/2013/11/viking-posament.html

Composite Antler Comb with Case Based on Tenth Century Gotland Find

Composite Antler Comb with Case Based on Tenth Century Gotland Find

I entered this comb into the Glymm Mere Arts and Sciences Championship in December of 2015. I love this little comb! It’s the first comb that I have created with a case and any real ornamentation. Normally I base my pieces on finds from Birka but I loved the extant piece and wanted to try to replicate it.

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PDF of Documentation

CompositeAntlerCombwithCaseBasedonTenthCenturyGotlandFind

 

Composite Antler Comb with Case Based on Tenth Century Gotland Find

HL Disa i Birkilundi

“Bronze ornaments have hitherto been valued most highly by archeologists because it is possible to trace their development with the least difficulty and so to detect contacts with alien folk. Who knows what the significance of other objects, for example combs, may be when they come to be studied.”

-Hjalmar Stolpe

I’ve always found everyday items very interesting and combs are a wonderful example. The tenth century combs found in Scandinavia are well crafted, often beautifully decorated tools that people carried everyday and many were buried with. Combs have been found with multiple materials used as rivets implying that they were repaired as opposed to being replaced. This is the same tool many people today will purchase cheaply and use a few times before discarding it.

Combs are one of the most common items found in graves. The style that I have based this piece on (straight pieces with line and circle dot decoration) are found primarily between 950 and 1000. Earlier combs were more rounded and their decoration was more ornate. This change was most likely due to an increase in the population of Scandinavia resulting in a higher demand for combs.

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Original Gotland Comb

The extant piece that I based my work on was a small comb with a case found in Gotland. While looking into comb production in Gotland I discovered that there is little evidence of a resident comb maker in that area. In areas like Hedeby and Birka there is evidence of larger scale comb production in the form of large piles of antler pieces and incomplete tooth and connector plates. This most likely means that comb makers would create their pieces in one place a majority of the time and then travel to other areas with a lower demand and sell their work during the large seasonal markets. Most areas would not have had a high enough demand to support a resident comb maker.

According to research, combs with cases have only been found in male graves. Combs in female graves tend to be found around waist area and were most likely carried in a cloth or leather bag on the belt and not hung from the brooches. This comb would have most likely been a man’s comb in the tenth century. It would have been created in Hedeby or Birka and brought to Gotland to sell.

Materials

Antler

Most combs are made of either Red Deer or Elk antler. Red Deer is more commonly found in earlier period while Elk, which is more readily found in Scandinavia, is found in later period almost exclusively. This happened because the population growth meant that comb makers did not have to travel as far to support themselves and used the local sources of antler.Red Deer is easily distinguished from Elk due to remaining blood vessels that create a brown discoloration in the antler while Red Deer antler is solid white.

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Cut pieces of elk antler showing the distinctive discoloration

Most of the antler found in debris piles have been shed. This is indicated by the condition of the burrs, the large piece at the base of the antler where it connects to the skull. The burrs found in the debris piles have the rough look of shed antler rather than being cut from the skull. The sheds were most likely collected during moulting season and then purchased by comb makers.

My comb was created using elk antler shed. I chose elk because the piece was based on a tenth century comb and this was the most common material used. Elk also has a larger amount of usable material. The spongy core is smaller leaving a thicker outer core.

Rivets

Rivets used to connect the pieces of the comb were made of copper, bronze, or iron. I have chosen dead soft 14 gauge copper to use create my rivets. Rivets found have been between 1 and 2 mm thick and 14 gauge sits right in the middle of that thickness. I chose copper because iron and bronze are less readily available to me and copper is more easily worked.

Tools

I used a saw, hammer, rasp, files and clamps all which are tools similar to those found in period. I also used a bandsaw and a drum sander to cut out the basic pieces and get them to a workable size. I have hand cut and filed the pieces down to size by hand previously and was unable to do this with this piece due to time constraints.

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Tools used in comb construction

A small drill was also used to drill the holes for the rivets. I did purchase a hand drill and attempted to use it but the drill bits were too small initially. When I found a way to use the small bits with the drill the drill was too heavy for the small bit and the bit broke. I was able to successfully drill a hole into my test antler before this happened.

Both eye and breathing protection were also used as it is not safe to work with antler without proper protection.

Process

Breaking down the Antler

I started by looking at my antler and deciding which areas would be best to work with. I chose to use the thicker areas of the antler where it split into multiple points. I thought this would give the largest areas of useable material. The pieces were then cut down to workable pieces using a bandsaw and then run through a drum sander to create a uniform thickness.

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Antler pieces cut and sanded to uniform thickness

Basic Pieces

After my rough pieces were cut I needed to be sure that I had enough material to create my comb. I took measurements of the original and discovered it was much smaller than I had realized initially. The comb itself is just over 6cm long and 1.5cm wide. The total length of the entire piece is just roughly 10cm long and 2cm wide. I measured out all the pieces needed and added a little bit of extra in order to account for loss due to cutting and sawing.

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Pieces measured out and ready to be cut

The pieces were cut out of the antler with a small saw. I clamped them down to my workbench in order to have better control. Once the pieces were cut I placed them together to be sure they would fit properly. There were some inconsistencies that needed to be adjusted. I thinned out the side pieces of the case so they were more even and didn’t look overly large and filed down the front and back of the comb and the case to make them even.

Pieces of comb cut and ready to be put together

Putting it Together

I started with constructing the comb. I clamped the tooth plates in between the front and back pieces and drilled two small holes the size of my rivets through each plate. I used two rivets per plate because I wanted to be sure they were stable and it was consistent with the look of the extant comb.

(left) Comb pieces clamped together (right) Completed rivets

My rivets were created by taking a piece of copper wire and clamping it into my vice. I then used my hammer to flatten the top of the wire to create the head. After the holes were drilled I pushed the rivets through. One of the holes was a bit small and the rivet became stuck halfway in. I had a moment of panic before I was able to remove it and widen the hole to place a new rivet.

(left) Riveting in process (right) Comb riveted together

Cutting the Teeth

Once the comb was riveted together I cut off the excess tooth plates and used the rasp and files to smooth the edges and shape the top. I also added a point to the bottom of the tooth plates to make it easier to taper later. I didn’t want to completely taper the tooth plates at this point because I didn’t want the case to be too loose.

(left) Comb cut down and sanded to desired shape (right) Tooth cutting experiment

I wanted to try something new in an attempt to create more consistency in my teeth. I found a wooden comb of similar size to the teeth that I wanted to create I clamped it into my vice with a piece of test antler behind it and tried to use it like a guide to keep my lines straight and consistent. Unfortunately it didn’t work very well. The teeth are so small that they move and because I couldn’t see my antler the cut became more inconsistent and teeth were cut off. I decided the best way to cut the teeth was to mark the lines on the comb and cut by hand. This worked relatively well. There were a few small adjustments that needed to be made but I am happy with how the teeth turned out. After the teeth were cut I used a file to created the points on the bottom of the teeth and each tooth was smoothed out.

Before and after cutting the teeth

Making the Case

When the basic comb was done I repeated the riveting steps with the case. I needed the comb mostly complete in order to be sure the case would fit snugly. I clamped the pieces of the case around the comb and drilled the holes for the rivets. After the rivets were applied I was very surprised at how snugly the comb fit into the case. I filed down the inside of the case a bit and tapered the teeth of the comb so that they comb now fits snugly but is not too difficult to remove.The case was now smoothed out using files and the end pieces were cut to the appropriate shape.

(left) Case clamped and ready for riveting (right) Complete comb and case

Decoration

The basic comb and case were complete but I wanted to add decoration. The extent piece had both lines and a circle dot pattern. I had done some simple line decoration on previous combs but not the circle dot design. I created a small tool in order to create a consistent circle dot pattern. I used one side of a pair of tweezers and using my files shaped it into the tool that I needed. I did some practice runs on some scrap antler and it worked very well.

(left) Tapered teeth (right) Circle dot tool and sample

I did not want to duplicate the pattern on the extant piece but used the same designs to create my own. I used my tool to create the circle dots and a combination of my saw and file to create and smooth the lines.

Completed comb and case and the Extant piece

Conclusion

I am very happy with my completed piece. The size initially surprised me but I love how small it is and with the teeth that short they are stronger and still work very well.

In the future I would like to continue to work on the consistency of my teeth and experiment with other styles of combs.

Bibliography

Ambrosiani, Kristina, Viking Age Combs, Comb Making and Comb Makers; In light of the finds from Birka and Ribe

Dirk, An Antler Comb-Construction Notes http://www.angelfire.com/mi4/olafvanta/Dirk/comb/comb.htm#Provenance

Carlsson, Dan, Combs and Comb Making in Viking and Middle Ages: A Short Resume
Stjerna, Niklas, A Short Notice on the Manufacture of Copper Wire at Birka

 

10th Century Composite Antler Comb Based on Finds at Birka

10th Century Composite Antler Comb Based on Finds at Birka

I want to include documentation for pieces that I’ve entered into competitions during the past year. This was a comb that I created based on 10th century combs from Birka, Sweden and entered into Dragon’s Mist Arts and Sciences Championship. This comb was created entirely by hand and I was very happy with how it turned out.

Finished Comb and Display for Competition

PDF of Documentation
10th Century Composite Antler Comb Birka

10th Century Composite Antler Comb Based on Finds at Birka

HL Disa i Birkilundi

Andrea Harding

I find composite antler combs to be a very interesting area to study. I love that something as simple as a comb took so much work to create and was clearly highly valued. They could be simple or very ornate and were found all over Europe but particularly in Scandinavia.

Combs even when found in the same area vary greatly. It is rare to see two combs of the exact same shape and style. This is because every antler is different which makes composite combs almost impossible to exactly replicate. There is a slightly more unified look to the single piece combs but in that case you are working with a flat, large piece of antler which would be easier to keep consistent with.

Composite comb and single piece comb

I was surprised to discover just how common place combs were in Birka. I explored the excavated graves on the island by way of Historiska Museet’s website which gives you access to details and pictures of each grave site by type and location. What I found was that if a grave had any objects still visible, odds were you would also find at least a fragment of a comb. When looking further into the research of others I discovered that combs are the second most common item found in graves at Birka. This shows that nearly everyone carried or owned a comb regardless of status within the community.

Combs were also not something that everyone made. Piles of both tooth and connector plates have been found along with scraps of antler. This was a specialized craft in the community.

Materials

Antler

Initially I believed that Red Deer antler was the primary material used for creating composite combs however after further research it seems that Elk was actually used much more frequently in Birka than Red Deer. Cow bone and Moose were also used but much less common than the above materials and were most often used for single piece comb. My piece was made using Elk antler as it is much easier to acquire than Red Deer and is the more common material used in my primary location of interest.

Wire

Material used for rivets is commonly said to be either iron or bronze. I do not have easy access to either and so decided to look further into copper wire as it is a material that would have also been found in the area (if you have bronze you have copper.) I found an article written by Niklas Stjerna regarding the analysis of wire used in composite comb making specifically in Birka in the tenth century. The analysis showed that the wire tested was almost exclusively nonalloyed copper wire.

The wire that I used was a 14 gauge dead soft copper wire. I chose 14 gauge (1.63 mm) because it sits right in the middle of the 1-2 mm diameter size that was commonly found in Stjerna’s study and it seemed like a large enough diameter to effectively hold the comb together.

Tools

I used a saw, hammer, various files, jeweler’s saw, and a rivet forming tool all of which were similar to tools found in period. I also used a drill to create the holes for the rivets as I did not have access to a hand drill at the time of construction.

Process

Experimentation

As it had been several years since I had attempted to make a composite comb I decided to start by making a practice piece out of wood. I used a large dowel and cut it down into plates like I would antler. The wood was very frustrating to work with as the grain tends to make it more unpredictable and it split and broke much more easily than wood. Since wood is also much softer than antler when I attempted to put together the comb using my copper rivets it looked very messy as the wire ended up bent over instead of having a head. This was a very frustrating experience and I don’t think I will be using wood to test antler work again!

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The breakdown of the wooden “antler” and my resulting attempt at a composite comb from the pieces.

Before I began cutting down the antler that I intended to use for this project I wanted to try something that I had seen regarding the splitting of antler. Ambrosiani had speculated that the tine of the antler was used to split the larger section into smaller pieces. This seemed like an interesting thing to test as I had an extra antler that had been more weathered and was not in decent condition to use for actual comb construction. I scored the large piece of antler and attempted to split it using the tine. The antler split to some degree but not where is had been scored and the spongy inner core of the antler simply absorbed the tine.

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An illustration of Ambrosiani’s theory and my attempt at splitting the antler with the tine.

Based on what I saw in this experiment, I do not believe that this would be an effective way to split an antler, particularly if you are expecting to use the pieces for something like a comb. Even if you could get the tine to split the antler the edges of the split would be rough and messy and there would be much more waste than if you simply cut the antler with the saw that you need to score it in the first place. I would like to test again in the future by making my cuts a bit deeper to see if that makes a difference on how clean the split is. It is also possible that the age of the antler affected the density of the antler’s core. This may have also created a less dense core that did not create enough pressure on surface of the antler to split it correctly.

Breaking Down the Antler

The antler that I had was a good size and so I had a lot of options in finding good areas to work with. I chose an area where the antler split to create the plates used for the teeth because it gave a wide and relatively flat spot to work with. This would create less waste and a stronger plate as you would be using less of the soft center of the antler. I used the saw to cut plates off the antler and shape them. I also filed them down to a uniform width so that they would hold evenly between the connecting plates. I left them longer than the finished comb intentionally so that I would have more space to work when I put the comb together.

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The creation of the plates used for the teeth of the comb.

Initially I planned on using a piece from the large section of the antler to form the top connecting plates, however, I found an area on one of the smaller tines that I felt would work better. To create the connecting plates I took this section and cut it in half. The back area was fairly flat and so I cut it in half again and used a file remove the inside and flatten out the back of the plates. I used the saw to adjust the two pieces so that they were uniform and would hold the larger plates well.

Rivets

The creation of rivets is something that I have very little experience with. I looked at possible ways that it was done in period and decided to create a basic rivet using a metal tool to form the first head and then close the rivet on the piece itself. I created a simple tool for forming the first head. I used a block of aluminum (that was what I had available) and drilled two small holes roughly the size that I wanted the rivets to be. This worked relatively well with the exception of putting a piece in the smaller hole that was a bit too short and getting it stuck. If I were to create a tool for this use in the future I would run the whole the entire way through the block or split it down the center and clamp it together.

I had some difficulty forming the heads using the copper wire. They were forming off to the side and the heads were larger than I would have liked. I was working with a half-hard copper wire which made it very difficult to create a head at all. Once I moved to dead soft wire the rivets were easier to form. In the future I plan to experiment with heating the copper to create a more uniform head.

Simple riveting tool and copper rivets

Putting It Together

Once I had my plates and rivets I used clamps to hold the plates together in the desired configuration. I drilled holes though all of the plates and added the rivets. This part is simple to accomplish as long as all of your pieces fit relatively well together. If you have inconsistency in your tooth plates they can slip and cause the holes to be off (I had this happen with the wooden test comb.)

I used five rivets to put the comb together. The amount of rivets in extant pieces varies widely. I have seen combs with as many as ten rivets and combs with as little as three. I initially used three but decided that five would better hold the plates in place. The plates were able to move just slightly and I wanted the piece to hold together well.

Through my research I found that the majority of combs had relatively small connecting plates and teeth that were around double that size. Since the connecting plates are 1 cm I cut the area for the teeth down to roughly 2.5 cm. This gave the comb a much more accurate look and will give the teeth added strength.

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Putting the comb together

Teeth

Extent combs teeth also widely vary. A majority of combs have very clear saw marks on the connecting plates which shows that the teeth were added after they were put together. This made the most sense to me as it gives you added stability when you are working as well as more consistency in appearance from plate to plate.

The extant combs have anywhere from 5 to 24 teeth per inch. My previous comb had 6 teeth per inch. Using the jeweler’s saw I was able to get 10 teeth per inch leaving .5 cm on either side. I marked the cut lines onto the plates and cut the teeth without a guide. I felt more confident about cutting them freehand because I was afraid that a guide may become crooked and I wouldn’t be able to see that there was an issue. I did have some issue with having my cuts stay completely straight because the jewelers saw has such a small blade. I plan to use a wider bladed saw on my next comb.

Cutting the teeth

There were a few issues with the teeth. The lines were very crooked and the space between each tooth was too small to actually brush your hair with. The teeth were also the same with all the way down when there really should be a taper, also to ease in combing. The solution to each of these problems was files! I found a picture of the tooth of an unfinished comb and it looked very similar to what I had created. This made me feel a little less like I had made a mistake and more like I was on the right track.

I first used a large flat file to taper the teeth. When you see side views of combs they generally have a trapezoidal shape from the connector plate down to the bottom of the teeth. To get this look I simply angled my filing, taking turns on each side of the plates, until the side view looked correct.

Before and after side views and the side view of an extent comb

The shaping of the teeth took a good amount of time. I took a small round file and shaped each tooth individually making sure to create a nice point at the bottom. This process eliminated the crooked look of the teeth almost entirely. I was amazed at how much of a difference it made!

Teeth of extent combs before and after filing

Decoration

After looking at the finds from Birka I discovered that most were very lightly decorated. The piece that I based my comb on had no decoration at all but I wanted to add something as my previous comb had no decoration as well. I went with a basic line design as opposed to adding dots because I found more combs excavated from Birka with simple line designs. The design was made using a combination of a saw and file.

Though every composite comb is different almost all of them have a curved top. I had initially decided to leave my piece straight but after further research I went with a curve as well. This meant more filing. I shaped the top with a rougher file and finished the shaping with a finer one.

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Before and after filing the teeth and rounding the top and a close up of the finished teeth

Conclusion

I am very happy with the final product. I have received great feedback from everyone who has tried it! The next time I would love to try a longer or double sided comb with two different sized teeth. I would also like to experiment further into decoration, possibly adding dots or additional shaping to the top.

Examples of 10th Century Composite Combs

Common Tools Found in Scandanavia

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Biblography

A Short Notice on the Manufacture of Copper Wire at Birka Niklas Stjerna

An Antler Comb-Construction Notes Dirk; http://www.angelfire.com/mi4/olafvanta/Dirk/comb/comb.htm#Provenance

Combs and Comb Making in Viking and Middle Ages: A Short Resume Dan Carlsson

Historiska Museet Personal communication and website http://www.historiska.se

Viking Age Combs, Comb Making and Comb Makers; In the Light of Finds from Birka and Ribe Kristina Ambrosiani, 1981