Viking Training in Swords.

That sounds like a bit of a quirky title…… but Fingal Living History Society hosted a training weekend in the grounds of Swords Castle, Co Dublin; and yes, some of the training involved sword fighting.
Mind you, there were also spears and axes, and Dane axes and a bill hook if my eyes didn’t deceive me!

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There was a really good attendance for this training weekend. There were around fifty fighters representing groups from Dublin, Waterford, Cork, Downpatrick, Clare and also from England (apologies if I managed to miss anyone out there!).

The re-enactors use the training weekends to brush up on their weapons of choice, and also to learn other fight techniques. The less experienced fighters learn from the more experienced, and they get to practice as well. Here is a small selection of photos of the fighters playing in the castle grounds.

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The training can be one on one, or as a groups of fighters against other groups.

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There is also a huge social aspect to this event as it gives members of different groups to meet and socialise with each other.

But it’s not all about the fighters and their  toys; the crafters also get together for what is sometimes referred to as a ‘stitch and bitch’. I managed to teach some people how to nalbind, and a friend spent some time teaching a few of us how to finger braid with five loops. Unfortunately I didn’t take any photos, but I did find this site that has some instructions and pictures. The braids would have been used to decorate hems on garments.

Great weekend away with lots done; looking forward to the next event!

Battle of Hastings……..2012

In 1066, Duke William of Normandy defeated Harold Godwinson at the Battle of Hastings….. to be honest, these words are ingrained in my memory. One of my childhood memories revolves around this battle; my sister must have had a history test coming up, and my mum was helping her revise for it. They were sitting in the porch of the little house we grew up in; my sister lying on the floor walking her feet up and down the walls, and my mum beside her in the old white armchair. Mum reads the passage ‘In 1066, Duke William of Normandy defeated Harold Godwinson at the Battle of Hastings’ and my sister replies ‘I didn’t get that mummy – read it again!’ So on it went…….. needless to say my sister didn’t turn out to be a history buff!

I’m not going to attempt to write a history of the Battle of Hastings here, but  you can find out the background to the battle here.

Suffice to say that while Harold was defeating Harold Hardrada at the Battle of Stamford Bridge on 25th September 1066, William was preparing to land his forces at Pevensey Bay in Sussex. The two forces met at Senlac Hill on Saturday 14th October 1066.

Each year the battle is re-enacted in the present-day town of Battle, East Sussex, in the grounds of Battle Abbey. I’ve been fortunate to attend this for several years now; it’s like an end of season event for the re-enactors before winter sets in.  It’s a great event to attend with participants from the UK, Ireland and mainland Europe.

The site is laid out with both Norman and Saxons encampments, and the battle follows the script of the actual battle. Most years the weather is beautiful; but in 2012 it was quite simply a mud bath, apart from the battlefield.

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The Saxons line out at the top of the hill, in front of the abbey walls………

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with the Normans approaching from the foot of the hill.

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A key part of Williams army was his cavalry. Personally I always envy the guys and girls that get to do the cavalry fighting as I have always loved horse-riding.

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They are very skilled and quite adept at getting their mounts to engage with warriors on foot – this takes quite a lot of training and practice, both for the riders and the horses!

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Another key feature of the re-enactment are the archers.

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The battle script tells how the Normans attack up the hill and eventually the Saxons break ranks to follow them, allowing the Normans to take advantage and win the battle. Harold is killed by an arrow to the eye, and William becomes William I of England. We would come to know him as William the Conqueror.

I’ve included a few more photos; hopefully they demonstrate the level of skill and fighting that these re-enactors display.

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Unfortunately plans for a battle in 2013 had to be put on hold to let the grounds recover; we’ll be back in 2014!

Dublin Viking Festival 2010……… a trip back in time!

Did you know that Dublin city in Ireland was once a viking settlement?
The vikings named their settlement ‘Dyflinn’,  probably from the  Irish ‘Dubh Linn’ meaning  the black pool. The river basin provided an ideal shelter from the fierce storms they would have encountered as they crossed the Northern seas.
Ireland’s temperate climate and access to vast forests made it an ideal place to over winter, offering the vikings a place to repair and rebuild their longboats during the Viking off-season. But they didn’t just over-winter; they stayed. In fact the Norse ruled Dublin until 1014 when they were defeated by Brian Boru’s army at the Battle of Clontarf.

In 2010 we were privileged to attend a Dublin Viking Festival organised by Dublin City Council and Fingal Living History Society at Wood Quay. The location was the grounds of the Dublin Corporation offices, just beside Christ Church Cathedral. Between 1974 and 1981, the site was excavated extensively and revealed a complete viking settlement with over 200 houses. The finds from the excavations are on display at the National Museum of Ireland, and the remains of the old city walls are still visible on the Wood Quay site.

1-038I have to admit I was thrilled when we said we would go; we would get to do an event on an actual viking settlement site (albeit 1000 years after they were there!).

The show proved to be truely international, with Irish, English, Polish, German and Danish re-enactors taking part. The event followed the usual routine; a living history village showing the various crafts and skills that the vikings practiced and fight demonstrations. For more information on what Fingal provides as a living history display you can click here.

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The handcrafts included tablet weaving, nalbinding and woodcarving.

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There was also a kitchen display to show what the vikings would have eaten, and how they would have cooked.

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All the displays were interaction driven; as living history re-enactors we love people to ask questions so we can explain what we are doing.

The fight demonstrations were as spectacular as always; it was great that we had the international element to the displays, as it gave our Irish vikings a chance to pit their skills against these modern viking invaders.
The weapons used are metal but blunt edged, and are recreations of actual weapons that have been found during archaeological excavations.

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Most fighters seem to prefer using swords; to be honest, in viking times only the most wealthy warriors could have afforded to own a sword. Most would have used either an axe or a spear.

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To be allowed to combat on the re-enactment field, these fighters would have trained for months beforehand, and there is usually as assessment before they are allowed to participate. Modern day health and safety rules all events!!

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As you can imagine, there is a lot of  ‘acting’ on the battlefield when the time comes to die!

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It was a great event to attend.
And here’s a thought; in 1014 Brian Boru defeated the vikings at the Battle of Clontarf. Wouldn’t it be great if there was an event in 2014 to celebrate the 1000 years since the victory? There is one planned; hopefully that event will take place……… looking forward to it already!

Nalbinding; getting started with the Oslo stitch.

So you’ve decided to do some nalbinding. But where do you start?

Many of the videos that I have found are excellent for demonstrating the actual stitches, but they have complicated descriptions of ways of making the starting loops. I found these videos quite confusing when I was starting, so I tried to find other ways to make that first stitch. Through trial and error, I found a way that suited me.
This is what I do; I’m not saying that this is the only way, but it’s what I find easiest.

First you need to cut a piece of yarn approximately 1m long (about two arm-lengths). You can use longer, but for a beginner using longer lengths can make the nalbinding more awkward.
Thread the yarn through your needle, keeping the two ends at different length.

For description purposes, the working end is the end of the yarn that is attached to the needle, and the free end is the other.
Put the needle down for a moment.

Make a loose knot in the yarn, and place the knot loop on the pad of your thumb.

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Take the knotted yarn loosely between your thumb and index finger, so the working end runs between the left thumb and forefinger, and lies across the thumb. NB the working end must run between your thumb and forefinger! The loop sitting up behind your thumb is what is referred to as the halo stitch.

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Now using your needle, pass the needle through the halo loop from the back towards you. Then continue the needle under the working length of yarn lying between your thumb and index finger at the cross over point.
This will work best if you come from the side of the loop instead of the top of it.

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 The aim is to create another loop that runs across the front of your thumb. Pull the needle and yarn slowly through keeping a light hold on the stitches, until there is a loop around the front of your thumb. The loop around the front of your thumb is your working loop. You have now created a basic stitch to begin with.

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So far so good (I hope!).

Now for the first Oslo stitch. Pass the needle through the halo away from you.

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Do not push the needle the whole way through the halo, but twist the needle round so the point passes back down under the working loop and the long piece of yarn at the cross over point. The easiest way to do this is on the pad at the back of your thumb. You can move your index finger slightly back out of the way until you have the needle in place.

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Then lightly hold the cross over point between your index finger and thumb, and pull your needle and yarn through. You will now have two loops on your thumb, with the newest loop closer to your nail bed.

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Push the older loop off the end of your thumb to create your new halo loop, keeping the newer loop on your thumb to create your new working loop.

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You now have two loops at the back of your thumb. If you are unsure of which  is the halo and which is the working stitch, pull the working yarn and the working loop will tighten.

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Continue these steps in this section to create a chain, picking up each new halo away from you, and twisting the needle back down through the working loop and under the working end of the yarn.
The chain length will depend on what you want to make. In my example I have done 25 stitches, but for a bag you will probably need more. You can make the chain as long as you need for the opening of the bag or hat. The chain can look ‘messy’ as you create it. (To smooth it out, take both ends and pull gently and the stitches will even out.

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When you have the length of chain you need, you will have to join the ends in a circle. The chain should be straight and not twisted. Bring the free end of the chain round to meet the needle end. Pick the first stitch up by passing the needle away from you through it.Do not push the needle the whole way through. (This will be the connection stitch. As the connection stitch is picked up front-to-back the connection is termed F1).

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After you have picked up the connection stitch, make the Oslo stitch as described above; with the connection stitch on the needle, continue to pass the needle through the halo away from you, twist the needle back and down through the working stitch and the working end of the yarn as you did for the chain Oslo stitch.

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Continue by picking up the second stitch on the original chain and working a basic Oslo stitch.

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As you continue working, the nalbinded piece will work up into a tube. This is my basic method for starting hats,mittens and bags.

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So that’s my way of starting nalbinding with the Oslo stitch.

If I want to use a stitch that requires more than one halo loop, then I just pick up more as I go along; first two stitches for Mammen, three for Broden and so on. I find that this also gives a graduated start to the piece as opposed to a block end effect.

I use videos to help me learn the stitches. This link is to the best site I found for video instructions.

Happy nalbinding! And remember – practice and perseverance.

Nalbinding; a brief history

When I tell people that I nalbind, the most common response is ‘what?’. So I find I have to explain what is is, where it came from and even give a short demonstration of how it’s done.

Basically, during the Viking-age (793-1066 AD) knitting and crochet were unknown, so they had to use another very old and effective method for making warm socks, mittens and hats: nalbinding.

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Nalbinding (also spelled nålbinding, naalbinding, nalebinding) is a method of creating a stretchy textile using short lengths of yarn and a single-eyed bone or wooden needle. Fabric is formed by looping and knotting the yarn through previously created loops, gradually building up row upon row of loops. The gauge depends on the size of yarn and the looseness/tightness of the individual naalbinder. Depending on the stitch, the fabric will be soft, firm, stiff or stretchy.

Nalbinding predates both knitting and crochet by at least 2000 years. Fragments found in Israel date to 6500 B.C. The oldest find in northern Europe is dated at 4200 B.C, and comes from Denmark. Additional samples of toed anklet socks from fifth and sixth century Egypt are also examples of nalbinding, previously misidentified as knitting.

Nalbinding as a practical needle craft survived longest in Scandinavia before it was supplanted by easier to produce knitting. Nalbinding was regarded as a superior craft because it required more skill to produce and the fabric created was thicker and warmer. The name Nalbinding was introduced at the beginning of the 1970’s by Martha Broden and translates to mean ‘needle; to bind or sew’.

In knitting each loop is interlocked through the previous row and the previous stitch. In Nalbinding, each individual loop is knotted in itself, and is also interlocked. Each piece of yarn is pulled through completely and creates a knot. When you pull the end of a length of knitting, the piece can unravel completely; if you pull the end of a nalbinded piece, the yarn will knot! The nalbinded material will not ladder – socks develop less holes!!

There are two methods of Nalbinding;

1. The free hand method,

2. The thumb chain method.

I use the thumb chain method. This means that the working loops are fixed around your thumb, and working them will create a chain.

Each Nalbinding stitch has a notation or classification depending on how the yarn is looped and worked. For example, the Oslo stitch has the classification UO/UOO F1. U means under, O means over, / denotes the point where a crossing point is. If you look at the yarn as it creates the stitch you should be able to see this pattern. However I find the classifications confusing for beginners and tend to stick to the stitch names.

In Nalbinding, you work with lengths of yarn, and join them together as you proceed (unlike knitting or crochet where you work off the ball of wool). You also need to work with 100% wool so you can ‘felt’ the yarns together as needed. Ideally, beginners should use a thick unplied yarn as the worked stitch is easier to see. However, unless you spin your own yarn this can be difficult to find these days.

Most people that have knitted or crocheted will pick up nalbinding quite quickly – but you don’t need previous wool-craft experience. And as with all things new; perseverance and practice will get you there!

Battle of the Flags – UCC style!

For a number of years now University College Corks’ Medieval Renaissance Society (also known as UCC MedRen) have organised an annual event on University campus known as The Battle of the Flags. This event takes place early in the yea and re-enactors from all over Ireland come to Cork and do battle with an assortment of weapons. This year was no different.

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The battle field was located on the Lower Grounds on the UCC campus, with the old college buildings overlooking it; the college provided a striking backdrop to the battles. We walked to the field along the Western Road in viking kit; to say that we got a few strange looks would be an understatement. Cars and buses were definitely slowing down, and pedestrians were giving us a wide berth. Can’t really imagine why!!

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Weapons included spears, swords, axes and dane-axes to name a few. I should point out that these guys train regularly and have to pass assessments before they can fight on the battlefield. Health and safety has to take precedence.

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The basic premise is simple; each team is given a flag and the aim of the battle is to engage the other teams and win their flag. Score is kept and the winners are the team that has taken the most flags for the duration of the battle.

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With six teams fighting there was a lot going on, and it was hard to keep track of how things were going – just as well there were independent score keepers!
This was the first re-enactment event of 2013 in Ireland, and I believe a good time was had by all – especially in the social gathering after!

Mordants, wool and natural dyes.

Have you ever tried dyeing wool with something that had thought would give a brilliant colour?
You’ve looked at the way it looks or stains and thought to yourself ‘Ohhh that’s a good one  – I’ll try that out’ only to dye with it, and get a colour nothing close to what you had expected. Or worse still no colour at all!
I have!
I use wool for nalbinding for viking re-enactment, and thought it would be a good idea to use natural dyed wools to make my socks, hats, mittens and cowls.  So I went looking for information about wool and natural dyes. An early find, and a great book for any natural dyer is Jill Goodwins book ‘A Dyer’s Manual’. It’s an older book, first published in 1982, but the information is still relevant. She also includes a list of dye materials and the mordants that they need.  I have found other books, but this is the one I keep returning too!

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There’s also a wealth of information on the internet. The Woolery is an online site that has information on natural dyes and mordants

http://www.woolery.com/store/pc/Information-on-Natural-Dyes-c567.htm

I found that all natural dyes are either substantive (which need no mordant) or non-substantive (where a mordant is needed).
Substantive dyes include onion skins, acorns and walnut shells. Non-substantive dyes include elderberries, ivy, ragwort and ivy.
So what’s a mordant? Well, a mordant makes the dye ‘stick’ to the wool. It comes from the Latin verb ‘mordre’ which literally means ‘to bite’; the mordant helps the dye ‘bite’ into the wool.
You can use the mordant in several ways;

1)      On the washed  damp yarn before dyeing,
2)      In the dyebath itself when you are dyeing the wool,
3)      After dyeing in the dyebath,
4)      Or for real colour fastness before and after dyeing.

So the next question I had was ‘what do I use as a mordant?’
Historically there are quite a few that our ancestors could have used, and you can still use them today. These included;

stale urine
salt
vinegar
wood ash in solution
oak galls
raw alum
water  in which rusty iron has been soaked
willow or oak bark
copper pieces that have been soaked in ammonia for about 2 weeks.

I’ve tried some of these, but they can be time consuming to source.  Oak galls are hard to find… and if you’re curious about what they look like…

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And as for the stale urine; I can assure it smells as bad as it sounds! And you have to collect it……….

So being a modern minded Viking I found some modern versions. These are mainly metal salts, which are thought to make the wool more porous. This makes the wool more able to absorb the dye and improve the fastness of the colour, even with the substantive dyes. There are several but I’ve only mentioned the ones that I use.
I mostly use Alum (aluminium sulphate). You can get it from most chemists. It’s used in combination with Cream of Tartar (3-4oz alum to 1oz cream of tartar) which brightens the colour and keeps the wool soft.
I use Jill Goodwins recipe from ‘A Dyer’s Manual’ pages 32-36.

‘Allow 3-4oz alum to 1lb of wool (so you’d need about 1oz of cream of tartar). Dissolve the alum and cream of tartar in a little boiling water and add to the pot. Add the damp wool and bring to a simmer point over about 1 hour. Simmer for a further 1 hour, stirring gently from time to time. Use immediately, or rinse, dry and store for further use’.

One thing to note; don’t stir the wool continuously as your wool may felt (i.e stick together).

I also use Copper Sulphate. Be careful when handling this one as it’s poisonous. It’s also an unpredictable mordant, and tends to ‘sadden’ or darken the colours. Used on its own it gives the wool a greenish blue colour.

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Again from ‘A Dyers Manual ‘the recipe I use is

‘8oz wool,
2gals soft water,
2 teaspoons cream of tartar and
4 teaspoons copper sulphate.’

I’ve made some mordant from rusty iron – and had the same effect from dying in an iron pot. This one also saddens the colour. I found this recipe to make an iron mordant on the internet;

‘boil 5 litres of water with 2 cups of vinegar and 1 cup of rusty nails for one hour. Leave it to stand for 24 hours and then pour off the water. This water is the mordant.’

Don’t use a pot or any utensil that you use for cooking for mordanting wool in as the mordants can be toxic !! And rubber gloves are a good idea too.
When I mordant wool I use a steel pot and utensils that I store separately fro my cooking utensils.
Also using an iron or copper pot can affect the colour (almost as if a mordant had been used!). I also use rain water we collect in a water butt.
Finally, because many of the mordants are toxic, be careful when disposing of them. I tend to store them for future use.

One further word of warning – dyeing can become addictive! Once you’ve tried it and enjoyed it, plants around you take on a whole new appearance!!