Sunday, May 5, 2013

Tied in Knots

           Since childhood I have been fascinated by the Saxons and Vikings. I took every opportunity to explore their lives, either through re-enactment events at carnivals, reading at the library, or visiting historical sites with my family. At fancy dress parties I am always drawn to elaborate gowns worn by medieval ladies, later finding myself wishing I had gone as a warrior in chain mail. A former art student, I am intrigued by patterns and textures, shapes and dyes, a passion I share with my mother who studied textiles. Writing historical novels set during these periods has renewed my interest in art, inspiring me in new ways. It was writing about chain mail that first set my mind off on an artistic exploration of links and knots.

           It is fascinating how knots are intrinsically woven into the ancient world. Knots and loops were employed throughout the lives of men and women; in ship rigging, in the creation of chain mail and in ‘nålbinding’ (a more ancient form of knitting to ‘knot’ wool into garments and blankets). It should be no surprise then that knots appeared in artwork and as amulets to praise the Gods. Think of the Viking Valknut: the slain warriors’ knot of three interlaced triangles; the Lemniscate: a figure-eight shape denoting eternity with examples found in Ancient Greece; the Triskele: three interlocked spirals found in art around the world and in Britain dating to the Iron Age; the spirals, curls and rods of Pictish symbols and the Celtic wheels of the thunder God Taranis. These never-ending designs are everywhere.

            On a visit to Bergen in west Norway, I stumbled across a small corner shop that was also a tiny museum. They made replica weaponry and jewellery and there were some marvellous original artefacts such as Viking belt buckles and sword hilts. Knot work was carved onto leather and wood and twisted into shapes with metals; from embroidery on garments, burial caskets and boats, to a warrior’s war belt. Soon after the Staffordshire Hoard became displayed at Birmingham Museum & Art Gallery  I took a ‘behind the scenes’ tour. We were able to watch technicians working on objects that were still hidden by layers of hard mud, observing the painstaking process of removing the debris with natural thorns so as not to scratch the gold items beneath. We were privy to objects that had not yet reached public display and able to discuss suggestions for pieces they had been unable to identify. Once again, knots and interlaced patterns appeared on almost every item. We were told how painstaking it had been for a modern jeweller to recreate a small decorative piece with modern techniques and machinery. In contrast, the original Saxon artisan would have laboured for hours by hand, in only natural daylight with no magnification equipment except his own eyesight. This dedication to achieve such beautiful items gives us an insight into the importance of the pieces and the people for whom they were made.

            Following some research on nålbinding, I became fascinated how knitted stitches resembled chain mail. This is my interpretation of an early medieval sleeveless chain mail vest. The plaited tassels at the front of the garment mimic women’s or men’s long plaited hair that was á la mode. The cubed buttons with scored-off corners are for decoration and reminded me of boat-making or logging, where wood is hacked off by axes or other bladed instruments.

            I hope you enjoyed reading and that you are inspired to find history in your own lives through what you wear or use.

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