History Stories

Vikings knew their way around a spindle—they were experts at spinning wool and hair into textiles. But, according to new research, they weren’t the first to master the skill.

Many hundreds of years ago, in the icy expanses of what is today northeastern Canada, Inuits spun yarn and used it to decorate clothing. How they learned their craft, and when, is a mystery that has long puzzled researchers. Until recently, most assumed that these crafts were imports, brought in and taught to the Inuit by Viking colonists around 1,000 years ago. But a new study in the Journal of Archaeological Studies turns these assumptions on their end: Instead, the researchers propose, the Inuits taught themselves to spin yarn, centuries before Norse invaders showed up.

Norse settlers sailed west to Canada from Greenland and made a home for themselves in Newfoundland, establishing a community in L’Anse aux Meadows. These Vikings, the paper explains, brought a well-established tradition of making textiles with them. Four-legged passengers on their ships—mostly sheep and goats—provided the wool and hair they would then turned into clothing and textiles, using “warp-weighted looms” and “drop spindles.”

Rather than learning from them, it now seems likely that the people they met there had a similar tradition all their own. “The idea that you would have to learn to spin something from another culture was a bit ludicrous,” Michelle Hayeur Smith, the paper’s lead author, told Canadian broadcaster CBC. “It’s a pretty intuitive thing to do.”

Two examples of Dorset culture spun yarn from the Nanook Site. (Credit: M. Hayeur Smith)

Two examples of Dorset culture spun yarn from the Nanook Site. (Credit: M. Hayeur Smith)

In the study, researchers found a way to “shampoo” the oil out of the delicate fibers, then carbon-dated them. The results were jaw-dropping, co-author Kevin Smith of Brown University told the broadcaster. “They clustered into a period from about 100 AD to about 600-800 AD—roughly 1,000 years to 500 years before the Vikings ever showed up,” he said. These weavers would have been the ancient Dorset and Thule people, ancestors of the Inuit, using hair from the musk ox and arctic hare.

It seems likely, therefore, that there was a certain amount of technological exchange between the two cultures, with both having well-established spinning traditions. In their new home, Norse weavers may have learned how to use hair from other animals in their textiles, like bears and foxes, from their new neighbors, whom they called the Skraelings.

The new “shampooing” technique may have exciting implications for other Arctic archaeologists. Like the fibers in the study, Arctic artifacts from the period are often suffused with sea mammal oil—which can make it very hard to carbon date. It opens up the possibility of greater accuracy in dating other items, which may in turn help researchers understand the subtleties of when people moved into certain areas, how, and why. “Until we get good dating methods,” Smith said, “we can’t even begin to deal with that.”

Studying textiles is sometimes thought of as less exciting than studying the tools people used to hunt food or kill one another. But textiles tell a valuable story, Hayeur Smith said, and one that reveals a lot about how people lived their lives. “People don’t spend a lot of time thinking about this as a valid form of material culture that is representing something else,”  she said. “Covering yourself, protecting yourself, is equally as important as eating.”

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