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Stephen Curtin




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PostPosted: Thu 26 May, 2011 7:18 am    Post subject: Tarred linen gambeson         Reply with quote

In the 13th century Norwegian text known as the king's mirror there are numerous references to items of padded armour made from "soft linen" that has been "thoroughly blackened", I'm wondering if this might refer to linen that has been treated with tar or pitch, possibly for waterproofing? What got me thinking about this is another reference from John Major's 1521 history of Britain, in which he mentions "wild Scots" going into battle wearing a "linen garment manifoldly sewed and painted or daubed with pitch, with a covering of deerskin". Also I've heard somewhere (though I'm not sure if there is evidence for this), that vikings used to tar their woolen ship sails for waterproofing. So what do the rest of you think? Is there anyone here who knows if textiles were treated with tar or pitch historicaly?
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Scott Woodruff





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PostPosted: Thu 26 May, 2011 7:42 am    Post subject:         Reply with quote

Stephen, you and I must have a lot in common, you keep asking questions that I have spent a lot of time racking my brains over. This blackened linen thing has been really frustrating to research. While the pitch theory is possible, it seems to be contradicted by descriptions of the linen being soft. The best theory I have been able to come up with is that he is refering to bog-blackened linen. Elsewhere in the "Kings Mirror" references are made to treating materials (I would have to go back and check which) being treated by immersion in certain bogs. The reasoning behind the blackening is never really explained, but he insists again and again that the linen must be soft. I don't know about you, but I would not appreciate wearing underwear treated with pitch! Basically, the whole deal is a mystery to me, and I would be ecstatic if a good solid explanation could be discovered.
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Stephen Curtin




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PostPosted: Thu 26 May, 2011 10:58 am    Post subject:         Reply with quote

Hi Scott, yes we must have a bit in common as lately you've been the first to jump into most of my topics. I just had another quick look through The King Mirror and I noticed something that I hadn't noticed before. There seems to be some distinction in the differant types of padded armours. The hose, gamboised cuisse, horse's body armour (can't remember what its called), and gambeson for aboard ships, are described as soft and thoroughly blackened, while the aketon is just described as soft, and both the horse's neck protection and man's outer sleeveless gambeson are just described as firm. So at least the aketon might not have been tarred for comfort, probably not needing waterproofing anyway. You do make a good point about the tar or pitch negating the soft aspect of most of these items. I imagine that tar or pitch would harden them somewhat, but we could be wrong about this, is it possible that tar or pitch (remember these are differant types of both) didn't have this effect? I suppose some test are needed to verify this.
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Scott Woodruff





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PostPosted: Thu 26 May, 2011 3:48 pm    Post subject:         Reply with quote

I have experimented with both materials, and both definitely harden the cloth like concrete. I could see tar or pitch as an option for the "firm" armors. One thing I have rolled around in my head is the use of some kind of bone-black or lamp-black. I have no idea what purpose this might serve, but it could certainly "thoroughly blacken" some linen. Linen is notoriously hard to dye, so maybe blackening was done purely for visual effect.
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Sander Marechal




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PostPosted: Thu 26 May, 2011 4:12 pm    Post subject:         Reply with quote

Could it be that the blackening was not on purpose? When I look at my undyed linen gambeson, it's quite black just from wearing a blackened hauberk for a weekend.
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Elling Polden




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PostPosted: Thu 26 May, 2011 4:34 pm    Post subject:         Reply with quote

The exact meaning of this pasage has long been a source of debate. This is further complicated by the fact that we do not know exactly what the author means by the word "Sverta", wich translates as "blackened".
He could mean that the cloth is dyed or blackened, or it could be a textile term that we do not know of.

By soft, my understanding is that he specifies thin, close voven cloth, rather than stiff, coarse material. "sverta" could be further description in this direction, but we can no know.

"this [fight] looks curious, almost like a game. See, they are looking around them before they fall, to find a dry spot to fall on, or they are falling on their shields. Can you see blood on their cloths and weapons? No. This must be trickery."
-Reidar Sendeman, from King Sverre's Saga, 1201
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Scott Woodruff





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PostPosted: Thu 26 May, 2011 4:50 pm    Post subject:         Reply with quote

Sander, it is made pretty clear that the armor was made of cloth that had already been blackened.
Elling, yes, that is pretty much the long and short of it. We can theorize all we want, but we will probably never know. The one thing that is clear is that the cloth should indeed be as soft and fine as possible.
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Stephen Curtin




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PostPosted: Thu 26 May, 2011 8:19 pm    Post subject:         Reply with quote

Yes unfortunately all we can do is speculate and we'll probably never no the truth of it, but it is interesting to consider the possibilities. Scott you say you've experimented with tarring linen before and it resulted in hardening up like concrete, was this experiment on a small piece of linen or on a full sized garment, and what sort of tar was used? I'm interested because, the above reference by John Major in 1521 definately show that pitch or tar was used on some occasions to treat linen.
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Scott Woodruff





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PostPosted: Fri 27 May, 2011 1:10 am    Post subject:         Reply with quote

I have used pitch from various conifers, home-made coal tar and hardware store roofing tar on small pieces of linen. All had much the same effect. When soaked all the way through, the cloth becomes quite hard. Painting a thin layer on top of many layers of linen would be much less so. Are there any references you know of to tarred linen pre-16th century? I have no doubt that a multi-layered aketon daubed with pitch would make quite an effective defense, whether it was soaked through and hard like a cuirass or simply waterproofed on the outside but retaining flexibility. On a related but off-topic note, I am considering trying to make some mycaenean-style linen greaves, but I have no hard evidence on how these were made. Making them out of tarred linen and then possibly painting them white might work though.
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Thom Jason





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PostPosted: Fri 27 May, 2011 1:40 am    Post subject:         Reply with quote

An interesting note is that some dyes actually have anti-bacterial properties and have been used on uniforms to reduce smells and keeping them from rotting so as to prolong the garment's life.

An example of this is the blue dyed cloth used for Japanese Kendo uniforms. The Blue dye was originally chosen because of these very properties.

If it isn't pitch or tar on these, the cloth could have been dyed or bog soaked for these very properties.
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Stephen Curtin




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PostPosted: Fri 27 May, 2011 1:42 am    Post subject:         Reply with quote

No sorry, I don't yet know of references to pre 16th century tarred linen, but its not an area that I've done much research on, perhaps somebody else here has the answer. In regard to the 1521 item I think that it must have been just a light surface coat of tar, and remained flexible, because the highland Scots fought in an environment which favoured fast and light warriors, and they never seem to have adopted any form of rigid armour.
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Elling Polden




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PostPosted: Fri 27 May, 2011 7:23 am    Post subject:         Reply with quote

"Blackening" does not have to be tarr. It could be something less sticky, like linseed oil, for waterproofing. This would make sense, since linen that is exposed to the combination of moisture and wear deteriorates quite quickly.
"this [fight] looks curious, almost like a game. See, they are looking around them before they fall, to find a dry spot to fall on, or they are falling on their shields. Can you see blood on their cloths and weapons? No. This must be trickery."
-Reidar Sendeman, from King Sverre's Saga, 1201
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Robert Rootslane




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PostPosted: Fri 27 May, 2011 5:06 pm    Post subject:         Reply with quote

Well last year i had a nice opportunity to tar my gambeson. Our every week sparrings take place in a place wheare viking ships are built. In one especially agressive fight, me and my sparring partner both fell on a freshli tarred boat. With me being under, the back of my gambeson was pretty much covered with tar.

If i remember correctly it was uncomfordable to wear for a couple of weeks because of the smell and the fact that grass and dirt stciked to the gambeson. Annyway now it has been almost a year from it, and id say that although it made my gambeson terribly ugly it does stop its back from geting wet, atleast when its not heavyli raining... The tar didnt make the gambeson any less flexible than it was before. Although maby if the linen would of have been soaked in tar instead of getting rubbed in it, it would be more rigid...
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Stephen Curtin




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PostPosted: Fri 27 May, 2011 6:13 pm    Post subject:         Reply with quote

Hmm accidental experimental archaeology, I like it.
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Johan S. Moen




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PostPosted: Mon 30 May, 2011 12:02 pm    Post subject:         Reply with quote

Elling Polden wrote:
"Blackening" does not have to be tarr. It could be something less sticky, like linseed oil, for waterproofing. This would make sense, since linen that is exposed to the combination of moisture and wear deteriorates quite quickly.


Unfortunately, linen soaked cloth also tends to spontaneously burst into flames, so I wouldn't really recommend this approach. Someone once suggested beeswax, but I think that that would both be strongly influenced by temperature(too soft or too hard), as well as expensive.

Another solution, posted on another forum I frequent, is taken from a late 1400's manuscript and reads as follows:

"Tak fiska lim giorth aff maghommen, viij lod, mastic ii lod, oc blanda wäl samman Sidhan lima thär mädh sammam tre äller fira faalth läroffth, oc apthera pa nokre formo som fäller segh äffther likamsens skapnath, oc tha thet är törkath bither ey järn pa thet harniskith,"

I won't attempt a direct translation here, but in essence it says to take a certain measure of fish glue and mastic and mix them together. Then, apply it to 3-4 layers of canvas and put the whole thing on a form/mould and let it dry. Supposedly, the effect is to make the canvas impervious to iron (weapons).

Johan
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