Retrotech: Making a Tunic, 1700 Years Ago

The tunic was found in the Norwegian mountains.  Textile historians recreated it using the technologies current when it was made–pulling the wool naturally rather than shearing, spinning it into thread (with no spinning wheel), and weaving it into cloth. The labor required was estimated by having skilled people do a sample amount of each task required and extrapolating to the complete garment.

Total labor requirement was 780 hours.  The linked post estimates the cost at almost $38000, apparently assuming Norwegian labor rates.

I don’t think anyone would produce such garments using such expensive labor, though (unless it was for some very affluent niche market) but would use cheaper Asian or South American or even American labor.  Maybe a reasonable number including overhead and supervision would be something like $5/hour. Which still gives a cost of $3800.

And if someone made it for their own use, or that of someone in their family, that 780 hours would represent a pretty large piece of their work capacity for the entire year.

As Paul Graham noted, clothing was very expensive right up to the Industrial Revolution.

9 thoughts on “Retrotech: Making a Tunic, 1700 Years Ago”

  1. A friendly reminder; If you link to Twitter, or whatever the hell they decide to call themselves, people not “on” will not see whatever you linked to. In my case, a single tweet pointing out that roughly 400AD isn’t the Stone Age, instead. Possibly Thread Reader until they’re killed off.

    To start. If they weren’t shearing Norwegian sheep at that time like they were doing in the rest of the world, those sheep would have shed a great deal of their fleece every spring in order to survive. This is a trait that was bred out of domestic sheep a long time ago most places. That wool would have been gathered primarily by children as they tended the flocks.

    Shearing sheep is mentioned in Genesis:

    As I can’t see the link, I’ll bet the bulk of the time was taken by making the yarn on drop spindles. Assuming that, a visitor would have seen but hardly bothered to remark that every female old enough would have had one with them constantly and be using it whenever their hands weren’t otherwise occupied. That’s what it took. “A man may work from sun to sun, but a woman’s work is never done.” Still, many hours in comparison the the few minutes of direct human labor to make most garments today. In 19th century England, thieves were commonly hanged for theft of a cloak or scarf.

    Survival, in the North especially, was an all hands affair where the outcome was often tragic.

  2. Weaving paraphernalia is ridiculously common in sites of this era. I’ve excavated Roman settlements in the 100-500 AD time frame and we find spindle whorls all the time. Most were improvised out of broken pottery shards. Sheep, equipment and most importantly labor were all so available as to be near cost free. To say that we could not produce a tunic at a reasonable cost says much more about us than about them.

  3. “Sheep, equipment and most importantly labor were all so available as to be near cost free”

    In the case of labor, ‘near cost free’ means ‘near income free’ to the provider of the labor.

  4. Might be worthwhile to think about work tasks that can be done simultaneously with something else versus those that cannot.

    Old-style spinning w/drop spindle or distaff could be paralleled with other activities; apparently there even exists a medieval miniature of a woman having sex while spinning with a distaff. With the spinning wheel, the spinner would have to sit in one place, but she could still have conversations. And in an industrial spinning mill, it was probably impossible to do anything but focus on the job.

    Are there present-day parallels?

  5. Being warm is important to us Norwegians.
    I find it difficult to believe that they were not shearing by that time.

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