Icelandic National Costume - The Vest

There is a saying in Icelandic that to have a choice is to be in pain.  I felt that way when it was time to make all the choices necessary to start to make the vest for the costume.

First you have to pick a colour for the body. For the 19th century costume, there is a choice between red, blue or green. The vest is outlined with a border of solid colour and under the silver "milla", there is a lining, often in tartan pattern.  On the back were either velvet ribbons flanked by gold or silver trim or lace. The lace was always bobbin lace made of wool. The colour of these could be almost anything. And then there is the embroidered part on the front "baldýring" which I have done. So, quite a daunting task to make all those decisions. And that is just for the vest.

Then there is the apron! It can be striped or plaid. Even a solid colour, although that is less common. Some prefer woven wool, others want silk. And the choice of colours is pretty unlimited. I made an apron of fine wool that I wove in a stipe. The yarn was all natuarrly colour by me, I only wish I had had the patience and talent to spin the wool myslef. Maybe the next apron will be all mine. Women would have had more than one apron, so there are possibilites og changing the way the costume looks. I've finished the apron, it's pretty easi to make. Weaving it took a bit of time, but it was fun. The vest still has quite a ways to go. Thankfully the skirt is always a solid black, so no hard choice there. It is a challenge to try and make it all look good, without it being a wishy-washy, matchy-matchy or horribly gaudy.

The 20th century versions of the national costume are easy, but also not as interesting and not as authentic in my opinion. They were deliberatly designed by an artist, Sigurður Guðmundsson, who invented three new versions of the old Faldbúningur because it was falling out of use. He designed the new rather flamboyant Skautbúningur, which I find rather OTT. The 20th century versions of the Icelandic costumes are always black with either gold or silver filigree embellishments, but no embroidery. They also have bobbin lace at the back, either in silver or gold thread.

But I wanted the more colourful older version of the upphlutur and as usual I need to make things suitably difficult for myself. I decided to dye the cloth for the vest myself. Not in the least because I wanted it blue and the "accepted" medium blue fabric is in a  too bright and inauthentic colour for my taste. It is a colour that never existed before synthetic dyes and the available dark blue is just plain ugly, in my humble opinion.

I wanted indigo from woad, which is lighter in colour than the indian indigo. And I actually wanted a medium blue colour, rather than a very dark blue. I had never dyed cloth before, but it turned out beautifully, somewhat to my surprise. The fabric is twill woven wool and I managed to find a natural coloured fabric that I could use. I had cut up the pieces into the smallest possible ones to be able to cut the pattern later and then I used a seriously big pot that I got at a charity shop. I dipped the pieces 2-5 times each, one back piece, one piece for straps and then two pieces for either side on the front. The two front pieces I dipped at the same time to make sure they were the exact same colour. What I feared most was to get an uneven colour and also that the pieces would be different colours. Noticably lighter or darker, but I managed to get them to match perfectly by dipping the last two pieces one more time. And the colour was absolutely even. It did dry to a slightly lighter colour than I expected, but I love it anyway. Purists will say that it is too light, but I disagree. There are a few "accepted" colours for the vest and the blue that they "allow" is a colour that is purely synthetic. That colour never existed before the late 1800's. But my light blue from Woad certainly did. Admittedly, dark blue was more higly priced in the olden days. But light blue was more easily obtained.

The oldest surviving complete Icelndic costume is one that is in the Victoria and Albert museum. That costume has a rather light green velvet vest, so that is another colour and fabric that is officially "allowed". Historically it is difficult to be certain what colours were used the most since there aren't really many survivers of vests that are of an earlier date than the late 19th century and by that time black was very much in fashion.

For the lining of the vest I used a cotton fabric that I found in a Danish company and had quite some trouble to order it online since they didn´t accept credit cards or Paypal. I think I sent them cash in an envelop in the end. The fabric is a copy of one that was printed between 1830-1850 so although much of what is used today is either striped or plaid I can have my flowers and proudly state that it is authentic to the period.

Then I had to choose something for the back. After a while I came to the conclusion that it would take me too long to learn to make bobbin lace myself and settled on velvet ribbon. The only problem is that the are only available velvet ribbons are made of nylon or polyester! For my 18th - 19th century costume?

I don't think so!!!

So the internet rescued me, again.

I did try to find 100% silk or cotton velvet ribbon, but all I could find was silk and rayon, reportedly from the 1920's. I had planned to use green and ideally find a white or very light colour so that I could dye it myself. But I couldn't find a light colour and I couldn't find any green velvet borders of the right width so I bought a yellow one. The yellow colour was a lot stronger than I expected, but thankfully it wasn´t waterfast so it bled profusely when I washed it. After washing out a lot of the colour I redyed it with the lichen Parmelia saxatilis and got a beautiful golden colour. I love the result. It's probably much better than if I had found a green velvet.

The edging is a scarlet red wool that I dyed with Cochineal and tin. That was supposedly the finest red in the olden days. A dye book that was published in 1789 says:

"Fire scarlet is the finest and brightest colour in the Art of Dyeing. It is also the most expensive, and the most difficult to bring to perfection".

I got a really strong scarlet much to my surprise. It took quite some time to dye it and at first all I got was an insipid pinkish colour. I kept adding more cochineal and more tin and more cochineal and more tin... until suddenly this glorious colour appeared. I didn't see it happen. I just turned my back on the pot and then... there it was. Bright scarlet red.

I haven't finished the vest yet. It is a lot of work and much of it requires hand stitching so it takes time to do. But I do love what I have so far. The national holiday is on June 17th and it would be great to have it finished by that date. I've had that thought for 3 years now, so who knows, 2017 may just be the year to make it happen.

But for that to happen I also need to make up my mind about the type of Mylla (the silver/silver gilt filigree jewelry closure) I want to use. And being me, I want to make them myself. I've almost worked out what kind of design I want. I'm going to make something that I haven't seen before, but very much in the older tradition of Icelandic filigree silver. I'm rather excited. I need to make sketches before I forget. I'll keep you posted.


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