One of the most distinctive things about female Viking clothing is the strings of beads hanging between the brooches of an apron dress. These beads were more than just decoration, they were valued trade goods and were exchanged throughout the trade routes used by the Vikings. They are one of the markers archeologists and historians use to track those trade routes before metal coins became the usual currency.
Beads were worn by men as well as women, although men wore just a few beads while women could wear hundreds. Beads could be made from precious metals, from amber, jet or other precious stones but the vast majority of them were made from glass.
The technique used for making glass beads was similar to modern lampwork, the glass was melted and wound around a mandrel and then other pieces of glass could be melted and used to decorate the plain beads. The hot glass could be shaped with tools or rolled on textured surfaces. These days a lampwork torch is used, but the Vikings would have used a furnace and crucible. The Vikings couldn’t buy glass rods to work with either, instead they mostly recycled glass that had previously been used, often as Roman tableware.
Where lampwork techniques weren’t used the glass could be ground to powder and arranged in layers in small clay moulds, something like the bottles of coloured sand that used to be sold as souvenirs. The moulds would then be placed in the furnace and heated until they fused together into a bead.
We thought it would be fun to have a try at making our own lampwork beads so we signed up for a workshop with Rosie from bden glass. It was a fascinating process. Rosie mainly uses glass rods but explained that glass can be melted and re-melted over and over again so nothing is ever wasted. Even tiny fragments can be turned into frit and used as surface decorations.
Before starting the mandrels have to be prepared. Molten glass sticks so a thin layer of clay is applied which lets you release the beads after they have cooled. To make a bead the mandrel and the glass have to be preheated then the glass is turned in the heat until a blob of molten glass forms. That is then wound around the mandrel which is kept hot and constantly turned to encourage the bead to form in a regular shape. At this point you can add decoration or shaping before putting the beads aside to slowly cool or anneal. There was something really compelling about watching the beads change colour as the glass heated and cooled, it was kind of magical.
We made a plain bead first, then tried decorating with frit and with twisted strands of glass known as stringers. We then tried shaping hot beads using tools and textured surfaces. Over the course of about 3 hours we each made four unique beads and learned loads about lampwork. Rosie would show us each technique step by step and then walk us through doing it ourselves. We really enjoyed talking about the history of bead making and showing Rosie some examples of bead finds from the Viking age. It was amazing how similar the Viking beads were to the ones we were making, although some of the finds are way more beautiful and complicated than an introduction workshop could cover.
We definitely gained a sense of how impressive the craftsmanship of the Viking beadworkers was, and why beads were so valuable. Rosie’s studio contained loads of examples of her work, most of it looking really modern and all of it totally gorgeous, while the settings were different a lot of the beads were really very similar to Viking beads and it was remarkable to see items that had changed so little through hundreds of years of history.
If you get the chance, I would thoroughly recommend trying a workshop. It was a wonderful insight into a little appreciated Viking craft. Rosie is also happy to take commissions so if there is a particular Viking find you want recreated she would love to hear from you. If you don’t want to research or make your own Tillerman beads have a fabulous selection of historical beads that are replicas of documented finds. Whether you make them or buy them, any Viking should be proud to wear some fine glass beads.