The “girdle” of St Cuthbert was deposited by King Athelstan (r. 927-939), first King of the English and grandson of Alfred the Great, while St Cuthbert’s tomb was at Chester-le-Street in 934 AD. It was originally part of ecclesiastical garments that were commissioned by his step-mother Ælfflæd for the Bishop of Winchester. The braid was found loose and is known as “the girdle”, although it may originally have been a maniple. This is a piece of cloth that hangs from the left arm when giving mass. The girdle is an exceptionally fine piece of weaving, created from gold thread and two different colours of scarlet, although that’s hard to make out after more than a thousand years! So how did we find out what we know about it?
In the early 20th century, an archaeologist called Molly Crowfoot visited Durham to work on the braid. Crowfoot was an archaeologist who was fascinated by tablet weaving and specialised in recreating ancient textiles. She wanted to keep the braid as intact as possible, and only took apart a small amount of the edge to discover how it had been created. She also examined the existing fabric under a microscope to work out what techniques were being used, which lead to her discovery that the edge and the centre were woven using different patterns.
Crowfoot made a number of samples to ensure that the texture of the recreated braid was correct and chose materials that were as similar as possible to the original. Unfortunately she couldn’t use real gold for her replica and had to settle for gold thread as the next best thing. Even though she used the smallest silk threads available, her braid is still about 15cm larger than the original.
Attached to the replica are weaving tablets which would be familiar to any Anglo-Saxon weaver and are still in use today. The original weaver was probably working by eye rather than using a pattern, making it even more astounding. By recreating the braid, she learned not only what it originally looked like, but also how long it would have taken to make and what practical challenges a weaver would have faced.
You can see the braid she created and learn more in the Shattering Perceptions exhibition.
This guest blog is part of a series called Shattering Perceptions. Written by Hannah Taylor and Maggie Birnbaum, MA students at Durham University, these blogs delve into the trailblazing female academics celebrated in an exhibition they curated, Shattering Perceptions: The Women of Archaeology. Their exhibition is open at the Wolfson Gallery at Palace Green Library from 14 June to 4 November 2018. See more information about the exhibition.