Monday 21 December 2015

The Gunnister Man Project

 From the Shetland Museums leaflet (3)

Last month I attended the Knitting History Forum conference, and one of the speakers was Dr. Carol Christiansen, Textile Curator at the Shetland Museum and Archives, she spoke on the re-construction of the Gunnister Man clothing. The project to re-construct the clothing was a joint venture involving, among others, Carol Christiansen, Martin Ciszuk, of the School of Textiles, University of Borås, Sweden, and Lena Hammarlund, craftsperson and textile researcher, from Göteborg, Sweden, and was completed in 2009. Some of this was reported at NESAT XI (1) and some at the European Textile Forum. (2)   Also the Shetland museum service has produced a leaflet, which shows the re-created clothing, complete with mends, patches, etc. (3)

A lone burial containing the body of a man, or to be more precise the clothing of a man the body having disappeared, was found at Gunnister in Shetland in 1951. As Carol said most of the report written at that time by Henshall and Maxwell (4) still stands. The body probably dates to the very end of the 17th century, early 18th century. The purse he was carrying contains three coins, one Swedish dated 1683, and two Dutch from 1681 and 1690. Gunnister Voe, itself was one of a number of extremely small ports operating at the end of the Hanseatic League period. It is about two miles distant from the burial, and it traded with Dutch, Swedish and German merchants. The site at Gunnister Voe has been excavated, but very little was found there. (5, 6)

The burial
The bulk of what survived in the burial is the woollen clothing, which is very heavily patched, so that there are 20 different fabrics represented. The non-clothing items were a wooden stick, a small wooden bucket (16.25 cm diameter by 14.5 cm high), two other small pieces of wood, a wooden knife handle, a horn spoon and another piece of horn, a quill (analysis showed that it had ink on it), and the coins.  Non fabric items of clothing were, four pieces of a leather belt with a brass buckle, and a very few fragments where rivlin type shoes would have been.

The clothing
The clothing is with the National Museums of Scotland, but was returned to Shetland for the period of the project and the exhibition that followed. They are now back with the NMS.The garments were all closely examined in order to decide what wools to use, and various wools were tested including Shetland, Herdwick and Gammelnorsk (an old Scandinavian breed). A dye analysis proved inconclusive. One conclusion was that the clothing had been obtained over a considerable period of time, and from many different places. As has already been mentioned the clothing was heavily patched and the feet on the stockings had been completely replaced.
For the reconstruction of the clothing Lena worked on the spinning and weaving of yarn and cloth. Martin worked on the cutting and sewing of the woven items, and Carol and Lena worked on reproducing the knitted items. As Carol was talking mainly about the knitted items some garments were hardly mentioned, however I have linked to the SCRAN – the National Museums of Scotland – database entries for each garment below:

The shirt
This was not mentioned by Carol in her talk. It is of wool and fastens from the waist to neck with ten buttons of wool covered in cloth. (4) All the buttons on the Gunnister clothing were wool covered with cloth.

The jacket and coat
The shorter jacket was being worn over the longer coat. The low decorative pocket slits on the coat were sewn shut, and the turn back cuffs on the coat were rolled down. Carol also mentioned that the stockings appeared to have been sewn to the bottom edge of the coat. She conjectured that these alterations may have been against the cold, and pointed out that the 1690s saw some very bad weather.

The breeches
The breeches had had pocket bags on either side, which had disappeared and therefore were probably made of linen or leather. The waist had been altered by taking in 5 inches. The breeches had a fly front, fastened with only one button at the waist.

The stockings
As mentioned before the stockings appear to have been attached to the lower edge of the coat with thick two ply wool. The stockings had been mended at the knees, but more obviously the feet had been replaced, in one case with the leg of another, finer knit, stocking. Carol said that the knitting on the main stocking legs was 2.9 to 3.2 stitches to the cm, and 4 to 5 rows to the cm. They had a decorative false seam at the back, and the calf shaping was worked every four rows.

The cap with a brim
This was the cap he was wearing. This was white and, according to Carol, the pattern in Henshall is incorrect. The cap was 56 cm in circumference and 17 cm from crown to edge. It was knitted at 3.5 stitches to the cm and 3.75 to 4.5 rows to the cm.

The cap without a brim.
This was the cap that was in a breast pocket of the coat. The shaping, which produces a sort of cross at the crown, is similar to that of a Svabald example. The cap has a boucle effect inside. Testing produced the same boucle effect when a Shetland wool was mixed with primitive Scandinavia wool, and then fulled. This cap was knitted at 3 to 3.25 stitches and 4 to 4.5 rows to the cm.

The purse

The purse is grey-brown with a pattern in white and red. It is 10cm by 13.5cm and was knitted in the round with the bottom being knit together. It has 4.5 stitches and 6 rows to the cm. There is a cast on row, then a knit row, before the 13 loops that carry the drawstring. My attempt at the Gunnister purse, done before I attended the talk, is shown right.

The gloves
The gauge given in Henshall for knitting the gloves is incorrect The gloves were knitted at 3 stitches and 4.5 rows per cm in white wool. They have a decorative design of three lines on the back of the hand. The gauntlet has a decorative design involving rows of garter stitch, stocking stitch and purl stitch. Henshall gives this as “6 rows of garter stitch, 5 of stocking stitch, 5 of garter stitch, 6 of stocking stitch, 3 purl rows separated by 2 plain rows, 8 of stocking stitch, 5 of garter stitch, with decreases along the outer side.”


1.  North European Symposium for Archaeological Textiles, 10-13 May 2011, Esslingen am Neckar, Germany. Carol’s abstract is available from;

2. Ciszuk, M and Hammarlund, L. 2013. Tracing Production Processes and Craft Culture: the reconstruction of the Gunnister Man costume. In: Ancient textiles, modern science : re-creating techniques through experiment : proceedings of the First and Second European Textile Forum 2009 and 2010;  edited by Heather Hopkins. Oxford: Oxbow

3..Shetland Museums and Archives. 2009. Gunnister Man A life reconstructed. (Watch it, because it is designed to fold into a leaflet the first bit is upside down.)

4.  Henshall, A. S. and Maxwell, S.  1952. Clothing and other articles from a late
17th-century grave at Gunnister, Shetland.  Proceedings of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland, 1951-52, 30-42. Available from: link)

5. Queen’s University Belfast. 2010. Gunnister: excavations of a German trading site at Gunnister Voe, Shetland. Available from:

6. Gardiner, M. and Mehler, N. 2010. The Hanseatic trading site at Gunnister Voe, Shetland
Post Medieval Archaeology, 44 (2) 347-349. Available from:

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