Science

Whaler's clothing

Surviving in your Dutch threads

Dutch whalers at Svalbard didn’t wear warm woollen sweaters or sturdy boots. Instead, they wore the exact same things they would wear at home. Sandra Comis discovered that this was not a good idea.
By Christien Boomsma / Photo Ben Bekooy

Svalbard can get fairly chilly. Even in July, it’s often no warmer than 7 degrees Celsius, and the icy polar winds only make it worse. Three hundred years ago, during the Little Ice Age, it was even colder.

Anyone planning on spending a few months there, to hunt whales, dissect them and process them into cod liver oil, for instance, had better wear some warm clothes.

But these people didn’t.

Textile archaeologist Sandra Comis discovered that Dutch whalers working at Svalbard during the summer months in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries wore low, leather shoes. This leather would get wet because of the mud surrounding the oil ovens and then dry out and become stiff and hard.

The whalers also wore long stockings and woollen knickerbockers. They didn’t wear wool sweaters, however. Instead, they wore jerkins, which had holes underneath the armpits, in order to be able to move freely. Luckily though, all the whale fat they smeared on their jerkins made them waterproof. Finally, they wore felt hats with wide brims.

Cheap clothes

In other words, neither the seventeenth-century whalers nor regular workers in the Netherlands had proper clothes. ‘They wore the same type of clothes that rich people wore in those days’, says Comis. ‘Except they were made from much cheaper materials.’

This week, Comis is getting her PhD for studying the hundreds of pieces of cloth found by polar researcher Louwrens Hacquebord during excavations between 1979 and 1981. Hacquebord works for the Arctic Centre. Some of the pieces are from Smeerenburg, the Dutch settlements names after ‘smeer’, the whale fat that was being processed by the thousands of kilos.

The best pieces, however, came from the Zeeuwse Uitkijk, a nearby island where archaeologists found fifty graves from the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries. Some of the skeletons in these graves were still fully clothed. The only things missing were their undershirts. These were often made from linen, which is a plant fibre and degrades easily. ‘It was an amazing surprise’, says Comis. ‘The cold at Svalbard ensured that the clothing was extremely well-preserved.’

But it was also difficult, Comis recounts ‘The archaeologists had to practically shake the foot bones out of the socks.’

Sensitive

She never visited Svalbard herself. ‘I’m really sensitive to the cold’, she says, ‘and I don’t like camping.’ The hundreds of bags and boxes that were shipped to the Netherlands contained a unique collection. Finding cloth, and especially whole pieces of clothing, during excavations, is extremely rare. Clothing in museums often belonged to the upper class or has special meaning because of its function, such as wedding dresses that have been passed down for generations. ‘But work clothes were always being mended, or cut up and used as children’s clothing’, says Comis. ‘We don’t usually find them.’

The archaeologists had to practically shake the foot bones out of the socks.

Comis started the enormous job of cleaning all the pieces of clothing in order to study them. She washed most pieces in her own home, using demineralised water. She wasn’t just interested in the materials used: every stitch, each weaving technique or embroidery pattern provided information about a world historians know very little about: the world of ordinary people.
Her job was made even harder by the fact that so many pieces had been patched many times over. One coat had no fewer than 54 patches, which had to be painstakingly collected. ‘The thread used to attach them was made from linen, which means it had decayed.’

Human blood

Another coat had strange, dark stains on it. Comis had them analysed. As she suspected, it turned out to be human blood. The man in question almost certainly died from a wound to his back, but the coat itself didn’t show any traces of a stabbing or animal attack. So how did the man get injured?

Her favourite part of the collection is the 33 knit hats, each with a different pattern. ‘There are so many different motifs. Raised stitches, patterns, etc. It’s easy to imagine someone knitting these’, says Comis. She thinks the men wore the hats inside, or even to bed. Even more strikingly, the men on Svalbard were buried in them, something that didn’t happen in the Netherlands. ‘Apparently these hats were very important to them.’

The most striking discovery, however, was the fact that the Dutch whalers didn’t wear any special clothing, but simply made do with the stuff they’d brought from home. Some of the skeletons were seen to wear two pairs of stockings over each other. One was even wearing three coats. They had cut up and folded their felt hats in such a way that they resembled sou’westers, with a long flap to cover the neck. ‘This was useful because they were probably bent over most days, cutting into the whale meat, exposing their necks.’ They would cut up the brims of the hats to serve as extra soles in their hard, cold shoes.

Fossilised

The clothing mostly resembles traditional attire from Marken, Comis says. ‘We found fossilised fisherman’s clothes dating back to the seventeenth century.’

Apparently these hats were very important to them

It’s been 37 years since Hacquebard presented his first piece of ‘Smeerenburg’ cloth to Comis. And now, two years before she is due to retire, she has finally finished her research. She described the pieces in excruciating detail, even including the sewing patterns in her thesis. ‘That’s for the reenactors’, she says. ‘They want to replicate the clothing as detailed as possible. They have been begging me for descriptions for years.’

But for now, she is done. No more working on the weekends. And maybe, just maybe, she might end up visiting Svalbard herself. The collection was returned there in 2005. ‘Louwrens said we should set that up after I got my PhD’, she says. ‘But that was years ago, so I’m not sure if that’s still on the table. Oh well… I told you I was sensitive to the cold.’

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