Kit Improvements- making a new Viking Belt

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After a long hiatus, reenactment is back in full swing- and preparations are under way for a massive celebration of the Vikings’ (UK’s largest reenactment society, of which I am a proud member) 50th Anniversary, a once-in-a-lifetime sort of event, where we will celebrate our passion and hobby for a full week, with a record-breaking Battle of a Thousand Spears to culminate the festivities.

To that end, I need to make a few kit improvements- first project to tackle has been long-overdue improvement to my trusty old belt.

Why did i need to improve my belt?

There are two reasons for this- first, is the belt’s length. It was too long and fell into a category of accepted “reenactorisms”- repeated myths and tropes that have little to know research or sources behind them but permeate the world of reenactors. Generally speaking, belts used by most reenactors are too long and appear to be, with very few exceptions, ubiquitously tied with a “knot” that creates dangling end, sometimes going all the way down to a person’s knees. This is done with very little thought or research and is is simply a repetition of what one seen other people doing- I will talk more about this problem later in the article.

Second reason for change was that it was made out of Stamped leather (old purchase, from times before I knew better!)- a sort of decoration that was not used in the Viking Age, mostly because the leather used for belts was too thin to be stamped. Stamped leather belts have recently been banned altogether in our Society, which is a welcome direction form the Authenticity Team. Therefore- a change was needed.

My old belt, next to a strap of veg-tanned leather I purchased for this project. Note the Stamped decoration on the belt, which is not authentic and has now been banned by the Vikings UK.
Another side-by-side, with buckle and strap-end visible

First steps- removal of Fittings

My first step was to remove old fittings from my belt. Since there were in perfect condition and fitted my character (fittings are specifically Hiberno-Norse in provenance, with Strap end based on a Dublin find). I did not want to spend money on getting new ones- so off to work it was.

Using a junior Hacksaw, I have gently cut through the rivets, that held the Buckle in place. The rivets on the Strap-end were Copper and therefore softer, so I was able to cut them with pincers instead.

Second Stage- preparing the new belt

Now, I needed to attach the Buckle to my new belt and then cut it to an appropriate length.

I have purchased suitable Copper rivets and carefully measured out where they would go on the belt. Using a leather punch, I made two holes for the rivets. Notice a little cut in the middle of the strap- this is to accommodate the shape of the Buckle. You may need to make similar adjustments, based on the particular buckle you have. Remember to always measure and fit everything carefully and take as much time as you need to prepare. You want the leather to fit snugly into the Buckle, look presentable and not obstruct its movement.

This is why it is important not to cut the Belt until you have securely fitted the Buckle, as you may end up having to cut it if you make mistakes.

With the Rivets in place, they now needed to be cut- that is because they were too long and if I tried to rivet them down, they would bend and look unsightly as well as feel loose and maybe even damage the leather.

Riveting

It was now time to rivet down the copper rivets in place. To do that I needed a ball-point hammer and a sturdy, flat, metal surface to do the riveting on- like an anvil. You can use anything that resembles an anvil or even buy one – they come in various sizes and shapes. Alternatively, you can use a big metal Vice ,a sledgehammer head, a large axe-head, an old piece of Rail track, or any other large, flat and sturdy metal object that can be secured in place.

Using ball-point hammer can be a little tricky, so I recommend you do some practice first, if you never did it before. Riveting is delicate work and patience is far more important then strength.

When using a ball-point hammer, use little force, simple lift and drop the hammer, start hitting from the middle of the rivet. Once the head is somewhat flattened, start working around it, trying to gently “push” the metal out and down, going round and round in a circle. I recommend striking in a very slightly “forward” motion, as if to drag the metal out to where you want it to end up. Be gentle, patient and take your time. Make sure your rivet is held flat and upwards at all times and that it does not move around as you work on it. Work from the centre to the edges and make sure that you work evenly all around the rivet.

Practice makes perfect and so, as I said before, I recommend you try a few rivets first, maybe use a bottom of a tin can or small metal sheet to rivet through a few times, to give you an idea of how it works.

Fitting the Belt to size

Now, I could focus on how long my belt should be- as I said at the beginning, most reenactors have their belts far too long. I have done some research into the matter and there are 2 articles online that cover this topic in fantastic detail: https://sagy.vikingove.cz/en/the-length-of-early-medieval-belts/ and https://www.sippe-guntursson.de/en-length-of-belts-in-birka-and-the-dangling-strap-end.html

These articles should give you an in-depth view of Belts in the Viking Age, but let me summarize main points below:

Belts were generally only as long as needed. In archaeological finds, the length between the Buckle and the Strap end was between 5-25cm in most cases, with very few examples being longer (these are usually elaborate Eastern-Style belts and not to be used anywhere West of present-day Ukraine and possibly Hungary). The super-long belts with strap-ends dangling between one’s knees is a reenactorism and should be avoided. The “knot” we see so many reenactors use is also of dubious authenticity and there were other methods to secure the end of one’s belt. Having the end simple loose without securing it, using a Slider, puncturing two holes or tucking the belt directly itself, without a knot are all valid ways confirmed by archaeology. I have copied a couple of images below, for you to get an idea what can be used instead of the “reenactor’s knot”.

My choice of styling is shown in the first picture, with the finished Belt- 2 holes punctured simultaneously, with strap-end hanging loosely at an angle (see start of the article and towards the end for a picture). When using this method, both the Buckle and Strap-end are on full display. Considering that we have finds of very elaborate Buckles and buckle-plates, which are partially or completely covered when using “reenactor’s knot”, this method of wearing is a logical choice to show off one’s wealth and status.

Slider on a Birka belt, grave no 748; after Arbman 1943: 138, Abb. 83.
Strap end flipped back and tucked directly behind the belt- this will require having the strap-end decoration face “backwards” when belt is not worn; after Shrublands Quarry, Watson 2006: Fig. 6.

That is not to say that “Knot” is not authentic- it was used, especially in Merovingian and Carolingian France and in later Medieval times, but always with a much shorter belts than used by most modern-day reenactors.

I have decided that my belt will have more loose length than most finds, because I want to use 1 belt to wear with additional clothing, armour etc. Allowance for weight changes is also made, but very minimal. From the archaeologically confirmed scale of sizes, I chose the long end of the spectrum, as a safety measure. Belt can always be made shorter, but cannot be made longer!

Adding the Strap-End

Having decided on the size of my belt, it was time to fit the last piece- the Strap-end decoration.

Just as with the Buckle, I have pre-measured where the Rivets would go, then went on to cut them to size and rivet them down, followed by a thorough polish.

The Final Product

The Belt was now finished- made with correct leather, authentic fittings based on my character’s location and timeline (9-10th Century Irish Sea basin) and of an appropriate length.

Belt worn with loose end- at a comfortable fit, there is approx. 15-20cm of “loose” strap left, down to 10cm left when wearing additional layers or armour.
My chosen style of wearing- 2 holes are punctured at the Buckle, leaving the end loose. Notice, that both the Buckle and the Strap-end are fully visible, allowing to show them off properly.

Final Thoughts

I am very pleased with my new Belt- as well as wearing it differently and. I believe, more correctly than most.

But why do these “reenactorisms” of belt length and style of wearing persist? As for length, there are a few answers. For one, the Traders and Suppliers- it is far easier and far more practical, to make “one-size fits all” type of Belt, than it is to make Custom-sized Belts for each customer or to make huge variety of Belt sizes and hope they will sell. Since reenactors vary in size from “stick-thin”, through “Built like a Brick out-house” to “so fat, they outweigh the Needs of the Many”, it follows that the longer the belt, the more people will be able to wear it. Having many different sizes on offer comes with a lot of work, a lot of display space and, inevitable, a lot of unsold stock. While making Belts to measure takes time, effort and is often not practical at a Show or a Market. So, we have super-long belts that fit everyone, even if for most of us it means having a piece of leather all the way down to our knees.

This create a situation, where supply of long belts results in everyone wearing overly-long belts. Thus the practical necessity of Trade becomes accepted “truth” of authenticity, if no one stop to think about it, research the matter or question the “received wisdom”. Another answer is the (incorrect) assumption, that more material, means more wealth- so individuals trying to portray wealth and status will go for very long, dangly belts. While generally true for Clothing and Cloaks, this does not apply to Belts- we have no evidence at all, that wealthy Vikings wore their belts longer than anyone else. It is a case of taking one generally accepted idea and applying it to another sphere, without research or pause for thought. Again, through repetition, “received wisdom” and visual reinforcement of this notion, it has become generally accepted, even though it is incorrect.

As for the “reenactor’s knot” being so widely used, this comes down to issue of belt length (is is the easiest way to manage a very long belt), repetition of “received wisdom”, lack of research (why look into something that I was already told by another reenactor) and simple convenience. The “knot” is easy to do, looks ok and is confirmed from sources, although not for all belt types and not in all regions. Is is also adopted from Medieval and later periods, which are better attested to, than the Dark Ages. Again, I want to emphasize that I do not wish to see this style banned- merely that other styles are consider and that usually, the “knot” is the least appropriate way of wearing one’s belt, especially when it is of a correct length.

With that it is time to finish- it is good to post again and you can look forward to more content soon, as well as updating some of my older Posts (I learn and develop all the time, so a lot of what I wrote before is a little “out of date” after all these years!).

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