Saturday, December 19, 2009

A New Venture: Living History Podcast

I really was not staying busy enough with my regular job, new house, and all the reenactments that I've been doing lately. So Stephen and I decided to launch a new venture we are now producing a podcast called: Living History, the Podcast for the Reenacting Community. We've got a couple of episodes up already at:

We'll try to do weekly shows on all sorts of living history related topics like: interacting with the public, event survival 101, public perception of reenactors, interviews with all sorts of reenactors, history professionals, and more!

We really hope this podcast is going to be a dialogue between many different areas of the reenacting community, because we are a diverse body engaged in so many different aspects of history. We hope folks will contribute topic ideas, disagreements, new perspectives, anything at all relating to Living History, which is a wide category.

Please listen, then if you would not mind giving us a rating and review on iTunes we would appreciate it!
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Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Creating An Identity Out Of Culture

On my commute to work I am listening to A Feast Of Words a biography of Edith Wharton written by Cynthia Griffin Wolff in the 1970s. I am enjoying it for the most part, much more than I do reading actual Edith Wharton fiction, and it is long enough that it fills up quite a bit of my commute. There is a bit too much psychoanalysis in it for my taste, the biography feels very 70s in that way, but I am learning a lot about Edith Wharton, and a little about myself too. The author spends a lot of time talking about Edith Wharton’s fiction as a protest against the stuffy late Victorian society that Edith Wharton grew up in, and frames her life as a rebellion against the repressions of her mother and the society that created her mother (see what I mean about rampant psychoanalysis?)

But this morning on my way in to work Griffin talked about Wharton’s time in France during World War I, when she witnessed first-hand the German destruction of the French countryside. She was struck by the detritus of every-day life that was left behind after the Germans had blasted away whole portions of towns, she was moved by the lives that the blasting had revealed. According to Griffin,

“[Germany] had aimed to destroy those things that support life—the countless, habitual, humdrum associations and pursuits that give meaning to existence. Plodding grimly through the mud, her quick novelistic eye missing no detail, Wharton began to formulate a new notion of tradition: it is the matrix within which individual personality is defined—a delicate framework of familiarities and understandings by which man’s sense of self is confirmed and reconfirmed in his main daily encounters. Civilization is not something external to each of us, nor is its primary function one of suppressing freedom and growth. Rather, the civilization of any given time and place becomes an integral element in the personality of all its members: it sustains them, informs their existence with meaning, and changes—even as their lives change—with a slow, measured continuity.”

- Cynthia Griffin Wolff, A Feast of Words, The Triumph of Edith Wharton

I heard the above and thought, this is so true! This is what I have been trying to get across in every historical reenactment I’ve done for a public audience. This is why I think there is a place for first person interpretation as a form of education. While I may play only one person out of an entire civilization, I believe it is possible to shed some light on that civilization in this manner. Personalities, and living history character personalities especially, are not created in a vacuum.

I think this is especially important for new reenactors to understand. It is incredibly daunting when your new persona is a blank slate, when the possibilities are almost limitless, but at the same time the facts about a given historical person are so few. I think, to many people the initial steps in character development can be the hardest to overcome when getting into reenacting.

When I start in on a new character for a new period, or maybe just a different show or event, I often go in trying to think about the larger culture that I am portraying. What has attracted me to this particular culture? What seems totally outside of my experience? What about the culture at large is important for me to get across to my audience? Often the characteristics of a person can come out of the answers to those questions. This has been especially true in the two personas that I created in the past year.

Hanne is the wife of a military leader from the Holy Roman Empire in the year 1529. That much I knew when I set out to create a character. Now I’m not crazy about the military stuff, but really wanted the chance to do cooking demonstrations and participate in a new historic encampment. So I took a look at the cooking I wanted to do and decided that Hanne should be pragmatic; though the captain’s wife, she knows how to cook, wash dishes, and doesn’t mind teaching others. One of the amazing things to me about the Landsknecht (Holy Roman Empire Military troups) or any military unit is their pride. Pride seems to be a big part of being involved in military matters, so I translated that into Hanne as a pride of family, and protectiveness of the unit of which her husband is the leader. This also allowed me to play a noble woman who is proud of the work she is doing, so she does not mind getting her hands dirty. I got to show off the fact that Hanne is lower nobility, she expects to wait on those higher up than herself, and that not all noble ladies are prissy princesses. I was too busy cooking and keeping house during most of the encampment weekends to delve much more deeply into who Hanne is, but I felt perfectly comfortable talking to audience members, and knowing that I could answer all questions as Hanne saw the world, and in a way that might get at some larger cultural traits.

Sarah is very different. We were asked to present some topics at a “Pioneer Day” school show. Stephen has a solid Wild Bill Hickock presentation, and we had a good foundation on a “Talk Like a Cowboy” presentation by our Friend Tom. Amanda was willing to tackle a campfire cooking demonstration (though that one did not fly at the last minute, hopefully next year we’ll overcome a school system’s fears about fire.) I had tons of nineteenth century research under my belt, and even a couple of characters, but the Irish Maid in the governor’s mansion did not feel right for this setting, and I did not want to do some poor downtrodden farmer’s wife. One of the topics that I found intriguing from my studies about Nineteenth Century America was the spirit of innovation; this plays out in the industrial revolution as well as the western expansion movement. Innovation did not stop there: politics, religion and family life were receiving widespread attention and undergoing a lot of upheaval in the Nineteenth Century. This applied to both the eastern United States, where most of my research had been done, and further west, especially since the railroad meant that people and ideas could travel, and printing innovations meant that opinions and ideals were traveling faster than they ever had before. Sarah turned out to be an itinerant lecturer, spreading the benefits of new educational philosophies to one and all. She is upbeat and positive that social change can be enacted. She takes for granted the availability of newspapers and magazines (I make sure to mention them often) and finds the hardships of travel to be an adventure. She is still awkward when out of her comfort zone, she is an urban dweller who is uncomfortable facing the realities of a farm life. She believes that the ideas and opinions she is presenting are cutting edge, and must therefore be the right ideas. There is not a lot of room for real life in her rigid ideals. This is also the way I think of nineteenth century reform movements, whether it was the abolition movement or the temperance movement. I only had 20 minutes to talk to these kids and get across a fuller picture of people living the pioneer life and how they saw their place in the world. I used the facts I had on hand mixed in with physical mannerisms, modes of speech, opinions, and cultural assumptions to create a living breathing person.

If you’re new to reenacting, and scared to take the plunge, the best advice I can give you is keep researching, keep reading. Find out as much as you can about a time-period, about a place and time. Keep hold on the facts that fascinate, some day they will suggest a personality to you that will let you live within the culture because, “the civilization of any given time and place becomes an integral element in the personality of all its members.”

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Tuesday, December 8, 2009

The most popular reenactment I’ve ever seen

I’ve never been to Gettysburg during a reenactment event. I know this is a tragedy, and one that I must remedy soon, but I am mentioning it now not to get an invite, but to state right off the bat that this is not a post about that sort of reenactment. I’m not talking about an event with tons of participants, but an ongoing experiment in historical marketing that has become the darling of New York City, and of the media elite. And one that I admire very much

Beekman 1802 is a farm, that two men --Josh and Dr. Brent as they are referred to in their blog-- bought, restored, revitalized, and are now marketing to the world through sales of goat milk soap and other farm or local artisan products. Two things intrigue me about Beekman 1802: the way that it is a historical reenactment, and the fact that they are a marketing phenomenon.

Living the Historical Reenactment
I don’t consider house museums to be living history, because they do not seem alive. Of course a house can seem alive, when it is lived in, when there is action in the house. To me, you can call a historical house living history when it is used as it was when it was lived in. I think a hearth cooking demonstration can be living history, and living in a restored house, especially restored to evoke a certain time and story is definitely living history. Did Josh and Brent restore the Beekman farm to the year 1802 exactly? the web page photos indicate to me they did a pretty good restoration. Do they live in it as a reenactment? well, not exactly, they’ve got a modern kitchen, use electricity, they are not living their lives as a reenactment, but they are bringing history to life in the way they are running an active farm, selling products with historical roots, and most importantly to me, they are using the history of the farm as an incredibly effective marketing tool.

Marketing the Historical Reenactment
I stumbled across the web page by following a link to a nifty holiday decoration. Once on the site I surfed around and discovered a restored farmhouse, a herd of goats, some blog entries, and some soap. At first I didn’t get it. How could these guys support this gorgeous farmhouse and themselves (Dr. Brent had recently given up a professorship in New York City) on just soap? I know tons of people selling hand made soaps at farmer’s markets, artisan galleries, and fancy boutiques, but it is not a lucrative business. In my opinion the market is rather flooded with fancy soap; and I have a hard time justifying the purchase of fancy soaps when I’ve been using the same brand most of my life and it works just fine. Since subscribing to their RSS feed I have been able to discern two success factors: An astute marketing of history, and notice by the elite media.

Some of the blog entries on Beekman 1802 are stories from the perspective of a little girl living in the Beekman house in 1802. I don’t think they are written particularly well, but they connect Josh and Brent to those who built the house. Much better written are the entries about the products they are selling under the Beekman 1802 brand. Every entry connects the specific product to that product’s history and to the region. Especially well connected are the stories of their blacksmith friend, who is using old methods, working with his hands to create something authentic. As the authors of the book Authencity and the authors of the Museum Audience Insight Blog at Reach Advisors have written: authenticity sells. And one of the most authentic things out there is history.

While I’m sure their soaps are great and their cheeses are fantastic (anyone who wants to gift me some I’d be happy to find out for you) those products are not really what they are selling. They are selling the authentic historical experience, and I say, bravo Josh and Brent.

The other entries that shed light on Beekman 1802’s success are the media mentions. When I started reading their blog I found the entry written after Josh and Brent had been photographed and interviewed for an article in Vanity Fair. They’ve made it on the Martha Stewart Show, and I heard mention of Oprah, but now can not find it again. A recent entry included a New York Times photo slideshow that included a photo of soap, but mostly concentrated on the old house, looking so charming with a layer of new white snow. I don’t know how Josh and Brent did it, but they’ve made it in the elite media, they are a marketing success. To top it off, I hear rumors of a 10 episode show on the Discovery channel about Josh and Brent. It makes me sad that I will not have cable by the new year, I'll have to wait for DVD.

These media outlets are not covering traditional reenactors in any large numbers, so what it is about Josh and Brent? They are articulate and good looking, they have very 21st century sensibilities. They play up the history, but they do not obsess, they concentrate on the product and on their lifestyle, not so much on the lives of the dead and gone. They’ve got a good story to tell, and they tell it very well.

If Josh and Brent write a book, a beautiful picture book like the Tasha Tudor ones, I will keep a copy beside my bed, to prove that it can be done, that you can successfully be living history.

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Friday, November 20, 2009

Tweed Ride - Fun with History!

While listening to NPR the other day I heard this story about people having fun with history. The story is about a group of bicyclists that took part in a “tweed ride” in Washington D.C. Participants dressed up in various costumes composed of tweeds, plaids, argyles and more. Apparently the trend started in London and has spread to quite a few US cities. My brother took part in the one in Boston this fall.

The thing that I like most about the photos I’ve seen and the stories I’ve heard is the moustaches. Real ones and fake ones, moustaches on men and women! One can not take ones self too seriously while sporting a fake moustache. Sometimes I get bogged down in being historically accurate, or in trying to be super educational, it is good to remind myself that history is fun. It is also good to remind the rest of the world beyond us history geeks that history is fun too! It is not all bloody battles and it does not have to be dusty and booring. Sometimes it sports quite a dapper ‘stash!

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Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Still the best reenactment experience I’ve ever had

The best reenactment experience that I’ve ever had was in 8th grade. I was lucky to have a really meaningful historical reenactment at such a young age, in fact I ended up writing my college application essays on that historical reenactment and the activities that developed out of it. This experience that I’m being so vague about was actually a unit for both Eighth Grade Social Studies and English that incorporated lessons in computers too. Every eighth grader at my middle school spent a quarter of the school year (well it seemed like a lot back then) participating in a program called: “Immigrant.” For an entire unit our soul task was to write a journal from the perspective of someone from Ireland during the potato famine of the 1840s and 50s who emigrated to the United States. Not that most of the immigrants would have been literate, but the point was mostly to get us thinking and experiencing the immigrant’s perspective, and also thinking about how to articulate something as complicated as the choice to pick up and leave one’s homeland for unknown territory.

The teachers had done a phenomenal amount of research to set up the unit. There is not a ton in middle school text books on the Irish potato famine, or at least not enough to base an entire unit of study. Nowhere near what an eighth grade class would need to write journals for more than a month. So the teachers had to rely on sources written for adults, they had to guide us though a culture and economy far removed from even Nineteenth Century America, let alone 20th century America. They ended up sharing a lot of primary materials with us, the first time I can remember learning history from primary sources. Our most important primary source was the ship’s log from a vessel that made the voyage across the Atlantic from Liverpool to Boston with a cargo full of Irish immigrants. Everyone in the class got to pick a family off the ship’s log, so the journals were not just from our imagination but represented real people.

The reenactment did not end there. In order to simulate the ship voyage, we spent an overnight in the computer lab, reenacting the voyage from Ireland to the United States. The teachers divided up the computer lab into two parts. What was normally the classroom part became above decks, where we first boarded the vessel and where we had our meals. The computer part of the lab became the ‘tween decks, where the immigrants were crowded into narrow bunks. They had sea noises playing in a loop on a tape deck that, as the evening wore on, they would switch to babies crying. I swear half my classmates wanted to cry themselves when the tape with the babies was playing. The teachers dressed and acted as the crew of the ship, being all gruff and harsh to the poor Irish that were their cargo (the captain reminisced about the voyage in the other direction -- Boston to Liverpool -- where the lumber in the ship’s hold kept nice and quiet.) They fed the students meager meals (actually we were fed quite well, but the power of suggestion is an amazing thing.) And as the evening wore on they did give more classroom-style lectures (short ones) on ship conditions and the plight of the Irish on board a sailing vessel.

Students got to do their own reenacting beyond writing journals. I dressed up for the voyage; no one else in my class did, though they were not surprised to see that I had. We all had to sign our own version of the ship’s log, recreating the act that was our key to the past. We ate meals and got to know the families that were bunked near us. Most alarmingly, we were given family updates. Little slips of paper that told us which members of our family were ill and, as the evening/sea voyage wore on, which ones died on board ship. We then got to experience a ship funeral, and afterward have a lively discussion about Irish Catholicism and what it meant to not have loved ones buried in a cemetery, but tossed overboard with only the Protestant ship’s captain leading a service. Late into the evening (actually not that late, but with the windows covered it felt very late) the teachers shut off the ocean sounds tape and played us a song. A sad ballad with lyrics taken directly from letters written by a father left be hind in Ireland writing to his son in America. It resonated so deeply with me, that I can still sing a few snatches of the song though I have not heard it in well over ten years.

What a bare recitation of the facts can not reveal is how deeply involved we all got. As we started our journals it was fun to put in details about the list of names we had been given, to make them into actual families. When we were writing abut the decision to leave Ireland, to leave beloved family members behind, it was easy to get involved in the tale. When immersed in the recreated world below decks it was easy to forget about the modern world, to get caught up in the mood. I can still recall very vividly the feeling that we were doing something that was real, that that each and every one of us now had a stake, an ownership in a time and place other than our own.

Maybe the experience sticks with me because thirteen is an impressionable age. Maybe it is because once I was out of the eighth grade I came back every year to help out the next class. Maybe it is because my “Immigrant” experience included editing a book of journal excerpts, even taking a trip to Ireland my junior year of high school that the initial event stands out so strongly in my mind. I like to think it was the first time that I became aware of the full potential of historical reenactment as a key to the past.

In every reenactment that I have participated in since “immigrant” I have been trying to recapture some of that feeling. I find myself striving not just toward accuracy in the trappings of a reenactment, but more importantly a connection with the feelings of a place and age not our own.

Photos: Ty Houston as the Ship's Captain, Larry Bickford as the First Mate, Alena at Blarney Castle.
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Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Landsknecht Dress Diary; “Hanne v.1” Part 4

Read Part 1, Part 2, Part 3

The final step to complete the dress was sewing the skirt and bodice together. Every picture I have seen of the Landsknecht stuff, the women do not have any gaps between the skirt and bodice, making me think they are connected. The men’s clothes are often pointed (tied) together, but the women’s stuff does not look pointed to me.

I had created a complication for myself by making a front close bodice, and a side close skirt, so I could not sew around the entire skirt and bodice. I stitched around from the right front of the bodice, all the way around the back to the left side skirt opening. Then I put hooks and eyes along the left front of the skirt and bodice so that I could get the dress off and on with openings that did not line up! I stitched the bodice to the skirt right at the point where the waistband met the skirt gathers, so that the waistband was almost entirely on the underside of the bodice.

To cover my head I made a little cap to hold my hair, like the little caps worn by women in the Cranach paintings. I made mine out of yellow linen and wool left over from Stephen’s new outfit. I measured around my head and cut a band of yellow wool to hold the cap in place. I stitched it into a circle, and folded and ironed in the seam allowances. I cut a circle 24” in diameter out of the linen, and gathered it into the wool band. I machine stitched the band to the linen because I thought that this first one would just be my prototype on the way to making one out of some shear fabric that looked a little closer to the look in the paintings. But I liked the linen one so much that I spent my time on other things and never got around to making a different one. To hold it on my head I did my hair in two braids that I wrapped around the crown of my head and held in place with barrettes so they would not slip. My hair is not quite long enough anymore to tie up with ribbons in a more historical fashion. Once the cap was on top of the braids they both helped to keep my slippery hair in place., with the help of two straight pins on the top of the cap to help keep it from sliding off my head.

I also made a hat. Spending so much time out-of-doors I hate going out without a brimmed hat of some kind, and the landsknecht have such interesting hats! The simplest is a platter hat which is 2 big circles sewn together with a head hole cut in the bottom circle. These hats are most often seen with a lot of ostrich feathers on the top of the cap. I wanted something a little more involved, so I did a platter had with a square top. Stephen made an educated guess on fabric size and cut a prototype out of some scrap fabric we had laying around, wouldn’t you know he got it right on the first attempt! Both the head hole size and the amount needed to fold into a good square. I cut my wool based on his scrap fabric prototype.

The deal with the square is that you cut a square piece of fabric with a head hole in the center. You lay it out on a flat surface and fold the corners in to the middle, then you take the new corners created by the fold, and fold those into the middle too. That is the shape of the hat. I hand stitched the upper folds to each other starting in the middle and stitching toward the corners. That was the top of the hat.

For the brim I machine stitched two circles together (both with head holes since the square would be going on top) and ironed the heck out of the seam. I stiffened the brim with a round of wire, a nice thick wire that a friend had picked up. The wire was already fairly round because it came off a spool, so all I had to do was lay the hat down, lay the wire on top in a circle just slightly bigger than the outside of the cloth, and duct tape a bit of overlapping wire to keep its shape. Making the wire a bit bigger than the cloth meant that the wire stayed in place and the brim stayed nicely round and not too floppy. I squished the wire through the head hole, between the two brim circles. I also put a few stitches around the wire through the outer seam, just to keep the wire in place. I hand stitched the brim of the hat to the square top part, since the brim was now very tight with the wire inserted. I did not finish the edge, just sewed the three layers (two brim, one square) together and figured that the seam would be hidden by my head.

I sewed ostrich feathers around the hat by tucking the ends under the square part, and just catching the feathers with a few stitches to keep them in place. I also sewed a couple of ties around the head hole since this style of hat acts like a kite on a windy day, and I did not want to chase the darn thing all over the faire grounds.

Wearing my creation
I wore this dress every day that I was at the Connecticut Renaissance Faire this season, a total of 7 days. I wore it with a plain renaissance chemise underneath, since I ran out of time to make a more historical and geographically correct hemd. I also did not make my own hosen, but wore long stockings with my square toed (often called cow-mouth) shoes. On cold days I wore my wool-lined leather hood which Stephen made for medieval events. Totally not right for the Landsknecht, but really warm and waterproof, so good enough for a first-year endeavor. As the wife of a baron I added some chain necklaces, one that was fake amber beads (though I lost that one after the first weekend) a nice curly chain that my parents brought back from a visit to Lithuania (I do not know what metal it is made of, or if it is historical in any way, but it looks old, and I can’t really wear it anywhere else) and a “gold” chain I got for cheap at a department store.

I wore a woven belt at my waist, mostly to hide the point where the bodice and skirts joined. I wove it on a belt loom out of some nice wool yarn. I wore a second woven belt around my hips so that I could pull my skirt up in a poof around my waist, just like in all the woodcuts. Since the poof around the waist reminds me of the inflatable tubes that kids wear when learning to swim I call the hunk of fabric my swimmie, and now my entire guild group does too. It is so helpful to have the skirts up and out of the way when lugging firewood or bending over a camp fire as well as looking just like a woodcut.

And that is the whole outfit!

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Saturday, October 24, 2009

Landsknecht Dress Diary; “Hanne v.1” Part 3

Read Part 1, Read Part 2,

Bodice Construction
The tricky thing about the bodice of a landsknecht dress is that you don’t necessarily wear a bra underneath it. The bodice itself is supposed to provide support. There is no boning in this bodice, all of the support comes by fitting the fabric really well. Back in the patterning stage I made a duct tape version of the bodice and drew out the seam lines based on the “Period Patterns” pattern. I cut up the duct tape bodice along the seam lines, and lay it underneath my pattern trace in order to modify the pattern piece to my size while still maintaining things like arm holes, and seam placement, seam allowance etc.

To start the bodice I first cut the lining material out. I made my lining out of a rather stiff cotton canvas. I had some left over from another project, and was hoping it would give me the right shape while not being visible. I cut out the two front and two back bodice pieces. I like to put a seam up the middle of the back to get a closer fit. I stitched them together up the back, at the shoulders and the sides, so the bodice lining resembled an unfinished vest. I put it on inside out, and pinned up the front. Stephen then helped me pin and draw out where the seams actually should be. It turns out my shoulders are also slightly uneven! After that I had left and right pieces that were slightly different, but closer to my measurements. Stephen also pinned the pieces in such a way that the cloth formed a natural shelf for bust support.

Once I had all the pin lines chalked out, I ripped out all the stitches and used my lining pieces to cut out my bodice pieces and bodice guards. I stitched up the back seam, the shoulders and the sides on the wool bodice fabric, ironed those seams flat, then set it aside.

Bodice Guards
Using the bodice lining I patterned out the guards. I was planning for a strip of the green wool to go around the neck opening in the bodice and down the front closure, slashed with black underneath it, just like on the skirt part.

Using tracing paper I drew out the bodice lining edges, then measured two inches in towards the rest of the lining, and a half inch beyond that for seam allowance. I did not need to worry about seam allowance on the other side since it was still figured into the lining and not finished yet. When I had the pattern I drew various slash patterns on it until I found one that I liked, then cut out both the green wool of the guard and the black cotton I had used underneath the skirt guards. I used tailor’s chalk and an exacto knife to cut them, just like I had on the skirt. Once I had all the pieces cut and slashed I began the painstaking process of assembling all these various parts.

I used light basting stitched and stitched the black under guard to the green slashed guard. Then I used a much tighter stitch to sew the guard that went around the back of my neck to the guards that went down the front, and ironed the seams flat. I then pinned the guards in place around the pink wool bodice, right sides out. I pinned and re-pinned because this part was tough to get right. Some of the time I used the old dressmaker’s dummy that belongs to Stephen, but most of the time I just lay the dress on the edge of the ironing board to pin around the arms etc. Once I had the guards pinned to the bodice I lightly stitched that in place along the outside edge, mostly outside my seam allowance. I did not bother stitching the inside edge in place, since that would all have to be hand-done later. The final step was to sew the lining in, this one I did right sides together, so the right side of the lining covered the guards, and the pink wool. This seam was the actually real outside edge seam so I did nice tight machine stitch on this one, up one front side, around the neck line across the back around the other side and down the other side of the front. Since there were so many layers I cut the seam allowances fairly close, snipped all my corners very tight, and did a thorough ironing job while the thing was still inside out, and again when it was right side front.

After quite a break to recover from all that excitement I loosely zig-zagged the armholes, more to keep the lining and front together while I did my hand work, and for eventually fitting the sleeves, though all that stitching will have to come out eventually. Then I tackled the inside edges of the guards. The cool part about stitching the black to the green first was that I now had lines of stitching at exactly where I wanted the fold to go, so I cut the black fabric very close to that stitching line, and ironed under what I could of the seam fold before blind stitching the guard down along the inside edge by hand. Since I did this after attaching the lining, my hand stitches show on the inside of the bodice. If I was to do it again I might stitch the inside of the guards first before sewing in the lining.

To get the length of the bodice just right, I put on the skirt and the bodice and had Stephen chalk the line where the two met. Then I folded the excess to the inside, ironed it flat and hand stitched the bottom edge. If I had not sewn the guards down through the lining I probably could have flipped the bodice inside out and machine stitched the bottom seam. I’ll know for next time.

The sleeves ended up being the most complicated part of the entire process. I relied heavily on the pattern, plus a little advice from Stephen. The sleeves are actually three layers thick: the outer pink wool layer that is puff and slashed, an inner yellow silk layer that is puffed and shows through the pink slashes, and a black cotton that is the actual lining. The black cotton is the layer that is actually the size of my arm so I cut that one out first and stitched it up to make sure the fitting was correct. It was a little short so I cut a new one a bit longer, and based all the rest of the cutting on that one.

Next I cut out the pink wool layer, I cut it 7 inches longer than my black lining layer to get the multiple puff effect that I was going for. I wanted to have two puffs each at the wrist, elbow and shoulder. I chalked out where I wanted those puffs on the black lining, then pinned the pink layer on to it. I eyeballed the amount I wanted each section to puff, and moved the pins around until I felt I had it right, then chalked those lines on to the pink. I needed the chalk lines on the pink in order to cut the slashes in the right locations (i.e. only on the puffed parts.) I spent quite a bit of time chalking in the slashes for each puff. Since the sleeve tapers, it was awkward to have the same number of slashes for each puff, and almost impossible to have them evenly spaced. In the end I measured the width of each puff section separately and determined the slash pattern based on each puff. When I cut the slashes, I cut both sleeves, as this was the part that would most determine if the sleeves would look symmetrical.

Once I had that all figured out I tackled the yellow silk “lining”. The silk got cut at the same length as the pink so that it would also puff, but I cut it 7 inches wider than the pink to provide the actual bulk for the puffs and so it would show through the slashes. I put gathering stitches along the top and bottom of each puff, and gathered the yellow so it was the same width as the pink. If I had to do it over again, I would probably do only half the rows of gather stitching. Once the yellow was gathered to the same width as the pink I put zig zag basting stitches along the edges of the sleeves and along the top and bottom of each puff.

Then I stitched up the pink and yellow so I had a tube, and did the same for the black lining. I ironed the seams flat, turned the black inside out and stuffed the pink and yellow inside the black. This meant that I had right sides together. I sewed up the wrist seam, turned the lining to the inside, and ironed it flat, so that the bottom of the sleeve was finished. I then pulled the black lining material up so that the shoulder of the black was lined up with the shoulder of the pink and yellow. Since the black is significantly shorter the pink wool puffed up, since it was slashed, it puffed in all the places that I wanted it to. I did a quick basting stitch around the shoulder to hold it in place.

To get the puffs to look right -- the wrist puffs smaller and the shoulder puffs bigger—I put the sleeve on and slid the pink up and down my arm to get the puffs to the right shapes. I then asked Stephen to safety pin around each puff so I could take the thing off and sew the puffs in place. I did this by hand, with little stitches to catch the fabric just above and below each puff. I’m not sure there is a way to do it by machine. I actually thought about putting some nice trim in between each puff, but changed my mind when the hand stitching just to keep the puffs in place took so much time. Besides, the yellow silk underlayer was fancy enough when matched with the wool guards on the rest of the dress.

Once the hand sewing on the sleeves was done, I machine stitched the sleeves to the bodice. Since the linings were structural to both the bodice and the sleeves I could not hide the shoulder seam under a lining, instead I whip-stitched the rough edge just to keep it from fraying. I am so glad the inside will never be seen, ’cause while the outside looks good, the inside sure ain’t pretty!

Read Part 4

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Thursday, October 22, 2009

Landsknecht Dress Diary; “Hanne v.1” Part 2

Read Part 1

Skirt Construction
The pattern I was using to construct my Landsknecht dress called for the bodice to be made first and the skirt second, but I have a lot more experience making skirts, and felt more comfortable tackling that part of the project. The pattern also called for the skirt to be sewn directly into the bottom of the bodice, but I wanted a waistband on my skirt, since I do not have much in the way of hips and wanted the skirt (which would be heavy since it was made of wool) to hang from a band around my waist instead of around my hips or off the bodice.

I did not use pattern pieces to make the skirt, I simply measured from my belly button to the floor and added 2 inches for seam allowance. The wool I’d bought was 56” wide (54” once it had shrunk in the wash) so I used the width of the fabric for the width of the skirt and cut two pieces of the right height, one for the front one for the back. For the waistband I measured around my waist and then added 2 inches for seam allowance and a bit of overlap. That got me the length of the waistband, I cut the strips 4” wide to give me the height

First I sewed the two halves of the skirt together. I sewed the entire length on one side, but on the other I left the top 5 inches unattached (just reinforced the end of the seam with a few extra stitches.) A few notes on sewing here. I did use a sewing machine. I know some hardcore reenactors do not, but my hand sewing is not as good as a historical seamstress’ and the machine stitches on things like seams are not going to show. In my opinion a well cut, machine sewn dress out of period fabrics is going to look much more authentic than a hand sewn dress that is not out of the right material, or is cut using modern patterns.

Next I stitched up the waistband. I folded it in half lengthwise, right side in and stitched up one short end and the long side, leaving the second short end open. I clipped the corner, then flipped the waistband inside out, ironed it flat, then ironed the open end in. I did not finish off the second end, since I could finish it when I sewed on the skirt and also because the wool was fairly stiff and was likely to hold the right shape once ironed even without the stitches. I can not say enough about ironing. I can guarantee you will not have a well finished seam, any seam, if it is not ironed flat.

Gathering the Waist
The top edge of the skirt was obviously tons wider than the waist band, so I had to use some method to get all the skirt fabric to the right width. The main two methods of doing this are gathering and pleating and, as a general rule, I prefer pleating. But I’ve read some reenacting group guidelines, and have looked closely at the woodcuts, pleating often comes out looking flatter than I was going for. I wanted to try a really tight gather instead of pleating. Many years ago a reenactor in Florida told me that she’d used drapery tape (sometimes called gather tape) to get a nice tight gather to sew into her skirt, this time I thought I’d try it. I purchased gather tape at Osgoods when I bought my fabric, and it proved incredibly easy to sew into the fabric then gather up. On the skirt top I folded and ironed over about 1/3 inch of the skirt fabric, then positioned the top of the gather tape about a 1/3 inch below the fold and machine sewed the top and bottom of the gather tape, using the longest stitches on my machine for easy removal later. Once it was sewn on, I just pulled on the two strings in the gather tape, and I got perfectly spaced, very tight gathers along the top of my skirt.

The difficult part is sewing the gathers to the waistband. Pleats are easier because they lay flat along the same axis as the waistband, gathers lay the skirt fabric perpendicular to the waistband. I like the look of gathered skirts since they tend to poof out from the waist which helps me since I do not have much in the way of hips. In the past I’d tried sewing the waistband along the front of the gather, but that makes a weird fold in the band, to accommodate all that fabric underneath. I’ve done it by just attaching the bottom of the waistband to the top middle of the gathers (by hand) but it seemed sort of flimsy to me, and I never ended up wearing the skirt I made that way. I’ve tried just shoving all the gathers inside the waistband, ie, sewing one half of the band on the front of the gathers, and the other half on the back, but that makes for a very round waistband, which hurts my hips.

For this skirt I chose to lay the top of the skirt gathers against the flat front of the waistband. So the skirt top really is perpendicular to the waistband. All this had to be sewn by hand, I don’t think there is a machine out there that could handle the angles I was working at. Before I sewed a single stitch (in fact, before I’d gathered along the gather tape) I put pins every 1 quarter around both the skirt and the waistband, so that once I’d gathered I could match them up evenly. I then pinned the skirt into the waistband about every inch and a half, with the opening in the seam of the skirt about 1/3 inch in from the edge of the waistband. I had to pin with the skirt and waistband parallel instead of perpendicular (pins don’t go at the angle I was sewing either) which meant that when I was sewing I had to take the pins out a few gathers before I got to them and just hold the last few gathers in place while I was sewing, The gather tape helped with this a lot, as did the fact that I was hand sewing.

I started by sewing up one edge of the gather and down the other, but quickly switched to putting two stitches at the top pucker of each gather along the length of the waist, then going back and putting two stitches in the bottom on each pucker. This part is fairly hard to describe, so I’m putting in photos that I hope will help explain. The stitches in the skirt part were fairly well hidden up against the waistband, and the other side was on the inside of the waistband, where I did not mind if they showed. I used a lot of thread, and the job from the inside is not pretty, but from the outside, at initial glance, it did exactly what I had wanted it to. The skirt poofed out in nice even rolls.

Once I had put in all the hand stitches and had the skirt entirely attached to the waistband, I needed to take the gather tape out. The tape was much stiffer than the wool it was stitched to, and made the sides stick straight out at the waist, also the two rows of stitching holding the tape in place were very obvious. This was not as easy as a normal seam removal, so much of the tape was hidden from view in the folds and gathers, but removing a seam always feels easier to me than putting one in. Once it was all out I hung the skirt on a clippie coat hanger for a few days In order to see if the skirt would relax and if the fabric would stretch, so I could hem the thing with some degree of accuracy before affixing all of the guards.

I sewed a couple of hooks and eyes that I had purchased from Reconstructing History on to the waist band, two on the outer overlapping side, and one on the inside. I wanted to do that before I hemmed so that the skirt would always sit at the same spot on my waist. I chose the closure to be on my left hip, so that I could put a pocket underneath (a colonial pocket that ties around the waist, totally un-period, but great for holding a wallet and inhaler.)

Stephen pinned up the hem for me while I was wearing the skirt, since we females are not even all the way around. Unless you are very oddly shaped you will need more fabric in the back of the skirt than you will in the front. Also, my hips are uneven, so one side will always be higher than the other. My legs are the same length, but because my hips are uneven, nothing of mine will look right unless the bottom hem is measured from the floor. This is also the reason why I had to pick where the skirt closure would be before I hemmed it.. Stephen pinned up the hem just about at my ankles. Since this is a working dress, I will wear it kitled up most of the time (more on that later) so I wanted a pretty good length on the skirt. My machine has a blind hem stitch, which I used on the bottom of the skirt. Still, I promised myself I would pull out the machine hem and put in one by hand once the whole thing was done. In the end I never got around to it.

Skirt Guards
My next step was to sew on the guards, or stripes of a different color wool around the bottom of the skirt, in good landsknecht fashion. I hemmed the skirt before attaching the guards, because I wanted the guards to be even with the bottom of the skirt. When I was cutting the skirt I made sure to measure the width that the skirt fabric had shrunk to, because the guard fabric had shrunk differently. I had to make sure my guards were not too short, but also not too long either since I was planning on slashing them, and having to sew a seam in the middle of a slash is a pain.

I wanted to put three stripes on my skirt. I have a theory that the more srtipes, the higher in standing the person wearing the skirt. Not in any codified sort of way (i.e. one stripe, soldier’s wife, two stripes officers wife) nothing like that. But still, I wanted to show off a little, and thought three stripes would do it. The two upper stripes I cut narrower bands and did not do any slashing, the lowest stripe I cut a fairly wide band, and slashed it.

The thing about slashing the guards, is that I’m told the colors underneath the slashes is not necessarily the same color as the skirt itself, and that sounded good to me. I wanted to put another solid color band underneath the slashed band, without bunching, puckers, or becoming too heavy. I had green wool to make my guards so I chose black linen to use underneath. I washed the heck out of the linen just like I had the wool. I also cut the linen on the bias, that is, I cut the stripe at a 90 degree angle to the weave of the fabric. This meant that the linen was stretchier and had plenty of give, in case it wore out differently than the wool over time.

I drew my slash pattern on the inside of the wide guard with chalk, before actually cutting it. I used a pattern of almost “x”es for my slashes since it is a good idea to slash in the direction of the bias. That way you get less fraying on the edges of my slashes. This is another incredibly good reason to pick wool, you can be fairly certain that a good wool will not fray on an unfinished edge. I slashed the guard with an exacto knife on a cutting mat. I’m told that scissors work, but that seemed a little fussy to me since I was slashing in the middle of a piece of fabric and not right up to the edge. I am also told that a rotary cutter works well, but they scare me a little, and the exacto worked fine.

Once the big guard was slashed, I folded the top and bottom seam allowances over (on the wrong side of the fabric,) ironed them flat, then opened them back up. This was so I could tell where to position the black linen layer, and also to help me attach the guard to the skirt. I cut the black linen under piece a little less wide than the green wool guard and stitched the right side of the linen to the wrong side of the guard, just on the outside of the fold lines, so I could be sure that the lines of stitches would be hidden. I ironed the seam allowances folded again so that the black linen would have the same fold lines as the green wool. And I was finally ready to attach the guards to the skirt.

I measured 2.5 inches up from the bottom of the skirt, and drew a chalk line all around the bottom of the skirt. I pinned the guard, right side of the guard to right side of the skirt below the chalk line and pinned it in place. Yes, it was upside-down and inside out, but it was all part of the plan. I machine stitched just on the outside of the fold line, as close as I could get to it without being on the line. Then once the seam was in place I flipped the guard upright. S since the fold had been ironed in, it was a nice flat line that totally hid the machine stitch. I could have done the upper edge of the guard in this fashion instead of the lower edge, but I was measuring from the bottom of the skirt, and figured the less distance I measured the better.

Now, I can hear you asking, how did you hide the seam on the upper side? The trick above can really only be used on one side of the guards. For the other side I just folded it along the seam fold that I had already ironed, used a machine baste stitch to hold it in place, then hand sewed that side in place since the hand sewing is so much easier to hide. I took out the machine baste once the hand stitches were in place.

I sewed the first guard in place, then measured a few inches up and used the same trick to sew the next two guards into place. I almost put a fourth guard on the skirt, but that looked like overkill to me.

With that, I was finally finished with the skirt, and ready to start on the bodice.
Read Part 3, Read Part 4
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Monday, October 19, 2009

Landsknecht Dress Diary; “Hanne v.1” Part 1

Now that Connecticut Renaissance Faire is over, I finally have time to put up my dress diary for the new outfit from this year! I am dividing it up into parts, because the diary is so long!

Previous Experience
The first Landsknecht dress I attempted was made with luck and a lot of chutzpa. I was (and still am) madly in love with a Landsknecht reenactor, who is also a fantastic tailor. Back when we were first getting to know each other I desperately wanted an outfit to match in time frame and geography. I had a bit of sewing experience, but not very much, and a borrowed pattern. Stephen really saw me through the first outfit, though he swore he was no good at teaching people to sew.

Today, five years after that original Landsknecht dress, Stephen and I are engaged and have started our own Landsknecht unit. My original dress served me well, but going into the new venture I was looking for one that was more historical. Also, I needed to be able to teach others in the unit how to make their own Landsknecht dresses, since they are practically impossible to purchase. I wanted to document my whole process to help the other females in our new group.

Before making my outfit I wanted to know about the character I would be playing since clothing varies widely by class, and clothes tell a story without using words. My first thoughts about character were that Gutstav (Stephen’s character/persona) is a soldier’s soldier, so Gustav’s wife Hanne (also spelled Hannah) would have to be a soldier’s wife in order to be happy (and playing happy is much more fun than playing miserable.) I also wanted my character to spend a lot of time around the fire, cooking and such. So I determined that I should not go with something too upper-class, and could be a lot wilder in my color choices than I was last time, as long as those colors were still historical.

After I decided on what I wanted, Stephen determined that in order to lead the fahnlein, he needed to captain the unit, and be noble, a baron in fact. As the wife of a baron I had to alter my costume plans a little, but I still wanted to make a basic kampfrau outfit, so I could help the others in the unit, and because I liked my original plan.

Background Research
The first thing I did when preparing for this new dress was look at a lot of woodcuts and portraits from Renaissance Germany. There are a number of woodcuts portraying the Landsknecht, less of the women camp followers than there are of the soldiers themselves, but still quite a number, both online and in books. I also looked at paintings and portraits from the Holy Roman Empire, 1500 to 1550. The most disappointing part of my research has been that I have not seen any photos, drawings, or examples of extant German Renaissance clothing. Woodcuts and paintings are good, and show quite a bit about construction, but it is nothing like looking at the real thing. If anyone reading this has seen the real thing (or photos at least) please let me know, I’d be delighted to learn more.

I ended up mixing and matching a bit to get to my final dress. My initial inspiration and color choices came from the spring panel of Die Augsburger Monatsbilder, a German wall painting from the 1520s that I found on a dress diary by the Curious Frau. In the “spring” panel the woman in the lower middle playing cards was my initial inspiration, though I liked the darker colors of the woman just above her. I wanted to go a little more kampfrau since I needed to be able to tell others how to make guards etc. so I went for the guards on some of the woodcuts that I’d seen especially Musketeer and Wife c.1535 woodcut, also from Curoius Frau. I used sleeves straight off the pattern “Period Patterns”. For headgear I went for the small cap found in Cranach paintings, and a more traditional hat pattern that I had seen on various reenactors. More on that later.

In order to make our new Landsknect outfits, a bunch of us went wool and linen shopping. We encouraged everyone in the group to go with natural fibers since, obviously, back then folks did not have the newfangled fibers that we have now. Though there are some synthetics out there that try to mimic natural fibers, they rarely succeed, the most historical looking and feeling fabrics will, in my opinion, always be the real thing. We asked our crew to stick mainly with wool and linen as those are the most prevalent fabrics in continental Europe in the sixteenth century. There was a little bit of cotton, but it was expensive, especially in the northern parts of Europe. Silk is a little more common since by this time Italy is producing silks, but would not necessarily be found on the common soldier.

For wool and linen we all trekked down to Osgoods in Springfield, MA. It is a long drive from Southern New Hampshire but totally worth it. They have a ton of wool, all year round. They’ve got all sorts of colors and weights, they have linen, tons of upholstery fabric, really anything a historical costumer could want. Stephen and I then spent the next month washing wool.

We washed and dryed all the wool at least twice for a number of reasons. First, we’ll be wearing these clothes non-stop in the fall, so they will get dirty and we will have to clean them later. If we did not pre-shrink all the wool they would undoubtedly shrink later, and the colors could run, and make a mess of everything. Also, Landsknect clothing is often slashed, that is cut in various ways, and if your wool is tight enough, or fulled, then you will not have to worry about finishing the edges, just like felt. Washing wool shrinks it and tightens it so you can slash to your heart’s content and not worry too much about the edges.

As far as I am aware there are two patterns out there for making Renaissance German gowns, the original I used which is “Period Patterns” and another made by Reconstructing History. I decided to go back to Period Patterns since the last dress turned out so well. I again had to borrow a friend’s but the next time I make a landsknecht dress I will probably go out and buy the pattern since it has served me well twice. To help with patterning Stephen helped me make a duct tape bodice pattern which would help me get a better fit. I wore an old t-shirt and he taped me in, we drew on the duct tape with sharpie where we thought the neckline, seams, arm openings etc, would go, then cut me out of it.

Since I had borrowed the pattern I traced out the individual pieces instead of cutting them up, that way I could get my size, and others can use the pattern for other sizes later. To do this (and to make my own patterns from garments, measurements etc.) I have a roll of yellow tracing paper that I bought at an art supply store. The first time I bought it I was told it was architects tracing paper, so if you are looking to buy any, I’d ask for it under than name. Using my own tracing paper also meant I got to lay my duct tape pattern under the same piece that I’d drawn the pattern out on, and reconcile the two for things like arm holes which will have to match up with the pattern pieces for the arms to work.

With a good design, pattern, and cloth I was ready to actually start construction.

Read Part 2, Read Part 3,
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Monday, September 7, 2009

Tall Ships

Over the summer I begged Stephen to go to Sail Boston to see the tall ships. I’d never been to Boston to see them, though Sail Boston is a regularly occurring event. I’ve been to the Mayflower II, and Mystic Seaport. I’ve even seen tall ships sail into Portsmouth harbor up the Piscataqua river. I don’t like to pass up any opportunity to witness living history, and the tall ships most certainly are living history.

Stephen and I made it to one of the piers where some of the tall ships had docked, and we immediately noticed that though all these ship were indeed tall (being powered at least in part by sails, hence the need for tall masts) most of the vessels we saw were steel. This was slightly disappointing (wood is so much cooler) but not a historical inaccuracy. Ship construction progressed to partial (and almost total) steel construction long before the steam engine reduced the need for masts.

We only got to go on one ship, the Cisne Branco a Brazilian naval vessel that had been built in the late 1990s. Like most of the tall ships, the one we were on was a reenactment of an earlier style, an earlier technology. But this was not an educational vessel like the Mayflower II, not a vessel recreated for a movie like the Amistad, not even purposed for a training vessel like many of the US Navy’s tall ships (though there is some training that happens on the vessel.) The sign that we read shortly after stepping on the vessel said that the ship wais mainly used for ambassadorial purposes. The ship sails around the world representing Brazil.

As I read the sign I was struck by the fact that historical reenacting is often used for ambassadorial purposes, even if most of the reenactors I know don’t use it that way. Hula dances for visiting dignitaries, traditional recipes served at church fairs, performances of historical moments have been recreated to introduce the important bits of one culture to those of a different culture.

In fact, reenactments often serve nationalistic as well as ambassadorial goals, but that is a different blog entry.

Do you know of any instances of reenactment being used for ambassadorial purposes? Please leave a comment!

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Sunday, August 30, 2009

Who are we educating?

We’ve started a new endeavor this year, an entire historical encampment at the Connecticut Renaissance Faire. While some faires have multitudes of well established encampments (places where groups of volunteers set up in the most historical way possible and cook food, often do military drills, show crafts, and generally try to be a bit more educational than the faire) CTRF has not had any historical encampments so this year we’re trying to inject a little more history into the faire. So while we will be having fun being historical our goal is also to educate patrons at the faire.

But also important for this year is educating ourselves. As a crew we’ve done school shows, home days, parades, commercial events, renfaire cast and indie acts, but we’ve never done a total history encampment. We’ve had it in mind for years, so we’ve done some of the research, gathered some of the props, but we’re still scrambling to cram enough historical knowledge into our brains and historical objects into our cars and trucks for the trip south this fall. While all this research and craft making is fun, even more rewarding is the chance to involve new folks.

When Autumn Tree Productions ran the cast of the Connecticut Faire, one of the parts that I looked forward to the most at the beginning of the season was seeing the new faces that would be joining the group, especially the teenagers. While we’d be teaching them history and acting skills throughout the summer and fall, what we were really giving them was a creative outlet, a community composed of different age groups and abilities, and a chance to learn some social skills in a relatively safe and contained setting.

There are some pretty big geeks and nerds who like history enough to do this sort of thing, and those types of folks (myself included) do not have the highest levels of social interaction skills. But as teachers of the cast it was our job to make sure that all cast members felt comfortable enough to get in funny clothes with funny accents and go out to interact will all the different sorts of folks that came through the gates on the faire day. We had to teach people to read their audiences, to have safe sorts of interactions, and make sure everyone had fun. One of the best compliments I think we got was a cast member coming back to us when the year was over and telling us he was better at his normal job, because he had put his new skills to work in the workplace (though without the clothes and the funny accent.)

This year is a bit different, we’ve left some of the acting lessons behind. But we’ve still got new folks involved, new folks who now have a safe community where they will learn history, getting along in a group setting, public speaking, even how to sew! So if we do not reach a single audience member at the faire (which I doubt) I think the endeavor will still have been worth while as an educational pursuit.

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Tuesday, August 18, 2009

As A Jewish Reenactor

I’ve been feeling very guilty lately, about the fact that I’ve reenacted so many different time-periods, geographies, characters, in so many different settings, but I’ve never reenacted a character that was Jewish. Am I Jewish? Well, sort of. I have only been inside a synagogue once in my life, which probably counts against me, but my mother is Jewish which by Jewish law makes me Jewish. I am not religious, but neither are a lot of Jews that I know. Of all of the holidays that are important to me, one of the most important is a Jewish Holiday. So yes, I am (sort-of) Jewish. But I’ve never reenacted a Jew.

I spend most of my time reenacting Medieval and Renaissance Europe and, let me tell you, there were plenty of Jews around in Europe in the Middle Ages and Renaissance. Some really famous ones too. The 16th century rabbi who created The Golem of Prague might be the most famous. Maimonides is known by many as a great philosopher and physician -- we actually mention him in our medieval medicine show, but the kids remember the talk of urine samples and bleeding more than they do the names of philosophers. And 1492 might be famous to Americans for one reason, but for Jews it symbolizes the ultimate exile from Spain, where Jews, Christians and Muslims had lived if not in peace, at least prosperously for many hundreds of years. So there is a ton of cool Jewish stuff to reenact, why don’t people do it?

Most of my recent reenacting has been done at renaissance faires; not all of it, which means my historical muscles have not gone totally flabby. At renfaires you do not often get the most complete picture of Renaissance society, there are an awful lot of knights, princesses, and fairies wandering around the faire. But there are a heck of a lot of gypsies too. So the other day I asked a friend why it is that a roving minority like the gypsies are so well represented while another roving minority like the Jews are so neglected. He answered that the gypsies are sexier, which is true. I also think that it is harder to make fun of the Jews. Renfaires are all about be jolly and gay, and while it is easy to laugh at jugglers, jesters, even knights and princesses, modern Americans might be understandably reluctant to make fun of Jews, even long-ago Jews. So that might be one reason.

For a while I thought it might be that while your average American, religious or not might not have a problem playing the role of a catholic king, they might not want to portray being Jewish if they are not. But since then I have met a number of Jews at the renfaire, playing everything from Italian pirates to English peasants and everything in between so that excuse only sort of pans out. So why aren’t these Jews playing Jews?

My most recent hypothesis is that Jewish custom and culture already has its own historical reenactments in quite a number of holidays. Purim is the Jewish holiday that tells the story of Queen Ester and involves dressing up, sometimes as Queen Esther or the evil Haman that she defeats. The holiday of Sukkot involves the recreation of a hut that nomadic ancestors used to use in the harvest season. Passover is an even better example, not only is the story of the Jews escape from Egypt read at the Passover seder, but the meal is made up of foods that are recreations of foods those Jews ate, or symbolize their struggles, or at least are representative of the cultural connection. Jews have many holidays that involve historical reenactment.

I still hope, that some day I will get the chance to reenact a Jewish persona in a more typical reenactment environment, but for now I will look forward to the next Jewish history holiday and continue on with the reenacting opportunities that come my way, no matter what culture they are grounded in.

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Monday, August 17, 2009

Continuing the blog, changing the scope

I started this blog as a class assignment. I was taking graduate level Museum Studies courses at Tufts University last fall in hopes that I could get a job at a museum preferably involving history, but doing something that I would find interesting. I took a class called Museums and New Media where we studied web 2.0, made podcasts, wrote blogs, and tried to keep up with an ever changing technological landscape in a setting that is often fairly backward looking. The class was incredibly practical as well as theoretical, and I enjoyed it thoroughly.

I am no longer taking classes at Tufts. I now have a non-profit job that is highly rewarding even though it involves very little studying or presenting history. It is also further away -- I was 1.25 hours away last year now I’m well over 2.

That doesn’t mean that I’ve left history behind, I don’t think I will even be far from living history, though my current involvement is relegated to my spare time. So we come to this blog, What better way to keep track of the living history world, than to write about my experiences in it?

I’m hoping that my posts will be shorter, that they will be more frequent, but no less thought provoking (even if the only person whose thought they provoke is myself.) And that I will continue to be able to write about all the different ways that I am living history!

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Tuesday, July 14, 2009

What is a Niddy-Noddy for?

Some of my clearest memories of childhood are our family vacations, in and around the Northeast United States, and often into Canada. We would get in the car and drive, spending the nights at campgrounds or in rustic cabins. We would spend our days hiking and doing outdoors-ey activities or at historic sites, house museums and gardens. I don’t remember the names of the house museums or of the people who lived there, any more than I remember the names of the campgrounds, but I do have vivid recollections of docent-lead tours, rickety staircases, huge fireplaces, and dozens of niddy-noddys.

The Niddy-noddy would most often be sitting in a chair by the fireplace, or propped against a spinning wheel. I remember dozens of docents’ eyes lighting up when they ask the children on the tour (usually my brother and I) what this strange shaped contraption could possibly be. For those of you not subjected to house tours as a child, it is a wooden pole, with cross pieces attached perpendicularly at each end sort of like an uppercase ‘I” except the cross pieces are not flat like an “I” but at ninety degrees to each other. I was an incredibly shy child, so even though I knew perfectly well what it was (and what it is used for and even the rhyme) I would wait for the docent to pick it up, or at least gesture meaningfully, and tell me all about spinning fibers into cloth and winding them from the spinning wheel on to the niddy-noddy.

As a teacher of history myself I love using material culture: objects, buildings, costumes, to teach something about different time periods and ways of life, but I have to wonder at the effectiveness of such teaching techniques. Did I really learn anything about life in Colonial and early Nineteenth Century America when I was taught the rhyme that women would say while winding their yarn on to the niddy-noddy?

I was at a middle school in Connecticut, doing a short presentation about life in the European Middle ages, just a sneak peak for the 5th graders to get excited about what they would be learning in 6th grade, where I dressed up a girl and a boy from the class, and lead a short discussion about where clothes come from and how that shapes fashion and clothing styles. While their classmates were getting into tunics I asked the audience what clothing was made of and where cloth came from. A few of the 5th graders came up with wool coming from sheep and yarn being used for knitting, some even got to clothing being sewn out of cloth, but not the concept of cloth being woven from threads. I made my poor volunteers hold out their arms like scarecrows while I showed off the fact that their tunics were made of rectangular and triangular pieces of cloth, because rectangles (and triangles cut from rectangles) are the easiest to get out of whole pieces of cloth that have come off the loom.

I did learn more than just how to identify a niddy-noddy, I learned about pre-industrial, labor intensive cloth making practices. Did the kids in the 5th grade learn more than that they look funny in tunics, and that in the 6th grade they’ll learn about people wearing tunics? I hope so, even if only that you can make triangles out of rectangles.

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Friday, May 8, 2009

Flowers on Mothers Day

When working as an interpreter at Strawbery Banke Museum I had a lot of memorable and moving experiences, but one of the most emotional, was working on Mother’s Day when the costumed rolepayer who was playing Mrs. Shapiro, the Jewish immigrant, came in to the interpreter’s lounge with a large bouquet of flowers. The grandson of the original Mrs. Shapiro, now a very old man, had come to visit the museum and had brought his “grandmother” flowers.

What a show of support and connection! As an interpreter of a historical person it is always a bit daunting, knowing you are representing someone else in a very real way. I’m sure that the interpreter playing Mrs. Shapiro was very different from his grandmother, but Mr. Shapiro was moved by the fact that she was not forgotten, that her memory was evoked in order to educate. Many of us who reenact do it to help others learn in tangible ways, and forgive our own inadequacies by justifying the outcome: if these people learn a little about our past and about the world that we live in, then it is worth my blunders.

It is even more daunting for those who reenact recent history, since the audience is much more knowledgeable and more likely to notice any slip-ups. But the emotional connection to our audience and to our subject is greatly expanded the closer in time your subject gets. The role player at the World War II general store at Strawbery Banke would pull out an old photograph and talk very movingly about her “son in the war”. The photo was her own. It was a photo of her father as a young man when he served and was wounded in the war. There was something about knowing the direct connection that really did it for me.

On the whole I prefer portraying long-ago sorts of history, Medieval Europe, Colonial America. Even history 100 years ago allows me to feel more open in my character interpretations, also that I am helping folks learn about stuff they might not get any other way. I may not ever get a bouquet of flowers on Mothers Day, but I will strive to build emotional connections to mothers, daughters, brothers, friends and family with each portrayal I take on. Read this entry on entry page

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Raining Cats and Dogs

Four years ago I was starting a new educational program, bringing all the knowledge of Medieval and Renaissance Europe that I had gained while working at Renaissance faires into interactive workshops for schools. The transition was not exactly smooth, Though I had been diligent in my research of the European Middle ages, not everyone I hired had been quite as diligent. For a good number of the workshops it did not matter so much, since they were highly scripted, with definite goals.

The workshop that was hardest to research and script was the Middle-Ages Talk Show. I wanted to give the kids a chance to ask anything they wanted to know about daily life, so I assembled a panel of three performers portraying different classes: a noble lady, a wine merchant, and a peasant girl. The presenters prepared by reading books and I sent out a few questions I thought the kids might ask, but we really did not know until we got there the sorts of things to expect. I did not put myself on the panel, I wanted to observe, but in retrospect that was probably not the smartest decision. The school was great, the teachers had worked with all the kids to come up with questions, and they raised their hands and were incredibly polite, but the presenters were still incredibly nervous. The presenter who was playing the noble lady had a lot of knowledge, but she was shy, and clammed right up when she got in front of the kids, the presenter doing peasant life was normally very outgoing, but she was not confident in her historical knowledge so she had a hard time making anything she might say interesting. The final presenter, the wine merchant had gotten his BA in history, and was full of knowledge, but he did not know much about wine production, and he was working hard to fill the silences of the other two. At one point he was going on about the sort of house he lived in, talking about the thatched roof when an amazing story came out of his mouth. I remember it fairly distinctly, though I might not remember it exactly:

“My house has a thatched roof, that is bundles of straw laid across the beams. Thatch is wonderful except sometimes the cats and dogs in the house crawl up into the thatch, then when it rains very hard they fall down and that is how we get the expression raining cats and dogs.”

I had never heard that one before, in fact, I had never heard the origin of the phrase, but knew that one could certainly not be true! I made sure after the panel was done that the presenter did not repeat that story to any of the other groups, and at the end, well, I had learned a lot even if the kids had not. The school gave us another chance the next year, and each year it got better. I did not have those same panelists back, but found people with more knowledge, who would not clam up under 45 staring eyes.

This year, when planning out the talk show, one of the regular panelists who portrayed a monk, could not make the date. I scrambled around for a while, and eventually asked the panelist who had played the wine merchant. He’d done a lot for us in the past 4 years, and had kept increasing his knowledge. He asked to play the monk, and since that was the role we had lost I agreed. He promised not to tell the cats and dogs story, and the presentations went really well. The teachers even let me know that this year’s talk show was the best they’ve ever seen. The kids learned a lot, we kept the pace up, and had fun while still being accurate and informative. I apologized to our new monk for teasing him about “cats and dogs” all those years, and thanked him for saving our presentation.

Yesterday a friend told me he had been watching a show on Stratford-upon-Avon on the travel channel. The show included a guided tour of Anne Hathaway’s cottage lead by a guide in an exquisite costume. The guide actually told the raining cats and dogs story on television, and went on to explain that that is why folks had canopies on their beds, to keep stuff falling through the roof from hitting people while they slept. It turns out this is quite a well known hoax, but still a hoax nonetheless.

I’m sorry again Tom, your story was not as unreasonable as I first thought, even if it is still false. I’m glad you could help make our 6th graders better educated than English tour guides. Read this entry on entry page

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Renaissance Faires, a Historical Fiction

I have been pondering the historicity of Renaissance faires.

Renaissance faires are most commonly weekend events, they are found all around the US, some in Canada, and are gaining popularity in Australia. Probably not surprisingly, special events on Medieval and Renaissance history can be found all over Europe, but the events that I am focusing on are a particularly colonial phenomenon. They vary widely in size, and intent from faire to faire. Some are long established, permanent enterprises, some are more ephemeral church or school fund-raisers. Faires also vary in historical accuracy, which is not necessarily related to size or any other factor. All Renaissance faires are based on festivals, markets, and celebrations in Renaissance Europe, but none of them intend to recreate life in a particular time and place with the accuracy expected of a museum. So where does that lead someone trying to make generalizations about Renaissance faires as concerns their historical basis or lack thereof? In quite a conundrum.

I’ve been working Renaissance faires for 6 years. Before being hired as a Stage Manager at a faire in 2002, my historical background was in museums. And now that I am expending more of my energy towards history and less towards theater I am looking to museums again. Today I find myself justifying my time spent at Renaissance faires to colleagues in the museum field. Many of these folks (who may or may not have ever visited a Renaissance faire) speak of Renaissance faires with derision, but are unable to tell me exactly what a faire is, though they all tend to agree “its not history.” The only response to these folks I’ve come up with so far is: the Renaissance faire is historical fiction.

I think the analogy between Renaissance faires and historical fiction is fairly solid, especially since there are so many forms of historical fiction: novels, plays and movies are most obvious. Historical novels, like Renaissance faires, vary widely in their portrayals of history. Middle schools use the novels of Karen Cushman to teach medieval history, but very few would consider novels like The Crystal Cave for teaching history, even if it is a great story. The same can be said for plays and movies. HBO’s series on John Adams, strives to be accurate within the confines of the mini-series, and is certainly more accurate than the movie The Patriot or the musical 1776, though all are based on the Revolutionary war, and all portray actual events.

Some Renaissance faires strive to include as much history as they can, training their actors in history and biography as well as interaction. Some have special days for school field trips that are more educational than the average weekend day. Some insist that only hand-made items be sold in the many shops and booths throughout the faire. But many more welcome the fairies and sprites of fantasy, celtic inspired art and goods, and entertainment that owes more to Victorian England (the 1800s) than Renaissance England (the late 1500s, early 1600s).

Renaissance faires share another important element with other forms of historical fiction: author/producer intent versus reader/viewer/visitor experience. Many authors will tell you that once they have released a creation into the world, once a story is published, each individual reader will bring their own interpretation to the book. No two readers will experience a story the same way, no two viewers will see a movie the same way, and no two visitors to the Renaissance faire, will have the same experience. Actually, this element is heightened at a Renaissance faire, where the many elements that make up the faire will all lead to varied visitor experiences.

At the Renaissance faire there are many varied live performances going on all day long, and no one person can catch them all. Just like at the mall, a person is unlikely to visit every shop, or shop for the same items. A large part of the Renaissance Faire experience is centered around personal interaction with the historical characters, so every actor tailors their performance to the people they are encountering at the moment, guaranteeing a level of personalization just not possible in books or movies.

So, can a Renaissance faire be called history? I think it can safely be called historical fiction. How historical is a Renaissance faire? Well, it depends.

I welcome your comments, please let me know what a renaissance faire is to you.

Photos, Top: Guild of Saint Michael lines up for parade, Bristol Renaissance Faire (photo by Alena Shumway), Middle: “Willow” the Fey of trees, Connecticut Renaissance Faire (photo by Jess Boynton), Botom: King Edward knighting a young visitor, Maine Renaissance Faire (photo by Rob Mohns.)

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