Monday, March 19, 2012

That Blanket Has Character!

My mom is a connoisseur of yard sales, thrift stores, and flea markets. This works out great for me, because I’m not much of a shopper. It works out especially well when I’m looking for reenacting stuff, because it is very rare that we can find what we need at modern stores. Mom is willing to take requests: right now she is looking for wooden boxes for me, and if she sees nice linen table cloths, or wool blankets, she knows I am always interested in those.

When Mom showed me this particular blanket I fell instantly in love with it. It is hand woven, on a fairly narrow loom, and was pieced together from three narrow sections. The warp is wool, and the weft is (probably) cotton. The stripes don’t match up entirely and it has worn very thin in parts, and that adds to its appeal.

Last fall I tossed it on the bed with all the other blankets, hidden somewhere in the middle because it does not really fit with out upper-class portrayal, but it was warm and I was not going to leave such a charming blanket at home. Recently when getting ready for the upcoming reenacting season I pulled out our blankets for their spring airing and decided that if we were going to abuse the blanket with use, I should patch up some of the bigger holes. I read a blog entry about mended French fabrics last summer, and when looking at this blanket the pretty patches and darns instantly came to mind. We’ve got a much lower class portrayal in our near future, so I went to the scrap bag, and pulled a bunch of colorful wool scraps from various sewing projects.

I particularly like to do hand sewing in the evenings when I’ve used up all by brain power for the day, but I’m not quite ready to go to bed. I take off my glasses, and curl up under the blanket (the part I’m not mending) and put another patch in place. I go to bed with a feeling of accomplishment. Even if I’ve achieved nothing else in the course of a day, at least I got a little farther on bringing this nifty little blanket back to usability, I’m adding my own touches as well as memories of past outfits, and in the spring it will keep us warm. Also, if anyone visiting us at any of our events gets close enough, they will get a bit if a surprise when they notice all the patches and additions, it is a bit of a reward for those who dare to look at the details.

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Saturday, March 17, 2012

Dabbling in the 20th Century

Stephen has taken up a new hobby. Actually he has taken up three new hobbies in the past year, but I’m only going to write about one today. Airsoft, for those of you who don’t know is like paintball, but instead of shooting your friends with brightly colored exploding paint sacks, you fire little air filled plastic BBs. I’ve been told that it is more realistic, and less hard on the clothes, I don’t know from direct experience because I’m not crazy about the concept of guns as toys. But this post is about Stephen’s hobby, and not mine.

It turns out, there is some overlap between airsoft and reenacting. This past weekend Stephen attended an airsoft game that was a reenactment of the battle of Bastogne (World War II.) To participate folks were required to have the correct uniforms and supplies, to camp on site one needed to have correct-looking camp gear. I hear it was not quite as authentic as a reenactment, But Stephen said there were plenty of great moments. What I do know, is that the planning for the weekend was a lot of fun.

Usually when Stephen and I take up a new period we have to do a ton of research in academic journals, out-of-print book resources, and museums. To research a time only 66 years in the past there were tons of primary resources: manuals, photographs, movies (made at the time!), and extant objects all over the place. Aside from the research, the era is popular enough to reenact that Stephen was able to purchase many of the items that he would need for the weekend. Clothing, patches, mess kit, even shoes were not too difficult to find. I will admit to more than a little jealousy that while I was hand sewing a 12th Century tunic based on scant archaeological evidence and a few illuminations, Stephen was sitting in the living room with his lap top and a credit card getting all his uniform pieces, sized tall so they would fit him.

One of the things that make any living history or reenactment venture is the details. At Reenactorfest this past February Stephen picked up a few reproduction papers and pamphlets: an ID card, a ration card, a booklet about trench foot and one about the dangers of venereal diseases. He then went and got a nice leather wallet to store his cards, and we made plans to take a photo for his ID card. But Stephen did not have any photos of his sweetheart in his wallet and I determined to do something about that.

I arranged for a photographer friend and I to get together on a Saturday. There was a museum exhibit we both wanted to see, and I requested a quick photo shoot in there as well; I made a 1940s swing dress last year, and had slowly been acquiring more 1940s pieces since then. On Saturday morning Rob and I found an adorable little diner, and the staff were tickled when I emerged from the bathroom with my hair all done up and my swing dress on, and Rob started snapping photos. At home I worked a little Photoshop magic, then slipped a few prints into Stephen’s WWII wallet while he was out one day. A few more details achieved.

The day before Stephen was to set out for his WWII adventure he put on all his gear and we raced around the house looking for a section of blank wall that he could stand in front of for his ID photo. We finally found the best lit stretch of wall was behind the bed in the bedroom, so we both knelt on the bed while I tried to get his head cocked just right for his photo. Then we went outside to take some documentation photos, and even played around with some more “in the field” types of settings. All the snow from our early March storm has melted, so we have bare ground, no grass growing yet. The rough ground and the pines made a pretty good backdrop and after printing off the little 2x2 inch photo for his ID I printed off two photos for myself, now I need a hand bag to go with my swing dress where I can store the photos of my honey off in the war.

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Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Introducing Rose

A couple of years ago Stephen was asked to take part in a new faire put on by the owners of the Connecticut Renaissance Faire. They wanted a living history encampment for the new faire and we’d impressed them with what we’d done with Das Geld Fahnlein. They were looking at a Robin Hood theme, the kind that coincided with the story of Richard the Lionheart and bad Prince John, which gave us a chance to look at a new time period to reenact: the late 12th Century. It took us a few years after that initial request, but this May the Household of William Marshall, a Living History Encampment, will debut at CTRF’s spring faire. It will be a different sort of encampment than Das Geld Fahnlein: smaller, less military and more domestically oriented, and much more dependent on individual research.

Stephen and I made the decision fairly early on that since we were the nobility in Das Geld, we would go for lower class in 12th Century. It would give us a chance to stretch a little and take some of the pressure off us in terms of performance and also our wallets. For the past couple of years I’d been portraying a farmwife as part of our Medieval Talk Show presentation in schools, and I was interested in exploring her further, so Rose is expanding from a generic farmwife into the wife of a huntsman and maker of herbal medicines. I don’t yet know a lot about Rose, that will come with more time in her skin, but I do have the outfit done!

Last May Stuart Peachey came to speak at Plimoth Plantation. I was able to attend one of his talks on food, and another on clothing. During the clothing talk Peachey mentioned big black wool coats worn by English farmers in the 17th century. He pointed out that the coats were not dyed black, but were woven out of the darkest sheep’s wool. You know the old nursery rhyme, right? It had never occurred to me, when looking through the woolens at the fabric store, that a really dark brown would be acceptable because that was the natural color of the fiber! Now it seems totally obvious, but when wandering around the store with historic dye samples, looking at modern wool, it is sometimes tough to get back to basics like that.

Underdress on top of the outer dress fabric.
Not long after attending the talks I read some great articles on weave patterns and natural colored wool for 10th Century Anglo-Saxon clothing, specifically the articles entitled: “A re-enactors introduction to “Dark Age” Textiles" and "An overview of textiles throughout British history” and as soon as I read them I knew my 12th Century outfit would be of natural colored wool in interesting weaves.

I started that spring with a square of natural “white” wool on which I stitched a rolled hem for a head covering. Then I looked for research materials and sources. I found very little. I ended up with The Medieval Tailor’s Assistant, which was only a little helpful, and Medieval Garments Reconstructed, which is a bit early, but contains extant tunics which all appear to be created along fairly basic lines. I’d done tunic-style dresses before, usually with lacing on the sleeves and back, and often with very full skirts, this dress would be even simpler.

Next I worked on a linen under dress. The fabric is very lightly pink, but I justified myself with the thought that linen does not really hold color well and it could have been dyed with madder and faded a lot. Since it was an under dress and I wanted to make sure the pattern I was using would work, I machine sewed the dress and used my serger for all the inside seams. Actually I did not so much have a pattern as a quick sketch by me, and a set of measurements by Stephen. He is so much better than I am at measuring the body and figuring out how much cloth will be needed to make something to fit that body. From those measurements I cut down the neck a tiny bit, and cut in the shoulders before I set in the sleeves, but other than that I did not need to change a thing.

Hand-sewing all seams on the hand-woven wool.
Stephen and I have quite a big fabric stash in our sewing room. When it came time to sew my outer dress I pulled all the lovely weaves in natural colors off the shelves, and discovered that most of the pieces were too small to make an entire dress. My favorite of the larger pieces was one of Stephen’s contributions to our stash, and since I had the suspicion that the piece I adored was hand woven I made sure to ask his permission before slicing it up. Stephen confirmed that the wool was hand-woven, probably by a friend he’d met in college who had passed away more than 20 years ago. I could totally understand the reluctance to cut into such a beautiful piece with poignant memories, but the moths were going to get to it, and I promised to use it well.

There was just barely enough wool. For a while I was worried that I would not be able to make arms for the tunic in order to get enough fullness in the skirts, but I squeezed enough panels in, and used every last bit of the cloth. I broke the historical rules and put the selvedge along the bottom edge, which gives it a nice line without hemming, and allowed me to get a dress that was just long enough. I ended up hand sewing the whole thing, partly as an homage to the memory of the woman who wove it, partly because the wool was such a dream to work with, it took the seams that I copied from the Medieval Tailor’s Assistant and made gorgeous lines that a machine never could have achieved.

With an under dress, an over dress and a head covering I was basically done. I had purchased shoes 2 summers ago, and have some nice belts I wove on my mother’s old inkle loom. I have a lot more to do before Rose is a full character, but her first outfit is complete.
we only got one snowstorm, and I was in it!

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