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!


  1. Good job!
    Hand-woven wool? Very impressiv!

  2. Very nice job!

    As a side note, in the Late Iron Age and Early Medieval ages not only was wool from black sheep used for black garments but they also made black dye made from iron oxide and vinegar (not unlike iron gall ink). While newly dyed yarn/cloth was a true black with this dye, it's down side was that it didn't remain so particularly long. Eventually, the black fabric would turn a dark rusty-brown.