Book Review: Textiles and Clothing c. 1150 – c. 1450

This is another book that I’ve conjured out of the library, and figured I’d share my thoughts on before I send it back to its humans. It’s from the Medieval Finds from Excavations in London series, number 4. Textiles and Clothing c. 1150 – c. 1450 written by Elisabeth Crowfoot, Frances Pritchard and Kay Staniland and published by The Boydell Press in 1992, with a second edition in 2001.


As you may have guessed from the series it is in, it’s got a rather narrow focus on a selection of finds from London itself, primarily carried out in the 1970s and 1980s, and within about a 300 yr time scale. My personal interest falls both before and after those 300 years, but that’s besides the point. I don’t mind that it’s got a moderately tight focus, it feels as if it can do a better job of looking at what it’s got rather than try and be all things to all people.

They spend a chunk of time discussing the challenges of textile archeology and the digs themselves, and then devote themselves to many chapters of fairly typical examination. Fibre content, weave structure, details on the spinning of the fibres, and speculation on dyes. It is delightfully detailed, and the wool chapter alone is a good read, but the addition of a chapter about goathair is an unexpected delight.

They do an excellent job of putting the finds into context of every day life, not just looking at the textile alone, but also mentioning where such textiles were found in inventories and wardrobe accounts to discussions of the various textile industries in their focus time period. This is not uncommon in various textile accounts, but is always welcome.

Probably my favourite chapter from the book is the one on sewing techniques and tailoring. How were the seams put together? What thread did they use? How long did it take to make a certain garment? It’s these niggly details that I appreciated someone gathering up and trying to make basic sense out of, and those are the ones that many who are interested in as close to re-enactment as possible want to work with. It’s an excellent chapter, and if you read only one out of the book, that’s the one to start with. (Also the last chapter, it was rather like dessert).

The book has no index, but rather a glossary and an extensive bibliography, as well as a concordance of all of the finds from each dig categorized by fibre, if you prefer to look things up that way.

All in all, another book that I was very happy to spend some time with. Another book that I’m not sure I need to have on hand at all times, but one that I appreciate having access to. I wish it was slightly closer access than borrowed from the library of another city, but that’s not so bad, all things considered.


We have heddles!

Yes, it’s exciting enough for me to make it a big bold statement. For those wonder what the devil I’m talking about, allow me to give a smidge of background. I’m working on a weaving project on a warp weighted loom. I got the warp tied on, and chained up and tied to weights. So far so good. I declined to add a tablet woven band at the top because it’s just a practice piece, and I am wholly and firmly unconvinced that it’s an always thing. (More research needed, clearly). I’d say ‘fight me!’ about it, but really, just bring references about my wrongness would be sufficient. Proving an ‘always’ is hard at the best of times, and when we’re talking an era with little extant evidence to begin with.. well.. I don’t think I’m out in left field here.


And then it sat.

And it sat. And it stared at me balefully as I worked around it in our main room. (It’s not smack in the way, but it’s rather in the way). And I did other things, and I came up with all sorts of excuses not to work on it. Because I had to put the heddles on next, and I was being a wimp about trying something new. I’m a pretty experienced string person, and paralyzed by the notion of doing something new with string.

After a fairly solid conversation with my own head, and slotting in some downtime to actually recover enough cope for new things (is that just me? New things are too much when everything else is a mess.), I got out the instructions. And lo and behold.. the instructions that were promised to be easy to get the hang of were.. easy to get the hang of!

Let me back up a moment.. heddles. Great word.. weaving is full of great words really, but apparently weavers are incapable of using words that anyone else does. Heddles are the things that pull just some of the warp threads up at any given time. In plain weave (over, under, over, under) you stick heddles on half the threads, such that you can grab that half and pull them up when you need, or push them back when you don’t need. Fancier patterns require you to have just some pulled up, and then just others.. and hey.. if you have 4 different configurations of what threads you have heddled.. that’s a four shaft loom! In warp weighted looms, each configuration is a stick (rod.. dowel in my case) that has strings tied from the rod looped around a warp string. If you want a fancier pattern, you have more heddle rods. I have a very basic pattern (over, under.. it’s called tabby or plain weave.. see? All new words.), so I only need one heddle rod with half my warp threads tied on.


I get it all tied, and I take that lovely picture above and then I pause. And I realize that I have successfully put the heddle rod behind my warp. So the warp can’t move freely in their loops. So I need to take it all out, because I am an idiot.

I did get lots of practice in tying heddles, and it is now heddled up correctly, even if I forgot to get a photo of the current state. On to weaving next! (Post Pennsic at this point)

A&S at Pennsic 48

Are you putting together your Pennsic schedule and thinking ‘Gosh, I wish I knew when the A&S awesome was’.. this post is here to help!
(Those of you at home need to put together homemade A&S awesome, hopefully you’ll share all the cool stuff you got up to while some of us are down in PA!)
First off, Pennsic University offers classes beyond the wildest imagination, on every topic you can think of, and a few you probably hadn’t thought of. The teachers are from all over the Known World, and getting new perspective is super cool, as well as learning new things! Those can be found in the Thing (yes, seriously called Thing).
(Yes, I put on the big kid pants and signed up to teach. I’m not in the book, but I am in Thing, and should be in the ‘additions and cancellations’ sent to the paper as well. Look for Modern Alchemy: Saponification)
Not wanting to commit to classes, but just want to gawk at the awesome? Got you covered. Middle Sunday 1 pm – 5 pm is the A&S display. Both the adult and youth display are at the same time this year! Two for the price of one. Anyone can bring what they are working on and show it off. We get rank beginners showing their very first piece all the way through people bringing the body of work that they’ve been working on for years. No judging, no prizes, just A&S geeks geeking out with other A&S geeks.
Last, but absolutely not least, is A&S war point on Thursday of War week, 10a – 4p. Why should the martial types get all the fun of acquiring points towards the war!? 10 artisans from Middle and allies vs 10 artisans from East and allies compete for the A&S war points. This is a judged competition, and while open to the public to come and admire the works, you’ll have to admire the other 19 while any given work is being judged.
Plenty of A&S to keep a person busy at Pennsic!

Another day, another hem.

I was lamenting to a friend that a steady diet of plain sewing was not the most exciting blog fodder in the world, but that’s what we’re up to around here atm, so that’s what I’m going to natter about for a little while.

I hand sew most of my garb. This is not a statement designed to brag, I know quite a few people who do the same, it’s mostly an acknowledgement of the strained and temperamental relationship I have with sewing machines. (The serger and I aren’t speaking again.) My usual commentary on machine sewing is ‘oh goodie, now I get to screw it up faster!’ I sat down and considered getting more Pennsic garb quickly by machine sewing and realized I’d be a happier human hand sewing slowly. Which probably meant nothing new for Pennsic, but a happier human in old garb rather than stressing myself out at the machine. Which of course meant I went and worked on hand sewing an early period tunic for the late period spouse. Tunics, as in more than one. Two early period tunics for the late period spouse. (He wears early period at two events in a year. Pennsic, and Althing.) As a bonus, they were in the UFO pile, double duty!

There’s a few options for basic handsewing of garments, and there’s ferverent devotees to them all. This is how I put basic things together (think tunic, chemise, smock, petticoat etc etc.) This is not how everyone puts their garments together. Let me be the first to assure you that if your garment has edges that aren’t going to fray and holds together, you’ve done it correctly. The sewing police are not going to appear on your doorstep to give you a citation for using hem and whip stitch tactic versus a french seam. Try a few, see what makes you happy, go with that.

My preference is to hem all my pieces first. Not a rolled hem, nothing that exciting (yes, I know they are easy once you get going, but they are not easy in a moving vehicle, or in the dark.). Just take your raw edge, fold twice to hide the raw edge, running stitch to keep it there. Done. Do that around all the edges of everything. (I leave off the bottom hem, cause you’ll want to cut that off to length at the end.)


Yep, a hem.

Why do I prefer to hem all my pieces as pieces? Because I do almost all of my plain sewing somewhere else. In the car, at events, over lunch hour at work, in waiting rooms. I can pack a tiny sewing kit and a couple of pieces of a whole dress in a zippie bag and not have heaps of fabric trailing about with me when I inevitably get called 4 stitches in. I also get those edges that are wholly too fond of fraying tidied up right quick, before they’ve gained a few hundred km of travel time and been dropped in the car a dozen times and frayed even more. This makes for a moderately large seam allowance (rolled hem would be less, but I find it a bazillion times more of a pain), but basic running stitch is pretty meditative, and I can even still watch the scenery. It goes pretty quick, all things considered. Running stitch is not terribly strong, but this seam is just a hem. It is not structural, so that’s alright.

Once all of my tunic pieces are hemmed, I put them together using a whip stitch. Hold both sides together, and zip zip zip along. Once finished, this will open completely flat, if you don’t take giant chunks of hem in your whip. I literally take about a mm or so, and it lays quite nicely. This is a visible seam. There is no escaping that you can go ‘yep, there’s stitches’, but that’s an aesthetic that I appreciate, so this isn’t a draw back for me. If you want it to look like it all holds together with magic and starshine, this is not a tactic for you.

Finally, finish off the neckline, cuff and bottom hem as makes you happy. (I cut them to size, and do that same boring fold, fold, running stitch again.) Ta dah! Tunic!

Some drawbacks.. this requires 3 passes for every seam. (Both sides to be hemmed, and then a pass of whip stitch). Sewing the seam and then finishing that raw edge is only 2 passes, but I find my finishing isn’t as neat. If you mismeasure a piece, it’s a pain to take it out. It is, to be fair, less of a pain, as the whole thing is pretty modular, but it’s a pain. Possibly just the pain of yanking out a bazillion tiny stitches that you just put in by hand. Grrrr. Fortunately, you spend so much time up close with it, that the realization of ‘heeeey.. wait a minute’ has plenty of time to form before you’ve done too much, so you screw up somewhat more slowly.

So that’s today’s plain sewing, and all the tunics and underdresses for Pennsic. What’s your favourite garment assembly handsewing techniques?

Alchemy 201: Saponification

The next class in my Alchemy series debuted last weekend. The numbers are purely about topic.. the 100 series are dye, the 200 series are soap. I haven’t decided what (if) the 300 series might be. Suggestions welcome. (I mean you can tell me that it’s a terrible idea too if you want. XD)

The class went well, over all. It had normal first class jitters. Where you stumble over those quips that sounded so clever when you were preparing, or can’t remember exactly where in the notes you wrote that detail. Students were generally engaged, asked good questions, although it was rather less rambunctious than my last class. I need to work a bit on the notes to include a bit more overview, and manage expectations a bit. This isn’t a how to class, and these notes are not going to give you instructions on how to make soap (nor did the mordant class teach how to mordant yarn for that matter). And of course, I had grand plans of taking a class selfie, and then totally forgot. Whoops.

I’ve added my class notes to my documentation page, although be aware that they are going to get an update soonish (Before Pennsic, eep!)

I did go into this one feeling a lot more confident about the subject. Saponification is a really interesting reaction and is very well researched and understood. There’s a lot more definite answers about what’s going on in there than with mordants. It’s also a fairly controlled thing. These items go in, this happens, this stuff comes out, everyone shouts hurrah and goes home.

The next step is to take a deep breath, gather up my 20 seconds of courage, and offer to teach it at Pennsic. Teaching at Pennsic is something that’s always intimidated me (no, I have no real clue why.. possibly I just trust the Ealdormere A&S community not to be a jerk to my face.), but that’s ridiculous, and at some point I am going to have to put on the big kid pants and do it. They won’t bite, and if they do.. well after a consolation drink or two (mmm. Slushies), I’ll have great stories to tell. Having missed the book deadline by.. well.. a lot, there’s also the distinct possibility that I will sit by myself in a classroom for an hour and that’ll be that. (Weirdly, I have no such fear of teaching at Known World events. Apparently I trust string folks too. Hunh. Brains are terribly odd.)

Pennsic prep (and panic) are in full swing! Packing, classes and garb, oh my!

Book Review: Northern Archaeological Textiles NESAT VII

I’ve been gorging lately on library books, many conjured up from the far reaches of the province (and beyond!) thanks to the University Interlibrary Loan system. While I have them for an all too short period of time, I thought I’d highlight some of them.


This one in particular has been coming up in the references of so very many papers I read, and I finally tracked down a copy. It’s the proceedings from the North-European Symposium for Archaeological Textiles (NESAT) held in Edinburgh in May of 1999. Edited by Frances Pritchard and John Peter Wild, published by Oxbow Books in 2005. (ISBN: 1 84217 162 3)

It is comprised of 24 short papers that were presented at the symposium. Most are in English, but not all. (5 are in German. I think. Looks like German? My language skills suck.) They range from a discussion about brocaded tablet woven bands, to the Textiles of Seafaring, to a preliminary classification of loom weights and a look at gender roles in textile production during the late Saxon period. This is not a how to book, this is a book of academically rigorous papers, full of solid bibliographies and references, and light on the pretty pictures.


Personally, I’ve been appreciating the article on loom weights (A Preliminary Classification of Shapes of Loomweights by Karen-Hanne Staermose Nielsen) and an updated article about the evolution of sheep fleeces by the major name in fleece history. (The Human Development of Different Fleece-Types in Sheep and Its Association with the Development of Textile Crafts by Michael L Ryder).

I have to say, even just flipping through it again to write this review, I’ve settled in to re-read a few articles, and continued to enjoy them. They are strongly skewed towards early period, Roman, Saxon, Viking Age, there’s only a couple touching on sixteenth century textiles.

This is, to me, a book that is handy to have library access to, but it is not a must own for everyone. I would appreciate having it, but I’m a bit of a research geek, and having it to hand to reference would be super handy. There’s good reason I see it cited in so many papers, there’s a lot of solid information in here for textile geeks. It will not help you figure out how to weave, nor provide suggestions on why your tunic doesn’t look like the picture. It will give you reason to say ‘ah, I was aspiring to higher authenticity, and I aimed my thread to be this size, because of this find.’. For some people, myself included, that’s valuable, but you may not be it’s target audience, and that’s fine.

I appreciate having access to it, and I wish I could have easier access to it (local library rather than ILL), so thumbs up from me!