Stepping Back

Hm. I haven’t posted since the day before the election. I’ll let you interpret that as you like.

I sewed a canvas jerkin by hand over the past month. It isn’t 100% historically accurate (i.e., no interlining) because it was for a friend who is always too warm and lives in Virginia, where our summers are brutally hot and humid. In this project, I learned a few things.

  1. What makes my projects take forever (more like a year) isn’t how fast I sew, but how often and for how long I set down projects when I get to a tricky bit. I get to the part where I have to do the buttonholes, and I set it aside and don’t get back to it for six weeks. I get to the bit where I have to make the skirts symmetrical at the center front of the doublet, and I set it aside for two months. Right. If setting it aside isn’t an option, I can make a jerkin by hand in a month.
  2. Closely related to #1, perfect is the enemy of good, and of adequate practice. We get better (usually) at things we practice. Every hour holding a needle or manipulating fabric with a sewing machine makes me better at that skill and usually generalizes to related skills. Obsessing about perfection keeps me from getting enough practice at the things I want to improve. Suck it up, Jen, and accept that the project will not be perfect. Make it good. Make the next one better because of the practice you got on this one. Repeat until it’s really bleepin’ good.
  3. Backstitches are known as a very strong stitch. It’s what you want to use on a seam that is going to be under a lot of strain. I have read about extant garments that had backstitches used in parts of the garment where there is almost no stress on the seam, and I didn’t understand why. I haven’t gone back and found those examples to verify that my theory is correct, but in working on the jerkin, I found another reason to use a backstitch. If you’re sewing through many layers, it’s almost impossible to do a running stitch where you take one “bite” to go into and out of the fabric to make a full stitch with one motion. If that makes no sense to you, watch this video. The fabric is just too thick to bend the way it needs to bend to do that, and your running stitches would have to be huge to make it work. If you use a backstitch, on the other hand, you can end up with normal-sized stitches, but do it quickly taking big “bites” through the thick layers, then backing up to make sure the final stitches are small enough to work. I sewed on the jerkin’s shoulder wings and skirts with backstitches, and while it uses more thread, it is infinitely faster than trying to use a running stitch. This is probably a “Duh!” thing to people who sew a lot by hand, and that’s why it’s good to get practice – this is the sort of thing you figure out by doing it.

Since I posted last, I bought male and female half-scale dress dummies, and I even (mostly) finished a pair of breeches for “Robin.” I’ve been meaning to make him the matching doublet. Maybe if I can keep up the motivation, I will post about all of that here. (ETA: Just realized that I DID post about Bess’s body block last year. Haha. I’ll get back to that.)

Weave Structures

I got a new toy. We used magnifiers to look at weave structures in my SHD class in London, and I found a nifty one -it has its own light! – on Amazon. I need to start bringing this with me to fabric stores.

I looked at a couple of “plain weave” or “tabby” woven fabrics today. This is the simplest weave – one over, one under, repeat forever. Look at this clever person’s diagrams and explanations.

Now we’ll look at it in real life.

Looking first at a simple tabby woven linen:


Now looking at the same tabby linen close-up:


And a tropical weight (very lightweight fabric) worsted (from tightly spun threads – as opposed to “woolen”, which is fluffier and from looser spun wool threads) wool tabby:


And the close-up of the wool tabby:


A silk that has very thin warp threads (running up and down the length of the fabric, parallel to the selvedges) and very thick weft (crosswise) threads:


And the close-up of the silk with thin warp and thick weft:


Finally, what modern fabric stores call a “shot” silk – the warp threads are one color, and the weft threads are a different color, which gives it an iridescent effect when it moves in the light. In the 16th century, it was known as “changeable” silk – this one is red and black:


And here is the shot silk close-up, where you can easily see the two different threads.


Now you’d think that because tabby woven fabric is a simple weave that looks the same if you turn it 90 degrees (try it with the diagram in the link above or with the close-up of the linen above), it would behave the same regardless of whether you cut it on the straight grain (i.e., all of your pattern pieces facing so that the selvedge is running from the top to bottom of the pattern) or on the cross grain (i.e., turning your pattern pieces so that the selvedges are running from side to side of your pattern pieces).

You’d be wrong, as I was. I will do some demos in the near future so that you will know it in your heart of hearts as I now do, but until then, I have heard this from a patterner/cutter who has been doing this for decades, and I have seen it with my own eyes. You have been warned. Straight grain – every time, and *especially* for interlinings.

Tailoring vs. Dress-making

I asked this earlier and got some good answers: “Pop quiz! What are the differences between tailoring and dressmaking skills? Extra credit for citations or explaining the history of the two traditions.”

Here is my understanding of the major differences in the 16th century and the implications for historical costuming. If I’ve missed anything or gotten something not quite right (or just mucked it all up), feel free to comment.

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I have decided that I want to master patterning. This is not a small, short-term goal that I’ll accomplish this fall. I took a class with the School of Historical Dress in London last month on “The Art of Cutting Out c. 1600-2000,” taught by Melanie Braun, who probably knows more about this topic than anyone on the planet. It’s hard to summarize what I learned, but it made my head explode a couple of times. It also made me aware of many things that I didn’t know I didn’t know. Her class – two days long – was just a taste, but it was incredible, and I want to learn it all.

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Tailored to a New World

   I don’t know where to start re: describing the conference at Jamestown. The tours, workshops, and lectures *all* rocked. Some bits were of more interest to me than other bits, but it was all full of good information, and the areas that didn’t appeal much to me made my friends squee with delight. I’ll likely write about some of the specific topics later.

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“The right look”

Like most things, I’ve griped about this before, but it came up in a recent conversation AGAIN….

If you are trying to recreate a specific garment or outfit in a specific painting or monument or trying to recreate a specific extant garment, you can get it right or get it not so right because you have a known standard to judge against. Even if you’re just aiming for a general look (e.g., 1560s England), you can get it more right or less right (and sometimes just outright wrong, but that’s not something we say about people’s specific projects unless we’re having a particularly catty moment – even if they used Hello Kitty fabric).

It’s not that “anything goes” just because there was more than one way to do it. Zippers are wrong. Princess seams are not documentable – to my knowledge – for most* SCA times/places. Some things are documentable; others are (currently) not documentable.

The danger lies in thinking that there is one correct silhouette or “look.” I put together a collection of over 500 pictures of portraits, crowd scenes, monuments, and extant garments that I thought were related to the Flanders gown that was all the rage in England in the 1560s/early 7os. There are very few “duplicates” of garments among them. Even if I narrow the field to include only English folks in the 1560s and looked only at the upper class, there are at least a dozen different “looks” to this outfit, and I have no delusions about having pics of all of the looks that existed for this dress. There is no one correct silhouette – some of the skirts were very full and some very narrow. There is no one correct way to do the sleeves – some were huge, some smaller, others almost pointy, some scalloped, and so on (mine are too droopy, but that’s a separate issue that is its own cautionary tale to be told another day).

I am myself guilty of saying something along the lines of “she really nailed that silhouette.” When you hear me say that, you should be hearing, “she made something that looks just like that portrait Gianetta sees in all of her books.” (also, you should remind me of this post so that I say something that makes more sense in the future – “The silhouette is exactly like ones I’ve seen in portraits.” – nitpicky? Maybe, but words actually have meaning, and the former implies that I know all of the right ways this garment should look, and I don’t.)

When a garment *doesn’t* look “right,”maybe the person absolutely blew it, but don’t make that assumption without asking questions first. The fact that a garment looks too long/short, narrow/wide, etc. often means only that it doesn’t look like the portraits that are in the best known books. Anyone who tells you otherwise likely has too high an estimation of their own knowledge of the field. I know that after my adventures in reading and picture collecting in the past year or so and being continually *shocked* by what I find in recently published books, I wouldn’t be caught dead saying that a look was wrong without talking to the person first to find out what they were using as their sources of inspiration. Pro-tip**: “I haven’t seen documentation of that style of widget” is almost always better than saying that something is wrong.

*Those Germans had some wacky sh1t. I’m not sure I’d call them princess seams, but there is some weird stuff in the patterns in that newer pattern book.

**”Pro-tip”usually means I’m being catty, usually at myself, for some past dorkiness – like leaving the container of cat treats on the counter or attempting to sew pants after 9pm or thinking I know more than I actually know about something and saying something foolish as a result – been there, done that.


As usual, my friends rock. I said, “Tell me about your methods for researching a new project. What works for you?”

They responded on my FB page, which I can’t get to link to this page. It’s the 4/1/16 post.

Edited to add: My friends’ suggestions are in link above.  MY suggestions are below:

The following are a few of my methods for getting started on research for a new topic:

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Be Nice or Go The He11 Away

Not directed at anyone I know – just some stuff I’ve seen online (friends of friends stuff) lately.

tl;dr version (pt 1): I can get information out of a book and instruction out of a Youtube video, even if I don’t know any knowledgeable people who are also nice folks (I do), so why should I spend my finite time on this planet with you if you’re a jerk?

tl;dr version (pt 2): Telling the unvarnished truth is NOT a virtue. Are you saying something that supports and encourages the artisan? Are you providing resources that will put the artisan on the right path in the future? If not, your “truth” is worthless, at best. This is true for competitions and everything else. (note: people in Atlantia have worked *really* hard to prevent problems in A&S competitions. I respect all of the work they’ve done in this area, and I think they’ve largely been successful in decreasing the incidence of nastiness in judging in our kingdom) 

tl;dr version (pt 3): The awesome people vastly out-number the jerks in the SCA. If you encounter jerks, ignore them and find the people who are not a-holes. No, really. Come find me at an event, and I’ll introduce you to a zillion fabulous people.

Regardless of your rank in the SCA, if others helped you get where you are today in your art, you have an obligation to try to help the next “generation.” I say regardless of your rank because an intermediate level costumer likely can answer that newcomer question as well as a clothing laurel can. Someone who learned to make a t-tunic last year can teach this year’s newcomer how to make one. This work can’t be piled on a handful of people, and we all have times when we can’t be available, but in those cases we can refer people to resources or to other people who know the topic in question.

I wrote a bunch more, then deleted it, so this whole thing is really the tl; dr version. 🙂