Hand Sewing

The only reason you should sew anything by hand is because you think it would be cool to sew it by hand. Otherwise, use the machine and do all of the finishing (hemming and visible stitching) by hand – it’s almost always worth it to finish by hand. If hand sewing seems like penance to you, use it where it matters the most. I bet you can’t tell which of my construction seams are handsewn (with a few exceptions – like some techniques used on linen, it’s rare that you can tell if something is handsewn if the person’s stitches are good), so if it doesn’t affect the final product much AND it sounds horrible to you, why would you spend your free time doing it? Personally, I like the idea of sewing something completely by hand, but if that doesn’t sound like fun, put your time and energy into something that brings you joy.

Just like any other skill, hand sewing is all about technique and practice. Have someone show you efficient motions for your stitches or check out Youtube videos. There are easy ways and hard ways to do everything. I probably am not doing everything as efficiently as I could, but I’ve figured out a few things through practice, and I’m much faster now. Ask someone who sews a lot for a demo.

You’ll probably learn a running stitch first, and you’ll have to take it one stitch at a time to start. Your stitches will be big and ugly and inconsistent – so start with something that’s not very visible, like construction seams. Focus on making the stitches consistent, and they will improve. Through thin fabric, I can now take several stitches at a time – rocking the needle back and forth and manipulating the fabric – and cover almost an inch per pull, and they’re as even as my individual stitches.

Use the right materials and tools. Don’t buy cheap thread. I try to use silk thread when sewing silk or wool, but I sometimes cheat and use a good cotton thread that is a better color match for the fabric in places where an imperfect stitch is really going to show if it’s the wrong color. When you can’t match thread to fabric, err on the side of using a thread that is darker than the fabric. Black, navy blue, forest green, dark red, dark brown (notice these are all dark colors), white, ivory, and a gold color cover pretty much all of my needs. I’ll get around to getting them all in silk, but a good cotton from a quilting store works. They make quilting thread that is specifically for hand sewing, and that is really nice, but I’m usually lazy and just use the cotton stuff I bought for my machine if I’m not using silk.

I used to think I needed a really strong thread for seams that would be under tension or for holding pleating on a skirt that might get stepped on. NO. If that seam is put under too much tension and something breaks, you want it to be the THREAD that breaks, not the fabric. It’s easy to re-stitch a popped seam. Torn fabric is a much bigger mess to fix – try to avoid using thread that is stronger than your fabric. Avoid polyester threads for this reason (full disclosure: I still have some from years ago and use it in some machine stitching, but I’ll never buy another spool of it).

Use the right needle. You’ll probably need to start with larger needles because they’re easier to hold and manipulate when you’re starting out, but experiment with shorter and thinner needles as you gain more experience. If I’m doing construction seams on thin fabric, I use a longer thin needle that can hold several stitches for each pull. If I’m doing finishing work, I use a tiny quilting needle that doesn’t put big holes in my silk trim. If I’m sewing stiff (e.g., interlined with a couple of layers of linen) pieces, I use a thicker needle that won’t bend when I push it through the fabric. Use big tapestry needles for tucking the ends of braid into the seams of garments. Start with a multi-pack and figure out what works best for you for various purposes. If you’re going to do a lot of hand sewing, decent needles are worth the price – I like these for detail work. If your eyesight isn’t great or your hands aren’t very steady, get a needle threader from the notions aisle.

Get a good thimble. This is a very personal choice, but I like the leather thimbles you can get at Joanns. I’ve tried the metal ones a few times, and I vastly prefer the leather ones, although I sometimes get one that is too loose, and they can be really stiff when they’re new. I tend to use them until they get holes in them because the well worn ones work best for me. If I’m sewing something really thick, I use a leather thimble that has a metal disk over the tip of the finger. You wear the thimble on the middle finger of your dominant hand, and you use it to push the needle through the fabric. That, or you develop calluses. 🙂

Use short lengths of thread. The time saved by using longer lengths and needing to cut fewer new lengths will be eaten up by dealing with tangles. You’ll figure out over time how long you can go with your type of thread without cursing, but start with short lengths.

Some people like beeswax for their thread. It’s the period material, but I like Thread Heaven. Use one of these things, and you’ll curse a lot less. After you try it, you won’t be able to live without it.

Learn a quilter’s knot.

Get a magnet for your pins – I like these, but you can find cheaper ones. Use the right pins too. Get silk pins (available in various sizes) for thin fabric. The big ones with larger heads are good for holding layers of wool together. I can’t have pins around Teddy, the Klepto Kitten, so I use pins, baste by machine in the sewing room(use biggest stitch on machine if you don’t have a basting stitch), remove the pins, then can sew by hand without worrying that the cat will steal my pins. Use a contrasting (I usually use white) thread for the basting so it’s easy to rip it out after you’re done.

Decent scissors are a good investment. Some people swear by Ginghers, but I like these for cutting fabric, and these for snipping threads and detail work. Don’t pay full price. Get a good coupon or wait for a sale and get them 50% off at Joanns.

Make sure you have decent lighting. I need to work on this, so feel free to share your advice on which lights work best.


Arguably the hardest part of my dress – sewing the gold trim onto the collar of the dress such that both sides look the same – is done. I’m taking a break, then I’m going to re-assess my work to make sure I’m happy with it. At that point, I just need to sew a boatload (around 20 feet) of it onto the dress (up and down front and around the hem), then sew on twice that length of braid.

I’m very happy with how this trim (strip of silk fabric with braid over each seam) has turned out, and I’m pondering how I want to adapt it for use on Adam’s cassock.

I made it by cutting strips of fabric with a rotary cutter and quilting ruler. You can cut it on the straight grain or on the bias – they used both, so use the bias if you need to go around curves. You could go for HA and cut it by hand with scissors, but that sounds like a really bad use of my time. I folded under the seam allowances by running it through a 1/4″ bias tape maker as I pressed it (pro tip: test it before you cut a bunch of strips to make sure you have the seam allowances right. The guidelines on the bias tape maker don’t work for all fabrics. Ask me how I know….) You could fold under 1/8″ seam allowances by hand and burn the heck out of your fingertips, but that seems like a part of history that we don’t need to reenact.  🙂

The braid is a simple 5-part braid – someone at KASF gave me a name for it – “encapsulation” or something like that because it’s worked around a passive thread. It’s the same cross/twist pattern that is used in bobbin lace (easily found with the google). That pattern is super fast and easy – I can do it without even looking at it. Doing it around the 5th thread requires some attention – you have to cross over the middle thread, do your twists, then cross under the middle thread. Repeat that sequence (cross over, twists, cross under, twists) until you have as much braid as you need. I use Trebizond filament silk, and I leave it on the spools, secured with a half hitch like what you’d use on a lace bobbin. I use my bobbin lace pillow and just wrap it around as I go.

I like this trim because it’s unique. It’s grounded in historical techniques, but nobody else has trim just like it. That braid pattern was used on a 1620 doublet (of a style like that worn pre-1600), and there are multiple examples of clothing trimmed with a combination of silk and braid.

I also like the fact that it’s something relatively cheap and easy that I can teach others. Someone else can use the same methods and get a look that is completely different from mine – maybe a wider strip of fabric and a different pattern for the braid.

You don’t need to use silk for the fabric part of the trim – as long as it looks good, the fiber content of your trim doesn’t matter because you’re not going to drop from heat stroke because of polyester trim. Just make sure it looks good. You also don’t need to use silk for the braid if it’s beyond your budget, although I recommend you use the best you can afford if you’re going to spend this much time on something. I have never thought to myself, “I wish I had used cheaper fabric on that project.”  🙂  Just be careful to test any red thread for colorfastness. Other colors can bleed too – so test them, but be SURE you test the reds – they are tricksy.

How to Build a Better Widget

Wow – It’s been two months. Did I mention my short attention spSQUIRREL! 🙂

I had a couple of interesting conversations recently both online and at KASF about how to help people grow in their chosen art. Many people have shared good advice, and I suspect that different things will work for different people because that’s usually how it works. That said, here are a few things that have been useful to me.

I was always very sensitive about the idea of being judged. This was something I was doing for fun, and I didn’t ask anyone for a grade on it. The fact that I had absolutely no interest in seeing an A&S competition score on my latest widget probably was strongly related to my being in graduate school [aka my own personal hell] when I joined the SCA. Eventually, I got over that, and what helped me with that were a) seeing first hand how at least one polling order works and understanding why you really shouldn’t get bent out of shape over them (see my earlier post on the topic), and b) deciding to pretend that I was ineligible for any more awards for technical reasons – that I couldn’t get any more awards ever. In that situation, what would I do? WhateverTF I wanted to do, and nothing I didn’t want to do. Taking the award/judgment issue out of it was very helpful to me. Other people thrive on competition and reaching for that next goal, but saying, “Yes, I want that golden ring, but what would I do if told I’ll *never ever* have even a chance of getting it?” was immensely helpful to me in not feeling stressed out about what people think about my widgets.

People complain about not getting meaningful feedback on their widgets. I see this as a symptom of our expert artisans not being a bunch of jerks who go around telling newer artisan what’s wrong with their widgets. This is a good thing, but what it means is that if you are an artisan who wants to improve in your art, you probably can take yourself a certain distance on your own – if you are stupidly stubborn about such things, as I am. After that, you’re going to need objective feedback from people who know more than you know if you want to improve – they’re the ones who can point out the things that you don’t know you don’t know, and that’s where people get stuck. I see the solution to this problem as very simple. You must approach a person who knows more than you know about widgets (or even someone at your own level who has a different background or perspective) and say, “I’m interested in making my next widget better than this one. What can I do to improve my future widgets? What skills should I work on? What’s the next level for me? What should I be reading and thinking about?”

I asked just a few friends for feedback on my gown, and I now have numerous serious tasks to accomplish this spring and summer. A friend fingered the collar of the gown, which is interlined, but not stiffened as much as it should be. “I probably should learn pad-stitching (a tailoring technique) for collars, shouldn’t I?” Another friend told me the sleeves were hanging too far off my shoulders – “I probably should stop focusing on hand-sewing garments and instead  practice patterning and fitting a bunch of armholes and sleeves, which have always been the bane of my existence.” Really studying these things and mastering them will greatly improve all of my future projects (Thanks, Maggie and Greer!) I’m sure there are many other things I can improve about my work, but I now have a manageable to-do list for the next few months and can ask others for feedback in the future.

The key is that 1) I went to people I trusted to give me honest feedback without being jerks about it, and 2) I explicitly gave them permission to criticize – I asked them to tell me what could have been done better on this project. It’s now up to me to act on that advice, but asking – which can be scary – was the only way to find my way to the next level.

Read. Read. Read. I set a goal last May of reading all of my Elizabethan costuming books (I have more than a few) by Ruby Joust this year. I’ve gotten through all of what I’d consider the major works, but I have a good number of second tier books – solid info, but what I’d suggest *after* you’ve read (cover-to-cover, except for parts that don’t interest you at all) Queen Elizabeth’s Wardrobe Unlocked, Patterns of Fashion 3 and 4, both V&A 17th Century Women’s Clothing books (for construction techniques, not the actual garments examined), all four Tudor Tailor publications (two are Henrician era, and the one on kids’ clothing has applications for adult clothing), all of Hayward’s books (if also interested in Henrician era), and about a half dozen Costume articles (email/PM me if you want them). I have learned a ton, and I have a better appreciation now for what I *don’t* know – again, it’s *what you don’t know that you don’t know* that is the sticking point. I now have my marching orders on some of what I need to learn next. I’m guessing my future reading will show me the way to the next rabbit hole.

If you don’t know what to read, ask an expert – “What should I be reading?” Any of the Laurels or Pearls (and many others) should be able to direct you to someone who can help you put together a reading list, but you can create your own by looking through the bibliography of the major books in your field. I currently have free access to a university’s library services, so holler if you need a journal article – if VCU has it, it takes a couple of minutes for me to download the PDF, and if they don’t have it, it takes a couple of days (longer right before finals) for them to get it and send it to me.

Meet everyone you can in and around your field. Meet all of the artisans you can meet in general. Surround yourself with positive, helpful people who love geeking about widgets. You don’t want snarks – we all have lapses and say things we later regret, but avoid anyone who makes a habit of it – there are enough awesome, friendly, helpful, interesting, and nice people in the SCA that you don’t need to bother with the non-awesome people. Hang out with people who will support you and your efforts.

Practice, then practice some more, but others are better equipped to tell you more about that.



Questions & Answers

When someone asks me a question about historical clothing, I always want to give them correct information, and I try to add appropriate caveats that are appropriate for the specific answer I’m giving. If I’m sure of an answer because I know of two examples in written accounts, I can answer confidently. In other cases, I’m not sure of the answer, give my best response, and make sure the person understands just how sure or unsure I am of my answer.

Just as important as getting the answer right, though, is getting the question right. I’ve seen several online conversations this week where it was clear that the problem was not the answer, but the question. Often people don’t know what they don’t know, and they don’t understand that they’re not asking the question that they actually want answered.

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Polling Orders

[Edited to add: I had never googled “blurgle” before today. I need a new word – Google it at your own risk.]

[Edited again: Not very interesting content deleted because people were focusing on something – whether polling orders are a swell idea – that is a moot point]

I can’t speak for any of the orders except the Pearls, so YMMV with this information if you are interested in the other orders, but I can do my  best to de-mystify the Pearls.

If you’re not interested in the Pearls, go read something more interesting. 🙂  If you are interested in the Pearls, first go read their manual, which is available to the populace on the Pearl website. None of the following is super secret information.

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Sounding it out

One helpful hint for folks who have not read a lot of early modern English written accounts – read it aloud and sound out words you don’t recognize. Often, your brain will figure it out through that process. Other times, you’ll have to look up a word you don’t recognize (googling it can help). In some cases, it’s possible that you aren’t recognizing it because it’s a word you don’t know in modern English. For example, I couldn’t figure out “balas” because I didn’t know it was a type of gem in modern English. 🙂

For me, it was slow going at first because I had to learn to recognize weird spellings of words I know *and* learn new words, but after you see “pearls” spelled “perles” a few times, you no longer have to think about it at all, and it starts to go a lot faster with practice. It does pay to take the time to really learn the names of commonly used fabrics. Many of the ones used in the 16th century in England are listed in useful tables in _The Tudor Tailor_. I recommend starting to read period accounts with the bookmarked TT book next to you. You don’t have the TT book yet? If I could keep only one of my 16th century costuming books – and I have a lot of them, that would be the one I’d keep because it gives you the basics for fabrics, stitches, colors, and patterns for a full century of garments for both men and women. Not all of their patterns are perfect, but it’s still the one book I’d keep.

“Doing A&S”

In one of those “X things about the SCA and me” memes, I saw a multi-talented artisan mention that “I don’t usually participate in the A&S side of the house that often. Mostly because I hate writing up documentation.” After chatting about it a bit, she edited her post to more accurately reflect reality, but I think it is a common view that “doing A&S” means writing up documentation and entering your work in competitions or displays.

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About 6 months ago, I asked on FB if anyone had opinions on reference organizers. I used EndNote about 10-15 years ago, but suspected that there were newer products out there. I received several suggestions, but the one that caught my eye was Mendeley. Jenn/Alfrun sang its virtues, and after hearing a few tidbits about what it can do, I was sold.

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Cursed Sleeves

Finishing up second sleeve. I worry that the oddities of the design and the fact that I made them a month or so apart might make the two sleeves not completely symmetrical. I should have molded the reeds into identical loops before I started either sleeve. Short of completely re-doing both sleeves almost from the beginning (not happening – I am *this* close to lighting these sleeves on fire), this boat has sailed.

Let this be a cautionary tale for adventurous artisans learning new skills that will need to be replicated (like sleeves) in a single project. Lesson to learn: it’s good to test a concept before going whole-hog with it, but if it’s a complicated design, doing it assembly line style to ensure that you do it exactly the same way both times is a good idea. Well, I said I wanted to learn stuff and improve my skills with this project, and I learned something, which I guess is better than making it perfectly, but not learning anything new. 🙂

I’ll just have to make sure I don’t square my shoulders directly at anyone straight on while wearing the dress. That way, they won’t notice the slight differences, and bonus is that it presents a smaller target to one’s opponent if they’re trying to stab you.  😉