So, having nothing to lose, I entered all this in the Queen of Doom’s Prize, since this year it was online (took place on Facebook, I don’t have Facebook, it’s a long story) and for once I didn’t have to combat blizzards and work schedules and things. People left (and are apparently still leaving) lovely comments on it.
And, um, this happened:
There I was watching Court on YouTube last weekend, and all of a sudden there’s a picture of me on the screen. So that was an exciting end to an exciting week.
The Foundations Revealed competition had nearly 600 entries this year, twelve times as many as last year, so the timeline of the judging and all is slowed down. I’ll be sure to let you know here when things start happening.
Or I’ll try, anyway. Life got really chaotic (I mean more than usual) starting when I got myself locked out of my apartment on Christmas Eve, and hasn’t let up for more than a day at a time since. Nor do these happenings always grace me with any advance warning, either, which is terribly unsportsmanlike. Next week, I have the rare advantage of already knowing, is going to be extremely wild, but usually it’s just been things coming out of the blue and crashing into me. Three of the last several times the dishes have been done in my house it’s been someone else coming and doing them. All that to say, after this burst of activity with the Entwife posts, the blog is probably going to relapse into silence. Unlike my life, this time I’m being kind enough to let you know in advance.
You know something, though? The birds have been singing for a week here already and when it isn’t snowing all day it’s being sunny. And we’ve got about three weeks left to enjoy that before daylight savings comes and ruins everything. And tomorrow I don’t work (the last day for two weeks, unless you count Sundays), and I’m going to see people I haven’t seen in far too long. And I have a nice relaxing project going right now.
I wrote a lot of the rough draft for the Entwife documentation as I went along, and it took a while for the fact to sink in that a project that takes most of a year to complete even with the sort of single-minded focus I gave to it, is kind of a big one. It didn’t seem so big at the time.
These are all the things I can remember — and I may well have forgotten something — that I did for the first time on this project, between April of 2020 and the end of January 2021.
Making a mockup (that one out of paper towels a few years ago not counted)
Doing a garment mostly in running stitch
Working with linen
Working with a patterned fabric
Making a non-t-tunic garment
Patterning off an extant garment (for the St Birgitta cap, the St Clare tunic, and the embroidered bag)
Sleeves of more than two pieces each
Making a shaped armhole
Doing the St Birgitta embroidery stitch
Doing any embroidery that wasn’t an iron-on tea-towel pattern
Flatlining (if we count the unfinished gardecorps, which is about two-thirds just flatlining things)
I haven’t planned any enormous projects for this year, although nine-tenths of what’s happened to me already this year was nowhere in my plans either, so I can hardly rule it out. But for the sake of my wrists and hands I’m trying to keep it less intense.
Andersson, Eva. “The Perfect Picture — A Comparison between Two Preserved Tunics and 13th-century Art.” North European Symposium for Archaeological Textiles X, edited by Eva B. Andersson Strand, Margarita Gleba, Ulla Mannering, and Cherine Munkholt. Oxbow Books, 2010, page numbers not given (Google Books preview, accessed 2/6/21).
Norris, Herbert. Medieval Costume and Fashion. 1927, 1999, p. 144
Sogliano, Sarai Tindall (SCA name, no mundane name given). “How to make a St. Birgitta Coif/Cap.” Clothing the Past, https://clothingthepast.wordpress.com/2014/10/25/how-to-make-a-st-birgitta-coifcap/. Accessed 2/6/21.
I had another image to work from, back in the summer when I had plenty of time and a cottonwood in mind, but with barely a month to go I found the perfect extant to try to re-create instead. Because everyone needs at least one pocket, or, if predating the era of attached pockets, a bag to have around your waist.
Naturally, it was about five times more complicated than my first idea, and impossible to date. It seemed to exist only in two images on Pinterest, one of which was captioned with “Relic pouch from the 13th century”, and neither of which linked to a source. The kind folks in the Fustian house were able to trace it to a website: http://medieval.webcon.net.au/period_13th_c.html where it appears among other extants. No further information is on the site though. Still, it was a pocket for a walking tree, how much did I need? The Fustians also informed me that the embroidery was goldwork, which, in case you didn’t know, means gold foil wound around a thread, probably silk, and then couched down with more silk thread. I definitely did not have either the budget or the skills for this, and time was so close to running out that I’d already set aside the nearly-completed gardecorps which was going to be the fifth item in the outfit. As a substitute for goldwork, the vine edging could plausibly be chainstitch. On closer looking it’s more like a knitted cable, and that effect is carried over into the motifs between the roundels as well as the ones within them. Considering my skill level and the amount of time I had left I went with chainstitch, which I had never done before but seemed simpler than trying to reproduce the knitted-cable look exactly. It also appeared that the outlines of the roundels were done in a continuous line, leaving me the option of filling in the arrow-shaped bits after. That’s very considerate of the beginning embroiderer. (Did I mention that before this project my only experience was with iron-on tea towel patterns? And suddenly I was tackling the St Birgitta stitch and all the rest of it.) Where the roundels touch they loop over each other as if they were all also one continuous line. The arrows are always pointing counterclockwise. I accidentally did one of my circles pointing clockwise. But the bag has an organic feel to it, not only in the greenwich (most likely from age) colour scheme, but in the way angles aren’t always precise, motifs are uncentred, the symmetry may be imperfect, and yet it’s no less beautiful; so having an imperfect model to start from helped with my perfectionist tendencies a lot — and I needed all the help I could get.
I printed out the image on 11×17 paper and prepared to further destroy my eyesight. After I poked the paper so full of holes that it couldn’t help with the tinier details, I took to keeping one or the other of the images open, and soon learned that the best ratio of size to clarity was to zoom in till the image was about eleven inches wide. The background fabric is closely-woven, I’m not sure of what fibre content, with a smooth surface. Patches of what first appeared to be wear, at the top, might be small bits of surviving pile? Was it goldwork on velvet? The tape binding three edges (except for the top where the drawstring goes) is cut on the straight grain.
Speaking of my budget and skill limitations — one thing I did have, silk knitting yarn in the right shade of green to go with yellow linen (cabbage from the gardecorps lining) to make a decently shiny low-budget version. I split the yarn, using one two-ply strand for the outlines of the circles and such motifs as seemed to need outlining, and three strands for the thicker bits. Chainstitch seemed like a decent copycat of the effect of some of the parts, so I first learned how to do chainstitch and then started with those bits, using a variation on the prick-and-pounce method with a chalk pencil to transfer the pattern (done by merely printing out the image at the size I wanted the bag to be) to my fabric. Reassuringly, the original isn’t perfect itself, which took some of the pressure off me and adds to the organic feel that makes it good for a tree.
I did make one deliberate change to the pattern — swapping out the two four-legged beasts in the lower corners for two apple leaves, laid and couched. It was also my first time trying that and it will be a long time before I try again. I tried to get the visible bits of the couching thread to line up so as to resemble veins on the leaves, though.
I cut out a square of linen the right size for the bag’s front (about six inches square, for my purposes; I have no way of knowing how big the original is) to do the embroidery on, but then had to think about the question of assembly. The bag would need a lining and a back (which doesn’t seem to have ever been photographed, and anyway I had no time, so it would have to be plain). It was also a drawstring bag. I puzzled over this for weeks, the question further complicated because of the tape binding on the sides and bottom which was clear to see in both images. It would make sense for that to be stitched around the raw edges — but those edges had to have been folded under where the tape didn’t go, around the drawstring tunnel, and yet that part wasn’t noticeably narrower than the presumably not-folded bits. . . I couldn’t wrap my head around the construction of this until I came up with the idea of a piece of fabric four times the length of the finished bag, accordioned, and all the edges lined up so the tape covered the sides and the two ends of it. You would need less seam allowance for those areas, because it wouldn’t be folded as it would for the drawstring tunnel, so you could cut the seam allowance away slightly. Then when you folded the parts that needed to be, the tape could be stitched to the new raw edge at the corner that cutting-away had made, continuing from there down and around the bag, while leaving the line of the side looking straight.
The drawstring itself was comparatively simple. The cord of the original is all in one where it comes out of each end of the purse sides when the purse is laid flat fully open (with a curve as of it doubling back on itself from going through the channel one and a half times), but almost at once we encounter a large round bead and the cord splits into two cords. All four of those cords are fairly long, and terminate in another large bead and some fringe. The cord is a very interesting texture.
Doing my usual rough math, I estimated I would need a finished length of 45 inches, so I took some dark golden silk yarn I also had in my stash, since the green was left over from a project from several years ago and I wouldn’t have nearly enough of it. Using similar math, I figured about six thicknesses would be necessary, and measured and cut them accordingly. The cord is very interesting: the middle section, which is mostly hidden inside its tunnel, is all one perfectly normal cord, but almost as soon as it comes out, each end of that section terminates in a round bead and then the cord splits into two cords, which several inches later terminate in a bead and tassel each, so that a single drawstring has four ends. I bought wooden beads as close as possible to the size and shape of the extant’s — I could have had any material but thought wood was most appropriate for the character. I roped my sister into helping me, as twisting six strands into a single cord was bound to be a two-person job, which it indeed was. We measured off the middle section of our pieces of yarn and twisted them all into one, added a bead at each end, and a knot after that, then split out six strands into two groups of three at each end, and twisted them into four separate cords, adding a bead, a bigger knot to compensate for the cord being half as wide (so that the beads would stay on), and separated all the strands to get just the right frayed look.
After that it was merely a matter of finishing the embroidery and the rest of the construction in time. I cut out a piece of the same linen about three times the length of the piece I was embroidering, and joined them with a lapped seam which would be hidden just on the inside of the bag once finished. Cutting a roughly one-inch-wide strip of the same linen for the tape followed. By this point I had decided to do the actual sewing together in the gold silk thread, because it made more sense, visually, to me. I can’t detect any of the original stitching on this part of the extant bag, at least not in the available pictures. I estimate the embroidery alone took about fifty hours and the rest of the work another four or five. I had all January to work on it and it took every last minute. The night before I had to submit my entry, with my original photographer having gone to another state (in fairness to her I was supposed to have had it finished earlier), I sprayed it lightly with water and pressed it between a couple of (large, ex-library, plastic-covered) books.
But do you know what’s even better than pictures of mine lying flat where it looks like the pictures of the original lying flat? We have no pictures of the original in use — after so long that could be dangerous to it.
It just got a little easier to imagine the original being used too.
I would need a green garment for leaves, of course, and I was pretty sure I wanted it to be a sideless gown. At about this time, while in lockdown and trying to catch up on the kinds of things that had been sitting around waiting for “someday when I had time”, I picked up my green cyrtel, which had big holes forming at the armpits — not holes in the fabric, just the seams coming apart in every direction — with plans to take the sleeves off and re-attach them with proper sleeve gussets. (I hadn’t put them in originally.) Then, looking at the green fabric right there, which I wouldn’t need to spend any money on, and which was about to be sleeveless anyway, I decided to turn it into the sideless. But as it’s my favourite cyrtel, I didn’t cut any fabric off the sides, and kept the sleeves, to be put back on later if I want to.
The original cyrtel was my second, and although I handsewed it, I had done so in bright green nylon thread. All the new stitching I did now in the same undyed handspun wool thread I used on the stripy gown, and I turned the neckline over so that it became a proper rolled edge. Now the only visible nylon stitching is at the hem. I opened the side seams down to where the gores begin and folded those edges to make a rolled hem too, and sewed them down with running stitch. Since the shoulders now stuck out funny without the weight of the sleeves to pull them down, the original garment having an all-in-one body piece with no shoulder seams, I cut those too, again making allowance for my asymmetrical shoulders. Then it was pretty much done. This was actually the first garment I did for the competition, back in the early days of being paid to stay home and fall down the Foundations Revealed rabbit hole.
Though my period is the thirteenth century and the Luttrell Psalter is from the mid fourteenth, the sideless gowns in its agricultural scenes haven’t changed much from the depictions in thirteenth-century art, and I chose the “Feeding the chicks” image because the unevenness in the hem there corresponds exactly to the unevenness in mine. This prompted me to try to re-create the image at the photoshoot, with debatable success — the hem doesn’t puddle in quite the right way on long grass, as it might if I’d been on the gravel, and we couldn’t use real birds.
In either of its forms, the green is my comfiest article of garb, probably even of all my clothing. If I ever find wool this comfortable again, I may have to duplicate it.
St Birgitta Cap
In one of the very few places where we do have some solid evidence of what the Entwives looked like, I have had to contradict it. This caused no little agonizing back in April and May when I was designing things, I can tell you. You see, we are explicitly told that when the Ents visited them after they’d been in the lands of Men for some time, they had “hair parched by the sun to the hue of ripe corn” (TTT, p.100). Which means it would have been uncovered (and what reason would a tree have to cover its hair anyway?). That even worked nicely with the thirteenth century being one of those rare spots in the Middle Ages where it was socially acceptable for lots of women to leave their hair uncovered. And my haircut was even documentable to the period. . .
As a masculine cut.
I thought at first of doing a veil with coloured embroidery like in the statues of the Visitation by Master Henri de Constance, because that would be close to the right period and did have a sort of Entwife feel, but that would be more work and more embroidery than I thought I could finish by the deadline.
But then, I had been considering making a cap inspired by the St Birgitta cap to work in, and I thought, why not one of those with coloured embroidery? It would be practical and not get in the way. You could do it to look vaguely tops-of-trees-ish, I said to myself.
Lots of these caps show up in pictures, and the surviving one is extensively photographed. I’m taking some liberties with the embroidery by doing it in colours instead of white, but I think this is justifiable in terms of historical practice. Given the diversity we see in the Middle Ages in all kinds of clothing, and the individual interpretations of whatever was in fashion, I don’t think we need to make every St Birgitta-cap a copy of the one we still have. I’m sure there’s room now, as there was then, for things not to try to look all the same. The factory mentality was not a thing yet. I did the one-row version of the embroidery, using green perle cotton, blue perle cotton for the other stitching along the centre top of the cap, and green again for the embroidery at the forehead. The construction stitching I did in more wool. I forgot to leave part of the slit open at the bottom, so the embroidery closes it all the way down, which makes it less than ideal to wear — the slit does really matter.
I have one thing left to show off to you, which needs its own post (coming tomorrow!), but I should mention that a fifth piece, a gardecorps in blue wool and yellow linen, was going to complete this outfit. I started it after the photoshoot for these first three at the end of September, but by the end of December it was clear I did not have time to finish it and do the last piece. It’s languishing on my couch in a mostly-finished state, and the only reason it’s there and not in the freezer (to nip any moth problems in the bud) or one of my storage bins is that the cat loves to sleep on it.
I was determined this garment had to be in stripes, for tree bark, in some combination of white and the darkest “likely to be natural dyes because linen doesn’t do intense colours” brown I could find, in the widest stripes I could find. This turned out to be from Gray Lines Linen (which I would recommend, but that’s a tangent for another day). I bought three yards just to be on the safe side.
When I think of tree bark, and I think of stripes, I think of vertical ones, but as I scoured the period art to give the pattern some slight documentation, I found over and over repeated horizontal stripes, but not vertical ones. In the end I sacrificed accuracy to the tree theme for accuracy to the history in this case, because horizontal stripes are so quintessentially thirteenth-century (more on that anon).
The first thing to do was make sure the gown would fit me once I cut all the pieces out of my expensive linen, so I bought a sheet from the thrift store and made my first ever mockup. I couldn’t just size up the diagram, and I’m terrible with math, so my method was bound to be imprecise enough that I couldn’t trust it right away. It’s going to be tricky for me to explain too, so I crave your indulgence as I retrace my steps.
For a starting place I took the shoulder-width measurement, which was different between the front and back body pieces; the North European Symposium for Archaeological Textiles X, in the chapter in which Eva I. Andersson recounts her reconstructions of some thirteenth-century gowns, cites “the way the back piece covers the back of the shoulder joint but not the front”. The side of the front body is in fact cut into to make an armscye, but the back body stays completely rectangular except for the shoulder seams and a very small curve cut for the neckline. Accordingly, the measurement across the front of my shoulders was 11 inches, and the back 13. As many times as the shoulder measurement fit into the length of the body given, translated into that number times thirteen, resulted in an approximate length for the body. Approximate — I doubted St Clare’s tunic, as belonging to a Fransiscan, would have puddled on the floor in that conspicuous consumption so fashionable in her age, and which I was going for, so I added about six inches to this measurement. Getting approximate sleeve-head measurements by the “eyeballing proportions” method followed (I based the sleeve length on my own arms), and after that the length of the gores seemed easy to figure by subtracting the armscye from the body length. The gores still ended up some six inches too short, which, when I laid the gown out on the floor, made it look just like the surviving tunic in the pictures of it laid flat. (I pieced the hem there, making a mistake with one of the sections in putting it on upside down, not realizing this until the curved edge began, and cutting it in half there and flipping the new piece over, so although the pattern is only sixteen pieces the dress actually has nineteen.)
I intended to sew it with linen threads drawn from the fabric itself, but trying the drawn-thread method of getting straight lines for cutting was extremely hard on my fingers and the thread kept breaking, so I didn’t get any usable threads. While waxed linen is considered the most historically accurate, as I didn’t have the budget for it, I used instead wool thread I spun myself from undyed, although commercially produced, roving a couple of years ago. For a long time I was reluctant to trust the thread’s strength, but about the time I made the neck opening too small — in running stitch with only one strand — and tried to force it over my head anyway because what did I have to lose, and it actually did not break anywhere despite my most desperate pulling on it, I was convinced. Most of the garment, in fact, is in running stitch with only one thickness of thread, with occasional backstitch in places that would need reinforcement, having about five stitches per inch running, and nine per inch in backstitch. I folded the edges of the seam allowance inward and running-stitched them together, which is one of the methods documented in the Early Period Seam Treatments class handout by Lady Nastassiia Ivanova Medvedeva (m.k.a. Diane S. Dooley).
Wherever possible, such as in the sleeve seams, I made sure the stripes lined up exactly — not because I’m persnickety about that, nor because trees in general are all about symmetry, but because the Entwives liked neatness and order and I’m sure it would have been a priority for them. Still, wherever I had a bias-to-straight-grain seam, which was all of the gores, and of course with the piecing, that was impossible and I didn’t even try. Unusually tidy trees they may have been, but no tree is perfectly symmetrical.
And neither am I — the asymmetry relevant to this project was that one of my shoulders is slightly higher than the other. This was the first garment I’d made with shoulder seams, and I was able to make each shoulder of the tunic shaped to fit the shoulder it would be worn on. I’d never done that before and it was exciting to make it fit me just right.
After my last few t-tunics, which I tried sewing up the side seams, rather than down, I learned my lesson and sewed down not up the side seams of this one. Which turned out just right in that respect, of course. I also made the wise decision to do the hemming last. The gown was in fact barely finished on the day of the photoshoot and I was glad I hadn’t taken the time to hem it earlier in the process and shown up with a sleeve missing or something. I also wore it to work for the whole day before the pictures and got a couple of compliments despite the (to me) obvious loose threads dangling near the floor.
I don’t manage to keep track of the hours I spend working on things, but usually I got in at least one hour per evening, except when my wrists mutinied and I had to take up to two weeks off at a time. This happened once when I was working on the tunic; counting that time it took me almost two months, as I started cutting out on August second, and had done everything but the hem (and some seam finishing) by September 29th. If you count the mockup, which I did in June, it was a lot longer, but I was doing other things all through July. It was the first proper mockup I’ve ever done and I’m glad I did, because I had to work out a few kinks in the pattern which were better done there than with the real live linen I bought (first time I ever worked with linen too).
The somewhat infamous Herbert Norris writes, “Simplicity of apparel remained in favour during the reign of Edward I.; a humble-minded and unostentatious man, his influence on dress was such that the fashions of this reign are noteworthy as being the simplest in history.” I have a few bones to pick with this man, whose historical accuracy is frequently conspicuous by its absence, but when I came across this line (as I sat staring at my 16 pattern pieces from the extant tunic of St Clare of Assisi, dated to within the same period) I wanted to scream. “Simplest in history” my eye. Six gores, and four pieces in each sleeve, and this is supposed to be simpler than a chiton or even a t-tunic?
The slanted-off tip of the front-most of the three gores should come up to the bottom of the curve for the armhole of the front body piece, so that both curves form one line when attached. I originally made those curves on the body piece much too small, which is better than the other way around, but still. It took a careful look at the Carlson diagram and then at the picture of the surviving tunic laid flat to corroborate it, for me to figure this out. I think the fit would be weird if I didn’t do it that way. The thirteenth century seems to like its continuous lines even in the small details under the arm.
When joining the sleeves to the gores and the body piece, first finish the seams of the gores and the sleeves so that you have one less thing to worry about when you have bits overlapping other bits perpendicularly and so on. Join the v of the sleeve gusset to the v of the requisite set of gores (keeping in mind which side goes to front and which goes to back and which is right or left when everything is wrong side out is a hassle for me). Work your way around the gores as far as they touch the sleeve, and when you run out, pin or baste those pieces to the body piece so you can see where they join it, whether the stripes add up nicely on the straight-grain-to-straight-grain part (in the front of the garment for me). Remember to leave seam allowance for the body to be sewn to the gores. That’s what I did next. Then you go on joining the body and the gores on each side until all that’s left is joining the top of the sleeve to the top of the body pieces. Nine pieces meet each other here; be patient.
Only one side of each sleeve opening is curved, on the front piece (assuming the piece with the deeper curve for the neckline is the front). My guess is this gets rid of the extra bulk at the armpits when you have your arms forward, which is practically all of the time. When I did this and laid the gown out flat on the floor, the sleeves naturally slanted up from the shoulders just like in the picture of St Clare’s lying flat.
I don’t know why it has three gores on each side when it would be just as fabric-efficient to cut out one big triangle from a square and use the two little triangles for the other side. You could get the big V at the top just the same by cutting the shape out all at one go. Why would you give yourself the extra work? The effect is similar to the Herjolfsnes kirtle no. 38, though, which is interesting. Then I noticed that my sideless ended up with 3 gores on one of its sides when I wasn’t even looking, so to speak, and their tops didn’t all match up perfectly either, which despite having sewn it years ago I only began to pay attention to while doing this project. It would be funny if future re-creators put a lot of thought into copying my sideless’s gores exactly, taking for granted that the original maker had done them that way on purpose.
I started the mockup in June with a sheet from the thrift store, and “finished” the gown on Michaelmas. As of this writing I haven’t hemmed it yet, and most of the seams are yet unfinished (unlike all my projects in wool heretofore, seam-finishing is absolutely necessary for linen because it frays so badly), but it was finished enough for photoshoot purposes by September 22nd. Ariana and I worked together to keep the safety pin in the neckline from showing. You can see in the pictures of the original that St Clare’s neckline was very small — there’s no slit or back closure or anything and the back body panel is barely cut into — and try as I might I could not get the neckline big enough to fit me in time for pictures. I did eventually get it big enough to not need the pin. My half-baked theory is that a neckline as small as that is all right in wool, what the original’s made of, because wool is very stretchy. The linen isn’t at all. It was a war between my hard head and the quality of my stitches to see which would give way first, and I came away more impressed with the strength of my handspun thread than formerly.
A Note About the Stripes
While researching for this I came across the idea, repeated in several places, that in the High Middle Ages only women with Bad Reputations wore stripes. I find that odd, since one of the first images I found when looking for striped garments was this Annunciation from MS K.26 (a 14th-century psalter):
If the Blessed Virgin is depicted in contemporary art in stripes, surely the stigma must not be too overwhelming, reasoned I. And anyway, prehistoric trees. Some liberties may be taken.
The project I introduced in this post is completed (ish) and entered into the Foundations Revealed competition, so it’s time for the pictures and gory details you’ve all been waiting for.
Because I like to set myself impossible challenges, I asked myself, if Tolkien’s Entwives wore clothes (though they didn’t), and if those clothes were from a particular historical period known to us (though it wasn’t), what might those clothes be like? That was a lot of ifs to start with.
From The Two Towers, pp. 94-102 (in my edition), we learn that when the world was young the Ents and the Entwives dwelt together as shepherds of the trees whom the Elves awoke and taught to speak, but their paths diverged: though the Ents were content to take only what the earth gave them, and to see things while leaving them as they were, the Entwives began to desire gardens they might rule with order and organization and other ideas foreign to the Ents. So the Entwives drifted toward the lands of Men and taught them their secrets. Treebeard visited once and found their appearances much changed, as — though still fair in the Ents’ eyes — they were bent and browned, the sun had burned their hair to the colour of ripe corn, and their cheeks were red as apples, “but their eyes were still the eyes of our own people”.
We don’t get much of a physical description of the Entwives, but we do get to see a variety of Ents through Merry and Pippin’s eyes at the Entmoot (pp. 105-6), and they are of the same species. First to strike them is the wild variety among the Ents, in height and texture and even number of fingers, but their deep eyes are the same. Certainly the wild trees of the forest provide more than enough diversity for Tolkien to go on for a whole page about it (probably several more, if he’d had his way), and let us not forget the trees humans have cultivated over centuries, in orchards for instance, with their equal amounts of variation despite being domesticated.
The main thing to remember is that the distinction between Ents and Entwives — shepherds and shepherdesses of the trees — does not lie in the females sprouting mammalian features. The Ents look enough like trees that the hobbits took Treebeard for one until he moved and spoke and — very importantly — opened his eyes. Now, the differences between male and female trees does not lie in female trees being wasp-waisted, or significantly shorter than their counterparts (some readers have taken the Entwives’ liking for smaller growing things to mean they themselves were smaller than the Ents, but that does not logically follow — if that were the case the people I know who’ve discovered a sudden passion for making eclairs would have shrunk by a couple of feet), or having smooth skin (gardeners are not known for this, to say nothing of most trees), or their bark not covering their whole bodies (which would be unhealthy for trees). On the contrary the difference between the two is noticeable only during the flowering and fruiting seasons, and even then is visible only in the tiniest ways. Thus art that depicts Ents as a lot like trees except for the eyes, but Entwives as human women with green skin and leaves, or perhaps even like trees only petite except in the region of the chest, is missing the point entirely. The differences Treebeard remarks upon have nothing to do with the Entwives becoming “more human” — as far as we know they taught agriculture to Men but didn’t turn into them (unlike the possibility of an Ent, of either gender, turning “treeish” and falling asleep semipermanently; For an interesting thread along these lines see: http://newboards.theonering.net/forum/gforum/perl/gforum.cgi?do=post_view_printable;post=895146;guest=198763762). There’s also a good video about them (with some good art) here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=q0OFYSmLRRA (I do disagree with its interpretation of the elm tree on the North Moors though). My favourite piece from all the time I’ve been going down this rabbit hole is “An Entwife & An Entling” by Kei Acedera.
Which still leaves the rather large question of how does one costume an Entwife at all? Trees don’t need clothes. This became the question “If an Entwife wished to wear human clothing, what aesthetics would catch her eye?” The Ents are the stuff of legend — prehistoric, we would say — to the arguably sixth- or seventh-century A. D. -equivalent Rohirrim, but the Entwives changed in so many other ways, and had so much more contact with humans, that it is possible that they “modernized” in some ways, through working with the mainly medieval-adjacent cultures of Middle-earth.
Gardeners need certain things from their clothes: practicality in movement, something to carry stuff in, a shield from sun and other hostile elements. Thirteenth-century fashion provides all of these, and my source pictures, from the Rutland Psalter and others, include many agricultural scenes (I include the “Feeding the chicks” image from the Luttrell Psalter, a century later, for reasons explained anon, and the garments in that picture have not changed very much). In keeping with the sylvan and not entirely tame aesthetics of the Entwives (and, in full honesty, with my limited sewing skills in mind), to convey the impression of clothes a tree might wear, I looked for a period whose tastes in dress did not run to extreme tailoring or the overly civilized. The era’s designs must leave room for wildness, and so I arrived at the thirteenth century.
In Which we have extant garments!
For the first time ever, I could draw on extant garments from my chosen period to design things from. Until now my eras had been too early, and my documentation had contained pages of speculation based on possibly-allegorized art before arriving at the tentative conclusion that a t-tunic seemed right, maybe without centre front and back gores though. Not so here! Three of my four pieces could come directly from surviving objects.
Seven hundred years ago, real people raised a flock of sheep, sheared them come summer, washed and carded the fleece, spun that wool into thread, wove that thread into fabric, cut that fabric into pieces, and sewed the pieces together into a garment another real person — St Clare of Assisi — wore. All of the many people involved have been dead for centuries, and that tunic is still here.
The St Birgitta Cap is a fairly well-known contemporary extant garment, and lots of people have used it to pattern their own over the years. I relied on Katafalk, and the Medieval Silkwork blog, and Morgan Donner’s video taught me how to do the embroidery for it.
The last is much more slippery when it comes to documentation. I found a picture of it on Pinterest when I was looking for thirteenth-century bags, because every girl needs a pocket, and it looked just right for the treeish theme. The problem was that I could find only two pictures of it at all on the internet, which had been shared and re-shared several times without anyone attributing it to anywhere. It certainly looked old enough to be from the era the caption said it was from. But “thirteenth-century reliquary bag” was at once too broad and too narrow a category for the unknown captioner to be much help. Asking the Fustian house on the Foundations Revealed Discord, however, quickly resulted in someone finding it listed on a website amidst other documented things. The site didn’t say anything new about it, not even the country it was from, but for once, since this was a pocket for a walking tree, I wasn’t too concerned about provenance.
While I didn’t have an extant garment to go on for the sideless gown/surcote, those are well attested in art from the period.
In part II: pictures of my re-creations of all these things!
In the time since I last posted, I have been mistaken for a ghost twice, had two cars die on me (one permanently), put in a lot of hilarious hours at the bakery, and some less hilarious ones at various libraries, visited my sister at her college (I’m still picking stick-me-tights out of my shawl, thanks, kid), read a lot of books, and watched the leaves fall.
The first time I was taken for a ghost was a good fortnight before Halloween, and it came about in this way. There’s a patch of woods behind my apartment building which I am fairly familiar with. Coming home from the grocery store at dusk one Tuesday evening, I heard loud screams emanating from it. I took my phone and crunched loudly into the woods, ready to call 911.
It was kids. Playing a game.
I froze. Do I “sneak” away (as if you can in a woods in autumn) or go say “hey, I didn’t know if you were okay, maybe don’t freak the neighbourhood out like that again”? But before I could decide, one of them shrieked in a new and different tone, “There’s a ghost! I saw a ghost!” and they all ran.
They got up to the road and stopped and the one who’d seen me explained, “It had a white shirt and long blonde hair.” The others tried to convince it that a ghost was unlikely. But they decided to investigate, and so. . . I (perhaps unwisely, in retrospect) decided to come meet them.
This led to one of the older ones shrieking, “I see it too!” but (unlike Edmund in Prince Caspian) leading the charge away from me. This time they didn’t stop until they got to their house (assuming it’s their house) on the other side of the street and shut themselves in the garage, pressed up against the window of the door.
Clearly they didn’t stop to think that a) a real ghost wouldn’t be making nearly as much noise in the leaves as I was, and b) a garage door is no obstacle to an immaterial creature, but panic doesn’t let you think like that.
The next day at the bakery I told that story, and Isaiah said, “You know, with that one story, you’ve achieved something most people spend years and years and years trying to do.” I thought, What, became a ghost? But before I could ask he said, “A reputation.”
Then a couple of weeks ago I took my dead potted plants outside at evening to dump them out, because my drawn-out fall cleaning had reached the Spare Oom, and someone who lives in my building and was out smoking just then (he must have come outside just a minute after I did) thought I was a ghost away in the trees, and told me about it when I came back in.
That was a Saturday night. The Monday following my own van died, and I worked all day. Tuesday it was confirmed permanently dead, and I worked all day. Wednesday we cleaned it out and tried to sell it to the business that had towed it, but couldn’t find the title to it, which made that hard, and I worked. Thursday I was sick, and didn’t work (this was the cat’s favourite day of that week). Friday I turned the borrowed van on to go to work, and it was dead. I got rides to and from the bakery with friends, and arranged for another ride in to the library the next morning. Saturday I was awoken by knocking on my door — it was five minutes before I should have been at work and I’d slept through my alarm. I set a new record for amount of time taken to get out the door in the morning, and was able to open the library on time, at least. While I was at work Dad put a new battery in the borrowed van and confirmed that it at least started up again.
Sunday — ah, blessed day of rest and cheer — I came home from church at lunchtime thinking the chaotic week was behind me and now I could actually clean the house. I parked the car and turned it off and a woman approached me to ask if I could help her and her friend jump their car.
“I’m pretty sure I have jumper cables in my car but I don’t know how to use them; let me call my dad,” I said. “He’s only five minutes away.”
I then listened to Dad’s phone ring until it went to voicemail. I called my mom instead. I waited while she found Dad, whom she managed to lose in the two minutes between me leaving and me calling.
Dad located, I said, “I’m not lost, I’m not stranded, I haven’t found the van title, the van got me back just fine, but there’s someone in my parking lot who needs her car jumped.” He said he would be on his way.
When he arrived, we discovered that I did not, in fact, have jumper cables in the van, neither the ones moved from the van I killed last week, nor the ones supposedly belonging to the borrowed van. He searched the vehicle he came in and discovered that, unaccountably, it doesn’t have cables either.
He called two other church members’ numbers before someone who wasn’t even on the phone said, “Yes, I know certainly that I have jumper cables in my car, and I can come over.”
At this point I gave up on things and went inside. The only chaos so far this week has come from a substantial number of people at the library being out sick.
I am still working on the Historical Entwife project — right now flatlining all the separate gardecorps pieces, though I have the two hood pieces finished enough that last night I started sewing them together. It’s the first time I’ve lined anything and that part is getting a bit tedious, but I’m also starting to wonder if I have enough time to finish it and an embroidered pouch by the end of January. I’m still working on the documentation of the other pieces with an eye to posting all about them with lots of pictures, but Recent Events have conspired to leave me without the brains and the time to do that both at once. Frazzled is practically my middle name these days.
But it’s not everyone who can manage to be both a ghost and a cyborg — at the bakery I’m said to have a bionic foot — and even without that dubious advantage, if anyone ever tells you the single life is necessarily boring, or means you have to do everything all by yourself, feel free to produce me as Exhibit A.
I didn’t have time to do any of the seam treatments I wanted to experiment with, beyond pressing the seams of the sleeve and sleeve lining pieces so that they would lie nicely together. This I did — not having an iron — with a glass paperweight. At an event I was at some time ago, I overheard a conversation about the different theories surrounding finds in some graves of smallish crystal balls — scholars often jump to the conclusion that because they have no clear purpose they must be ritual objects of some sort, but one of the people in the conversation said what if they were small portable seam-pressers? A glass paperweight is not quite the same thing, but I figured it might be close enough to see if the whole idea is balderdash or not. And it actually worked quite nicely on the small sections I was able to do, so I don’t think it’s impossible. Own-Crocker writes about the possibility of those balls being used as linen smoothers as well (pp. 94, 277, 303). I’ve since tried a paperweight on linen rather than wool, and it does work well (not that I have any other experience to compare it to).
I would like to be able to calculate the amount of time I spent on this cyrtel, but I can’t. Chronology is deceptive, because I started it in July 2018. However, I only worked on it for two weeks, getting as far as inserting the side gores while hemming as I went along, before life got in the way, and a stretch of bad mental health followed. I worked on it off and on for the next year, more off than on, and only started it seriously again in December 2019. Thereafter I averaged an hour a day on it, but quite a few of those hours were spent ripping seams and working through obstacles rather than doing any actual stitching. But no matter how early one starts a project, the inescapable SCAdian curse follows: a few weeks prior to the event you must and will find yourself wishing you weren’t driving yourself to site, that you might add on potential sewing time in the car.
Also, the sleeves were going swimmingly as I attached them to the body, and I was actually able to line up their upper seams with the shoulder seam — and then, with the first more than halfway sewn on, Wednesday before the event, disaster struck in the form of me lining up the sides in preparation for side seams and finding them not to be the same length. And of course the longer was in front. At that late hour, did I dare unattach the sleeve, reposition it hoping to avoid holes, and redo it? Or, as I have done twice before, did I fold over the extra in the least conspicuous place possible, knowing that neither Philosophia nor the Weingarten Virgin seem to have that kind of extra detail on their gowns (the latter’s being especially untailored), and hope for the best? Eventually I settled for the latter course, resolving in future to double-check the sides and make their matching a priority over lining up with the largely unseen shoulder seams. Which you can do by sewing up the side seams last.
What I learned from this project
Bone needles are fun to work with and you can get tiny stitches with them. I don’t want to go back to metal needles now. Part of it is a sensory thing — bone needles warm up in your hand as you use them, and get smoother over time, and mine is starting to get ever so slightly flattened where I hold it — how could you not like something that you can shape and mold and which also isn’t cold like metal and doesn’t set your teeth on edge when you inevitably drop it? Durability is an issue, of course — I only have the one bone needle and I’ve been so very careful not to sit down on it. Still, if I did, yes, it would break. But it wouldn’t physically hurt me the way a metal needle does.
I still hate sleeves. Not wearing them but sewing them — as much as possible a matching pair — having to do a tricky thing and, when it’s done, not being able to rest on that but having to go and do it over again (it’s a bit like life, put like that). Having to join them up to the body piece and somehow not leave or make any holes. The entire process of inserting sleeve gussets, which are useful and good and marvels of engineering when you consider all the different things one square or triangle of bias-cut fabric has to do, but endlessly painful to put in. I’d thought that maybe having a different kind of gusset this time would make the process easier, but unfortunately not.
Listen to your fabric. This can be anything from the level of individual stitches — where does it want the thread to pass? — to what project it wants to be. I had three pieces of fabric which would have done okay for the sleeve lining, but despite inconveniences such as not having enough to fully line them, it was the green twill that refused to give up on being part of this garb. So it is now, and I hope it’s happy. I quite like the contrast.
This project confirmed for me that I really do prefer the two-gore to the four-gore look for this period. I think you can argue that the Virgin in the Weingarten Crucifixion could have four gores, given the way her skirt drapes between her knees, but generally speaking I think two gores look more like the art.
Because of the bug problem, and the project not fitting in my nice safe stash bin, I took to keeping it in the freezer between times of working on it. It didn’t have much trouble thawing out, though I can’t vouch for any damage the constant freeze-thaw cycle might do to fabric kept this way permanently. Being wool I would think it would be pretty resilient; other fibres perhaps not so much. Still, I didn’t find any new holes in the fabric after that.
It may be worth noting, now that the trials of making this garment are over, that this is only my fourth such project (counting the first, which, alas, subscribed to almost every stereotype I decried in the earlier parts of this paper) and my first attempting such a persnickety degree of accuracy. No doubt a more experienced seamstress in any period would have accomplished a garment of this pattern much faster than I did, and with less stumbling about and getting confused about the littlest things. But while this cyrtel is far from perfect — something it shares with every work of human hands, including its cousins the now sadly lost garments contemporary with the artistic sources which are all that remain to us today — it is certainly functional: it fits me, for whom it was made, and is not so fragile that I’m afraid to do normal things in it, and even looks something like the pictures. Perhaps it’s a lot of work to go to only to prove that people were still wearing t-tunics, yet I hope we don’t look down our noses at the style simply because the separate pieces are all straight lines, but can appreciate how with a minimum of patterning fuss such elegant folds and drapery are achievable.
This is a reconstruction of eleventh-century female dress only in so far as the art I have had to rely on is an accurate representation of the current fashions, a question whose answer seems lost in the mists of time. But as a learning exercise and piece of experimental archaeology, I consider it a success. Since we have no extant garments to reconstruct all I can hope to “reconstruct” is the general look and drape of the garments as pictured. So I could have done an equally good job, judged as a representation, with synthetic fabric and sewn on a machine. True. But the experience is part of learning how things work — as Cathy Hay says, the process of hand-sewing is more than merely the price you pay for getting to the finished wearable object. While it takes much longer and is harder on my wrists than machine-sewing would be, and while it can be at least equally aggravating when you have to stop and rip out a seam, I find sewing is also much more fun when your fabric and your thread and even your needle are pleasant in the hand, and your connection to the people who first made these things is that much clearer.
Owen-Crocker, Gale. Dress in Anglo-Saxon England. The Boydell Press, 2010. Various pages.
Brewbane, Æthelflied. Sewing With Period Tools. 2016. Accessed 12/31/19. Link:
“In Which Sophia goes to the bank!” a friend proclaimed at work the other day.
“You never know, something might happen on the way there,” I said. It didn’t, that time, but I do seem to be establishing a reputation for turning the smallest efforts into an adventure of some kind. Anyone who thinks the single life is boring and lonely needs to go on a road trip with me. Or just to one day of work.
Take, for example, David’s graduation party. Our dearly beloved comic relief of the Motley Crew went off to seminary a couple of weeks ago. I got off work that Friday evening and saw an e-mail saying his party was going on right then, and since I supposedly live less than an hour from his house now, I thought I’d go. I only got lost three times and ended up staying the night because by the time the bonfire had died down everyone I would have called to ask for help when — not if — I got lost going home in the dark should have been in bed. (Should have. I discovered later that Olivia had been up even later than me that Saturday morning.)
The first time I got lost was when the highway’s detour we’d forgotten about turned out to have a detour of its own. The second time I’ve forgotten the details of. The third time I ran into construction which didn’t exist on the map my dad was looking at and had to try to find my way around. Coming home we just tried a completely different route.
It’s been a sort of eventful end to summer, not that I intended to let the blog languish. The attempted revisions to my Black Wasp documentation turned into “basically read Owen-Crocker” on every page, which isn’t bad but means most of the documentation isn’t terribly exciting for those who can’t, and redundant for those who already have and don’t need your own more clumsy explanations. My carpal tunnel got really bad for no obvious reason, several weeks in a row, which meant for a while I was only doing things at work and the rest of the time sitting in my house trying to ignore the pleading of my striped linen gown, almost entirely cut out and just needing to be sewn up before my self-imposed deadline. . .
And there was a canoe trip on which (miraculously) no one died, and a conference at church I took the day off for and so got to hear halves of interesting sessions behind the door (my favourite place, as those who know me in real life can attest), and the second anniversary of the suicide, and a terrible case of autumn wanderlust that saw me go for a four-mile walk in completely unfamiliar country, the last hour of it in the dark, and I didn’t get lost, although a sheriff did stop to ask if I needed help.
The soup today started with a recipe for beet borscht, although I put the cabbage in too early and substituted turkey stock for beef broth, and things. In spite of that it’s a success, and since it’s been raining all day, kind of perfect. In the Spare Oom, because that’s the only safe place for it to sit out, I’ve got a bowl of water and flour with apples in it, because I finally got some that hadn’t been sprayed or washed, so I can try making bread with wild yeast, and it’s getting bubbly. Other than that, if I’ve done any food experiments lately, I’ve also forgotten them.
Right now I’m reading The Secret History of the Mongol Queens, which is fascinating and not a part of the world I know much about other than from reading Shannon Hale’s Book of a Thousand Days. I take a few points off for the authour spending too much time talking about how the western world spent the thirteenth century stagnating, apart from killing each other over silly theological disputes. Europe — and farther west — saw a great many advances in various fields in the thirteenth century. And while they shouldn’t have been killing each other, it’s bad scholarship to dismiss Aquinas’ world as one of silly disputes. You can praise one half of the world without putting down the other. Or you should be able to.
Possibly the best non-fiction I’ll read all year is Heather Lanier’s Raising A Rare Girl, which I think I’ve added to the list of books I go around telling everybody they should read, so go do that. Otherwise I’m working my way through Susan Cooper’s The Dark Is Rising series, and Megan Whalen Turner’s Queen’s Thief series.
I haven’t really been writing. Terrible, I know. I do actually think about it in the middle of the night. The Two-legged League deserves to be properly finished and not left hanging about in limbo like so many of my other stories, and I want to do it justice, but also, I keep mopping myself into corners with that one and having to sit and watch the floor dry until I can move on and mop myself into another corner in the other direction, in a manner of speaking. That gets tiresome after a while. Also, voice-to-text in Google Drive is a bit of a hassle at the moment and typing was Not Allowed according to my carpal tunnel for a while there. (Just when I thought I’d learned the lesson about not being in control of my life and let myself start to think it wasn’t too bad. . . ha.)
(As if brainless parts of my body are aware of irony — which given my left foot I think they are — my left arm started twinging and I had a ten-minute break there. Life goes on.)
In more pleasant news, the Historical Entwife project has been coming along swimmingly on those days I’m able to work on it. Doing most seams in running stitch is apparently period practice for the 13th century (we have extant garments so we can tell) (no I am never going to shut up about having actual extant garments), and I’m still amazed at how much faster things go when it’s not all in backstitch. I’m also learning to trust the strength of my handspun thread a little more. So far I’ve sewn the six gores into two sets of three, sewn the eight sleeve pieces into sleeves (need I specify the number? there’s two of them), temporarily sewn the two body pieces together but I don’t like the slope of the shoulders so I’m going to re-do them, and last night I joined the first sleeve to its gore panel.
Continuing from last time with the tale of how I actually made the thing. . .
When I had put in the two side gores and seen how uneven my hem was, I nearly despaired, but finally gave in and decided to make it with four gores, adding a centre front and back. I hadn’t yet cut a slit in the front, so I brought the edges of the new front gore together and put them along a crease in the middle so I could see what it would look like and about how far I would need to cut. Doing the same with my smock, which is my only other garment with centre gores, and a very nice hem, showed dismaying results — the gore still appeared much narrower, but its hem did not spill over the bounds of the hem under it, like the blue one does. I looked forward to a continually uneven hem, just a slightly more undulating unevenness which might at least not look so bad. Or, you know, having to re-hem the entire thing (hemming as you go is great until it isn’t). . . . But I had cut out the gores now, so I put them in anyway.
How it hangs now
Sleeves of Doom
I didn’t cut out sleeves right away, because I wanted sleeves like Philosophia’s in the Psychomachia of Prudentius, and it took me a while to figure out how to get a similar look. Then just for the fun of it I draped those pieces to see if I could get triangular sleeves from them, and I could! So at once fell swoop I doubled the amount of sleeve-hemming I had to do and changed the overall look I was going for. I had resisted doing “Sleeves of Doom” because they’re so much associated with this period and I wanted to show that other things were going on too, but then I borrowed my sister’s bliaut for Halloween, and I have to say I understand the fascination. Owing to the constraints of the pieces I had already cut out, my sleeves, while the same general shape, are not as long in proportion to their width as this Virgin’s, but are fairly close to this and closer still to others (like the Virgin of the Liber Vitae cited above).
I also had not intended to line the sleeves, but while the project was in progress a bug got into my basket and snipped several threads right along where I had to hem. Making bias tape to cover it was an option, except I have no evidence whatsoever for it as a period practice for this time. So then I broke down and planned a complete lining which comes up over the edge a bit, in a contrasting colour, and while that is yet another point of deviance from the reference picture I ended up most closely following, the Weingarten Crucifixion’s Virgin, lining is a well-substantiated practice in general. I thought I had just enough green and white twill left over from my previous cyrtel to do it. (Linen would have been ideal for lining, since it’s lighter than wool, but I didn’t have the budget. Wool I have found cheaply at thrift stores, but never yet real linen.)
And then I didn’t have enough. My reference image has what could be a sleeve turned back, or a very deep hem. I could possibly get away with doing a lining that only goes a few inches deep, which might look like a deep cuff, because it looks like the only evidence we have to go on for etc. Also it’s being resourceful and not giving up on fabric I already had cut out just because it has a few moth-holes. If I had cut out big squares for rectangular sleeves and changed my mind, someone a thousand years ago might have done the same, right? And if I sew a sleeve with a seam running along the top and not the bottom because the fabric works that way, that makes more sense than in saying, “Well, later periods don’t do this, so it’s unlikely the construction morphed from up here to down there” and going with that equally conjectural bit of reasoning, right? Because I’m sitting down to make a garment by hand, and asking myself what the fabric is telling me. And in an era without pattern books, this probably happened. That is, assuming human nature stays mostly the same over time, as a whole, which I do assume.
So I’m actually kind of confident that the principle carries over to partially-lining sleeves in a different colour, and intentionally carrying the lining over to the outside, to cover a problem. As Bernadette Banner says somewhere, I’m attempting historical attitude if not perfect accuracy.
I lined the sleeves by turning the finished sleeve right side out, adding the lining strip with its right side up against the other’s right side (green ending about an inch from blue’s edge), sewing them together with backstitch until the green’s ends met, then flipping the whole inside out, tacking them together with running stitch at the top of the green piece, then trimming and fiddling with the ends until I could sew them together without catching the blue layer. The decision to do this last bit in whipstitch or felling stitch on one sleeve, and backstitch on the other, was another experimental thing — this time not only for how durable they might be, but how comparatively invisible. After I wore it once, the whipstitched one had begun to pull, resulting in gaps between the threads of the side that went under where my thread passed through, and the lining didn’t want to lie quite flat at that seam. While the other method took more work I think it was worth it in the long run.
While I was at work on the second sleeve, with ten days to go till the competition, having roundly cursed both myself and the materials and pattern for all the setbacks along the way, the magic having gone out of the thing, I had friends over and showed one of them the finished sleeve. The look of awe on her face reminded me that while I see all the mistakes and the difficulties and imperfections, she sees a medieval garment coming to life, and that’s truly why this is worth it.
A closeup of the inside of the sleeve where the lining ends, raw edges on display. The undyed thread I used almost blends in with the cream-coloured thread of the fabric, but if you look for a slightly darker line half a pattern repeat in, you can just see it.
To be continued in our next — this time including speculations about silk and embroidery, and glass paperweights instead of steam irons!