Hey, I made it two months without getting a cold! And I made it a whole week after first being exposed to my sister’s cold before succumbing to the germ, which has to be another record. Apparently the key to me writing blog posts these days is coming down with something first.
(I put the laptop on my lap to write and the cat, who for the last hour had been perfectly happy on the couch behind me, immediately developed an urgent need to be on top of me to take a bath. Such is my life.)
I know you guys are waiting for the glue post, and another one about the pair of bodies. Much as I want to tell you all about them, my recent adventures have included injuring myself in creative ways, so I’ve been sort of struggling to keep up with the requirements of ordinary life as it is.
About a month ago I tensed up at work when an angry patron started swearing at me (this happens, yes, even in libraries, yes, please be nice to customer service workers wherever you may find them) and dislocated a rib and possibly also strained a muscle in my dominant arm. That hurt a lot for a while. Now it mostly only hurts when I sneeze or hiccup. There’s a lot of sneezing in my immediate future.
My two scheduled days off for the month were over the weekend of the fourth of July, and I used one to make the house spotless (except the fridge, which I only just got to, which was an undertaking, but it’s so pristine now and I’m still thrilled every time I open it), and the other to take a seven-year-old cousin out exploring for bugs (and clam shells). We had no end of fun and wore each other out thoroughly.
And every day since then has been work and interpersonal drama. I have been sewing like mad for stress relief, but not on the bodies; I started to put the lining in before I hurt myself, then suddenly needed more back support than modern undergarments could give me, and I’ve been wearing them consistently for almost a month now. Now that they’re broken in they’re very comfortable and I might just. . . keep doing it.
I had the idea to make a historically adequate kirtle out of the leftover yellow linen from my gardecorps, to wear with the bodies, so I started on that, and with it being a combined stim and special interest as well as stress reliever, I’ve gotten a lot done on it. I started cutting it out on June 12th but didn’t end up with quite enough for the bodice, so ordered one more yard and had to wait for that to arrive * and only really got going after my rib injury, once I could use my arm enough to sew again. There’s lots of interesting elements to it that I want to do a post about, so really, I’m now three documentation posts behind.
Also had a family reunion, a fourth of July party, and a graduation party sometime within the last month or so. I guess it proves I have a social life after all.
Also got proposed to yesterday, but I’m not taking it seriously from strangers.
Never a dull moment here!
*and while I was waiting, someone dropped off a package at my door, a nice soft one that had to have fabric inside, so imagine my surprise when I cut it open and rather than a ray of sunshine yellow meeting my eyes, it was eraser-shaving grey — some person or persons unknown sent me a blanket, addressed perfectlyproperly, and I have no idea who. Someone else, a couple of weeks later, left an assortment of pans and a fancy blender outside my door — the blender’s blades are bent so it doesn’t work quite as intended — and we haven’t solved that mystery either.
Originally this wasn’t going to be called that, but it turns out what when you write “pair of bodies” on your project list on a blackboard right next to the front door, a lot of people are going to be startled. So I’ve been calling it that.
A pair of bodies actually has nothing to do with a double murder in this case: it’s a sixteenth-century supportive undergarment, the precursor to the stays of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Here’s an extant one from the tomb of Pfizgrafin Dorothea Sabina, who was my age when she died in 1598:
I’ve wanted to make a pair of bodies for a while now, but my hands always started hurting the minute I thought about boning channels. Then I came across someone who’d stiffened hers with buckram — no channels.
And I had double-sided hem tape — I could use that to secure it to the base layer of fabric and leave my only stitching-through-buckram spot for the eyelets! One advantage I did not foresee of this method was how quickly things move when you’re just taping instead of backstitching. Only six hours in, I had cut out my pattern pieces in the starched fabric and buckram, done most of the fitting, and taped two of the three buckram pieces on. It almost looked like a thing already. I observed that this was going suspiciously smoothly.
Like Lina, I used paste buckram, starched cotton, and linen fabrics. Unlike her, I’m using silk thread, because the linen thread I was recently given matches this fabric so well that it makes me nervous about not seeing mistakes till too late. What thread survives from the Dorothea stays is silk, too, and I’ve also recently been given some. I used green.
Unlike Lina, I’m handsewing all of this because I don’t have a machine (though it would have come in handy for a lot of this). I’m also deviating from both hers and Dorothea’s in that I haven’t cut out the top of the buckram pieces in a curve. I’m curvy enough to appreciate the extra support up there, and in some slightly earlier pictures the fronts of garments are flat enough that it seems plausible some of the (rarely size zero) women wearing them left their stiffening material to go straight across.
I’m also using a busk, unlike Lina, while making the bodies front-lacing, unlike Dorothea’s, but we’ll get there in another installment.
Unfortunately, the only camera I have for progress photos is the one on my laptop, so these pictures won’t be up to the usual standard. Hopefully that will make you miss my sister’s good ones until her work can return.
After a few days of being taped on, the buckram started to peel away. I was sort of stumped as to how to fix this until I realized — the buckram is stiffened with glue, like in the period. Why would you stiffen a thing with glue and not glue it on to things? So I wetted the buckram (because the glue is water-soluble) and positioned it on the fabric again (after taking all the tape off) and weighed it down with books. It took a good three days to dry but stayed attached better than with the tape, all except the centre back piece, which would not stay on for love nor money. Eventually, when I got to adding the outer linen layer, I stitched it to the starched layer around where the buckram would go, making it a pocket.
I also added a small panel to each side, between where the front and back pieces meet, because I’m not the same shape as Dorothea Sabina; but I did the math wrong, which I didn’t find out until I’d sewed them in, so I cut them down the middle and added a panel in between each of them. Then it finally fit.
The next thing was to put eyelet holes in the front pieces. I marked in chalk where I wanted them to go, sprayed the spots with water, and poked holes of the right size using a metal pick from the set of tools that was a birthday present earlier this year. Now it began to really look like a thing, if you ignored the shoulder straps half being duct tape.
The next job was to attach the linen outer layer and figure out the exact placement of the shoulder straps, which steps will follow in another post.
I got quite a lot of this done over the weekend, since I was home for six days with a bad cold — my first in a year and two months, though, which is more than twice as long as the previous record — that’s more than half the time I’ve lived in the Hobbit Hole, so I’m really quite proud of my immune system, though certainly we’ve had plenty of help with that over the last year — and when I wasn’t languishing in bed or on the couch sleeping or reading with a snuggly cat, I was able to sew and watch the cottonwood leaves grow outside my window. It was a lot like lockdown this time last year, in a good way. Except for the entire reason I was home, which was no fun in itself.
Also I boiled chicken bones for three days straight, but if you want to hear about the Accidental Glue Experiment you’ll have to ask for a separate post.
Just overwhelmed. This post is going to be a little bit of everything.
First, I have been remiss in not telling you all how the Foundations Revealed competition turned out. The wonderful and inimitable Ruth Goodman announced the winners in a video which is well worth watching:
She’s so enthusiastic, I love her.
Spoilers for those of you who didn’t watch the video: I didn’t win. I wasn’t even a finalist. But I’d already won in a category in the Northshield competition, so winning twice might have felt a bit like cheating; also, out of six hundred entries, the finalists in the beginner category were already so much more complicated than mine that I knew I wouldn’t even place. I don’t feel bad about it, though; Cathy’s last few minutes of the above video help explain why.
Changing the subject almost as abruptly and wildly as my sister does, and probably giving you all topic whiplash, my second announcement: after over a year of being self-diagnosed autistic, I got my official diagnosis! I’m very fortunate in that insurance covered it or it probably wouldn’t have been an option. My main reasons for going through that were twofold: so that people would have to believe me when I tell them I’m autistic, even if I don’t look like the stereotypes they have in mind, without me having to give them the complete scholarly article proving it; and because while I firmly believe self-diagnosis is a perfectly valid process for this sort of thing (especially as a lot of the official process involved a lot of the same things I did while researching on my own), the more autistic women who come to the attention of the relevant medical professionals, the more likely they’ll be to (eventually) believe that we exist as more than just the occasional anomaly while really it’s “a boys’ disease”, and that’s a whole rant I will refrain from giving just now. . . .
It’s a good feeling on the whole, though, a bit like being given a diploma — the diploma doesn’t confer on you all the learning you’ve gotten over the previous years of schooling, just recognizes that you have it already. It’s nice to have someone who’s a bit of an authourity on the subject say “yes, you’re right, your conclusion is correct”. Especially when the conclusion also explains you so fully.
I’ve been autistic my entire life (which cough begins at the moment of conception cough), but I’ve only known that for a year and some months, and started telling people somewhat more recently. But as late as it comes, it’s still good to finally understand myself. Good for the people around me too, I think. It would have been nice to have understood earlier — saved a lot of people a lot of trouble — but had I been diagnosed twenty years ago, it would have been in a world which was even less accepting than it is now, and I probably would have come out completely traumatized. Little by little that’s starting to change, though, and I have hope that if I become to some family the person who swoops in and says “there’s an explanation for this and it’s okay” that I only wish would have happened for me when I was little, another autistic kid can become an autistic adult without fear.
Changing the subject abruptly again, my first historical-ish project after the Entwife was a pair of pin-on sleeves of doom in blue velvet. They turned out really well and I’ve worn them almost every Sunday in Easter so far. When Olivia gets back and has some free time (ha) to take pictures I’ll do a proper post about them.
Currently I’m working on a pair of bodies — early sixteenth-century supportive undergarment — taking inspiration from Dorothea Sabina’s pair, although with some adjustments. There’ll be a post about them eventually. Right now I’m nerving myself up to fix a major mistake in the fit of it around the sides.
One more piece of news and then I’ll leave you for the kitchen realm, where an awful lot of dishes are lined up waiting to be washed: After an entirely too long stretch of not being able to get myself back into writing fiction, a story idea has reawoken. Not the Two-Legged League, which would have been my initial choice, but the Vestal Virgin story. So there may be developments in that area soon.
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.