Monthly Archives: June 2014


When I took my apprentice belt, my Laurel laid a simple constraint on me:

No visible machine seams.

Pretty straightforward, huh? Only on the surface.

It’s a geas. It’s taken on a life of its own, become a spiritual thing, internalized in surprisingly complex ways. It has changed my whole relationship to costume on the body, to research, to time and the way I structure my play, defined who I am and how I play in my interactions with others, become fundamental to my experience of the SCA as a whole.  I’ve been thinking about this for a while now, trying to put draw some larger conclusions about the role of taboo in fealty relationships.

This is only a little bit of what no visible machine seams means:

Because the only machinework I do is internal construction seams, the pace and proportion of the work changes. A garment is typically around 5% cutting, 5% machine sewing, and 90% seam finishing and decorative finishing.

Because the vast majority of my time is not spent lassoed to equipment, it is portable. I sew everywhere – in the car, at events, on my couch, in the backyard, at other people’s houses. I sew as a social activity while talking to people, watching TV. I sew in Court. I sew half-asleep. I sew like I breathe.

It affects how I plan. It significantly affects my ability to participate in themed events – do I have time to make an appropriate piece? Do I care to? Is this a thing that will be used in the future, or a disposable thing, worn once and stuck in a closet for a decade? How can I manipulate the theme to my desires, make it worth my investment?

There is a seasonality to it, something almost agricultural. Plan in the early spring. Shop through the spring, spend a couple of Sunday afternoons cutting and machine-sewing in the early summer. Spend the rest of the summer carting half-finished garments around with me, doing the mindless work of seam finishing in the lull times of my busy life. Finish things in the fall, spend the winter cozied up doing embellishment.

There’s a level of intimacy about handling garments, up close, for hours. You become more attentive to the quality of the materials. Cheap fabric begins to feel like sandpaper, but it’s not just the fabric – it’s the thread, the needles, the thimble, the pins. The pencils used to mark patterns. The first time you use your own handspun thread in a needle worked by your own hands will be a revelation.

There’s a level of intimacy about having handled garments, up close, for hours and days, before they go on the body. “It isn’t garb until you’ve bled on it.” It’s calluses and pinpricks and spilled coffee and event dust. It has history before it’s ever worn. It knows its maker.

The line blurs between sewing and embroidery. It becomes easier to understand why women in period did decorated seams – at first you think, “if they had to spend so much time doing this, why add to the volume of labor?” But a thousand or so hours in, you realize – it’s not so much for the visual impact of the final product as it is anything to break the tedium of another twenty yards of running stitch.

Another c0mbat against the tedium is aggressive excellence. You get into the habit of competing against yourself. How fine can I make these stitches? How even? How perfectly can I bury my knots?

Handsewing makes the garment hang differently – closer to the way the original garment would have hung – so you start paying attention to other things that affect the hang. Like bias. Like material content and weight and thread count. Every stitch contributes to a mental picture of the final whole, every stitch is skill gained toward a more perfect ultimate period silhouette.

There are things you cannot do on a sewing machine – ways of handling and turning fabric, ways of joining pieces of differing weights, ways of perfectly matching patterns on curved pieces. Things that are daunting or impossible become easy, and details of finish common on period pieces become achievable, even routine. And on the other hand, modern techniques and finishing touches developed for machine construction become cumbersome and annoying, and are left behind. You begin to feel like you’ve always done it this way, that there’s no other way to do it.

Because the handwork is on the surface of the thing, literally on your sleeve, it changes how people relate to you. It lends credibility, yes, but it’s also a sort of secret-handshake into a community of people with a shared body of experience that is transformative, experiential, and indescribable.

It is transformative in the process, as practice moves ever closer to theory, as experientiality transcends theory – there is a sense of empathy with the people we are pretending to be. Historical reenactment as a feminist practice takes on meaning as you begin to approximate an embodied awareness of women’s experience in history, of what womanhood meant in a time before sewing machines and fabric stores and the Internet.

This is only the beginning.  There are other things, things I’ve thought of and then forgotten, things I’ll think of tomorrow. It’s an intensely self-reflective and ever-changing relationship to the art, to the object, to the community. This is what it means to be under geas.

I’m incredibly curious about other peoples’ experience with this. Reader, have you ever been bound under a constraint by a Peer to whom you’re sworn? Have you, as a Peer, laid one of these constraints on your student? What happened? Was it what you expected? How did it change you? How does taking one thing away open up a thousand new possibilities?


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War footing II: A Scottish mercenary in the Spanish army

That’s Juan’s primary persona, based very loosely on a very tiny reference in Douglas Preston’s Cities of Gold* to a John Black/Juan Blaque in the Coronado expedition, of which very little is known except that he was Scottish by birth. Our Juan is a generation later, born sometime in the late 1530s. He traveled to France for military service in the early 1550s, toward the end of the regency of Mary, Queen of Scots; and abandoned France for Spain in the chaotic aftermath of the death of Henry II. In the Spanish service, he traveled to the New World, and was honored for his service there with small cash and land grants both in Mexico and on the Continent, a common practice in the land-rich, upwardly mobile military of Philip II.  He retired to a life of minor gentility outside of Segovia around 1580, and that’s where we find him today.

My focus on garb up to this point has been on mid-1580s Spanish, but after watching me play with how far I can stretch my persona in directions of time and culture, he’s inspired to toy around with some of the same experimentations. I made a very basic Western Viking kit last year for one of the Battlemoor parties, and he likes it so much for casual camping garb that he’s asked me to make more. Also, hopefully he’ll be fighting this year, so the big push will be making sure there’s enough fighting garb.

updated 8/10

His garb is generally in pretty good shape, but there’s always stuff that needs done. To wit:

Viking: two days worth.

  • One good outfit done and ready to wear.
  • Definitely make one more tunic (fabric in hand), embroidery similar in scope and scale to the royal Estrella War Court tunic, which took about ten days. Some or all of that embroidery may happen after Battlemoor. Finished – bumped up on the priority list to finish in time for the investiture of our friends, Broddi hornabrjótr and Máel Mide ingen Domnaill, as Baron and Baroness of Dragonsspine.
  • Another pair of trews ONLY if I find fabric I really like and have timeHahaha not happening.
  • Leg wraps – probably purchased rather than woven; there are reasonably priced ones, in pretty twills that I don’t have the equipment to make at this time, on Etsy. On a closer look, the affordable ones on Etsy are just strips of wool twill serged, and the handwoven ones are out of my price range at this time. I have twill. So I’m just going to make them.
  • Low boots or turnshoes: he plans to make, I may help out. We found out – on the rush job for Dragonsspine Investiture, see above – that a pair of non-SCA boots he thought didn’t fit, do, after all, and look great with the Viking. So the turnshoes are on back burner for now.
  • Torc and cloak pin: we will work together on them. Not started, but I’d like to try.
  • Hat: I’m very familiar with what hats looked like in eastern Norse territories, but need to do some research on what would have been appropriate for the Isles. Patterned, starting this week

Spanish: two days worth, plus court/party garb.

  • Ready to wear: Two good outfits of daywear: black linen doublet and trunkhose; blue brocade doublet and brown wool trunkhose, one plain lightweight linen shirt that can be washed midweek.
  • Ready to wear: Brown and gold silk doublet and gold trunkhose and lightweight, heavily blackworked shirt: Saturday Grand Court and party.
  • Great boots rev. 2 – the rev. 1 boots are wearable, but not super comfortable for multiple days of camping. I have one more tweak of the pattern to do and then I may *crosses fingers* cut leather on these TODAY. Construction done, just need to finish the soles – hoping to have these ready for a trial run at Crown Tournament next weekend.
  • Need one more good outfit for Friday court and party: I have a blue velvet doublet in progress, cut out and waiting on lining fabric. I would like to make a matching pair of paned slops, but that requires going back to Denver Fabric and seeing if I can match fabrics. Blue doublet is well underway but has a lot of work still to do. I’m going to try to get the next phase of machine sewing done this week and take the handsewing to Crown.
  • I have some really stunning fabric for a short cloak, and would like to get it done for Battlemoor courts, but it’s not a top priority. Unfortunately not enough fabric, so the cloak is not happening.
  • New hat: purchased and in transit from the vendor now.
  • Hose: proper underpinnings! The bare knee between the top of the boots and the hem of the trunkhose is awkward. Also, with hose, he can wear turnshoes with the Spanish as well. Not happening before Battlemoor. A project for this fall/winter. The new boots are softer and much taller, which resolves that problem.

Fighting garb:

  • Ready to wear: Two heavy, plain linen late-period shirts.
  • Purchased straight-leg elastic-waist pants. Until I get some idea of wear and tear patterns, I’m not investing my valuable time in handmade fighting garb. Shopping for these next weekend.

*Yes, Douglas Preston the novelist; no, this is not a novel. It’s half history of the Coronado expedition, half memoir of Preston’s attempt to reconstruct the route of the expedition, on horseback, from the Mexic0-Arizona border to the farthest extent of the journey in Kansas. It’s fascinating and meticulously researched and pure delicious experimental archaeology geekery, and I can’t recommend it enough.

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War footing I: upping the garb game (Baltic Tribal edition)

Battlemoor V is three months away, but I don’t want to make myself crazy (and I am working in parallel on the staff-and-dignitaries dinners at Academy of Grace And Valor II, two weeks later; that will have its own post soon) so project management is the order of the day.

I’m really going to try to consolidate and improve my millieu-specific “look” over this summer. Most of the work I’ve done in the last couple of years has been geared toward Kursi/Latgali/Žemaitiai, so that’s where I’m going to start: one day’s worth of each, plus the Lipkowie archery kit.

Strikethrough: have, finished, ready to wear. Bold: not yet started or sourced. Italic: in some stage of progress. Updated as I go. There’s some overlap here with the Project Asteroids list.


  • Birka underdress; nutmeg linen skirt; red linen shawl; spiral head pin
  • Spiral crown; blue linen scarf
  • Two cowrie necklaces; spiral-and-glass necklace
  • Spiral armbands; belt knife.

Early period Latgali:

  • Kangasvuo A underdress; blue one-shouldered chiton; penannular brooch
  • Spiral crown; long white linen veil
  • Multiple wrap-and-a-half torcs
  • Flat cuff bracelets


  • Kangasvuo A underdress; pumpkin linen skirt metal-embelleshed apron
  • pendanted cap
  • wrap-and-a-half torc, wrap-and-closure torc
  • Short waterfall chains on spiral-head pins
  • Spiral armbands


  • Gomlek (use lightweight linen Eura dress); salwar; entari; silver chase-and-repousse’ brooches
  • Tarpus and yaşmak (same as Latgali veil); temple rings
  • yaka chylbyry (pendanted choker); khesite (chest jewelry)
  • Back quiver
  • vambraces

As you can see I have at least as much jewelrymaking to do as I have sewing! (Updated – a bunch of sewing stuff finished over the weekend, the last fabric bought, and the only remaining “not yet started” stuff is all jewelry that requires heavy-weight bronze wire, which is on the shopping list for next payday.)

Updated 7/6: Jewelry supply shopping done! All garments cut, several sewn! Progress!

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