Geas

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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