Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Eura Mitten Reconstruction

Former Finnish President
Tarja Halonen
As my fellow fanatics about early northern European costume can tell you, one of the more interesting early archaeological finds is the grave of a woman buried in Eura in Finland, around the year 1000 C.E.  For reasons I do not presume to understand, the recreation of this woman's costume became very popular in Finland, almost rising to the level of a folk costume; former Finnish president Tarja Halonen was photographed wearing a reproduction of the Eura woman's costume as reconstructed by Finnish archaeologists (see photograph).

What many people may not know is that a scrap of fabric, made with the nalbinding or "needle binding" technique, was found among the other jewelry and textile finds in the Eura grave, at a position suggesting it was part of a pair of mittens stuck into the woman's belt. Today, I found this web site, in Swedish, showing a picture of the writer's own reconstruction of the Eura woman's mittens in red, yellow, and blue--the original colors. A short English translation appears on the site, as does a link to a Finnish language site containing a  copy of a thesis, in Finnish, about the mittens. I wanted to share this little discovery because it's so easy to think of grave finds as consisting of formal, sober clothing. It's good to know that a cheerful pair of mittens was part of one of those finds.

I'm going to contact the blogger who made those mittens and if she agrees, I'll show a picture of her mittens here.  If not; go to her site and look at the picture there; it's a sight worth seeing.

Sunday, September 14, 2014

The Clothing of Roman Prostitutes--Still a Mystery

Wall painting from the Villa San Marco, Stabiae.
Is she a prostitute?  How could we tell?
More than two years ago, I did some reading in an attempt to learn what kinds of clothing were likely worn by prostitutes in ancient Rome.  The short answer to that question appeared to be that scholars don't really know what the prostitutes wore, because the written evidence on the subject is, at best, lacking in context and difficult to interpret.

I received a copy of one of the books I mentioned when I originally discussed this topic, Prostitutes and Courtesans in the Ancient World (Faraone, Christopher A. & McClure, Laura, eds., University of Wisconsin Press, February 6, 2006), as a birthday present this year.  Thus, I've had the opportunity to review not only Olsen's article about the clothing distinctions between matrons and whores, but also to read the other articles in that book about prostitution in antiquity.

When I first wrote about this topic, a Roman-era reenactor commented to chide me for (apparently) accepting the idea that there was such a thing as sacred prostitution in ancient Rome. Having read Prostitutes and Courtesans, it's clear that, if anything, he understated the case.  The weight of modern scholarship maintains that there is no evidence for sacred prostitution anywhere in the ancient world, period. The belief that there was such a thing appears to have arisen from a variety of translation errors (and perhaps some overheated scholarly imaginations) during the Victorian period and afterward.  

With that idea in mind, I re-read Kelly Olsen's essay in this volume, "Matrona and Whore:  Clothing and Definition in Roman Antiquity" with a view toward ascertaining whether I had missed any useful information in it.  Unfortunately, Kelly's conclusions amount to saying that there is no way to be certain what Roman prostitutes wore.  As I read her essay, those conclusions are:
  • Roman society attributed specific symbolism to different types of costume; for example, the stola and palla denoted the proper Roman matron, and, due to Augustus's statute, the toga, when worn by a woman, denoted loose morals (either as an adulteress or a whore).  Male costume also carried symbolism of various kinds.
  • However, we have no evidence that women typically wore the costume symbolic of their rank and status, and some evidence that many of them did not. 
  • Thus, to quote from Olsen's conclusion, "Matron and whore were surely distinguishable from each other on the street but perhaps not as easily as our authors [i.e., the Roman authors whose remarks form a large part of our evidence for prostitutes' clothing] could have wished (and certainly they are exaggerating the similarities between matron and prostitute for rhetorical purposes)." (pages 200-201).
A logical conclusion from Olsen's research is that real women in ancient Rome varied their clothing choices deliberately, to evoke clothing symbolism that suited their individual purposes.  This topic is squarely addressed in a more recent article on Roman women's clothing, by Mary Harlow of the University of Leicester, titled "Dressing to Please Themselves:  Clothing Choices for Roman Women," in Dress and Identity (Harlow, Mary, ed, University of Birmingham IAA Interdisciplinary Series: Studies in Archaeology, History, Literature and Art 2, 2012).  A copy of Harlow's essay can be downloaded for free from this page.

In  the "Dressing to Please Themselves" essay, Harlow seeks to determine to what extent Roman women had and used free choice in selecting particular attire to present a particular image of themselves to the public.  Her conclusion, based largely upon the quantity of Roman cosmetic tools found by archaeologists and literary evidence of the wide availability of fabrics in different fibers (including silk, which was expensive and available in improper transparent weaves) and colors, is that women likely did alter their public image by varying their clothing and cosmetics--though the evidence of their having done so remains sparse:
Evidence demonstrates that within a relatively limited repertoire of styles a range of choice existed in terms of colour and textiles, and also that colour was very much part of the Roman visual world. The constant refrain against female adornment throughout the time span of the Roman empire suggests that women certainly were exploiting the market that was available to them despite any disquiet it might cause their menfolk. Roman writers were adept at manipulating the image of the dressed (and undressed) woman to suit their agenda and presumably women were equally as adept at manipulating their own draped clothing to suit their agenda, or at least give them power over their immediate social space. (page 43)
My conclusion, after reading the analyses of Olsen, Harlow, McGinn, and others, is that we cannot generalize about what Roman prostitutes wore for the same reasons we cannot generalize about what modern prostitutes wear--because individual women choose whether to signal their status by their clothing in particular situations.  A woman may dress like a prostitute to conceal herself, or for sexual stimulation, and a prostitute may dress like a high-class matron to conceal her status, or attract a different sort of customer. Moreover, prostitutes are not, to our knowledge, depicted in sculpture or fresco art, so we cannot even discern what the conventional "prostitute's toga" looked like.  Without further evidence, the clothing of Roman prostitutes likely will continue to remain a mystery.  

Sunday, August 31, 2014

HSF Challenge # 20--Fabrics

Ribbon for the stel*
For the dhwef*
After trawling the Internet for an hour or two, I finally came up with a combination of fabrics I like for my science fictional costume for HSF #20.  The fabrics I'm planning to order are pictured  below and to the left. They were chosen to flatter my hair color and skin tone while being consistent with the subtle tastes of the alternate human species, the ler, described in M.A. Foster's novels.

For the stel*
For the stel (i.e., the blouse), I've chosen a rayon jersey in a lovely shade called "yellow orange mango."  Instead of stitching the shoulders together as in the Deco Echo blouse design, I plan to sew ribbons on all four corners at the neckline so that it ties on each shoulder. The ribbon pictured here, from an EBay vendor, harmonizes well with the mango jersey.

For the dhwef (the long loincloth), I found a thin cotton from India that is only 44 inches wide.  My thought now is not to cut it, but to use 2 yards of the entire width of the fabric, only hemming the ends, and folding the center portion so the entire fabric width is narrow enough to pass over my crotch. That way, the piece will still be more than full enough to flow around my feet as I walk, without cutting or shaping. The design, a modest pattern evocative of the shape of the vulva, is perfect for the type of sexual reference one might expect from one of M.A. Foster's ler.
My bead belt

I am not home right now, or I would find and photograph the bead belt I plan to use to hold the loincloth.  I made the belt for my recreation of the "Princess of Zweeloo's" costume (based upon a 5th century CE archaeological find).  Because it uses mostly wooden beads instead of glass ones, it's probably better suited for my science fiction costume.  I will add a picture of the belt to this post later.

EDIT [9/14/2014]:  Added a photograph of my bead belt.

*  All photographs from the sites of their respective vendors. The yellow orange mango jersey comes from StylishFabric on Etsy; the cotton print comes from theDelhiStore on Etsy; and the ribbon from Cheswick-and-Company on EBay.

Sunday, August 17, 2014


For HSF Challenge # 20, Alternate Universe, I have decided to make a costume based upon this description from M.A. Foster's novel 1979 science fiction novel, The Day of the Klesh:
Basic forms of Ler clothing remained static, and were oriented toward one or another of the four elementals [sic], Fire, Air, Earth, Water.  Stel was a gauzy, translucent, loose blouse, tied with ribbons at the top, which has a loose, open neck; below, it fell about to the hips, where it was tied with another ribbon.  Dhwef was a long, wide, trailing loincloth, the ends falling to the feet.  The upper end was usually held in place by a string of beads or, in extreme cases, a chain of flowers.  The mode most common to wearing of the Dhwef could be politely described as the "mood conducive to amorous dalliance." It could also be described as an invitation to the same.  Needless to say, after the Ler manner this was behavior governed by the Water Elemental.  (p. 46)
The ler in Foster's novel are a species of human that were created in our near future by genetic engineering that was intended to create a superhuman race.  It didn't quite work. Ler (usually not capitalized in this or Foster's other two related novels) are short and slight of build--they appear like androgynous children to humans. They are, on average, more intelligent than homo sapiens sapiens, but the most significant differences between humans and ler are two-fold; they have eidetic memory, and a very low birthrate. Although ler reach sexual capability in their teens, as humans do, they are not capable of siring or conceiving children until they reach their 30s. Incessant sexual activity during the infertile period is supported and encouraged by ler culture, and Foster's books describe that aspect and other aspects of ler culture in surprising detail.   Anyone who is interested in learning more about the ler and the world of Day of the Klesh should read that book and its two prequels, which Wikipedia describes here.

The costume described in the passage above is worn by ler adolescents/young women who are in this infertile sexual phase and, as Foster archly says, looking for "amorous dalliance."  At 55 I'm a bit too old (and a bit too wide) to look like a proper ler, but I do look younger than my age, and the culture of science fiction conventions is pretty tolerant.  So I may as well make it now and wear and enjoy it while I still can!

The costume should be simple and quick to make; it consists of a blouse and a loincloth that would look a lot like a long skirt in wear.  The stel sounds to me very like The Dreamstress's Deco Echo blouse, but made from a translucent fabric and with ribbons tying the neckline as well as a tie at hip level.  In the novel, of course, explicit sexual display was the point of the costume, but I'm not prepared to be that explicit on the Internet, so I will probably model the finished product over an opaque camisole top (or perhaps chicken out and just make the blouse from opaque cloth like the Deco Echo blouse). Foster's description of the lower body garment, the dhwef, is vaguer still, but John Norman, another science fiction/fantasy writer of the period, described a plausible way to make such a woman's loincloth in his non-fiction book, Imaginative Sex:
A cord may be tied about her waist.  It should be tied in such a way that it cannot be casually yanked loose. It supports, say, a rectangle of silk in the front and rear, thrust over and behind the cord.  If it is desired a long piece of silk can be passed over the front cord, between her legs, and then up and under, and over, the cord in the back.  It should then be made snug to her body.  (pp. 249-250)
I already have a string of beads for my waist (part of a Migration Period costume) that could serve as the "string of beads" to support the type of loincloth Norman describes (which I'll wear over bikini briefs, of course).  To make the loincloth appropriately "trailing" I could shape it so that the hem is wider than the portion that fits against the body.

This costume should be inexpensive to make because it can be made entirely from synthetic fabrics, and I'd prefer to make it from synthetics so it will be easy to care for.  A soft gauze would be suitable for the stel, and a silk substitute such as a rayon or polyester charmeuse would do for the dhwef, but what is puzzling me is color choice. Should the colors be light, dark, or bright?  Would patterns be appropriate?  If so, should both top and bottom be made from patterned fabric, or should just one or the other be patterned? Should the patterns match, harmonize, or clash?  And what kind of patterns would be appropriate?

Foster notes that the ler are famed for their appreciation of subtlety, and what seems hopelessly drab to a human could well have a subtle appeal for a ler.  That probably means that very bright or very dark colors are probably out. I'm thinking that I should choose a pale solid color for the stel and a drapey rayon with a small geometric pattern or perhaps stripes for the dhwef.  With luck, I should be able to find something that fits within those parameters, though I haven't been pleased with the patterned rayon fabric I've seen on the Internet so far. 

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Ideas for a Roman Necklace

I have been planning for months now to make a necklace with good quality rose gold fake pearls and rose gold findings for Historical Sew Fortnightly Challenge No. 24, "All that Glitters," to coordinate with the earrings I made for Challenge No. 7. It was my original thought that I'd string rose gold pearls of two different sizes, using rose gold plated beads as spacers.

A few days ago, however, I learned that Janet Stephens has done her own video on how to make a common style of Roman necklace, which she refers to as a "beaded chain" necklace.  The video in question appears to the left of this post.  Despite the name, no actual chain is involved.  Instead, you string each bead on a small piece of wire and bend the ends into small round loops.  Then, you connect each pair of beads with a third piece of wire (or a modern jump ring), until you have "chained" all of the beads together.  Add a simple hook to one end, and you have a necklace.   Stephens gives directions for making your own clasp from the same wire used to make loops for the necklace, but I had already ordered a rose gold plated hook-and-eye clasp that looks very similar to the wire clasp Stephens shows the viewer how to make, so I will use that for my necklace.

If I adopt this approach, I won't need rose gold spacer beads; I could use just rose gold pearls.  However, lovely as the pearls are, they don't "glitter."  I thought it would be lovely to intersperse the rose gold pearls with gold foil glass beads (i.e., clear glass beads with gold foil inside), but I couldn't find any evidence that foil beads are period for ancient Rome.  I settled upon faceted pink glass beads with an iridescent gold luster.  Probably that kind of color isn't period either, but faceted beads are, and an ambitious glass maker might have come up with such a color as a one-off experiment with trace additions to the glass, right?  ;-)

So I have already ordered the clasp, jump rings, and the iridescent beads.  I guess that means I"m committed to this plan.  I can hardly wait to see how it all turns out.

EDIT:  (8/15/2014)  I have ordered all of the components except for the rose gold wire, and I have a potential source for that.  There's no rush, since the deadline is New Year's Day and the idea is to complete each challenge no earlier than about a month before.  But it will be good to see whether the pearls and iridescent pink glass look good together before I start working on the necklace!

1st EDIT:  (8/17/2014)  I received my pearls and the iridescent beads yesterday, and I already have to change my plan.  The holes in the beads are too small to take 18 gauge wire, and the iridescent beads are way too dark--they look dreadful with the pearls.  I can still buy rose gold (filled or colored) metal beads instead, but I'm now uncertain about whether to stick with the beaded chain idea, since I'd probably have to use a 20 gauge wire or smaller to make the necklace work.  The best part about the beaded chain idea is that it lets me make a necklace of the size I want with significantly fewer beads, so I'm not ready to give up on that quite yet.

2nd EDIT:  (8/19/2014)  I have a solution; there's a website that sells the same color of pearls I've been using, so I can use 18 gauge wire after all.  Though I hate the additional expense, I can always use the other pearls for another project.  My plan now is to make a beaded chain necklace with the new pearls  and with smaller rose gold-filled beads.  

Monday, July 21, 2014

HSF #13--A Coppergate Cap

Because I was planning to be away on vacation for most of the week of July 14, I needed a quick project (again!) if I was going to participate in the "Under $10" challenge.  It took me a while to decide upon one that fits in with my interests, but I finally hit upon one I find very satisfying.

Recently, I managed to obtain a copy of Penelope Walton's (now Penelope Walton Rogers) book on the textile finds at the Coppergate site in York, England.  The book has been out of print for years and the cheapest copy I have ever seen on the market before now was priced at nearly $200.00 USD.  So I was pleased when ALibris, acting on a wish list reminder I'd left years ago, sent me e-mail about a copy that was available for about $33.00 USD after including shipping costs from Germany. In reading the book, I was particularly impressed with the precision of Walton's description of the silk cap found at Coppergate.  I knew I had some unused silk purchased for another project in more than sufficient quantity (about a yard and a half), so I decided that a Coppergate cap would be my $10 project.   I almost finished the cap on July 14, but because we were scheduled to leave for vacation early on the morning of the 15th, I didn't quite manage it.  However, I was able to finish it today, so now here it is, along with my ruminations on making and wearing the cap.

The completed cap
Cap inside out, showing the inside seam
I wanted to make the tie strings from the same silk used for the cap--but realized, in the nick of time, that it would be nearly impossible to tie such a slippery silk securely to itself.  The worker who made the original cap must have come to the same conclusion, because Walton detected vegetable fibers consistent with linen at the points on the cap where the tie strings must have been sewn.  I could have used some of my leftover white ramie for the tie-strings, but I wasn't able to find it after a quick search--and didn't have the energy or time to make a more intensive search for it.

I attempted to use the dimensions of the original cap--roughly 23 inches by 7 inches.   This piece of fabric produces a very shallow cap compared to the one I made previously.  It occurs to me that the original might have been for someone with a much smaller head than mine, but it's also possible that the overall effect shown in my pictures was the intended one--without additional evidence, it is impossible to tell.  In addition to the shallowness of the cap in generaly, sewing the curve along the back of the head was problematic.  Walton said that the cap was sewn up in the back with a curve ending at a point about two inches (50 mm) from the rear corner, but when I did that, my cap still had a small, nubby point, and not the smooth curve over the top of the head shown in Walton's sketches.  So I re-sewed the seam a few more times until I got a curve that better approximated Walton's sketches.  As a result, I had two points to fold aside inside the cap, not just the one Walton reports on the original (see photograph above).

Since the original cap was not found in a grave, there's no evidence about how it may have been worn.  I came up with three ways (see photographs below). One is to tie it under the chin.  A second is to tie it under the chin, but with the edges of the cap tucked behind the ears, and the third is to tie it at the back of the neck, under the occipital bone.  In all three pictures, I am wearing the cap with my hair fastened into a bun just above the nape of my neck.  That hairstyle gives the cap the most flattering shape; the problem with the cap forming a "point" at the top of my head was more obvious and less attractive when I did not do this.

All three methods look pretty similar in wear, though I prefer tying the cap in back because it hides the darker linen tie-strings and produces a slightly more becoming position of the front corners.  With or without a bun, however, this cap is much more attractive than my last attempt to make such a cap with the tie-strings fastened directly to the bottom corners.  The higher location for the tie-strings is also consistent with Walton's finding of linen fragments and indications of tie-fastening-stitches about 5-6 inches from the lower corners of the original cap.

One final note:  Walton's sketches show a series of wrinkles while the cap was in wear, parallel to the line of the shoulders.  My design fits too closely over my head to produce such wrinkles.  Could it be that the original was that much shorter (or longer) than the head of the original wearer? Or perhaps the fact that the original seems to have been made of a less slippery silk in a different weave (tabby) made the difference.  I may have to make another cap to see whether I can come up with a theory on this subject.

THE CHALLENGE:  #13 -  Under $10

Fabric:   A rectangular piece of fine white silk twill, about 23 inches by 7 inches, purchased long enough ago that I don't remember the price (but a piece small enough for this project would have been well under $10).  Also some scraps of natural-colored linen, from the fabric I bought for the bog blouse project, to make into tie strings.

Tied at back of head
Tied under chin, in front
Pattern:  I  followed Penelope Walton's detailed description of the nearly complete silk cap found in the Viking age levels of the Coppergate (York) dig, from her book The Archaeology of York:  Vol. 17: The Small Finds, Fascicule 5: Textiles, Cordage and Raw Fibre from 16-22 Coppergate pp. 360-363  (York Archaeological Trust 1989).

Year:   Approximately 975 CE, according to Penelope Walton. 

Notions:  Gutermann brand silk thread, in white.

How historically accurate is it?   Mostly. The pattern, even down to the size of the rectangular piece of fabric used to make the cap, is based on Walton's description of the actual find.  I incorporated a selvedge along one long edge in cutting the rectangle, like the original, and hemmed the piece all around with a rolled hem using silk thread, like the original, and the original has vegetable fiber remains in the right place to suggest that it had linen tie strings.   I also took care to place the tie-strings in the approximate location suggested by Walton's examination, and tried to sew the back seam curve in a similar position.  However, my silk fabric is a 2/2 diagonal twill, not a tabby, and it's a balanced weave, unlike the original (though it's roughly comparable in fineness to the original).  The original was not tested for dyes, and is now a golden brown, though Walton suggests that an undyed silk likely would have been a pale gold, not white, in color.  (Some of the photographs make my cap look gold, even though the fabric is snowy white; the photographs showing the cap in wear give a more accurate impression of the color.)  So about 70%-80%.
Tied under chin, behind ears

Hours to complete:   About 3 hours.  The original had a rolled hem on all four edges (even though one was a selvedge), and that hemming was the slowest and most finicky part of the job, and not just because I'm inexperienced at doing rolled hems.  The technique I learned for rolled hems requires you to crease the edge, a little at a time. With linen (and ramie, where I first tried it out) this is easy, because the fabric will stay creased once you've creased it.  Silk won't, though it may retain the mark of the crease for a bit while the fabric unbends. That means you have to grip the fabric by the fold while you're putting the stitch through it, and repeat the entire crease/grip process for each individual stitch, which is exhausting.  Also, I found it difficult to place the stitches so that the raw edge is completely curled under and hidden.  (It didn't help that my fabric had a fringe of loose threads extending a few millimeters beyond the selvage area.)

First worn:  For the photographs accompanying this post.

Total cost:  $0.00; I've had the silk fabric and thread for years, and I'd acquired the linen as part of a different project.  

Wednesday, July 9, 2014

A Latvian Cloak

For fans of early medieval Baltic culture:  Peter Beatson recently published a brief, but well-illustrated article about a 9th century Latvian cloak found in a bog.  Unlike many cloaks finds from the Baltic, this one is undecorated, but like most other finds it is made from dark blue wool--and the excellent black-and-white photographs Beatson has included with the article show that it's a 2/2 diagonal twill.

His article can be read here.