Thursday, November 23, 2017

Medieval Histories, Inc.

Happy Thanksgiving to all!

Tonight I came across the website of an organization called Medieval Histories, Inc.  Their homepage can be found here

Medieval Histories, Inc. is clearly interested in circulating information about new discoveries concerning the Middle Ages with more accuracy than the mass media. To that end, they have created free-for-download publications called "Medieval News" (formerly "Medieval Histories") and "Minor Medieval News."  The articles in Medieval News in particular include wonderful, clear color photographs of finds and articles that list sources of the information provided, and short reviews of scholarly books related to period issues.  They are not written with the wealth of detail commonly found in the archaeological academic literature, but they are fun for general readers and historical costuming enthusiasts.   As Medieval Histories, Inc. is based in Denmark, it's not surprising that a significant proportion of the articles in question involve the Viking period.

Some of the more interesting articles include:
  • Skiing in the Viking Age.  (January 2016, No. 1).  Discusses the archaeological find of a sixth-century ski with the bindings intact, which has permitted a reconstruction of the ski to be made.
  • Byzantine Textiles in German Collections (April 2016, No. 4).  Describes the categories of items present, with color photographs.
  • Odin at Leire?  Or Freya? Or a Völva? (May 2016, No. 5). Discusses the seated Leire figure that some have claimed depicts Odin in women's clothing.   Most of the sources cited at the end are academic in nature and worth checking out.
Medieval Histories, Inc. has not been around long enough to have a large body of material on line yet, but what they have is interesting and potentially useful enough to be worth a bit of a costume researcher's time.

Monday, November 13, 2017

Take Back Halloween Winners

The winning costumes in Take Back Halloween's annual Costume Contest have been posted.  They can be admired here. There's some interesting stuff (though I can't figure out why there were so many Frida Kahlo entries/winners!), but that's not the main reason I'm posting this. Take Back Halloween is making an effort to encourage interest in history, and historic costume, and that's a cause I am foursquare behind.

Tuesday, October 31, 2017

Take Back Halloween Ups Its Game

Six years ago, I wrote about the website Take Back Halloween, which provided guides for making adult Halloween costumes for women (and occasionally couples) that depict interesting and inspiring women in various historical categories, or female deities. The resulting costumes then weren't quite recreationist in quality, but are levels above the standard cardboard-and-staples or variety store "sexy [witch, cat, devil, etc.]" fare. 

This year, Take Back Halloween is upping its game. It is still having its annual Costume Contest (with Amazon gift certificates as prizes), but in addition to their regular categories they have added a "Masquerade" division with categories much friendlier to historical costume fans, as follows:
"Historical Recreation: This is for costumes that are based on an existing garment, statue, painting, description, or illustration. Examples might include: a replica of an archaeological find, such as the golden suit of Issyk; a dress based on a painting; a copy of a museum piece; or a costume inspired by an imaginative illustration, such as one of Mucha’s posters. The costume you’re copying or recreating should date from no later than 1950.
Period Costume: This is for costumes that look as if they date from a certain period of history (though it’s fine to use modern parts and techniques in construction). Tudor England, Heian period Japan, Mughal India, Viking Age Scandinavia, and the American Civil War are just a few examples of costume periods. This category is ideal for those of you who are focused on recreating a style of clothing rather than dressing up as a specific historical person.
Fictional Characters in Literature and Art: Yes, we’re actually dipping our toes into the water here with a category for fictional characters. But not modern movie characters. We’re talking about books, plays, and paintings. So, for example: Hester Prynne from The Scarlet Letter, Elizabeth Bennett from Pride and Prejudice, Anna Karenina, Rosie the Riveter. You get the idea. (We generally prefer older things that are no longer under copyright, but we’re flexible. An Offred costume from The Handmaid’s Tale, for example, would be too cool not to include.)"
If you already have a costume you really want to submit to TBH's page for this year, it's not too late! their deadline for submissions is Friday, November 3.  Unfortunately, I have too much non-costuming stuff to do this week to think about entering (though submitting one of my Viking outfits is tempting).  It will be fun, however, to check out the page after the post their winners, to admire the skill of their best costumes in these "Masquerade" categories.    It will also be fun to think about possible entries for next year, assuming they get enough entries to keep the Masquerade categories for next year.

Wednesday, October 25, 2017

Cutting Voluminous Garments: A Rumination

Tacuinum Sanitatis (BNF Latin 9333)
Fol 103, 15th century CE*
Detail of mural at
Kanonikerhaus in
Constance, Germany,
c. 1320 CE*
Just a few days ago, I was reading a paper by Tina Anderlini on about 13th century European clothing, and how important it was to have the right elements in a costume, even though the basic element was simply a voluminous robe.   In a supplement to the paper, Tina gives sketches as to the cut of the clothing components. Links to the supplement may be found on Tina's French-language blog, Paroles d'Arts.  (The supplement itself is in English.)

As is apparent from the patterns sketched in the supplement, and from the photographs with Tina's blog post, 13th century garments such as the robe she writes about were voluminous, and featured from four to about half a dozen shaped gores.   That fact raised a question in my mind; how did people manage to cut out the pieces necessary to make such garments?

The answer may be simple for rich people's robes.  They would likely have been made by professionals, who could simply use a big table on which to spread the fabric and cut out any gores.  Because both fabric and gores were not very wide by modern standards, it was only necessary to have a reasonably smooth flat surface that was long enough and high enough off of the floor for ease of cutting.  The art of the 14th through 16th centuries does show clothes makers using or having such a table (see the images to the right).
Taymouth Hours (Brit. Lib. Yates
Thompson, fol. 180v), c. 1325-1335 CE*
But I have not been able to find, so far, a piece of period art from the 13th century showing the cutting of garments at the time of the clothing types described in Tina Anderlini's paper.  That raises a question.  Were big tables used at that time for clothing cutting? And what did poorer people do when they wanted to try making similar garments for themselves?

Tacuinum Sanitatis (BNF NAL 1673) Fol. 94,
Fol. 94, 1390-1400 CE 
The earliest art I found was an early 14th century mural of a woman trying to do something with shears and fabric held in her lap, though it did not appear as though she was cutting shaped fabric pieces for a tailored garment (upper left). I also found a 14th century marginalia piece purportedly showing St. Francis making himself a robe using the ground as a work surface, but that robe is not really a shaped or terribly voluminous garment, and the rolling hills shown in the image are not a plausible work surface, even for simple tailoring (lower left).

During the early Iron Age, fabric was woven and then sewn or pinned into garments with little or cutting, so this question did not arise.  Nor did it arise during the Migration Period or the Viking Age.  Based upon period artworks, clothing in those periods was fairly short (ankle length or just touching the floor at most) and was not very voluminous compared to fashions in later centuries.  In addition, most tailoring was simple.  It involved either small pieces (such as the Thorsberg trousers), larger pieces cut or torn along straight lines, perhaps with small cutout areas such as the curved sleeve heads and armpit gussets for which evidence was found at Hedeby, for example.  Some of the scraps found at Hedeby show slightly curved seams, which likely were made by subtly changing the width of the seam as one sewed. Probably all of these items could have been made without a solid horizontal surface.  I did most of the work on one of my apron dresses without a large flat surface.

In her study of the medieval Greenland clothing finds, Woven Into The Earth, Else Østergård suggests that the kind of shaped-piece cutting necessary for the kinds of late medieval garments found might have been accomplished by temporarily removing a door from its hinges and using it as a cutting surface.  (p. 94).  It is difficult to imagine a better cutting surface available to poorer people who made their own clothing, or a better example of people living far from the center of Europe, trying to emulate current fashions.

I will have to look more seriously for 13th century art depicting the cutting of clothing, to see whether better evidence for the door theory is available.

* All images in this post located on Karen Larsdatter's Medieval Material Culture pages.

Saturday, October 21, 2017

Some Interesting Articles about Viking Age Clothing

Within the past week, I discovered some articles on about projects in Viking clothing and textile manufacture.  They are less formal in style than traditional academic papers because they were written by SCA folk, but they have interesting and useful information all the same.  If you are interested in Viking age clothing, you may want to check them out.  
The pages may ask you to "connect" or log in to read or download the articles, but an account on the site is free.  Happy reading!

Wednesday, October 4, 2017

Ritual Headwear From the Stone Age

Reconstruction of Mesolithic headdress
(Photo:  Jonathan Cardy, Wikimedia Commons)
One type of clothing that is generally agreed to be important (even by scholars who are not historical costume specialists) is clothing used for ritual, especially religious ritual.

Popular Archaeology, an online archaeology magazine, posted an article last year about the process of reconstructing a type of Stone Age headpiece made from a deer's skull. You can read the article here, and can download the formal research paper from PLOS ONE here.  Though only limited information about the manufacture of these headdresses was gleaned, the result is a tantalizing glimpse into the lives of early humans.

Archaeologists at the University of York have been studying 24 deer-skull headpieces originally found in 1891 at an Early Stone Age site called Star Carr, in Yorkshire, England. These 24 headpieces represent about 90% of the known deer-skull headpieces found in Europe from that time period.

The analysis of the finds revealed physical evidence that the process for creating one of these headdresses must have gone roughly as follows:
  1. Damp clay was packed around the parts of the skull that were not to be removed, and the head was placed in a bed of embers.  As the clay cracked and fell off, it was replaced with new clay and the process continued until the unprotected areas of the head were charred.  
  2. The skull was hammered lightly around what would be the front of the headpiece to shape the opening, and harder to remove bony sections that weren't desirable for its new purpose.
  3. The base of the skull was opened, and the brain removed, cutting the meninges in the process.  (The resulting cut marks are visible on the surviving headdresses.)
The rest of the process could not be perfectly recreated, because it could not be discerned whether or how much of the skin was removed.  In addition, much of the antler had removed from the skulls, and it is not clear when this occurred. At least two possible theories might explain what happened. One is that the unwanted antler had been removed while the headdress was being made, possibly to make it easier to handle during manufacture, or to make it easier to wear.  This theory is viable because Stone Age red deer were larger than modern deer, and it might have been necessary to remove most of the antler to make the headdress wearable.

The other theory is that the extra antler was removed after the headdress had been used and was being discarded, so that the pieces of antler could be used for other things, such as "barbed projectile tips for hunting and fishing."  The cuts found on the headdresses were of such a shape as to indicate that the pieces removed from the headdress could easily have been reused for other objects.  Unfortunately, the analysis could not confirm whether the antler pieces had been removed before or after the headdress was used, and thus it could not be established which theory was correct.

If the latter theory is correct, though, it suggests an attitude about a piece of clothing used for religious ritual that is vastly different from the Christian one of reverence and preservation.  Perhaps Stone Age humans treated religious paraphernalia as disposable, or alterable without any potential sacrilege or consequence, after the god had departed.  That would be evidence of the culture of Stone Age England apart from the headdress itself, and that's what makes it exciting, and potentially useful.  We can only hope for future finds with better evidence of the headpiece creation process. 

Saturday, September 30, 2017

A Viking Age Weaving Sword

Anyone who has spent time researching the history of clothing and textile production will know that weavers In the early Middle Ages used an object, called a weaving sword, in the weaving process.  A weaving sword is a roughly sword-shaped object made from wood or bone, that was used to beat each row of the weaving so that it would be solidly in place.  It typically had a point that could be used for moving threads to make particular weaving patterns.  

Because weaving swords were made from wood or bone, few of them survive, and the surviving ones are rarely complete.  

But recently, a completely intact wooden weaving sword was found in the city of Cork, in south-western Ireland.  An article about the find, complete with pictures, can be read on the Archaeology News Network site, here.

The weaving sword was made from yew and is about 30 cm (a little under one foot) long, and carved with Viking motifs that indicate that it was made in the late 11th century.  A wooden thread-winder was also found at the site.  The dig that uncovered those items took place on the site of a brewery, where construction is planned.  It is now unclear when construction will proceed on the site.

This weaving sword is interesting because it has a "blade" shaped rather like a period knife blade, with a clip point.   I might wonder if it was actually a practice weapon or even an older child's toy, except for the thread winder found with it.

Thanks to Carolyn Priest-Dorman, from whom I learned about the find.