Saturday, September 24, 2016

A Random Insight

After wasting some more of my precious green yarn, I have succeeded in starting my second round on a green starting chain with reasonably even stitches.  The chain is kind of twisty-looking, but I think I can straighten it out.  This is fortunate for me, since I have yet to find the tapestry needle I could swear I've seen no more than six months ago.

Here's a more interesting nalbinding tidbit about nalbinding.  This costume blogger suggests that nalbinding may have come about as a way to use up loom waste--odd bits of thread cut from a loom during the cloth weaving process.  Her suggestion may not be provable, but in terms of carefully using every bit of handspun thread possible it makes a certain amount of sense.  I intend to think about it some more.  

Saturday, September 17, 2016

Starting Up Is Hard To Do...

Last night and this afternoon, I made more attempts to work on nalbinding stitches.

I think I do have the idea of how to work what the "Nalbinding From Finds" booklet calls "modified Dalby stitch", but I have trouble starting a chain in a way that does not fall apart after I start to work the stitch.   

So I've tentatively gone back to using Mammen stitch, and I've opened my green wool skein and attempted to work the starting band for the mittens.  It is very lovely yarn, both in color and feel. However, it is washable, which I didn't realize when I bought it.   I haven't tried felting joins in it yet (for reasons I'll get into below).

To my annoyance, I'm having trouble keeping a consistent stitch, and avoiding snagging my needle on previously worked stitches (and dragging the needle through a thread on a previous stitch).  

I'm also trying to work on joins, since that was a big problem for me the last time I attempted nalbinding.  Spit joins are a problem for me (even with fully-feltable, no-wash wool), because I work at such a tension that they tend to come apart when I pull the joined section through a stitch.  So I've been attempting to do joins by placing both old and new threads in the eye of the needle, though that poses its own problems.

When I do succeed in working a section of stitching properly, the result is beautiful.  I really want to keep with this, in the hopes that once I conquer all of these problems, I will have mastered the basics of nalbinding and can go on to more interesting projects.  

In the meantime, I'm going to try another needle.  I have a metal tapestry needle around here somewhere that's significantly shorter than my beloved bone needle; perhaps that will help.

Thursday, September 15, 2016

The New Start

On Wednesday, both the nalbinding booklet I'd ordered and the yarn I intend to use for my first project from that booklet arrived in the mail. Clickable photographs of both appear with this post.

The colors of the yarn as shown in the photograph are close to their actual appearance. The gold yarn is a bit less reddish and the green a bit paler, but the general level of contrast between the two is accurately captured.

I was afraid that I would be unable to understand, let alone follow, the instructions in the booklet for how to work the Icelandic mitten or the Coppergate sock (the two items which I am interested to make my own versions of). However, the directions for both appear to be straightforward.   Best of all, it turns out that I don't need to know how to pivot to make either of these items. The mitten, in particular, merely requires you to do a chain of stitches of a specified length (determined by hand size), fasten the ends of the chain together with a stitch, and continue adding stitches around the resulting loop, increasing and decreasing (both pretty easy to do in nalbinding) as necessary. Fantastic!

The booklet includes instructions for three types of stitch I do not yet know how to do; Dalby stitch, York stitch, and Finnish stitch. Dalby stitch is used in the original of the Icelandic mitten I hope to recreate, while the Coppergate sock uses (naturally), York stitch.  I decided that I should at least experiment with both of these, using the remains of my snarled yarn from my false start at sprang, to decide whether I can learn the designated stitches quickly enough to use them for this project.  I should also practice making a ring out of a chain of stitches.

Making a chain of stitches in Mammen, the one nalbinding stitch I know pretty well, was simple enough, but understanding the authors' directions for both Dalby stitch and York stitch threw me, mostly because I couldn't see the starting position suggested for those stitches well enough from the pictures in the booklet.  So I turned to the Internet for pictures, videos, anything that might help.  So far I've found this video tutorial for York stitch which I think I can manage to use if I go through it slowly.

Late last night, after staring at the booklet instructions on Dalby stitch, I think I figured out what the instructions mean.  I tested my understanding this afternoon by doing a few inches of stitching.  It  was far from perfect, but appeared to be consistent with the illustrations in the booklet. I'll practice it some more, but I may end up attempting my first pair of mittens in Mammen stitch, just to be able to concentrate on the construction details for the mittens.

Progress is being made, though.  Onward!

Sunday, September 11, 2016

Starting Over

It's no secret that I haven't managed to complete a historical costuming project yet this year.  Part of that is that this winter and spring were rough on me--I spent six weeks being sick, and nearly two weeks straight dealing with taxes (which took place while I was recovering from being sick), and then preparing for, and enjoying, our summer vacation. 

My first nalbinding project from years ago; a hat!  
Part of the problem was that at the time I got sick I didn't have a pending project that I could easily pick up and work on a bit at a time (which is how most of my costuming work, historically, has gotten done). So, in the hopes that something Brand New would inspire me, I decided to start a simple project, namely, a hairnet to be made using sprang, a textile art I'd never tried before.

Unfortunately, my attempt to learn and work sprang occurred in late February/early March, and shortly thereafter was when I got sick.  

This  weekend, I finally decided to attack my costuming malaise by making a fresh start on something I find less intimidating--nalbinding. The motivation here was to be able to use a new booklet by Susanna Broome and Iduna Sundarp I have just ordered that contains instructions on how to nalbind your own version of three Viking Age nalbinded finds.  This would allow me (I hope) to eventually make my own Viking socks, something I've wanted to do for a long time now.  In fact, that was why I picked up nalbinding in the first place.  

Years ago (long before I started this blog), I mastered enough basic nalbinding to do a passable Mammen stitch, make a slightly wonky beret with a ton of mistakes, and attempt a pair of mittens.  When I picked up my needle again, I discovered that it was pretty simple for me to relearn how to start and how to do the stitch, but I ended up wrestling with the fine art of pivoting (turning your stitch around so that you can start connecting to the first set of stitches you've done).  Fortunately, the tangled mess of yarns from my sprang experiment is useful for attempting nalbinding, since nalbinding is done with pieces of yarn, not a continuous thread.

I think I've finally re-learned pivoting well enough that I can make some sense of instructions about how to construct a sock or mitten, and my stitching is more even than it was the first time around.   In the spirit of new beginnings, I've ordered some yarn for my new project.  Though I haven't decided whether I'm going to try to make mittens or socks, I found some lovely colored yarn that was on sale cheap at an on-line yarn store, and couldn't resist getting some.

I still intend to go back to my sprang project (especially if business continues to be slow for me), but I would like to finally complete my learning of nalbinding and celebrate it with a lovely project.  

Friday, September 9, 2016

Viking? Or Chinese?

Tissø figure of "Freya" (Photo:
National Museum of Denmark)
Shang/Zhou Dynasty costume (from the Features China web site)
Zhou Dynasty figurine
(image from Xun &
 Chunming book;
see text)
There are a number of small metal figures and/or pendants that have been found in Viking era archaeological contexts.  They are all highly stylized, so any conclusions one can draw from them about Viking era costume are at best speculative.   

One such figure, a small silver figure found at an archaeological site in Tissø, Denmark, has received far less attention than most Viking age female figures, possibly because it is so different in appearance than the usual Viking era figure. I cropped the image in question from a photograph that appears on the National Museum of Denmark's web site.

The National Museum has a series of webpages about the Tissø site, which start here.  Tissø has been the seat of power of important men, starting in the sixth century CE, and many finds of foreign goods, and of goods made in the area to be traded abroad have been made.

Though the mode of stylization of this figure is certainly consistent with Viking art, the clothing and hair shown do not appear to be Viking at all.  Female figurines usually show long hair in a kind of knotted ponytail, not in two knotted buns at the sides.  Nor does the wide, long-tongued belt resemble anything seen on other figurines from Scandinavia in the Viking age, or in the Vendel period before it.   I have been thinking about this figurine for some time, and pondering an unusual hypothesis as to what it may originally have been meant to depict.
Tang Dynasty figurine (from The Saleroom website)

What the Tissø figure's attire and hairstyle does resemble is early period female costume from China. Specifically, her costume resembles the costume shown above and to the right, which I have seen attributed on line to the Shang and Zhou Dynasties, but also (and probably incorrectly) to the Tang and Song Dynasties. The Tang and Song Dynasties are roughly contemporaneous with the Viking Age (9th-11th centuries), while the Shang and Zhou are much earlier--they are the dynasties of China's Bronze Age, roughly 1000-1500 years BCE.  The web image of Shang costume shown above on the right is very similar to one that appears in Xun, Zhou & Chunming, Gao, eds., 5000 Years of Chinese Costumes (China Books & Periodicals, Inc., English ed. 1987).  The related text attributes this type of costume to "nobility of the Shang and Zhou Dynasties".  It apparently is based upon a jade figurine which depicts the costume in question on a male noble. (See id.  p. 18).  I have scanned the picture of the jade figurine from the book for comparison's sake; it too appears above.

On the other hand, two-bun hairstyles were worn during the Tang Dynasty, commonly by maidens (see image on the left above).

Consider these points:

1.  The Tissø figure has obvious, almond-shaped eyes--a Chinese trait, not a Scandinavian one.
2.  The Tissø figure wears her hair in buns on the sides--not in a ponytail.
3.  The Tissø costume appears to have a broad-tongued pendant or belt-end hanging down the center of her body, starting from her waist, and an overgarment whose hem appears to end at calf-level.
4.  A common motif in Tang Dynasty figurines of women are hanging sleeves shown with a bun on each side.  Several such images may be seen on my Pinterest board on the subject.

Compare the garments on the Tissø figure to the modern depiction of Shang Dynasty costume shown above. The resemblance is far from perfect--there is no indication of an open, lapped robe (though we know from Scandinavian Vendel period art that they knew how to depict such a garment).  Still, the garment looks more Eastern than Viking.

Now, serious questions are raised by the fact that the figure does not strongly resemble women's costume during the Tang Dynasty--the time period when a few daring souls from Scandinavia might have visited China, or vice versa.  Arguably, it does not depict women's costume at all.

Moreover, I keep finding modern cosplay and reproduction costumes showing this Shang/Zhou style of short overrobe/wide belt/long robe shown on both men and women, and it is possible that the costume I've shown here is, at best, theoretical given the current state of Chinese archaeology, and its presumed usage by Chinese history reenactors or cosplayers little more than a reenactorism.  I have not found any period Chinese art showing figures of any gender in these robes, but since known examples of Shang Dynasty art appear to consist of bronze items, that fact may not invalidate my proposed line of analysis.

These observations are only a starting point for genuine research, but it seems to me that the Tissø figure may well be a Viking craftsman's attempt to depict a Chinese figure, in his own native style.  I am frustrated that it is difficult to find English language information about ancient Chinese costume, either in book form or on the Internet.  I would welcome any observations or pointers to more specific information in the comments.

Wednesday, August 24, 2016

Where Does The Needle Point?

World's Oldest Needle.  (Pictures:  Russia 24, Vesti)
From The Siberian Times today comes a dramatic discovery:  a 50,000-year-old bone needle that is 7 cm (about 2 3/4 inches) long, that was recently found in a cave in the Altai Mountains in Siberia.

In one way, that fact is not so surprising. Because it has been established that human body lice were already common about 170,000 years ago, and that body lice cannot live on a person who is not wearing clothing, it follows that clothing, and the tools necessary to make it, go at least that far back in time. (To get an idea of where we fit into the story, modern humans, which bear the scientific name Homo sapiens sapiens, go back approximately 200,000 years.)

Illustration showing bracelet find and reconstruction
of its original appearance.  Image credit:
Vera Salnitskaya, Anastasia Abdulmanova
What no one appears to have talked about, before now, is the impact of extinct members of genus Homo or even subspecies of Homo sapiens upon the history of clothing.

The needle was found in a place called the Denisova Cave, which is associated, not with modern man, but with an extinct subspecies called the Denisovans or homo sapiens altai.

In other words, it was not made by the species we think of as ourselves.

Archaeologists have been exploring the Denisova Cave for quite a while now and are far from finished.  The article includes pictures of other finds, made in 2008.  This find included a broken stone bracelet made from a polished, deep green piece of chlorite about 40,000 years ago.  This precisely-shaped band has a round hole neatly drilled in the middle--perhaps for a pendant of some kind on a leather strap.

Nor were the Denisovans necessarily the only Homo genuses in the clothing history picture.  The Siberian Times article calls attention to the fact that the existence of this bracelet demonstrates that the Denisovans were more technologically skilled than the Neanderthals, who were roughly contemporaneous with them.  More importantly, other discoveries from the Denisova Cave include DNA evidence that, at least in Siberia, homo sapiens sapiens interbred with both the Neanderthals and the Denisovans.

What is of interest to me are the implications of these needle and jewelry finds on costume history. One implication is that the fashioning of clothing and adornments may predate homo sapiens sapiens. Perhaps more importantly, the presence of these items confirmed that homo sapiens altai shared our need for clothing and our love of adornment--and makes it much harder not to consider these species to be as human as we are.   As the excavations at the Denisova Cave progress, the time is coming when we will need to reevaluate and expand the history of human clothing.

Tuesday, August 23, 2016

A Tale of Three Tutorials

Last month, I talked about how historical costuming tutorials posted to the Internet may vary greatly in the degree of authenticity they may provide.

By chance, a few days after that post was written I found a perfect illustration of the point I was trying to make. Specifically, I found three different tutorials, from three different people, all purporting to teach the reader how to make a version of a particular historical garment--the Skoldehamn hood.

The Skoldehamn hood is part of a suit of largely intact clothing that was found on a bog body in Norway that has been to the 11th century CE.  The body was originally found in 1936, so well preserved that at first the finders thought they had discovered the victim of a recent murder.

Dan Lovlid is the scholar currently studying the Skoldehamn garments.  My costuming friend, pearl, excellently paraphrases Lovlid's description of the surviving hood on her projects page, here (scroll down to about the middle of the page for the section about the hood).  She reviewed the descriptions by Lovlid and other scholars of the hood's construction and describes the hood as follows:
The fabric of the hood is a woolen 2/2 twill, believed to have originally been dark brown in color, with the warp dark grey and the weft a lighter grey, giving an overall buff (yellow-brown) appearance. ... The cutting pattern appears to have used this fabric very efficiently, as the pieces were comprised of rectangles and squares, all approximately 30-60 cm wide. ... The gores in the front and back of the hood, while not unusual in their placement, are unusual in that they are not curved along the bottom edge. In fact, they are simple squares, that effectively widen the skirt of the hood, so that it can fit over the shoulders. It measures approximately 138 cm around the hem.
According to Løvlid, the hood is made from three pieces of wool, not four. The main part of the hood is actually a single piece, that was split up the middle to form the face-hole, except for the final 2.5 cm, and possibly a 1 cm section between the face-hole and front gore.  The top of the hood has an angled seam, that is deeper at the front than the back, giving the hood a protrusion on top that looks similar to a cockscomb. This also causes the hood to sit further forward, providing more protection for the face. The top edges, forming the cockscomb, had been turned inward and sewn together with whipstitches in a grey-brown thread from along the top of the hood A second seam in a darker brown, beginning near the face-hole ran 3-8 mm below this edge, while a third (seemingly from the same wool as the hoods' warp) is parallel at 10-15 mm from the top. Finally, a fourth seam creates the comb at its final height of 22 to 27 mm. The front and back gores are attached with whipstitching in dark brown wool, which simultaneously tacked the seam allowance to the outside of the hood. The bottom edge of the hood is whip stitched, with neat stitches that run parallel to the grain of the fabric, and there is no evidence that the hem was folded over. 
Thicker wool, now brown but originally red and yellow, was possibly meant to be used in a simple embroidery. A red thread is used on the right-hand side of the face opening, running over the top of the hood for 15 cm, before being replaced by a yellow thread that continues to the bottom, in whipstitch. These threads were knotted at both the start and end of their paths. A second golden-coloured thread decorates the back seam of the hood, but this 'embroidery' is described as an oblique basting stitch. Although all these seams appear to have been sewn from the outside, that does not necessarily mean these stitches were 'decorative' and in a contrasting thread. ...
Two cords, one on each side of the head below ear-height (13 cm from the bottom hem), were sewn on, and were preserved as being tied underneath the chin. The left-hand cord is fully preserved, and 6 cm long with a tufted end, that is covered with a little piece of green woven fabric. It was braided with two pairs of olive-green, and two pairs of red-brown threads in a clockwise spiralling pattern (all internal citations omitted) (boldface emphasis added; italic emphasis in original).
I have quoted this discussion at length as a demonstration of how some easily available "Skjoldehamn Hood tutorials" on the Internet differ widely in the techniques used and the appearance of the final product from the surviving garment.  I have emphasized the primary elements of the physical construction in the above description.  Let's compare the three tutorials I found to this description in order of decreasing resemblance to the original.

1.  Kristine of Náttmál published this tutorial describing how she made her version of the hood. The best part of this tutorial is that Kristine expressly takes note of all the places where she did things differently from what can be observed on the original garment.

Kristine preserves the three-piece aspect of the pattern, and uses a split in the main piece for the face hole, as was true of the original. However, she uses running stitch to join the pieces and then creates felled seams with whipstitches. In addition, she lines the hood, even though there is no sign of a lining of the original, and thus she folds all of the edges to the inside.  With regard to the top seams, that create the cock's comb effect, she uses only a single seam.  Kristine's version adds the cords, but makes a single color cord with a lucet instead of doing a four-strand fingerbraid in two different colors.  She also omits the allegedly decorative stitching in red and yellow.  Finally, Kristine sewed her hood with linen thread, not wool as used in the original.

2.  The woman who blogs at takes much simpler approach; her tutorial can be found here.  She also correctly uses three pieces of fabric for the hood, but does not cut a slit in the big piece for the face; instead she cuts it as a much longer rectangle than in the original design, folds this long piece in half lengthwise, and fits the smaller square pieces into the bottom. She does not use a seam to make the "cock's comb" at the top of the hood, and she omits the cords on the back. Like Kristine, she sews her hood with linen thread using a running stitch but finishes edges and seams with whipstitch.  However, her versions of the Skjoldehamn hood are unlined, like the original. Her tutorial is aimed at people who want a hood that looks at least somewhat like the Skjoldehamn hood (it lacks the coxcomb shape to the top of the hood and the closer fit around the face) but is simpler and faster to make.

3.   I also found a tutorial on Imgur, here. This tutorial, by probablyilsa, recommends cutting a set of three pieces out of both an exterior fabric and a lining, sewing each set together, putting the lining inside the hood exterior (right sides together) and then turning the resulting hood right side out to complete the process--which is a modern lining technique.  She also recommends cutting part of one edge from each of the two square gores before sewing them to the main piece, on the ground that this will make it easier to sew in the gores.  Interestingly, probablyilsa recommends stitching around the face opening (though she doesn't suggest this is meant to be decorative).  As with the design, there are no top seams and no back cords, and the face opening is even wider than the face opening in the design.  There is no indication of the type of stitches used, and it is possible that this pattern is meant to be sewn using a sewing machine (though the writer does not say so). The tutorial is labeled an "Easy Skjoldehamn Hood", though that may only be true for people familiar with modern sewing techniques.

I've discussed these tutorials to make the point that it's important to understand what you're trying to accomplish with your project before you choose a tutorial to help you create it.  For example, if you want to try to duplicate the exact look of the Skjoldehamn hood, or understand how the medieval techniques used in the original affect the sewing process, you should work with Kristine's tutorial, because that tutorial preserves a lot of the steps that would have been involved in making the original and explains what she's left out.  If you want a simple hood that looks somewhat like the Skjoldehamn hood and are willing to do some handsewing to achieve that objective, the tutorial may work for you. Finally, if you need a lined hood that can be run up quickly on a sewing machine, the Imgur tutorial would suit you best.

In short, don't take all advice you read on the Internet (including mine!) at face value.  Don't be afraid to review carefully whatever tutorial you're thinking of using and doing some research of your own before making a choice.  Not every historical costuming project needs to be a museum-quality replica. Only you can decide what compromises you are prepared to make and what level of consistency with the original will satisfy you.  Just remember:  All tutorials for a historical style are not necessarily alike.