Thursday, November 6, 2014

The Battle Plan, Post-Contact

Among military gamers (and serving military personnel, for all I know) there's a saying:  "No battle plan survives contact with the enemy."  This means, more or less, that no matter how good a plan is, real-world circumstances may reveal that it has so many problems as to be unworkable, or incapable of achieving the desired victory.

That's the sort of thing that's happened to my project for Historical Sew Fortnightly #20--Alternative Universe.  I planned to make a costume based upon the science fiction of M.A. Foster; specifically, a costume intended for "amorous dalliance" by a member of the constructed human subspecies featured in Foster's books called the ler.  This was to consist of a loose translucent blouse that tied at the hip and shoulder, and a long, flowing loincloth.  Because I saw the loincloth as the "easy" part of the project, and because I've been unusually busy at work, I figured I would wait to start until the loincloth fabric arrived.  

Well, the loincloth fabric didn't arrive from India ("Indian fabric") until a few days ago--shortly after the HSF #20 project deadline.  So any costume I make for Challenge #20 will be late (or will be forced into the "Re-do" Challenge or some other challenge).  

The fabric itself is great in some ways.  The color and motifs are exactly as pictured on the Etsy website of the vendor from whom I bought the fabric.  Unfortunately, the fabric, though very light, is not flowy; it's crisp and stiff--not at all what Foster's book depicts or the effect I wanted to achieve. It's possible that a few washings may soften it somewhat; I'm going to try that next.

But I have a bigger problem--the amount of fabric I have for the loincloth.  Because the price of this fabric was $12.00 USD a yard, I tried to economize by purchasing only two yards of the stuff. However, experimentation reveals that if I use the tuck-the-fabric under a belt in front and back method I planned, the loincloth will, at best, be knee length, not ankle or floor length as the book describes and as I wanted.   Grr.

The fabric is 44 inches wide.  I can cut it in half--into two 22-inch, two-yard long pieces--and sew them together, end to end.  This should be more than long enough for a tucked loincloth, but will be so narrow as to expose most of my thighs, which is also not an effect I intended.  Clearly, the economy I attempted to practice was a false one, because now I need to obtain MORE fabric to get the effect I originally visualized.  

But I still want to make the costume (especially since my husband really liked the glimpse he caught of me trying to tuck the too-short Indian fabric through my bead belt) so, poor economy or not, I'm going to proceed.  The question now is how, or whether, I can redesign the costume to get some use out of the fabric I already have--namely, the thin yellow jersey (jersey) and the Indian fabric.  These are the alternatives that occur to me: 

1.  Buy some plain sandwashed rayon fabric (2 1/2 yards at least) in a nice color (brown, say) for the loincloth and tuck a narrow panel of the Indian fabric over it, as an overlay.  Make the blouse from the jersey as originally planned.

2.  Give up on using the Indian fabric for the loincloth altogether.  Buy plain sandwashed rayon or something similar and use it for the loincloth; make the blouse from the jersey as planned.

3.  Buy some plain sandwashed rayon fabric in brown for the loincloth.  Make the blouse from alternating panels of the Indian fabric and the jersey.  Or (better) use the Indian fabric for the long, sash-like bottom piece of the blouse (the piece that ties at the waist), and make the rest of the blouse from the jersey.  

Right now I'm leaning toward alternative 3, but I will cheerfully listen to advice about how to proceed.  If you're at all interested in this costume idea of mine, please step up and let me know what you think in the comments.

EDIT (11/22/2014):  I took Beth S.'s advice (see Comments) and bought a yard of a soft, thin jersey to piece in to my fabric where it won't show (i.e., as the part that will actually touch my crotch). Now to do the actual washing and sewing.

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

False Colors

Over the years, I have obtained copies of all of the NESAT issues.  Only a few of them are photocopies of dubious pedigree (though I have always sought to obtain copies of the NESAT books on the open market, and have only resorted to photocopies, for research purposes, when market copies have proved unavailable).

NESAT XI, the latest volume, is striking for the dramatic increase in articles that are based expressly on scientific experiment and unusual research techniques.  Consider the following:
  • Solazzo, Caroline; Peacock, Elizabeth; Clerens, Stefan; Dyer, Jolon M.; Plowman, Jeffrey E.  Potential of Proteomics for the Analysis of Animal Fibres in Archaeological Textiles. (pp. 139-144) Discusses analysis of protein complexes in archaeological animal fibers (which is called a "proteome") to deduce the origin of such fibers.

  • Wiesner, Ingrid; Stelzner, Jörg; Ebinger-Rist, Nicole.  Virtual Analyses of Neolithic Textiles (pp. 109-118).  Discusses use of computer modeling of neolithic fibers to "see" areas of the fibers that cannot be seen without destroying or damaging the find, in order to make deductions about the find (such as the fiber manipulation techniques used to create it).

  • Llerg, Yolanda; Riera, Santiago; Servera, Gabriel; Miras, Yannick; Eusebi Garcia-Biosca, Joan; Miguel, Marina; Picornell, Llorenç; Cabanis, Manon.  The Application of Pollen Analyses in the Study of Burials and Related Textiles:  The Studied Cases of King Peter The Great's Medieval Grave and the Prehistoric Funerary Cave of Cavades Pas (Spain) (pp. 119-123). Discusses analysis of pollen found in and on archaeological textiles for use in ascertaining information about burial practices.
I am pleased to see that scientific progress is continuing to enable archaeologists to obtain more and more information from very small or very damaged textile and other grave finds.  But it strikes me that it can be even more useful to have information that warns us that our tests may not be telling us the entire story.  Such information has been supplied by an experiment performed by M. Ringgaard of the University of Denmark, called "Migration of Dyes in Wet-Site Archaeological Textiles."  Copies of the NESAT posters, which describe the experiment briefly in both English and German,  describing this experiment may be found on line here.

Ringgaard devised a simple text, which began with dyeing swatches of wool and silk with different, specific, natural dyes--indigo, cochineal, madder, weld, oak galls, and walnut--and keeping records of which dye or dyes was used on each.  Some of the swatches were dyed using mordants, and records of which swatches used which mordants were kept also.  Some of the samples had white, undyed wool swatches fastened to them. All of the samples were then buried in boxes filled with waterlogged peat and the boxes were stored in a greenhouse at a stable temperature and humidity level.  At different times ranging from 8 months to 4 years after burial, some of the samples were removed, freeze-dried, and subjected to photo diode array analysis for dye substances. 

M. Ringgaard found that both dyes and mordants leached from the fabric samples.  In the case of the samples buried with white wool samples attached, the leaching process often clearly visible, but the fabric that had been leached into in this way tested positive for dye.  More interestingly, dye from some of the dyed fabrics was detected in fabric swatches that had been dyed with a different dye than the one detected by analysis, suggesting that migrating dyes do not always (or only) migrate to the nearest textile.  M. Ringgaard observed:
Although no significant trace of indigo was found in the “migration patch,” indigo was found in two swatches – weld (reseda luteola) - dyed – that had been placed next to an indigo-dyed textile during the burial. If it had not been known the textile was dyed with weld only, the interpretation of this analysis would have been that the textiles originally were dyed green.
M. Ringgard concludes, "If more than one dye is traced in an archaeological textile, one has to consider if this is an intended mixture of dyes or if it could be due to migration from other sources."

In my opinion, the implications of these results are twofold.  First, the fact that a textile tests negative for the presence of a dye substance may not mean it was not originally dyed.  Significant migration of dyestuffs took place in M. Ringgaard's experiment over a course of months or years.  Many archaeological textiles have been buried for centuries, and any dye substance in them may long since have leached away, forever lost to researchers.

The second possibility is just as troublesome.  Over years, or centuries, a dye substance might leach away from a textile, not into the ground, but into a different textile, giving the impression that the second textile had been dyed even if it had not been, or that it had been dyed with different substances than those that were actually used to dye it, resulting in the possibility of a faux "green" type of result.  

M. Ringgaard proposes that dye testing should be performed on multiple samples taken from different parts of the same textile, to see whether the results vary dramatically in terms of what dyes are detected and, hopefully, ascertain whether migration of dye or mordant has affected the test results.  This may turn out to be a successful corrective measure, but the study is a useful reminder that neither a positive nor a negative result for the presence of a dye can be entirely trusted.  The Ringgaard experiment has shown that dye substances can migrate away from fabric buried in wet ground and raises the possibility that prior testing results have, in effect, clothed some textile specimens in false colors.  Anyone researching the history of early costume needs to keep that possibility in mind.

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Christmas in October

Why is it Christmas in October, you may ask? Because today, the copy of NESAT XI I ordered from The Book Depository finally arrived! 

For those of my readers whose costume interests different greatly from mine, NESAT is an acronym. It stands for "North European Symposium for Archaeological Textiles". Such a symposium has been held every three years since 1981, and has grown from a tiny event for a few textile specialists into, in the words of co-editor Johanna Banck-Burgess, "an interdisciplinary and international symposium, whose members have significantly contributed to the recognition of textile archaeology in many disciplines concerned with culture history." (page 15)

The parcel I ordered today contains the papers presented at the eleventh such meeting, which was held in Esslingen, Germany in 2011, and a CD-rom containing shorter presentations called "posters". I first became interested in the NESAT volumes when I learned, two decades ago, that many of the papers in those volumes involve archaeological research with a strong bearing upon the history of costume in my period of greatest interest, i.e., before the year 1000 CE in northern Europe. As Ms. Banck-Burgess observes in her Preface,  the NESAT now includes articles about finds from all over Europe (there are articles in NESAT XI about finds in Italy and in the Balkans, for example), although the majority of the papers presented and published still involve northern Europe. 

In the next few weeks, as I grab precious minutes to read through the articles (and enjoy the CD-rom), I will write brief posts sharing tidbits about the articles that have interested and enlightened me the most.  Apologies in advance to those of my readers who have already bought and read this fascinating volume.

Sunday, October 19, 2014

Visiting a Magyar Jurta

While I was looking for pictures of interesting items to add to my Pinterest board, I found an interesting website called "A Magyar Jurta". According to the author's description, this blog was started as a place to house her research into "Magyars of the conquest era," though she also writes about the costume of the Iron Age Finns and the Vikings (which were roughly contemporaneous) and other cultures as well. She has supervised the construction of a reconstructed costume of a ninth-century CE Magyar woman, and posted excellent pictures of its components.

I commend her site to my readers for its attempts to assemble information on difficult-to-research subjects.

Sunday, October 12, 2014

Another pair of Roman earrings to make

A day or so ago, I discovered the new webpage of Laura Storey, an SCA member who has done some good research, and prepared some excellent, clear articles, on ancient Roman clothing, as well as other SCA-appropriate subjects.

I had read a number of Laura's articles and handouts before, but the page included an interesting tidbit that was new to me; a link to a photographic tutorial she prepared on how to make your own version of a pair of earrings from Oplontis, which are in the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles, California.  Oplontis was a town located near Pompeii in the first century CE   Like Pompeii, Oplontis was buried by the Mount Vesuvius eruption that simultaneously took many lives but also preserved some choice items of Roman material culture for study by archaeologists.

Laura's tutorial clearly shows that a pair of earrings with pearls or beads dangling from little posts, called crotalia, can easily be made with suitable beads and 22-gauge wire. Perhaps I'll make a pair after I complete my Roman necklace project.

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Vikings and Silk

One of Sofie Krafft's watercolors, depicting a silk fragment
from the Oseberg grave along with reconstruction of the full
 pattern. Photo:   Kulturhistorisk museum/Museum of Cultural History, Norway
Recently, I obtained and read Marianne Vedeler's latest book, Silk for the Vikings(Ancient Textiles Series Vol. 15, Oxbow Books, 2014).  Silk for the Vikings is a well-written piece of research that will be the most useful to historical costumers who have made themselves familiar with a goodly proportion of the published archaeological finds, and the existing scholarship about Viking era costume.  

Professor Vedeler focuses primarily upon the availability of silk fabrics to the Vikings and the social and cultural signals given through its use. Nonetheless, the book also contains some lovely full-color photographs of silk finds, as well as some useful information to fuel the deductions of  archaeologists, reenactors, and costumers interested in Viking age clothing.  Some of the details that form the basis of Vedeler's deductions about how silk fabrics ended up in Scandinavia are more interesting than the deductions themselves. Here are some of the details that surprised or intrigued me:
  • Of the Viking age Scandinavian graves where silk has been found and a determination of gender has been made, the overwhelming majority were female graves.   Vedeler notes, "Silk has been found in 94 graves in total.  Of these, 52 are interpreted as female graves while 19 are male.  Nine graves contained both a man and a woman, and in 14 cases the silk were [sic] found in graves where the gender of the deceased is unknown, or in another context."  (Page 33, fn. 147).  
  • There is clear evidence that some women, at least, used strips of samite silk to trim the tops of their apron dresses.  Vedeler says:  "In some cases, samite silk has been found on the back side of oval brooches, indicating that the silk was part of the suspended dress in the chest area."  She cites examples from Veka in Voss (Norway) and in Tuna in Badelunda (Sweden).  (Page 37).  However, silk strips have also been found in graves without tortoise brooches, indicating that silk was used to trim other kinds of clothing also.  (Page 38).
  • Most of the silk found in Viking age graves is from Central Asia, Byzantium, or other regions close to those areas.  However, a few that appear to be Chinese have been found at Birka.  (Page 38).
  • There is evidence that Vikings who served in the Varangian Guard in Byzantium were sometime rewarded with silk collars and strips taken from skaramaggia.  A skaramagion is a overtunic with long sleeves associated with the Emperor of Byzantium and other Byzantine men of high rank.  This suggests that some of the silk strips found in Viking graves may have come to Scandinavia in that condition, and not as larger pieces.  (Page 106).
After reading the book, I started searching for real silk fabrics with a design similar to the Sogdian samite silks of the period, since they are a known Central Asian type, though Vedeler notes that most samites found in Viking graves are too faded to be identified readily by pattern.  (Page 35)  Unfortunately, judging by Google, there doesn't seem to be much of a market for reproductions of the stylized patterns characteristic of Sogdian silks.  I will just have to keep looking out for plausible patterned silks to cut into suitably-sized strips to decorate my Viking clothing.

Saturday, September 20, 2014


Girl wearing yếm
Woman in áo tứ thân
While looking for pictures of Sogdian silks, I learned about a Vietnamese garment called a yếm.  A yếm is a backless underbodice that was, and is, worn with Vietnamese traditional clothing; a picture of a girl wearing one (from Wikimedia Commons) appears to the left.  It ties at the neck, and also around the waist (though it's not possible to see the waist-level tie in this picture).  

The yếm in the picture appears to be made from silk, but different fabrics were used by women of different classes in Vietnam.  They could also be made in different colors; vermilion was a common color for festive wear, but blacks or whites were worn for everyday clothing.  Some were round-necked, like the one shown in the picture above, but others were v-necked.

Traditionally, the yếm was not worn as the only upper body garment.  It was part of a type of costume called áo tứ thân, or "four part dress" which, as the name implies, consisted of four garments: 1)  A nearly-floor-length, coat-like outer tunic, with two flaps in the front that can be knotted together or left dangling: 2) a long skirt worn under the tunic; 3) a yếm, worn underneath the outer tunic, and; 4) a sash knotted around the outer tunic at waist level.  The photograph to the right (also from Wikimedia Commons) shows this type of costume. The áo tứ thân costume has largely been abandoned in favor of the áo dài, a long-sleeved, form-fitting shin or calf length tunic worn over narrow pants, in the modern era.

I found the yếm interesting because, though it looks to my Western eyes like a modern halter, it is a garment of great antiquity, and because it demonstrates the principle that the most successful garments are often very simple ones.