Wednesday, November 18, 2020

Sack Cloth Fashion

Feed sack of the type used for clothing.  Found on Wikimedia Commons
Feed sack of type used to make clothing.
(Wikimedia Commons).
Normally, I don't read or write much about clothing in modern times.  It usually does not interest me as much as trying to plumb the mysteries of vanished Viking costume, or admiring the graceful drape of ancient Roman clothing or of the full heavy gowns of Europe's high Middle Ages.  But this week I found an interesting article in Piecework magazine's new, online newsletter that I think is worth sharing with my readers.

It's an article about the clothing Americans made with used feed and flour sacks during the period from the 1910s to the 1950s. Most of this clothing was made during the Great Depression of the 1920s and 1930s, when money was dear, everyone was suffering together, and if you had to spend money on anything you wanted to get as much for it as possible.   The article may be read here; it's likely you will need to create a login to read it, but doing so is free of charge.  You can create your login here.

In our present age of disposable packaging (light cardboard, easy to tear paper or plastic) it's hard to imagine making anything out of feed sack material that anyone would be willing to wear.  But the feed sacks of the time were made from good quality cloth, usually cottons--osnaburg, sheeting, percale, muslin.  The lighter sacks (used for flour) made good underwear, while the stronger feed bags were used for shirts, dresses, aprons, trousers.  The design of the resulting garments, of course, was limited only by the imagination and skill of the woman doing the sewing, and the number of feed sacks available to her.

Originally, all such sacks were white, and women who were not willing to clothe their families entirely in white would dye them.  But by the mid-1920s manufacturers printed labels in ink that could be washed out, or on separate labels that could be removed, and they began making the bags out of gingham or good quality prints that would not look out of place when the sacks were used as clothing.  The Piecework article starts with a nice photograph of a young girl in a feed sack dress.  

Manufacturers continued to make feed sacks from patterned cloth into the 1950s, but by that time World War II rationing was over and the Great Depression was at best a fading memory for many.  In the post-war era of prosperity, women could afford to buy fabric intended for home sewing of clothes, or even ready-made clothes themselves.  By the early 1960s, the day of feed sack fashion was over.  

The article is nicely illustrated, well-written, and has its own bibliography.  I recommend it to readers interested in the clothing of early 20th century America.

Thursday, October 29, 2020

Returning to Gokstad?

The Gokstad Ship.  Photograph by Karamell, 
found on Wikimedia Commons

In 1880, a 9th century CE Viking ship was discovered in a burial mound on farmland at Sandar, Sandefjord, Vestfold, Norway. The ship, the largest Viking age ship found in Norway,  is on display at the Viking Ship Museum in Oslo, Norway. 

The mound contained more than just the ship.  It contained the grave of a man, aged approximately 40 to 50 years old, powerfully built and between 181 and 183 cm (roughly 6 feet) tall.  The bones of twelve horses, six dogs, and a peacock were laid out around him.  The grave contained other goods, including three small boats, a tent, a sledge, and riding equipment.  Gold, silver, and weapons were surprisingly lacking, suggesting that the grave may have been robbed in antiquity.

Or so the current state of public knowledge goes.  I learned tonight that Aarhus University Press is planning to augment that knowledge with a three-volume series of books, called "Returning to Gokstad," that will review the Gokstad finds: 1) in light of other visits to the site over the last few decades; 2) other ship mound burials from Hedeby, Ladby and Sutton Hoo, and 3) the results of applying new scientific techniques to those finds, such as iron provenancing, aDNA, isotope analysis, osteology, and new dendrochronological results.  

What interested me in the book is the suggestion that there may be new textile information in it also.  Specifically, I found a rumor that there is an article in the first volume of the series about the textiles at Gokstad, written by Marianne Vedeler.  

The first volume is listed on the Oxbow Books website with a projected publication date of this year, but it is not yet available for purchase.  However, it can be preordered through Oxbow (but not through Oxbow's American affiliate Casemate Academic; I could not find any mention of the book at that site).  Likely it may be available for pre-order from bookstores in Scandinavia as well, though I haven't attempted to track such stores down.   

I doubt I will be able to afford the first book, let alone the set, but I am making a note to myself to look for the first book, and try to obtain it by interlibrary loan after it comes out, to see what textile information I can find. 

Wednesday, September 30, 2020

Oldest Surviving Roman Body Armor

A recent article from Archaeology in Europe News reports on the find of a nearly complete set of Roman body armor found in the Teutoberg Forest in Germany.  This forest was the site of a disastrous Roman loss to German forces in 9 CE.  Archaeology In Europe News links to the original article from The History Blog, which can be viewed, complete with pictures, and read here.

The armor in question is of the type called a lorica segmentata--a set of largish iron plates shaped to fit around the body and laced together.  The armor was found by metal detector scan during an excavation in the summer of 2018.  Unsure exactly what the item was and knowing only that it contained a lot of metal, the entire block of soil containing the find was dug up whole and shipped to the Münster Osnabrück International Airport, which was the only nearby facility with an X-ray machine large enough to fit the soil block into.  The resulting X-ray revealed only a series of nails, which likely fastened a wooden crate large enough to hold the metal object, but did not penetrate the soil block.  The find was transferred to the Fraunhofer Institute in Fürth, which has a large CT scanner, and only after the CT scan did it become clear what the find actually was, and how it had to be excavated. 

The armor had collapsed and was crushed by the weight of the soil pressing upon it for two millennia. Despite that fact, and despite the extreme corrosion of the metal itself, the armor is surprisingly well preserved, complete with "hinges, buckles, bronze bosses and even extremely rare surviving pieces of the leather ties."  Plates from the shoulder and chest that were not in the original soil block have also been recovered.  There were no arm plates, which has been attributed to the design of this early piece.  Restoration of the armor is currently ongoing.

The find also contains an iron collar connected to a pair of handcuffs.  This item, also called in modern times a shrew's fiddle or a neck violin, was used on slaves and other captives; it indicates that the legionary who wore the armor had been captured, probably after the Teutoberg Forest battle.  

I love learning about finds like this, because it confirms that we have not learned all there is to know about the past. Archaeology continually uncovers artifacts like this one, which extend our knowledge of history.

Sunday, August 30, 2020

A Bit of Nalbinding, and a Status

I have done nothing relating to costuming this month.  Mostly that's because I've undertaken a temporary job, working for the US Census Bureau.  It has left me with zero time and energy to do anything extra.

But I did find a video that mentions an insole with nalbinding on it.  The video is by the Medeltidmuseet in Stockholm, and as you might expect, it is in Swedish.  However, it gives a look at a leather sole with a bit of nalbinding along one edge.  This find is dated to 1300-1400 CE.  The link can be found on the Nalbound blog, here, which is in English and gives a bit of perspective on the find.  (Kudos to Anne Marie Decker, who writes the Nalbound blog.)

Was this bit of nalbinding part of an insole?  Or is this evidence of a nalbinded sock with a leather sole attached?  The blogger at the Nalbound blog thinks it's an insole because the "row [of nalbinding] appears to follow the edge of the leather sole. That direction under and along the arch does not match the row direction that I see in contemporaneous nalbound socks."  It's an interesting look into a different way that nalbinding might have been used during the medieval period.

Thursday, July 30, 2020

A Maori Textile

Bearded Man in a kākahu (by Albert
Percy Godber, Wikimedia Commons) 
The EXARC site ( has created a new subpage dedicated to articles about historical and archaeological textiles.  You can find that page on the EXARC site, here.  

One of the recent featured articles is about a recreation of a Maori ornamental band.  It looks superficially like a tablet-woven band, but is actually worked in a technique called tāniko, which does not use tablets at all.  Instead it is a kind of weft-twining, where strands are twined or twisted around warp threads--more like sprang, or a basket making technique than like the weaving with which most of us are familiar.  Tāniko was used to make the ornamental band that edged a kākahu, a special cloak made for people of high rank.  

The band discussed in the EXARC article is from a cloak known as the Stockholm cloak, from the location of the museum that now houses it--the Ethnographical Museum of Sweden.  The cloak was collected during Captain James Cook's first visit to Aotearoa, the "big island" of New Zealand, in 1769 and thus is over 200 years old. The article about the Maori band can be found here, and some useful information about textile crafts in New Zealand can be found in the on line Encyclopedia of New Zealand, here.  

The photograph that appears with this post shows a man wearing a kākahu, though not the one in Stockholm.

During the Migration Period, Scandinavians used tablet weaving to create borders for the cloaks of their chieftains; the Hogom textile was such a garment.  And although the weft-twined band on the Stockholm cloak was made by a different technique, it features a geometric pattern (see pictures in the EXARC article) that any early European chief would have appreciated.  People are people, and they enjoy badges of honor in the form of expensive and unusual clothing, no matter where they are from.

Sunday, June 28, 2020

An Inspiring Needle

Back in April, I reviewed two books by ChronoCopia Publishing:  A Handbook of Men's Clothing and Handbook of the 15th Century and A Handbook of Women's Clothing of the 15th Century.  Daniel Serra of ChronoCopia Publishing also asked me to review the following book about nålbinding:

Pasanen, Mervi.  With One Needle:  How to Nålbind. (ChronoCopia Publishing AB 2019).

Mervi Pasanen originally published this book in Finnish. When it came out, I lamented the fact that I wouldn't be able to read it, even if I could afford it.  With One Needle  makes that content available to English speakers, and I have been sent a free copy in order to write this review.  

I am always on the lookout for new books about nålbinding, because I have struggled for some time to learn the art, and am continuing to struggle to do so.  Though I have learned enough to nålbind an undistinguished cap for myself, I have failed several times now at making mittens or socks, and every time I take the craft up again after a hiatus, I have to re-learn the basics nearly from scratch.  So when I was asked to review With One Needle, I hoped that Mervi's book would finally help me reach the level of understanding I need to succeed at retaining basic nålbinding skills once and for all.

The first thing one notices about this book is that the production level is very high.  The paper is glossy and of good quality, the font is attractive and easily readable, and there are many clear and beautiful color photographs.  The cover photograph shown above gives a good idea of how much artistry was devoted to the photographs in the book.

As I read the book, I tried to look at it in terms of how it would be viewed by a total novice to nålbinding, which was not difficult since I'm not that far from being a novice anyway.  And although Mervi's book includes a tutorial for several different nålbinding starts, it's not really the best source available for teaching people who are new to the art how to begin nålbinding. Why?  Largely because there are not enough photographs of every step of the process.  If, like me, you have trouble telling right from left when looking at an object and also have poor visualization skills, you will find that Mervi's photo essay on nålbinding starts does not give you *quite* enough information to advance your game.

But even though Mervi's book may not be the best way for a total beginner--or even a serial beginner like myself--to learn nålbinding does not mean that the book is of no value to nålbinding enthusiasts.  To the contrary, there are many useful things a discerning reader with an interest in nålbinding can take away from Mervi's book.  Here are some of my takeaways from the book:

1.     Inspiration.  With One Needle is packed with dozens of clear, full color photographs demonstrating techniques and interesting projects.  Just finishing the book made me want to get my needle out and start looking for colorful yarn to attempt one of her projects.

2.     Useful Techniques.  From Mervi's book I gleaned the realization that the same basic technique can be used to put a thumb onto a mitten or a heel on a sock.   Mervi also gives the best photographic description I have seen of how to do a Russian join, which is a technique for incorporating a new piece of yarn onto the working yarn.

3.    Helpful Facts.  When I was first exploring nålbinding, I found a photograph of an archaeological find of a thigh-length, nålbinded stocking, and I wondered how such items could be made since nålbinded works are not very stretchy compared to knits.  It turns out that you have to take a lot of precise measurements of the various parts of ankle and leg that the sock must fit and thus tailor it to the wearer.  The book also says that certain stitches are stretchier than others, and thus may be more appropriate for high socks.  Mervi also provides useful measurement and proportion information for the construction of socks in general.

4.   New Stitches.  Mervi's book contains tutorials for learning a number of different variations on Finnish stitch that I've never seen anywhere else.

5.   Expert Techniques.  Have you ever seen photographs of modern nålbinded garments that appear to have a braided edge?  This book contains directions how to do that technique as well.

In short, I recommend this book most strongly for nålbinders of intermediate level--people who have made enough garments using nålbinding that they are looking for new projects to expand their skill with the technique.  However, even for people like me who are still struggling, the book is a fun and thought-provoking read, and an inspiration to increase my skills so that I can try some of the more challenging projects in the future.

Sunday, May 31, 2020

One Afternoon Tutorials--Aprons!

Today's collection of one-afternoon projects is about aprons.

Aprons appear to have been made throughout history, and could be practical or ornamental (like the bronze ornamented one found upon the woman in the Eura grave in Viking age Finland, or the 16th-17th c. lace aprons worn in France and elsewhere in Europe).

Aprons come in a wide variety of styles and fabrics.  Work aprons can be as simple as a piece of cloth with a band sewn to the top, to tie around one's waist, but can also be full length overgarments.  There are a plethora of modern apron projects to be found on the Internet also; ruffled bib or half-aprons in cheerful colors or prints; silly "chef's aprons"; pinafore aprons for little girls; and more!  Because this is a historical blog, I have stuck to patterns/tutorials for historical designs instead of diving into the vast array of modern patterns of all types. 

Please don't assume that, because I have listed only one pattern for a period, that the pattern shows the only way aprons were made in that period!  Although I have not conducted detailed research on the subject, there appear to be a variety of different apron designs for every historical period, and no reason to believe that aprons didn't vary by region as well.

Because I am not (yet!) a reenactor and have no present need for a practical period apron, I have not tried out any of these designs (except for the Eura apron, which I did a bit differently).  As always, do your own research to ascertain whether a particular tutorial suggested here will work for you.
  • Viking Apron Dress:  Viking apron dress designs are still conjectural, but two types have a substantial amount of evidence and support; the pleated-in-the-front tube (Kostrup) and the fitted tube (Hedeby).  The tutorial featured here is from the Handcrafted History blog and is a fairly typical fitted tube kind of pattern (though not necessarily what was used at Hedeby).   We don't know if the Vikings used the apron dress as we would an apron (to protect other clothing) but we do know that some aprons (notably lace aprons--17th-18th centuries) were worn for style purposes, so I am adding an apron-dress pattern to this list.  Note:  Making such a garment might take longer than a single afternoon if you stitch it entirely by hand.
  • Eura (Finland):  Based upon an archaeological find near Eura in Finland that has been dated to about 1100 CE.  The apron appears to have been simply made of a length of cloth, belted to the body with a piece of tablet weaving, but it was clearly an ornamental garment because the bottom edges was decorated with designs crafted from small bronze coils.  Making and sewing on the coils would likely take the making of such an apron outside the range of a one-afternoon project, but finishing the apron by fringing the bottom and hemming the other edges is another possibility and would be fairly quick to do.  A diagram illustrating how archaeologists believe the Eura apron was made may be found here; the original blog site (which was used by a Finnish college student to house her thesis) is no longer live.   
  • Medieval:  Here are several different types of medieval period apron.  Edyth Miller of The Compleatly Dressed Anachronist provides instruction on a type of late medieval apron associated with midwives--it's a full body overgarment.  Edyth's tutorial is here
  • Medieval, part 2:  The second type of apron is a smocked top apron tied around the waist; you can find it in Matilda La Zouche's LiveJournal here. (Note:  If you have not done smocking before, you may wish to look for instruction on how to do smocking before you attempt this kind of apron.  Gina's Medieval Silkwork blog gives a list of smocked apron tutorials, with links, here.  She includes Matilda's tutorial, but you may wish to try some of the others, which give more detailed instruction about doing the actual smocking.)
  • German Renaissance: (15th-16th centuries)  Genoveva has a video tutorial she claims will teach you how to do a smocked apron, much like the medieval ones above, in one hour!  Find it here.
  • 18th c. work apron.  Burnley & Trowbridge have a series of three excellent clear videos demonstrating how to make a basic 18th century style work apron.  The set is in the "Sew Along" playlist; you can find the first one on YouTube here.
  • Regency:  The blog Sewing Empire features two different apron styles for the Regency period:  this one for a quick waist-length apron, and a second one for an apron with full-body coverage.  
  • Victorian:  Sew Historically has a tutorial on how to make a "pinner", an apron with a bib that pinned onto one's clothes. Find it here.
  • Edwardian:  From a blog called Cranial Hiccups comes a tutorial for a rather plain and basic, full-body apron; find it here.
  • 1920s:  Also from Cranial Hiccups comes this 1920s apron tutorial; yes, it's a period tutorial, complete with an image containing the actual period pattern!
Feel free to dive into the Internet (Pinterest is not a bad place to start) to look for other possible apron DIYs/how-tos/tutorials and patterns.  Have fun!