Crewel deer

20131016-185849.jpgI needed a no rules project. Every other thing I have my hands on involves stacks of research books from the library at UT, journal articles from all over the place, binders of examples and tutorials. There are complex stitches that require focus and good lighting. They’re going to be given as awards or put in to be judged in competitions.

A midnight stumbling upon a really cool site with great patterns I could download for only a buck sealed the deal. I was going to do some crewel work that I could frame.

Modern crewel embroidery has been whispering my name for a while now. I have a few pounds of superb cobweb weight wool yarn that’s undyed and waiting to become anything other than a monstrous knitted lace project. Some got dyed with cochineal, turmeric, wildflowers, and false saffron last fall. It’s too fine to weave with, so I’ve been thinking of over-dyeing it to create related and complex color palettes.

In the bottom bowl, the red and yellow to the left are my stater colors from last fall. In the top bowl, the pale purple color was dyed in the exhaust bath of the cochineal. The rest are over-dyed with washes of Kool-Aid or food dyes in a light vinegar solution. If you’ve never dyed wool with Kool-Aid, you really should because all you need is a Pyrex measuring cup, some Kool-Aid packets, and a microwave. This is the absolute best site ever for how to do it – and they give you like 136 different color combos you can get.

20131016-185918.jpgSo far, it’s turned out really well! I did have to go to eeeebil Walmart to find the blue flavor of Kool-Aid. For some reason, my Target only has pre-sweetened drops of the stuff, not the powder envelopes. DO NOT DYE with the sweetened Kool-Aid.

You just mix the stuff with water, put yarn that’s been soaking in water in, nuke it for a few minutes, and let it sit till it’s cooled to room temperature and the dye bath is clear. Rinse and let air dry. If you’re a control freak or a cheapskate, this is the secret skill for you! I saved a TON of money being able to do this, and I still have probably two pounds of yarn left, which is basically a lifetime supply if it’s going to be used for embroidery.

So! On to the part where I embroider things! Wool is pretty fantastic. It goes quickly, holds vibrant color, and looks so nice and full with not a lot of work. I love this deer, and I’m really excited to finish him up and get started on the beautiful and unusual owl patterns I downloaded from the same place.

This is Abraham, and he has been my faithful partner in dyeing all of this yarn (I think I’m up to 14 shades now?). Not even once has he gotten it confused for his ball and tried to make off with it.

I’ve been on and off the cusp of getting sick from wearing myself out, so Avi and I took a mandatory weekend of rest recently to hang out on the couch, learn about the wonders of embroidering with wool, and start watching the X-Files because neither of us have ever watched it. Here’s what I got done lazing around over the weekend and a couple of weeknights:

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How I stopped struggling and learned to love Italian dresses

I love France and French styles, but I never really wear them. I started in the SCA largely because I wanted to learn authentic historical costuming so I could make sumptuous French gowns and have a reason to wear them. If you see me, there’s an excellent chance that I’m wearing an Italian dress, probably from the upper-middle class. Why make the move to a different country and a few rungs down the social roster?

I am terrible at pattern drafting. I blame never having taken geometry for this, but the real culprit is that 1) patterning is a skill, and 2) it requires everyone being brutally honest about measuring their bodies, which is hard. We’re not used to dressing in fabrics that don’t stretch and styles that fit close to the body. Patterning that means that you and a helper need to get really familiar with your body and all of its oddities. Bodies are weird, we usually hide our flaws well, and really getting in there to make proper medieval clothes demands a lot of vulnerability. Like maybe there should be a mediator and a therapist on hand. While there’s nothing like a perfectly-fitted self-supporting gown, they’re complicated, unforgiving, and use an obscene amount of fabric. They’re basically the worst thing ever for a novice to work on.

Enter Italian dresses and their blessed simplicity. God love my friend Behiye, Our Lady of Italian Costuming, and her intervention right before my first Gulf War. Here was a dress I could make with 3-4 yds. of fabric and 2-3 hours. It works well in hot Texas weather, and it’s easy to warm up with layers or a heavier fabric choice. Here I am not sweltering on a hot, humid day.

gr ital

In its most basic form, late-period Italian costuming for women is a sleeveless dress with a skirt gathered into the bottom of the bodice, worn over a camica. It laces at the front or the side(s). Sleeves can be tied on with ribbons, left off, or attached. Sometimes you see a partlet, sometimes you don’t. We’re talking about practical clothes for busy women with a lot to do. Like… work in the kitchen (Vincenzo Campi, Cucina) or run all over site being helpful!
Vincenco Campi-Cucina
There are paintings of women selling fruit from the 16th c. that perfectly show this look off (Vincenzo Campi, 1580, The Fruit Seller detail). There are also pictures of women working together in kitchens that show similarly dressed-down versions of this basic mode of dress.
Vincenzo Campi - The Fruit Seller detail

Simple updo. A pretty green apron with fancy trim. Narrow dark velvet trim around the seams on the bodice. A softly pleated partlet in plain linen, without beading or embroidery. These are simple details that you can get right and really nail the look. Now see how similar it is to this much more formal and luxurious dresses (Boltraffio and Kempener):

Giovanni Antonio Boltraffio 003

1532 Kempener Bildnis einer Dame anagoria

While Italian can be really ornate, it’s often a simple garment with luxurious trims or fancy fabric treatments, like the gold cord couched onto the gown in the Kempener portrait. Once you have the basics down, making luxurious versions is really only a matter of how much time you have for embroidery and how big your fabric budget is. Make the skirts fuller with cartridge pleating rather than box or knife pleating, make the sleeves massive and fancy, use tissue thin silk organza and work it with gold to make your partlet, then embroider the cuffs and neckline of your camica.

Here’s one that’s fancier that I put together out of rogue scrap polysilk, cheap velveteen ribbon to trim the bodice, remnant brown corduroy for the bottom guard, and scrap Chinese brocade for the sleeves. It started plain, had a failed set of bodice trim that stained the fabric and came off first washing (Heat and Bond can eat rocks and die in a fire), and I saved it with the velvet ribbon and an evening of hand sewing in front of the TV. The camica is plain muslin with fake blackwork (2 rows of a honeycomb stitch my machine has) at the cuffs and neckline. I tied some linen veils together to make a turban and went on down to the Known World Scribal and Heraldic Symposium this year. For coronation, I added a deep red polysilk long jacket over it that has big poofy sleeves and ruffles. This whole thing would look a heck of a lot better if I put on the hemp corset thing Behiye handed down to me, but I am lazy. And it was hot. And I am lazy.

peeps italian

Want to make an Italian dress? Here’s my pattern piece. That’s right – piece. As in one. The bodice can end anywhere from an inch or two below the bust to at your natural waist. The skirt length is from the bottom of the bodice to the floor (roughly 45″ for me at 5’7″) box or knife pleated into the bottom. As long as you have enough to go around you more than once, you’re good to go. I get a really nice full skirt at 2x enough to go around me. The skirt is just a rectangle, so if you hem it and add an guards you want before you pleat it in, it takes a fraction of the time.

italian patterns

You put the center of the neckline on a fold and make four of these (front, back, and lining for each) or you cut them out like they are and sew them together to make four equal pieces. I don’t add seam allowances so that when I lace it up one side, I can tighten it and make for a more fitted hourglass shape. If I were pregnant or nursing, I would make it a little higher waisted and put eyelets on both sides for lacing and the ability to expand the dress without it skewing weirdly to one side.

The quest for SCA shoes

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SCA shoes are a conundrum. Period shoes are often incredibly uncomfortable, especially at busy events and wars where I easily walk a few miles a day. And they’re expensive. Peri-oid shoes are more comfortable and affordable, but they usually look wrong, won’t accommodate socks, and don’t stand up to a lot of standing and walking. I’m on entourage for the current reign, which means a lot of standing. One weekend on bad shoes and it was time to find a fix that works.

And then the light shone down and I found these: Alegria shoes. They’re professional shoes (read: for nurses, teachers, and hospitality industry people) that give great support for backs, knees and joints by molding to the shape of your foot, a la Birkentstocks. But they have a layer of memory foam so they feel good. The soles are too thick to look properly medieval, but they are slip resistant and curve gently up at the toe so you don’t trip yourself up when you’re moving quickly. They hold socks, have replaceable footbeds, a nice wide toe box like 15th c. shoes, and work with and without socks.

Save your pennies and pick some up. They make shoes for men and women – including boots! The pair I’m wearing is called Brown Magic and cost me $120. If they save me the need to hit the chiropractor a couple of times or a single massage, then they’ve paid for themselves.

Art breaks!

I’m trying to have more balance in my life, and art breaks are a part of that. It’s not a break if you just do a different kind of work for a bit. Stopping to sketch, do a zentangle, letter a little, embroider or whatever engages my brain in a totally different way. I have sketchbooks at work, at home, and usually in my purse. Try it out – doodle, grab a coloring book, have a little handwork project, and do something creative with your afternoon cup of tea.20131008-162415.jpg

I try to take at least one art break a day at work. Since lettering in a square involves at least minimal design and thought, I’ve decided it qualifies to meet my challenge of making a few small pieces a week for my art journal. There’s definitely more design in them than writing lines of alphabet necklaces and quick brown foxes. I did a page of them at work over a few days and brought them home to cut out and mount in the book.

All that smudging? That’s what happens when you spray fixative on them without checking to see if they’ve smudged even a little in transport. Fixative makes any penciled lettering much darker, so suddenly a “nobody will notice that little mistake” thing becomes prominent. Glad I learned it now instead of on something I spent a lot of time on…

The nice thing about fixative sprays and doing fine lettering in pencil is that the darkening works on colored pencil as well as graphite, meaning you can keep your hairlines and not have to go over them to add weight for readability. So far, as long as it’s been pretty readable, the coat of fixative has made it pop just enough to push it where I wanted it to be. Oddly, the watercolored part beneath doesn’t seem to get darker along with the pencil.

Queen’s Blade of Honor

I’m working this up in a hurry for Queen’s Champion this weekend. Calligraphy and illumination aren’t usually arts people get to see being done, so here’s a peek at how I do original works. Different people work differently, and there’s no right way to do it.

First, I find a design for decoration. Sometimes I trace from a manuscript, sometimes I draw my own totally from scratch, or a mix of the two. (The N on this is from a scribe’s sketchbook.) Whatever I’m using, I get out the tracing or typing paper and make sure I have a clean line drawing I can trace with my light box. Photoshop can help with desaturation and contrast to get this. Size it to what you need for your layout. Place it where it’s going to be on the backside of the paper and secure it with some drafting tape.

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If you prefer to do the illumination before the calligraphy, now is the time to trace it lightly in pencil and go paint and gild. If you’re a calligraphy first person, your next step is to draw the lines for the text. I make up guide sheets in Photoshop for various nib widths and x-heights. I hate drawing and erasing lines, so I do this. Tape into place on the backside of your paper, slap it on the light table, and do the calligraphy.

Then you trace your decorations, pencil in lines, whatever. Now you have this (forgive the sad calligraphy, but it was a bad calligraphy day and this was the fifth try of the night):

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Start with the gilding – and that goes double if you’re using gold leaf, since it will stick to the gouache. This is Schminke gold gouache, and it’s very pretty. Gold always needs outlining, so it’s ok if it’s not perfectly crisp and defined. Next, paint. I start lighter and work in darker washes to shade. It looks a little funky at this point, and I want you to know that’s normal.

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Outlining, shading, highlighting, and a little touching up can absolutely transform the letter, even if what you’re doing is subtle. Here’s the final outcome, finished at the event. I think this whole thing took 5-6 hours, plus another 5 spent screwing up the calligraphy four times. Lesson learned: when you’re in a hurry, stick with a hand you know how to do well.

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