Hats for Their Majesties

A few months ago, my household took on the task of outfitting the new heirs to the Meridian throne on the occasion of their coronation. Members wove and sewed and patterned and embroidered like mad. My job was to make the hats. His Majesty does a later Roman Empire kit, while Her Majesty does a contemporary Sarmatian kit. The Sarmatian people lived in what is currently the Iranian steppes. If I understand the research right, they’re part of the early Persian peoples, along with the Sycthians and several other groups who lived in the area. I had never heard of Sarmatians, so there was much frantic research to help everyone involved get a mental picture, see what artifacts there are, and try to come up with a plan for interpreting those as best we could. The Roman part was a bit easier, because there are mosaics and statues and frescoes for us to look at. The Roman Empire was vast, and pretty much anyone off the street could give you some idea of what an ancient Roman might have dressed like. The Sarmatian part was harder. There aren’t replicas of their statues in every art museum or paintings or garments that have been preserved since the 4th century CE. There are some descriptions and some incredible metalwork and some clues from neighboring peoples, and from there, you apply your deductive reasoning.

His Majesty’s hat is pretty straightforward: it’s pretty much just a tube with a lid on top. There are several examples of this hat that we can see in Roman art, there are similar hats seen slightly after the fall of the Roman Empire in neighboring geographies, and we have extant versions of this hat from some of the Norse sites. We found a gorgeous deep royal blue merino wool felt for the outside. The wool felt provides great body and keeps the shape without needing to add stiffeners. Coronation was a little bit chilly, and the evening before, His Majesty was wearing the hat around with a tunic and shorts and said that he was very warm, even with bare legs, and could see how this would be a practical outfit for soldiers, even in colder months. Wool also keeps you warm when it’s wet, which is wonderful. I lined the hat in white linen and added a band of evenweave white linen around the outside base. I embroidered this with very fine weight merino yarn that I dyed using wildflowers (some sort of sunflower) a couple of years back. The motif is a gold knight’s chain. As you can see, the hat is a touch big because the head measurements for TRM were accidentally recorded reversed. This is important later…. I’ll adjust the fit of this at some point in the near future when he lets me steal it for half an hour.

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sawscyth03I’ve made some easy, simple hats in recent years, but nothing structural or complex since college. And even then, there were patterns from recent history and parts of hats I could scavenge to build on or pattern from. For this, I worked from some reconstructions of Scythian women’s hats. There seem to be two main styles: a giant cone or a flared, flat-topped version that reminds of of Queen Latifah’s hats from the early 90’s. The flat version was preferred, I guess because I’m the only one who wants to run around with a two-foot-tall bedazzled red dunce cap on my head. This was my main source of info, as well as the source of the amazing hat on the left: https://budsegoessingapore.wordpress.com/2012/08/19/gold-rush-treasures-of-the-ukraine/  It’s worth checking out, if only to gaze longingly at the incredibly ornate gold adornments on everything.

The formula for this project is: pressure because sewing for coronation and everyone will look at it + can’t make the queen look ridiculous + the queen is in the next state over + lining/interfacing/stiffener/wool layers that take up bulk and change the final circumference + I never took geometry in high school + I am a flailing art muppet who is always convinced that this will be the project where everyone finally realizes that I may not actually be good at making stuff + a firm deadline = A CHARACTER-BUILDING HAT ADVENTURE!

I thought that this would be really easy to pattern at first. The crown is basically a tube that’s lower at the back. How hard could that be? Not terribly. But it’s not just a tube. No. It flares out gently from the base. This is the hard part. Instead of being able to take a rectangle and make it lower at the ends than in the middle, we suddenly have to scale a gentle arc correctly. The pattern shape moves from being basically a rectangle that wraps around your head (think of the paper crowns from Burger King or a chef’s hat) to needing to be a carefully planned frowny face that wraps around your head. Too much curve, and it’s not straight across the brow and comes up high in the back. Too little and it doesn’t go together right and is low in the back. Some drawings I found for various top hat varieties from the Victorian (?) era helped me see the shapes.

Thank heavens for a stash of inexpensive wrapping paper that has a one inch grid printed on the back. I pattern with it all the time, and it’s big enough to handle this kind of plotting out of head sizes and gentle flares and curves and whatnot. It made sense in miniature. It worked (lumpily) in a paper mockup. So I made a trial version out of floral wire and Sunday School felt that wasn’t seamed in the back. Everything worked, though it needed to be a bit bigger to handle her hair. I thought I adjusted enough for that, but I didn’t, nor did I take into account (enough) how thick all of the layers were. It wasn’t until I was at the event, frantically sewing the last of the decorations on late at night, that I realized his hat was about an inch too big, and hers seemed to be about an inch too small. Luckily, I could insert an extra band of wool to fix it enough for the ceremony, but I still want to make it fit a bit better when I can.

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These are the pieces, layered bottom to top: wool, fusible stiffening interfacing, linen. Iron everything together to fuse the layers. Fold up the bottom edge and secure, then cover the lower portion in satin ribbon or wide twill tape so that foreheads and ears don’t get itchy and red. Sew the other pieces together by hand. A curved needle was VERY helpful for attaching the top to the crown. It was necessary to cut out lots of notches to get the edges to come together and lie as flat as I could get them. Hot glue got involved at some point for holding down all the little notched flaps under the linen lining. I couldn’t get this perfectly flat and nice where the crown and top meet. I don’t have molds or tools to block a hat form into smooth submission like a millner does. To deal with the minor inconsistencies and add gold, I sewed many small gold glass beads around the circumference at the top. I wound up filling in the whole space after taking this trial picture with bezant placement. The same brass bezants are all over her coat, and she is very shiny when the light hits her.

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The Great Printed Fabric Experiment

School has sort of eaten my life. And the wrist took longer to heal than I had expected, as far as using it to make art goes. I’m still a little shaky on some very fine motor skills, but I’ll get there. Projects that aren’t necessarily *my art* seemed like a good idea. Still get to make stuff, but not stuff that I’ll want to compare to old work and  despair that I’ll ever be good at anything again. (Shush, you. That’s a totally reasonable fear.) I’ve been learning a lot about the arts of various tribes from the Iranian steppes – Sarmatian, Sassanian, Sogdian, etc. Our new queen wanted to go Sarmatian, and my household was doing coronation costuming, so we learned some new stuff. I fell in love with these motifs, and they work beautifully for Persian silks that might have been cut into strips for Scandinavian clothing. I won’t say designs are timeless, but they don’t shift trends as quickly as they do now. The deer pair on the left is from the 10-11th c. and the one on the right is from the 6-7th century. Same border of pearls, same triangle deer scarf, similar body decoration. Weaving this is so not happening, but carving printing blocks isn’t that hard, and printed fabric is relatively easy to do. It’s definitely a historical practice, though I haven’t been able to pin down how old it is. Quite old in the near east and Egypt, and there are instructions for it in Il Libro Del’Arte later in the middle ages, so it’s a versatile thing to have in your toolkit and closet. Mid-period tile designs would make great repeating motifs and are pretty simple.

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Look at this sassy Sassanian sheep from the 8th century. LOOK AT HIM. Little sheep strut and his jaunty sheep scarf, looking like he’s going to rough some sheep up in a bar fight and meet some sheep ladies who will no doubt admire his lovely sheep necklace. Weaving this would be a nightmare. But in a few television-filled hours, you too can have his sassy self carved into a block and ready to go on your clothes. I’m trying to figure out what befits him and his majesty before I commit a garment. Also, I screwed up his block because I was using a clear lino block that turned out to be a weird carving texture. I’ll redo him in something better and maybe modify his fancy little frame so that it’s symmetrical enough for printing. (EEEEEE! HIS SHEEPY EYEBROWS!)

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So far, I’ve carved a few blocks in different sizes. I’m not doing a tutorial on the actual carving itself – there are lots out there already, and it’s good to watch a few and get some different techniques before you start. The motifs I’ve done are very similar over a stretch of a few hundred years, all from people groups within the Persian area. Works for royal costuming. Works for Norse stuff. The hardest part was picking designs. But then! I had a brilliant idea – carve them all on different block materials FOR SCIENCE. I’ve been doing that with mixed success. I think I’ll do a class on it, because it’s really fun and you don’t have to be a super skilled artist to carve a great block. All you need is:

  • blocks for carving – I like the easy to cut varieties of lino cut blocks the best, by far, but wood is period and best but less friendly to beginners. Not all block materials play nicely with all kinds of paint, so do your research – however, blocks are inexpensive so mistakes or a block you don’t like means losing a couple of dollars and some time
  • carving tools – lino carving tools come in a little pack for about $12-15 before you use a coupon and they have replaceable blades; wood carving tools cost considerably more
  • band aids – the tools are sharp, and even with good safety practices, it’s easy to nick yourself
  • a pencil, a fine permanent pen – to get the design on the block, it’s easiest to cover the back of your design with pencil graphite, place it on the block, trace over it to leave a light pencil outline on the block, then trace that with a permanent pen or paint because your hands will rub the pencil design off easily
  • cheap acrylic paint – a thin wash of this over your design makes carving MUCH easier to see, and you can still see the sharpie through it
  • paint for your fabric – I’ve gotten the best results with screen printing ink and a brayer, but people successfully use acrylic paint, latex and oil house paints, etc.
  • fabric – generally, the smoother your weave, the nicer your results…most definitely test print, and know that really pressing the block into the fabric is necessary for good transfer: Indian sari fabric printers hammer their blocks, I’ve seen people stand on wood ones – get physical with it before you decide if it’s a good fabric or not.Top left is wool twill, then poly satin, and linen on the bottom. The fine details of the round motif get totally lost on linen, and didn’t do much better on the satin. These blocks still had clean up carving to do (the lines in what should be empty space around the designs), but notice how much better you can see the details in the larger deer set than the smaller set. Part of that is scale and getting paint trapped in weensy grooves. Part of that is that the bigger one is on an easy cut block, which is softer and mashes into the fabric well while giving a crisp ink transfer, while the smaller deer are on a cheap gray lino block that was a little dried out. Detail was hard to carve, and the fine things were lost on every fabric I tried.

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Things to avoid: dull tools, the clear lino carving blocks (too elastic = very hard to cut neatly or with predictable control), old lino blocks because old blocks are hard and crumbly blocks, overly complex or small designs, shallow cuts that won’t transfer the design cleanly

Here are my deer, all cleaned up. The ink distribution could be a little bit more even, but this was a first impression from the first inking. The residual ink from you printing during a session helps with even printing in subsequent prints. This is on a cotton flour sack dishtowel and was printed with screen printing ink. The towel is a nice, fine surface that took detail beautifully. I didn’t heat set it to see what happened with washing – the ink stayed, but it is a lighter pink, like a cranberry juice stain, instead of a sort of cochineal red. 14724436_10209214095083238_530115933278988733_n

From here, I moved on to trying them on the russet poly satin, but there wasn’t enough contrast. I haven’t been able to manage getting a color other than white or black to be opaque on fabric that dark, so I opted to use something else for my project. I’m using a different poly satin that’s much nicer and very heavy and not too shiny. These are way big, so you can see what’s going on. The top set of deer went pretty badly: I got too much paint on my brayer, which meant too much was on the stamp, and the transfer wasn’t very good. I did this on a hard surface instead of a lightly padded one, which made it even more difficult to get a crisp transfer. I folded a heavy old cotton curtain over a couple of times to make four smooth layers without a ton of give, and that made a much better base. It was also really tough to register the pattern well and match things up – even with a ruler. Going off of the original woven design wasn’t good enough for symmetry in printing. I learned that I need to transfer my design to drafting or graph paper if it’s going to repeat like this, so that I can be really sure that the elements line up correctly. I started to lose heart at this point and was worried that I’d wasted a lot of time making something awful.

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Then, I decided to wash everything off and try some more with the other deer stamp. It had looked the best on all three of my original test fabrics. It was big enough (about 3×3″) to not lose the details and textures if the paint was a little bit too heavy, and there weren’t any parts of the design that touched or had to register perfectly. I drew lines with a big quilting ruler and chalk, spacing them based on lazy ruler measurements. That means they’re a bit further apart horizontally than they are vertically. If I want to, I can always turn a little square stamp on the diagonal and put in the corner motif as a separate element. I think that’s the best way to go on future projects. This went much more smoothly. I stopped to wash off the brayer and glass inking plate a few times as I stamped so that I could keep things as even as possible. Some of the places where a little got on the corner during printing could be cleaned up with warm water and q-tips, but it wasn’t perfect. When the printing was done and dry, I followed the instructions on the screen printing ink for heat setting with an iron, washed the fabric on delicate and cold, then laid it over the back of a chair to dry. It’s destined to trim out a a reproduction of the coat from Birka grave 944 that I’m doing for a friend.

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