Gesso for Gilding

Raised gilding with gesso is one of those things that really takes scribal work to a new level. Most of us do either flat gilding or use a modern PVA liquid as our gilding base because they’re easy options. Paint it on, wait a few minutes or hours, breathe, pop the gold down, and you’re done. Gesso seems to live in the realm reserved only for in-depth competition projects where every element is historically correct. I get it. Gesso is incredibly sensitive to humidity, so it behaves perfectly one day and is impossible the next. It requires some solid time with your mortar and pestle or muller. There are weird supplies. It’s a diva of a material.  In spite of all that, you should give it a chance. (Note: gilding gesso is NOT the same thing as the gesso used to prep board or canvas for painting.) There’s no other way to get the perfectly smooth, shiny gold that looks like it was poured liquid onto your page. These are from a Knighting scroll I did a few years ago.1517528_10202111416080702_1633011969_n


Every time I use a period material, I find that it answers the question: “Why can’t I get my work to look like the historical work?” Period materials behave differently and give different results, resulting in work that looks far more medieval. IMAGINE THAT. Modern materials are generally more convenient and have a shallower learning curve. That doesn’t mean they do the job better. They just make it easier. If you’ve ever tried to replicate raised gilding with modern liquids, you are familiar with surfaces that dent or cave in or have a crepe-paper texture. They don’t look anything like the high, even pillows that we see gold laid on in manuscripts. What gives? These acrylic or plastic-based materials don’t have anything to hold up that raised pillow. The water evaporates out as it dries, the blob collapses, and you’re left with an uneven surface. Gilding gesso has a base of plaster and animal glue, so as it dries, there are little particles of rocks holding everything up nice and high. No collapse. And because it’s made out of rocks and glue, you can work with the dried surface to polish it gently, giving the gold the smoothest possible foundation. The smoother the ground the gold lays on, the shinier and more reflective it appears. The mirror shine people talk about with gold? This is how you get it. It’s hard to photograph, it’s so shiny.1546353_10202111450841571_649675377_n


You’ll play with your gesso some, figure out what tweaks are needed for your general climate, and will be good to go. I was good in Texas, where 90% of the state is of similar humidity for most of the year. It was easy to make the stuff, it worked beautifully, and you could even share it among friends to cut the cost and labor. I live in Savannah now. SAVANNAH. It’s a marsh next to the Atlantic Ocean, where the humidity ranges from 50-100%, often in the same week. Atlanta is about 200 miles away and has humidity around 30-40% on the same day that I have 60-70% humidity. When we’re talking about a recipe that you adjust based on your local weather over the next three days, gesso suddenly became tricky. Gesso I had moved with me stayed so tacky that it came through the gold leaf and stuck on the backing paper and glassine. I had to start re-learning something I thought I knew. The only way is trial and error.

Below, you can see some gesso that’s been laid and had a chance to dry. It hasn’t been polished yet, so you can see tiny bumps and imperfections. In the diamond at the top, you can see a tiny air bubble that didn’t get pricked. All of those things can get smoothed out with a glass marble or an agate burnisher. You could patch a little crack with some animal glue and put another skim coat of gesso over the whole thing. Is your gesso too dry? Add a drop or two of honey. Too sticky? Add a touch more plaster. Too crumbly? Add a tiny bit more glue. Cennini offers a recipe that can be adjusted for climates that are more or less humid. There’s definitely a learning curve, but it’s a really adaptable material that’s worth getting to know.16142359_10210097490447570_2480518043413486875_n

Why the sudden resurgence of interest in gesso? I had signed up to teach gesso gilding at Midwinter A&S. There was a deadline for me to get gesso sorted out in Georgia. I sort of failed. I don’t think that it’s possible to make something that works in Savannah’s marshy climate and in the foothills of the mountains in the northern part of the state. I made and remade gesso. I made batches that were too sticky for me, but did alright in Atlanta. I made batches that worked fine for me and were very difficult for participants to get activated and sticky in Atlanta. I had wanted for everyone to leave with a magnificent golden letter and a heart full of gesso love and confidence. What we got was a bunch of people getting to go through a troubleshooting and usage session. Most everyone left with something successfully gilded, though the work required varied. I was pleased that I could offer people a chance to test the material and learn how rough they could be and have personal experience of what it’s like when it’s too dry or too sticky. It will make their home experiments more successful, but it made for a slightly less successful day. Want to try it at home? Here’s my handout, complete with a non-toxic recipe that’s been passed around the SCA for ages, resources, and tips – Period Raised Gilding with Gesso

How gesso is made: What we’re working with is a mixture of slaked plaster/lime/chalk, hide or animal glue, sugar or honey, some water, and a little coloring. Slaked plaster has had its pH neutralized from the slightly acidic state it comes in (and you know acid is bad). You wash it in water, let it settle for a few minutes, pour off the water, add more. Repeat until neutral, drain, and dry. For the glue, you can use hide glue, rabbit glue, fish glue, glue you made from boiling down parchment scraps outside. The coloring helps you see where you’ve put it and works like underpainting to mask areas where the gold is thin or got rubbed. Armenian bole is traditional, but other red or yellow earth pigments or gouache work fine.

You warm the liquids by letting their bottles sit in a bowl of hot water for a few minutes. Then, pop everything in in your mortar and pestle, and begin the slow and gentle process of thoroughly combining them while trying not to incorporate any air. This part takes 30-45 minutes. You want it to be about the thickness of pancake batter. It should never be thinner than Elmer’s glue. It will make a sort-of gross sticky sound. Recruit friends or children or spouses. Bribe them with baked goods. Or do it all yourself and feel like a morally superior art purist. Whatever makes you happy. I just want you to be happy and make pretty art. You’ll get the very best and silkiest gesso if you can use a muller and big marble or thick sanded glass tile. If you have that, go for it. If not, a mortar and pestle works perfectly fine. You might just have to spend a little bit more time refining the dried gesso with your agate or glass that you’re using to polish it. Since a nice-sized muller is about $75, and ceramic lab-grade mortar and pestle sets are about $7 on Amazon Prime, I’m willing to spend a little extra time refining.


New Scrolls

I’ve been getting comfortable with perg, which is a vegetable-based parchment substitute. It takes paint very differently than either animal skin parchment or paper, is very sensitive to moisture, and has a definite learning curve. But I like it! The learning curve has been about paint consistency and how it gets laid on the page. If you make a puddle and spread it around for nice, solid coverage, the perg buckles and cockles horribly. Thin, dry coats is the way to go – more like acrylic painting than watercolor.

This has been an opportunity to play and get comfortable again with fine detail work. Surgery seems to have left me only very slightly less coordinated, and then, only when I’ve probably been working for a little too long. My hand isn’t shaky or anything. Not bad! I’m terribly in love with the funky mermaids and their hand mirrors that turn up in the margins sometimes. I freehand drew this and knocked it out in a couple of evenings. Not sure what award it should be for yet, though obviously not something for children, because underboob.15541883_10209839163509558_2438745129623375024_n

Since the mermaid scroll and a quick Celtic one seem to have gone alright, I decided that it would be ok to start on a pair of viscounty scrolls for friends who moved to Oertha and promptly became their prince and princess. They have been awesome and understanding about my limitations. They have been patient. And my goal is to have these done so that they can take them home at Gulf. They asked for a paired set that would go together but be unique, came from early in period, be representative of them, and that whatever the final design was, it would be something I wanted to take on. After passing ideas back and forth for months, I stumbled onto a Swiss manuscript from 820-850 CE. The British Library has this wonderful book (Harley 647) that contains Hyginus’ Astronomica, complete with illustrated constellations where text and painting combine to form the figures that the constellations are based on. His device features wolves, which was an easy change from the dog in Canis Major. Her device features a sea goat, and I drew inspiration from Aires and Cetus (the sea monster) to create one that felt true to the original source material. I plan to do the calligraphy in the rustic Roman caps featured in the original. In Latin.

The original, being about 1200 years old, is a little more rustic and funky than I wanted for a royal peerage. I opted to make them a little bit more illustrated than textual and spend more time on details and shading. I looked at a bunch of pictures of wolves in bestiaries and picked the fur style I liked best, then went from there. Fortunately, I have a dedicated team of friends who I can send progress pics to, so that they can tell me to stop before I overwork something. Overworking is my most flagrant painting sin and something I’m determinedly working at improving in 2017.



Can we just talk about this sea goat for a minute, y’all? If you paint, you know that it’s really hard to get a green that has good coverage without it being that horrible pale pistachio green school walls used to be painted. I used to just make an ocean of paint and let it dry for true green color and good opacity. That does not work on perg. Oh no. There are many painstakingly thin, not very wet coats of green here. And then I thought I’d shade it with a little purple – because HE Violet LOVES her some purple. It wound up looking like a bad tie dye experiment because I used wet-into-wet watercolor techniques. There was despair. There may have been foot stomping. And then, Dr. Kate pointed out that the effect would be lovely with scales painted over it. SO I PAINTED SOME SCALES. I painted scales for hours and hours with the tiny magical model painting brushes my parents sent for Christmas. It looked good! Then, I realized that I should have done ALL of the shading first. I’ve added some since I took the picture below, and I think I’ll have to repaint some scales over the shading. I know that I am my biggest critic, but I swear to you that it looks like the neon people put underneath their tricked out cars. Only the tricked out car is a goat hoof and fin, and it’s underwater, where neon lighting is probably really dangerous because sharks might come eat you. (I may have been staring at this for too long…)





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.


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:  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.


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.



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.


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!)

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.


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.


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.


What I Did On My Summer Vacation

  1. I got a permanent, full-time job as a department secretary at my husband’s university. It’s perfectly suited to the kind of work that makes me feel like I’ve accomplished things each day, and there’s a lot of down time. I love going to work every day, which hasn’t been true for a long time. I even got to spend thousands of dollars in grant money to help stock the anthropology and archaeology lab with things like lab stools and measuring calipers and resin casts of skeletons. My favorite anthro professor left me a box of skulls to help me study anatomy over the summer.
  2. My surgery went really well. I got to spend two weeks trying to keep my arm above my heart around the clock. This sums up my feelings about it pretty well…and then the nice hand therapist cut me free of everything and gave me a gold star for overachieving my hand exercising and having full range of motion upon having my dressings removed.13166089_10207941400466668_7861178010210836139_n
    And it turns out that the surgeon told me the worst case recovery times. Mine were better. I did my first award scroll’s worth of calligraphy last weekend, 2.5 months after surgery. I wasn’t expecting to be able to start trying for 4+ months. Is it good calligraphy? Not so much. But it means I can start practicing again every day and (hopefully) get back to where I was in 2013.
  3. We got to see lots of friends. I went back to Texas to visit and see my friend Elen become a Laurel. She’s absurdly talented with calligraphy and needlework and fiber arts and 14th century costuming.
    A bunch of friends came up for the Fourth of July, and our friends threw a killer barbecue. We went down to St. Simon’s Island the next day to play on the beach. A gorgeous storm rolled around us, and everyone left happy and relaxed.
  4. And now I’m back to making stuff, albeit more slowly and with less precision than before. Surgery wrecked my hand strength, so I’m getting back that and my endurance. I’m picking projects that are smaller and easier to complete, that require less finesse, and that are mostly for me.
  5. I start back to school in three weeks, working on the prerequisites to start an accelerated BSN program in a year or so. If I make good grades between now and then, I’ll be working as an RN in about 2.5 years. But I have to pass Anatomy and Physiology I-II and Statistics and Microbiology & Disease and a Developmental Psychology class first.

Looking Forward

I know it’s only April, but the second half of 2016 is going to get crazy. I’m having wrist and elbow surgery in the next few weeks. That’s going to be super exciting…but in 6 months, it will be like nothing had ever happened. At least, that’s what the surgeon says. The first couple of months will apparently be rough – like can’t pick up a glass of water or lift over a pound. That, my friends, will put something of a hitch in my creative giddyup. Yes, I can (and may) dust off the tambour frame and do some left-handed embroidery like I did last summer. I’m on a scribal and hand-sewing roll over here. You must forgive my pouting and foot stomping. In my head, I will be teaching myself to do calligraphy with my toes and never getting to be a Laurel because my hand won’t work right ever again. And then I’ll never be employed, and we will go bankrupt and lose the house, and rats will bite our faces in our cardboard alley house, all because I needed 15 minutes of wrist and elbow surgery. Kevin tells me I worry too much and looks at me like I’m crazy when I tell him these things. BUT ONLY ONE OF US IS GOOD AT PREPARING FOR EVERY TERRIBLE EVENTUALITY, AND  IT IS DEFINITELY NOT HIM. Apparently, they didn’t cover that in his PhD program.

I’ve decided to spend my non-arting time building relationships with people in my kingdom, instead of being so achievement-oriented. And do research, since I figured out how to impersonate my husband in the library system and get things through ILL. (I know, I’m such a badass.) So, before there is a rogue laser surgery accident that cuts off my arm like Luke Skywalker, I am only doing the art I want to do for fun. (Plus, a couple of scrolls for the kingdom, because I feel guilty only doing what I want to do for my own enjoyment….maybe I should go back to therapy.) For example, I have tortured myself and figured out how to warp my fancy, more period loom, and it only took six months off my life. Now I can weave with uneven tension and raggedy edges! So proud. SO PROUD.

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Then, there’s job stuff. Pulling up roots in Austin and moving to Savannah wasn’t easy. August will mark the end of our second year here, and the second was definitely better than the first in many ways. In other ways, it’s been brutal – like when it comes to finding work for me. Coddled in my special Austin-y bubble, I had no idea a decade in internet marketing wouldn’t just let me work anywhere. I’ve wrestled with what to do instead. Hundreds of job applications, random part-time/temporary gigs, a lot of volunteer work, and a lot of expensive testing later, I’ve come to a few conclusions. I like helping professions the most. I would hate being a school teacher. Marketing work is something I’m damn good at but carves away at my soul. Perhaps I should have listened to my lifelong love of medical things and science and mostly-nonexistent squick factor a long time ago, because it turns out that it’s pretty easy to turn your existing bachelors into a BSRN if you had really good grades. I could have been earning a lot more money doing something I’m certain I’d really like.

Because it’s always better to figure out something late than to never figure it out, I’m heading back to school to be a nurse. I have a couple of semesters of prerequisites to do first. Let us all pray to our preferred deity that I get A’s, because I’m probably going to die of anxious flailing if I screw this up and have to figure out what I want to be when I grow up one more damn time. My type-A self is already not dealing well with the uncertainty. Like, I don’t know if I’ll qualify to get into nursing school, and I spent an hour this morning worrying over whether or not I should pursue a nurse practitioner program or a physician’s assistant one once I have enough years of clinical experience to go to grad school. I come by this flavor of crazy honestly and am not alone. My BFF/Laurel is currently back in nursing school to renew her license, and she’s taking an optional final because she has a 99.3 in a class and wants the hundred. I would take the 99.3, so I’m obviously way less high strung. Super chill over here…yup.

Weaving is hard, and I am not good at it

Weaving looks easy on videos. Just pass the shuttle back and forth, raise and lower the warp to create a shed between each pass, and magically fabric appears. Truthfully, the actual practice of doing the weaving isn’t hard for me. It’s relaxing.

Warping the loom is a different story. I have two looms: one with a bunch of horizontal pegs mounted to a perpendicular board (like an inkle loom), and a hybrid loom that I had custom made a couple of years ago, where the warp threads are wound around opposing cylinders that can be locked in place. Both looms are pretty portable. The first is easier to warp, since the threads stay under tension as you wind them around the pegs. Unfortunately, I’m limited to the length proscribed by the number of pegs. It’s long enough to trim out a neckline and two sleeves, but that’s about it. The hybrid loom lets you have a warp as long as you want, which is great. But to wind that up, you have to be able to keep a large number of threads from getting twisted and tangled in the process. This part is harder than it might sound…

loom 1Yesterday, I spent almost all day trying to warp the loom with a simple design. I carefully worked with the string going through the cards in small groups. I made sure there were no twists or tangles. I wrapped the long ends of the thread up carefully, to keep them from tangling. All the way across the loom, bit by bit, I tied my cards up and attached them to the loom. I began turning the handle to wind up the warp at one end, and tangles start appearing at the other. Awesome.

The more I try to smooth it out and figure out what’s going on, the more tangled things get. Threads that were cut with precision to equal length are suddenly several inches off for no apparent reason. What. The. Heck. It’s like I’m only capable of making this work badly. Every thing I do that *should* help makes it worse. So I decided to cut my losses and cut off this crazy mess at the bottom, and just re-tie the little thread groups. So I lose a foot or so of weaving. So what?

SO THAT WAS A BAD DECISION. I turned the little wheel back the other way, to find a good even spot to start cutting the warp. And somehow, that was like back-combing the straight even part. The tablets slide back, and it poofs up into a rat’s nest just like hair. And then the cards started flipping and dropping in random clumps while I’m trying to do that. And then, all of a sudden, we had this salvageable mess. I shoved it under the coffee table to sit in time out for a while, until I can determine if it’s actually a loss or not. I’m pretty sure I would pay for two new things of crochet cotton if it means not having to comb out this mess of snarled thread and try to re-thread the cards with it.

loom 2



For the uninitiated, posaments are these fantastic metal bits of ornament that were applied to clothing in Birka, Sweden during the Viking Age. There are braids and continuous knotwork strands that are made in the hand and carefully tightened to form beautiful knots. If I am interpreting the archaeological finds correctly, they’re rare enough in graves that not everyone had them (status symbol, no doubt). There are enough posaments that reenactors have a number of designs and applications to choose from, should they wish to incorporate them. The fantastic Silberknoten site has beautiful examples she’s recreating from various graves. Eithni is also recreating them grave by grave. Her project at Gulf A&S was truly fantastic, and her tutorials have been very helpful. You can look at the originals and work out how to do the knots yourself, but I need a tutorial.

If you want to slap some fancy metal on some fabric, Birka is not the only contemporary settlement that has really cool metal ornaments on clothing – there are others in Sweden, Finland has some great stuff, there’s wire weaving, and there are woven bands of varying complexity from various Viking world locations that have metal brocaded through them (a project on my list!). Many of these other projects require less expensive materials or have the ability to substitute something much less expensive, like very fine brass jewelry wire for gold.

The originals were made primarily with straight gold wire, and some with very fine tin/silver alloy wire that’s coiled around a silk core. This is called tenntråd, and you can order it on Etsy or from Sweden. It’s not cheap (~$3/m), particularly since you are using 2-4 strands at a time to make the patterns. There’s a little piece below (about 8″/20cm) that I’ve put on a smokkr panel, and it’s about $10 worth of material. Making little rows of it to go down the bands of silk across a man’s chest on his tunic could easily cost $50 for small and uncomplicated posaments. Because of that, I looked for viable alternatives and tried them out.

Cheap braided mylar cord stuff from the ribbon section of the craft store. Worth a try for a buck.
Cheap braided mylar cord stuff from the ribbon section of the craft store. Worth a try for a buck. I could potentially run a very fine wire down the center and try it again since the lack of structure a wire would give made it hard for the knots to keep a distinct shape or look crisp.


Craft wire I had around, grabbed when I could not find my small jewelry wire. This was too thick, and nearly impossible to tighten up. SO. BAD.
Craft wire I had around, grabbed when I could not find my small jewelry wire. This was too thick, and nearly impossible to tighten up. SO. BAD.

And then there was Gulf. Violet was asking random vendors about whether or not they carried tenntråd. I thought it was for her. Then we met some fantastic OOK Viking Laurels from An Tir, and one of them casually mentioned that she had enough for a handful of people if anyone wanted to learn to make them. I barely refrained from shouting, “TAKE MY MONEY!” And that’s how I got a tiny purple bag of magical tenntråd. Because it’s coiled, it’s forgiving of being made to curve this way and that. Because of the silk core, it doesn’t behave like wire. It’s seriously worth the money if you want to try to make posaments because it gives perfect results (once you figure out how to make the knots). There are a few things I’ve found where I struggle and struggle, then try the historical material or tool, and the heavens open for the angels to sing. A well-cut quill. Rectangular construction. Tenntråd.

My first knot with the tenntråd! It's the same knot I was doing in the first two pictures.
My first knot with the tenntråd! It’s the same knot I was doing in the first two pictures. Only in soft focus, so that you know my practice knot is artisinally-made with craftsmanship for Instagram.


My first string of knots, done in the car on the way home from Gulf. You might notice some of them are backwards...they're not supposed to be.
My first string of knots, done in the car on the way home from Gulf. You might notice some of them are backwards…they’re not supposed to be. Notice their size in comparison to the weave on my jeans. Posaments are surprisingly small, for the most part.


This is my second string of knots. This time, none of them are backwards, and they're spaced like the original, instead of all spread out. I put the posament on the bottom of a smokkr panel on very fine herringbone wool with strips of silk and a band of linen on linen embroidery.
This is my second string of knots. This time, none of them are backwards, and they’re spaced like the original, instead of all spread out. I put the posament on the bottom of a smokkr panel on very fine herringbone wool with strips of silk and a band of linen on linen embroidery. I used tiny blue silk thread to attach the posament, because I couldn’t figure out how else to get it on.

I’m making a stronger effort to be more authentic in my portrayal, which means being more focused on a time and place instead of being a magpie and popping together shiny things from a more generous swath of time and geography. I’m doing more research, paying closer attention to the most likely interpretation of a find instead of trying to stretch the possibilities to fit what I want. The upside is that research is fun for me, and learning the details impresses me with the cleverness and workmanship of the people whose graves we’ve dug through. The downside is that by the time I have completed a project, I’ve invariably done more research and am now displeased with some aspect of what I made and want to redo it. All of that is to say that while I’m think this smokkr panel I made is beautiful, and people have been fawning over it, the silk strips are too wide, and I shouldn’t have the embroidery on there like that, I don’t think. Or if I do leave it on (which I will, because I did some itty bitty stitches on that silk), I should fill it in with stitching in silk, like the examples they found in Oseberg, which likely came from the British Isles.

A few new scrolls…

I have a new (temporary) job at a university that has a LOT of downtime. As long as I’m at my desk, I can kind of do what I want. This was delightful for war prep, since it meant abundant time for hand-finishing or fussy small tasks I’d lay aside in favor of more time at the serger, pedal to the metal. Now that war is over, I’m doing some tentative scribal work. The kingdom coffers are low. I have time…and after nearly two years of forced wrist rest, I could REALLY use the practice. (Wrist surgery is happening this summer!) Meridies had a crown that educated the populace about the amount of work and love that go into each award – and they talked about the sizes of period manuscripts! The kingdom largely hands out smaller pieces now. This is both really cool and an adjustment, since everything has to be scaled down. Also, award texts have to have information in them to make them legally valid (dates, signatures, etc.), and this nearly doubles the amount of text. The period manuscripts with beautiful illustration and illumination often only have 3-4 lines of text. Keeping the aesthetic while doing the text all on a 5×7″ sheet of paper is a little bit challenging when you’re used to having 8×10″ or larger.


This is finishing out an example I started for my class on diapering and white work. The big shield is supposed to be left white, as the award is the Argent Shield. It’s one of the first times I’ve popped a grotesque into a blank space. As with all new things, I feel like it’s awkward. The whole piece hasn’t been highlighted yet, which always makes things look a lot better. Overall, I love this scroll. I tried a couple of more period approaches to painting that I hadn’t before, and they were easier and gave better results than what I’d done before. Calligraphy is really my thing, more than illumination. It’s a bit frustrating to see it a bit shaky and uneven after doing so much work to be able to write fluidly and evenly.  And why is it leaning a bit to the left? Stupid calligraphy.


There has been a specific request for masculine and early period scrolls. I immediately thought of the many, many fart and dick jokes on manuscripts.

Like this goat farting on a squire…
…and this dude pooping out a bunch of acanthus leaves…
…and this guy who found a novel way to sound the trumpet.

I may still do a fart joke scroll. But since you never know who it’s going to be for, and so many people have an AoA as the highest award they ever get, I always feel a little hinky about the only thing they hang on their wall being a butt trumpeting out part of the scroll text. WHICH IS AN AMAZING IDEA, BY THE WAY. You’re welcome. I might do it when I redo my husband’s AoA, because he would love a butt trumpeting scroll to no end. BUT. I decided to start with something early period and not girly.


This is a mashup of the Lindisfarne Gospel, with some of the decorative motifs in the R are from the Book of Kells (plus a simple braid knot). My brain has historically been averse to drawing my own knotwork. It does not compute, not even a little bit. Not with a grid or with a squid. I do not like them, Sam I Am. So for this, I figured it out without benefit of a light box and tracing. It’s tiny and a bit wonky, but I did it all by myself. The patterning of the dots and shaped coloring in of capital letters came from the Lindisfarne Gospels. I’ve had the book for ages, and only this week noticed that they use patterned red dots to do simple knots and lattice patterns. That’s much more doable for me than a Kells carpet page of doom. Still debating how to fill in the R’s empty space. It would be cool to draw in a little Celtic dude with a coronet on his head…or maybe some crazy knotwork animal?