I have an announcement…

So this weekend, at the coronation of TRM Timothy and Ysmay, I was asked to join the Order of the Laurel. It was a very pleasant surprise, to say the least. Mistress Peeps sounds very silly to me, but the Laurel Peeps art my friends have been making is all delightful. Master Thomas Paumer made that picture up there. (It practically begs to be made into a badge and used for terrible purposes.) There’s a lot to plan. I’m still in crazy nursing school mode (and will be until 2019). Vigil and elevation are being planned for Gulf, since it’s the easiest wan to have four kingdoms’ worth of friends show up at the same time and place. So that’s a thing that’s going to happen. I haven’t given a lot of thought to being elevated – save the fact that one of my best friends drills me annually about who would speak for me (and has since my second or third year in the SCA). So I have an idea of who to talk to. It seemed really presumptuous in my head to write my Laurel a “in case of elevation, break glass” letter about what I want. Now, I wish I had done that, or at least written down some ideas.

I’ve gotten asked what I’m going to wear and what I want to look like. The answer is: NOT LIKE A POTATO, OR IF I DO LOOK LIKE A POTATO, I WANT TO BE A CUTE POTATO. Mercifully, my Laurel is an incredible costumer and practices fabric witchcraft. I will look less potato-y than usual. It will involve trips to Atlanta and/or Nashville. One of my BFFs, Viscountess Violet, suggested “sumptuous Norse” as what to wear, and that sounds perfect. I’ve been craving some extra luxe Norse for both me and Kevin. His wardrobe is due for an upgrade. And now his clothes can actually fit right. (Confession: he’s 6’8″/2m tall, so I panic and just make him enormous clothes that don’t really fit that well. I do the same thing for myself sometimes. I’m a hot mess.)

The important thing is that I realized that this roll of nearly 10 yards of the nicest, most gorgeous green heavy silk I’ve had and been afraid to use for almost 20 years does not have to be my Laurel dress. I had thought it would be. I got it in trade for working for a high-end fabric store that was closing. I remember that the 70% off clearance price on it was $74/yd. SO YEAH. No. But there are other occasions to be fancy and make beautiful clothes. And I still REALLY want to learn some of Matthew Gnangy’s Modern Maker tailoring because it is NOT a skill I have. And being able to make a gown out of that as I learn new things and continue bettering myself is an ideal use for it. Also? HOW SCARY WOULD IT BE TO CAMP WITH THAT MUCH IRREPLACEABLE SILK? Especially since Kevin will need to coordinate with me, and I don’t want to try to make him wear tights for the first time ever so that I can be Ultra 15th Century French. I can do that some other time. Like for coronations.

On Gilding and Humidity

I’m from Austin, which gets sticky in the summer. It can be incredibly humid (if we’re not having a seven year drought). That’s nothing compared to the humidity of living on a marsh in the lowcountry. It’s so humid here that it can be hard to breathe. I didn’t know it was possible to sweat that much. Like more than going to a Bikram yoga class. It’s revolting….even if my skin does look amazing. All of this humidity has thrown a major wrench in my scribal work.

I LOVE me some gold. While real gold leaf is more expensive than fake gold, it behaves itself, looks much better, and usually only adds about $2 in materials to a piece. The fact that it’s so humid here I can’t make raised gilding work right has gotten me so frustrated that I stepped back from scribal work for a while. Other hot, humid climates have gold on their manuscripts. What are they doing?

Off into a research rabbit hole I went, chasing after Ottoman, Persian, and Indian materials and methods. The good news is that it’s not just me being a dummy. It really is a unique climate-based issue where the things that work in England or Vienna simply do not work in Mumbai or Istanbul or Savannah, GA.

Vellum and paper warp and buckle if you’re lucky. If you’re not lucky, they absorb enough atmospheric water to slowly mold and disintegrate over time. If the surface you’re gilding isn’t stable, your goldwork can’t be stable or predictable. These cultures used paper way before it came to Europe – and not just any paper! Ahar paper. Ahar is a treatment given to a good rag paper (linen, cotton, and hemp are what you can find today that are good choices). It’s run through a bath of starch, alum, and egg glair, allowed to dry in the shade, burnished vigorously with a large agate or shell (minimum of 15 minutes per side for a normal sized sheet of paper!), and then it MUST age in a flat, dark place for AT LEAST one year.

What happens in that magical year (or three)? The ingredients in the ahar penetrate the paper and enact glorious chemical changes. The paper is slick, flexible, and durable. It can take wet inks and paints without buckling. There are manuscripts in collections that are over a thousand years old and still have perfect, flexible pages with no foxing. Just as the writing material is different in composition and manufacture, the gilding method is different.

Shell gold is the gold of choice – not raised gilding. Shell gold is gold leaf that has carefully been dissolved in pure water by hand. The gold settles, the water is drained off, and the process begins again. The result is pure, paintable gold. This is laid on the manuscript, which is then placed face down on a piece of very smooth marble and burnished from the back. It works just like burnishing raised gilding. The gold particles are bonded, aligned, and brought to a marvelous shine. And because the ahar paper is burnished smooth already, that gold can get S-H-I-N-Y.

Because of this marvelous workaround for living in a climate with a monsoon season, I’ve been thinking a lot more about Eastern calligraphy styles and works. The problem is that the only US seller of good ahar paper hasn’t restocked his store in months and suddenly stopped replying to emails. I can order it from India, but it’s a wholesale order and international shipping. Not cheap for an experiment. I’m in nursing school, so everything is on fire and crazy, so I might just try to make some ahar soon and pull it out next winter break to work. Or I can call my uncle in Turkey and see if he can find some and mail it to me.

Augmentation of Arms for Sir Lex

I’ve been wanting to do something from the Capodilista Codex for a while. I may be wrong on this, but I like to think of it as a sort of society pages for noble knights. Page after page of them are pictured on horseback. The horses have heraldic horse dresses on, shields with devices feature prominently, and the armor is obviously not cookie cutter. There are even actual blocks of text on each page – not the case for similar books that just say the name of the person portrayed. My opportunity came this spring, when I got asked if I wanted to do a sooper seekrit Augmentation of Arms for Sir Alexander Brighthelmston. YES.

Look at this goodness! Drapey fabric! A goofy “how you doin’ sexy lady?” horse face! The recipient is a knight who wears Very Shiny full-plate armor and does equestrian stuff and his horse has a fancy heraldic horse dress. This was an ideal time to work from the Capodilista Codex. The project was really fun for me. It was a great chance to practice some wet-in-wet shading methods for fabric on perg (so not too wet).

Ottoman Laurel Scroll – The Beginnings

One of my very dearest friends, Mistress Behiye, got her Laurel a couple of years ago and has been patiently waiting for my wrist to heal and for me to get back to work. She is the queen of Ottoman studies, even learning Turkish to be able to have better access to research materials. She is ridiculous. And the best ever. Clearly, I can’t just make her any old scroll. Over the past 3-ish years, I’ve learned some about Islamic calligraphy and art, looked at miniatures, and tried to find a direction for the project. Earlier this month, I went through all the digitized Ottoman manuscripts (1300-1620) in the British Library. Obviously, there are a lot of religious texts that are beautifully decorated, but they are not figurative due to the restrictions in Islam about depicting holy figures. When there are people in manuscripts, they’re mostly manly men fighting battles or hunting or celebrating something. Sometimes, there are women, but they are generally concubines or from the harem. There weren’t a lot of men willing to let their wives be seen and painted by strangers. Most of what we know about the appearance of royal women in the Ottoman court comes from preserved garments in the Topkapi Palace collections, some descriptive writing, and some triangulation with images of concubines. We can recreate specific garments, but the total package is a lot of “we can’t be totally sure, but I think it might look like this?” educated guessing. Can you guess where I’m going with this?

OR 3714 in the British Library boasts a great many fine illustrations that depict the life of the Mughal Emperor Babur. The book was made in Turkey, translated into Persian in 1589, and the museum holds a Turkish imperial copy that was made over 1590-1593. There are 143 illustrations in all, and 1 illustration on f. 13v that features – wonder of wonder and miracle of miracles – the Emperor’s royal marriage ceremony! Complete with three whole noble women dressed for a royal occasion! YES! To make it even better, Behiye had never seen this image and was super excited to see it for art and costuming reasons. It’s a fantastic setup for a Peerage scroll, because it makes a great two-page spread with text on one side and illustration on the other. The ceremony was easy to tweak so that she is the bride being crowned with a wreath, and that the Emperor and his other person are the King and Queen. And the people standing around can be made into people who took part in the ceremony. Perfection!

I got to work immediately. May is totally dead at school and work, so I have time to spend on this. Getting it right will be a test, though. I got it drawn, started putting the flats in, felt good…….and then I went and looked at the original. Not only was my start at shading all wrong, but the source piece looks unlike any European manuscript when it’s zoomed in tight.

This is how far I got before I decided I should really look at something higher quality than my bad color printout. HEY! This is definitely not done in the European way…and I may be way out of my depth but can’t exactly give up on the project. NO BETTER WAY TO LEARN, AMIRITE???

The original has a lot more depth and detail and finesse than the earlier period and European sources I’ve worked from. The shading looks almost like fur! There are so many impossibly fine strokes in sheer layers of color that I doubt my ability to pull it off. This won’t be my first Ottoman piece, but it will be the first that utilizes the specialty techniques from Levantine miniature painting. These techniques are still in use through the Middle East, India, and Pakistan. I’ve been able to find a few video tutorials (with a little help!). None of the ones I’ve found in English have enough depth to help me feel confident, but watching people do the work, even briefly, has helped. The idea is to lay in flats and then shade over it with increasingly delicate strokes using a dry brush technique called pardakht. Not knowing it was A Special Thing until today, it used to be my main shading technique when I started doing scribal. Now, all I have to do is remember how to do it well (if I ever actually did it well!).

This may require setting up new palettes with gradients of each shade of paint pre-mixed so that I can do this consistently across an area. The special shading on something like those orangey barrier walls might take a couple of days, and the trees and grass will take even longer. Currently, I work dark to light, adding white or yellow or whatever to lighten as I work. This is probably wrong somehow. Palette setup isn’t something I’ve thought much about, but whatever I’m doing now isn’t working very well for this project. I’m not really sure what the right approach is. I hate not knowing how to do something right the first time I attempt it… #perfectionistproblems

Finished Viscounty Scrolls

I’m all done with the viscounty scrolls for Duncan and Violet. Now that it’s May, it should be warm enough to ship them to Alaska without anything horrible happening to them. I hope. They are based on an 8th c. astronomy book from Switzerland, which depicts constellations in this way and fills the bodies with text. Their charge devices, a sea goat and a wolf, lent themselves perfectly to the existing constellations. The book guided the positioning and calligraphy, but I took the liberty of using more complex and refined painting techniques, since the original was very plain and simple.

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.

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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.
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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.

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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…)

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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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