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?

Narrow Oseberg Band

With Gulf coming up and our local championship tournament last weekend, I wanted to find a relatively quick project that would upgrade the look and authenticity of my costuming while advancing my skills in one of the areas where I don’t spend as much time as I’d like. Enter: tablet weaving an authentic Norse pattern! Something for me that wasn’t hard on my wrist? Check. A way to get back in the weaving saddle? Check that too. I started digging around in textile research and decided to go with something from the Oseberg ship burial. This particular find is chock full of weaving, both decorative and functional, as well as textiles, tapestries, imported silks, and some of the few examples of embroidery associated with the Viking world. You should most definitely check it out if you’re not familiar with it. My documentation is here, should you like to read a little bit about the burial.

Schmales OsebergbandI made a narrow band (12L 1 is the specific designation) that is part of a “cake” of textiles that are stuck together. It was 0.5 cm across and made of silk with a contrasting plant fiber (linen) that has rotted away, leaving only the silk. The band has a pattern that I’ve seen described as serpentine, and it rather reminds me of Greek key. I used the excellent chart and instructions from Shelagh Lewins to make my band. This is a particularly good resource, as she was able to visit the Viking Ship Museum in Oslo and have first-hand inspection access to a couple of the woven bands, through a professor. Her site also has an excellent array of Dark Ages patterns which are sorted by authenticity level and ease.

Tablet weaving is something I can sort of do. My weaving is pretty even, and I enjoy doing it. But. I don’t have a weaver’s brain. I can’t read patterns well or read what I’m doing to find mistakes and correct them very easily if something gets off. My husband – who is not crafty in the least – can look over and immediately see what’s wrong and why. I’m trying to embrace the idea of having a proofreader instead of being grumpy that I’m not good at something I’d like to be good at. I’ve been overly reliant on patterns that can be done on a modern tablet loom with pegs via the continuous warping method. It’s wonderfully convenient, but it restricts the weaving to patterns that aren’t authentic replications of the patterns used. I’m one of those who strives to be ever more authentic in my portrayal, and taking a couple of hours to flub my way through warping my loom isn’t too terrible – particularly since I learned ways to do it much more quickly next time. And next time I weave, it will be with authentic materials and not Aunt Lydia’s #10 crochet cotton. And I think it will be a missed hole band from Mammen or maybe Birka where the tablets aren’t all turned together…


This pattern, while simple, taught me some skills I had not learned on other weaving projects, such as flipping the twist of the cards over a few turns so that you can keep turning them forward while reversing the twist instead of having to reverse the whole pattern. This is a fantastic trick! My loom is small, though, so I would up having to do this more frequently than I would like. My flips are roughly every 10″, which would be ok if they were really smooth and therefore less noticeable. This is my first time with that technique, so it took a while for them to improve. The spots where the flips take place are better, but not consistently so. See the difference in the early ones and late ones? I’m still not totally sure if I should flip cards then pass the shuttle of weft thread or pass and then flip. Either way, I still have some crazy floating threads over on the sides…



Experiments with Calligraphy on Fabric

Calligraphy presents enough challenges on its own, without adding the excitement of a surface that makes lettering difficult. Think of papers that are too rough as a road with minor potholes. Frustrating, but if you drive carefully, it can be alright. It’s harder in a tiny sports car (tiny nib), but may not be that noticeable in a truck with off-road tires (a giant nib for lettering posters). In this metaphor, writing on fabric is akin to driving on a washed out caliche trail, and your Porsche has bald tires. Each tiny warp and weft thread catches at your nib. Fabric and ink are a horrible combination where everything bleeds, and even the queen’s own calligrapher’s lettering looks awful.

I’ve known this for ages. Have you tried to write on ribbon? Even with all of our modern fabrics and stabilizers and mediums and acrylic stuff, it’s a nightmare. So naturally, when presented with a project where I’d have to write an entire manuscript’s worth of calligraphy in a foreign language and alphabet on fabric using 500 year-old methods and materials, I said, “SIGN ME UP.” (There should be an cunning term for calligraphic masochists, but I can’t seem to mash the words together cleverly…) And it’s mostly not big calligraphy. No. It’s T-I-N-Y.

Zoomed in from a pic in the book, Tismili Gomleckler.
Zoomed in from a pic in the book, Tismili Gomleckler.

Look at how small that is compared to the weave of the fabric. The fabric is cotton, and it’s not woven like cheesecloth. I blew up images from one of the Mughal shirts and did rough estimations, and the bulk of the calligraphy on that shirt is 1/4″ high. That shirt in question has THE ENTIRE TEXT OF THE QUR’AN ON IT. Plus other stuff. So tiny calligraphy on fabric is kind of the gating item on determining whether or not I can actually pull off making a whole shirt.

I started my experiments on working with fabric as my calligraphic surface before a friend found this particular image and sent it to me. It’s the most up-close, zoomed in example I’ve seen anywhere. It answered some questions I had, namely:

  1. What writing instrument was being used?
  2. When the work is that small and on such a problematic surface, how fussy were the scribes about perfectly neat writing and painting?

Clearly, they weren’t insanely fussy about how tidy the work was when it was so small and there was so much of it. This is a relief. The writing instrument used here is most likely a brush. I came to that conclusion on my own, through experimentation. It made me happy to receive this photo and see that I was on track. I tried brushes after striking out in the small lettering department with reed pens and quills.FullSizeRender (2)

There’s not much research on these shirts, particularly in English. The V&A did chemical analysis on that one with the full text of the Qur’an, which said that it was cotton treated with starch. My friend and Ottoman ninja extraordinaire, Mistress Behiye, did a rough scan of the Turkish book on the shirts and found that their researchers also said the fabric was sized and prepared like paper. This means that a starch paste was applied, allowed to dry, and polished smooth with a smooth, heavy stone or glass implement. If ink doesn’t bleed on your paper, that means it’s been properly sized. I tried different kinds of sizing and different thicknesses and levels of coating for both rice and wheat. Then I tried to do calligraphy on all of them.

My sample fabrics all laid out.
My sample fabrics all laid out for the competition. I wanted people to be able to touch them and play with them, since it helps with understanding why some work better than others for calligraphy.

I competed with this at Stella Nova, in November. The project was received well, and I got great feedback that will shape the rest of the projects that go into completing the shirt. I also made some cool connections that are helping me learn more about really important things, like doing this in a respectful cultural context and figuring out Arabic calligraphy.

Since these samples are where I’m testing every aspect of the project, one of the next things to do is make up some more of the best performers, sew them into a t-shirt, and stick them on a sweaty fighter. The research on these says the best theory is that these would have been worn next to the skin, under clothing and armor, to protect important people in battle. Before I do the whole thing, I want to test the inks and paints and such to make sure they don’t just run all over the place once they’re in contact with sweat. For now, I’m researching Arabic approaches to making paints and inks while I do sewing preparation for classes I’m teaching at the end of January.

The Start of Something Big

I’ve been missing from the blog. Apologies. We bought a house and renovated it during October, then there were holidays and loads of house guests, and now it’s January. I haven’t been inactive, though! An uncomfortable but highly effective dose of steroids injected directly into the nerve bundle in my wrist has given me mostly normal use of my hand back. Temporary, but its success tells us that surgery will fix it permanently – and that’s a massive relief for this calligrapher.

Since I have no way of knowing how much I’ll be able to do, or how long the shots will last, I picked a new project to start that has some projects at the beginning that are more research than hands-on work. It’s going to take a long time to do, and it’s a little bit crazy to take on. What is it? I’m making an Ottoman talismanic shirt. Most people have no idea what that is, so let me show you.

Oct 2015 Jama 2
This shirt was auctioned at Sotheby’s in October 2015 and sold for £185,000. It’s from 1583, Ottoman, and in especially fine condition. The gold in the gilding is still very shiny, and the colored inks are bright and crisp.

A talisman is an object that has magical protective powers. They come in many forms, are found all over the world, all throughout history, across all religions. Crystals, St. Christopher medals, lucky rabbit’s feet – all things that anthropologists would consider talismans. The shirts are based on Qur’anic verses that talk about shirts imbued with magical powers.

The shirts feature elaborate calligraphic decorations that include the 99 names of Allah, verses of protection from the Qur’an, magical seals and squares, and decorative motifs of various shapes. Most of the shirts are cotton, which was a luxury fabric in the Levant. Some are dated, so we know that they took a long time to make: 1-3 years, depending on the shirt. Some of that may be due to the shirts being begun and finished under especially auspicious astrological circumstances.

Talismanic undershirts are a rare thing. There are fewer than 100 of these known to exist in the world right now. There are examples of them from Mughal India, Persia, the Ottoman Empire, and there’s even one in Spain. Turkey has the most shirts, because the Topkapi Palace Museum in Istanbul has preserved the royal garments for hundreds of years. Nothing in my research has turned up how far back the practice goes, but it is seen throughout the middle/late medieval period.

A friend showed me one three or four years ago, and I’ve been quietly obsessed ever since. The shirts are such a complex and unusual calligraphic challenge, which is appealing to someone who has grown up surrounded by medieval European manuscript pages and aesthetics. Arabic calligraphic art is some of the finest in the world. I love to look at it. Do I speak or read Arabic? Nope. So there’s a giant language barrier making this harder. Still, I’m going to do the research and make a thing. My plan is to do everything but weave the fabric and make the lampblack ink, as both are outside my skill set. Plus, I don’t think the calligraphers were likely to be the ones weaving fabric anyway.


14th Century Hairpiece Tutorial – Templar Braids

Tutorial 1 – this is the most basic, fastest to make style I have. I think this took me about 60-90 minutes while watching TV. Another, more complex one for crispinettes will be forthcoming.

I have some cheater hair in my accessories box, and I love it. Braids on a headband isn’t fancy or complicated, but it’s a comfortable, versatile thing to have as a base for wearing veils and hats. It’s ideal for people whose hair isn’t long or thick enough to do medieval styles with their own hair. Or because it’s war and the water got messed up due to misplaced tent stakes and your hair is dirty. Or because you’re lazy like me.

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Fake hair is totally medieval. It’s an add-on, not a wig, so it’s meant to be partially covered. You can use fabric tubes stuffed with fluff or you can go to the beauty supply store and get braiding hair. You’ll want to go to an African-American or ethnic hair supply store for these since Sally tends to be overpriced for this project.



  • 3 packs of braiding hair. I’ve used inexpensive Yaki Pony hair for mine. It’s synthetic and runs $1-2 a pack. This used three packs of less expensive hair – one for each braid. Make sure it’s long enough! Braiding hair comes in several lengths, and you want something in the 18-20″ range.
  • Thin rubber band pony tail holders in a color close to the color of your hairpiece/hair. If you don’t have them already, get the rubber band kind, not the covered “ouchless” elastic kind. A lifetime supply is $1.
  • A headband about as wide as a finger that you find comfortable. Goody makes ones with bendy tips that are particularly comfortable and secure.
  • Thread in a color that will disappear into your hair/hairpiece and a needle.

Continue reading “14th Century Hairpiece Tutorial – Templar Braids”

Russian Rose – Complete!

This was completed, framed (temporarily for shipping and presentation), mailed off, and presented the first weekend of October. Whew! So glad that it made it to its final destination safely!


There were some last minute problems… Even my smallest broad edge nib was too big for the text, plus I made a mistake, so I had to scrape off the first inch of work and redo it with a pointed pen nib. That whole text area is only 2×3″, and the scroll text was slightly longer than this. I had to shorten it a tiny bit.


Some of the gilding that I’d done with a bronze powder (a later period thing) had painting over it, which didn’t adhere right and popped up in spots. I scraped that down and just did raised gilding with no designs. This looks significantly better to my eye. I need to not be scared of  putting all the gold on Russian things… As always, I learned a lot that will make my next time working on vellum smoother and the end product better.

Namely, I learned from asking questions on one of the bigger SCA scribal FB groups how to prep the Pergamena vellum more thoroughly to manuscript grade. It’s quite a bit of extra sanding and hand work at the outset, but I am told that it is a far better surface for writing and scraping mistakes from.