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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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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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.

 

Supplies:

  • 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”

Norse Applique Tutorial

This past weekend, we went to Castle Wars outside of Atlanta, and had our first big Meridian camping event. We had a wonderful time, met great people, and I got to teach a class about Norse applique. I’m so grateful to the people who came to take it – and I had a great time teaching! Download the tutorial on Norse Applique by Penelope de Bourbon.

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This is one of those things that’s stunning and everyone loves, but they think it’s much harder to do than it actually is. I’ve taught a few people to do it before the class, and I wanted to cover common challenges people have, like translating designs or finding good materials to work with. Because of that, I wound up with a 12 page tutorial that people can download. It covers the basic history, how to do it, design sourcing and translation into the applique medium, sourcing materials, easy dyeing methods, working with challenging fabrics like silk and linen, stitch choices, and more! This is a great thing to do because it makes a huge visual impact and can be done pretty mindlessly in front of the TV once your pieces are cut out.

I hope you all enjoy it. If there’s something you want to see added into it or have any questions, please let me know.

Dress Diary: Mardi Gras Italian – Putting It All Together

The basic pieces of the dress are done: the underskirt is all pinned into the completed skirt, the bodice is all ready with the waist seam allowance ironed under, and to have a wearable thing, I just need to attach them. If you are doing attached sleeves, attach them to the bodice before you sew the pieces together. I’m doing tie on sleeves because they’re period, and I hate sewing sleeves. Plus, I just have to make one really fancy reversible pair to be forever a Super Fancy Lady. I had wanted to do obnoxious shoulder loopy things, but this is war sewing, and I am already behind schedule.

Before you attach the skirt and bodice, put on the bodice and tug it roughly into the right place, then put on the skirt and check yourself out in the mirror. This is your last chance to easily add or remove any details, like ribbons or edgings. The pieces are really easy to work with separately, and kind of like wrestling a drunken octopus once you’ve put them together. Make sure your look is balanced and that any design choices you made look balanced on YOUR body. If you’re busty, pin those bodice details on and check them before you sew them down since that’s the biggest culprit for things on paintings of Italian dresses that inadvertently make you look weird in real life. (Ok, holding the severed head of John the Baptist would make you look weirder, but badly placed velvet boob rectangles are a close second.)

In my case, I took off the gold ribbons I had planned to run up the front of the purple split front and up the bodice. They weren’t very visible from a distance because it was shiny on shiny, it looked a little off balance over my bust without also having the neckline edged in the same ribbon (oh HELL no not doing that at this point) and sewing them was going to add more time than is worth it for a detail that doesn’t make much impact.

Pro tips for attaching skirt to bodice (you’re almost finished!!!):

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1. Change to a heavy duty needle and some serious business thread before you sew through layers of pleats and bodice and linings since it’s easy to have MANY layers of fabric in there. Machine quilting thread or upholstery thread isn’t a bad idea.

For example, where the line goes through this, there are 8 layers of pleat to go through, plus 2 for the bodice, which is ten. Only those raw edges have been serged at the edge and folded in to reduce satin’s notorious fraying. It’s a very, very thin fabric, so the machine will do it, but the actual count on layers at the thickest points is 26, including the ribbon that the skirt is anchored to. My pleats are positioned so that’s kept to a minimum (more like 20), but this is a sewing expedition your machine should be equipped for. This is an extreme number of layers, and my simple linen Italian working class dresses are maybe 8-10 layers.

2. Sew slowly and patiently so you don’t break a bunch of needles in the process or do a bad thing to the innards of your sewing machine. This is like driving up the mountain in second gear. It’s why after breaking a couple of the under-$100 machines doing mighty sewing, I saved up some and sought out a used machine with metal gears instead of plastic. And I learned to slow down and use the right thing for the job.

3. This is often a place where pins don’t really work for holding everything in place. There’s too much fabric, so they warp and bend and can easily cause problems with the seam laying right when you’re done. It’s easier to be patient and hold things where you want them with your fingers, bit by bit. When I was sewing these together, I needed a couple of pins to get it started, and even then had to be careful about them making everything lie awkwardly.

4. Absolutely take the time to turn under the raw edges at the bottom of your bodice and iron them towards the inside with a generous seam allowance before you start. That way you KNOW the waist will look nice and straight, and there’s a lot less effort when you’re actually sewing them skirt into it. You can just sew the skirt to the bodice without turning, but it creates a big, bulky ridge of skirt that is now pointing perpendicularly at your belly. You’ll wind up having to fix that with top stitching, which is quick. However, it never ever looks as good as it would have if you’d spent five minutes with an iron.

 

Appliqué coats for two – a tutorial, now revised! and expanded!

ED NOTE: We just went to the event, and this got passed around the internet some beforehand. I had people stop me all weekend about it. There are some questions answered down below and additional notes and photos based on what I kept getting asked about and what I learned from more experienced people.

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We needed new coats, and the big, cold November event was coming fast. I’ve never made one for Kevin, my cloak is kind of falling apart, and an actual coat seems more practical than a big cloak that’s always open in the front. There was a grand sale on wool at JoAnn’s. I might have bought by the bolt. So basically? It’s like the Universe is telling me that it wants me to make us really great Norse coats.

A friend does SPECTACULAR Norse. Enviable Norse. When she was impressed with my purple Greenland gown I was over the moon. I’m always jealous of her fabulous appliqued animals but thought they would be way too hard, till I asked, and she looked at me like I was crazy. Turns out this is really easy, and while not a half hour project, it’s something I could knock out in a day. That’s much quicker than embroidering something of the same size. It’s dramatic, colorful, and adds texture and depth.

This is my coat (almost done!) on the left. Those stags are about 8″ high if not more. I think it’s taken me a couple hours of tv watching to affix each and about an afternoon to put all the green on the white. Luckily, I have fine wool yarn galore in lots of colors from that crewelwork deer project I was doing. Some quick running stitch around all the seams, slap on some deer, and I’m going to be one fancy lady at BAM!

Here I am being a fancy lady at BAM (or War of the Rams II or whatever it is now) reporting in court with their Excellencies Bordermarch. I ran a charter design competition for scribal glory, fame, and goodie baskets. I ran out of time before I got to do white stitching along the gores, but it will be even better when that happens. The coat is comfy cozy and was pretty easy!

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The Tutorial Part!

Want to be a fancy Norse person, too? It’s easy! All you need is a printer, some heavy thread or embroidery floss, a big needle, and some wool blend felt (by the yard at a fabric store or online where they sell supplies for needle felting). If you have an especially large or complex design, you’re going to want a little fabric-safe glue, like Elmer’s or Tacky Glue or quilting spray to stick those pieces together while you stitch them down.

1. Blow up the thing you want to applique to the right size and figure out what parts of the design will be the base color and what will be the accent. A lot of Norse, Celtic, Pictish, and Rus designs make this easy. There are a bunch that could work or inspire you in my Pinterest board on garb embellishments and embroidery. If you have to draw your own lines onto a silhouette, just make them a little swirly and call it a day. Make sure your pieces are wide enough to tack down. I print an extra and color it to make sure I like the way it looks.

2. Attach your accent colored pieces to your base piece. For this bird, I cut out the accent color and attached it to the base, then stitched it down since that defined the shape of the entire piece. For the deer, I cut out a whole deer, then traced it plus an allowance of about 1/4-1/3 of an inch onto the base fabric. Stitch on the accent all around. Add on details you want, like the eye.

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3. Next, cut out the whole thing and trim any jagged or pointy bits or anywhere that your tracing pen shows. Repeat with the design reversed if you want animals that face each other on either side of the coat.

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4. Add any embroidered details you want BEFORE you put it on the coat so that you’re not trying to sew through lots of layers unnecessarily. I added wing and feather details to the raven. This is a good solution for details that are too small to do as pieces of felt but add a lot to the design by being there.

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5. Pin your applique in place on the garment. TRY IT ON. Make sure you like the placement and that it doesn’t do something weird like trail into your armpit or give a man the illusion of having boobs. Once you’re happy, pin or glue it in place, then stitch all around it in a contrasting color. Make sure to pick a thread with enough weight and tenacity to stand up to the garment you’re putting it onto. My coat is all wool, and the wool thread was a breeze. Kevin’s coat is linen canvas lined in polar fleece because he’s SO hard on his clothes. It would have destroyed the wool, so I used cotton pearl thread and took lots of breaks to rest my hands, and I have vowed to never hand-sew on polar fleece again.

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6. Wear it and graciously accept your compliments. Expect to be petted.

Brilliant Tips for Success –

1. Wool and wool-blend felt is an easy choice because it won’t unravel or fray. It would be a little heavy to put on most linen but perfect for wool clothing and other heavy materials, like canvas weight linen. Even though it won’t unravel, make sure your stitches go in far enough to anchor it well and won’t pull out.

2. If I were doing mid-weight linen applique, I would use a finer thread, make much smaller stitches, and be careful to research which stitches would be best to help bind the edges. Most people do a narrow, rolled hem through a serger before doing normal woven fabrics for applique. I hate sergers, so I’ll do it the hard way…

2-a. I got to meet up with Miriel from the comments. She showed me a stunning applique’d linen tunic she was entering in the A&S contest and told me that you use fray check on the edges of all the pieces, then still use small stitches to make sure the edges are well bound so that it stands the test of time and repeated washing.

3. If you’re going to do very much of this, it’s worth looking into buying wool felt online for projects. The color range is spectacular and the prices are better than the really thick sheets for needle felting.

4. 100% wool that’s not superwash can be felted in your washing machine at home, in case you find the perfect color or REALLY want to give yourself extra work. Toss it in a zippered pillow cover. HOT HOT HOT water, a tiny bit of detergent and a couple of towels. Let it agitate for at least half an hour.

5. You want to use a crewel needle since it has a large eye and sharp point. They’re in the embroidery aisle with the other needles.

6. For a dimensional effect, combine wool blend felt that’s sold by the yard with needle felting wool, which is sold by the 12″x12″ sheet. Needle felting wool is 2-3x thicker and not so tightly felted, and it makes for a cool 3D look since it’s puffy. Your color choices on it are limited, but if you get the white/natural kind, you can easily dye it at home in the microwave or pan with Kool-Aid, RIT, or any number of other choices.

7. For BIG designs – you or your graphic designer friend can make a big design in Photoshop or Illustrator, and you can have it printed out on a large format printer or plotter at Kinko’s. You can also get your printer to do it in sections that you tape together like tiles, then cut out. Or you can use a projector. Or you can be the bravest crafter of them all and free-hand that bad boy.

How I stopped struggling and learned to love Italian dresses

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

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

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

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

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

Giovanni Antonio Boltraffio 003

1532 Kempener Bildnis einer Dame anagoria

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

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

peeps italian

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

italian patterns

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

Queen’s Blade of Honor

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Monoprinting

I take calligraphy lessons in one three hour intensive session a month. Inevitably, I do my homework diligently for the first couple of weeks, then kind of taper into not remembering to do it at all by the time my next lesson rolls around. To combat that – and the drudgery of doing lettering drills for an hour or more a day, every day – my teacher has asked me to start keeping an art journal where I cut out the best letters from my practices, make small free-form pieces, and generally experiment. Even if it is one more thing to do, it is a GOOD thing and one I should have been doing all along. Seeing your progress really does bolster and inspire you in your art.

To kick off the journal, we did a watercolor monoprint, let it dry, and wrote on it using a pencil. Pencil is actually a grand practice tool for pointed pen calligraphy since it lets you focus on just forms and keeping a light hand without having to think about ink, pressing, releasing, pen angle, and all that. You can go back through and draw in the thickened areas when you’re done. The monoprint I did was just a couple of colors smeared onto wet glass, covered in a sheet of watercolor paper. No big deal. It looks something like this when it’s done, and then I can letter on it, add layers, whatever. If I had wet the paper well first, the paint would have flowed and absorbed better, making each section far less distinct.

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Here’s another one I did in the same session with lettering on it. The paper was wet when I laid it down this time. The lines that are darker are because I ran them into the paper with a blunt object while everything was still really wet. I used the end of my paintbrush, but a reed pen works better. The surface is, in effect, bruised – the ink pools there, it’s darker. You can even scratch in words, almost like a watermark.

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Today, I was thinking about monoprinting, never having explored it before, and realized that there’s a lot of potential for putting layer on layer. In googling techniques, I found this:

 

Pretty cool, huh? His treatment of layers, of additive work and gentle building of texture really spoke to something in me. There’s such possibility in layering printed or decorated tissue over the print or layers of cellulose etched and treated to build a final scene. I’ve resisted making modern art for a very long time, preferring to press into the warm bosom of historical techniques and tools. But this? This is finally inspiring me in a way I haven’t been in a long time.