Tuesday, 11 December 2012

When is a white dress not a white dress?

When is a white dress not a white dress? When it's a chemise!

 "Life of St Cuthbert" (British Library Add MS 39943, last quarter of the 12th century).

Above is shown the only illustration of a women’s undergarment that I've seen in many, many illustrations (this was found by David Rayner). We can't be sure this is not a dress, but it seems probable. The features of this garment are consistent with the features of the garment worn under a dress in illustrations - tight slightly wrinkled sleeves to the wrist, folds of garment at the feet, a keyhole neckline tight about the neck.

The garment appears to be a tunic, tightly fitted to the forearms, looser on the upper arms and body, with a keyhole neckline. This gives us a general layout for a women’s chemise, (although a noble ladies chemise may differ a little from a nuns), but does not give us any construction details.

Unfortunately no female 12th century garments exist, and Romanesque artwork glosses over fine details such as seams. Seeing that this differs little in shape (only length) from male garments, we must turn to them for details. The extant men’s garments are mostly clerical garments, but are expected to differ in only small details of construction from secular garments. Indeed a great many clerical albs feature sleeves which are much tighter in the lower arm than upper arm, very full of skirt, and the sleeve length and garment length are often much greater than seems practical for a human body. Keyhole necklines exist, but other forms of neckline are very common. There seem to be a great many parallels between those garments and this illustration, so this does suggest that albs are a suitable source of inspiration for chemises, if used with care.

One final thing this illustration has taught me concerns kilting up the skirts of a chemise. I've tried kilting up the skirts of my longest chemise at the waist. It's a quite effective way of shortening a chemise. I put on a belt, then pull a large fold of the chemise over the belt. I then get a friend to help pull the chemise down to my desired length. The chemise can be ankle of floor length, longer in back, whatever length I want.  It seldom falls down, only under duress of the most vigorous dancing. I find this an extremely practical way to adjust my chemise length. The only requirement is that there is enough fabric to fold up, ie that the chemise is at least say 10cm longer than the longest belted length you want it to be.  The only inconvenience of this technique is an added bulge at the hips caused by the chemise - if the garment worm over the chemise isn't kilted itself, this can look a little silly to modern eyes. My looser Austrian dress is not so tight that this is a problem, and stiff enough to ignore such effects though, so it works perfectly with this technique.

Tuesday, 4 December 2012

On 12th Century fans

No I'm not talking of rockstar style fans, but of ways to keep one cool in warm climates.

There is remarkably little trace of the early history of fans. What types were available? Folding fans? fixed fans? how were they decorated? Were they even used? 

Flag Fans

The only image of a fan I've seen is from the work 'Liber ad honorem Augusti sive de rebus Siculis' (MS. 120 II  Bern Burgerbibliothek) composed in Palermo (Sicily) by Petrus de Ebulo  in 1196. In fact there are two images of fans in the manuscript both fanning people in bed - the latter is a dying William II, and I think the other image is probably also of a sick person. (Click on the links below to view the full picture)

The fan shown resembles a Renaissance flag fan. There are extant examples of a flag fan from c1600 which might provide clues as to possible construction methods for a proposed 12th C version. The second example in this image (from Katerina's page) is woven of plant material, which reminds me of the basketweave pattern shown on the manuscipt image (the manuscript image is even a neutral type of colour which would be consistent with dried plant matter).


Other than the above manuscript example of a flag fan, there are a few extant flabella (liturgical fans) which have been kept because of their exceptional decoration. Many extant examples I have seen are only the central portion of the fan, the metal portion would have been surrounded by parchment, feathers or cloth or something light I assume.

The 9th Century Flabellum of Tornus has accordion folded parchment (painted) held on a central ivory rod. This page has a few very good views of that flabellum as well as examples of flabella being used in modern liturgical practice. A similar 12th-early13th C piece of accordion folded parchment (British Library Add Ms 42497, unfortunately not yet digitised) has also been found, without a handle, but identified as the parchment portion of a flabellum. Part of a carved ivory handle, which might have belonged to a different 12th C german flabellum can be found in the British museum.

There are a number of other extant medieval examples of flabella I have heard rumors of too (note not the 19th C neo-gothic one in the cloisters though), for example a 13th C one of which I have no details. Some of these metal ones may not be central holders, but purely ornamental pieces, waved about in a ceremonial way rather than expected to actually move the air. I also expect there will probably be some written evidence for such liturgical fans, but haven't checked for it.

Perhaps secular examples of flagella existed the the 12th Century such as this 15th C example (courtesy of Karen Larsdatter)? This author claims sources for roman folding fans of the flabellum style, with a simple guide to construction.

Other types of fans?

Finally, what of modern folding fans? Most websites claim the folding fan didn't reach Europe until the 15th Century. The modern folding fan differs from the flabellum only in being a partial rather than full circle, and not having a long handle because of this. It wouldn't take much adaption to create this change, but why bother when something is working? The presence of accordion folded flabellum makes the modern folded paper fan more plausible, and by extension the modern panels of wood fan is only a step further away, but was it a step that was made? We may never know.

When searching for examples of fans in manuscripts images, I find it useful to consider what other forms of fans existed in later (or earlier) time periods. If I did not know of flag fans, I might have missed the example given above. Karen Larsdatters page on fans gives many renaissance examples of fans, including flag fans, folding fans, feather fans, and straw fans. Knowing of the existence of items such as the straw fan helps as such biodegradable items would not be expected to survive in the extant record, and would not be expensive enough to be deliberately well kept, and once aware of the possibility, we can search more easily for references.  Islamic art and extant artifacts might also provide a number of examples of shapes of early fans, as I believe more examples of fans exist in artwork from the east of the era.

But were fans used?

There is very very little evidence for personal fans in the 12th  Century Europe, but this could be just a case of them being not worth mentioning, rather than explicitly not used. Everyday objects are really hard to find in 12th C artwork, and literature can often be far too focused on other matters to describe the practical. There are certainly plenty of Renaissance era personal fans in Europe.

I obviously expect fans to be more used in places with warmer climates, and that holds true with the sparse evidence I've gathered for secular use is from Sicily. Perhaps most of Europe was too cool to bother with fans most of the time in the 12th Century? Liturgical fans are partially to keep insects out of the communion wine and part tradition, which would account for their being used even in cool weather.

Another hypothesis is that perhaps personal fans simply weren't used because they hadn't really been introduced in Europe. Both Spain and Sicily both had strong Islamic populations (and not as a repressed subclass) in the 12th Century, and I believe fans are clearly shown in Islamic art, so perhaps personal fans spread slowly from east to west? The presence of liturgical fans suggests this didn't need to occur, as the fans were present as inspiration to anyone in the west who was too hot.

I think it most likely fans were simply the sort of common object that we have such trouble finding in the historical record because they were largely beneath notice, rather than any of the above elaborate hypotheses. But any construction of personal 12th C fans must involve a moderate amount of interpretation unless more evidence comes to light.

Sunday, 26 August 2012

Red linen cote redux and musings on handsewing your first garment

I've written about my first completely handsewn garment before, a linen cote I made. but I find I have a few more things to say about the garment.

The first thing I'd like to talk about is my motivation for handsewing the garment. I can remember it because I was going to pennsic in 2003 and wanted to sew the dress on the 24 hour plane ride. I don't think I finished the garment in time to wear it at pennsic (although I got plenty of sewing done on the plane), but I think it was probably finished before the start of 2004. It really helped to have a lot of time set aside for sewing the garment and a reason to be handsewing it, as otherwise i probably would never have finished it by hand.  These days my sewing is much quicker and I can sew without a lot of concentration, so sewing is a nice braindead way of keeping my hands busy, so I easily complete garments rapidly, but I remember this first garment took a lot longer, more concentration and a lot more effort to finish.

The garment also almost caused more tears than my subsequent handsewn garments. When constructing the garment, I had finished nearly all the seams on the garment when I discovered the gores were inserted too low in the garment to comfortably expand over my hips. It was a moment of much despair, for handsewing was a very long and slow process at that stage still. Eventually I decided if I undid the shoulder seams and removed the sleeves and reinserted them lover and shortened the shoulders in order to avoid undoing the very long seams on the gores. This made the dress a tweak shorter than I'd planned (I had cut it to floor length so I could choose any length I'd wanted), but actually was a very practical length. So my first advice to anyone wanting to handsew a garment - make a (wearable) mockup by machine first.

Another piece of advice for the would be first time sewwer is to invest in the best quality fabric you can buy. At the time I couldn't find affordable wool (I was a poor uni student, and I didn't know where the best bargains on wool were to be found), and I wanted something thinner for hot days. However the fabric choice has been the garment's weakest point - as well as being unable to clearly document coloured linen for the 12th Century, the fabric is quite weak after repeated washings (it can't be beaten clean or effectively spot cleaned like wool) and the fabric is quite literally falling to pieces in many places. This dress is soon to be for the rag pile.  But more significantly, the fabric wasn't as easy to sew as my later constructions in thicker ramie and wool. Thinner more loosely woven weaker fabric means the fabric doesn't grip the thread as well, is more likely to get holes when you make mistakes or unpick too often and just to not feel as good to sew.  It's a subjective thing, but I've sewn this fabric since, and it wasn't just my novice sewing skills that made this difficult.

The garment is intended to be a 12th C cote - a day garment, practical to wear but with still some stylish features like very tight sleeves and fairly tight torso. I'm very happy with the cut of this garment. It's a nice conjecturally period cut and very comfortable to wear. The only debatable feature is the highly sloped shoulder seams. Many medieval garments have no shoulder seam at all, and thus are of course not slanted at all. My shoulders are quite slanted though, so this does improve the fit (the slant was fitted to my shoulders).

One of the things I like about this garment is the neckline. It's a nice tight neckline, allowing minimal sunburn, sitting nicely, just like in the manuscripts. To achieve this I shaped the neckline to my neck rather than predrawing a larger neckhole. I'll write about my neckline method someday soon. I also shaped the sleeves in a similar manner - fitting them from a basic rectangular shape to my arms, rather than a measured out shape. I think both of these worked very well indeed, and continue to use these methods.

This dress has served me well, and will be replaced by a very similar garment very soon now. In fact the blue lightweight wool cote was planned to be a replacement for this dress, but circumstance is dictating otherwise.

Wednesday, 15 August 2012

Hairstyles and veils

Today, an intorduction to veils.  Yes, I know others have posted similar descriptions, but most use a band under the chin (which doesn't suit  a number of 12th Century styles) or aim at a different style, so here's how I make my simplest style of veil. Of course many variants exist, and I'll attempt to explain some of the ones I use later, but don't be afraid to experiment - If it's giving you the look you see in the illustrations, you are probably heading in the right direction.

The fillet
Veils don't just stay on by magic. And if you just jam a crown or circlet on your head on top of your veil, you run the risk of getting the dreaded muffin head effect. In fact, there are plenty of veils in manuscripts that don't have a circlet on top of them, so something else must be holding them up. My favourite way to do so is a fillet.

A fillet is a strip of fabric a bit bigger than the size of your head. Good fillets are made from fabric that will grip a little. For example a shiny satin ribbon works badly, slipping off easily. A velvet ribbon works a bit better because its pile grips the veil better. But those are both modern examples of materials. Period examples are likely to be linen bands or strips of tabletweaving or similar woven narrowwares. I have both and both work quite well.

Here's pictures of attaching the fillet:

The tabletwoven strip I prefer to tie behind my head, while the linen bands don't tie very comfortably or securely - I prefer to pin those tightly to itself at the back of my head.

Once the fillet is sitting on your head, you can now attach the veil. I'm using a simple oval veil today, but this method should work for most other vaugely cirular shapes of veils. Drape the veil over the fillet in the position you want it to be in.

Pop in a pin in the centre, that is above your nose

Add a pin on each temple.
And so the final product which drapes, but doesn't fall off your head when you dance. You can place a another fillet over top of this again, be it a simple metal circlet, a wreath of flowers, a cloth band or a crown. I'm told the underneath fillet will support the weight of a crown a bit, although I can't speak from personal experience.

Tuesday, 31 July 2012

A fingerloop braiding lesson plan - and more importantly the pedogogy of my selections

Occasionally people ask for lesson notes from my standard beginner fingerloop braiding workshop. Which is silly really because it's a workshop - it's about doing, and any notes I produce are just to remind people of what they have done. But it occurs to me that the way I've ended up formulating the format and material covered by the workshop is very much based on specific thinking and facts, and it might be useful to share this with others. If you can fingerloop braid, and want to run a workshop to teach others, but aren't sure what format to use, feel free to use this plan wholesale or just use my reasoning to help clarify your own reasons for running a completely different format, or any degree in between. And I really don't mind if others run this class format at an event I'm at - this would free me up to run an intermediate fingerloop braiding class or talk about my other obsessions.

So let's begin with the class description and the reasons behind it:

For absolute beginner to intermediate fingerloop braiders 

I aim this class at absolute beginners, but there are an amazing number of people who have learnt only one braid, or attended the class last year and forgot what they did in between, and the rest of the class will be at their level after the first half hour. There are also a number of intermediate people who might benefit from the formalisation of their thinking - this class sets people up for a mechanical view of fingerloop braiding patterns, while many sample book methods teach a whole different view of braiding. Intermediate people also can be really helpful to help reteach what you've just explained to an absolute beginner. And if numbers are low, you get a chance to do some one-on-one extension activities for your intermediate people at the end. If advanced fingerloop braiders turn up, see if you can rope them into becoming permanent teachers assistants.

Length: 2 hours

I run this as a "drop out when your fingers are tired or your brain is full" class. So at the beginning, everything will be very busy, but later on, you'll generally be left with the people who are learning very slowly or the people who are learning very well and are looking for more advanced or additional material. By the end of the class, you should have more time to teach new methods, or sit by a person as they painfully step by step manage to produce a braid. Some people are quite happy to learn a single braid - more is just confusing them. One-on-one I can generally teach most people to fingerloop braid one pattern in 5-20 minutes, and to do 3 more patterns in under an hour if they are happy to learn this much - but generally with times when I am sitting being bored half the time. So doubling this time to teach a larger number of people the same amount of material is quite feasible, so long as some people drop out when they've learnt enough.
It is important to tell people they don't have to stay for the whole 2 hours and they can leave when they want to at the start of the lesson too - otherwise a whole 2 hours of class can seem quite daunting.

I often get people asking if they can attend the class starting at the halfway point. I use my discretion - people known to be adept at other fibrearts with dexterous fingers will generally pick this up quickly enough to be no bother. People who already know a little but have half forgotten it will also be fine starting an hour in. Unknown people, I generally point out that I might be a bit busy to explain much when they turn up, but will probably have time to show them more in the last half hour.

It's a good idea to arrange your class so that at the end of the class, if you run overtime, or someone still wants something explained you can be around to help, so I try not to have any activities immediately after my class, and where possible to have a space that will sit empty following the class.

Class size 5-15

Start small, limit your class to 5. I was lucky to have such a small class the first time, and really needed it to pay enough attention to everyone. If you like, allow extras to be spectators, and if you find the class is more manageable than you thought, you can invite them to join the class. The next time I invited a friend who also fingerlooped along and had twice the size. By the time I had a full 15 people, I was getting quite practised (and had the odd helper again), but still found it quite intense and draining - supreme organisation, practise and understanding was needed. If you have too many people turn up feel free to offer to run another class later for half the class. Or explain to the class that because of there being so many people, it'll take a bit longer to get to everyone and ask them to be patient. Teach a few people one-on-one first before you even try a 5 person class.

I've had a class with 8 people but where half the class were not very dexterous or used to other braiding styles, and found I struggled to get around to visit everybody in a timely manner.  One slow student can really limit your ability to help the rest of the class.  Also don't forget to anticipate how you will feel on the day - are you likely to be overtired, hungover, hungry, or racing from one appointment to another? If so, reduce your class size as these will all reduce your ability to teach larger classes.

For: Adults, teenagers and accompanied children over 8

I read someone explaining about children and craft that on average finger dexterity gets significantly better by age 8. I'm not sure if this is due to some biological cause or that children have been doing a range of dexterity and fine motor control training exercises in pre-school and school by then (writing is a dexterity exercise if you've never done it before). Feel free to make exceptions if you know a particular younger child has above average motor control and concentration, (although you might wish to consider if you will be being fair to the rest of their friends).

The aim is to not have a child who requires more attention than your average adult. Having an adult accompany the child means they are highly likely to have a personalised reteacher, who can comment upon and encourage every step of the process, while your run around to other groups (there are adults like this too, but generally only 1 in 20, and you can't work out who they are beforehand). This requires having one adult per child and also an adult who is genuinely interested in learning how to braid themselves, even if only for the ability to reteach to their children. If you suspect the adult might not be able to act in this capacity (for example they might also have a 3 year old with them), you might offer to give them a personal lesson later, or even suggest they come back an hour into the class when the rest of the class is quieter.

The children I've had in my classes have required a bit more repetition of having someone reminding them of the steps of weaving, and more reassurance, but generally produce a better result than the average adult, because they are more worried about details and getting it wrong. Generally children are happy to make only one kind of braid, but like to repeat this several times over - let them do this, ask if they want to learn another pattern, but don't discourage their learning by complicating things more. Trying the same braid in different colours, especially those of the child's choice, tends to be pleasing to preteens.

Beginning the Class

Below are some notes on how I carry out the class.


As this is a workshop, the aim being to get people braiding, I try to keep the introduction short. I talk for only 10 minutes on what fingerloop braiding is and when and where it was used, and where to find more information. I don't have a fixed speech for this - I generally talk off the top of my head, adjusting it each time, but it is a good idea to have some pieces of paper with a list of links for people to look up later. This also allows for late comers to join in without missing much braiding.

As I talk, I ask people to to cut their own pieces of string - 2 in one colour and 3 in another. (This confuses people a little, if you have several balls of string in 2 colours, it might be better to say "2 red and 3 blue" so that everyone has a common frame of reference).  You might wish to use precut strings, but I don't because as well as being fundamentally disorganised, it also shows people the very first steps they need to take to make their own braid at home.

I also pass around a few samples of fingerloop, especially as we are waiting for everyone to file into the room and sit down at the start. Don't have too many samples or people will insist on seeing every one, instead of making some themselves. You can make a set of samples available on a table and say that anyone who has time or wants a break during the lesson can see them then.

Then I demonstrate how to knot their string and tie it off to a immobile object with a lark's head knot. (possibly accompanied by a ramble about there being special ways to manage longer strings, but we aren't going to learn them today). I show them a bit of fingerloop so they can see the general motions, then point out the specific motions involved as 3 steps (walk the threads down, swap the loops, tension the piece, repeat) and repeat it several times then a few more. You may need to keep doing this for a few minutes so that different people can move to the front of the crowd to see what you are doing.

Now is a good time to remind everyone that this is a drop out when your brain is full or fingers is sore class. I've had a student who kept braiding until she had blisters on every finger that got huge and all popped, and was still braiding. So it really is important to point out that people need to stop when they are at the pre-blister stage. It's also good to remind people to practise this again within the next 2 days or they will forget how to do it. (this really does seem to hold true - I forgot how to braid after my first time). You may wish to offer to remind people and teach them a few extra tips later whenever they catch up to you.


I use fat crochet cotton. Silk was the main material used in period for braids, but this is expensive, difficult to obtain in thicker widths and cuts into the fingers more than cotton. Crochet cotton is smooth, non stretchy, non-slubby, readily available, relatively inexpensive and tough. All of these are great attributes in fingerloop braiding, and lack of these attributes can make learning more difficult than it needs to be for your students.

Don't let your students use their own materials (even if they are ones your more advanced skills can use) as you and they will have trouble distinguishing between flaws in their technique and flaws in the material. Using a readily available material makes it easy for your students to obtain more to practise with later. Thick crochet cotton makes individual strands easier to see, makes the braid work up quicker (leading to prouder students) and is less likely to snap.

I'm a bit of a scrooge. I find that asking for a silver coin donation for thread helps me overcome my miserly tendencies when people ask for extra thread - it helps me happily smile and offer them some to take home to practise on later. (And given how important that first practise is on this skill retention, this can be crucial)

Keep the threads fairly short - length from elbow to fingers or slightly shorter. Longer threads make it much harder for students to maintain tension, and lead to more mistakes, and more cases of loops falling off fingers. If a student cuts a longer string, make a knot at the desired starting length and thus discard the excess length. Cutting extra threads just means that students get more practice in tying up a new string. Let them know they can do a longer string later, but it really is important that they have optimal conditions so they have the highest likelihood of a successful positive outcome of their braiding.

I learnt a nifty trick from Mistress Rhiannon y Bwa, author of the fingerloop CA - don't try untangling your threads, just knot them, and begin above the tangles in class. People end up trying to untangle impossible tangles and waste a lot of class time (really, like 20 minutes!). Let people know not to detangle, just to chop that portion off, and they will get neater later, but meanwhile they can make the most of their tuition time.

Getting the students started

I like to simply let the students discover the 3 patterns that they can make with 5 loops by themselves. I get them to setup with 2 loops of one colour on one hand and 3 loops of the other colour on the other hand - this lets them track the first colour and loop change more easily, and makes sure everyone is doing the same set of coloured patterns. I show them a hand motion to make, and let them see which braid they make, then later when they are feeling confident I show them a variation on their hand motion, and they can see which other braids this makes. This gives the students the ability to repeat this process later to rediscover the braids. I find it is generally easier to teach through one finger braids before through two finger braids.

There are 3 easily obtained braids that can be made:
  • half circular braid - Through middle finger/loop reversed or unreversed (there might be subtle differences between these two at very high tension and high skill, but I can't reliably pick them)
  • square/circular braid - through two fingers/loops reversed
  • two small plaits - through two fingers/loops unreversed (this is structurally identical to a 5 strand plait like you'd do in your hair)

Here they are in a table:

reversed unreversed
through 1 loop half circular half circular
through 2 loops square 2 plaits

It's important to tell students that some of them will get different results using apparently the same hand motions - otherwise they can get quite concerned when their braid is not the same as their neighbours. In fact the first time I came across this in a student I was quite confused myself, which isn't very confidence inspiring in a teacher. It's also important to tell them that 2 plaits is one of the possibilities as otherwise more than half the students will assume they are doing something wrong. And generally won't want to bother the teacher until they've gotten frustrated that they can't 'fix' it. If you have the choice, I believe the order half circle, square, 2 plaits is the easiest order for most people to learn the braids in, but for people with a strong bias to reversed or unversed pickups a different order is likely easier.

Another question students will commonly ask is if it is important which of the two fingers the loop passes through. The conventional answer is the top finger, and this is much easier for the students to manipulate their fingers around, so I'd recommend it, but you might like to try the other so that you know the answer to this question.

As these are all 5 loop braids, student can learn new patterns on the same piece of string, and can switch as soon as they are confident and you can suggest a new variation. It is best however, to do at least 5cm of a pattern type, so there is a nice sample size of the braid type on the finished braid. Some students will require to braid a whole piece of string to simply understand the basic moves and learn how to adjust their tension. Others will be bored after 3cm of a pattern. Look at the student's work and judge how they are for yourself as well as asking how confident and adventurous they are feeling. Even if the student is confident and adventurous, if their tension or technique are so poor that you won't be able to tell a circular braid from a half circular braid, then they probably need a little more practise on a single braid and maybe a little more guidance or support.

Thoughts on choice of braids and teaching method

The fingerloop CA and several other fingerloop instruction sites generally give only one method of obtaining an unreversed or reversed loop. I've found about 1 in 15 people naturally use a different method. And I have no reason for thinking this method less correct, so instead I try to teach the different methods, and how they affect the band. I'll write about this separately soon, and think it's quite important to know this if you are teaching others, so those who use the different method can quickly adjust what they do. This is why I don't teach reversed or unreversed, but let students experiment with their results themselves.

While the 3 loop braid is the simplest fingerloop braid to teach (and one I'd recommend to teach to children and adults who are afraid fingerloop might be too difficult for them), I teach the 5 loop braids because I believe it is a good foundation to learn skills for the more complex braids. With a 5 loop braid, it is possible to go through two loops or one loop, while with a 3 loop braid only the simple through one loop reversed or unreversed combinations are possible (which increases the odds of starting with the more complex and confusing 2 plaits braid). With a 5 loop braid the student needs to learn to dexterously manipulate their fingers around the non active loops, to walk down the loops (not required in 3 loop), and to manage keeping the loops at the same length despite fingers of variable length. If the aim is to only produce a braid, a 3 loop braid is probably a good choice, by my aim is to produce a student who has enough fundamental skills that they can go away and learn a lot more from a book.

Exchange loops can be fairly simple to learn too, but they are less common in fingerloop - a person who knows exchange moves knows only how to do exchange moves, while a person who knows how to do regular fingerloop knows how to do everything except exchange moves. Also I believe the actual exchange move can be slightly trickier to teach to the majority of people. So I teach conventional fingerloop braids, but I think they win over exchange moves by only a small margin.

One thing I think I should be doing, which I am not yet, is providing a handout with track plans and recipes for the braids people produce so they can compare what they produce with how it looks in written instructions. This hopefully would give the students more of a foundation in reading how to do a braid from written instructions, enabling them to more easily learn other patterns from written instructions.

extension work

Forthose who are braiding very ably, the flat string offers a very good choice to test those skills at reliably discerning reversed from unreversed. If the student has been making a good version of the 2 plaits, then they are able to reliably select the same finger movement, but most students will have a preferred movement of reversed or unreversed, so the flat string really tests their ability to do both, to keep track and to learn a two step braid.
Alternately, a 4 loop braid with exchange moves makes a very pleasing pattern and is very simple to braid, for those students who take to fingerloop braiding well. (Encourage students to try both possible starting arrangements of 2 colours to get a spiral and a stripe).

For all students, braiding again before they've forgotten what they do with their fingers (generally 1-3 days) is very important.

Be sure to give students links to sources of more information.


I don't think I have a lot more to say, in fact I'm surprised I've talked as long as I have.  You've seen what I do any hopefully why.  Now decide how to teach your fingerloop class in your own way. You'll have a different personal style and different students with different needs, but perhaps the above will help you avoid some of the possible pitfalls of teaching fingerloop braiding.

Tuesday, 13 March 2012

10 medieval ways to stay warm with an old woolen blanket

So today's article is derived from years of telling collegians that they can be warm, dry and medieval cheaply and in a medieval way.  But I think these tips are of far wider usefulness, so I share them here today.

Why wool?
Wool is a good insulator, keeping you warmer than other plant based materials (cotton, linen, ramie) or synthetic materials.  Wool will also keep you warmer even when wet, and as a bonus it is also fire retardant.  More of the wonderful properties of wool and the reasons behind them are explained in an article by Ásfríðr Ulfvíðardóttir in the newest edition of the Known World Handbook. Wool was the medieval fabric of choice for outerwear for good reason because of all of these properties.

If you are allergic to wool, it may be worth investigating other protein based fibres, as these are likely to be warm for similar reasons - cashmere from goat or rabbit (beware many things labelled cashmere may actually be wool), alpaca fibre, or more exotic fibres such as camel or dog. Silk as a sort of protein fibre (moth cocoons) is definitely warmer than plant fibres. If it was spinnable and collectable, it generally was spun and used for something in medieval times - there are a few examples of exotic fibres such as camel and goat in extant artifacts.

Why an old blanket?
Blankets are a cheap source of sufficient quantities of thick wool to keep you warm. Blankets are generally sturdy, thick, warm, large, and often prepared in ways that resist fraying, all of which are great attributes in medieval outerwear. Single bed and double bed blankets are large enough to make a wide variety of covering garments. Old blankets are great because they are relatively cheap and you won't be worried about dragging it on the ground, poking holes in it, having sparks burn small holes in it, or chopping it up. Old wool blankets are also relatively easily to obtain:  See your local op/thrift/secondhand shop for cheap blankets - look for plain colours that aren't fluorescent.  In Melbourne, expect to pay $10-$20 per blanket (expect to work around some holes at the cheapest end of the range), and we aware that the salvos have a better range, but rarely have the best bargains.

What are the 10 ways you speak of?
These methods of using an old blanket are presented in rough order of increasing sewing skills required to utilise them.

1) Put it on your bed
Medieval peasants weren't silly. Going to bed when it gets dark also means you are in your bed in the coldest part of the night, conserving your warmth in a cocoon of bedding rather than expending energy to stay warm.  Wool blankets are good bedding for all the reasons presented above. Down is too, but synthetics seldom are as good.  It's important to note that wool takes a few moments to warm up - your body heat warms it up - use a heated object to heat your bed (brick in a towel or hot water bottle, or another person) or go to bed before you get cold to best utilise the insulating properties of your wool.

This trick can also be used after you turn your woolen blanket into garments - they can be piled on your bed to keep you warm too.  This also saves a lot of storage space for bulky garments. 

2) Put it over your bed
Old 4 poster beds were a very sensible invention - even as you breathe or lie still you loose a lot of heat. Enclosing the space around your bed not only prevents drafts, but will eventually warm up as you breathe into it. Using an good insulator such a wool to enclose the space will mean you loose less of the heat than you would with other materials.  Bed hangings don't have to be elaborate - they can just be cloth draped from a point (think mosquito net) or a blanket draped over a rail.

3) Pop it on your lap
I get coldest when sitting still. Keep a small blanket on your chair to drape over your lap when immobile, and leaving it on your chair when doing things allows a method of quick and easy temperature regulation. I find a draped blanket much easier to deploy than putting on and off extra layers of clothing.

4) Wrap it around you
I'm not joking,  I utilise this often when I am doing fairly sedentary activities.  

My favourite way to wrap my wool blanket (for me a right hander) is thuswise: start by tucking an end under your lowered left arm, and hold it in place my clamping upper arm tightly to your side. Wrap the rest of the blanket across your front, under your right arm, across the back. Gradually slant the blanket upwards as you cross the back, and end by draping the remaining blanket over your left shoulder and sort of gather any excess fabric up draped over your left arm. Your blanket needs to be cut to a width of armpit to above floor and length I'd say less than twice you hip measurement.  A wider blanket can have the top edge folded inwards to the deired dimension before you start wrapping, and a much longer blanket might wrap around the body twice.

This wrapping leaves my left arm fairly immobile (with practise you can do simple tasks with the lower arm without moving the upper arm), but your dominant right arm free to do stuff. It's not suited to active pursuits, but you can do a surprising number of things that you might do at night in this wrap - walk talk, drink, sing, etc. 
Other ways of wrapping a blanket also exist, but I can't personally attest to them. There are many pictures of medieval people wearing draperies, however it's difficult to tell how many are simply archaic images of biblical figures and how many are realistic depictions, but this can work.

If it drizzles or gets colder, reach behind your neck and pull the fabric over your head, and you will have a rudimentary hood. It's better than nothing, but it does tend to fall down.

 5) Pin it closed as a cloak
It is generally stated that anglo-saxon cloaks were rectangular.  personally I think many of the artwork examples people use from late in the period actually show semi circular cloaks, but I think something as useful and simple as the rectangular cloak would have existed earlier in the period. Anyway, its a really simple way to fasten a cloak.

Simply pin two corners of the cloak together and then put your head through the hole created.  rearrange the pin to over your right shoulder if you are fighting or doing a lot of stuff with your right arm only, or to centre front otherwise so you can use both arms.

If you are a early period Scandinavian noblewoman, you might consider wearing your rectangular or square piece of fabric as a shawl too.

6) Poncho
One quite conjectural methods of making a cloak is to start with a square and cut a hole in the centre of it and wear it as a poncho.  This comes quite close to some period illustrations in all but the finer details. It's so beautifully simple with so little sewing, I just had to mention this as an option.

7) Half circle cloak
One of the most popular varieties of shaped cloaks was  the half circle cloak. Versions of this cloak exist from pre-medieval to post Renaissance periods.  As the name suggests, the cloak is simply the shape of half a circle, occasionally adding some difference in cutting at the collar, and varying greatly in length depending upon time, place, gender, rank and use.

To make a simple half circle cloak, simply cut out the shape of a half circle to your desired length. I suggest looking at pictures of your desired time period to determine this, although you could choose based on warmth vs practicality or based on the length of your fabric. If you are lucky, or your blanket very large (or you very small), your half circle may fit within your blanket.  Otherwise you may be able to cut two 1/4 circles from diagonally opposite corners of the blanket and sew them together to make a half circle. For even narrower but long fabric, a cutting pattern method based on strips of fabric may be used, but this tends to be more useful for fabric on the bolt than blankets.

Pin or fasten with clips or strings your half circle cloak over the right should or at the bust, and it should work well for you.

8) A hood
You loose a lot of heat through your head. Once you have a cloak, often a second cloak will not make a big difference to warmth, but a hood will keep those bits of you which aren't covered by the cloak warm.  And what better than nice warm water resistant blanket fabric to make your hood from. Many patterns are available to assist with this. 

9) A chape
A chape is a 12th century term for a hooded cloak. My interpretation of a 12th century version of this is to make a hood which instead of stopping at your shoulders, continues flaring outwards until it's desired length.  I find this a very practical garment, great at keeping the rain off me.

10) A nice thick tunic
Most medieval tunics would have been made of wool. However big bulky woolen tunics can be awkward for everyday life.  But I find them invaluable to slip on over another woolen tunic when it gets cold.  Bulky a tunic made from a blanket may be, but it can be a lot less awkward than a cloak which drops in your food, slips into your water and makes it awkward to carry things, as well as slipping open and letting a breeze in.

I can make a simple small women's dress from a single bed blanket, a short men's tunic, no matter how broad, should also be achievable. I expect very few people would be unable to make a simple tunic garment from a double bed blanket.

In some time periods tunics can also be hooded and/or  have removable sleeves (see for example gardecorps) or can have sleeves that drape over your hands, all of which are great ways of keeping you even warmer than a standard tunic.

11) Hose
 Just because you kept reading, I've added a bonus 11th use.  If you find a particularly thin blanket, you can chop it up to make hose (medieval stockings). You loose heat from all over your body, so hose can be more useful in keeping you warm than a third cloak as they cover a part of you that wasn't well insulated. Many patterns for various medieval hose are available. Similarly, fabric mittens, hoods and a variety of other accessories should be achievable with scraps of your woolen fabric.