Monday, December 30, 2013

Pattern Darning

Each month I'm presenting a new tutorial on a medieval skill from various types of textile-related crafts. The purpose is two-fold. First, it will allow me to locate, study, and try a variety of new techniques I might otherwise overlook, and second, it's an easy way to get information out there about skills that other people might be looking for or find helpful. This month, I present Pattern Darning.

It's sort of hard for me to believe that I didn't previously know how to do pattern darning, since it's a pretty basic embroidery technique, and the results can sometimes very closely mimic the motifs seen in 14th and 15th century brick stitch embroidery. But, indeed, it was an unknown skill for me. Until now, that is.

While decorative pattern darning is seen much more often in the 18th and 19th centuries, it's actually a very old technique. It's been used at various times by various cultures since the 12th century. This wide usage is a good reason that it was labeled by Mistress Briony as one of her "Top Ten Medieval Embroidery Stitches" on How To History. (Which is a video I do recommend, when you're done here, of course.)

When you do a Google image search for "medieval pattern darning", most of the results will be either Mamluk or Icelandic. A search for "kogin embroidery" will also show you the Japanese form of pattern darning, which was used as early as the late 16th century.

Mamluk examples of pattern darning mostly originate from Egypt from the 12th century into the 16th century. Many of the extant pieces are silk (blue being a very popular color) worked on linen. The patterns are typically worked in bands or borders, and in some examples, several differing bands are appiled together to create a more complex, larger designs. Icelandic pattern darning can be seen within the same period, but more of the extant pieces are dated to the later medieval centuries. For the Icelandic variety of pattern darning, wool thread was preferred on linen.

In my testing out some pattern darning styles, I created the small sampler below. After some trial and error, I discovered that the more even the threads on the field cloth, the easier it is to stitch the pattern (and the better the resulting pattern is). Ultimately I ended up using a piece of 28-count mushroom-colored cotton even weave. Since the field cloth is meant to become a part of the design (adding contrast to the thread) it's important to consider the color of the cloth carefully. In this case, the mushroom color lends itself well to a variety of different colors, each with their own overall effect.

Each of my four patterns uses a different thread type. The pink chevrons (not necessarily a period pattern, but like I said, I was learning) are stitched using regular 6-ply cotton embroidery floss (not divided). The diamond pattern below uses some of Renaissance Dyes crewel wool (in natural white) doubled over. The black kogin zashi pattern was created with 3 strands of DMC linen floss. The grey pattern (another modern design) uses my favorite embroidery thread- Caron Impressions wool/silk blend. The blue fish was worked with Kreinik Serica filament silk. Finally, the gold Mamluk pattern was worked with Trebizond 3-ply filament silk. As you can see, each brings its own unique character to the darning which affects how well the eye renders the pattern. The shiny silk, for example, distracts much more from the full design than the matte black linen.

All pattern darning creations use single lines of embroidery stacked together to form the design. The lines weave in and out of the field cloth, resulting in various lengths of dashes and spaces. Changing the order and length of the dashes and spaces on each consecutive line creates the design. While "pattern darning" suggests that the resulting design is a repeating pattern, the same technique can be used to create stand-alone motifs like the fish above. The important thing is that all the lines run in the same direction and are stitched from one end of the design to the other.

Patterns for pattern darning come in a few varieties, some look like weaving diagrams, but the ones I find easiest to understand are specific to pattern darning, and use lines on a grid. For a great site with tons of Middle Eastern origin patterns, I recommend the Index of Charts for Medieval Middle Eastern Counted-Thread Embroidery compiled by Mathilde Eschenbach. [11/22/15: This link appears to be dead, but here's a link to a Google search that provides many great charts instead.] It's also a fun exercise to find an extant pattern and try to work the design out on your own, just to get a better understanding of how the designs are formed. For this how-to, I decided to use one of Mathilde's pattern diagrams called "flower in diamond".

The design produces a band (which could be worked alone, or nestled between other band designs) with a floral pattern repeated through its length. To read the pattern, each horizontal dashed line represents a line of thread. The lines in this grid represent the open spaces of the field cloth (which is a bit counter-intuitive). The pattern uses dash lengths of 1 to 5 threads, and spaces as small as 1 thread.

To start, we need to chose a combination of field cloth and embroidery thread. I'm going to go with a natural colored, 28-count, linen-style cotton and royal blue pearl cotton (size 5). I should also mention that it's possible to work pattern darning in multiple colors per design (here's an example), but I think there's something wonderfully beautiful about the simplicity of a single-color pattern. You'll also want a fairly blunt needle (small gauge tapestry needles work great). I'm using a hoop, but if you're used to doing counted thread embroidery without a hoop or frame, you can definitely try doing pattern darning without one.

This technique is pretty straight-forward, so there's not much I can show you in terms of a tutorial, but here's a few images of the first few steps in the process.

Bring the thread up from the back. I'm starting at the bottom right of the pattern, working right to left and up the design as I go.

The first dash in the pattern goes over two open grid spaces, so I count two threads horizontally.

Pattern darning is easy to work from the front, so I picked up the first three dashes, counting the threads according to the pattern for spaces (needle passes behind the threads) and dashes (needle passes in front of the threads).

When I get to the end of the line, I move the needle up to the next line to work the pattern back across.

After two lines, I get a better sense of how my thread fills in around the threads of the field cloth.

After several more lines, the pattern is emerging.

The back of the piece shows an exact reverse of the front, in true weaving form.

If you make an error in the pattern (it is counted embroidery, after all, and it can be easy to lose your place), it's extremely easy to rip out the thread back to the point you started. There are no crossed threads in the back or front to get caught up on.

It's important not to pull the thread too tightly. Dashes that go over a single thread can easily be lost if they are too tight, and the threads of the field cloth, particularly on the edges of a design like this with straight bands, can shift and warp the pattern.

It does work up fairly quickly, when you don't have children and work keeping you from it. I have not completed the full pattern yet, but hopefully this little how-to is enough the show you how pattern darning is created. When I've completed the embroidery on this piece, I'll share the result on Facebook, so make sure to like me if you're interested in seeing it!

Thursday, December 26, 2013

Some Advice on Teaching in the SCA

While sewing may or may not be my forte (jury's still out on that, I think), what I spend most of my energy at events on is teaching. After the first few awkward sessions of sharing what I knew to a group of strangers, I've loved the process of developing and teaching classes on the variety of topics I find interesting. In fact, teaching  (and the researching process that goes into being able to teach) is what I typically say I "do" in the SCA. My enthusiasm for teaching, and of course my interest in the topics, drive my teacher personality, and I'm happy to report that I've yet to teach a class that was a dud.

Last week a friend wanted to test out a new class she was assembling, and had asked me to give her some advice and pointers. I listened to her class, and took some notes. Reading back through the notes, I realized that several of the things I'd written down were not necessarily specific to her topic, and could really be great advice to anyone thinking about taking the step from student to teacher at events. In fact many of these pieces of advice are things I've learned along the way, both as a teacher of my own classes and a student in others'.

Trust yourself.
You've decided to teach because you're interested in the topic. That interest, by it's very nature, will do you a huge favor- it will help you retain information and understand your topic better. So as you teach your class, trust that you'll remember what's important, and be confident that you'll be able to answer your students' questions. You do not need everything written down. Outlines or index cards can help you keep your place and order, but don't use your class notes handout to teach with. I think that most folks who try to rely on fully-fleshed out notes to teach their classes are worried that the beautifully salient points they want to make, which sound so good in writing, will get lost if they don't read them. And while this can be true (it's happened to me), there are ways to remember these well-worded statements without reading the entire content of your class. Repetition, for one, is an incredibly powerful tool. Repeat what you want to say often enough, and when the time comes, you'll recall it. Not only that, but you'll speak it with inflection and intention.

Handle jargon/foreign words as smoothly as possible.
There may be times when you've got titles, names or jargon specific to your topic that you really are better off reading. As teachers of medieval topics in particular, we're also constantly faced with foreign languages. When we can't get through a topic without these words, and we have a genuine problem committing them to memory, we tend to do one of two things. We either say them very quickly with no regard for exact pronunciation, or we slow way down and speak the words syllable by painful syllable. In either case, we've sidetracked the moment and potentially lost our students.

If the words can be translated without losing meaning (if using the original language isn't important), rely on the translation. If the words are important to share in their original language, state the word as clearly as you can, tell them what language it is, then translate it. Then use the translation from that point forward in the class. If it needs to be stated correctly, but you can't get the pronunciation from the original spelling, write it phonetically for yourself. So "Tres Riches Heuers du Duc de Berry" might be written "Tray Reesh Uer duh Dook deh Barry". Again, repetition of that pronunciation will greatly help. If you're not sure about how to pronounce something, do some research on the language and make a best guess, or ask someone that may know how they would pronounce it.

Provide contexts.
We all like stories. It's part of our human nature to be drawn into them. When your topic is extremely factual information, sometimes creating stories around that can be difficult. Which, of course, means you'll have a harder time keeping your students interested. So instead of just rattling off your information bullet-point style, try forming contexts for the information. This usually involves side research to get more relevant information, such as events, people or similar factors that your listeners can latch onto as "landmarks" as you take them through the data. In some cases, years or maybe culture names can provide all the context they need to place the information for better absorption.

Tell stories with feeling.
When your topic does provide for stories, be sure to tell them! Be personable, add humor if appropriate, and bring your students into the moment. Don't miss the opportunity by sharing the information in a dry manner.

Determine a level of student knowledge for your class.
The specificity of your topic will dictate a certain level. In general, your classes will fall into beginner, intermediate and advanced categories. If we try to teach at all three levels in the hour we've got, we're either not going to get through it, or we're going to find ourselves way off track. We're also creating a situation in which we, as the teacher, may rapidly lose control. I had an experience early on in my teaching "career" of having a well-meaning student sidetrack my class because I'd allowed the class to be pulled into a higher knowledge level than what I personally had at the time. Before I knew it, ten minutes had gone by and my topic had been usurped. If I'd established with myself ahead of time what level of knowledge I was going to teach to, I would not have left that door wide open. After that, I began creating every new class by writing an objective for it. By having a "destination" in mind, I could determine at which knowledge level I was interested in teaching for that class, and I could be better able to maintain control of the class because I knew what I wanted to accomplish by the time I was done. Help your students understand what level to expect with class titles and descriptions that clue them in. If someone with a large amount of knowledge attends your "Beginning Sprang" class, they'll be less likely to take over, since you've made it clear who your intended audience is.

Plan for technical issues.
In most cases, your SCA class won't be taught somewhere with the best audio/visual resources. Even if it does, try not to rely on the available technology to teach, or at the very least, have a backup plan in case the technological assets don't work correctly. I speak from embarrassed experience here.

Embrace the phrase "I don't know".
The best teachers I have had the pleasure to be student to know that "I don't know" isn't a curse of death. In fact, in my own experiences, when I've found myself saying those three words, it gives me a great opportunity to go back and do more research. Also, don't forget that, while you might not know that specific thing, there may be related things you do know. "I'm not sure about X, but I do know Y, so maybe Z is likely, but I'd have to do more research." It doesn't have to be as formulaic as that, but the point is to try not to leave the question completely unanswered.

There are many more things I can share about teaching, but I think these points are the most relevant to share here. Different types of classes (lecture, demonstration, hands-on, etc.) have their own sets of lessons for teachers to learn, as do different topics themselves. I hope, though, that if you're just starting out as a casual SCAdian teacher, you find these tips useful.

Friday, December 13, 2013

Blog Referral

This month, my blog referral is:

Som När Det Begav Sig

The direct English translation of this Swedish blog title is "As In the Days", and it's a wonderful compilation of a great many topics of interest to medieval clothing enthusiasts. It is maintained by Sarah W (who also writes a more general blog, A Most Peculiar Mademoiselle), a wonderfully talented wife and mother who is thankfully willing to share her knowledge with the rest of us!

Topics on Som När Det Begav Sig include medieval sewing techniques, medieval children's clothing, tools and resources, and even a wonderful post devoted to taking great photos of your medieval life that keep the viewer in the moment and entranced by your ability to travel through time. Even when I already know about the particular topic she's discussing, I finish reading the post and feel like she's filled in some of the gaps, or I walk away truly inspired to be more intentional and authentic with my medieval work.

Google's translate option does a pretty fair job with the Swedish, but there are a few words that it can't quite get. I haven't come across any of those yet that I couldn't figure out within the context, though.

So why are you still here? Visit Som När Det Begav Sig!

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Project Complete: Blue Wool Fitted Gown

I made a silly mistake. You may have noted on the photos of my in-progress blue wool dress that I had several wrinkles and creases on the pieces from storing it. I decided that I'd just toss it into the hand wash cycle of my dryer sans soap, and then tumble it a bit in the dryer to work the creases out- after it was completely sewn together. It had been machine washed before storing, so this wasn't really off the wall. Unfortunately, my husband (who transferred the load) took me literally when I said "low" heat, instead of just air drying it. And I ended up with a new blue wool fitted dress about 12" too short.

I'd be lying if I said I wasn't disappointed. I was also on-the-verge-of-crying disappointed because I had decided, completely randomly, to hand-sew it. So yes, my friends, my very first completely hand-sewn gown got shrunk in the wash.

Not a total loss, though. The advantage of the specific wool flannel I used is that, though tight, it does actually still fit. So it's mostly just not long enough to be the 1390's fitted gown I was aiming for. So, let's move on to the Project Log to see what I was able to do with it, shall we? 

Though originally intended to have the quality of a hand-me-down, 7-panel surcote altered to be fashionable in the 1390's, the final result is more appropriate as a mid-14th century layering gown. A "Hunting" gown, if you will.

BL Yates Thompson 13, "Taymouth Hours", circa 1320-1350, f. 72.
When paired with my pink wool fitted cotte (now with buttoned forearms!), I get a look that's quite reminiscent of the lady pictured above from the mid-14th century Taymouth Hours. Many of the over-gowns pictured on the lady-hunters in that particular manuscript have a long slit up the sides (this one does too, it's just folded over so the inside is showing, rather than the slit), but there's enough of a similarity without a slit on mine to go with it.

The issue, however, is that I was trying to make a late 1390's gown, like the full-skirted examples spotted in the Grande Chroniques de France. (You can see my first progress post for a look at that.) So I was aiming for a tightly fitted torso, which suits the turn of the century, and is much more modern in overall style than the hunting gowns of the Taymouth Hours. Since fitting of this type- in the sleeves, bust and ribcage- isn't seen among women's gowns until after the 1360's, I'm dating this one to plausibly 1370's.

The real purpose of this gown was to test using a 7-panel construction to achieve a fuller skirt. In my first progress post, I shared what the gown looked like after assembling the 7 panels (without godets) directly from their straight-cut format. The front and back panels were rectangles, and the four gores (side panels) were trapazoids, angled on one long edge, but straight on the other. 

Then, in my second progress post, I showed what simply fitting those pieces on the body was able to accomplish. Introducing curves in every seam except for the center side seams, I (with the help of my mom) was able to get a very shapely fit, with a good amount of support on its own (though it's never intended to be supportive alone- it needs a fitted kirtle underneath.)

While cutting all the pieces down, I decided, very randomly, and very late one evening, to start hand sewing the dress together. I pulled out a spool of navy blue silk thread I didn't really have a use for previously, a long needle, and went to work. I used a tight running stitch, which is surprisingly sufficient, though I may need to reinforce a few spots given its final fit. 

Looking at the photos I had my husband snap when I was patterning the sleeves, I saw that I wasn't getting the correct drape in the skirt. The skirt wasn't as full as I was hoping, but I was getting a fairly good drape. The problem, though, was that I'd started the flare too low, and I wasn't getting the sudden fullness toward to top of the skirt that I wanted.

The front gore, especially, was not draping correctly. Which was a shame, since I'd gotten it perfectly sewn in on the first try. It was also too short. I had somehow managed to shift the side panels up when I reassembled the dress after fitting and it was about 3" from the floor, instead of just a hair above it like it should have been. At this stage of the fitting, I was starting to feel like I'd missed the mark, but it was still turning out okay enough that I just kept moving forward with it. Plus the skirt was fairly twirly, and that's always fun.

The advantage of hand sewing the dress together, though, allowed me to finesse the sleeves enough to get the sleeve seam and the side back seam to perfectly align on each side. Generally speaking, the hand-sewing on this gown ended up being the easiest and most rewarding part of it.

I'd been having an issue, though, with stubborn creases from storage. I tried ironing with no results. I tried a damp cloth between the wool and the iron, and it sort of worked but it was way too time consuming and I would have been at it for several hours. I decided to just finish the gown then wet it without soap in the hand-wash cycle of my machine. The idea was that I would tumble it a little in the dryer afterward then hang it up to dry the rest of the way, and the creases would be gone. My husband had a few wool items that needed the same treatment, so we tossed them all in. When it came time to move everything over to the dryer, I had said "low heat" when I really meant "no heat", and my husband, not really thinking about it, did as I said and the items tumbled around for about 40 minutes on low heat in the dryer.

When I pulled them out, I was surprised that the items were dry, and I noticed immediately that the blue wool had felted somewhat. Eagerly, ignoring the signs, I tossed the dress on, and knew right away that it had been shrunk. I mean, really shrunk. I wanted to cry.

I have to thank my mom. Completely distraught, and feeling that I'd wasted all that time and energy, I did concede, at least, that it still fit (though snug). A few minutes later, mom declared that all was not lost, and she reminded me of the Taymouth Hours. Thinking on it a moment, I decided to go with that idea. A few minutes later, I'd made the mental conversion.

The interesting thing, though, was that despite it being just a hair too small, and much too short for what I wanted, it looked (and made me look) much better.


The shrunken length, with everything pushed about 6 inches higher toward the middle of the dress, did exactly what my fitting didn't. The looseness of the skirt now starts just under the tight rib cage, rather than several inches below it. The skirt isn't as full as it should be to match the Grande Chroniques example, but I did end up with an extremely loose and twirly skirt that loves to dance as I walk.

As we took photos, I told my husband that I felt playful in the gown (and happily started throwing snowballs at him). I also felt well supported, but I was concerned that I would pop a seam. I didn't, even as I crouched down for another handful of snow.

Having been felted, the blue wool is now plush and warm, much like the gold wool of my gold wool gown. I've joked that the gold gown is my garb "sweatshirt", but this one now definitely holds that honor. It's comfortable, and I feel great in it.

The back godet (two half godet, actually) did end up a bit too high visually, with the point now landing well above the small of my back. It is, however, perfectly placed for the better skirt fit. I'm not sure anybody but me will really care to notice that it's just a bit too high.

While I didn't open any seams, there were a few places where the seam was strained more than the running stitch really wanted to handle. A second line of running stitch within the open dashes of the first should do the trick.

The heat from the dryer also did damage small spots on the dress, resulting in areas that look slightly faded in the right light. There are two on the front of the skirt, and at least one more on the side. They are hard to actually register in person, so I'm not really concerned about them.

This project is what Bob Ross would call a "happy accident". By shrinking the whole thing, I ended up with a better fit, a better skirt, and a completely unexpected and extremely fun new item of garb. The seams are perfect, and I'm still patting myself on the back on the craftsmanship I put into the assembly. I'm in love with the way the seams flow into each other and along my height.

And, the cycle through the machines did take out the creases.

More photos over at Flickr or on Facebook!

Sunday, December 1, 2013

In Progress: Blue Wool Fitted Gown, part II

I had to put fitting my new blue wool dress a hold for a few days, since I needed a bit of assistance to get the back fit, and my mom was away visiting family for a few days for Thanksgiving. So today with her back home, I could get back on track to have this dress complete for Christmas Toy Tourney this weekend.

When we last left off with this project, I had the basic shapes of a 7-panel gown sewn together to do an initial try-on. It fit very loosely, but I was able to easily identify where and by how much I needed to tailor the fit.

I started by adjusting the shoulder angle by pulling the seam upward to make the panels straight, then pinned along the angle of my shoulders. Then I chalked lines for the armholes and neck holes. I cut the armholes a bit bigger than intended, but not so large that I'd created an issue. Then I had mom do an initial pinned fitting. There were still several wrinkled areas that we took care of after my daughter snapped this photo:

My son also wanted to take a photo, but I'd already taken the gown off. Which means I finally now have a photo of my linen short cote to show you!

So after basting it, which definitely makes it neater, I had a reasonable fit.

There was still shaping to be done around the bust, and I also made some angle adjusting to make the line of fitted bodice flow properly into the skirt. I did not get any photos of those adjustments, though. Looking at the photo of my back, I can see that I also need to ease the curves in the back side seams to stop the cutting-in effect at my mid-back, and to even them out side-to-side.

Now I'll be marking all the seams and taking the whole thing apart to sew with the seam allowance inside. That will give me the chance to iron the prominent creases from when it was stored, and to be more intentional about sewing the long straight seams on the skirt to prevent the puckering.