19 July 2008

Years of a Clown


This is long and meandering. Consider yourself forewarned.

My home faire, the Washington Renaissance Fantasy Faire (WRFF) has been canceled. At least for this year. There was a battle with local commissioners over the new site. We lost. I've been absent from this blog because every spare moment has been spent flyering, marketing, leading parades, waving banners and finally getting in the middle of a multi-car, terrible, awful auto accident. Head injury, neck and back. Not conducive to sewing during recovery.. I was pushing my physical therapy, in fact, to get back up and running in time for the first weekend of August. No one wants a limping fool, after all.

There are many and varied "shutdown" events being planned to keep everyone together for the weekends in question...

I don’t really know what most people get out of faire. I assume that if you’re engaged in this enterprise at the level of a volunteer performing artist in for a for-profit enterprise, then on some level what you get out of it is more than the sum of its parts. We are unpaid actors entertaining a paying audience, after all.

There are several ideas being bandied about for reproducing the salient aspects of faire that most people will miss: period camping, campfire cooking, after hours at the alehouse, and even jousting. I don’t know what – if anything – will come of these ideas. All of these messages begin with the same message: “Find what you will miss about faire and we’ll figure out a way to reproduce it…”

I don’t think I can.

I will miss the camaraderie of my fellow actors, to be sure. I will miss the evenings of talking around a campfire (or lantern in the dry years), drinking with my friends in the Nunnery, and the low chatter of voices beyond the canvas walls of my tent as I surrender to sleep, the morning groggery, the first cup of coffee out of the French Press passed around, the dyspeptic grumble when people realize that if they want more they must grind their own beans and all I brought was a mortar and pestle.

I will miss those things and a hundred more. And I will attend as many of the shutdown weekends as I can make it to. Because all of those things that can be reproduced in a campground or the back forty of someone’s land. I will attend because we are friends first and Ren Faire Actors second.

But that’s not the sum of the pleasure I derive from those three weekends of August. What I get out of faire doesn’t happen after hours, in a camp (period or otherwise), an alehouse, or on a horse in the list.

I’ve told this story before. My ‘career’ with renaissance faire almost died the first day.

I started faire as a generic ‘Guy With A Sword’. Officially, I think the roster said I was a mercenary named James Wylde, but the mercenaries weren’t an organized guild and for all his historically-correct backstory, James wasn’t a character with a pulse. We didn’t gig or have anything assigned to us to do. There was a lot of time sitting in the guildyard. My wife was in the same boat, playing the ‘Pretty Girl in Noble Dress’ (on the roster she was Princess Claude de Valois) and the nobles didn’t do much that year either. They were hired outside players and snubbed the volunteers at every opportunity. If it wasn’t for Richard Curtain taking her under his wing, loaning her his two footmen to wait on her, I think she would have been even more upset than I was with that first day.

We tried to fit in, to find our niche, but it was for naught. I distinctly remember talking about not returning the second weekend.
Several things happened the night of that first disappointing Saturday of faire that brought us back. The first was that Mary found us. As the irrepressible Mistress Sophie, Mary was the heart and soul of The Hearth of St Brigid, as she had named our peasant guild. She led the wayward wenches and it was through her that we began to see not only that we had miscast ourselves as princess and pawn but that there was a *way* to do these things. The Tao of Renfaire. We also discovered that we had friends there. We met Zoe that night. Malakai fell asleep wrapped in my cloak. We sang songs we’d learned at the Kansas City Renfaire and found Charles when he and his group walked over and joined in the song. There was David, Mel, Holly, Denise… and many others who aren’t around anymore. And many, many more since. And where there are friends, there is a way.

When Saturday morning dawned, we gave it a second try. We had been attending ren faires forever, as patrons whose costuming made even the actors – and once the directors – think we were actual actors. We knew how to milk the life out of even the smallest faires and festivals. We spun away from our alleged guilds and walked together through the shops, Kristin played princess to every little girl who cooed over her gown, and we generally found our own faire… but we noticed that the people who were having all the fun were in Mary’s guild. They were the peasants. They climbed trees, tussled on the ground, quaffed ales in the alehouse… and they interacted with the patrons. The only guild that seemed to be doing that with any regularity.

That was when the last two things happened that rescued our faire experience and cemented forever what we would derive from faire – and I suppose what faire would get from us too.

Escorting Kristin through a booth, a leather mask caught my eye. It stood out among the flaming faces, fairies and green men and standard tissues of modernist whimsy. It was simple, yet distinct among the others. Dark reddish brown commedia-style leather, prominent nose, flaring nostrils and arching eyebrows… perhaps Pantalone without the bushy eyebrows, or a particularly disdainful Capitano had been in the mind of the maskmaker. Among the stonefaced bland masks surrounding it, this mask had character, cheeks drawn up in mischievous glee, one eyebrow arched in perpetual amusement.

I was entranced. I paid $85.00 for it. Today I can’t find any like it for less than $125 and they haven’t the quality and my mask is quality. And even though I can make my own now – and probably could have then – it was worth every penny paid for it. Last year, I spoke with that merchant and she told me she still occasionally got catalogues that had a mask like mine in it and decided not to order another one. Said she only knew one person who wanted one and he already had one. Then she winked at me.

All the following week, that mask sat on the shelf above my computer as I worked, drawing my eyes away from the screen. I turned it over and over in my hands, examining it from every angle. It was sturdily made from heavy leather, sealed inside and out. An elastic headband was attached… I put it on and stood in front of a mirror, frowning at my reflection. The mask looked manic, a pent-up id waiting to escape.

Saturday of second weekend dawned. Kristin dressed and got out of the tent as I sat staring at the mask, questions tumbling over themselves in my head. I hadn’t asked permission to change characters. I was in the mercenary guild. Could I just create a new character and slip away from my guild without getting in trouble? I should ask Amy, she’s the director. I didn’t care. Forgive me, Amy, but at that point I was fed up with my faire experience and needed to change or leave. I had nothing to lose. I needed a name. What was my name?

I put the mask on and stepped out of my little tent. Mel laughed when she saw me and I felt better. My mind still a-twirl with questions, I sketched an elaborate bow to Mel, waved to Kristin and the others and skipped away down the trail toward the faire site. I needed to be alone on the faire site. See if I could do this. What was my name? Who was the guy in the mask?

As I traversed Shadow Glen, Mary was standing talking to someone. As I stepped onto the troll bridge, still wondering if I was going to get into trouble, Mary hailed me.


It all clicked.

I whirled into a clumsy pirouette and favored her with an even more elaborate bow than the last.

“I am Calabash!” I called. And I was. In that moment, it happened. No longer a man in a mask, it was all of one, a character whole. Mary saw it happen, I think. She laughed. No one can laugh like Mary. There’s something about it. Something infectious. It should be studied. If you could distill it, reproduce it, we would have world peace (or maybe three billion Calabashes… who knows?) I stopped questioning and capered away across the bridge and up the hill onto the green for the morning meeting.

There have been years since where I didn’t get what I came for. I was captain of the Queen’s Guard once upon a time. I had fun, playing an actual historical role. Tromping around in my big boots and pumpkin pants, pike held high as I shouted for people to get out of the way. But that’s not really my thing. I didn’t get out of that role what I got from playing the fool, which is why I passed it on.

I have since led the reincarnation of The Hearth of St Brigid with Mary’s blessing and tried to honor the ideas she taught us, the atmosphere she created before she moved on to other things. At times – when I have been ill or it has been too hot to wear the mask – I have taken back the mantle of Seamus the Scrivener. An upstanding man of the village, an artist and natural scientist and I enjoy that role, derive great pleasure from the intellectual aspects and teaching children to write with a quill, or demonstrating period optics or whatever.

Always I come back to Calabash. The unbridled id. Fascinated by children. In turns, playing each role of the Commedia as well as some maniac cross between Bugs Bunny and Harpo Marx. It took me about eight hours to realize I needed to make the mask somehow less intimidating to smaller kids, and a favor from the Green Seattle Knights (who were our jousters at the time) went up one nostril to trail in the breeze as I capered and spun. These many boogers later, the mask looks naked without it.

I don’t know how others will distill their main pleasure from faire into something reproducible in the context of another event or private gathering. But it is through the lens of Calabash that I get from faire that which keeps me coming back. Children giggle when I chew on my booger, or pull it out and jump rope, or pull a coin out of their ears… or whatever. I lead processions in manacles and run away from the guards, trying to sell the manacles to patrons as I dance around them trying to get away from the guards. “May I interest m’lady in a nice matched-set of bracelets? Chained together so you cannot lose one…”

There’s an energy created by the interaction between actor and act, between the stage and the audience. It’s ever the more intense when there is no division between the recipient of the actor’s attention and the actor, no footlights to blind us to their presence. It cannot be quantified, or measured. Some tell me that it generates more light than heat, that it’s somehow beneath other forms of art… and I smile because they do not know. They cannot because they don’t have a Calabash.

How do you get from a private gathering what I get from the patrons as Calabash? I don’t think I can.

I will attend these shutdown events and I shall enjoy the presence of my friends and the camaraderie of the campfire. I will sleep in my tent and drink from my tankard, sing the songs we all know, and dance the dances forgotten by the world without. And it will be fun. I will enjoy myself thoroughly.

Calabash will sleep in his box, waiting for the next faire or parade or folklife event. The next gathering opportunity to emerge into the light of childrens’ smiles, and the incredulous stares of parents or gasps of teens as he slurps a meter and a half of booger out of his own nostril.

22 March 2008

A Bone to Pick.... (Herringbone Stitch Demo)

The "Herringbone Stitch" is quite possibly the second most useful stitch in the book, right after the running stitch. It's used as a decorative embroidery stitch and a constuction stitch and sometimes both. The Herringbone's raison d'ĂȘtre is to join two pieces of fabric together in a manner in which allows them to lay flat, but may easily be parted when the need presents. This is why it's used so often for linings and hems

1.) Working left to right (if you're right-handed anyway, if you're a southpaw, do all of this backward, sorry.) start with a backstitch, down and up through the top fabric (white). Pull the thread diagonally to a position ahead of the starting point and make another stitch in the bottom fabric (black) returning to a point just in back of the starting knot...

2.) Pull your thread forward and up so that it forms an uneven "X", as shown, and take another bite of the top fabric (white), backstitching as before...

3.) Up and another "X", coming down to the bottom fabric and backstitch again...

4.) Repeat and repeat and repeat, keeping stitches even and thread tension consistant so that you form a row of little overlapping X's on one side...

5.) ...and a row of offset stitches on the obverse side. (NOTE: when you are stitching a lining into a doublet as I will be doing, these stitches do not show on the outside of the garment.)

This is what they look like - as applied to a garment - in this case, my Medici doublet...

Inside front. The button hole placket folded back and sewn to the lining.

Green damask collar lining joined to the body lining of the doublet.

Making an Ass of Myself

Just for the heck of it...

In period, fools usually wore hoods adorned with asses ears and/or coxcombs as well as the more usual bells and the like. Based partially on the painting "The Bean King" (Background, viewer's left).

(Yes, I know it's 17th century, mostly I chose the colours from the fool's hood in this painting and ignored the rest) and partly from the engravings of the book Ship of Fools (Stultifera Navis by Sebastian Brant) I concocted a hood for myself...

It's made from plum and camel coloured wool with a coarse woven raw silk lining. The buttons are actually bells. I wanted to be able to take it off without removing my mask, hence the choice to include buttons.

05 March 2008

Collaring (Redux)

So... it's a few years on, and here I am, back at that finicky collar again. I just can't leave it alone. I was amused recently to read the notes for Margo Anderson's 'Gentleman's' doublet pattern and find that she too had the problem with the pucker and from her research so did the period tailor. I have no footnote for that last part, but it certainly makes me feel better!

It's the 'grown-on' collar (as the Tudor Tailor ladies call it) that is a collar cut-in-a-piece with the body pieces of the doublet (and frequently cussed-in-a-piece for good measure). My troubles last time I messed with this consarn thing led me back to my original source for this, The Tailor's Pattern Book by Juan de Alcega. Alcega pretty clearly lays out the pieces I've drafted for my doublets for years now. Front, side, back, curved sleeves and... wait a minute... a curved collar!? (far right, top row)

Odd. I've never noticed that before. Going back through the men's renaissance clothing patterns I have in my library, neither does anyone else. All of the patterns I've reviewed have the collars either entirely separate, or the front pieces are cut from straight rectangles...

So maybe that's the secret? It stands to reason that the off-square piece would be easier to ease into the curve of the neck and account for issues as they crop up.

Final Thoughts Before Sewing...
  1. I decided to go with the patterned white velvet I showed a picture of earlier. I liked it better than any of the others I looked at.
  2. I did an informal pole on one of the costuming sites over at Tribe.net and overwhelmingly people expressed a preference for hand-sewing only when it would be glaringly obvious if it wasn't or they couldn't avoid it. So for the record, I'm aiming for the happy meeting between hidden machine stitching and visible hand-stitching.
  3. I'm going to figure out that damn collar or I'm gonna quit show business.

So it begins...

Using the hotrod, the body of the doublet goes together quickly... all nice long seams.

After messing with this &$@% cotton velvet for a bit I came to the realization that I was going to need to reinforce some of the seams that bear the greatest amount of stress. Janet Arnold, thankfully, shows this practice in many of the garments she examined. Some of them look rather like patchwork quilts on the inside with all the padding, reinforcing tapes, et al. Here's a glimpse of what that looks like...

This is the inside of the shoulder seam with the lining herringbone stitched into place. The canvas will not only reinforce the seam, but also help stiffen the collar.

Speaking of collars, I cut my two front pieces and they are decidedly un-square. With two layers of cotton batting padstitched into place, I'm ready to give it a go...

This is the first fitting, with Tigger doing the honors. (Kristin was using her dress dummy, what can I say? I improvised.)

When I'm wearing it (instead of the Tigger), the pucker isn't there either... well, mostly. By cutting the collar off-square, and indeed curving the piece - at least a little - I had more going for me as I eased the piece into the body of the doublet.

As you can see, there's some residual pull across the back of the neck in the picture below, but a bit more tailoring on the next one and I'm there.

It's almost time to get down to hand-sewing and our next hand-stitch... the Herringbone.

26 February 2008

Pad-stitching (With Demo)

The stitch at the top of the list of stitches I don't usually use but should has to be the pad-stitch.

If you have been with me for awhile, you'll remember the jerkin I made with the quilted collar and all of the fussing I did with that collar to get it to work. I cannot tell you how much better that garment would have turned out had I used the pad stitch to arrive at the effect I wanted instead of machine stitching the thing... well actually I can tell you, or at least I'm going to try.

What is a Pad Stitch?
The Pad Stitch is a method of bonding several layers together - without applying adhesives - into a single unit so that they move as one piece and are stiffer than they would be individually.

That's a long, technical, way of going about saying that this is the period method we imitate with fusible interfacing. The pad stitch can bond as many layers as you like together in such a way as they will move as if it's one thick piece of cloth. Janet Arnold notes one such application in a period doublet in which the collar bears "striped wool pad-stitched over two layers of linen, and another layer of wool." This is just the stiffening layers for this collar and does not include the outer fabric, interlining or silk lining! Now that's a collar that's not about to flop around in a breeze!

Pad-stitching is a simple zig-zag stitch. Essentially you're making "Z's" with the diagonal on the front and the horizontal arms underneath, connecting them, like you see in the image above or the illustration at the right (click for a larger image).

The pad-stitch can be used anytime there are multiple layers of fabric to be bonded together and can even create a quilted look if applied correctly. Had I pad-stitched the collar of the aforementioned jerkin, there would not have been as much loss of girth and I probably would not have encountered some of the issues that I had to cope with.

Why Bother?
Even if you machine-stitch the whole garment, pad-stitch the collar and belly by hand. The stitch tension is infinitely easier to maintain and the final effect smoother if you're in full control of the thread with every stitch, varying it as the sewing demands. No machine I've ever encountered can do that... not even the Hot Rod.

As you can see in the orange doublet (left) I blogged about awhile back, the straight channeled stitches pull the fabric down into a 'ditch'. This is fine on a flat quilt because quilters know to account for this 'shrink' as each successive line of stitches pulls the fabric across the entirety of the quilt and accounts for a 'loss' of several inches of fabric on a side. Quilted garments made in this fashion did exist (hand-quilted, of course), but the stitches were comparatively loose and the garment oversized to compensate for the rate of shrinkage.

Pad-stitching the same part of the same garment would have drawn in less fabric, thereby creating less shrinkage problems and been appreciably more period in its final effect. These stitches are normally hidden in the inner workings of your doublet, but the 'back' of the stitch can also surface to create the quilted effect, as Janet Arnold noted on the collar of the 'Nils Sture' leather doublet and as you can see on the garment to the right. (click for larger image)

Tudor Tailor, Margot Anderson and many other pattern makers and books on costuming covering the 15th and 16th centuries advise using a natural cotton quilt batting to stiffen collars, peplum, and fill out the bellies of peascod doublets. This is what I tend to do. You can resort to period stiffeners if you want. As I mentioned, Janet Arnold specifically notes the prevalence of multiple layers of wool, linen and buckram in the extent period garments she analyzed for her seminal work Patterns of Fashion. That's all well & good for you, but it sounds a little too hot since I mostly wear these garments in August. One layer of cotton batting breaths a mite better than multiple layers of wool.

Where should you use it?
As I already mentioned, the collar and the belly are the two most common places you will find padding and therefore the pad-stitch. That being said, it can be used just about anywhere that two or more layers of fabric need to be bonded so as to move without hindering one another. Another common area is the back, and I tend to add a stiffening layer in the belly region even if I'm not padding it out peascod-style.

How do you do it?I haven't done a demo in awhile, so I thought this might be a good time and a good subject for me to begin again with...

As I said, and as you can see from the illustration up above, it's pretty much a simple matter of even zig-zags in parallel rows up and down the garment, each penetrating only deep enough to catch the next layer.

For this demo, I used plastic canvas in two different colours to better differentiate the layers, and substituted red yarn for the thread to make certain the images are clear. The only difference between what you see me doing here and what you will be doing on your garment is the regularity of the holes in the plastic. As with any handstitchery you do (outside of embroider on even-weave linen) you won't be able to count holes to keep your stitches nice and even.

Start your first stitch by making a "Z" with the top and foot of the
letter on the back and only the diagonal showing on the front.

Continue down the row as far as the size of your fabric or your
desired design allows or calls for. (Notice how when I hold it up
to the light that you can see the full zigzag? This is what you
want to see.)

End each row with a long horizontal stitch, bringing you in line
with your next row. Some people like to work these so that the
diagonals form chevrons. It doesn't make any difference unless
someone's going to be able to see it.

If you're going to make your stitches visible from the outside of the
garment as on the collar above, you should practice making the
back as even and careful as the front. I confess that when these
stitches will be hidden I don't spend a lot of time sweating such things.

The end result is two pieces of fabric that move as one.
Nice even stitches in parallel rows will bond the fabric together
until it moves as one unit, as you can see above.

NOTE: If you're doing a piece that will have a permanent curve on the final, you can further eliminate wrinkling and shrinkage from 'quilting' by working the piece over a curved surface: your knee, a bolster, a rolling pin or whatever maintains the desired curve as you're working. I've even appropriated a kitchen cannister before to act as a stand-in for my neck. A smooth final product is the desired result, use whatever you need to achieve the best possible result!
Fair warning... This activity is known to attract onlookers!

Good luck!
- Scott

23 February 2008

DeMedici Doublet...

So I want to make a 'sampler doublet' to practice and test techniques prior to making the final outfit based on the historical example of the DeMedici grave goods. A wearable prototype of the final so I can fully test the outfit beyond merely making a mockup or muslin which shall henceforth be known as "Medici Mark I".

According to Janet Arnold, the original garment was probably of crimson stuff that has since faded to russet. That being said, russet is a better color on me, and I like it better, so I'm going with it. The final will be made from russet silk and velvet but otherwise I shall stick perilously close to the original... I hope.

A Whiter Shade of Pale...
It's time to choose the fabric for the prototype. Since all of my prototypes have to result in wearable garments, fabric selection is as important as for the final. It's also a grand opportunity to reduce the bulk on the shelves of fabric in our sewing room. Yes, prototyping masquerading as Stash-Reduction!

I begin the choosing by tallying what I want from the final...
  1. It must be white.
  2. It must have good texture from a distance but the texture cannot overwhelm the final embroidery.
  3. The design-if it has one-must be acceptably period so I can wear the final garment to faire.
  4. It must not be so friable that I cannot pause mid-stitch to take pictures for this blog without coming back to a mess. (ahem)
  5. It must be from the shelf in the sewing room and not the fabric store. I want this project to reduce the stash, not add to it.
I was reading through a book called "5,000 Years of Textiles" and marveling at the breadth and depth of the weaver's art in the 16th century and especially their ability to get textured effects using cut and uncut velvets. One of these was an imitation of strapwork with alternating velvet areas and smooth areas.

This upholstery fabric from my stash bears a striking resemblance and at the moment it is the frontrunner...

Because I want to do a white-on-white embroidery to the final garment, my wife asked why I don't simply use a plain white canvas (which she then handed to me). I might, but the reason I've been mentally steering away from the idea is that I didn't want to do that much embroidery. I was looking to do accents and patterns and generally practice my stitches as you do on a sampler.

So... I think I may have found my fabric! I'll keep digging and let you know how it goes.

NEXT: Construction Stitches, why they're important and how to use them...

21 February 2008

Doublet, Jerkin or Jack?

Here’s something interesting I didn’t know until I looked it up today… the word ‘Jerkin’, which causes so much confusion in period, is the newer of the two words. I have – to this point – always operated under the assumption that they were two regional words for roughly the same thing that eventually grew to such commonplace usage that they lived on to confuse future costumers.

From the Oxford English Dictionary… (In order of precedence by first appearance)

“Jack: A short and close-fitting upper garment of men & women; a jacket. […] Ultimate origin uncertain, but app. French: thought by some to be identical with the proper name Jacques, perhaps as originally worn by the peasantry.” First documented appearance: 1375

“Doublet: A close-fitting body-garment, with or without sleeves, worn by men from the 14th to the 18th centuries (rarely applied to a similar garment worn by women)” it goes on to say… “The doublet had many changes of fashion, being at one time with, at another time without, short skirts. In its various sleeved and sleeveless forms, it was the prototype of the modern coat, jacket and waistcoat.”

“Jerkin: A garment of the upper body worn by men in the 16th and 17th centuries; a close-fitting jacket, jersey or short coat often made of leather.” First documented appearance: 1519.

So… there you go then.

A jacket is a unisex item of utility, thought to denote a peasant garment of French extraction. The Doublet is a man’s garment, with or without sleeves. (Note that the women’s ‘Doublet’ bodice was apparently rarely referred to as such in period documents, but no citations noted.) And a Jerkin is a later appellation most often referring to a leather garment, though bandied about quite a bit to cover jerseys and just about anything else. One of the citations (from 1599 by Thynne notes: “A common garment dalye used such as we call a jerken or jacket without sleeves.” (emphasis added by me) so at least by 1599, in common parlance, the ‘jerken’ (sic) had become synonymous not with the doublet, but with the jacket as a utilitarian garment.

The Ghost of Projects Past, Present & Future

Time to recap (since I've been only fitfully keeping this updated this past year). The prototype suit of clothes I have dubbed the "Moroni Suit Mark I" is complete and has withstood rigorous field trials at the various Renaissance faires and miscellaneous events throughout the summer. I must say I've been quite pleased with the entire outfit... as a middle class costume.

Perhaps I've lived with it too long and familiarity has bred contempt or something. Whatever the psychology of the thing, I've become so comfortable in the outfit that I can't conceive of turning it into something anymore starched and velvety than it already is. There's a certain simple elegance to the lines of this outfit that drew me in the first place, and they seem to beg for the treatment I've already applied. Since I never intended to make the paned sleeve, there is little else I can do to this suit of clothes, save wear them until they fall apart. I love the outfit... but I fear the prototype has performed so admirably that I simply have no desire to take it into the realm of silk and velvet and starched ruffs.

There are other considerations as well...
  1. I want to create a 'Sampler' doublet of sorts, to try out period stitches, embroidery and various styles and techniques that I've hitherto ignored (such as peascods) or allowed the machine to do for me (such as pad stitching).
  2. I've always wanted a white-on-white embroidered doublet.
  3. My requirements have altered slightly to require a slightly more Italian silhouette.
  4. There are pages and pages of sketches in my sketchpads that are begging to be tried, which puts me off the idea of repeating something I've already mastered.
  5. I'm still determined to master that grown-in collar!
So it is that I find myself sitting with Janet Arnold open before me, stacks of art books displaying various museum collections of period portraits, and did I mention all the sketching?

In the middle of all this planning, I happened to pay a visit to Bella's beautiful website and noticed her new online "museum" of extent garments and textiles. It was there that I discovered that the museum housing the grave goods of Don Garzia deMedici (featured prominently in Janet Arnold's POF) had reconstructed the doublet and trunkhose! I had found my next project!

All that remains is to select fabrics and get to work!

Updates soon!!

15 February 2008

Buttoning Up - Part Two

Part II of an ongoing series of making your own buttons in a period fashion...

Sorry it took so long. On my first try at this, the pictures didn't turn out so well. Getting my little camera to focus on thread is a no-go. SO... for this post I used a larger bead (3/4 inch) and some cheap yarn I had lying around to improve the picture quality.

As previously noted here and elsewhere, the easiest way to 'button up' is to go to your friendly neighborhood cloth retailer and peruse the button aisle. A multitude of perfectly-acceptable metal and wood buttons are available for the purchasing.

The problem lies in that this embarrassment of riches open to the modern costumer is not necessarily reflective of what the period tailor had to work with. Portraits indicate that even among the hoity and the toity metal buttons weren't the most common application. Only the most notorious clothes horses like Leicester seemed to go for the jems and fine metals. Metal buttons are found by metal detectors in Europe all the time, so they weren't rare, but many of them have been cast to resemble the threadworked variety, which I find noteworthy. Also, threadwork or cloth buttons make up the bulk of the buttons I see in the paintings and on the extent period garments examined by Janet Arnold and others in the available texts.

There are three basic styles of threaded bead-buttons I can find readily-available documentation for and I'll focus on those. There are hundreds of possible permutations of this style of button and they're in use through the victorian era. Today I will work a 'corded' design, a 'faceted' design, and a 'basketweave' design here and leave the rest to your imaginations...
Historical Notes:
In Janet Arnold's "Patterns of Fashion 1560-1620" are several images of buttons worked in thread (usually silk) over a wooden core. Based solely on her documentation it appears that the basketweave seems to be the most popular into the early 1600's, often done at an angle to give the weave a more diamond look rather than squares. Following that, I'd say the faceted design is next, and I've only found a couple of examples of the 'corded' look.

The core-shape of course dictates the final shape of the button, and they seem to have been primarily spherical with a couple of flat ones here and there. A quick survey of period paintings will confirm this.

Getting Started...
Each button we'll be talking about begins the same way. Select a bead of appropriate size and thread that will match or contrast with your garment as suits the effect you're trying to achieve. On period garments, the sizes seem to run the gamut from 1" on down.

Take your bead and run your thread through the center hole several times, laying nice flat cords longitudinally around the circumference of your sphere as shown below...

Each design is determined by how you then weave the chord through this base layer. The more wraps, the smoother the final product will be and the longer the design will take to complete. If you wrap it enough and weave carefully it is possible to have your final results be - essentially - as fine as the cloth your will be sewing them to. I never do this, as I believe that the texture of the button adds to the final garment. If I wanted cloth buttons I'd use cloth to cover the bead and save myself some time and handcramps.

The Corded Design
I'm not sure if there's a better term out there for this style, "ridged" perhaps? I call it the 'corded' design because the final button looks like it has corded ridges radiating longitudinally around it.

Start by determining how many ridges you want on your button and lay that many longitudinal cords. Too many and the button will look solid. Too few and it will look unfinished. I find 6-7 to be optimal, but do however many suits you.

Lay each stitch underneath the longitudinal cords...

And comeback around and loop back so you can pass under the same cord, laying the stitch 'south' of the previous one to keep them laying flat without gaps...

Repeat over and over again until the bead is covered and finish...

The 'Faceted' Design...
I call this the faceted design because the finished buttons (when you're using finer threads than the yarn I'm using here anyway) look like they're faceted due to the cords laid underneath drawing the overlaid threads taut to break up the spherical symmetry of the button.

Begin just as noted above. The more cords you lay, the smoother and less faceted the finished product, so keep in mind just how smooth an appearance you want to achieve ere you begin...

Instead of going under each longitudinal cord, go over it and pass your needle back under as shown...


And pull it tight...
Draw tight so that the loop is hidden from view as you move on to the next cord, hiding the 'cording' I mentioned in the previous button under the layers of thread.

Finish as shown below.

The Basketweave Design...
This is the button that takes the longest of all of them in my experience, simply because you're laying more stitches. Janet Arnold documents these with any number of strands from one to six in each course of the weave so you can do as you see fit.

When you start you want to almost completely cover the button with the longitudinal threads (see left).

I also find that this design goes faster and more smoothly if I'm working with a doubled thread, but you need to be careful not to twist the strands as you're weaving them. Simply hold them flat in place with your thumbnail as you pull each stitch tight and that will help immensely in the quality of the final product.

NOTE: you will want to make an odd-number of longitudinal cords for your weaving or you won't get an even weave when you get to the next part. Just trust me on this one...
The rest is simple, if tedious. Weave the doubled-thread through the longitudinal threads, forming a basketweave pattern as you go. Each weave will be two threads wide if you're working with doubled thread as I am here, and I find you can go as high as six before you start to lose the pattern altogether.


And finish as noted below.

Repeat as often as you desire or for as long as your hands hold out. Twenty-thirty is average, especially for English attire, which is notoriously button-happy.

Take medicinal herb or alchemic concoction of choice to deal with the hand cramps this inevitably produces.

To Finish the Buttons (all)...
Once each button is completely covered with your thread, you're going to find that the hole at the center of the bead is still visible unless you've pulled your stitches tight enough to force the hole closed. As far as I can tell from looking at Janet Arnold, this was usually attended to by tying a big knot and pulling it down tight to fill or cover the hole...

Start by passing the needle back through the hold from bottom to top. There are several fancy knots you can use and at this point I'll refer you to every embroidery and knot book in the world so you can boggle at the sheer number of options available to you.

For the simplest solution, simply wrap your thread around the needle three or four times as shown...

Then pull tight, keeping the knot where you want it by using your thumbnail to hold it in place as you tighten...

Pass the needle back through the hole and snug down so that your knot is either in the hole, flush with the surface, or (if big enough) sitting atop the surface like you see in some buttons pictured in Janet Arnold.

And another finished example...

For the basketweave design, I like the look better if you just pull the weave snug enough to cover the hole, but the knot looks fine too.

Sometimes people use another bead to finish the button. Passing the thread through the bead and pulling it tight instead of making a knot. Aside from the fact that I've not seen any period examples of this yet, I simply prefer the knotted finish anyway. I have tried the beaded solution and played around with it quite a bit out of curiosity and simply don't find any of my results compelling. I've also toyed with the idea of schwanking these up a bit using metal jewelry findings and such, but nothing yet has really looked right to me. If you use a bead of a contrasting color, however, it gives you a really neat effect so I leave it to your own aesthetics...

Worked in finer threads, the final is more impressive than the yarn-covered ones in the tutorial. It's even enough to impress my notoriously finicky marionette...