29 October 2009


I was putting together a little tutorial on hatmaking and then discovered that the Threadbangers beat me to it...

27 August 2009

Role to Hit

I'm working on two new articles for Garb for Guys, which will be put up as soon as a couple of photographs are fixed and/or re-shot.

In the meantime, if you're feeling bookish and/or if you're looking for me and I'm not here, you can find me at my writing blog,
Pages to Type Before I Sleep... I keep an (almost) daily journal where I comment on writing, books, literary culture and the busy intersection of books & technology... the sort of things that might distract me from the book I'm writing if I let them fester. Below is a sample of what that looks like:

Role to Hit
Cross-Pollination Part IV - Lessons Novelists Can Learn from Other Storytellers

I learned to tell stories from my dad, who was quite the raconteur when the mood struck him. I learned to love stories by reading a lot of them. I learned about characterization and what made a story drag you to the edge of your chair by participating in them.

As if I haven't already made it clear that I'm a nerd, today I shall remove any lingering doubts. Today we're going to talk about... (deep breath) role-playing games.

I'm sure I have a pocket protector around here somewhere.

A table in a basement surrounded by young men, soda cans and empty pizza boxes. This raucous gathering was sterotypically the smarter kids from their school who found common cause in their esoterica. Mostly young men, they gather to breathe life back into a faded mythos governed by obscure rules and the chance roll of polyhedral dice... role playing games. About the only legal activity in the high schools of America circa 1980 that had any air of mystery about it. Movies and news reports tried to link role playing games to all sorts of satanic pseudo-mystical nonsense while most of the players viewed it in much the same way their fathers viewed Friday night poker games.

Most people know about Dungeons & Dragons, but there were far more than that: Top Secret, Vampire the Masquerade, Ninjas & Super Spies, Shadowrun, Battletech... the list seems virtually endless and at one time or another and I played them all.

What does this have to do with storytelling?

Everything and nothing.

It's axiomatic that the story looks different from the inside than it will look from the outside. I can tell you stories about things that really happened to me in the back-country during my mountaineering and backpacking days and make you laugh every time. Stories that were frightening, uncomfortable and dangerous when I was living them. I can tell you stories about bad guys thwarted, secret plans stolen and dragons slain in imaginary games and get much the same reaction. But in neither case - the real or the imagined - will it be the same for your reader if you re-tell my story to someone else. It's inherently different because I was there. I was standing in front of that bear or staring over that ledge or slaying that imaginary dragon.

The dramatic tension comes from the experience. The story would not be the same had I not subjected myself to the whims of chance, the roll of the die. And since you didn't experience it except through my narrative, you will tell it differently and with less immediacy than I.

That isn't to say that I want you to run out and throw yourself in front of a bear, or get buried in an avalanche. You don't need to do that in order to write about them. Nor do you need to put together a role-playing game based upon the novel you're writing.

Roleplaying games taught me to have an experience that didn't really happen, to watch it unfold through the eyes of a fictional character. Even if I didn't know what it felt like first-hand to stare down the snout of a black bear or free fall into nothing on the end of a bungee cord, I could create a semblence of that experiencve because I've learned the skill of putting myself into the head of a person that does not exist.

In Telling Lies for Fun & Profit, Lawrence Block talks about how finite even the most compelling life is in terms of storytelling potential. Even if you lived a life of danger as an international jewel thief, you are still - as Block puts it - sitting on a raft in cold waters, chopping bits off the back-end to feed the fire you've started at the front. At some point you will run out of boat. Being able to live through the eyes of an imaginary person allows me to build a bigger boat, feeding the fires with imaginary planks.

One last thing about lessons role-playing games can teach us and then I'll shut up about them...

In Across the Crowded Marketplace, I dwelt on the definitive archetypes, the roles your characters play in the stories they inhabit and how important it is that your readers be able to recognize them on a cultural level. At the core of that is a crucial understanding of your character and what role they fill in the story.

Part of this is the ability to play them consistently through the entire story. On page ten one ear is lower than the other, than on page 220, those ears had better still be assymetrical. I keep track of this using something else role-playing games taught me... the character sheet. Height, weight, eye color, hair color, ethnicity, skin tone, education, distinguishing features, idiosyncrocies... all on an easy-to-reference sheet of paper. This sounds fussy and even anal, and I suppose that it is. It also keeps my legendary absent-mindedness from sidelining my writing while i search the manuscript for some tiny detail from the first chapter.

Role-playing games take place in worlds that are fully-realized entities apart from ours, a shared landscape of the imagination replete with maps, politics and adventures in the offing. they are a place where we can step into other skins and other lives. A similarly-realized world should unfold each time I open my laptop and type "Chapter One" at the top of a page. I owe it to my world and to my characters to know them well enough to be able to tell their stories as if I'd been there too.


Scott Walker Perkins writes literary thrillers and novels of suspense woven from the threads of history. His current novel is The Palimpsest and he is working on another tentatively titled 42 Lines.

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26 August 2009

Celestial Navigation

Close-Up of Galaxy NGC 4826 in Infrared
"I've loved the stars too fondly to be fearful of the night"
-Galileo Galilei
Yesterday was the 400th anniversary of Galileo's introduction of his telescope to the Venetian Senate.

Contrary to what you may believe, he did not invent the telescope. By 1609, relatively weak telescopes had begun to trickle across Europe. Many claimed credit for the invention and none rightly know who first stuck a couple of lenses in a tube and turned it skyward. It is a matter of some controversy, as laid out in the popular history Stargazer: The Life & Times of the Telescope. The claimants to the title range from an early British surveyor Leonard Digges & Son (who failed to capitalize on their invention if indeed they ever built one) and Hans Lipperhay who has the advantage of being among the first to file for a patent (which was denied, according to Stargazer because even then his was not the only telescope knocking around).

All the same, we honor Galileo's telescope today largely because of the man who built it and how he put it to use. It is noteworthy that when Galileo sat down to make his telescope, it was an artifact of which had had only heard descriptions: Two lenses in a tube that can view far away objects as though they were close-by. With his native intellect and knowledge of optics, the Pisan scholar assembled his telescope as a variable-focus instrument and presented it before the senators.

It was not long before astronomers everywhere were pointing their lenses skyward. It began before Galileo even built his famed stargazer, but as we know it was Galileo who led the way. His observations of the surface of the moon, that other celestial bodies also had satellites and that the sun has a bad complexion forced a reassessment of the received knowledge of the ancients. The moon was - at the time - supposed to be smooth and perfect. The Medician Moons of Jupiter were a shock, for it proved that not all bodies orbited the Earth. Sunspots marred the perfection of old Sol... the Ptolemaic model of our universe was crumbling.

Paired with the precise measurement of the heavens taken by Tycho Brahe (without a telescope, incidentally) it was readily apparent to all observers that the planets did not move in neat concentric rings. And Earth could not possibly be the center of their oblong orbits. The movement of the Earth itself was the only explanation for the aberrations, the movement of Earth around the sun.
"The scriptures tell us how to go to heaven, not how the heavens go."
-Galileo Galilei (attr.)
The vastness of space opened before us, a universe that went about its business with little regard for humans. In the end it was not the position that the Earth held in the universe that brought the full weight of church and state down upon Galileo, it was the position of man in that vastness that doomed his research. The orthodox view held that mankind was the center of God's plan and a vast stretch of infinity filled with planets and stars moving of their own accord did not fit into that equation.

We all know what happened next.

In a familiar pattern, the dispute became a matter of politics more than faith and Galileo had made few friends among his peers that would risk all to stand at his side. His views ran afoul of the counter-reformation, a movement fighting to keep Mother Church united against the forces unleashed by Martin Luther and those who came after him. Galileo's views could not be tolerated and he came into the sights of the Inquisition. In such a climate, even his powerful patrons among the d'Medici could no longer protect him. It was all they could do to keep him alive. The orthodox viewpoint brooks no rivals and Galileo was forced to recant his position and abandon his research to live the rest of his life in obscurity.

It was a low point for both church and state, an orthodox viewpoint scrambling to keep enough fingers in the dam to hold back the waters of the coming enlightenment.

Coffee houses soon replaced the taverns and the minds of men, awakened from the (quite literal) drunken stupor* of the previous age were not eager to return to a time when the darkness drove them indoors. The whole of creation had shifted ever so slightly and humanity was scrambling to keep up, to find its place in a universe where mankind was a part of the plan, not necessarily at its center.

The telescope was out of the bag and those whose eyes were turned Earthward could not darken the lenses turned toward the sky.
“I do not feel obliged to believe that the same God who has endowed us with sense, reason, and intellect has intended us to forgo their use."
-Galileo Galilei

Further reading:
Galileo's Daughter by Dava Sobel
Stargazer: The Life & Times of the Telescope by Fred Watson
The Galileo Project online at Rice University

19 July 2009

Frank McCourt, author of Angela's Ashes, Dies

Frank McCourt, author of Angela's Ashes, Dies
You may remember that the other day I mentioned that he had pulled through his cancer treatments only to be stricken with meningitis. Alas, we have lost a giant. A great wordsmith, stylist and the arch-nemesis of the quotation mark... He will be missed.

18 July 2009

Crewel World II

In Crewel World part one (click to go there) I talked about a rapier carrier I made a long time ago. The design incised into the leather (shown above) is drawn from a tile in a cathedral somewhere. Sadly, I've long since lost the original picture the design was based upon as it was many years and a couple of computers ago. Nevertheless, the design has been re-cast in whole or in part on a great deal of the garb I've made since then.

Yesterday, I did it again. For the lid of the purse I'm making I brought the design into a more Elizabethan vine motif and coloring while maintaining the original cruciform arrangement of the elements.

The design was drawn onto the green canvas with a stick of graphite (you can still see some of the marks in the photo below) and backstitched over the marks with crewel yarn to give dimension to the embroidery. The backstitching was covered with satin stitch, and buttonhole stitch using linen and wool thread.

I chose a darker background color that the off-white used in the inspiration garment (and other very similar designs scattered through the Elizabethan world). This is because my hand will go into and out of the purse fairly often, making this an item that will be especially prone to getting dirty.

The aforementioned inspiration garment can be found here: http://www.plimoth.org/embroidery-blog/. The folks at Plimoth were re-creating a heavily embroidered late-period jacket entirely by hand. This entailed reconstructing unknown stitches and techniques. I say "were" because the funding for the project has been canceled owing to the current economic troubles. (The embroiders involved have vowed to continue despite the lack of funding, so there's hope.) Follow that link, you will be amazed.

17 July 2009

Site layout changes...

I spent the day embroidering a lid for my new belt purse and it's almost done. Photos will be posted soon along with the Manly Pursemaking Demo. (Don't worry, you won't have to embroider anything if you don't want to. I'll show you how to get around it!)

Blog Template Updates
So... the site template is all new.
What do you think?

Is it better? Is it worse? Be honest! Use the comments below because I've never had much luck with Blogger's "Poll" widget.

16 July 2009

These Truths I Hold To Be Self-Evident... Redux

Since we began our journey back in October of 2005 (a bit earlier for me, but that's when you joined me on the road) my feelings on several aspects of this art & craft have changed. The five central tenets of my costuming mantra have not... let us review:

1. Good garb feels natural when you’re wearing it.
2. Good garb won’t kill you to wear in the August heat.
3. Good garb is clothing you won’t hate putting on in the morning.
4. Good garb is just as durable as the other clothes in your closet (or better).
5. Good garb weighs style against wearability and strikes a healthy balance.

Over the years, I've added a few addendae to support and expand-upon the central philosphy...

Nomenclature: I like the word "Garb" and use it in part to differentiate between my everyday street clothes and what I make for reenactment and/or faire. Another period-correct word offered up by the venerable OED is "Duds". I use both, but mostly I call it 'garb' or 'clothing'. I generally shy away from "costume" because I don't like the immediate association with Halloween despite its literal definition.

Handsewing: I made this doublet entirely by hand so it's not a question of ability it's a matter of the best-application of a finite resource: time. I actually like handsewing now that I've accustomed my hand to it. But I lack the time for such efforts. So I will use handsewing when it suits my whims or if it would be too obvious otherwise. Long or turned seams usually go under the frantic needle of the hotrod.

Period Perfection: All of the clothing I make is based upon historical paintings and patterns (where possible). Unlike many who perspire over handsewing and 100% period fabrics, I tend to focus more on the overall “feel” and the correct “look” of a garment. This makes me a heretic in some circles. I am comfortable with that.

Garb Engineering: My wife is an engineer. Certain terms have bled into my sewing vernacular, like "Prototype" and "Beta Test".

All of the clothing I make is Action Garb.

If I could have one overall effect on the historical costuming community, it would be this: The items we are making were the everyday clothing of the people in the historical era we are portraying. (That's tenets #1 & 4 if you're playing along at home.)

People lived in the stuff we're imitating here. The chased lovers (and were chased by lovers if they were lucky), coddled children, fenced, swung from chandeliers, quaffed ales, guffawed hearty guffaws and generally lived full active lives in their clothes... their garb. Sometimes I think we forget that in our blind pursuit of what we allege to be 'period perfection'. It is possible to "be period" and be comfortable at the same time. Even in nobles. What good is garb that looks fabulous, is made of expensive period materials, and is as uncomfortable as the Iron Maiden? If you can't feed yourself, looking pretty won't do you any good. (We lose more nobles that way)

The best advice I can think of is... Don't fret so damn much. This is supposed to be fun. Attain the look. Make it wearable. Make it comfortable. Don't stay up nights worrying about it.

A thousand “Garb Snarks” just began gnashing their teeth as I wrote that, but it’s how I truly feel. (And stop that. It's bad for your teeth!)


15 July 2009

The DeMedici Suit

Wow. It's been a long time.

As you may recall, my renaissance faire ran afoul of the local color and ended up closing last year. Well, it's received some resuscitation and will reemerge this year in a new location (though sadly not the same beautiful forested location we had spent so much time and energy renovating for the canceled season., alas.)

All the same, we have returned, and with it returns my yen to complete these projects and plow ahead into the next round of garb construction!

The fact that I was entailed to perform a friend's Shakespearean-themed wedding certainly helped me get things done too.

You may remember (or you may not, it's been awhile) that I was working on a doublet & trunkhose faithful to the extant garments of Don Garzia de'Medici. These are clothing items which had the good fortune to cross paths with both the amazing Janet Arnold and whomever is responsible for the photos you can find posted here at The Realm of Venus. (I assume it's Bella's camera, bellissima as always.)

Well... two years later, it's done. I'll be detailing it here over the course of the next week or so in my usual manner.

Since the design for this one is essentially done for me
I got to skip directly to choosing colors (consult Page 54 of your copy of Patterns of Fashion for Janet's fantastic detailed drawings). The original deMedici garments were originally red silk which has faded to a dark rust color. I took Janet's description of that dark rust and ran straight to my favorite Moroni portrait: The unknown tailor pictured above. The white doublet and red paned slops make a wonderful contrast.

The Doublet:
Much of the doublet has already been blogged. The original idea behind this doublet was actually to make a doublet that I could show a (mostly) complete replication of some of the nubbier points of historical garment construction. It was used for stitching demos, notes on padding and stiffening, and some light embroidery.

The doublet fits better than this, I assure you. I had been ill for awhile before this photo was taken (giving me all sorts of time to do all that handsewing and embroidery) and I've thankfully gained-back the weight it was designed to cover. Think of this as a portrait in a plague year.

One of the small changes I made include elongating and re-structuring of the waist a bit. I have a very long torso and some tailoring was necessary to account for that with regard to the original garments. The line of the doubletwaist is therefore a bit less contoured in my doublet than the one in the museum.

The Trunkhose:
Slops, pumpkin pants, paynsied breeches, call them what you will. These you have not yet seen...

The fabrics are wool and linen in a dark russet, almost red. The color match is practically perfect for two fabrics that were purchased so far apart and from different retailers. The wool is on the lighter end of "coat weight" so call it a flannel for our purposes.

The colors echo the Moroni contrast between doublet and trunkhose nicely, I think.

In part because I ended up too close to my deadline (the wedding day) there is substantially less handsewing on the trunkhose and even the embroidery ended up being done by machine. I may go back over it at some point, but I might not because I rather like the way it turned out.

The backs of the panes are an identically-colored denim that I lucked out and found in the sewing room, just waiting for me to re-discover. Yes, three identically-colored fabrics in three different materials bought at three different times. Either it's fate or I'm just that incredibly boring...

Divinity is in the Details...
Or is it the devil?

I'm a big believer in small details piling up to make a better overall impression, even if the people you meet never notice them. I like embroidery done in the same color as the underlying fabric for this reason. Texture. Also little details like handmade buttons and leathergoods contribute to an overall difference between your garment and the next person's.

There are several things going on here that are often ignored or overlook at least at renaissance faire. I don't honestly know if it's just faire actors or reenactors in general, but men's doublets seem tobut rarely be pointed to the slops. The deGarcia garments are pointed all the way around and so are my renditions of them.

It's a bit like walking around wearing a jumpsuit, really and when you have to use the privy, one is well-advised to use the handicapped stall because you're going to need a bit of room to maneuver. I can see why they did it and I can see why we stopped doing it.

Belt loops are a boon to our civilization.

There are some snapshots from the wedding, of course, but the official pictures aren't in yet and naturally they will tend to focus on the Bride & Groom. So I plan to don the duds again soon and stage some photos. So stay tuned for better photos of the whole thing actually on my corpus.

Upcoming Demos...
  • Eyelets!
  • Points!
  • Making your own paned trunkhose pattern.
  • Constructing a codpiece (we had to discuss it sooner or later).
  • Better belts.
  • A most manly purse.
  • Less alliteration... ok, not really.
It's good to be back.
- Scott

14 July 2009

The blog has been idle, but I have not...

A lot has happened since last we met. I lost my father to cancer, which set me back quite a bit and threw just about everything into a cocked hat. Add to the fact that about nine months before he passed away, I was in a car accident and you get a bad year all the way around.

Nevertheless, I've found my bearings and come through. I hope you stuck with me through the long silence.

These are the things I've been up to recently...

I've been learning to mold and sculpt with leather. Allowing me to make some leather masks for dear friends and loved-ones for to conceal their identities mid-foolery:

Which is known far and wide as "The Bubble Mask" (bubbleblowing mechanism designed by my fair ladyfool, pictured). You can see Daf's Bubble Mask in action in the parade video at the bottom of this post.

They're getting more elaborate as I go along and experiment with the extremes of the leathern medium. I'm planning to play with the forms quite a bit. The forms will be historically inspired as any leather mask must be, but as you can see, I have my own take on things. The red and green masks, for instance, are quite goblinish. I'll post more as I make them.

I also made a snazzy new hats. When I'm feeling down I often start making hats. This hat is a pattern entirely my own and is quasi-period inspired. There's a "cockscomb" of bells down the centerline and the "ass's ears" are unabashedly curlicue (they're wired so I can move them around and they'll stay where I put them).

It isn't necessarily meant to be 100% accurate so much as draw attention when I'm promoting the faire at parades and the like.

I completed the suit of clothes I've been talking about and will post details on that soon. I hope to revive this blog in the near term with details and updates as I document that suit of duds and begin construction on my very period suit of noble silks.

I've also written another novel, painted my house, performed a wedding and started another blog specifically dealing with the things that occur to me about and while writing that updates at least three times a week if not more often.

This is our renfaire's participation in the annual Gig Harbor Maritime Festival parade... "Pirates of the Peninsula" was the theme of the event. You can see my new hat and Daf's bubble mask in action throughout the video.