Friday, 30 October 2009

Link Drop

Quite a little stack of links to interesting places and things has accumulated in my "slow blogging day" stash, but they are much too good to languish away. So here's a link drop - I hope there's something for you in there, too!

- Two blogs that recently came to my attention: Fait Attention and Publishing Archaeology.

- For those of you working with MS Word, there's a webpage with tons of good advice, instructions, makros and stuff at the Editorium. This site has helped me a lot when finishing off and layouting my thesis. I still wouldn't recommend to use pictures in large Word files, though. (My pics were layouted half-automatically, using the Word-generated picture list, a homemade makro and LaTex. Not the best layout ever, but very little work.)

- A new project is researching medieval soldiers "to challenge assumptions about the emergence of professional soldiery between 1369 and 1453", and they have put a database online where you can search almost 90 000 muster records for soldiers from 1369 to 1453. So don't forget The Soldier in Later Medieval Times when you are looking for muster information!

- I'm very happy that I usually don't have to cope with Latin (and I would look for help if I had to), but for those who are, there's Du Cange's medieval latin glossary available online: beware the rather large .pdf.

- And for those who read French, there's a bimonthly magazine called "Histoire et images Medievales", with some articles available for download. And of course with nice pictures!

Thursday, 29 October 2009

Horrible Histories!

Once in a while, you stumble over something smashing on the Internet. That happened to me yesterday (leading to some work time reduction and late bed-going due to having to watch funny videos on Youtube). Did you know that CBBC has a series of utterly funny sketches and songs titled "Horrible Histories", making history lessons the most amusing thing ever?

Now I will finally remember what happened to Henry VIII's wives, because of watching this:

And the perfect follow-up for that video is the Terrible Tudors song:

For those lucky enough to be in the right area (unfortunately I'm not), there's also the official webpage of the show, where you can watch snippets, videos and the episodes shown during the last seven days (now I'm jealous!) and even play a game called "Terrible Treasures".

Wednesday, 28 October 2009

A new exhibition coming soon!

Making medieval garments is something nice and fun - but seeing them worn or seeing them in an exhibition is something else again. And two sets of garments are going on display very soon now:
In November (on November 13/14, to be exact), a new exhibition will be opened in Burg Hartenstein (Wikipedia in German, with picture of the castle) in Franconia - featuring two knights fully dressed, with garments that I made. One of them is the 14th century knight and lord of Hartenstein, the second man is a Teutonic Knight from around 1200.

Since the exhibition is not opened yet, I will post no pictures today - but it won't be long now... Meanwhile, if you read German, you can also pay a visit to the official website of castle and of the group organising and running the exhibition, the Freundeskreis Burg Hartenstein.

Tuesday, 27 October 2009

Medieval theme board games

With the hype for all things medieval, there have also been quite a few boardgames with medievally themed topics or artwork. And with the huge games fair in Essen just past, there is a new one in the range - the game "after" Ken Follett's sequel to Pillars of the Earth (which usually means loosely connected to the book topic). That book is, in German, called "Tore der Welt" (doors of the world), quite a different title from "World without End", and the game title matches the book title.

Well, I don't read medieval-themed historical novels anymore (the last I read actually was Pillars, when I had just started studying medieval archaeology), but I'm game to play medieval-themed games. Maybe that is because it is harder to put huge, garish mistakes into game descriptions, and maybe it's just because I like good board games. Especially those that are typical German-style board games (and isn't it amazing they name a whole genre for us Germans, and such a nice one as well?). I didn't manage to play the Pillars game when it came out (I think last year), but this year's Follett I did play, and all four of us playing had a good time. It is a nice game, with good artwork and good, functioning game mechanism, including some fun details: You have to pay taxes, feed your family and show that you are a good christian after each of the four "chapters". The chapters contain different events and give each player six chances on action. Those are selected using your twelve action cards - but you have to discard one of the remaining cards when playing the one you selected. This, for us, sometimes led to more thinking about "what shall I discard" than "what am I going to do now" - quite unusual, and quite dastardly in a very nice and amusing way. For once, you can't blame luck if you don't have the action you would need anymore! Every player also has an "event card" to play each turn, giving him or her some much-needed income and sometimes a second income, but every other player gets something as well. What everyone gets is depending on how the card is placed on the board - another simple, but nice and well-fitting mechanism.

Altogether, I did like the game quite a lot. It is already available, but only in the German version for now, so tough luck for all of you who would like to play it but don't read German. (One competent translator, though, should be enough - you only need to read the rules and the event cards, there is no need to read for choices.) But since the Pillars game (which has also gotten good critiques from those around me who played it) has been translated and is offered in the US, there should be good chances that it will cross the great salty puddle, too.

Monday, 26 October 2009

Oh lovely colours!

Some time ago, Sabine and I decided to go on another mad venture and include nice, really thin, naturally dyed silk threads for embroidery in our assortment of goods. So Sabine had a lot of good opportunity for cursing when she dyed them, and I had a lot of good opportunity for cursing when I reeled the threads off on little spools. But it turned out that these threads are absolutely fabulous for couching gold threads - and even if they resist getting dyed and spooled with all their might (which is impressive), I feel that it's well worth the struggle when the final result looks like this:

Photo taken by Anja Klein - thank you, Anja!

The colours are red (madder), blue (indigo) and golden yellow and olive green (birch leaf); you can only see a tiny bit of the gold-coloured thread right on the top of the picture, about in the middle.

These threads are wonderful for couched work, used like in this photo - though the picture doesn't do the colours justice, and I find goldwork enormously hard to photograph...

Friday, 23 October 2009

Ah, the joy of passwords.

Because I tend to forget passwords, I use a nifty little programme called "KeePass" (here is its official website). The programme can store your passwords for everything and anything, so it is finally possible to have different passwords for all the important and security-relevant things, and only keep the one master password in mind. (Better not forget that, though!) The little programme will even generate long and very secure passwords for you.

The only thing that really throws me off track with Keepass sometimes is when I've generated one of the nice and safe passwords, copied it to its new home, saved everything, bumbled on... and then I find that the password hasn't been stored correctly in its new home because there is only space for 12 digits, and they cut off my password without warning! And there I stand then, trying like mad to get into the site, application or whatever. I KNOW that new password, darn it! I just changed it! I KNOW it's the correct one, it's stored in Keepass!
... and after a while, it dawns on me...

So should you need a little programme to keep track of your passwords (and I think it even can be add-on-ed into Firefox), KeePass is a good choice. It's free, secure, helpful with password generation, it's even portable so you can take it with you on your USB stick or whatever else you carry around for data transport. Just make sure you don't fall into my trap and check the maximum allowed number of password digits first!

Thursday, 22 October 2009

Blanket Stitch vs. Buttonhole Stitch

Ah, textile terminology is a thing to talk endlessly about - or maybe I should say "whine endlessly about"? And it gets even worse when things get translated.

One of the common problems concerns buttonholes (or lacing eyelets, in the time before the buttonhole's rise to prominence). There are three different stitches that can be used for securing the edge of eyelets or slits: the basic overcasting stitch (whip stitch), blanket stitch and buttonhole stitch. And the last two have a history of being confounded with each other, and often both types are called "buttonhole stitch". But there is a difference!

For a whip stitch, the needle enters the fabric from the front side only, and this results in the thread spiraling through the fabric, around the edge, through the fabric and so on. Whip stitch is technically able to do the job around an eyelet or buttonhole, but I can't really remember any extant example - and blanket stitch is nicer to work than whip stitch around those kinds of edges.

For a blanket stitch, the needle goes in at the front of the fabric, out at the back, but in addition, on the way back to the front for the next stitch, the needle is going through the loop that forms around the edge of the fabric. This forms a continuous line of thread lying more or less on top of the edge, thus protecting it better than simple whip stitch. (You can see blanket stitch in a stitch dictionary on this page - scroll way down.)

For a buttonhole stitch, the needle also goes through the loop after going through the fabric, but from front to back. This forms a little knot (a half-hitch, in effect) that is supposed to sit right on the edge of the fabric. This, if made accurately, will hold the continuous line of thread even better on top of the fabric edge.

So what are the differences? Buttonhole stitch takes a little longer to work than blanket stitch (at least for me), because in the way that I make it, I need to change my hold on the needle one more time per stitch (for forming the knot). What takes more time, though, is to make sure the little knot is placed and tightened correctly, and this can be fiddly work.
The biggest difference, however, is discernible when working the stitches tightly beside each other, as required in eyelets or button holes. Then it becomes evident that buttonhole stitch will build up on the edge, effectively making the hole a little smaller. This is not too bad on a buttonhole - in fact, it might even help countering the buttonhole's tendency to widen with use, but on an eyelet hole that is only poked into the fabric and not cut, it's much better to have it in the same size after finishing it. And I have not yet found a true buttonhole stitch in medieval context - this seems to be used only in modern times.

And the conclusion? When I read a term for a stitch, I always look for a picture of the stitch in question - because you can never be sure which terminology the author uses. And when I name a stitch, I always try to give an additional description or picture - because it's never a given that everyone else will think of the same stitch as I do when I name the name.

Wednesday, 21 October 2009

Take note - but which kind?

A recent discussion (and my recent read of Beaudry's "Findings") makes me wonder about Footnotes vs. Endnotes. Publishing houses nowadays seem to prefer endnotes - because it makes page layout easier and a little nicer for the eye not to have footnotes sparsely dotting the bottom of the page. However, for reading, endnotes are much less practical - because looking up an endnote means to put your thumb into the book at the place you are right now, go to the back of the book, find the endnote, read the endnote, and then go back to the front of the book and try to get back into the flow of the argument. This takes much more brainpower than just shifting the eyes to the bottom of the page - and thus will regularly exceed the capacity of the "Working Memory", breaking the flow of the reader. I have also made the experience that endnotes get read (and thus used) much less frequently than footnotes, because it is more trouble to get to them.

And now I'm wondering: Am I the only one who strongly prefers footnotes? Are the publishers right in placing looks over footnote access, do readers prefer endnotes in general? What do you think? If you look to the right side of this page, you can find a little poll to mark your preference - and of course, comments explaining your vote are highly welcome!

Tuesday, 20 October 2009

Things happening

Quite a lot is going on behind the scenes here, not least of all the fact that we have started actual work on the new market stall. The first bit of cloth has been cut and now takes up space in our living room, lying around and looking innocent (as far as 30 square metres of cloth can look innocent, that is). Now we only need to sew one long line of about 7.5 metres before it's time to shrink and waterproof this part.
The wood is already in the basement (mostly - one bit is missing), and after the long piece we're at now is sewn together and treated, the wood structure can be inserted and the fixings made. But it will take a few more evenings of needlework until that is the case!

Another thing happening is my collecting of ideas for some more textile tools for the market stall. I'm thinking of more accessories and tools for goldwork and embroidery - so if you have any suggestions or wishes, let me know, and maybe I'll be inspired to include it.

Monday, 19 October 2009

Things going online, finally!

Blogging is a bit later today than usual, because I wanted to finish the market stall page at least far enough to put a first version online. Originally, I had intended to write a German and English version of the market stall, finish both with all the items I have in my real-life stall, and put them online then. But as things happened (and took longer than planned) and time progresses, I have not managed that yet.

But I know that some people are out there waiting for the page to come up, and I feel bad to let you wait for so long and yet longer. So instead of the all finished, everything included and html polished version, today I'm putting up the market stall page in English, with a link from this blog and the first page of my homepage (that still waits for the full English version, too). And I'll try to add the rest of the goods as soon as I can.

I hope you enjoy it!

Friday, 16 October 2009

Book talk - Mary C. Beaudry: Findings

For a change, here are some thoughts about the book I currently read. The full title of Mary Beaudry's work is "Findings. The Material Culture of Needlework and Sewing", and of course, a title like this seriously incites my interest.

The book aims to give an overview of the findings in connection with sewing and needlework, directed at archaeologists who are confronted with such small small-finds and wish to give a better interpretation to them than just "oh, textile tools - means women were here". That is, in my eyes, a wonderful thing, and I started reading the book with high hopes. However, I now am halfway through the book and already feel quite let down, due to several separate issues.

First of all, Beaudry concentrates on early modern and modern artefacts; this can be expected from a book that seems to be mainly geared towards American archaeology, also mostly citing finds from US sites. She also incorporates short history passages about each tool, however, going back to Middle Ages and beyond, and those are unfortunately not always correct. Terminology also poses a problem, especially combined with the extremely sparse illustrations, since Beaudry groups her objects by modern names. This lumps objects called "pins" from metal together with those from organic materials, and thick and long pins with the small slim ones. While bone and wood "pins" are called by the same name as metal "pins", I think of something much more substantial and thick when bone and wood are mentioned than when talk revolves around metal pins, and I do have different uses in mind automatically. Grouping bone and wood pins in with metal ones and setting them into a common timeline seems to me quite misleading, especially if there is not a single illustration to go with them. A similar thing happens in the "Needle" section, where knitting needles (and then also crochet hooks and netting needles) can be found.

When giving the history of knitting, she states that nålebinding as "an early variant of knitting [...], employing a single coarse needle, was common in northern Europe during the Middle Ages. This technique was used for making stockings and gloves, and in Norway many milk-straining clothes were made in this way [...], but needles used in nålebinding remain elusive." (p. 60)
There are large numbers of rather large, eyed needles made from wood, bone or antler that are perfectly well suited to work nalebinding, and needles are actually made again and sold again for that purpose today, since the technique has seen a revival in LH circles. Actually, the very first hit that comes up on google search when typing "nalebinding needle" is a shop that sells different needles and bodkins well suited for the technique. She is right however in that to my knowledge no needles have been proven to have been used for nalebinding.
Maybe even worse, nalebinding and knitting are technically so different from each other that stating one as the variant of the other is absolutely misleading to the novice while quite apt to boil the blood of a textile person - and severe mistakes like this do cast doubt on the general reliability of a book.

Another very curious interpretation (without pictures of the artefacts in question) is mention of mid-seventeenth c. bodkins with an earscoop at one end: "Those [...] can be quite large, sometimes more than seven inches long, sometimes with an ear-spoon or earscoop at one end. The earscoop was designed to gather earwax for the use on sewing thread, to keep the cut ends from unraveling. Well-to-do women were likely to purchase beeswax for this purpose, but earwax was thrifty and readily available - and cleaning out the ears contributed to personal hygiene." (p. 66) I would be really interested in a source text or picture showing evidence for this - because earwax* has more like a toffee consistence when gathered with an earscoop, quite soft and sticky, and would be totally unsuitable to protect threads from abrasion like beeswax coating does (but very suitable to attract dirt and dust, and keep them nicely in the fabric). And beeswaxing threads is mostly not done to keep ends from unraveling, but for much different reasons.

The almost nonexistent illustration of the book (about 40 figures alltogether, with some of them showing only tools and equipment as depicted in an 18th century craft book, with no further description) takes away much of its usefulness. Especially the section about pins and bodkins would have much profited on a selection of artefact drawings from finds; instead, the reader has to look for those drawings in the literature cited by the author.
This literature is typically given by one note at the end of each paragraph, which can lead to some confusion as to what book yielded the information. The end-note style further takes away from the usefulness of the book, since checking each note means a lot of back-and-forth leafing in the book, disrupting the reading flow.

Some questions Beaudry mentions are quite large issues, like the standard gendering of all things textile as women's work only, though pins were used by men and women alike in their dress. She is also certainly right when writing that pins, needles and sewing implements need better interpretation and more attention. However, the three issues mentioned above - research that seems a bit too superficially done, lack of illustrations to give the reader the possibility to follow the author's distinctions and comparisons, and the sometimes egregious mistakes - are, in my opinion, very much keeping this book from achieving what it aims to do: giving the archaeologist without knowledge about textile work a reference book for differentiated, educated interpretations of these small finds. For this, I would rather recommend Crowfoot et al's Textiles and Clothing, the volumes about small finds from York or, for those who read German, Krabath's "Die hoch- und spätmittelalterlichen Buntmetallfunde nördlich der Alpen. Eine archäologisch-kunsthistorische Untersuchung zu ihrer Herstellungstechnik, funktionalen und zeitlichen Bestimmung."

* Linguistic aside: in German, earwax is called "Ohrenschmalz" which literally translates into "ear-lard" - giving a much better idea about the consistency of the stuff.

Thursday, 15 October 2009

All the Gory Details, parchment tablets.

These tablets measure 6 x 6 cm, a convenient size when weaving and large enough that you can handle them well and even weave with the tablets standing on the corners, for tubular or other special weaving actions. The parchment is prepared by hand, in one of the last traditional parchment manufacturies in Germany. In this case, it is calf parchment. Rounded corners for smooth turning, large holes for ease of setting up the warp.

Parchment tablets have not been found in archaeological excavations yet (at least to my knowledge), but they are a logical material to turn to for complex bands with thin threads and lots of tablets. In some rare cases, "leather" tablets were recovered in excavations, although leather either needs to be much thicker or stiffened in some way to make it useable. A detailed analysis of these tablets would be interesting, in case they were originally parchment which underwent a kind of tanning process during burial in the soil.

In comparison to wood, horn or bone, parchment can be worked much thinner and will still be remarkably stiff and resilient. On the other hand, parchment stays flexible, so while thin wood, bone or horn might break easily, these tablets will survive bending without problem. The surface of well-prepared parchment is naturally quite smooth and will polish some more with use. With these properties, the parchment tablets are wonderful for weaving with historical material, presentations in a museum environment (please be aware that inkle looms and "tablet weave looms" are not medieval at all!), and well-suited for wide, many-tablet bands. If you are used to or happy weaving with cardboard tablets, these are a perfect historical alternative.

The parchment tablets are made completely by hand in my own workshop. The material is traditionally prepared parchment from calf hide. Being parchment, they can be marked, coloured, scribbled on - whatever is needed or desired. With a thickness of about 0,6 mm for most of them, they are slim enough so that handling a larger stack is easily possible - but stiff and wide enough to grasp them easily and that marking the edge of one tablet will clearly show.

Wednesday, 14 October 2009

Gory Needle Details

Pins and even more so needles are an archaeological problem because they are so small. This means that unless there is a nest of pins or needles or unless there is a huge stroke of luck, these tiny metal rods will never be found. If they ever survived the corrosive surroundings in damp soil, that is - something that iron or steel might not take these surroundings as kindly as copper alloy. And then these rare items are so much overlooked - because duh, of course they had needles, that's an everyday item, isn't it? - that there is no collation of needle articles or archaeological needle knowledge yet.

There are two possible ways to find out what needles were in use. One way is to find surviving specimens, analyse them, and if possible make some replicas and try them out. That, of course, is quite difficult because of the scarcity of finds and well-published needles.

The other way is by deduction. It is against all logic that medieval people bought extremely costly materials like gold thread and fine silk to weave enormously fine fabrics and embroider them all over with beautiful, awe-inspiring motifs using a huge, bulky (needle) bodkin only, dragging this huge metal abnormity through their costly fine fabric! Fine fabrics require fine tools, and not only density, but fabric type makes a difference too in which tools are needed.

Both ways - deduction as well as the rare archaeological finds - will lead to the conclusion that fine needles were manufactured and used, and that medieval needles were at least partly also made of steel.

The needles offered here are made from non-stainless steel; stainless steel is a more modern invention. Non-stainless means that the needles might discolour with use due to skin oils. Any discolouring can be removed by polishing the needle with extremely fine sandpaper. Better, though, is the prevention by storing the needles dry, not using them with wet or dirty fingers, and best is storing them in a scrap of wool with lanolin content to conserve them.

They have relatively large eyes in a flattened head, designed to take the thread through the fabric without rubbing it and are thus perfect for embroidery with delicate silk or gold threads. This means they are not only wonderful for stitching cloth together, but very well suited for embroidery too.

The needles are completely hand-made by one of the few remaining traditional needle-makers - in Japan, because traditional needle-making has about died out in Germany.

Tuesday, 13 October 2009

Beeswax, reloaded.

I have already posted a snippet about beeswax some time ago, when I had freshly made my blocks of wax. So here is the version for "All the gory details":

Beeswax is still used for sewing today, sold especially in quilting shops as a little helper for waxing threads for easier use. Drawing the thread over the surface of a beeswax block will lightly coat the thread surface with wax, protecting it from abrasion by the needle eye. Simultaneously, any surplus twist from the plying and winding process is removed from the thread, much reducing its tendency to develop kinks and tangles. Especially linen threads profit a lot from waxing.

Use of beeswax in textile work is documented for medieval times through different written accounts like inventory or acquisition lists. Rests of organic matter identified as wax were also found on pinked edges of cloth, sealing the cuts in their crisp, neat appearance. There are no finds of wax pieces in context with sewing - but like most organic matter, beeswax will quickly decay in the ground.
Beeswax was also used to protect the edges of a cutout embroidery on linen before sewing it into place, or to waterproof linen. That, of course, will use more beeswax than just waxing the threads.

The wax offered here is produced from modern bees (of course), of very high quality and very clean - wax of similar quality is often used in cosmetic production. The wax comes in blocks that were made using modern equipment.

Monday, 12 October 2009

Back from wonderful adventures...

I'm back home again, up and running - and blogging (even if it's slightly later than usual due to a much-needed battle against sleep deficiencies). So what have I been up to in these last two weeks?

First, there was Tannenberg. The traditional season's end market and, like Freienfels, usually resembling something like a fair to see different craftspeople and sellers of medieval tools and paraphernalia. This year, however, Tannenberg was rather subdued in atmosphere and with much less participants than the years before. We all wondered why - maybe all the fear-mongering about bad times and recession, combined with real-life struggling of craftspeople and participants, have finally had their impact on the modern middle ages as well. Still, we had a very nice time in Tannenberg, with quite good weather - only one day of rain and drizzle, and not much muddyness at all - and met and chatted with many of our friends and colleagues.

After return on Monday, it was unpacking, drying, sorting out of things and then, for me, preparing for Hungary straight away. Since I had to finish the presentation too, Tuesday was quite short for that - but everything got packed up in time, clothes stuffed into a bag, the trusty laptop bundled up, and off I went to a wonderful and truly memorable conference in Százhalombatta, a town some thirty km from Budapest. The conference was both the EXARC meeting and the last meeting of liveARCH, a project connecting eight archaeological open air museums from eight different countries. It was wonderfully organised by the Matrica Museum and archaeological park of Százhalombatta, including lodgings and transfer from and to the airport (what luxury not to book anything beyond the flight). It was everything I wish for in a conference: lots of people with different experiences and points of view meeting for good, interesting and sometimes thought-provoking presentations, many academic discussions, common meals, excursions to both stretch the legs and see something else for a while (including something typical for the country and/or region), enough coffee breaks with sweets (yes, the local sweets are actually something I enjoy maybe too much on a conference) and more long, varied discussions. Because everything except, of course, the excursions, took place at the hotel and meals were also organised by the conference team, everyone was kept closely together, and there was no scattering to different watering holes for meals and during free time. And that is another thing that makes a successful conference, to me: Keeping everyone together so that networking, chatting, joking and discussing is made easy, because all the others are quite within reach.

And because during liveARCH it became very clear to everybody that there is one single key to good cooperation and to success with networking, perfectly summarised during one of the lectures as "communication, communication, communication", every evening the "liveARCH Social Club" was opened for having a drink and a chat or five between friends. And every evening I got to bed later and later... explaining the sleep deficiencies and, thus, the lateness of today's blog post.