Friday, October 24

Through the viewfinder: Hercules and Omphale

Through the viewfinder (TtV) will be a new post series on this blog in which I want to share with you a work of art, be it a painting, sculpture, manuscript or drawing from my collection of museum visit images. the photography geeks among you will already know this, but for everyone else: TtV photography is a photographic technique in which a photograph is shot with one camera through the viewfinder of a second camera. There is a parallel here to studying history through visual sources: when we use art as a source, we're looking through the eyes of the photographer, who in turn looks through the eyes of the painter or sculptor.
Why yes, I did some deep thinking on this rainy Friday evening, you can tell! 

Hercules and Omphale (detail), c. 1587, Francesco Bassano, Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna.

The first painting in this series is one I had the pleasure to see in person last April, when I was in Vienna for a conference. Hercules and Omphale by the Italian painter Francesco Bassano is not a very well known piece (finding some decent information on or even a decent picture of this painting online is not an easy feat) even though this theme from Greek and Roman mythology has been painted by various other painters of his time.
Even though this tale has been told in a number of variations, but basically it goes something like this: the great hero Hercules, son of Zeus, accidentally kills his friend Iphitus. As penalty for a murder, one or other oracle (the sources disagree on which one) sends him off to serve Omphale, queen of Lydia, during the course of one year. As her slave, Hercules is forced to do women's work and even wear women's clothing together with the queen's maidens. After some time, Omphale ffalls in love with Hercules for his strength and physical beauty, and takes him as her husband. And they procreated and lived happily ever after. Or some such.

Apparently when I took these photographs I carefully censured both Hercules and Omphale out. My attention was drawn to two maids, who are sitting quite in the center of the panel, doing their sewing work. One of them has a pale yellow sewing cushion on her knees with a lace edged* linen garment on top (that I cannot seem to identify, suggestions and wild guesses are welcome). The other holds a sewing basket and a pair of shears. Meanwhile they seam to have a little private conversation.
To me, this little scene brings to life the 16th century household inventories I work with everyday, where so often these two objects - a sewing cushion and a sewing basket - are mentioned together.

*The lace edge could also be drawn thread work.

Wednesday, October 22

New banner & logo

For those who follow the Medieval Silkwork Facebook Page it's not brand new news anymore, but this blog now has a brand new banner and logo!

They are the first step in the master plan I have devised for the future of Medieval Silkwork. As you have probably noticed, I haven't been updating this blog nearly as often as I would have liked, over the past, say, two or three years. This is largely due to my work as a PhD researcher, which doesn't leave me enough time to make a whole lot of embroidery and other things and talk to you about it.

During the following weeks you'll probably notice a few other changes to the lay-out and hopefully also one or two posts before the end of the year!

And lastly, but of major importance, I want to thank ALL of you for being the best and most loyal readers any blogger could ever wish for! Thank you for coming back here to look at old posts, for still using all the content of this blog to make your own Birgitta caps, frilled veils and embroidery projects! Thank you for being patient with me.

Wednesday, February 26

The beige dress

Remember this woollen dress I posted about last year?

It is now finally completely finished! Can you spot the difference?

Right! Pocket slits!

Not only convenient for easily reaching your purse, also warm for your hands!

The slits are finished on the inside with a strip of linen, the inner red edge is made with loop braiding and the outer red edge is a fingerloop braid of five bows.

Wednesday, October 23

The story of my grey dress 2008-2013

DISCLAIMER: I have to warn you up front: this post will contain a lot of me, and of my bodyparts! Haha. You can't complain I didn't tell you.

Sometimes when you make a medieval dress, it doesn't turn out quite as you imagined. Sometimes you loose or gain weight, and it doesn't fit as well anymore as it used to do. The options are to either make a new dress, or to alter the one you have. Making a new dress, or having it made is expensive. It is expensive now, and it certainly was expensive back then. Fabric was a costly thing and was treated as such. Garments were used and reused and altered. They were bequeathed to next generations by will, they were sold on the second hand market and adapted to be up to date with changing fashions.
That is why I usually go for the second option. Not only is it easier on your purse, it is also in line with medieval practices and you learn a lot of it - about your own body and about how to translate your body shape into clothing.

Back in 2008 I made a grey woollen dress. It was the second fitted dress I ever made. The fabric was a gorgeous twill from Naturtuche (it is still one of my favourite fabrics to date). I made it using the curved front seam method from Le Cotte Simple. Apart from some small details I was very happy with it. I just love the buttons. I love the flow of the skirt. I love that it is all hand sown.
The things I didn't like, were the neckline, which was slightly too high, the combination of the curved front seam with buttons (works better with lacing, I find), and the sleeves. The sleeves are a story in themselves. The attentive reader will notice that the sleeves on this dress are not symmetrical ... 

Me and my grey dress in September 2008. Photo by Bertus Brokamp

This is me wearing the dress for the first time, at an event in The Netherlands. I'm not wearing a modern bra underneath, just with a linen skirt underneath, since it is supposed to be supporting enough by itself.  However, as you can see, it is just a bit too loose under the breasts. I couldn't somehow manage to make it tighter and still be comfortable in it. It even sometimes got me the 'double boob' effect. Very nasty. V-e-r-y nasty. Also, you will notice that, very uncharmingly, my breasts are not at the same height. Left is lower than right. This is not becaus eof the dress, this is just my body, but the dress does nothing to visually correct it. I'm sure i'm not the only woman with asymmetical boobs, and I'm sure I'm not the onlyone frustrated with this.
Now, we could ask ourselves 'Isn't this just a modern obsession? Did medieval people aslo bothered about superficial things like this? Well, I still have to see the first medieval allumination of a clothed woman that has one boob that is lower than the other.

Since I changed my eating habits somewhere back in 2008 (because of gluten intolerance) I started to slowly shrink out of my new pretty dress. Because I didn't attend many events in 2009 and 2010 (I was too busy writing a thesis on frilled veils and trying to get a position as a PhD student) this wasn't a very big problem.
In 2011 I did lower the neckline a bit, by cutting away the top two buttons on one side and top two buttonholes on the other. Although the dress was getting too big, at least I didn't feel restricted in my movements when wearing it anymore, Something that made me very happy attending Visby, an event that lasted a whole week.

Visby, 2011. Not the best pic, but you can see the deeper neckline when you look between my hands with mittens-in-progress. Photo by Bertus Brokamp.

Between 2008 and 2012, I lost so much weight - 25 pounds, to be precise - I had to do something about my dress. I could no longer deny the fact that I couln't wear it without modern underwear, because well ... I don't think I have to spell it out for you. It was just too big everywhere, also in the waist.

Front view. 2012. Photo by Franziska Schatek
The grey dress in 2012. Photo by Franziska Schatek
On al the pics taken during this period, you can see me walk and sit about in a very awkward posture - curved back, shoulders haning down and pointing foward a bit - trying to avoid 'double boob' embarrasment. It wouldn't be far off to say I'm a hunchbacked woman here. Wouldn't it? Nothing to be happy about I say.

From the back. 2012. Photo by Franziska Schatek
And then this also happened. Photo by Bertus Brokamp
And then this happened: the bra-shirt (I still don't know how to call it without using the anachronism 'bra'. Maybe I should stick with 'supportive underwear' instead? For those of you who missed the whole 'supportive underwear' hype, here and here and here you can read up on it. Also, if you don't believe me and want somebody else's opinion, go here and here.

Taking in lots of centimeters, winter 2012-2013. Photo by Bertus Brokamp.
Luckily I lost enough weight, to also get rid of the curved front seam...

New size! September 2013. Photo by Mervi Pasanen
This is the same dress with the straight front seam! I still have to make some small adjustments to the back and neckline, and replace that damned sleeve. But at least, I finally truly feel comfortable in it and enjoy wearing it.

And sitting. September 2013. Photo by Mervi Pasanen.
But maybe, what I love most about this dress in it's current state, is the wrinkles on the torso, exactly as in this altarpiece from Bad Doberan!

Kreuzaltar / Lettneraltar, c. 1370 in the Münster of Bad Doberan, Germany.

Wednesday, October 16

Silk yarns: a comparison

Modern spun silk (left) modern filament silk (center) medieval filament silk (right)
This is an updated version of a post I made back in 2009. Since I have noticed that people are still struggling to find the right type of thread for their medieval embroidery, I thought it a good idea to bring the subject up again. So, here follows a slightly more detailed comparison between modern yarn types and medieval originals.
In the images above you can see a comparison of modern spun silk (on the left), modern filament silk (center), and medieval filament silk (right). The original shown in the above photo's is a reliquary purse from Maastricht, dated ca. 1300. You will notice that the modern filament silk is much more similar to the medieval original. The image quality of the original purse is not that good, which makes it looks slightly more dull than the modern filament silk. Also the medieval embroidery seems to have been 'pressed'. After 'pressing' my own piece of embroidery it looked even more similar.

Filament silk is made by reeling one continuous silk fibre from the silk cocoons and plying those together to form one thread. This results in very strong yarn, since one firbre is over 1 km long.
After the reeling process shorter fibers stay behind. When these are combed they can be spun into yarns. This results in a less strong and less shiny yearn.

A more detailed description of the silk reeling process can be found here.

Purse in spun silk
Same embroidery pattern executed in loose twist filament silk

There are different types of filament silk, depending on the thickness (expressed in 'denier' usually) and the amount of twist in the yarn. For medieval embroidery, both brick-stitch and needle painting types of embroidery, very loose twist filament silk was used. (If there are any exceptions to this rule, I still have to find them.) Also fingerloopbraids and tablet-woven bands are usually made from loose twist silk. Tassels can be found in both loose spun and tight spun silk, depending on the type of tassel. Usually longer tassels are made from tight spun silk, probably because the tight twist prevents tangling. Shorter tassels, and also pompoms are often made from loose twist silk, because tangling is not really an issue with short lengths of thread.
Spun silk might have been used for making tassels, or silkwork of lesser quality, although I do not think it very likely.

For now only a comparison for embroidery yarns and not tassel yarn. That might follow at a later stage.

Loose twist filament silk
  • basic characteristics: very strong, shiny, very even thread
  • suitable for period embroidery, narrow wares, possibly less suitable for tassels
  • modern option: e.g. Devere Yarns - 1200 dernier silk, Au ver a Soie - Soie Ovale
Spun Silk
  • basic characteristics: less strong and shiny, not as even as filament silk
  • less suitable for period embroidery, possibly suitable for tassels
  • modern option: e.g. Au ver a Soie - Soie d'Alger, Aurora Silk
I would like to call on all medieval embroiderers out there to use the right type of silk. There is no point in using silk when you are using spun silk. Then you could just as well use cotton! And, as you have just seen for yourself, you do clearly notice the difference!

Sunday, October 13

Mending an old shirt

This is one of my oldest medieval shirts. It dates back to my early years of living history, when I still sometimes used the machine for sewing (the hemming is done by hand though). Even though I don't really like wearing machine sewn clothes anymore, the linen of this shirt has become so soft because of the long use, that still love wearing it. Off course with wearing comes wear and tear, and my poor shirt ended up with two torn seems under the armpits.

So, something had to be done, bacause I can't possibly imagine parting with it just yet. So one evening not so long ago, I put myself to the task. What I did was weave a small piece of new fabric directly fixed on the base fabric of the garment. I'm not sure wether there is any proof of this method used in medieval times. I was inspired by 18th and 19th century darning samplers and this link.

The main reasons why I chose to try this technique are
1. that you do now need to take any fabric in for making a new seam. This way you do not have to compromise on shape and fit.
2. this technique doesn't add the extra bulk you would get with patching, since there are no raw edges you have to fold under. You do not want extra bulk in your armpits, especially whith tightfitting 14th century overgarments.

And well, of course also because

3. it simply looks pretty neat!

Friday, September 20

Frilled veil workshop at the Ronneburg

Already some time ago (is it three weeks already?! yes it is!) Deventer Burgerscap attended the '100 Jahre 14tes Jahrhundert / 100 years of 14th century' event at the Ronneburg near Frankfurt-am-main. It was the second time we went and it was wonderful again! The setting is just beautiful and of course it is always a pleasure to see and spend time with old friends.
Together with Sahra Hirschfeld from Germany and Mervi Pasanen from Finland I organized a 2 day long frilled veil workshop. On Friday evening we had three lectures focusing on different aspects of frilled veils. Sahra focused on the evolution of the frilled veil througout the 14th and early 15th centuries. Mervi had very thoughtful things to tell about the use of frilled veils in historical reenactment. I did a talk about the archeological finds of frilled veils, and what we know about the construction of frilled headwear both from these finds and from written sources.

A beautiful setting for lectures. Photo by Ilona Reiniharju
Meet our audience. Photo by Hugh McDonald
Exchanging ideas with both the other 'teachers' but also our wonderful audience was a great learning experience. Talking about this kind of subjects with other frilled veil geeks really helps my own thinking process. I feel like I urgently need to write some new articles about this subject. Time is the only problem.

A honeycomb frill sample made by me. Photo by Ilona Reiniharju
Mervi and me getting ready for our talk. Photo by Ilona Reiniharju
Most of what has been published so far is written from an art-historical perspective, rather than asking questions about construction. Especially how construction was interlinked with the type of frilled veil, changed over time and differed from place to place has not received much attention. Work to do!

Mervi demonstrating different types of frilled veils. Photo by Ilona Reiniharju
Mervi also made a blogpost about the workshop and weekend. Go read! However, be aware of the fact that she really goes overboard with putting me on a pedestal. While reading, please keep in mind I am just a normal person. Really. I'm serious. Honestly.

Mervi and me hemming, hemming and hemming. Photo by Ilona Reiniharju
Sahra's beatiful woollen frilled veil. Photo by Hugh McDonald
Me doing talkses. Photo by Hugh McDonald
Another details of Sahra's veil. Photo by Ronald Frank Vetter
Mervi doing talkses. Photo by Ronald Frank Vetter
Some results of the workshop. Photo by Viktoria Holmqvist
Because we spent so much time hemming, hardly any of the participants managed to make actual frills during the weekend. Viktoria was kind enough to share this picture after she got home. So nice to see the results!

So, I'll keep thinking about frilled veils (I don't think I think about much else anyway) and hopefully I can squeeze in an article sometime soonish. Don't strangle me, please, if it turns out to take more time ;-)

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