Sunday, April 26, 2015

A Different Kind of Apprenticeship

Yesterday I went to an SCA event 4 1/2 hours from my home to watch a dear friend of my receive an award I have known he was destined for since I first met him almost 8 years ago. My people call moments like that stardust. It is something special to watch someone who has given so much time, talents, and self to a group to be recognized with their highest award in that area.
I also had a bit of stardust sprinkled on my head when the Queen of Atenveldt chose my display on 16th century corsetry and accessories as her favorite of the day. On my drive home I reflected on the experience and decided to post an edited version of an article I wrote for USITT Desert Conference's news letter about my experiences with costume and stardust in the SCA. I hope it warms a few hearts out there in cyberspace even a fraction as much as mine was warmed yesterday.

A Different kind of Apprenticeship
Costuming in the Society for Creative Anachronism
Maridith Feher
                The Society for Creative Anachronism is one of the largest educational, non-profit groups in the country. I first joined this diverse group in 2007, and have maintained an active member ever since. Anyone who chooses to go to an event will first notice how ingrained costuming has become into the SCA. Individuals who arrive at events in modern clothing are jokingly called, “naked.” There is a wide range in types of clothing SCA members will study, and funding individuals can put into the clothing will vary. Another major factor in an individual’s attire is the skill levels they, or their friends, posses. My costuming through the SCA has been an amazing journey which has focused my techniques and skills in pre-17th century clothing.
Maestra Tatiana and her Husband.
In 2013, I entered into an apprenticeship with a woman called Maestra Tatiana. Within the SCA, she is recognized as my Laurel. Laurels are a group of individuals who have been recognized for their skills with arts and sciences from pre-17th century life. Our relationship is that of a student and teacher, but also an extended family I can call on when my personal life is in crisis. Unfortunately, just as I was moving into an easy travel distance Tatiana had to move out of state for work. Ten years ago this would have ended our association. With all of the tools available to us I still talk to my Laurel at least once a week and our connection keeps growing. During these chats, we discuss progress on my research projects, issues I may be having with a particular piece, and what is expected of a Laurel in the SCA.  Because of our unique geography problems I have also been adopted by a group of other Laurels who are mutual friends of Tatiana and I so I have someone local I can go to with immediate questions, go to events with, call me on being crazy, and advocate for me when necessary. Every Laurel-Apprentice relationship is a bit different. My Laurel no longer lives near me so, I have to be more self-motivated then some of my peers are.  Other Laurels will give their Apprentices projects and homework. My Laurel revels in my love of researching small details to better understand the larger picture.
One of my First SCA outfits with my Husband.
Photo at event in Phoenix, AZ. September 2008
With the burst of interest and research available within the SCA’s time line, a costuming Laurel is no longer someone who can make pretty and detailed clothing. Laurels are expected to research fabric fragments in public collections for types of weaves or fiber content. A costuming laurel should be skilled in period handwork techniques, and have other areas of interest to make them more approachable by the public.  If skill was all that was required to become a Laurel there would be droves of them within the SCA. Laurels are also expected to have a joy of learning and teaching their arts, and be a role model for others in the SCA to aspire toward. Any individual can research types of lace. A Laurel will learn the skill and then share their skills with others through teaching and making pieces to share with others. While the Laurel is teaching about that piece of lace they will also be researching and experimenting with period correct materials to find out how each fiber behaves.
Pair of Bodies made with help from Maestra Tatiana in 2012. Photo of their condition in 2015
My drive to learn is one of the reasons Tatiana and I have been drawn together. We met at a corsetry workshop she was teaching in Mesa, Arizona in 2012. She was impressed with my desire to learn and dedication to understanding the period correct techniques. I believe she was also flattered that I chose to drive 3 ½ hours to take her 4 hours class. We discussed period materials and patterning for hours, and she got my information so she could keep track of how my set turned out. I was curious about the period use of reeds as a stiffener and ordered some to experiment with. The resulting pair of bodies, based on Elizabeth I’s funeral effigy set, is comfortable, and shockingly durable for the type of wear they have been put through.  As one research project gives way to the next, my perception of clothing from this time frame has morphed in the last eight years.
Gold Florintine Gown
Worn at SCA event in Tucson, AZ
March 2015.
When Tatiana began looking for pictures of my work online she was shocked at my transformation. Several of my newer friends could not recognize the images of me in 2007. As our relationship grew I shared more research ideas and she would give me feedback. When you are not working as a group to achieve a look, I feel it is important to have someone to bounce ideas off. This may be a hangover from my time in the costume shop, but it works well for me. Not only am I making beautiful pieces of art; I am researching a piece of history and how it functioned within society.
The largest differences I have experienced between costume for the stage and the clothing worn in the SCA is the function. Stage costume is used to tell a story. The designers are sending a message with every piece of clothing an actor wears, or does not wear. Period stage costume of today rarely sees the kind of abuse a historical washerwoman would have put it through. Well researched and constructed clothing for the SCA can be used as a heraldic story board, but is usually a reflection of hours of research into a particular time frame. Theatrical costume is often built quickly; an entire cast will be clothed in a matter of weeks, and using the theatre’s budget.
Photo by Patti Jo Collum. March 2015
SCA clothing can take years to make, depending on the kinds of treatments being used. Take my Anne Boleyn portrait reconstruction as an example. I first started that dress in 2010 and it has grown and evolved with the research I have done in the last five years. The more research I did the more I realized that period techniques needed to be used and this increased the time I was spending on every aspect of the clothing.Some dresses are simply labor's of love because few could ever afford to pay an individual or group for the labor involved in any outfit. SCA members can spend over eighteen hours in their clothing doing a wide range of activity. My favorite moments in the SCA have been watching the historical research collide with theatrical pageantry.

I am a better costume technician as a result of my time within the SCA. I have been given a safe playground to experiment without the stress, usually, of needing a pieced on stage as soon as possible. If the experiment does not work, it is a learning experience I can build on to better understand how clothing was constructed at the time. I like to think of myself as a costume detective, on the hunt to understand and construct clothing Christina of Denmark or Cosimo de Medici would recognize. With every passing year I believe I get a step closer to my goal. 

Tuesday, April 7, 2015

Late 16th Century Belt

Tintoretto Portrait of a Lady
Over the last several months I have been haunting the jewelry sections at my local craft stores and beading shops. My goal has been to find supplies to make a new belt. There are plenty a beautiful pieces on the market right now,  just not what I was looking for. Being picky with my design also gave me time to research pieces.

The two principal styles of belts worn by middle to upper class Venetian woman  between 1550 and 1600 could be thought of as jewelry more than accessories as we see them today. The first style wraps around the waist and has a tail dangling down the center front of wearers' skirts. Style number two also wraps around the wearer's body, but does not extend down. It appears that wealthier women would have a large "belt buckle" while the middle class would simply hook the two ends together. I already have 3 belts with dangling pieces, so I decided to try the second style.
Cross from the late 16th century.
Gold with Enamel work, emeralds, and pearls.
Royal Collection RCIN 9051
the next big decision was materials.

The idea of emeralds is appealing because of my role in the SCA as an apprentice. Hazel Forsyth discusses the use of emeralds in 16th and 17th century jewelry in her book The Cheepside Hoard: London's Lost Jewels. Emeralds at the time were coming from the New World.  During the conquest,  Spain established mines I. Columbia to pull out precious ore and emerald. The emeralds were  then sent back to the court of the king of Spain and were traded across Europe, specifically to Venice (FORSYTH 134-135). Emeralds are a soft gemstone and at this time were not cut with many facets.

Gold Pendant of a Centar.
Met Museum of Art, New York.
Pearls and gold are two of the most widely used materials in jewelry from this time frame. Royal inventories, wills, and art are filled with these precious materials. Many Venetian brides are seen wearing pearl necklaces. Pearls are sewn into the clothing and embroideries of the day. There are even accounts of fake pearls being made in Venice from beads and fish scales.  My research on pearls lead to this astounding portrait of Elizabeth I's favorite, Lord Robert Dudley. His necklace here is made of what I am going to call pearl cages. This treatment became one of the focal points of my belt design because it is an easy technique for me to reproduce without skills in casting or metal work. It did not take me too long to realize casting gold pieces and insetting real emeralds into them was not going to happen with this project. I chose to do something I could safely do in apartment without spending our life savings on materials or equipment. Someday I will return to research metal work in more detail I hope. I originally played with threading beads onto eye pins, but I did not like the extra work of crimping off each set of pearls.
Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester. 1560-1565
Painting attributed to Steven van der Meulen
Now Resides in Wallace Collection, Image from Wikipedia 
Construction of the Belt

6 -7inch strands of freshwater pearls roughly 4mm
18-20  Green Czech glass "gems" roughly 1 inch long.
Gold Plated or Filled spacer beads and cap beads
1 jewelry hook
Large Pendant
Crimp beads
Nylon Coated beading Wire

Step 1- Measure around your waist and down the point of the gown the belt will be worn with. Take this measurement and add 12 inches. This will be the length of your belt. To use fewer crimp beads you can make pieces double the length for step 2. I made a belt with 3 strands. If you make one with 4 strands of pearls expect to use 3 more strands of pearls.

Step 2- Wrap wire around a piece of open work on one side your pendant. Once lengths are all uniform again, you can crimp the wires again to secure them from sliding out using your pliers.

Step 3- Create your pattern. On my belt I used 2 gold spacer beads, one gold cap bead, green glass bead, gold cap bead and gold spacer bead to run all of my wires through. This will create an anchor point of your floating strands of pearls. Bead 5 pearls onto each strand of wire separately. Start original pattern again and slide all wires through your anchor pattern. When you pull the wires tight through your anchor pattern it will create "cages" of pearls.

Step 4- Repeat your beading pattern until piece makes your desired length.

Step 5- Finishing your piece. I prefer my belt look symmetrical. End pattern on  a repeat that will mirror  your beginning of the piece. Slide on a crimp bead and then your jewelry hook. Put your wires through the crimp bead and your spacer beads. Pull wires taught and crimp bead down. Hide wires in your beading pattern and trim excess.
Finished Belt

Monday, April 6, 2015

Wolf Hall on PBS Masterpieces!

Anne Boleyn from Wolf Hall. Photo from
After months of waiting, Tudor history fans in the USA finally got access to the series Wolf Hall. Many costume bloggers have been gushing or ranting about the costumes since the first press release photos hit the internet last year.
Personally, I was skeptical the drama would live up to the dream many of us have of a period correct drama for this time period. Now that I have taken the time to watch the first episode on I am hooked. No huge farthingales in the 1520's. All the ladies and gentlemen are wearing hats. One of the details I was most impressed with was the period correct table manners during a banquet scene. Notice what Cromwell and other are doing with their napkins and how large they are compared to modern napkins.
The entire production team's work, love, and research shows in each frame. I hope all of you will take advantage of this airing for free on PBS. If you are like me and can not always commit to being in one place every week, you can stream each episode for a limited time through Below are links to more information about Wolf Hall's release here in the states.

PBS Programs: Wolf Hall Streaming Episodes

PBS Wolf Hall Page