Sunday, 9 October 2016


Back when Boss Laurel and I set up this apprenticeship malarkey, there were terms and conditions. One of the things I had to do was make myself an apprentice belt. (Context for the non-SCA readers - there's a tradition within the Society that apprentices wear belts, usually green, to mark their status. Frequently the belt is a gift from the Laurel to the apprentice, but not always.)

The belt didn't have to be green, in my case, but I had to make it myself. And when I say "make it myself", I mean I had to do all the steps the craftsperson would have done in the Middle Ages. So, had I made a leather belt, I could have bought a metal buckle, but I'd probably have had to tan my own leather.

The mission was further complicated by two things. One - I don't like wearing belts. Two - I already have two green apprentice belts, both of which were gifts from dear friends and are what I wear all the time. So whatever I made needed to be not at all belt-like and also not duplicate the function of either of the others I already own.

I put the whole thing on the back burner, mostly to give myself time to mull it over and figure out what I'd actually wear. Then the 16th century happened and I basically made myself a new court outfit in the style of the English 1540s. What I never did get around to making for it was a jewelled girdle, because jewelry-making is WAY outside my comfort zone. Also, it's expensive, and it's hard to find table-cut gemstones.

Then I came across this portrait and found another option:
Copyright the Royal Collection
Specifically, this bit of it:
Looking at it closely, it's essentially a string of pearls with a chain and medallion hanging off the front. Even I can manage that!

I set off to my favourite crack dealer needlework supply shop and came home with an assortment of artificial pearls, gold beads, and gold chain. I had considered threading all of it on silk, but I want this to be sturdy enough to survive more than one event, so I decided to buy tiger tail. The nylon component is modern, but jewelry on wire is accurate.

Once I got home, I spent mumble-mumble hours with a bead reamer smoothing the insides of the beads. Again, this is for long-term survival of the girdle - any sharp edges run the risk of wearing through the wire.

There's no clasp visible in the painting, but it has to fasten somehow. I've used a hook and eye and put them at the front of the pearl strand - it'll be easier to put the girdle on, and it means I can use the hook to attach the chain and pendant.

I've used the gold beads to space out the pearls because the shop didn't have enough pearls in the right size to fit my waist.

The pendant is a silver and garnet Christmas decoration my mother bought me in Istanbul years ago. It needs a good polish, but it's pretty and does a good impression of the pomander pendants on many of the girdles shown in portraits.

And finally, the finished girdle.

Photos with the full outfit next month - it takes nearly an hour to get into it, and I need assistance from someone better with hoopskirts than my spouse!

Saturday, 1 October 2016

Exhibition review - Opus Anglicanum at the V&A

Yesterday evening I went to the members' preview of the new Opus Anglicanum exhibition at the V&A, courtesy of my lovely colleague. It was, in a word, amazing. No photos allowed, sadly, so this will have to be words only.

The exhibition itself fills about five rooms of the museum's flexible exhibition space. It comprises 83 objects, mostly embroideries, but also a nice range of stained glass, needlework tools, tiles, and brass rubbings (among other things!). The objects are nicely spaced out, so there's plenty of room to look around. Also, many of the cases are glass on both sides so you can see all the way around the objects. The signage and labelling is also really good, plenty of information about the thread AND the ground fabric, including notes about the weave structure. There was one button I wanted to know more about, but that was the only problem.

The embroideries themselves are mostly ecclesiastical, but there are also pieces from court inventories as well as fragments too small to identify. They span about 350 years, with most of the collection dating from the 13th and 14th centuries. In addition to the more usual gold-and-silk on linen, there are also examples of some more unusual things, including a seal bag that is the only known extant piece of medieval English wool inlaid work (on loan from Westminster Abbey, no webpage available), and a chasuble which is the earliest known example of kanzi fabric in England. (Kanzi is an Iranian blend with a silk warp and cotton weft.) The objects on display are from a number of collections outside the V&A, including the British Library and the National Museum of Iceland, among others.

The lighting is low for preservation purposes, and as mentioned above there was no photography permitted. Plan to bring a sketchbook if you're not going to get the catalogue.

Speaking of the catalogue, it's 310 pages of hardcover, full-colour yumminess, well worth the £35 price tag. It weighs nearly 2kg, but it was definitely worth hauling home. In addition to the full catalogue, there are also eight essays detailing the context of Opus Anglicanum, its methods of work, the materials used, and the relationship between the English embroidery industry and the rest of Europe. There's a full glossary and an extensive bibliography. Additionally, each catalogue entry has its own set of citations where the object has previously been studied.

In summary, I'll paraphrase my excited Facebook post from last night:

If you are interested in historic embroidery. If you are interested in historic textiles generally. If you are interested in any sort of embroidery. If you are interested in heraldic display. If you are interested in 13th-century trade networks. If you are interested in ceremonial clothing. If you are interested in the relationship between medieval embroidery design and its contemporary artworks. GO.