Wednesday, November 26, 2008

...And a pouch to carry it in...

Having made the wax tablets and stylus, I needed to make a pouch to keep them together and relatively undamaged... As 'Brother George' is dressing up as a scrivener (Wikipedia is most succinct: "A scrivener (or scribe) was traditionally a person who could read and write. This usually indicated secretarial and administrative duties such as dictation and keeping business, judicial, and history records for kings, nobles, temples, and cities."), he'd need the gear to be portable, so something like the ubiquitous scrip, with a shoulder strap, like a pilgrim's bag...

Befitting a Benedictine costume, the scrip needed to be made of plain, undyed leather - what I had was some sheepskin that had gone through the chamois-ing process (fairly unsuccessfully, judging by its lack of absorbent qualities) but had kept the tell-tale yellowish colour and distinctive smell of leather tanned in fish oil...

It's stitched with linen thread and has a pocket on the front for the stylus to go into... Now 'Brother George' just has to dig up skills from 60-odd years ago and re-learn how to write on a wax tablet! In a twelfth century font! Then I'll have to create some quill pens and oak-gall ink...

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

The Stylus

Period styluses (stylii??) were made of bronze, bone, iron, brass, ivory - something that'd keep a good point and not be too bendy. Figured I'd make this one out of bone, as there was a chunk of bone left in my back yard by my daughter's dog which had aged enough to be carved up...

Cut a piece off with a hacksaw and shaped it using the bench grinder, then polished it using sandpaper and steel wool; all in all the whole thing took about half an hour to make (not nearly as hard or time consuming as I thought it would be!)

It seems to work, writing and erasing in the wax fairly well, but it's summer in Queensland and I think the wax is a bit soft - in the winter rubbing bits out will be considerably easier and less messy.

Monday, November 24, 2008

Waxing lyrical...

So Dad's keen to get into the act too, and will cover the religious aspect of the display, dressed as a Benedictine monk. Part of his kit will be a wax tablet and stylus, which will interest the Public and lead into the topic of writing and record-keeping.

I dug around and discovered that wax tablets in our period came in a variety of shapes, sizes and colours - okay, black or green - and decided to make a nice simple 2-piece rectangular one. I had some maple timber left over from a previous project (fortunate, because evidently they actually used maple, amongst other woods, to make tablets) and laid into it with a jigsaw, too late remembering that I had never, ever been able to cut along a straight line! Took the pieces over to Dad's and with the aid of a workbench, saw and cutting guide he turned all my 'interesting' angles in to 90 degree ones. Came home and disinterred my old chisels and gave them a bit of a touch up (okay, they were blunt as hell) on the grindstone and started with the hollowing-out process. The boards are about 18mm thick and I wanted to be able to put about 5-6mm of wax in them and have it about 3mm clear of the top (so they wouldn't stick together when closed), so I chiselled out all the wood to about halfway down, leaving a half-inch frame. It never ceases to amaze me the amount of woodchip mess that comes out of such a small space...

Having hollowed them out I sanded the boards and then fastened them together with a leather hinge - contemporary sources seem to show either a hinge or a cord fastening - then melted some beeswax on the stove and rubbed it into the wood (makes a nice finish), and particularly coated the bottom of the hollowed-out parts as one of the problems I have read about people frequently encountering is that of bubbles forming under the melted wax, and then one needs to scrape the wax out and do it all over again...

Then came the most tedious part of the operation - getting lamp-black to colour the wax (I think the green-coloured tablets found in some manuscript pictures are probably coloured with verdigris, and I figured getting lamp-black would be easier...). Lamp-black is basically pure carbon - the residue that a lamp or smokey candle leaves on a surface held above it for a while. In my case, I used an olive oil lamp (renown for smokiness) and a spoon, and the process basically involved holding the spoon over the flame until a fairly good layer of black soot had built up, whereupon I'd scrape it into a small container and then repeat the process.

In the end I had about a teaspoon and a half of fine, slightly greasy black powder which I carefully carried to the kitchen and dumped into the pot of beeswax on the stove. To stop the black wax from setting as soon as I poured it into the wooden frames, I put them under the grill for a couple of minutes to heat them up a little, gave the wax'n'soot mixture a final stir, hoped that I had the frames reasonably level, and poured the wax in. I had to adjust the level of the frames with a couple of kitchen knives but otherwise everything went fairly well... except I decided to hasten the cooling process by shoving it in the fridge when it had half set, thus cracking it; and had to stick it back under the grill to re-melt the surface and get rid of the cracks. Still, the whole project was a lot less fraught than I though it would be.

Now I just have to make a stylus and a small leather bag to keep the lot in.

I can haz bukkit...

On a jaunt down to the Gold Coast (okay, important excursion to send my Eldest Married Daughter off on a plane to Japan for a month) I ended up visiting the Carrara Markets. When I last went there (20-odd years ago!) they were a large flea market with a few 'craft' stalls; now they're mainly craft stalls but also have a couple of seriously decent second-hand bookshops and some 'antique' (read 'old wares') stalls.

I spent a very pleasant and profitable hour or so wandering around gawping at everything, found a copy of a book I'd been looking for for a while and, most importantly, scored a small oak cask (the sort that holds about 5-6 litres and can be usually found on someone's bar...). This one had all its taps missing, and one of the metal bands around it, so the vendor very nicely marked it down from $39 to $25 (okay, so we haggled a little... :-) ).

The next day I set forth to remove bits and convert it into a bucket... among the pics of period buckets I'd found on the net, there was a very nice Welsh well-bucket, but as I didn't have the ironwork to go on the top, I decided to go with the handle-fixin's of another Welsh bucket of the same period (but different castle LOL!), and probably will use rope until I find a semi-circular piece of iron for the proper handle.

I numbered all the staves (with chalk, on the bottom) in case the blasted thing fell to pieces when I knocked the rings off (because typically the remaining 'middle' ring was at the wrong end), put the 'middle' ring where it should be (i.e. near the top of the bucket) then removed the end of the cask that had the tap hole in it by the simple expedient of whacking it repeatedly with a hammer until it caved in... mmmm percussive maintenance.... As it turned out, the little cask held together through all this abuse and I was able to rub the chalked numbers off the 16 staves and not worry about it.

The cask had been lined with wax (obviously, given its actual use) and I filled it with water and sat it on the sink to see where it would leak from... 24 hours later and there's no loss of water and no mess on the sink, so all good! I can haz bukkit!!1!

Friday, November 21, 2008


So, The Child is keen on all this re-enactment stuff and suggested I teach her to embroider (The Child is my youngest and is the impressionable and delicate age of 19...). She was a little daunted by the whole concept but willing to give it a go, and after I'd showed her a few basic stitches was surprised how easy it was. Then it was just a question of what she was going to do as a practice piece.

She's still a little horse-crazy and by sheer luck (and minimal research) we stumbled across a Bestiary dated 1220-1230 (British Library, Harley MS 4751, Folio 68r) with a rather nice hippocampus, so I drew it onto a piece of linen for her and dug out a bunch of coloured wool I'd dyed up about 8 years ago and let her go for it.

Well, it took about a week all up to complete, then we sewed it into a pillow slip with a dark blue linen back. Then we had to make the pillow - note to self: stuffing feather pillows is to be done OUTSIDE next time!

Sunday, November 9, 2008


There seem to be a lot of sources for Viking/10th century and 14th-century-and-after spoons, and bugger all in between... I did find a rather nice silver Byzantine spoon belonging to the Department of Antiquities, Cyprus, but being silver it's likely to be a liturgical tool and not necessarily tableware; it is however a similar shape to those spoons that came before and after it (and which WERE tableware) so we'll leave it as 'this-is-as-good-as-it-gets-at-the-moment' until more evidence rears its head.

I observed that the teardrop-shaped bowls are very much the same shape as modern 'parfait' spoons, and got a couple of cheap stainless steel ones; not being a backsmith, and being able to make the spoons from scratch, I reshaped the handles on the spoons (using a bench grinder LOL) and the end result is fairly 'period' looking.

A lot of tableware of the period (if not wooden or ceramic/pottery) is pewter, and I can find pewter spoons from later (14th-15th century) periods, but not the 12th-13th century. So far. Frustrating!

Friday, November 7, 2008


Consider that the spinning wheel, which makes spinning yarn much faster, didn't hit Europe until around the fifteenth century - the hand-turned spindle wheel, which was a slight improvement, speed-wise, on a drop spindle seems to have arrived some time in the thirteenth century (it appears in the Guild Laws of Speyer in 1298, so had obviously been used for a time); but the flyer wheel, which really speeds up the process by winding the yarn onto a bobbin as it spins, appears in about the fifteenth century. For the curious, there's a picture of a drop spindle at the bottom of this post.

Consider also that every piece of yarn, then, whether fine silk for a banner, coarse wool for carpets, linen for tent canvas and sails, and any fibre for clothing had to be spun on a drop spindle. For the uninitiated, a drop spindle is a stick with a weight on it. You twist a bit of wool into thread and tie it to the stick; then, hanging the stick-and-weight (spindle) from the thread, you spin it and that makes the unspun wool you're holding also twist into thread. This means that you need to control how much wool there is that'll be twisted, depending on whether you want a thick thread (say, for knitting or carpets) or a fine one (say, for a shirt or veil). When you've spun a couple of metres your hand is above your head and can't reach any further up and still keep the spindle spinning, so you need to stop and wind what you've spun onto the spindle. A loop over the end of the stick keeps the yarn from unwinding, and off you go again.

As a quick experiment, take a look at what you're wearing. Ignore knitted fabric (including t-shirt fabric), just look at the woven stuff. Count how many threads are going one way in a couple of centimetres (we'll call this the 'warp', in weaving terms) and how many are going across those threads (the 'weft'; and also just count a couple of centimetres). Measure how big your garment is, to find out how big the piece of fabric would need to be, then do some quick multiplication to work out how many metres of thread you would need to spin to make that garment... A quick guesstimate is that modern shirt uses a piece of fabric about 2 metres long and a metre wide. An average cotton fabric has about 25 threads per centimetre, so you would need 1 metre ( 100 cm) of groups of 25 threads = 2500 threads, by 2m in length; so 5,000m of thread one way; you would need that same amount of thread the other way, too ( think of the way the threads intersect as little squares), so that's another 5,000m... Allow that a really fast spinner might take say, 12 seconds to spin a couple of metres, wind it onto the spindle, fasten it and be ready to spin the next couple of metres, and you're looking at 10 metres of thread produced a minute and a thousand minutes of spinning to get enough yarn to weave the fabric. That's only a bit over 16 hours! Granted, that's for a fairly fine fabric (the sort we all wear for chemises, shirtes, veils, etc.) - the heavy wool a tunic might be made of could probably be spun in a few hours less...

In other words, fabric was time-consuming to make (and we haven't even discussed weaving it and sewing it!). If you think about the amount of fabric (including braid, blankets, sheets as well as clothing) and yarn (string, rope, lamp wicks, etc) a medieval household needed, you'll see that the average medieval woman spent a lot of her time spinning. Keep in mind that most household made their own pretty much everything, including fabric; only things that were beyond the abilities of the household to produce were bought. Fabric was sufficiently expensive that wages often included items of clothing, and cloth could be used as currency if it had a seal affixed to it attesting to its quality.

My point is, medieval women would have been spinning when they weren't doing other things - sewing, embroidering, cooking, farming, posing for manuscript illustrations... In twelve-odd years of re-enactment I've been to a lot of fairs and events, and I think the most women I've ever seen spinning has been, maybe, half a dozen, and one of them has been me! Come on, ladies, the devil makes work for idle hands yada yada, and if we're really looking reproduce that 'authentic' medieval atmosphere at a fair, then get thyselves to a spindle, learn to spin, display a very common piece of living history to the public, use the yarn in the construction of your gear - isn't that what re-enactment's all about?

This is a pic of my favourite spindle - favourite because it spins a really nice fine thread with which I can cardweave or embroider, and because part of it is the only 'authentic' piece of gear I own - a real twelfth century spindle whorl (that's the little lead weight on the stick) which I bought from an antiquities dealer. The whorl still has a slight zig-zag design on the outer face; the inner hole is slightly conical so it can be wedged onto a stick to spin with and then removed so the stick of yarn can be used as a shuttle for weaving.

I stress the word 'authentic', because re-enactors tend to use it to mean "historically accurate", rather than to refer to something that actually came from the period. I have a bit of a giggle at the whole 'Authenticity Debate' that rages on in re-enactment circles - is that shirt 'authentic', is that sword? Well, heads up guys - unless you've been ravaging museums and raiding antiquities dealers, none of your gear is "authentic" - at best, it's "period" or "historically accurate". Maybe it looks "authentic", although I prefer to have my gear looking like I use it, without 800 years of wear and depredations... English is a fine, rich language and using a word to mean something we already have words for is redundant, ambiguous, and contributes to the blandification of the language (like, "awesome", "fantastic", "terrific" now mean "good"). Heaven forbit anyone should be interested in the history of the language, let alone maintaining it; history is, after all, for old farts, geeks, boring people.... eep.

Thursday, November 6, 2008


This is one of my old costumes which I made about 8 years ago... the gown's silk brocade with silk/metal thread braid around the neckline, cuffs and hems; that's been beaded with glass beads, freshwater pearls, and cultured pearls (see inset). The gown has side lacing and a fairly full skirt.

With the gown goes a headpiece and veil, done 'Eastern-style' (i.e. the veil is black and beaded, and the headpiece is a circlet raised at the front, taken from a contemporary Armenian Ms pic). The veil is very fine silk, embroidered with silver thread (which has tarnished a little) and black glass beads, the headpiece is a silver circlet backed with stiffened black linen and embroidered with pearls, turquoise, garnet and glass beads, and silver filigree flowers. It weighs a bloody ton and I'm relieved to get it off at the end of the day... There's a lovely story I read (quite!) a while back, involving a wealthy young woman who suffered incurable headaches who went to seek the help of a doctor/abbot/wise man (I can't remember the details, dammit!); they tried all sorts of lotions and potions and praying to saints and nothing worked until one day (having grown to know the lady quite well) he asked her to remove her veil and head dress so that he might examine her head - and mirabile dictu, the headache disappeared! LOL I guess she slept and bathed in the bloody thing too...

The pouch is pigskin, dyed a dark red (maroon or burgundy, as you please), and one of the hardest things I've ever had to put a needle through - it seems to grip onto even the finest beading needle! The design is taken from the Maciejowski Psalter, and it's decorated with brass filigree flowers, brass rondels, and coral and blue glass beads.

Off the belt hangs a number of goodies (keeping in mind that clothing of the period didn't have pockets, hence the need also for the pouch): a comb (cow horn, the first one I made and fairly coarse, but it works and is smoth enough not to snag hair), some keys (some for decoration some are actually to a couple of my trunks), and an early sort of a chatelaine - a needlecase, a pair of snips in a sheath, a sharpening stone, and a small jar of grease for my perpetually chapped lips - why do they always hold medieval events on dry windy days?!

The one thing I seem to be missing (and now I'll have to make a new one...) is a utility knife...

Oh yeah, when it's all together it looks sort of like this (the walking stick is hand-carved with a whale's-tooth head, and I have it because my sciatica was playing up):

Back into it...

So after 5 years I'm getting back into re-enactment... When I gave it up I sold most of my stuff (tent, costumes, eating gear, yada yada) or donated it to the group I left (and it became flood-damaged and they threw it out LOL), so I have very little left to start again with.

This blog's probably going to end up as a lengthy discussion of making of medieval bits and pieces, but first let's examine what I don't have to make: I have one 'good' costume (silk brocade, real pearls, coral) and accoutrements (belt, pouch, bits'n'pieces to hang from the belt: comb, keys, snips, needlecase, sharpening stone and so forth) and a headpiece and veil. I have a couple of trunks, a lute, a chair and a water barrel; I have some spinning stuff (spindles, wool, carding combs, so forth). I think I have some wooden bowls and platters somewhere... and a couple of rugs...

Gonna be busy.