The Quest for the Golden Seamstress (AKA, my crazy weekend project)
Monday, April 11, 2011
I haven't talked a lot about my involvement in the Society for Creative Anachronism (SCA) outside of fencing, but it's a living history group that recreates courtly life in the European Middle Ages and Renaissance, (600 CE to 1600 CE, roughly) and other cultures that had contact with Europe (eg, Persian, Turkish, even as far as Japan). On the martial side, in addition to fencing, we have armored combat, equestrian (jousting), archery (including combat archery with arrows tipped with wide blunts like tennis balls), and thrown weapons. On the arts and sciences side, we study and, when possible, replicate a wide range of practices, from dancing to cooking to illumination/calligraphy to making furniture to weaving to making jewelry to making soap to spinning. Sometimes these arts and sciences are just done--we make things, like armor or embroidery or whatever because we want to have them to wear, to use, or just because it's fun to have. And sometimes we document them (using pictures or text to show how what we made is based on actual historical practices) and enter them into competitions.
While I'm obviously involved with the fencing element, I also shoot archery (on-and-off, since I don't have access to a regular archery practice right now) and I've been heavily involved with the A&S side for as long as I've been in the SCA. I bead, I braid, I did some lucet (cord making) and embroidery before it hurt my hands; I do Viking wire weaving... among other things. And, I suppose no surprise since I'm in a research-heavy field of study, I love doing research and have, in the time I've been in the SCA, done a lot of research on a lot of different subjects--including clothing styles, because I have found that fashion is a fascinating window into the lives in different times and places. But one thing that I'm not is a seamstress. I know what a lot of the clothing should *look* like; what I don't know is how to make it.
Which is part of the reason it's entertaining that this past weekend I participated in my second Quest for the Golden Seamstress. Golden Seamstress is a particularly intense A&S competition. Instead of entering something we've individually spent months working on to be judged, teams bring all their materials to the site and, in 20 hours, create an entire outfit from the skin out. Documentation is written ahead of time, and we can make certain not clothing elements (shoes and accessories not made from cloth) can be made ahead of time, but the more you can make on site, the higher your score. There are three levels of competition--Novice, Advanced, and Master. My team, Mac and Cheese, had 5 members (we're allowed up to 6) and competed at the Advance level. We created, in one 20 hour period, the clothing of a 10th non-Muslim woman wearing Arab style dress living in Baghdad.
A lot of research and preparation went into this project. Three looms were warped ahead of time, fabric was dyed (though it cannot be cut or marked in advance, we can dye it ahead of time), and lots of research was done, compiled, and written up in a document. We tried to document everything, from clothing design to materials available to techniques. I didn't know anything about Arab dress (let alone 10th Century non-Muslim dress) and I didn't know anything about tablet weaving and not a lot about the documentation for 10th century embroidery... so it was a crash course to learn about these things so that I could help write up the documentation.
We got on site about 6:30 pm Friday to set up though the actual competition doesn't start until 10 pm. We then had until 6 pm Saturday to finish. For our outfit, we had 5 pieces of clothing (long loose shorts/pants that went under everything, a sleeveless short tunic, a closed sleeved tunic, a sleeved tunic that buttoned down the front and opened in front from the waist down, and a heavy, lined coat) 4 veils, and a pair of leather sandals. In addition to that, we made a tablet woven belt and two stretches of tablet woven "wire" brocade (we used thread instead of gold wire because gold wire is very expensive) and decorative embroidered bands... all of which was made on site, including designing the pattern of the clothing. While we did use sewing machines for the structural seams (since this clothing was intended to be worn), all the visible stitches (hems, etc.) were hand sewn except on the pants.
I had someone tell me before the competition that it didn't seem like that much of a challenge since we could use sewing machines, but believe me, it is. 2 of our team members did nothing but weave for the better part of the 20 hour period. 2 of the remaining three created the pattern, worked the machines and did hand sewing; one of them also made the shoes. The last one (me) spent the first part ironing all of our fabric and then hand sewing the rest of the night. It is physically very intense--not in the same way as working out, but we spent hours in the same position, repeating very small movements. I did not sleep at all for over 36 hours total; some of my team members took short naps but only for an hour or two (one of our team members actually fell asleep in the middle of making hand-made buttons--she was still holding her needle and the cloth button she was making but out cold; periodically her hands would move like she was sewing but she was out cold). We tried to remember to eat every few hours--fortunately I had brought food so we had a lot of relatively healthy snacks, though not a lot of vegetables and fruit; mostly things like nuts, peanut butter, whole wheat crackers and bread, hard boiled eggs, and cheese. We drank lots of tea and even more water, and I and another team member got up every couple of hours to do about 5-10 minutes of yoga to stretch our backs and hands out as well as give us a mental break.
It was not a hallmark healthy lifestyle weekend. I did not sleep; I didn't record what I ate and I honestly couldn't tell you at this point what I actually did eat, though I know I stayed away from sweets most of the evening (I did have 2 Hershey kisses around 3 am, and I had a few slices of jello jigglers made with Mt. Dew which can't be at all healthy but gave me the kick I needed to keep going when I was running on fumes). But I met all of my goals as far as eating regularly, drinking lots of water, and stretching regularly.
And we did an AWESOME job on our project, if I do say so myself. It looked great. The fabrics--while bought separately over a long period of time because she liked them, and not been intentionally bought to go together--they looked incredible together and we had lots of compliments all night long on the fabric. Even though we tried a lot of things we had never done before (this is not normal for Golden Seamstress but our team seems to have a tendency to do this) it all came together well and looks, well, gorgeous. I don't know if I have any good pictures; I had problems with my battery and I know a lot of people were having problems getting good pictures because of the lighting and number of people there, so I don't know if I will have any pictures to share. But it looked really beautiful.
At 6 pm, all sewing etc. stops and the model gets dressed for a mini fashion show for the judges, contestants, and day visitors who wanted to see what we'd done. After that, we cleaned up our areas, packed, and waited for the judges to decide... It didn't take all that long this year, but I swear this is the longest part of the whole thing because the adrenaline has crashed, we're all bone tired and beyond, and have nothing to do but wait. But finally the judges came out.... and we won our category! Whoo hoo!
I'm still a little stunned that we actually won. Yes, the outfit we made was beautiful, but you have to realize that the other teams did an incredible job as well. There was a lot of really beautiful outfits made, and lots of quality research that went into them--so it's some pretty stiff competition. But we won!