Confessions of a Timeline Surfer by Lisa Joseph
When I started participating in the Society For Creative Anachronism nearly 15 years ago, sewing was a necessary evil. I had to make an attempt at pre-17th century dress if I wanted to go to events and participate. I wasn’t very good at it when I began and I didn’t enjoy doing it. The sewing part, that is. Dressing the part, however, reminded me how much I’d loved Halloween and playing dress-up as a kid.
For some living-history enthusiasts, historical costume is simply a means to an end. Correct kit means being able to fight battles on the weekend or attend a Jane Austen-themed dance party or be part of the population of a Renaissance Faire or SCA event. These ends are all worthy in and of themselves as educational, social and entertainment activities. And in this day and age, with the popularity of living history groups, it is possible to wave one’s credit card at a vendor on the internet and kit oneself out for one’s chosen period without ever having to thread a needle.
For some of us though, historical costume becomes something more.
It wasn't until I considered that the illusion of being a medieval musician extended to my appearance during performances that I felt the need to get better at the costuming part of my game. Once I made that connection and improved my skills, I started liking what I was wearing a lot more.
"I don't know, how long does it take to sew a tunic by hand?" was a question I was curious enough to try to answer. It took longer than using a machine, but somehow it looked better. As I learned about the cut and fit of early medieval clothing, I began to understand how little waste there was of fabric that had to be spun from fibers and woven before one even took scissors and needle to it. It wasn't long before I was doing all my work by hand. I found it a lot more relaxing than the constant white noise of a sewing machine, I could take it along with me and work on it while socializing with friends at events, and I found that I valued garments I put so much work into a lot more. With practice came dexterity and speed, which pretty much made up for the time needed to haul the machine out of the closet, set it up, wind bobbins and so forth.
Yes, many of us agonize over stitches-per-inch and fiber content and obsess over what we can and can't see in a five hundred year old painting. But some of us are shameless romantics at heart, and we never outgrew Halloween and playing dress-up. We make and wear historical clothing because it’s fun. Falling in love with a garment or outfit in a portrait isn't that different from a cosplayer wanting to portray a favorite character. You fall in love with a look, you think, "I want to wear THAT!" and you're off on a quest to make something that lets you be a little larger than your everyday life when you put it on. Authentic detail is part of what makes the finished product what it is, the part that proclaims, “I am a Regency ingenue,” or “I am a samurai of high rank,” or “I am a centurion of the Tenth Fretensis.”
When a friend decided to pursue a Japanese persona in the SCA, I took an interest to be polite, only to be sucked in by his enthusiasm. I quickly fell in love with the beauty of the clothing, simple construction coupled with elegant, often opulent decoration. I started having a lot more "I want to wear THAT!" moments, and found myself dyeing silk in a tamale pot on top of my stove or working in fabric paint to mimic gold-leafed silks or brocades one simply cannot get at the neighborhood craft and fabric chain. (My work cannot possibly compare with that of the textile artists of feudal Japan and such living national treasures as Kubota Itchiku.) It’s often a love-hate process, in which I suffer over every slub, every flaw, every drop of paint whose path I cannot control, until the piece is finished and I get to wear it and remember why I wanted to in the first place.
Last month,* I got the opportunity to try something new: sewing something for someone else from a period I had not previously explored. My brother-in-law emailed me to ask if I had any Civil War clothes my nephew could have. Further conversation revealed that Brian had read about the Civil War and WW II in school and wanted “soldier clothes.” I explained that it wasn't a period I did, but I'd see what I could come up with in time for his birthday. Oh, and did he want to be Union or Confederate? I even offered to do a distressed coat, complete with a “real” bullet hole, but my nephew finally decided that he wanted it new looking.
First stop, the internet. I was able to confirm that Maryland, the state my nephew lives in, was part of the Confederacy.** Gleefully massaging my search engine of choice, I soon found a good survey of Confederate uniform jackets with photos of extant garments as well as period daguerreotypes of soldiers wearing them. A site for collectors had photos of extant uniform buttons, some incredibly beautiful. As period photos tended to be portraits, I also looked at the photo galleries of a group that re-enacts a Maryland regiment and managed to find a back-view or two of their uniforms. Yes, I am a research nerd. That’s part of the fun.
I ordered reproduction buttons embossed with the state seal of Maryland from a vendor who caters to re-enactors, a detail I thought worth including because they were darned spiffy brass button, especially if my nephew decided to show off his Civil War Clothes at school. As Brian is a normal, active kid and my sister was going to have to care for whatever I made, I chose sturdy poly-cotton twill in Confederate grey instead of historically correct wool. For patterning, I bought a long sleeved Lego Star Wars shirt in a boys’ size 8. I had originally planned to cut it up, but decided it was a great short on its own and ended up laying it on a large piece of plan paper scavenged from my workplace and using a Sharpie to draft pattern pieces. Since I didn’t have the luxury of a squirming child to drape them on, I scrapped the idea of doing authentic two-piece sleeves for a simpler one-piece design. Some black piping for the collar, jacket edges and epaulets, some ribbon to trim the sleeves and a few evenings of sewing in front of the TV set resulted in a creditable imitation of a Richmond Depot Type 1 shell jacket.
Brian was waiting on the curb for me to arrive, managed to thank me as I handed him the package, then bolted into the house to put it on. He slept in it that night and reportedly has been wearing it as often as possible. My sister was faintly appalled when she saw the final product and realized how much "work" had gone into it. I don't think she quite understands just how much fun I had with the project.
Even if you aren’t a living-history type, historical clothing styles are a great place to get ideas for costumes. The Lord of the Rings movies borrow from 19th c. peasant clothing (hobbits) and various fantasy versions of medieval clothes, armor and weapons. Military uniforms can be adapted to kit out the crew of your spacegoing fleet. The cosplayer may find it worth looking at what was worn in the courts and shrines of ancient Japan in recreating certain anime and manga. Steampunk isn’t steampunk unless you put those ubiquitous goggles and rayguns together with late 19th century fashions. And no, you do not get to hear my idea for what Hogwarts’ guest lecturer from the Kyoto Academy of Onmyoji would wear. I might just want to do something with it someday.
*Way back in 2010.
**It's complicated. While Maryland didn't secede, a number of pro-South militia members formed units which served under the Confederacy.
Pattern pieces laid out.
Back of jacket in progress.
Brian in his Soldier Coat.