Italian Renaissance Costume Challenge – Day 1

By | April 1st, 2019|cat, costume, IRCC, Italy, Renaissance, SCA, smocking|

This year I’ve entered the Realm of Venus’s Italian Renaissance Costume Challenge (IRCC). The start date is the first of April – today.

The rules: the IRCC is a four-month long challenge to create a complete man’s, woman’s or child’s late Italian Renaissance outfit, from the skin out, of a style circa 1480 to 1600. The outfit can be of any social class and needs to include at least one accessory, with a maximum of four accessories allowed.

What I’ve proposed to make is:

  • a camicia
  • an underskirt
  • a gown based on the extant diamond twill half-gown held in Pisa
  • a headdress or cap

Depending on how things go, I may add one or two of the following

  • an apron
  • a belt
  • a pearl necklace with matching earrings
  • a vest or short cape

Entries started a month ago. That first month was to be dedicated to deciding on what to make and gathering materials.

Deciding what to make was easy; ever since I found out about the wool/linen diamond twill half dress that’s in Pisa, I’ve wanted to make a gown based on it, using the diamond twill I found when King Textiles – one of our local fabric shops – had to move when their building was sold to a condo developer.

I’ve also wanted to try needle lace, so, if all goes well, the “headdress” will be a needle lace cap.

And my current White Wolf Fian challenge is a carved busk. So far all I’ve done on it is taking a carving class at Lee Valley and assembling the tools & materials, so, since I haven’t started on the actual busk, it works with the timing rules. Though, since it’s woodwork rather than textile, I’m not sure it fits in the criteria – I’ll have to check before adding it to the entry.

As for gathering materials, that’s pretty much done:

The materials for my IRCC 9 entry

The fabrics:

The right stack:

  • white lightweight cotton for the camicia
  • blue wool/linen diamond twill for the gown
  • black wool twill for the gown’s guards

The left stack:

  • red lightweight wool for the petticote
  • lightweight yellow linen for the linings (lightweight linen is usually expensive, so when I found this one cheap at Pennsic*, I bought lots of it even though it’s not a colour I’d usually choose for linings)
  • cotton canvas, heavy linen & various interfacings for the bodice

The odds & ends:

  • 50/3 linen thread for my super-ambitious lace cap plus the images & plastic to cover them (it might wind up as a lace-edged cap)
  • Mathew Gnagy’s Modern Maker volumes and the bara tapes I made following his instructions
  • a sample of the smocking for the camicia
  • my faithful roll of butcher paper that’s seen me through many patterning adventures
  • a piece of basswood and some carving tools for the busk
  • and, of course, the obligatory furry assistant.

I’m not sure I’ll use all of this, and will probably find I’m missing some odds & ends.

Today’s project: drafting the basic bodice pattern:

Pattern draft for 16th century woman's bodice

…to be continued


  • Pennsic is an annual Society for Creative Anachronism event that’s held in Pennsylvania and usually draws 10,000 or more attendees. One of its features is a market with lots of merchants who specialize in reenactment-related stuff.

From stash to trash

By | November 22nd, 2018|damage, knitting, the stash|

It’s amazingly difficult to throw out stash stuff – even if its only proper place is in the trash!

The yarn

A case in point: three years ago, at Romni Wools’ annual July sale, I found some yarn in beautiful shades of grey, indigo and white. It was 80% wool/20% nylon which I thought would wear well, and the price was good, so I bought enough to make a Faroese shawl and a sweater vest.

My first project with it was the Faroese shawl. Once I figured out where to put the markers so that I wouldn’t have to count too often, it was the perfect “carry around” project and I was very pleased with it when it was finished.

For a while.

The disappointment

Closeup of the horrible-yarn Faroese shawlSoon after I started wearing the shawl, the yarn started to beard. Horribly. Eventually it looked as if I’d worn it while wrestling with goats. I tried smoothing the bearding off with one of those pumice-like bars that’s made for removing pills. That took off the first round of bearding, and it eventually stopped. To be replaced by dirty-looking pilling and these funny little twisty protrusions. Not a great look!

So I stopped wearing it, put it in the “disappointing” pile and left the yarn in the stash.

I’m in the process of getting rid of that “disappointing” pile and thinning my fabric and yarn stash. Some of it I’ll give to friends&family, some I’ll sell, and some I’ll donate to charity.

Horrible yarn in bin bagThe difficult decision

When I came to the beardy yarn, it was surprisingly hard to do what needed to be done – namely, trash it.

Nothing else makes sense. I’m not going to use it, and I’m not going to give it to a friend, sell it or donate it to a charity.

Setting someone up to waste time and effort knitting something from it would be unconscionable!

But still, it was amazingly hard to put this lovely-looking yarn – and the shawl I’d made from it – into the bin bag and trot it out to the curb on garbage day!

But it’s done. It went out last Tuesday.

The Faroese shawl – take two

The whole beardy yarn debacle had one good result – I discovered that I really like Faroese shawls, so when I found a beautiful yarn in just the right weight & colour (though not exactly cheap), I took the chance & made another. Which has worn beautifully.


Blue Faroese shawl

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The Viking coat – Part 1

By | October 19th, 2018|costume, dyes, fibers, fur, indigo, SCA, the stash, Viking costume, woad, wool|

My Viking coat is finished!

Blue Viking coat with green bordersIt’s been a journey; I’ve been working on the coat since spring. It came together from three sources: weather, a stalled project, and a pattern I bought so long ago that it now turns up in listings of vintage patterns on Etsy and eBay.

The weather:

Several years ago I was horribly cold at an SCA * camping event. There was frost overnight and, while daytime was warmer, it was still crisp.

It wasn’t the first time I had been cold at an event, just the worst, and I thought it would be nice to have a seriously warm Viking-style coat.

The stalled project:

During the years people were donating their furs to Goodwill, I got a full-length black mink coat that I intended to use to line a cloth winter coat. I found the ideal tweed for the coat shell, got the interlining fabric and studied much information on how to sew furs. And stalled there, intimidated by the idea of cutting into a fully-functional mink coat.

That was more than ten years ago. Finally, I figured this was ridiculous and decided to take the indirect route – to make a fur-lined Viking coat to get experience in handling that much fur.

Due largely to the lack of surviving physical evidence, there’s been a lot of discussion on whether the Vikings used much fur and whether they used it for linings. I think they did, and I agree with archaeologist Tuija Kirkinen. In her paper on the ritual use of fur, she stated that “the use of pelts and furs for clothing is self-evident in a region at the edge of the taiga”. ** While I don’t live at the edge of the taiga, the weather, even in southern Canada, can get ridiculously cold, and I’ve found that furs (and I include sheepskin) are best at keeping me warm when the temperature dips below -30C (-22 Fahrenheit).

The pattern:

The Turkish Coat is one of the first patterns Folkwear published. I don’t remember exactly when I bought it – sometime around 1974. And I’ve been meaning to make it ever since.

The Viking coat was the perfect opportunity. From surviving fragments and images, it appears the coats Viking men wore might have been constructed in a similar way.Folkwear Turkish Coat back view drawing

Granted, it’s a “male” garment, and the existing evidence shows women mainly in shawls. Which I’ve tried, and discovered that to keep warm in seriously cold weather, I’d have to wrap myself up in many, many layers.

Nope. For the sake of sanity and mobility, I decided on a coat.

The materials:

The fabrics: since this was going to be an experiment, I wanted to spend as little as possible on it, so I dug through my stash and found two yardages that worked well together – a medium“indigo” blue  and a vivid apple green  wool.

Apple green fulled wool swatch




While they’re both commercially dyed, both are colours that are possible with natural dyes that were available to the Vikings.

The blue is easy – woad, which contains indigotin. Woad seeds were found on the Oseberg ship.

On the other hand, green can be dyed many different ways, so the possible dye sources are guesswork. Maybe woad plus weld or broom – or one of the many other sources of yellow.

Coincidentally, a friend – textile artist Jaclyn Paltanen – just did an experiment on dyeing woad-based greens on wool and got a lovely range, including that apple green!

Both fabrics are pure wool, and they’re fulled. The apple green is a lightly-fulled 2/1 twill; the blue is more heavily fulled so I’m not sure what the weave is.

There’s still occasional discussion about whether Vikings fulled their wools, but apparently archaeologist Inga Hägg has documented the existence of fulled wools in Viking-era finds in Hedeby in her Die Textilfunde aus dem Hafen von Haithabu***.  Fulled wool is not appropriate for every kind of garment – but for a coat intended for Canadian winters it most definitely is!

The lining: this is where I spent some money – $35 if I remember correctly. When I bought the donor coat for the lining, I wasn’t sure what the fur was (and neither was the man who owns the secondhand shop where I bought it). We guessed it was some sort of water critter – maybe beaver or otter – or maybe marten, all of which were available to the Vikings **.

To my surprise, when I took out the lining, I discovered it was fur seal."fur seal" stamp on skin side of fur coat used for lining It’s not at all like what I know as seal!

Turns out the fur seal is a southern hemisphere beastie, so it’s improbable that a Viking-era coat maker would have had access to it. However, I’m taking a pass on “authenticity” here; the furs I thought it might be – beaver or otter or marten – would all have been available. We do the best we can!

Making the coat:

The first step was figuring out how to allow for the thickness of the fur lining. While I got over 48 million hits the last time I googled “fur sewing”, the vast majority handled fur in the present-day convention – as something to show on the outside of the garment. Finding information on working out how to allow for a fur lining took some digging. The clearest I found was on a Threads Magazine forum post from 2010:

“Take a length of the fur and wrap it around your middle with the fur facing inward, safety pinning it closed. Using a tape measure, measure around the outside of the fur. Take off the fur and measure around at the same spot. The difference between the two measurements will be your “fur adjustment.”

So that’s what I did, and it worked!

Viking coat muslinTo check the size and length, I made a muslin ****, trying it on over a wool Viking-style gown and a heavy sweater.

After I cut and assembled the shell fabrics I gathered my courage and started on the fur coat.

Taking it apart, I was reminded of the amazing amount of hand work that goes into furs! Even though the pelts are now sewn together by machine, the garment assembly is largely manual. hand stitching on inside of fur coat used for liningThe edgings and the lining were sewn in by hand, and there was a grid of long, loose hand stitches anchoring the pelts to the underlining throughout the coat.

Once I’d disassembled the coat, I realized I’d been lucky. The body of the coat was very close to the shape & size of the body of the Folkwear pattern, with only one significant difference: the original fur coat had a straight up-and-down overlap, while the pattern’s fronts are at an angle that’s supposed to keep the coat closed without fasteners. All I needed to do was stitch in two triangular sections at the centre fronts to add the overlap – and luckily again, the front facings which I had removed were big enough to cut the triangles from.

The sleeves were another matter. Originally, I intended to use the fur sleeves to line the fabric wool twill sleeve liningssleeve, but I found that the combination of the fur and the fulled wool fabric was too bulky for comfort. So back to the stash, where I found a medium-light woolen twill remnant that worked to line the sleeves.

pocketRegarding authenticity, I made two decisions to be deliberately inauthentic, and the first was pockets. The Folkwear pattern has no pockets – just pocket slits, which are probably Viking-appropriate. But with a fur-lined coat intended for brutally cold weather, making pocket slits that would have been convenient openings for weather to get in seemed self-defeating. So I added pockets. Gotta have somewhere to stash those kleenexes!

My other “inauthentic” decision was to underline the coat with a lightweight cotton, much as the underlinigpresent-day fur coats are. I wanted to make this coat look good and last as long as possible, and the underlining helps with both. It keeps the internal stitching – and there’s a lot of it – from pulling on the outer fabric and showing through to the right side.

If cotton made it to Scandinavia at all during the Viking era it would have been a wildly exotic fibre, and way too expensive to use as an underlining.

I could have used linen, which was available then, but the 3.5oz linen I have in my stash would have added a lot of weight – and the coat is heavy enough as it is. There may be some super-fine linens that wouldn’t have been so heavy, but from what I’ve seen on the web they’re also super-expensive. Which is where reality cuts in – this is a coat to wear, not a museum-quality interpretation.

Final details and a decison:

Once the coat was “finished” and wearable, I decided that, having put so much thought and work into, it would be worth going the extra mile and spending a bit more time and money on trim and fasteners.

Which is another post!

* Society for Creative Anachronism – a world-wide reenactment group that focuses on pre-1700 CE history

** Tuija Kirkinen The role of wild animals in death rituals: furs and animal skins in the late iron age inhumation burials in southeastern Fennoscandia. Fennoscandia archaeologica XXXII, 2015

*** Inga Hägg Textilfunde aus dem Hafen von Haithabu (The textile finds from the harbour of Hedeby) Neumünster, K. Wachholtz, 1984, ©1985

****I use 1/4″ gingham for muslins – the gridded weave of gingham makes the grain lines obvious. (And yes, there’s only one sleeve – I took the other one off to use as a pattern for the sleeve lining.)

The push-down stash

By | August 26th, 2018|fur, medieval, Renaissance, the stash, The tweed chronicles|

Like most fabriholics, I have a stash. A fabric stash that, despite my best intentions, keeps on growing.

Every single yardage in my stash was acquired with the intention of making something specific – and most of the somethings never got made. And, with every addition, the likelihood of previous intended projects actually getting made recedes.

Some things didn’t get made for financial reasons

Sample panels of Turkish-style ikatLike the long vest I wanted to make with the set of gorgeous silk & cotton sample panels that I got at the Textile Museum’s legendary Yardage Sale. There was plenty of fabric to make the vest parti-coloured, which was what I originally intended. But I really loved the deep rose & black colourway and discovered that, though the design had been discontinued, the deep rose & black was still available. From France. At $600 US/meter. Plus shipping.


That took the shine off the project, though it’s still on the intentions list. That was three or four years ago, and the disappointment has mostly worn off; I’ll probably make the vest eventually – parti-coloured instead of all deep rose & black.

Some things haven’t been made for technical reasons

black mink coat

The black mink coat

Like turning the black mink coat that I got in the years people were donating furs to Goodwill into a lining for a tweed coat.

Fox fur zibellingo with gilded head

The zibellino

I’ve got the tweed. I’ve got the fabric for the interlining. I’ve researched on how fur is handled. I’ve made small fur items, including a zibellino.

But I’ve been seriously nervous about cutting into a fully functional mink coat.

Blue Viking coat with green borders

The Viking caftan

This has gone on for ten years, which is ridiculous. So I finally took a sideways step and made a fur-lined Viking kaftan, using a fur seal coat from a local second-hand store for the lining.

With one thing and another, it took me most of the winter to work through the learning process, but now I have a wearable, albeit heavy, fur-lined coat.

So, the mink-lined tweed coat is back at the top of the stack now. With luck, I’ll get it finished before the vintage raccoon coat I wear when it gets brutally cold falls apart (which it’s threatening to do)…

Some things haven’t been made because I have no real use for them

Detail of the silver/coper/bronze sequinned fabric


Like the overtunic I want to make from the gorgeous sequined fabric I bought on impulse five or six years ago.

I know what I want to make from it: a twenties-style evening gown with a glittering overtunic. I have the glitter; I have the black silk to make the underdress.

But the last time I wore an evening gown – a Balmain model with a skirt of layers of flowing grey & white chiffons and silk ribbons that I made from a Vogue Paris Designer pattern – was the McGill graduation ball in 1965!

Some things haven’t been made for practical reasons

I love tweed. I have a lot of lengths of tweed. Tweed is a cold-weather fabric. I live in a centrally-heated universe – and global warming is making tweed season shorter and shorter.

Five tweeds, mostly greys

A sampling of my tweed collection

The tweed for the mink-lined coat - grey herringbone with black, white & taupe flecks

…for the coat

Outer garments like my mink-lined tweed winter coat project work, but I’ve already got more coats for moderately cold weather than I actually need.

Tweed pants are too hot, ever. And sometimes scratchy.

Tweed skirts are good for winter, but wearing panty hose or tights doesn’t do it for me – and knee-highs or socks feel odd under skirts. This winter I’m going to try wearing colourful long knee socks with decorative garters in the medieval/renaissance mode & see how I feel about it. If it works, maybe more tweed skirts.

Then there are vests and jackets but…

Many things haven’t been made because of time

… I don’t think I have to say more about this one…

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Right fabric, wrong colour

By | June 3rd, 2017|dyes, wool|

Us makers of “historically accurate” clothing are inveterate bargain hunters. Appropriate fabrics are expensive, and sometimes that bargain is the right fibre and weight, but the wrong colour, so we are often also experimental dyers.

A note on historical accuracy: to be totally accurate, one would have to use fabrics that are hand-woven of hand-spun natural fibre, dyed with natural dyes and hand-finished. While this is theoretically possible, it would be nosebleed expensive, and beyond the time and/or money budgets of most historical costumers.

In my practice, I do my best, but there are many compromises. I try to use natural-fibre fabric, but occasionally a wool mixed with probably-synthetic “unknown fibre” creeps in. I burn test when shopping, but current textile treatments seem to be making burn tests less reliable, and bargain hunting makes taking a snip home & seeing if it dissolves in bleach impractical.

And dyes; I use natural dyes for small pieces and yarns, but fabric lengths need a big & complicated contraption to natural-dye evenly, which I don’t have & don’t have room for. So I dye lengths in the washing machine, using present-day dyes.

In the last week, I had a couple of surprises when I changed the colour of four fabrics!

The first is an elderly length rescued from the basement of King Textiles when they moved. The second is one my favourite salesperson at Archie Fine Wools dug out for me – again from the basement – a few days before the shop closed. The other two I bought at the Textile Museum of Canada’s marvellous Yardage Sale.

  • A burn test suggested that the King Textiles one is a wool/cellulose-fibre mixture, but diamond twill is a rare find in commercial fabrics, so I bought it in spite of the suspect fibre content. And in spite of the unfortunate colour, which was an anaemic salmon pink on a grubby cream background. Another compromise – right weave, semi-wrong fibre, wrong colour.
  • The bolt for the second one – a faint blue plaid on a tan background – was labelled “wool” (I don’t remember the mill name), and a burn test confirmed it.
  • The third – a bluish pistachio length – has “pure new wool” woven into the selvedge; a burn test suggested a wool/cellulose fibre blend.
  • The fourth one – a sad, dusty, plum-purple one – has “Kadylaine” woven into the selvedge. This might be a brand of pure wool (“laine” = wool, in French), but might also be a trademark for a wool blend. The burn test also suggested a wool/cellulose fibre blend.

With the apparent blends, I console myself that, at least, if they are actually blends rather than wool treated with something that misleads burn tests, rayon is the most probable cellulose fibre to be mixed with wool, and rayon isn’t reprocessed oil!

The diamond twill from King Textiles Pale blue & grey diamond twill

The bolt had been lurking in their storage, likely for a decade or three. Last year I tried dyeing it with “periwinkle” acid dye from G&S Dyes, and didn’t take a “before” picture. The diamonds (presumably the wool component) came out a pretty shade of pale blue on a silvery grey background (the “possibly rayon” component).

However, the colour was uneven, which I’ve never had happen before when dyeing in the washing machine. Not blotches, but broad stripes of deeper blue. I suspect that, in its long time on the shelf, either friction from being shuffled around, or absorption of the acid from the cardboard it was wrapped around, or both, made parts of the fabric more receptive to the dye. In those places, it took more heavily, hence the “stripes”.

I tried dyeing it again, but no luck. It just got a little darker, but the stripes didn’t budge. I was disappointed, and the fabric joined the UFO pile.

This week, since my washing machine was occupied by dyeing projects, I finally got some colour remover and had a go at removing the colour, hoping to take out enough to have another go at dyeing the length. And hoping that the chemical beating it took from the colour remover would make the whole piece more evenly dyeable.

The surprise? The colour didn’t shift much. It’s still the pretty pale blue – what I think the Elizabethan colour “watchet” may have been – on silver grey. BUT the “stripes” are mostly gone, and I can work around what’s left.

It looks like the colour remover selectively took out just the excess the dye!

The wool from Archie Fine Tan tweed overdyed with blue

Tan tweed, before dyeingThis one was feather-light, with a beautiful, butter-soft hand, and was ridiculously cheap for a  quality wool, ($3/yard, if I remember correctly), but the colour was unfortunate – the precise shade of tan that turns my skin sallow and blotchy. It’s possibly even older than the diamond twill – only 32″ wide, which is a width I haven’t seen new since the 1960s!

I overdyed it with “periwinkle” acid dye from G&S Dyes, which seems to be turning into my go-to dye for shifting unbecoming colours of wool. It came out a lovely, tweedy stone green, with the faint bluish plaid popping to a clear sapphire blue. It also shrank about 30%, which adds to my suspicion that it’s an old yardage – the two more recent wools that I dyed shrank maybe 5%!

The shrinkage also thickened it, so it’s no longer feather-light, and the hand is a little woolier, but that’s OK. I’m going to use it for a Viking apron dress, and the change has transitioned it from Mid-20th Century Men’s Lightweight Suiting to Plausibly Viking.

The bluish pistachio length 

The blueish pistachio length - original colourWith this one I was aiming at bright spring green, so I overdyed it with yellow. Since the burn test indicated a cellulose component and I had Dylon for cellulose on hand, I tried that. It improved the colour marginally, but not to the green I was aiming for.

Not too surprising; if it is actually wool, as the selvedge says, since the Dylon I used isn’t designed to work on wool. So I got some yellow acid dye & had another go. That bumped it up to a lively green.

I’m still not sure about the fibre content. From the way the acid dye took it from a barely-perceptible change to strong spring green, I suspect it actually is 100% wool – but with some kind of finish that confuses simple burn tests.

The sad, dusty plum purple one 

Purple wool, before washingThis one was another happy surprise: when I pre-washed it for dyeing – I was going to aim at a deep, deep blue – the sad, dusty look vanished and it lightened a couple of shades. It may have been under-rinsed in the original dyeing process, or just plain dirty.

Whatever the cause, washing left a lovely violet shade, which is just too pretty to change.

I’m going to make a kirtle out of it, and be damned to the idea that purple is for royalty only!





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The Apron and the Scoggers – an unexpected project

By | May 10th, 2017|costume, linen, smocking|

I’m going to be taking a potentially messy pigments class at Fruits of our Labours (better known as FOOL) a Society for Creative Anachronism event on the May long weekend.

As I’ll be wearing 16th century garb, it struck me that I’ll seriously want to protect my clothes. Which raised the question of aprons.

Almost all the many aprons in 16th century art – and earlier, for that matter – start at the waist and cover the front of the skirt. That’s always puzzled me. I’ve never noticed that splatters and splashes conscientiously restrain themselves to landing below the waist. Surely “women’s work” was just as messy in the middle ages & renaissance as it is now, so where are the full frontal coverage aprons?

I had a faint tickle of memory that I had seen at least one image of such an apron, but I couldn’t pin it down, so I sent out a plea on themedieval washerwoman wearing apron marvelous Elizabethan Costume facebook page. The membership came to my rescue with a number of images, including this one.

Then one of the members had the brilliant suggestion that a pair of scoggers (sleeve protectors) might be a good idea as well. A good idea indeed! Thank you, Tracie!

The construction of the apron is guesswork. From the images, it looks like the aprons were made from two rectangles, and the necklines range from a simple casing with a strap threaded through it to many fine gathers anchored down somehow, with a separate strip sewn on as a casing. I suspect the gathers are the back side of smocking. Even using a very sturdy thread, unsupported gathering lines would eventually break, which would make for a truly annoying mending job.

With the width of fabric needed to cover my skirt & leave enough room to walk freely, the simple-casing design Detail of reverse-smocked yokewould have been ridiculously bunchy & ugly, so I went with the reverse side of smocking. It’s still a serious volume of fabric, but at least it behaves itself!

The scoggers are just sewn & hemmed tubes, with a pair of eyelets at each end for a drawstring.scoggers - eyelets & drawstring

I did cheat a little with the drawstrings – the visible parts are linen tape, but I spliced a piece of elastic into each one blue "this way up" stitchesso that I could get the scoggers on & off by myself. With just the linen tape, I’d have to have had someone tie me into them each time!

I also added a few stitches in blue linen embroidery floss on the inside top so that I wouldn’t have to figure out which way is up each time I put them on!

The is is probably the shortest garb project I’ve ever made. Even with doing everything but the long seams by hand – including felling down the apron seam allowances – I got it done in the few odd corners of time available in two very busy weeks!

Yay rectangles, straight seams and one-size-fits-most!


A really, very, thoroughly, annoying mistake

By | March 29th, 2017|knitting, madder, madder, mistakes, wool|

I was in the home stretch of knitting the second Eleonora-style stocking, when I put it on to check whether the foot was long enough to start the final decreases.

And found I’d put the heel on the wrong side – the calf decreases were down the FRONT of my leg!!!!!


Much unraveling to do – complicated by the fact that for some reason, even though they were the same dye lot and dyed at the same time, two of the skeins had taken the madder slightly differently and were a shade browner.

Because I was down to half of the last brighter red ball and was concerned that I’d run out before finishing the stocking ( I would have), I was alternating rows of the brighter red with rows of the faintly browner red to avoid an abrupt transition.

This worked fine – but makes unraveling weirdly complicated because of the way I crossed the yarns at the end of each row to avoid gaps.

My only excuse is that I was working on the stocking while stuck in bed and on pain killers after foot surgery. That’ll teach me to knit while distracted!

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Indigo in progress

By | January 28th, 2017|dyes, indigo, Japan, wisteria|

So, for the next step of the Great Wisteria Exploration, I’m aiming to make a smallish furoshiki (wrapping cloth) with a wisteria weft and a hemp warp, dyed with natural indigo.

And, as a small exploration of indigo in the Japanese mode, I wanted to grow some Polygonum Tinctorium, the plant traditionally used as an indigo source in Japan. (Most of the indigo on the market is derived from Indigofera Tinctoria, an entirely different plant).

The initial challenge was finding seed, and then getting it to sprout – as I grumbled about in my post on June 20th last year.

Image of a pot of Japanese indigo growingOnce it had finally sprouted, my tiny crop of PT grew slowly. Unlike its cousin, Japanese knotweed, it made no attempt to take over the garden; in fact, it seemed to be a little unhappy. I don’t know whether this was because of the weather, or the quality of the light or the soil – or just because it preferred to grow in crowds & was lonely for company.


However, it did grow, and late in the fall, when I had pretty much given up on having seed to save for next year, it flowered.

I held off harvesting until the first serious frost warning. Then I cut the plants at ground level, snipped off the (hopefully ripe) flower heads and winnowed them for seed, then stripped the leaves off the stems and put them to dry.

To process the leaves, I’m using Dorothy Miller’s fermentation technique, as described in her Indigo from seed to dye. It’s going to be a challenge, as my “crop” is tiny – just enough to plump out a snack-size Ziploc bag.

One of the nice things about her method is that, once the leaves are dry,  the next step can wait if Life intervenes!

Which it did, for a while. When I finally got back to it last week, I promptly ran into a couple of challenges; two of the materials took a bit of finding – some hay and a plastic “burlap” bag (the woven kind that rice, beans, nuts etc. are often shipped in).

Luckily, a community garden near my brother’s had a few handfuls of hay to spare, and one of the local merchants, who sells nuts, beans and grains in bulk, kindly saved one for me.

It was from cranberry beans, and there were three left in the bottom. You can see them above on top of the small bag I made for the indigo.

Now that I’ve assembled the materials, cut & sewn a tiny “burlap” bag, and made the obligatory mess in the kitchen, here goes.

  • put the dried leaves into the miniature plastic “burlap” bag




  • wet it thoroughly





  • nest the bag in a bed of hay





  • cover it with plastic and weigh it down with a stone, or a brick, or a log. Since even a brick is too big for this little indigo, I used a bag of pebbles from the local dollar store
  • put it someplace warm, with good air circulation
  • stir at 5 days & 10 days
  • if it isn’t done at 100 days, stir & keep checking periodically

I have no idea how long this small a mass of indigo will take to ferment. Actually, I’ll be very happy if it turns out to be big enough to achieve critical mass for fermentation!

In any case, it won’t be enough to dye the furoshiki – though there may be enough to dye one of the samples from my initial wisteria experiments!

Next: spinning more wisteria fibre










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The trials & tribulations of establishing the grain on linen

By | December 6th, 2016|damage, fibers, linen|

In a long thread on the Elizabethan Costume Facebook page, Co-Moderator Noel Gieleghem posted an excellent suggestion regarding the challenges of straightening grain in linen – plus a dire warning as to the perils of attempting to tear linen!

The thread is long; I’ve given a link to the whole exchange at the end of this post. It includes a lot of discussion about tearing vs. pull-a-thread-and-cut in various fabrics. Noel chimes in around the middle, passing on a really, really, REALLY good technique for straightening the grain on linen.

Linen does NOT like to be torn; tearing it distorts the grain, and, even with pressing, it stays distorted. The images above are a piece of handkerchief linen that’s been torn (it rippled like mad), then pressed carefully and thoroughly. Even after pressing, the torn threads are still off grain. Also, the first dozen or so lines of weft next to the torn edge are packed together. This may look minor, but it makes the edge behave differently from the body of the fabric, and can distort what’s being sewn.

So the preferred way of establishing the grain on linen is the old, tried-and-true “pull a thread” technique. Which is tedious.

But despair not! Noel wrote: “A tip I learned from Joy Shillaker in England is scribing your draw line with a bar of soap. It lubricates the thread you’ll be drawing and makes pulling it out much, much easier.”

Having spent many hours pulling threads that inevitably break, fishing the broken end out, and going through the cycle way too many times, I decided to test the technique. I’d already spent a serious chunk of time and patience straightening the grain on one end of my test subject, and that was a pain – the thread did not like to be pulled and broke at every opportunity.

In contrast, the soap line worked beautifully! It was orders of magnitude easier and faster than straightening the first end had been – and much, much less frustrating.

The end of the linen was so badly distorted – and crookedly cut – that it was hard to see where to put the soap line. So, I snipped along a thread, eyeballed where it led to, and started with a short (~30cm/1’) line:

Second try at making a soap line

Then I started to scoot the fabric along the pulled thread, drawing more sections of the soap line when I could see where it should go:


The whole process went fast and was super-easy; in fact, it went so well that I got across the whole width without the thread breaking!

linen scooted along pulled thread across full width of linen

In record time, I had an established grain line – and an offcut that’s a graphic illustration of why it’s so important to establish that grain line!

All done - the grain line established; the fabric cut - and the wonky offcut

Thank you, Noel, for passing on that amazingly effective tip!

I’ve pasted a link to the whole conversation on the Elizabethan Costuming page here.

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Fabricland closing at Honest Ed’s – opens at Galleria Mall

By | November 12th, 2016|cotton, fabric stores, linen|

This is the second time I’ve stocked up on thread at a downtown Toronto Fabricland that’s closing, and it looks like it may turn into a tradition. Along with my receipt, the cashier handed me a 50% off coupon for their new store – in the Galleria Mall at Dufferin & Dupont.

Another location that’s slated to be demolished in the not-too-distant future! I don’t get it! Is it really good business practice to rent, staff, and stock a store, then close it, and sell off the stock at a serious discount after a year or two? Or even three?

So it looks like I may be making another thread-buying expedition soonish. (Thread is expensive; a 40% discount is not to be sneezed at!)

As for the 50% off coupon, I’ll have to be lucky to find a fabric I want. Since I prefer natural fibres, most of Fabricland’s stock is not something I would usually buy. Amidst the polyester, polyester blends, polar fleeces, etc, they do carry some natural fabrics, but they’re mostly kiddy-print flanelettes, craft cottons, or pricey. The pure linens they had today were $40 a meter before the discount – hair-raising for someone used to or Carolina Calicos, both of whom sell linen at less than $10 yard!

But who knows? As well as thread, this time I was looking for a printed cotton in shades of denim blue, and found one that worked. It’s the one in the background of the image, and it’s 100% cotton. It originally was $24 a meter – more than I would be willing to pay for a workaday cotton print – but at $8, I cheerfully added it to my basket.

(And in case you’re wondering why most of the threads I bought are grey – one of the oddities of colour is that, if a grey thread matches a fabric on the light/dark spectrum, it will happily blend in with pretty much any colour!  The red is because I’ve got a bunch of red sewing planned, and I like the colour.)


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