Sunday 14 June 2015

The Red Dress, a simple medieval style pattern

This post was moved here from our main website in 2015

The cut of this dress is based on practical experimentation rather than on a known period cutting method- but it does leave very little waste and can be pieced together out of narrower cloth very easily.

Start with two lengths of fabric long enough to reach shoulders to floor (plus, hem, train etc.).

Make basic shoulder seams to allow you to slip it over your head and mark where your waist will come.

Attach a folded rectangle of fabric on either side at waist level. If the fabric is narrow you may need more than one rectangle.

Have a friend fit the bodice to the body, you will need to cut either a front or back opening to get out at this stage-this dress laces shut but could also be buttoned. (It would look very good with a row of buttons down the front and many small decorative buttons up to the elbows on the sleeves.)

Once the bodice is fitted, you should be able to see where the fabric of the skirt touches the floor. Mark the hemline with chalk and spread the skirt out to tidy up the lines before cutting away the surplus (shown in grey on one side of the diagram above).

You may find you have sufficient offcuts in the skirt to make plain or hanging sleeves (if you go for hanging sleeves or tippets over contrasting plain sleeves you may have no fabric waste whatsoever!) If not, cut sleeves in an appropriate style out of extra fabric.

I find its easier to fully line a dress like this, as to hand hem it is a huge job, it also deals with the neck and lacing opening very neatly. That probably isn't a period method, but this is often made as a 'fancy dress' item rather than a high end authenticity item, so its a method that has its place.

However you finish it, tidy all the edges and add lacing holes or buttons to finish. (NB: I used some of my spare fabric to add another small gore in the back of the skirt- but it was overkill really!)

A Portable Neolithic Shelter

We do a fair bit of educational work exploring aspects of prehistoric life with school and community groups, and we needed a portable shelter that allowed us to talk about materials and lifestyle, but was also easy to move and safe for children to explore. This is what we came up with.

I blogged about it in more detail here, including how to make one if you'd like your own version!

Neolithic Archer's Outfit

This post was moved from our main website in 2015

In 2009 we were commissioned to recreate two outfits to present an impression of a Neolithic archer's clothing based in part on the Otzi finds of a few years ago, supplemented with wider extrapolation about materials and conditions suitable to the period.

The outfit used 10 goatskins (7 hide on, three leather) and a decent slice off a deerskin and off a cowhide.First a few in the studio:

Gareth talking to the archaeologists about the outfit:

And wandering through the site en route to a location for filming (lots of funny looks from visitors):

Making an arrow shaft using replica flints, arrow straighteners, dogfish skin as sandpaper, sinew etc. Gareth is wearing a woven plant fibre shirt as well as the leather and fur garments. Evidence suggests that flax, nettle and other plant fibres are being woven into cloth by  this date, and it made a plausible addition to the garments worn by this particular Neolithic hunter.

And finally, loosing an arrow from the replica bow. Its a selfbow, in yew, and its pull weight is over 95lb, Gareth was the first person to draw it and we were all terrified it was going to explode. Fortunately the bowyer who made this did excellent work, and all was well.

The above outfit was for many years on display in the Origins Gallery at the National Museum Wales, Cardiff. That gallery is currently closed for refurbishment, but we're hoping to see the display up again.

We are currently exploring the evidence for Neolithic clothing with the aim of creating more experimental outfits for use in our teaching and demonstration work. Since working on this project we have made educational costume for other heritage sites including Stonehenge and the Avalon Marshes Centre.

Saturday 13 June 2015

Make a Gandalf Hat

This was originally on our main website and was moved here in 2015

The following instructions are for a hat closely modelled on that worn by Gandalf in the 
recent film version of 
Lord of the Rings. My interpretation is made from a sturdy non 
woven textile, a synthetic felt, with a good surface texture. I'm using collar interfacing as my 
pattern material, but paper would work just as well, and I'm using milliners buckrum to stiffen 
the brim.

Start by making the brim pattern. Draw a 'doughnut' with the inner circle a few inches bigger 
than your head size and the outer circle about 5-6 inches bigger in radius. Cut out a wedge 
from the pattern so that you get a gentle flare to the brim.

Transfer this pattern to the buckrum. Check that the brim sits in your head loosely.
This is the time to make any adjustments to the width of the brim or to the angle at which it flares in
a cone shape. (There are lots of screen images of Gandalf on the net or in the books and so on that
came out with the  film for reference). Fiddle with the shape until you are happy.
a friend reminded me that if you are going for a costume with a wig, wear that also 
when you fit the hat! She also suggests plastic canvas as an alternative to Buckrum if you find
it easier to get

Cut a pattern for the crown of the hat. Try a cone about 21-23 inches long and slightly wider at the bottom than 
the headsize of the finished hat. Aim to have the cone slope backwards slightly. In the picture above the scissors 
are shown on the folded edge of the pattern fabric. Adjust the pattern if needed (in this case I decided I needed 
a slightly larger cone) and cut out one layer of your fabric. If you are doing a full lining, cut a lining layer too.

Use your buckrum layer to cut the hat fabric. You need two pieces and remember to leave a small seam 
allowance all the way round. Sew the brim pieces together, without the buckrum. Remember to keep right 
sides of fabric together if it will be noticable in the finished hat. Press all the seams really well with a steam iron.

Turn the brim round the right way and insert the buckrum. Tuck it well down into the seams and secure any overlap 
with a few stitches. Run the iron gently over the entire brim to smooth and shape it. Sew up the point of the hat, press 
any seams flat. Its important to keep pressing as you go with hats to make sure everything is smooth and even.

The easiest way to fit the brim and crown together is to put the crown on your head (it may come down to your nose at 
this stage!) then slip the brim over the top. Wriggle everthing around until the crown sits smoothly inside the brim. Pin 
everything together carefully, ready for sewing, watching out for wrinkles and checking that the buckrum stays firmly 
down towards the seam in the brim.

Sew the hat together. Take your time over this part and make sure that the seam is smooth and even. You can now 
trim off any extra fabric left over from fitting the crown and try on the hat. It will be a bit floppy at this stage. Now is the 
time to put anything right if you are not happy! Run the steam iron over everything very gently to settle in the seams 
and keep things smooth. You may wish to stitch in a couple of small tucks into the point of the hat to get a good 
shape, and maybe add a little light wadding to help the point sit just right. Don't overdo this bit!

The outside of your hat will be looking great, but the inside will show all the seams. Either add a full lining or a half 
lining (this is a half lining, basically a tube sewn into the hatband area and gathered at the top about half way up the 
crown which allows for my padding of the point). Cotton or linen is the most comfortable fabric for a lining.

Your hat is now complete! All you need is the rest of the Gandalf outfit and you're ready for anything.

Make your own Shoe Last

This post was originally on our main website and moved here in 2015
Making shoes or boots from felt is something that's been going on since prehistory,
and it is perfectly possible to finish a pair of boots on your own feet for perfect fit.
But, you do end up with very wet, cold feet when you do this! Many of the modern
versions of felted boots use either knitted or hand felted bases that are then
shrunk and felted in a washing machine to give a dense finish and the final shrunk

It is possible to buy polystyrene foot lasts, but these are not easy to find, quite
expensive, and don't help when a friend with different size feet asks you to make
them a pair too- I've been using this easy and effective method for making as many
customised foot lasts as you want- you can even modify the shape as you go to give
pointed toes or to add a little ease over problem areas of your foot.
Hope this is helpful!
January 2004

You need:

-1 pair of thin socks that you won't need again
-1 roll of 'duck/duct tape' 'carpet tape' or 'gaffa tape' (it has different names in different
places, but its usually silver or black and has a strong cloth type weave and is very sticky and
Thin card (the back of a cereal packet is fine)
-Lots of old plastic carrier bags, or cheap plastic bin bags
-Pair of scissors
It sometimes helps to have a friend to assist, especially if you don't bend so easily!

Put on the socks, and start by standing flat on a piece of card and drawing round it so that
you have a flat sole shape. Cut this out and use a long length of tape to attach it to the sole
of the foot bringing the ends up over the top of the sock. Smoothly wrap the ends of tape
over the foot. Still standing up, add shorter lengths around the ball of the foot and then the
instep area. Its important to do the first few wraps standing so the last is roomy enough for
comfort when walking about. Keep systematically wrapping the foot in short, overlapping
lengths, making sure everything is smoothed down as you go.

I find it helps to do both feet at the same time, i.e.. one strip on the left foot, one on the right,
then I know I'm doing the same thing to each. Work right up to your ankles, as far up as you
want the lasts to reach. Don't worry yet about getting out of them!

You need to get at least three layers over the whole foot, working out wrinkles as best you

Once you have both feet smoothly encased in tape, carefully cut yourself out of them using
the scissors, be very careful not to cut yourself!

Now, stuff the toe area of each last with scrumpled up old carrier bags- its amazing how many you can get rid of into a pair of these lasts. If you run short, cheap bin bags work ok, or odds and ends of bubblewrap or any soft plastic packaging. It needs to be as tightly packed as possible without distorting the last.

Once the toe is filled, you can tape up the cut that you made to get out of the boots and stuff
the rest with more plastic bags, Again, I advise doing both at once, then if you run out and
have to switch to different packaging, both are the same.

Once you get up to the height you want your last to be, make a smooth top for the last with
more tape.

At this stage you can decide whether to alter the shape at all. So, if you want pointy toes, you
need to wad up some packing and tape it onto the toes, or if you have a sore area on your
foot and want more ease there, add a few more thicknesses of tape to that area. Usually, a
final layer of tape all over the shape to smooth everything out and ensure it stays together is

Thats it, your lasts are done. Might be worth writing the size on the bottom in permanent pen  if you are making several pairs for different people!

Using the lasts:

Make your basic boot by your usual method, felted with a resist layer or needlefelt or knitted, all work fine. Put the boot on the last, it will obviously be too big. Take some strong elastic bands, or hair bands, and use these to hold the shoes in place at strategic points. For some tricky ones I've used a fine string thread and laced the boot onto the last- this can be useful if you have a large opening or want a tall boot to stay up and not slump down the last.

Depending on your felt, it can either go straight into the washing machine or you can wet felt
it for a while by hand to settle the felt. If you go straight for the machine, start with a quick,
cool wash and check that everything is ok and that the bands haven't stuck or marked the felt.

If all is well, go for a hot, long wash with some added lumpy laundry (rolled up socks, trainers, 
kids toys etc).

The finished boots will have been able to shrink as far as the last and no further. I've had
great results this way, and hopefully you'll find it helpful too.

Sheepgut Condoms

This post was first written in 2012 and has been moved here from our old website

Part of being a researcher into the everyday things that rarely make it into the popular history books is getting asked to make historically based reconstructions of something that we very much take for granted these days. A recent commission has had us reading up on condoms from the late 16th to 19th centuries, and experimenting with some methods for making them.

Early condoms were primarily seen as a method of reducing the risk of catching Syphilis or Gonorrhea, both endemic in Europe from the late fifteenth century onwards, rather than as a means of preventing unwanted pregnancy.The very earliest were nothing more than medicated squares of linen to be wrapped around the penis after intercourse as a sort of poultice aimed at destroying any 'impurity', rather than a barrier to be worn during sex. It isn't until the 17th Century that the type of condoms we recognise today were widely available. Whilst some condoms appear to have been made of linen or silk, the most effective ones were made from animal intestines or the swim bladders of fish.

Amazingly, quite a number of early condoms survive, including the earliest known which were excavated at Dudley Castle and which are believed to date to before 1640. I've got a Pinterest page which collates some snapshots of extant condoms and related material found whilst searching the web for references- I'll periodically add to this page as I find more images, but there are enough there to give us a good general idea of how they looked. They are also described in a number of texts including the memoirs of Casanova.

Our experiments use sheep gut, available as sausage casings from specialist suppliers in lengths, or where available, the caecum for preference as it is already the right shape. 

Making them is more time consuming than difficult, and follows the basic stages of cleaning, sterilising, shaping and finishing.

Stage one: Degrease your skins. Animal intestines usually arrive from the butcher (sold as casings for sausage making) or abbatoir washed out and ready for use. Whilst they are 'clean' they are still very greasy and may have some mucous membrane still attached. The first and most important stage in making a condom is to degrease and remove the slimy bit of the membranes as much as possible. Here we are soaking them in a very weak lye solution (potassium hydroxide in this case- it would have been easily made by soaking wood ashes in water and was widely used for laundry throughout history, and for soap making in stronger concentrations). Change the water several times over a few hours, it has a slippery, soapy feeling between the fingers, that's the lye dissolving grease out of your hands, and its doing the same thing to those sausage skins. I was lucky with my raw materials and there wasn't a great deal of surplus lining to dissolve off, so a good soak and rubbing them well between my hands when I changed the lye water did the trick without needing any serious scraping.
Sheep casings straight from the butchers
Casings soaking in weak lye
Stage two: Wash in soap and water. Lye is a great degreaser, but we don't want any overtly alkali residue on the skins or they may irritate the users! Lots of soapy water then a good rinse in fresh water will finish the final degreasing and make sure the skins are as clean as possible. At this stage, if left to dry, you essentially have very thin rawhide. Any moisture and they will reconstitute and start to decay naturally.

Casings being washed in soap and water
Stage three: Fumigate in burning sulphur. Exposing the skins to sulphur dioxide does a couple of things, its an antimicrobial, so it disinfects them helping them last longer, its also a mild bleach so helps make the skins look nice and 'clean' if they have any discoloured patches on them. It may also have a role in softening the skins. Sulphur dioxide is still used today to preserve the colour of dried apricots and as a preservative in winemaking. It is also however really not good for you, and can aggravate respiratory complains as well as being an atmospheric pollutant. If fumigating with sulphur, do it outdoors and use small quantities.

Small lump of sulphur
Stage four: Cut to size. Whilst the ideal is to use the caecum (bung end) of the intestine for a seamless, naturally shaped condom, cheaper ones appear to have been at least occasionally made from the longer lengths of intestine by tying off the end. Surviving condoms are usually the caecum, so how commonly used the tied versions were, we don't really know, but it is possible to speculate that they offered a cheaper (and probably far less comfortable) alternative.

In these photos, I have tied off a length of intestine with air blown into it, later I will separate them into two condoms. These skins are about the minimum width use-able, ideally when ordering sausage skins for this type of purpose, you want ones aimed at 'salami' rather than 'sausage'! The method remains the same regardless of the size of the casing though.

Casing filled with air and ends tied
Stage five: Shape and dry. A simple wooden mould is here used to support a sheep caecum in the early stages of drying to help it assume an anatomically appropriate shape. Once it is partially dry, blowing air into the caecum helps, and the tied off versions were shaped with air in the previous stage.

Caecum on wooden former
Tidy up the edges, and let them dry completely. They go papery and slightly crinkly at this stage. If you haven't degreased properly, you'll know by now, the skins won't go papery. In the picture below, the tied end condom is on top by the ribbons and is half of the inflated section seen in an earlier picture, the other three are caecums so needed no end finishing.
Gut condoms ready for their ribbons
Stage six: Add a silk ribbon. Because these are only minimally stretchy and vary in size depending on the animal the skins came from, early condoms needed tying into place. A narrow silk ribbon does the trick, and judging from surviving examples, pink was a preferred colour.

Replica 18thC Condom
Package for sale! A few surviving early condoms have little paper envelopes with them. The envelope I've given mine is slightly spoofed up, in that is bears a quote from an 18thC purveyor of these prophylactics, and also references a famous condom maker from that century. I'm not aware of any survivng ones from this date with a printed wrapper, though one or two do have handwritten notes on the envelope. The picture here also has a little doodle on the skin, a few have survived with bawdy pictures on them, I was practicing to see how well the ink took before trying my hand at a suitable embellishment!
Replica 18thc style condom and wrapper
Sheepgut and silk ribbon condoms
From here on, their efficiency was partly due to how carefully they were used, and partly a matter of hoping your condom maker had used good quality materials and worked carefully. Evidence suggests many condoms were reused a number of times, so careful washing and drying in between would have been necessary.

It goes without saying I hope, that this tutorial is offered for historical interest, and that if you are in need of a preventative, that you will seek out a modern one! Interestingly, condoms made from animal gut are still available, these days they come with an elastic base rather than a silk ribbon and are packaged neatly rolled and well lubricated. Their 16th-19thc counterparts often needed moistening in warm milk, water or some other liquid before use.

And finally, just for fun, here's a photo of me with the historian Hallie Rubenhold filming a sequence on 18thC condoms for a TV programme 'The Secret Life of...Casanova' (photo taken in March 2012)

Further interesting reading:

The Pox. The Life and Near Death of a Very Social Disease. Kevin Brown (Sutton Publishing, 2005)

'The archaeology of private life: the Dudley Castle condoms'. David Gaimster, Peter Boland, Steve Linnane and Caroline Cartwright,  Post-Medieval Archaeology 30 (1996), 129-142