Wednesday, 29 July 2015

What my Bronze Age ancestors wore

The next HSM challenge theme is Heirlooms and Heritage.  I've approached this challenge by looking at the types of garments my Bronze Age ancestors wore.  Up to 1875, my father's family* lived in Denmark.  Dad's family came from Møn, where they were farmers as far back as there are Danish census records available.  I can't find any records of my ancestors prior to the 17th century, but Møn has been inhabited since the Palaeolithic.  It has a lot of funerary monuments from the Neolithic through to the Bronze Age and although people were highly mobile at that time, it makes sense to think dad's ancestors were in around that general area.

I have a couple of bronze items on my to-do list, but didn't want to make them for this challenge because I have no way of knowing what socio-economic status my ancestors had.  I settled on reconstructing the Borum Eshøj belt.   Belts are a utilitarian item that everybody uses, regardless of their location or social status, and the belt from Borum Eshøj is a very interesting textile.  It's not a unique item - the Egtved Girl had a similar belt, as did the man from Trindhøj - so while I'll never know for sure if my ancestors wore belts like these it does seem reasonably plausible.

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Photo found here.

The first question was what wool to use.  New Zealand produces lots of lovely wool, but over the centuries selective breeding has resulted in sheep whose wool is very different to the kind of wool used in Bronze Age Denmark.  Back then, sheep had a double coat consisting of longer, waterproof guard hairs and shorter, fluffier insulating hairs.  The long hairs made stronger yarn, but the shorter hairs made warmer woollier yarn.  So I went looking to see if Bronze Age type sheep were still around, and I found that they are, more or less.  Bronze Age European wool was a lot like Soay wool.  Soay sheep are a primitive breed which retain the characteristics of their Bronze Age ancestors.  However, I couldn't find a source of suitable Soay wool.  Faroese sheep would also be a possibility, but all the Faroese wool I found online was blended with Merino and other things.  If I want a Merino blend I can save myself some money and get a perfectly nice local one, which is what I ended up doing.

I bought fairly chunky yarn in natural fleece colours, so they would look as much like the original as possible.  Borum Eshøj textiles were not dyed and are quite coarse with 3 - 5 threads per cm, but this does not mean they were unsophisticated. The Borum Eshøj belt encorporates both S and Z spun yarn, to create a zig-zag effect in the weave.  The technical term is a shadow stripe, and it was a popular way to decorate textiles in Bronze Age Europe (see NESAT X).  All my wool is commercially made S spun yarn, but the idea of making the belt without that cool shadow stripe really irritated me.

Did you know that if you're careful, you can pick apart commercially produced yarn and re-spin it so that it is Z spun?  I re-spun some of my wool into Z yarn, because apparently I don't know what's good for me.

On the left S spun commercial yarn, on the right my new Z spun yarn.

*I don't know as much about my ancestry on my mother's side.  Given that mum's family is from England, it's a good bet some of her Bronze Age ancestors lived in Denmark too.

Sunday, 19 July 2015

A 13,000 year old fashion statement

I finished the Natufian headband, and have had an opportunity to take photos.  Ornaments made from shells were used in the palaeolithic Levant from at least 92,000 years BP and were a characteristic feature of Natufian culture, but we don't know exactly what they signified.  A headband like this one might have carried information about the wearer's social status, or the shells might have functioned as a type of currency.

Fortunately we do know what the headband looked like, so I've been able to reconstruct it.

Since I don't look even remotely Middle Eastern, you will have to use your imagination a bit.

Although this is a reconstruction of a palaeolithic accessory, I think there's something surprisingly modern about it.  It makes me look like a Californian hippy, and I can easily picture a Californian hippy wearing it*.

This is where the two ends of the headband join up.

I think the way I've joined the thread ends looks quite attractive, but I have no idea how historically accurate it is.  I've knotted the warp ends together and pushed them back through the beads to make them tidy, which seems like a logical thing to do, but the original fibers have rotted away so there's no evidence of how it was really done.

The Challenge: Accessorize.

Fabric: 57cm strip of weft twined fabric, with rows of beads strung on the warp threads.

Pattern: N/A.  I did consult diagrams of surviving Natufian textiles, but I don't think that really counts as a pattern.

Year: 14,000 to 13,000 BP (or 12,000 to 11,000 BCE).

Notions: Dentalium shell beads.

How historically accurate is it?  This piece is about as accurate as it's possible to get when reconstructing anything from this time period.  Any reconstruction of an item from so long ago is necessarily conjectural, because no complete items survive and we just don't know how they were made.  As I discussed in my last post, we're lucky even to know what this headband looked like.  However, I have been careful to use materials available to the Natufians, and to make the textile using techniques attested in the archeological record.

Hours to complete: 6 hours.  Warp twined textiles take a long time to make, especially when the process also involves sorting dentalium shells into groups of roughly equal length and threading them onto the warp threads.

First worn:  For photos.

Total cost:  I can't remember how much the dentalium shells cost, but I'd guess it was around $15 to $20.  The thread just came off my big spool of linen.

*Why California?  Because it is extremely cold here right now and I am daydreaming about a holiday in the Napa Valley.

Friday, 17 July 2015

Liebster award

bandykullan, who blogs at costumekullan and makes some absolutely phenomenal 18th century and Star Wars costumes, has very kindly nominated me for a Liebster award.  Many thanks, bandykullan!  I'm so glad you've enjoyed my blog.

More information on the Liebster award.

Here are the rules for accepting and passing on the Liebster award:
  1. Thank the person who nominated you and link their blog
  2. Display the award on your blog
  3. Answer 11 questions asked by the person who nominated you
  4. Provide 11 random facts about you
  5. Nominate between 5 to 11 blogs for a Liebster
  6. Create a new list of 11 questions for the people you nominated
  7. List the rules in your post
  8. Inform the nominated people that you have nominated them and gave them a link to your blog

So, to answer your questions bandykullan:

1. Which is your favorite fashion decade?
Currently, that would be the 1920s.  So many new styles and new ideas – people were exploring new patterns and techniques, and because people’s lifestyles were changing their expectations of what clothing should be were changing too.  It was a time of experimentation, and even when ‘20s clothes were bad or unflattering they still often had a sense of energy and fun.  I particularly like the Egyptian craze that happened when King Tut’s tomb was discovered.

2. What unexpected skill have you developed because of your costuming hobby?
Hand sewing.  I never, ever used to do it, but since I’m mainly interested in time periods before the invention of the sewing machine it makes sense for me to sew things by hand, and a lot of these things are actually easier to do by hand because that’s how the patterns and techniques were designed.  Now I find I like hand sewing and do a lot of it even on modern clothes.

3. How long does it take you to go to a fabric store?
It really depends on how much time I have available to spend in the fabric store...

4. What do you have in the background while you are sewing?
Sometimes TV or a DVD, sometimes music, and sometimes nothing at all.

5. Which is the most common colour in your costume wardrobe?
Probably blue.  I seem to make a lot of blue things, or at least things that have blue decorative elements.  There are usually plenty of nice blue fabrics available in my local fabric stores, and it was a popular colour in the periods that interest me, and also I just like it.

6. Have you ever thought about taking part in some kind of costume competition?
Not really, no.  I don’t actually know if we have such things in New Zealand.

7. Have you given names to your sewing machine or dressform, or any other tool you are using to make your costumes?
My sewing machine is called Old Faithful.  It’s a '70s Elna I inherited from my mother when she bought a more modern machine, and it’s served me well.  Sure it’s not as fancy as a modern machine, but it’s reliable, built to last, and does everything I need.  Plus, it has a camshaft with lots of cool little cams you can use to do embroidery stitches.

8. How many costumes have you made?
I’ve got a couple of different Bronze Age Aegean outfits, a couple of 1920s outfits, and a Viking outfit, but mostly I concentrate on specific clothing items instead of the whole costume.

9. Do you use wigs or your own hair to create different hairstyles?
It depends on the period.  My real hair is fine for prehistory through the Viking age, but I’d want a wig for 18th century.  For 1920s I’m inclined to go with a turban.

10. What is the longest you have worked on a single project?
50-plus hours researching and trying to figure out how to reproduce a piece of Mycenaean textile.

11. How big is your stash?
It takes up about 12 boxes in my spare room, sorted by fabric type.

Now, 11 random facts about me:
  1. I learned to sew because I hate going clothes shopping.
  2. My degree is in Classical Studies and Philosophy, but I work as a computer programmer/statistical analyst.  You can take the nerd out of the computer room, but you can’t take the computer room out of the nerd.
  3. Over the years I’ve been variously employed as a lackey for a roadworks company, a market researcher, a social policy researcher, and a business intelligence analyst.
  4. My house is heated by a coal fire, and in the past week I’ve burned my entire bodyweight in coal.
  5. When not making historical clothes or food, I enjoy sculpture, reading articles on PLOS ONE, and over-analysing films.
  6. One of my thumbnails is permanently split into two halves, the result of an accident when I was little.
  7. My favourite book is Homunculus, by Hugh Paxton.
  8. I can never resist buying psychedelic or dazzle pattern fabric.
  9. I really, really want to reconstruct a Mycenaean beehive helmet like this one.
  10. My surname is the 9th most common surname in New Zealand.
  11. I’m licensed to drive a tank, though I haven’t actually driven one.

And 11 questions for my nominees:
  1. If you could make any costume from a painting/photo/movie/book, what would it be?
  2. What’s your favourite thing that you’ve made?
  3. Have you ever worn a historical piece as an everyday clothing item, and did anyone notice?
  4. What’s the biggest challenge you’ve overcome in your sewing career?
  5. Do you prefer to use ready-made patterns, or draft your own?
  6. What’s that one thing on your to-do list you want to do but keep putting off?
  7. Do you tend to plan costumes around personas you want to play, or construct personas for costumes you want to make?
  8. What’s that one piece of sewing-related equipment you’d really like to have?
  9. You, of course, are a modern person living in the 21st century.  Do you think that has an effect on how you think about your historical projects?
  10. If you had a time machine, what period would you visit first?
  11. What new project are you most excited about?

The blogs I nominate are:

Loose Threads
Caddams Bertraktelser
Matsukaze Workshops
Marmota's Dress Diaries
Arachne's Blog

If you haven’t read these blogs, you should.  They’re full of amazing projects and fascinating information!

Monday, 13 July 2015

Deciphering a palaeolithic textile

For  HSM challenge 7 I'm reconstructing a headband found at El Wad in what is now Israel.  The headband was buried with its owner, who came from the Natufian culture and lived in the El Wad area during the palaeolithic.  In this blog post I'll talk about the process I'm using to reconstruct the headband, and why I think it's likely the original headband was made this way.

The headband was decorated with rows of beads made from dentalium shells.  Dentalium shell beads are a characteristic feature of the Natufian culture, and are very common in Natufian burials and settlement sites.  In some cases it's impossible to tell how the Natufians used their shells.  It's not always clear whether the shells were made into jewelry or attached to people's clothes, but we have a good idea about what this particular headband looked like because a lot of the shell beads are still in place, stuck to the owner's skull:

Image found here.

It makes sense to assume the shells were attached to some type of fabric band, but this has rotted away so a bit of detective work is necessary to determine what type of fabric it might have been, and how the shells might have been attached.

The El Wad burials have been dated between 14,000 and 13,000 years BP (remember, radiocarbon dating gives dates as BP or "before present", which means before 1 January 1950).  At this time, the Natufians hadn't yet discovered weaving as we know it today.  Woven textiles don't start to appear until later in the neolithic around 6000 BCE.  Instead, they made twined linen textiles like this:

Image from C. Giner, 2012, Textiles from the Pre-pottery Neolithic Site of Tell Halula (Euphrates Valley, Syria), available here.

I've made a swatch of twined cloth based on Natufian examples before, which I blogged about here.  It's easy enough to make, just very time consuming.  Woven cloth is much quicker to manufacture, which is why twined cloth gradually fell out of favour after weaving was invented.

Attaching the shells to this fabric could have been done in a couple of different ways. They could either have been sewn onto the fabric, or they could have been threaded directly onto the warp threads of the fabric.  As I discussed in my last post, it looks to me as though the shells were threaded directly onto the warp threads of the fabric, with twined weft threads in between each row of shells.  The original has a distinct gap between each row of shells, and the shells sit in very straight, even lines which suggests to me they were woven into the cloth.  The beads' holes all line up exactly.

This photo shows how I've threaded dentalium shells onto my warp threads, and then twined weft threads between each row of shells.   I haven't used a loom for this process, because I found I don't really need to.  The shells tend to keep the warp threads where they need to be, and once the weft threads are in place the fabric is pretty sturdy.  One advantage of twined cloth is that it doesn't fray or unravel.

I can't say for sure if this is how the original was constructed, but this method does produce a headband that looks like the original, and is consistent with what we know about Natufian textile manufacture.  The thread is linen, which seems to be what the Natufians used to make their textiles.  The surviving scraps of fabric are linen, so I think it's reasonable to assume the El Wad headband was made using linen thread.  This thread isn't processed and spun by hand the authentic palaeolithic way, of course, but you can't have everything.

Here's another photo of the partly completed headband:

As you can see, my reconstruction has neat rows of shells with a small gap between each row, just like the original.  The weft thread ends get tucked into the shells and trimmed, and once the headband reaches the right length I'll knot the warp ends together to form a circle.