'Talking to' is a new series of posts on this blog. Every two months (more or less) we will interview another maker or researcher of medieval and early modern textiles and clothing. Our first chit-chat is with Christine Carnie, who tells us about her journey into recreating historic clothes, becoming a professional tailor, and her motivations and dreams.
Christine Carnie, the amazingly talented woman behind The Sempster, lives in a picturesque English town famous for its racehorses, in a small 1940s semi-detached house with a big garden. German by passport, she moved to the UK for love about ten years ago.
When she’s not sewing, she loves watching period dramas and detective series, reading, dancing, gardening, and knitting (yes, as a proper textile-geek she does knit to relax after a day’s sewing). During the weekend, Christine can be found shooting her bow in the company of members of the English Warbow Society, or the Companions of the Longbow, followed by a trip to the pub (for the food, as she is most often the designated driver).
"Once I had started I could not stop"Christine learned the basics of many different textile crafts, like sewing, embroidery, weaving, spinning, and knitting, at primary and secondary school. “Through these classes, I developed an interest in how garments and materials were made. In art class we discussed how clothing could be used to date artwork, and the pitfalls of this practice. It was only much later that I put the two together.” Before getting into historical costume, Christine made modern clothes for herself, and the odd costume for theatre. “At university I was part of a Shakespeare Theatre Group, and some of us got interested in the German medieval market scene: we did our first outing sometime in the 1990s. It wasn’t as easy then to find any information on period garments as it is today, but we persevered, and from then on I started to spend more time on gathering information on historical textiles and clothing. Once I had started I wanted to know more, and could not stop.”
"Interest in my work grew to the point where I thought it viable to make it a business"“Initially I only made garments for myself and my husband, and researched clothing and textiles in my free time.” Both Christine and her husband do medieval longbow archery as a hobby, so one of the main challenges for her was not only to make clothes that had the proper historical look, but at the same time also accommodated the freedom of movement needed for the sport. After some time “we, and especially my husband, were often asked at events where he had gotten his garments from, and so interest in my work grew to the point where I thought it viable to make it a business. In fact, I’ve only just recently given up my other day job to focus completely on the business.”
"The tailor’s dummies have been known to sneak into my husband’s office at times"Christine, just like me, mainly works in her living room. “I do wish I had a separate sewing room, but we have plans for a studio in the garden! The room in our house that was supposed to be my workroom has been turned into my storage facility, with materials and books reaching up to the ceiling. I would never have been able to fit a big cutting table in there anyway.” The other living creatures in her house, namely her husband and cat, have learned to live with her work and all the clutter that comes with it. “The tailor’s dummies have been known to sneak into my husband’s office at times,” Christine confesses. “The cat, however, has become a very good indicator for beautiful material over the years, he will settle only on the best…”
"And, ... I love buttons!"Christine has made clothes ranging from the thirteenth century tunics to twentieth century suits, but says “I love all the garments I make. When you spend so much time and effort on something, you end up being happy with what you made. All projects have their own challenges, fit, material, difficult seams, time intensive buttons and buttonholes… One particularly challenging project with a very steep learning curve in the shortest imaginable amount of time, was making the garments for BBC’s ‘Tudor Monastery Farm’.* I find that every garment type that I haven’t done before is a challenge, and that adapting a period look to a modern person is always difficult. However, her favourite periods in costume history are, counting backwards: “the 1930s/1940s because of the challenges tailoring had to face due to new materials on one side, and rationing on the other, which both demanded new ideas.” She deeply admires Victorian costume “just because it is amazing how much effort can go in tiny details!” Both are guilty pleasures that she indulges in just for herself on occasion.
Her main focus lies in earlier periods. “What I find so exiting about researching and making sixteenth century clothing is that we have a couple more extant garments to learn from (compared to earlier times), as well as a large number of paintings and written records. If you put me on the spot, however, I will have to put the fourteenth century first, just because I find the women’s dresses, both early and late fourteenth century, very flattering, and I love buttons!”
"I'd gladly go back in time to watch a fourteenth century tailor at work"Christine would truly enjoy working in a group of skilled seamstresses and textile workers, or, as she calls it “a co-operation of spinners, weavers and tailors” on larger projects. For instance “to re-create full unique pieces from scratch, based on the few textile fragments we have.” On her wish list are the sixteenth century shirt from Bath, or a seventeenth century alb from Turku, Finland, both of which she hopes to have a chance of studying in person. If there weren’t any limits in the possibilities she’d gladly go back in time to “watch a fourteenth century tailor at work.” She would also like to have the time to do more weaving and embroidery, and to get back to where she started out on, which is making small textile figurines celebrating the seasons of the passing year.
"Although mechanized looms and sewing machines make our modern life so much easier, I believe it is important to know where it all came from"Christine firmly believes that we can still learn from the past. “If we are open to learn from what our ancestors did, and how they did it, the more detailed our picture of the trivial and everyday things in history will become. Knowing where we come from can help us move forward.”
“And even if we don’t want to learn from the past,” she thinks “we should at least preserve, or even re-discover, the knowledge of that past.” To her “it is important to safeguard the knowledge of our manual crafts. Although mechanized looms and sewing machines make our modern life so much easier, I believe it is important to know where it all came from. Having watched experienced spinners make thread, and weavers turn this into cloth has made me appreciate the value of material, and in turn taught me not to waste any of it when cutting cloth. I have learned to appreciate what goes into a hand-made piece, and I treasure each and every one that I have. I hope that others find joy in what I make. It might be trivial in the bigger scheme of things, but a little happiness can go a long way.”
* Christine also made the costumes for BBC's 'Secrets of the Castle' (with the help of our mutual friend Mervi Pasanen).