Monday, January 26, 2015

Talking to: Christine Carnie of The Sempster

'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).

Christine and her husband in their stall at the TORM market in November 2014.

"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.”

Working on hand sewing a pair of 16th century breeches in striped twill at 

"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.”

Christine and I sewing at the Ronneburg, Germany, where we first met in person in 2013.

Detail shot of the seams of a 14th century cote in a grey medley wool.

"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…”

Detail of a 15th century German style doublet, commissioned by Andreas Wenzel of Destrier.

Andreas Wenzel wearing the finished doublet with a fingerloop braided
lace of white and burgundy, and a green damask jacket.

"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!”

At the filming of the Tudor Monastery Farm, with Ruth Goodman and Peter Ginn 
wearing the garments Christine made for them. 

Detail of making the insertion seam on a 16th century shirt.

Detail of a shoulder insert on a 16th century linen shirt.

"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.

Winter clothing for Elizabethans.

"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.”

Winter clothing for (happy) Elizabethans.

* Christine also made the costumes for BBC's 'Secrets of the Castle' (with the help of our mutual friend Mervi Pasanen).


In March we'll be having virtual tea with Tasha Dandelion Kelly, the wonder woman behind La Cotte Simple.

Monday, January 19, 2015

Pretty things in the letter box

I just arrived back home from London, where Mr. B. and I visited lots of wonderful places an museums, and met up with our wonderful friend Christine Carnie of The Sempster. When we opened our front door on Saturday night, this is what I found on the hallway floor (so no, not really in the letter box, but you get the picture): a roll of gorgeous custom made gold thread gimp, and a few strands of silk from Sartor. I still have to try either of them, and my fingers are especially impatient to try the silk. It is very thin, so for embroidery it will be best to group a few threads together, but it would be excellent for very fine weaving and for making pompons.

You'll definitely be hearing more about both later on, but not next week! For next week I have a surprise up my sleeve...

Monday, January 12, 2015

Mr. B's hat # 1

This post was actually planned for last week, but with the holidays and moving and such it sort of slipped out of my mind.
Even though there wasn't much time for sewing or other handwork the past weeks, I managed to squeeze in this little project: a hat for the Mr.

You might remember one of my lasts posts from last year, about a new cote in progress. I had some leftovers of the beautiful bi-colour twill fabric that were perfect for a small item like this. The pattern is taken from Herjolfsnes no. D10610.

The easiest way to cut a circle that has the right size, is to take a sheet of paper and fold in half 4 times around the center point. Then measure the radius from the center point and cut off the excess paper (just like this, but don't bother about the cake ;-)

I used a lining in a contrasting colour (dark blue) to I had to cut two of each pattern piece.

Here it is assembled, seen from the inside. I'll finish it with some red wool tablet or tabby weaving. The first try failed miserably, so hopefully I'll be able to show you the successful results of the second try in a little while.

P.S.: It's very well possible that the original hat was worn as presented in the book (see one of the above photo's), without the folded edge, but there is plenty of pictorial evidence for folded edges and this style also looked better on the bearded creature I share my life with.

Friday, January 02, 2015

Happy New Year!

I wish you all a happy, creative, inspired, peaceful, loving, magical and beautiful 2015! For me personally quite a lot of things will change this year (for the better!), and I also have some new plans for the blog. Just wait and see...

Monday, December 22, 2014

The red and blue purse # 2

Remember the red and blue purse project I blogged about about a month ago? I had hoped to show you some more progress today, but because I also made quite a bit of Christmas presents during the past weeks, there was not much time left for other handwork.

I did make a little progress though. I sewed the panels for the lining together using a simple whip stitch. The fabric is cut from a few leftover pieces from my scrap box. It's a medium to coarse quality of linen.

Below you can see a picture from the inside.

I also cut out the velvet for the outside of the purse. I already started assembling the parts but the light was too poor to take pictures yesterday evening, so you will have to hold your breath for a little while longer!

Monday, December 15, 2014

Through the viewfinder: Peasant parlour, c. 1566

In this series, named after TtV photography,  I want to share with you a work of art, be it a painting, sculpture, manuscript or drawing from my vast collection of museum visit images.

You can see here two details of the painting 'Peasant parlour with noble visitors' by Antwerp painter Martin van Cleve, dated around 1566. At the time I saw this little wonder in Vienna, I had just presented a paper on children's dress in the 16th century, so this painting really caught my attention.

Peasant parlour with noble visitors (detail), around 1566, Martin van Cleve, Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna. 

What makes this painting particularly interesting is that it shows the clothes of both poor peasant children and a boy that clearly belongs with the 'noble visitors'. This boy wears a doublet and knee long breeches with a codpiece(!) and white stockings. My guess is that he would be around five or six years old (but I'm not good at guessing children's ages at all, so if you disagree let me know). At about this age, boys generally went from long coats* to wearing breeches, like grown up men.** However, the boy next to him, of about the same height and age, still wears a long coat (with back lacing!) over a simple shirt.
So, what this painting tells us, is that the moment of breeching wasn't only determined by age, but probably also by social standing. After all, as children grow, breeches last less long than a coat before needing to be replaced. Breeches moreover require the wearing of linen underpants, which need to be washed and laundered as well. For farmer's families having their children walk around in coats for a little while longer was most likely a strategy to save both money and time.

In the bottom image you can see a girl wearing a type of headdress that is also often seen on depictions of little girls in the paintings of Pieter Brueghel. Her really short sleeveless dress shows again how long garments were worn, even when they were already a few sizes too small.

* I call this garment, that is usually called 'tunic' or perhaps 'kirtle', a 'coat' (the equivalent in French being 'cote' which is clearly related to the English term, in medieval Dutch: 'rock' and in medieval German: 'rock/roch' , because this is the term used to describe this garment in late medieval and early modern written sources. That coat/cote and rock/roch are the same garment, becomes clear in Flemish sources, which often use a mix of French and Dutch words, and where 'cote' and 'rock' are used interchangeably. 'Tunica' or 'tunic' is the Latin name for this garment or course, so it isn't wrong to use it per se. As far as I know, however, a 'kirtle' or 'keurs' is a specifically female garment that usually has a tighter fitting bodice than a 'coat/rock'.
** For more on the practice of 'breeching', see Hugget, J. and N. Mikhaila, The Tudor Child: Clothing and Culture 1485-1625, Lightwater: 2013, p. 29

Monday, December 08, 2014

Brown cotte/rock # 1

A little while back I started a new project that I have been longing to make for quite some time. A few years ago I bought this lovely twill fabric with a beautiful handwoven feel to it. It had always been the plan to make a new cote or rock (in Medieval Dutch) for Mr. B., but it somehow never happened. I did pre-wash the fabric last spring. But that was it.

Until I decided enough was enough. I took the fabric and some books, a measuring tape and chalk.

The cut I chose is loosely based on Herjolfsnes 33 (Museum no. D5674) and Herjolfsnes 37 (Museum no. D10579). It consists of a rectangular front and back panel (about 50 by 100cms) and four side panels/gores (2 on each side). In total the circumference of the hem will be about 200cms, so a bit more narrow than the originals. I still have to cut the sleeves, but they will be simple sleeves with a triangular gusset inserted in the seam.

After cutting the main part of the cote, these are all the leftover snippets I have. The Herjolfsnes clothes really do make very economic use of fabric.

The fabric has a rather loose weave and frays very easily. Since the cote won't be lined I wanted to use a stitch that would prevent fraying. I first tried a flat felled seam, but the seams got too thick. I prefer flat felled seams for linen or very fine wool. I finally decided to go with a variation on a regular hemming stitch over double fold fabric, also called 'overcast of double fold hem with hem stitch'. This stitch has been found on fragments from Haitabu (see: I. Hägg, Die Textilfunde aus dem Hafen von Haithabu. Berichte über die Ausgrabungen in Haithabu, Bericht 20. Neumünster: 1984). Haitabu is, I agree, a bit early to use as a source for a fourteenth century cote, but since double fold hems do appear regularly on later garments I thought it a reasonable choice.
First, I hemmed all the individual pieces using a pale brown linen sewing thread. The hems are about 6-7 mm wide.
Usually I use natural undyed linen for my sewing, but I still had a roll of this colour on hand, and there are sources indicating for brown linen was used as well.

In the 1358-59 accounts of Jan van Blois, Lord of Schoonhoven and Gouda (and nephew to Charles de Blois), a pair of brown linen hosen are mentioned:
'Ghecoft bi Gheenike den Wilden omtrent Paeschen [...] linne tot ii paer cousen iii(?) ellen bruyns delle x s viii d loept xxxii(?) s viii d.'*
'Bought from Gheenike den Wilden, around Easter, linen for 2 pairs of hosen 3 ells of brown at 10 shillings and 8 pennies per ell, makes 32 shillings and 8 pennies.'

The next step is to sew all the pieces together using an overcast or whip stitch. I find this method very easy to work with, and it gives a very neat and tidy end result. Also, whip stitch has always been my favourite stitch, so this project really is a little piece of heaven for me. As long as I don't have to do back-stitch I'm happy.

Each sleeve will have eight buttons at the wrist, so I already started making those as well.

I will keep you updated about the progress! For the same outfit I've also started making a little hat and the man is making an unbleached linen apron for himself.

 * The numbers indicated with a question mark are my own interpretations. When A.A.M. Schmidt Ernsthausen transcribed the accounts in 1981 he indicated that these numbers weren't clearly legible. Throughout the accounts 1 to 1,5 ells of fabric are bought for making 1 pair of hosen. The xxxii shillings were transcribed by Ernsthausen as xxvii shillings. When calculating the price per ell and the total sum spent on the linen fabric, according to Ernsthausen's transcription the total amount of fabric would have been 2.5 ells of fabric. I suggest a reading of xxxii shillings, which would bring the total amount of fabric to 3 ells, an amount of fabric which is regularly bought for this purpose by Jan van Blois.


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