Saturday, April 28, 2012

Dress Journal #7/
Weaving Journal #3:
Babysitting & Other Mindless Tasks

     It is after 9:00 at night and I'm doing one of the three most boring tasks in the fiber arts world: babysitting my biggest dyepots full of yarn. Watching the temperature on the thermometer slowly climb toward 185 degrees is right up there with watching grass grow or bridges rust. It's pretty dull.
     It's been a day of not terribly exciting tasks. I started this morning with reskeining (and measuring) the 11/2 Shetland that I dyed blue last year, then skeining enough additional gray 11/2 Shetland to make 6,000 yards. Each skein is about 600 yards, and all together it accounts for just under two of the four pounds of 11/2 Shetland I have for weaving the dress fabric.
     My mind wanders a lot when I'm doing something as mindless as skeining. It is a pretty mindless task: just remember to stop when the counter hits 600. At some point around the 3,000-yard mark, I suddenly realized that there was a solution to my very limited supply of 11/2 Shetland: switch the colors. Doh! I felt like a complete idiot for not seeing it earlier. I originally looked at the draft with the idea that the warp would be black and the weft would be gray. If woven that way, more than 600 yards of black "warp" would be loom waste. I was angsting over whether or not I'd have enough, and what would happen if I didn't dye enough yarn when I suddenly remembered--this is a balanced twill draft. It doesn't matter if I swap the colors around. I can measure and chain the warp out of the gray, then if I still have yarn left, I can dump the rest of the yarn into a black dye pot so I'll have more than enough weft. I finished skeining the 6,000 yards so most of the weft is dyed; I'll dye more if I need it once the warp is on the loom.
     That little problem solved, I turned to my next task: measuring and winding a warp for linen towels. I'm planning to weave a couple "sample" towels out of the same line flax I have set aside for another set of towels, so I measured a 2 1/2 yard warp and began winding it. Warp winding is another pretty mindless task--all I need to do is remember the sequence for the cross: over and under going out, under and over coming back. I need 280 ends for towels, so it's 140 trips out and 140 trips back--I keep count by tying a piece of string around every 10 ends. Once the warp is chained, I can begin dressing the loom, but I can't do anything until the warp is wound, so I stand there in front of my warping board, wrapping yarn in a pattern around pegs.
     I end up listening to podcasts as I'm doing many of these mindless tasks. Today it was NPR's Pop Culture Happy Hour--a 45-minute podcast of silliness having to do with what's going on the the world of popular culture (movies, music, comic books, etc.). Once I run out of podcasts, it's on to audiobooks; I need to check with the local library to see what's available, preferably for download. At any rate, I need something to keep my mind occupied while I do these mindless tasks.

Thursday, April 26, 2012

Dress Journal #6/
Weaving Journal #2:
It Takes Planning

     Nothing is simple. That's how my life works: if I can possibly make something more difficult, I probably will, simply to see if I can rise to the challenge. The new dress is the latest project that will be an opportunity to stretch myself and my skills. I may pull all my hair out in the process, but it's certainly a challenge.
     Building a costume is, most of the time, fairly cut and dried: decide on what is needed, get the fabrics, findings, and trims, then schedule a few days and cut and sew like a madwoman until it's finished. Oh, but this point, where's the challenge in that? Sew something by hand? Done that; it's boring. What will make people sit up and notice? How high can I raise the bar?
     It turns out, pretty high. I spent a good bit of time this morning considering possible colors for my new dress. Some basic observations helped me decide:

1. I need to find a color combination that doesn't make me look like the dog's breakfast, so browns and yellows are out.
2. I look terrific in purple, but that's against the rules so purple is out.
3. I'm tired of blues and greens. I already own a blue Flemish dress and a green German dress.
4. I don't want a dress that looks like everybody else's dresses.
5. All colors from natural dyestuffs go together.
6. Sheep come in colors other than white.

Solution: Gray (sheep color) and black (iron gall--a natural dyestuff) with red (cochineal--a natural dyestuff) accents. I look good in gray, especially the silvery gray of the cones of 11/2 Shetland I have set aside for weaving some fabric. Color question solved.
     I spent this afternoon digging through the stash to see what I need to build a new set of clothes. Linen for a shift? Check. Linen for linings? Check. Thread? Check. Hooks, eyes, other findings? Check. Dress fabric? Uh, uh, uh...better give that some thought and do a little research. I have the opportunity to take up the challenge of weaving a period-appropriate fabric for my new dress.
     I stumbled across the Complex Weavers' wonderful collection of medieval textile samples while searching for examples of 16th century fabrics. A lot of the fabrics are a bit too complex for this project--I'll have to weave the fabric on my big (45.5" weaving width) floor loom and I'm limited to 4 shafts. Then I found it: a broken diamond twill that can be woven on 4 shafts and is stunningly beautiful. It's also a very old draft: there are at least 25 woven examples of this draft from German archaeological digs that are dated to the Merovingian Period (400-600AD).
     It took a bit to lay out the threading draft and the tie-up, but I like the look of the drawdown. Next step: Wind a sample warp and weave a bit of the fabric to see how much I'll lose with shrinkage. Then I can calculate how much warp to dye.

The Challenges of a Fibershed

     I promised in an earlier post to give a bit more information on The Fibershed Project. Started in 2011 by Rebecca Burgess, it takes the idea of the locavore/Slow Food movements and applies them to what we wear. Rebecca is very gung-ho about this idea and is attempting to expand fiber/fabric production opportunities in the San Francisco Bay Area by working with small farmers, local designers and artists, and other interested people to build a sustainable, environmentally sensitive, socially responsible, textile industry in Northern California.
     This may be an idea whose time has come. There are precious few apparel manufacturing companies left in the US and even fewer textile mills. Even the iconic blue jeans manufactured and sold by Levi Strauss are made overseas. Moving all this stuff around uses up resources, costs money, and damages the environment in places we don't usually see. The Pearl River Delta in southern China is home to the mills that produce much of the world's denim for blue jeans; the pollution from the mills is so bad that some tributary rivers are dyed blue.
     Don't get me wrong: I am not a rabid environmentalist. I'm old enough to know that nothing is in just black and white, and that compromises are sometimes necessary to obtain the greatest good for everyone. On the other hand, I'm old enough to remember miles of beautiful Ventura and Santa Barbara county beaches spoiled by sticky black "tar" from the Santa Barbara Oil Spill in 1969. It was that oil spill that inspired the first Earth Day, which I participated in as an eighth-grader in 1970, and which has inspired me to, over the years, fight for a better environment in California for current and future generations.
     So, how does the idea of a "fibershed" fit into my life? Simple: if we can eat foods that are grown within number of miles of the house, why can't we wear clothes that are produced--from raising the fiber to sewing the finished garment--within x number of miles of the house. Can it be done? Maybe, with some compromises.

The goal:
Replace my entire wardrobe (including costumes) with locally sourced materials and labor.

The ground rules:

1. Follow the old World War II saying: "Use it up, wear it out. Make it do, or do without." Everything that is in my wardrobe, all fabrics and findings, all fibers currently in the stash are hereby declared to be "local." I can work through my stash, but once a fabric or fiber is gone, it's gone unless I can replace it with something from a local source.

2. My fibershed has a radius of 200 miles as the crow flies. If a fiber isn't produced inside that magic circle, I can't use it. The one exception is my annual trip up to Eugene for the Black Sheep Gathering. Fibers purchased there are still considered to be "within the fibershed."

3. Barter is permissible, if it is bartering for something not produced within the magic circle. Thread, especially sewing machine thread, represents a big problem. It isn't made in Northern California. I don't think it's made in the United States. I don't have the time to sew everything I own by hand, so using a sewing machine is essential; since the sewing machine requires sewing thread, I'll need to find a way to barter for what I need.

4. Shoes are not included. Fortunately, I think I already own every pair of shoes I'll ever need.

5. At this point, all this fibershed is limited to my own wardrobe. Stephen the Long-Suffering Spouse is excused from participating.

I'll try to post regularly on my progress, to document my successes, reflect upon my failures, and to remind myself of what I'm trying to do.

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Portrait of a Young Woman
by Lucas Cranach Elder (1525)
Dress Journal #5:
I Need a New Dress!

     There's nothing like a friend announcing that she and another friend are finally getting married to get me off the dime. That happened the other day, when two long-time reenacting buddies posted to Facebook that they were planning on marrying, and that the ceremony and feast would be held at the Renaissance Faire this fall. Since Michaelmas is a traditional feast day for the Guild, they picked that day for their nuptials. Needless to say, after the successful German Invasion of Southern Faire on April 22 (see an earlier post), a lot of people are planning on attending this event.
     I need a new dress. I want a new dress. I have a lovely gold chain I picked up years ago at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City. It's a reproduction of a 16th century German gold "Cranach" chain necklace (see picture). It's big, it's long, it's gaudy, and I had to have it. Now I need the dress to wear with both it and a long strand of matched fresh-water pearls.
     The new dress needs to be either a German or Flemish design, from the 16th century. I'm leaning more toward the German, but my "persona" is a remarried Flemish widow (a comfortably well-off one--the previous husband left me with a textile business). It also has to be made out of the materials I have on hand--a bit tricky, as I'm going to need about 10-12 yards of fabric for a new dress, along with period-appropriate trims and accessories.
     I need to get to work on this. I need a new dress!

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

They Came, They Saw, They Conquered Time

     While I was working away on things of a fibery nature, Stephen the Long-Suffering Spouse headed south for the German Invasion of the Renaissance Pleasure Faire. This year marks the fiftieth time the Faire has been held in Southern California (every year since starting off in a North Hollywood park in 1963), and each weekend has been filled with special commorations and reunions.
     For a big part of the past 30 years, there has been a military presence, 16th century style, at every Faire in Northern and Southern California. Nearly every weekend of the run of Faire (as much as 13 weeks, including workshops and teardown after the Faire closed to the public), Stephen dressed up as a German landsknecht--a mercenary soldier--while I dressed up as his wife, tagging along as part of the baggage train. It was hot, dirty, hard work...and we loved it. We were proud members of the Guild of St. Michael's (named for the patron saint of soldiers). Sadly, other things in life (jobs, the house, avoiding a long commute to the Faire site, etc.) had to take priority and we hung away our costumes.
     Sunday April 22 was the reunion of former members of St. Michael's. It took about three months to organize. People traveled from long distances (in some cases, from across the country). Then, on Sunday, to the rolling thunder of eight drummers, nearly 100 Germans (along with a few English soldiers) stepped off to lead the Queen's procession. A smaller group led the procession for the afternoon Queen's Show. Between times, it was a reunion: people exchanged memories, hilarious (usually bawdy) stories were retold once again, the babies that were carried on mothers' hips during Progress were shown off to women who remembered when those mothers were babies, carried on their mothers' hips during Progress a generation before.
     My own landsknecht came home, loaded down with stories, photos, video, and some nice presents for the wife waiting patiently at home. I won't share my presents, but I will share the video of the afternoon Queen's Show Progress Stephen shot on Sunday. Noch Weiter!

Sunday, April 22, 2012

From left: Iron Gall; Toyon; Dyer's Coreopsis;
Coffee Berry;Sagebrush overdyed with Indigo

Backyard Rainbows

     I spent yesterday in a locally-sourced natural dyestuffs workshop taught by Rebecca Burgess of The Fibershed Project (more on that in a later post). It was a good opportunity to see what magic can be found from local plants, some of which are trying to take over the backyard.
     The workshop started off well. We all met at the Berkeley Rep's Prop Shop, which is near a little-known creek that quietly runs through the northern portion of Berkeley from San Pablo Avenue to the freeway. The portion between 8th and 9th streets has been restored to its original riparian landscape and is a pretty little walk. As we walked along, Rebecca pointed out the different native plants that make excellent dyestuffs: toyon,  manzanita, madrone, oak, horsetail, and mugwort, all growing as they once did along the myriad creeks and streams that flowed through the Bay Area. We didn't gather anything except information and an appreciation for a hidden treasure in the middle of the urban streetscape.
     Back at the Prop Shop, we got to work. Rebecca had brought lots of fabric samples (silk, cotton, linen, hemp, and such) that were pre-mordanted with alum and the dyepots were ready to go. I passed on making yarn samples from the navajo-churro yarn available and substituted my 25-yard "skeinlets" of wool sock yarn that had been pre-mordanted in 10% alum and 5% cream of tartar. The dye vats were ready, so the fabric samples and yarns went in to "steep" for an hour. We broke for lunch while the fiber was dyeing.

The vats:
-    Oak gall with "rusty object water": This is the classic "Iron Gall," used by dyers and ink-makers for centuries to produce a variety of grays and blacks. The mixture is oak galls broken up or pulverized, then added to water that has had rusty nails, steel, or steel wool sitting in it. The rust (iron oxide) becomes suspended in the water, and it binds with the tannins in the oak galls to produce a black tone.
-    Toyon. This was simply branches and leaves of Toyon (Heteromeles arbutifolia) simmered in a copper pot. This produced a deep reddish brown.
-    Dyer's Coreopsis. The dried flowers of Dyer's Coreopsis (Coreopsis tinctoria) added to a pot of simmering water. This had a pleasant aroma (rather like herbal tea) while simmering, and produced a golden brown.
-    Coffee Berry. Again, the twigs and leaves of the Coffee Berry (Rhamnus californica) simmered in a stainless steel pot. This produced a dark yellow.
-    Sage. The chopped up leaves of California Sagebrush (Artemisia californica), simmered in a pot of water, produced another yellow very similar to Coffee Berry.

     Once we finished the initial dyeing, Rebecca set up a small indigo vat so we could overdye yarns and fabric samples if we wished. I opted for overdyeing my sage sample with indigo to produce an olive green that was a nicer color than the original yellow from just sage.
     All in all, it was a good workshop. I would have liked getting a copy of Rebecca's book, Harvesting Color, but she didn't have any more copies available so I'll have to order it. The book lists a number of native plants that work for dyeing, and I'd like to see what else we could incorporate into the landscaping.