Hiking the Camino Primitivo, a Medieval Immersion

Memories and Mind Expansion

I travel for two reasons — the memories I carry with me afterwards and the expansion of my understanding of the world. Trips I took decades ago still loom in my consciousness; sharp, fresh moments of joy and profound satisfaction. I remember visiting the pueblos carved into the side of mesas in Colorado when I was eight. My mother snapped a photo of me next to an elaborate feather headdress. My imagination was alive with wonder for this native culture I was only just learning existed.

Summer 1978, the author visiting the pueblos in Colorado Springs, CO, USA

Summer 1978, visiting the pueblos in Colorado Springs, CO, USA.

I recall staring up at the colorful beauty of St. Basil’s Cathedral in Red Square in March of 1991, not yet aware that the Soviet Union was mere months from ending as an official nation state. That night, as my fellow students and I traveled to Novgorod on an overnight train, we drank hot, sweet tea served from a samovar in glass cups nestled in filigree. I felt like I was in a spy thriller, or perhaps a noir film. We learned the next morning that tanks had rolled into Moscow.

St. Basil Cathedral, Red Square, Moscow. Photo taken by the author in March, 1991

St. Basil Cathedral, Red Square, Moscow. Photo taken by the author in March, 1991

A most magical memory: walking on packed, wet sand after dark on Tybee Island off the coast of the state of Georgia. I watched my footsteps glow bright purple from the phosphorus in the water. Waves crashing against the nearby sea wall sparkled iridescent against the inky sky. The photos of that live only in my head.

Watching pelicans dive for fish in the roaring surf of the Gulf of Mexico—that had me hypnotized for the better part of a lazy afternoon on a white sand beach. Riding a bicycle under the cheerful sun into Tulum the next day, I was amused to see a rock star without his usual hideous makeup eating a humble meal a few tables over from me.

Pelicans in the surf off the coast of the Riviera Maya, near Tulum, Mexico. Photo by author taken in March, 2008.

Pelicans in the surf off the coast of the Riviera Maya, near Tulum, Mexico. Photo by author taken in March, 2008.

These moments, and so many more, have fed my soul through the years, possibly more than any other life experience, aside from raising my son. Perhaps I’d have more assets to my name if I didn’t spend precious discretionary income on travel, but I regret none of my travel expenses so far.

The Plan for Pilgrimage

In 2000, my husband (long before he became my husband) was dealt a terrible injury. In a wrestling accident, his cervical spinal cord was damaged. He spent his 30th birthday struggling to walk again. In those dark early days, he vowed he would take a pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela in Spain, should he regain the use of his body enough to do so. Last year those plans finally began to coalesce.

St. James on the cathedral bearing his name in Santiago de Compostela.

St. James on the cathedral bearing his name in Santiago de Compostela.

We had a small group of friends from our re-enactment group, La Compagnia della Rosa nel Sole, who also wanted to take this walk, and better yet, were interested in doing so in medieval gear. We all wanted to immerse ourselves; to feel the daily experience as it might have been felt by pilgrims in the late 14th century, when pilgrimage was a pervasive part of Europe’s culture.

As we also had a growing tradition of attending Il Torneo del Cigno Bianco (The Tournament of the White Swan) every two years in the Verona area of Italy, we decided to pair our Camino walk with that trip during the first weekend of June. Galician weather in May is mild—ideal for walking over mountainous terrain.

We picked the Primitivo route, which begins in Oviedo and travels southwest through Asturias into Galicia to Santiago de Compostela, where the tomb of St. James resides. We had some warning that it was the most challenging and rustic route, but somehow the reality of this was unattainable until we actually walked it. More on that later!

My Google map, on which I dropped pins for our accommodations.

My Google map, on which I dropped pins for our accommodations.

Due to my family schedule and the obligations of my husband’s businesses, we could only join our group of walkers about halfway through the journey, on the outskirts of a town called A Fonsagrada. This was 150 km (about 93 miles) from Santiago, which was more than enough to qualify for receipt of a Compostela, an official document issued by the Roman Catholic church acknowledging one’s completion of a walking pilgrimage of over 100 km to the tomb of St. James. We would walk for six days to reach our destination.

Our group united in A Fonsagrada, Galicia. From left to right: Greg, Marc, Matt, Sarah (our chase car driver!), Elisabeth, Christian, and Steve.

Our group united in A Fonsagrada, Galicia. From left to right: Greg, Marc, Matt, Sarah (our chase car driver!), Elisabeth, Christian, and Steve.

As we needed specialty gear for both the pilgrimage and the tournament in Italy, we hatched a complicated plan that involved flying first to Italy to drop off half of our gear for the tournament at the inn we called home when attending this event. While briefly there, we met with a local historical shoemaker, Graziano Dal Barco, who kindly hand-delivered a bunch of shoes and beautiful pattens to us. We then flew on to Spain, where our friend Sarah and her daughter Beatrice met us and another pilgrim, Steve, and drove us to join the pilgrims already in progress in A Fonsagrada.

Felipe the sheep reviews our shoes brought to us in Verona by Graziano Dal Barco.

Felipe the Pilgrim Sheep reviews our shoes brought to us in Verona by Graziano Dal Barco. The dark brown boots are the ones that got us in trouble later on. Beautifully made, but just too small for the task at hand.

And So It Begins…

We had a hearty dinner which included Galician-style octopus, slept well, and were off to begin our epic hike early the next morning. The Primitivo trail hid in the forest across a field behind the motor lodge where we stayed. Our group now numbered seven: myself, Greg, Christian, Matt, Marc, Elisabeth, and Steve. Sarah and Beatrice, Christian’s wife and daughter respectively, would stay with the car, transporting luggage from site to site each evening, though Beatrice chose to walk with us that first day. She made it look easy. Ah, fit youth!

Here I am, completely unprepared for the adventure before me, but believing I'm ready, nonetheless. Steve, Beatrice (the 14-year-old ballerina who made it look easy), and Elisabeth are standing by.

Here I am, completely unprepared for the adventure before me, but believing I’m ready, nonetheless. Steve, Beatrice (the 14-year-old ballerina who made it look easy), and Elisabeth are standing by.

 

Matt, Christian, and Greg, looking ready for anything. Good thing, too, because this was to be the Day That Never Ended.

Matt, Christian, and Greg, looking ready for anything. Good thing, too, because this was to be the Day That Never Ended.

Greg and I had diligently trained for this hike by walking long distances in local forest preserves in northern Illinois. What we did not adequately train for was the mountainous topography. We had no idea how many mountains there would be. So. Many. Mountains. Not hills. MOUNTAINS. That first day can only be described as a haze of wonder and panic—Was this what asthma feels like? Was I really seeing so many stunning mountaintop vistas? Could I walk on stumps if my feet fell off? Was I in Rivendell? Was I having a cardiac situation?

A typical steep ascent. Vexingly aerobic while simultaneously picturesque.

A typical steep ascent. Vexingly aerobic while simultaneously picturesque.

We passed through many tiny rustic towns where very little had changed in 1,000 years. Sure, there were gas-powered tractors parked about, and electricity, but some of those stone houses were still witness to homemade chorizo and cheese and bread that was baked with a hard crust so it could last a month until the next bread-making session. People live very simply and are, for the most part, farmers. They’re particularly partial to growing kale and Swiss chard.

A typical raised grainery in Galicia. Most are unused now, and exist in varying degrees of maintained.

A typical raised grainery in Galicia. They’re raised to keep vermin out. Most are unused now, and exist in varying degrees of rustic decay.

As the day progressed, my feet became my focal point of discomfort due to my beautiful medieval shoes being a size too small. As per the shoemaker’s instructions, I soaked them in every stream I came across, in hopes they would stretch as I walked along. Alas, after 26 km, they still had not stretched. I simply needed a larger size. That night I made the decision to switch from period footwear to my modern hiking shoes. My muscles could survive the challenge, but without fit feet, I would be doomed.

Soaking my too-tight shoes in one of a number of streams I encountered that first day. The shoes were admirably water-tight, but did not stretch one bit.

Soaking my too-tight shoes in one of a number of streams I encountered that first day. The shoes were admirably water-tight, but did not stretch one bit.

 

Each mountain top we reached rewarded us with stunning views for miles.

Each mountain top we conquered then rewarded us with stunning views for miles.

 

This was the first camino obelisk we encountered. We had about 150 km to go before reaching Santiago. Greg and Felipe posed to commemorate the moment.

This was the first camino marker we encountered. We had about 150 km to go before reaching Santiago. Greg and Felipe posed to commemorate the moment.

 

It didn't take long before we were rolling our sleeves up.

It didn’t take long before we were rolling up our sleeves.

 

A rare photo of me walking ahead of someone! I usually brought up the rear, which was fine with me. I was shortest, and the only uncaffeinated walker in the group.

A rare photo of me walking ahead of someone! I usually brought up the rear, which was fine with me. I was shortest, and the only uncaffeinated walker in the group.

 

This is more like it. I was usually last due to aforementioned shortness and lack of caffeine-powered energy, but I also liked to take pictures, and stopping even for a few seconds to do that could put many meters between me and the others.

This is more like it. I was usually last due to aforementioned shortness and lack of caffeine-powered energy, but I also liked to take pictures, and stopping even for a few seconds to do that could put many meters between me and the others.

 

Climbing a hill in the sun, my favorite! You can tell by the look on my face!

Climbing a hill in the sun, my favorite! You can tell by the look on my face! Photo by Stephen Callahan.

 

The reward to hiking up a mountain is the view at the top.

Here we are, admiring another stunning vista on a mountain top.

 

Just as our elevation changed constantly, we frequently passed in and out of deep woods. We all preferred the woods, lovely, dark, and deep, to borrow a famous poet's words.

Just as our elevation changed constantly, we frequently passed in and out of deep woods. We all preferred the woods: lovely, dark, and deep, to borrow a famous poet’s words.

 

The grand scale of what we traversed can just begin to be seen in this photo by Stephen Callahan.

The grand scale of what we traversed can just begin to be seen in this photo by Stephen Callahan.

When we finally arrived in O Cadavo after a grim final five-or-so km, some of us stayed at a pilgrim’s albergue, and some of us stayed at a local hotel. We all decamped to the Hotel Moneda for late afternoon refreshments (wine and beer) while we waited for the restaurant to open at 8 pm. The whole “nothing is open between 2 pm and 5 pm but the bar and you can’t eat dinner until 8 pm” thing was incomprehensible to me.

Beers and laughter with Felipe at the end of the first day. We hung out at the Hotel Moneda in O Cadavo Baleira waiting with so much yearning for the dinner hour to arrive.

Beers and laughter with Matt, Marc, Christian, and Felipe at the end of the first day. We hung out at the Hotel Moneda in O Cadavo Baleira waiting with so much yearning for the dinner hour to arrive.

When Greg took off his shoes and examined his feet, we found that he’d cooked up some spectacularly large and raw blisters on his heels. His beautiful boots from Graziano were too tight in the heel. Fortunately I had a well-researched, and well-stocked foot-oriented first aid kit with me. In the morning I covered his heels in Compeed and then put some benzoin tincture around the edges of pieces of kinesiotape and glued the tape down over the Compeed. There was no way he would get through a long day (or five) of walking with anything less than this arrangement, plus ibuprofen and a pair of back-up boots from Bohemond. Fortunately, it worked. He was able to walk on.

One of Greg's two mangled heels after the 4th day of walking. Holding steady, no sign of infection. We poured iodine over them shortly after this photo was taken.

One of Greg’s two mangled heels. This photo was taken after the 4th day of walking. Holding steady, no sign of infection. We poured iodine over them shortly after this photo was taken.

 

These four items were mandatory: tincture of benzoin, kinesiotape, scissors, and Compeed (or comparable brand of blister "second skin").

These four items were mandatory: tincture of benzoin, kinesiotape, scissors, and Compeed (or comparable brand of blister “second skin”).

Day Two

The next day was harder on my muscles than Day One, which was to be expected. My feet were getting relief, but the rest of me howled in indignation. So much for all that walk training! I suppose without it I’d have been in truly terrible pain, but still… I cannot stress enough how important it is to get in good shape before going on Camino!

Greg's hat and staff. Whenever we took a rest, he'd jam his staff upright into the dirt and put his hat on it, to air out his head.

Greg’s hat and staff.

The views continued to be stunning. I was thrilled that a good 90% or more of our route went through forests and along mountain ridges, rather than on roads. While the Primitivo is the most physically challenging walk, it is probably also the most beautiful and natural one.

We frequently walked through sunken paths surrounded by exceedingly old trees. Exposed rootballs are a Thing on the Primitivo.

We frequently walked through sunken paths surrounded by exceedingly old trees. Exposed root balls are a Thing on the Primitivo.

 

You might think that we'd get tired of all the stunning vistas, but I never did. We joked about their frequency, but each one was a gift to my soul.

You might think that we’d get tired of all the stunning vistas, but I never did. We joked about their frequency, but each one was a gift to my soul.

On this day we took a “complimentario” route, which are optional side trips along the Camino to see church-related sites. We explored what remained of a 12th-century village and church. The lush quiet of the forest and the melancholic atmosphere of the old stone ruins had my imagination percolating.

An abandoned stone building from an abandoned medieval village on the complimentario route. Oh, the gothic stories that could be spun from this inspiration!

A crumbling stone building from an abandoned medieval village on the complimentario route. Oh, the gothic stories that could be spun from this inspiration!

 

A long forgotten 12th century church in the crumbling remains of a medieval village.

A long forgotten 12th century church in the crumbling remains of a medieval village.

 

Matt among the ruins.

Matt among the ruins.

 

"Speak friend and enter." We found this door in the side of hill. No explanation. Greg said "friend", but nothing happened.

“Speak friend and enter.” We found this door in the side of a hill. No explanation. Greg said “friend”, but alas, nothing happened.

Day Three

At the end of Day Two, we stayed at an apartment in Lugo, which is famous for its Roman walls. The next morning, fortified by a hearty breakfast cooked by Matt, we walked along the top of the walls, and went to the cathedral to get a stamp (sello) in our credencials, which are a passport for pilgrims to collect evidence of all the places they’ve walked through. The docent apparently thought we were from a Catholic order, given our dress, and enlisted a priest to say a blessing for us. We told her where we were all from (Illinois and Pennsylvania in the US; Toronto/Ontario in Canada) and she asked if we were allowed to all be together, the men and the women. Thinking she was asking us about our home parishes, Christian and Greg said, “Yes,” and she nodded with a pensive and puzzled expression on her face.

We proceeded on our walk as mass was starting. The done thing would have been to stay, but the day was marching on, and so also must we.

Standing on the Roman walls that encircle the old city in Lugo.

Standing on the Roman walls that encircle the old city in Lugo. As you can see, my body was modern from the ankles down. My hosen had started to droop, but I was too tired every night to drag out my sewing kit and take them in. Living in baggy hosen seemed like a small concession for getting rest.

Day Three was probably the most taxing for me, as Christian, Marc, Elisabeth, and Matt had warned it would be. We had a steep descent followed by a steep ascent out of Lugo, and the sun was brutal that morning and afternoon. There was a fair bit of hiking along unattractive, paved roads. We dodged fast-moving cars while the sun beamed down unrelentingly. It turned out to be taxing for Elisabeth and Christian too, who both got acquainted with stinging nettles during a stop at a pilgrims’ spring.

Elisabeth airs her legs out after stinging nettles had their way with them.

Elisabeth airs her legs out after stinging nettles had their way with them.

 

The leaves on this oak tree were a revelation. The oak leaves I'm used to seeing at home in the US are completely differently shaped. When viewing "oak leaf dags" on 14th-century clothing, however, they make much more sense when compared to an actual European oak!

The leaves on this oak tree were a revelation. The oak leaves I’m used to seeing at home in the US are completely differently shaped. When viewing “oak leaf dags” on 14th-century clothing, however, they now make much more sense to me when compared to an actual European oak!

 

Much of what we walked through was a tunnel of greenery.

Much of what we walked through was a tunnel of greenery.

 

Fortunately, our stopping point that evening was a beautiful inn called Casa Camiño, which is run by a lovely English couple, Sue and Kim. Kim is a master timber framer who painstakingly rebuilt a ruined stone building into the luxurious and impeccable oasis that it is today. I highly recommend their inn to anyone who either walks the Primitivo or wants to visit Galicia.

 

Casa Camino, Turismo Rural is a wonderful oasis of luxury, good food, and good company on the Primitivo. It's located past San Ramao da Retorta.

Casa Camiño, is a wonderful oasis of luxury, good food, and good company on the Primitivo. It’s located between San Ramao da Retorta and Melide.

 

A view of the inn. Kim and Sue make a spectacular effort to pamper you here.

A view of the inn. Kim and Sue make a spectacular effort to pamper you here.

 

By the end of Day Three, Greg's substitute shoes from Bohemond had worn out completely. The soles were not made of sturdy enough leather to withstand all-day walking, day after day on rough surfaces.

By the end of Day Three, Greg’s substitute shoes from Bohemond had worn out completely. The soles were not made of sturdy enough leather to withstand all-day hiking, day after day, on rough surfaces. Steve kindly lent Greg a pair of his extra shoes so he could continue on.

Day Four

If Day Four had a theme, it was “take it easy” and “interesting interactions with others”. While the rest of our group headed out around 9:30 AM, Greg and I lingered until 11 AM and set out at our own leisurely pace. The walk started out with the usual brutal ascent, but we went slowly and stopped frequently to take in the views and the local flora (which never failed to be super-gorgeous).

Walking on top of a mountain. The wide-open sky and rocky outcroppings reminded Greg of Weathertop, from the Lord of the Rings trilogy.

Walking on top of a mountain. The wide-open sky and rocky outcroppings reminded Greg of Weathertop, from the Lord of the Rings trilogy.

At one point, our hosts drove up to us in a pickup truck and asked us if we’d seen their dog, who’d scarpered earlier that day. He was a rescue who’d had a hard life before living with them, and was prone to wandering off after pilgrims. We hadn’t seen him and wished them luck on their search. I even called them a few minutes after they drove on, because we passed a house with a dog lying in the driveway who bore a remarkable resemblance to their dog (see picture at end of this post!). Alas, it was not him, but they thanked me for staying vigilant. About 45 minutes later, we saw them driving back. We were overjoyed to see they’d recovered their dog, who’d gone 18 km before they found him! I was agog. Not only had they driven to the next major town (Melide) and then past it to search for him, but they actually FOUND him 4 km past Melide. Unbelievable. He’s one lucky dog to have such determined humans. I deeply regret not snapping a photo of them in their pickup, re-acquired doggo in the back seat. Instead, have some flowers:

The wildflowers all along the Primitivo route were amazing. These purple-blue flowers in particular captured my fancy.

The wildflowers all along the Primitivo route were amazing. These purple-blue flowers in particular captured my fancy.

 

Felipe surveys the view on top of a Camino marker. In the distance is Melide, our next destination.

Felipe surveys the view on top of a Camino marker. In the distance is Melide, our next destination.

 

Yours truly, weary, but still going. It was hot that day, so I walked in just my white linen shirt.

Yours truly, weary, but still going. It was hot that day, so I walked in just my white linen shirt, braies, and hosen.

When we arrived in Melide, Steve kindly came to meet us and usher us into the albergue where the others were gathered. For Greg and I, this was our first and only stay in an albergue. I was a little anxious because I’m a light sleeper. However, if anyone snored, I never heard it. I had earplugs and a tired body full of all-day fresh air, which is a great prescription for a good night’s sleep.

The conviviality at Albergue San Anton in Melide. Photo by Stephen Callahan.

The conviviality of los peregrinos at Albergue San Anton in Melide. Photo by Stephen Callahan.

Melide is where the Frances route — the most popular and populous Camino route — joins with the Primitivo route. From here until Santiago, we’d be on the road with lots of other pilgrims. Our albergue was stuffed to the brim with friendly Brazilians who cooked a delicious-smelling dinner and laughed into the evening.

 

A young and handsome acolyte stamped our passports in a rural church. It was unusual to come across an open church in these remote hamlets.

A young and handsome acolyte stamped our passports in a rural church. It was unusual to come across an open church in the remote hamlets of Galicia.

Day Five

Day Five loomed overcast and humid. It had just rained before we set out, and we all expected more rain to come. Maybe we’d get to test our wool against the wet. The temperature had lowered, which was a plus, and so I finally had a chance to wear my short silk-lined wool mantle. I was perfectly comfortable wearing it over my wool gown and linen shirt. As Christian states in his blog post on our experience, the medieval clothing system is remarkably comfortable in all sorts of weather, and it certainly served us well from temperatures in the low 50s through low 80s (F).

Hey, look! I'm in front! The short cloak was a versatile and great little addition to my traveling wardrobe.

Hey, look! I’m in front! The short cloak was a versatile and great little addition to my traveling wardrobe. Photo by Stephen Callahan.

Amazingly enough, it never rained on us. We could see rain in the mountains on either side of us, and people behind us reported getting soaked, but we mysteriously remained dry. I can’t say I’m sorry about that.

Now that we were on the road with crowds of other pilgrims, the requests for photos became constant. We joked about charging 5 Euros a shot, but after a while, the joke began to seem like a serious discussion. Even though the requests grew tiresome, we still made some lovely connections. A woman from southern California named Marion asked if she could treat us all to a glass of wine at a local bar-café. We happily took her up on that. I struck up a conversation with another traveler, Karen, who runs a hiking blog called Hikearumba.com. We corresponded after we got home and she sent me a few photos she’d taken.

Karen of hikearumba.com and I pose for her selfie. We talked about Greg and his vow to do the Camino after he recovered from his accident.

Karen of hikearumba.com and I pose for her selfie. We talked about Greg and his vow to do the Camino after he recovered from his accident.

 

We crossed many streams in our travels, and they often had rock bridges.

We crossed many streams in our travels, and they often had rock bridges. Photo by Stephen Callahan.

 

Cheese, honey, and philosophy. I can think of far worse things.

Cheese, honey, and philosophy. I can think of far worse things.

That night we stayed in a pension run by an older couple in A Brea. Greg’s and my en suite bathroom had a hot tub, and the first thing I did was take a long soak. Pure heaven. My body was getting the hang of this punishing walking pace, but I still needed help relaxing my muscles at the end of each day. The lady of the house cooked us a wonderful meal, which had a bit more variety to it than the usual Galician restaurant fare we’d grown used to along our way. Most meals were only seasoned with paprika and salt, full stop. I’m pretty sure our hostess used coriander and possibly even turmeric on the tender and delicious ribs she served us. We were grateful for the home-cooked attention.

Galician octopus, which is always served on a round, wooden platter like this.

Speaking of food, here’s some Galician octopus, which is always served on a round, wooden platter like this. Those red spots? Paprika. Of course.

Day Six: Santiago de Compostela or Bust

The next day, we were set to make it to Santiago de Compostela. I had fully hit my stride and was feeling confident even on hard ascents. My body had grown more efficient at processing oxygen for my muscles. I also had figured out a gait that could get me safely down descents without hurting my knees. Marc had ever so kindly switched walking sticks with me, letting me use his much lighter one, while he carried my much-too-heavy-for-me one we’d purchased from Lorifactor. Of course, now our journey was ending. Isn’t that always the way it goes?

Even while closing in on Santiago de Compostela, we still walked through beautiful sunken paths through solid greenery.

Even while closing in on Santiago de Compostela, we still walked through beautiful sunken paths engulfed in solid greenery.

Greg, unfortunately, was having the hardest day of our trek. I knew he was feeling poorly and he was in a terrible mood, chasing me off when I tried to walk with him. Finally he admitted he had a fever. Christian had been battling a fever on and off for days as well, and Greg had clearly picked it up. That, combined with his nerve pain and chorizo-esque heels added up to pure misery for him. I finally settled into walking about 50 yards ahead of him, glancing back periodically to confirm he was still upright and making progress. Part of our group was well behind us, having stopped so Steve could repair one of his shoes, so I knew there was no chance we could abandon him.

The closer we got to Santiago, the more we found abandoned or lost gear perched on or near the way markers. We encountered a few badly injured peregrinos along the way as well. This journey is not an easy one. Profound and magical, yes.

The closer we got to Santiago, the more we found abandoned or lost gear perched on or near the way markers. We encountered a few orthopedically injured peregrinos along the way as well. This journey is not an easy one. Profound and magical, yes.

At one point, Marc and I stopped to admire wild horses moving among the trees in a wildlife preserve off to our left. Greg caught up to us and we pointed out the horses to him. He stared, glassy-eyed, into the preserve. Later he told me that he’d been thinking it would be a good place to lie down and die. I knew this was hyperbole due to his feverish suffering, and we had a laugh over it, after the trauma was past. He also admitted that he’d retrieved his stuffed sheep, Felipe, from his scrip bag and was talking to him to get through this toughest of days. I am a firm believer in whatever it takes and completely understand why a person would talk to a stuffed sheep while walking the Camino.

Greg stopped to pray at a little church on the outskirts of Santiago de Compostela.

Greg stopped to pray at a little church on the outskirts of Santiago de Compostela.

At last, we entered Santiago de Compostela, and made our way to the Cathedral, a baroque behemoth fronted by a square where hundreds of pilgrims milled about and greeted one another. I felt a light-hearted satisfaction. We’d done this huge, hard thing we’d set out to do.

Walking through the city, anticipating our first full site of the cathedral of St. James.

Walking through the city, anticipating our first full sight of the cathedral of St. James.

I had taken this journey in hopes of attaining some spiritual enlightenment. I found peace in separating from my daily obligations and surrounding myself with unspoiled country day after day. If I achieved anything spiritual, it was my attempt to get back in touch with the natural world and with my concept of God residing in all of it. I also reacquainted with me — parts of me that have had no chance to emerge while existing in the sedate, suburban state of being I normally inhabit.

Without a selfie stick, we settled for a "selfito", my name for a selfie taken in Spain where you can only fit part of your head in the shot.

Greg, Felipe, and myself in front of St. James Cathedral. Without a selfie stick, we settled for a “selfito”, my name for a selfie taken in Spain where you can only fit part of your head in the shot.

Greg, a relatively lapsed but highly religiously-educated Catholic, had stopped to pray at several churches along the route, and had occasionally read from his book of hours at various small shrines. Before our trip, he’d taken our pilgrim staves to the church he’d attended as a child and had the priest there bless them. He’d once made the vow to go on Camino when he wasn’t sure he would walk again. At last, he had fulfilled his vow.

Greg and Father David Hankus at St. James the Apostle Catholic Church in Glen Ellyn, IL, USA.

Greg and Father David Hankus at St. James the Apostle Catholic Church in Glen Ellyn, IL, USA. Father David blessed our pilgrim staves before our trip.

That evening we took our credencials full of stamps to the office where officials would look them over, confirm that we had all walked the route for at least 100 km. They would then issue us our Compostelas, which are Latin documents stating we’ve completed a pilgrimage to the shrine of St. James. In celebration, we cleaned up in modern clothing and went out for a seafood feast to an excellent restaurant called Los Carracoles in Rúa da Raíña.

Seafood feast split by Greg and me at Los Carracoles, including barnacles, which are apparently dangerous to harvest. They were salty, chewy little nuggets, but I don't think I'd risk my life to pry them off of rocks that are frequently savaged by the hard waves of the Atlantic.

Seafood feast split by Greg and me at Los Carracoles, including barnacles, which are apparently dangerous to harvest. They were salty, chewy little nuggets; not bad. I don’t think I’d risk my life to pry them off of rocks that are frequently savaged by the hard waves of the Atlantic, but I’m glad I had a chance to try them.

 

Our compostelas and credencials. Note my name, "Natalium". This was the Latinized version of Tasha.

Our compostelas and credencials. Note the name, “Natalium”, on my compostela. This is the Latinized version of “Tasha”, which is a Russian nickname for “Natalia”. My legal name is “Tasha”, though, because that’s how we Americans roll.

The next day we attended the noon pilgrim’s mass at the cathedral and watched the botafumeiro swing on its chain from one side of the cathedral to the other. Perhaps you have seen video of this huge thurible full of smoking incense swinging, but until you’ve seen it in person, it’s easy to underestimate the speed at which it flies through the air. It’s a sight to behold, and it takes at least six people to hoist it and control its flight.

The botafumeiro handlers prepare to release its rope and begin its swing.

The botafumeiro handlers prepare to release its rope and begin its swing.

 

The botafumeiro as it flies by, almost too fast for my camera to catch.

The botafumeiro as it flies by, almost too fast for my camera to catch.

We stayed at an apartment very close to the cathedral, ideally situated for walking around the old city and finally behaving like tourists. It was time to buy souvenirs. Some jaded travelers scoff at such things; I’m an unrepentant souvenir acquirer. In particular, I pick up refrigerator magnets wherever I go because looking at them on a daily basis gives me a brief reminder of past happy adventures. I also look for Christmas tree decorations, which are often harder to find.

Fridge magnets I've collected since 2014. A few were gifts -- the Greek one and the Saigon one -- but mostly they're my selections from our travels. I have an earlier collection in storage somewhere, defying my wish to display them fondly.

Fridge magnets I’ve collected since 2014. A few were gifts — the Greek one and the Saigon one — but mostly they’re my selections from our travels. I have an earlier collection in storage somewhere.

I mentioned above that I got to know me a little better on this long walk. For instance, I had the insight that walking in unflattering male clothing, wearing a man’s hat style, and generally being somewhat gender-neutral for six days straight left me with a hankering to transform into a modern, feminine woman at the end of it. I went shoe and clothing shopping, and put on makeup with relish. I bought a pair of girly sandals I might have never otherwise purchased and wore them with relief.

In my life, I’ve gone through many outward changes — hair style and color changes, weight changes. Sometimes I reveled in looking a bit boyish, an on-again-off-again habit I’ve indulged since my early teens. But now, as my middle age is in full swing and I’m watching my face and body begin its gravity-assisted devolution, I find both sides of me in conflict. On one hand, I want the comfort and no-nonsense of traditionally masculine accessories, but on the other, I’m clinging to what feminine allure remains for me, as the clock ticks down to the crone phase.

I used to go to an Italian barbershop in Philadelphia where I grew up. The barbers did not know what to make of me. I insisted they give me a boy's haircut, and so they would. I loved it at the time, and androgyny was in. (You thought gender fluidity signaling was invented in the new century? We 80s kids were masters at it.

I used to go to an Italian barbershop in Philadelphia where I grew up. The barbers didn’t know what to make of me. I insisted on a boy’s haircut. We 80s kids were masters at signaling gender fluidity long before it was a part of the progressive zeitgeist.

Memento Mori

A part of growing older is that over time we lose friends. A few years ago a friend who was active in medieval research and re-enactment, Will McLean, passed away too soon. Will was good company every year at Pennsic War, the giant SCA event held in Western Pennsylvania, USA. My best friend Greta and I could always rely on his company and witty quips. He made us laugh so much. Anyone who has ever heard him perform his rap, “Blak P”, will know what I mean. Will was a founder of a tournament company, the Company of St. Michael, that helped bring formal passages of arms to popularity in the SCA. In its later years Greta and I helped him manage it. In honor and remembrance of Will, I wore my St. Michael’s badge on my hat.

The scallop shell is the symbol of a pilgrim on their way to Santiago de Compostela. The St. Michael badge is there in honor of Will McLean, my departed friend who founded the Company of St. Michael, a tournament company. Badge by Billy & Charlie.

The scallop shell is the symbol of a pilgrim on their way to Santiago de Compostela. The St. Michael badge is there in honor of Will McLean, my departed friend who founded the Company of St. Michael, a tournament company. Badge by Billy & Charlie.

 

Will as I will always remember him, grinning in impeccable late 14th-century clothing and accessories, a gentleman to the end.

Will as I will always remember him, grinning in impeccable late 14th-century clothing and accessories, a gentleman to the end.

Greg recently lost an old friend of his, Aaron Popowich. Aaron was one of the original founders of the Chicago Swordplay Guild with Greg. At one point, Aaron went traveling through Spain and ended up running with the bulls in Pamplona. When he returned to Chicagoland, he gifted his red sash to Greg, who wore that sash on our walk in remembrance of Aaron.

Greg and Felipe and the memory of Aaron.

Greg and Felipe and the memory of Aaron.

Epilogue: The Wild Dogs of the Camino

On a side note, before this trip, Greg brought up the possibility of encountering wild dogs on the various Camino routes and mentioned more than once that he could handle any wild dogs crossing our paths, thanks to our long, sturdy, walking staves. In honor of his anticipation of a dust-up with wild dogs, I give you a tour of the Wild Dogs of the Camino we encountered. Greg gave them serious what-for.

 

Greg prepares to fight a wild dog.

Greg luring in a wild dog.

 

This wild dog was the one I called our hosts at Casa Camino about, to see if he was their missing pup. They knew this little guy and assured me it was not theirs.

This wild dog was the one I called our hosts at Casa Camino about, to see if he was their missing pup. They knew this little fluffball and assured me it was not theirs.

 

Marc lures these vicious, wild dogs in for some gratuitous petting.

Marc lures these vicious, wild dogs in for some gratuitous petting.

 

Greg shoes this particularly wild dog who's boss.

Greg shows this particularly wild dog who’s boss.

 

The wild cats of the Camino were not to be out-begged.

The wild cats of the Camino were not to be out-begged.

 

Face-Framing Braids—Recreating a 14th-Century Hairstyle

I’ve long been fascinated with the braided hair styles seen on women in Western European figural art of the mid-to-late 14th century—particularly in French works. To my modern eyes, women did charming and oddball things with their hair. The undeniable outlandishness of these braids make them fun to recreate. I am especially enamored of the styles seen in the images below.

 

From the blessing in a nuptial mass. Turin-Milan Hours. Museo Civico, inv. no. 47, f87. Paris, 1380.

From the blessing in a nuptial mass. Turin-Milan Hours. Museo Civico, inv. no. 47, f.87. Paris, 1380.

 

From BNF MS Français 811, f.IV. Paris, 1398.

From BNF MS Français 811, f.IV. Paris, 1398.

 

From Le Remède de Fortune, Le Dit du Lion by Guillaume de Machaut. BNF MS Français 1586, f51. France, circa 1350.

From Le Remède de Fortune, Le Dit du Lion by Guillaume de Machaut. BNF MS Français 1586, f.51. France, circa 1350.

 

With this in mind, I invited a friend over recently to photograph the process of styling hanging braids that frame the face and wrap to the back of the head. Drea has thick, lustrous, long hair, and had expressed an interest in learning the process herself.

 

Drea, combing out her hair.

Drea, combing out her hair with a wide-toothed comb.

 

It was a perfect opportunity to both teach her and further my own learning. I’ve been braiding my hair in the style described for about sixteen years, but as I have thin hair that is rarely grown long enough to capture the proper appearance, I usually resort to wearing faux braids attached to a tablet-woven band. Originally, when all I had was my own hair to work with, it was my friend Charlotte Johnson who showed me how to do a simple face-framing braid arrangement.

 

Charlotte Johnson and me, posing as church donors memorialized in art. Photo from 2002.

Charlotte Johnson (left) and me, posing as church donors memorialized in art. Photo from 2002 (I think?). We were so young!

 

I started making the faux hair pieces in 2003, after seeing my dear friend Greta Nappa make one based on an extant fragment published in the Museum of London’s Dress Accessories book. I disguise my own hair by pinning it back into a low, flat bun worn under a veil. Even though I’ve long known how to arrange hair in this fashion, I’ve been lacking in the finer points of securing the braids with no use of modern bobby pins or hair ties, which I’ll go into further below.

 

Wearing synthetic braids sewn to a table-woven band with a linen veil. Picture taken in 2012.

I’m wearing braids I made from extensions and sewed to a silk, table-woven band woven by Charlotte, with a linen veil. Picture taken in 2012.

 

For this style, hair should be parted down the middle, all the way from the center of the forehead to the nape.  There are a number of different methods for arranging a set of 14th-century face-framing braids. For this day’s experiment, we aimed for a style that pulls all the hair on each side of the head to the temples and creates two long braids that then fold in half, get pinned to create the stiff, vertical shape, and then wrap around the back of the head.

We decided to try two versions of the same style—one with plain, clean hair, and one with hair product in it. As I began to braid her freshly-washed hair, we quickly noticed how unruly and slippery it was. Drea has typical hair for a woman of European descent. If we were having this problem now, it most certainly would have also been a problem with freshly-washed hair 630 or so years ago.

 

One braid complete. It's looking fly-away. We had no choice but to use a modern hair band to secure the bottom.

One braid complete. It was looking pretty fly-away. We had no choice but to use a modern hair band to secure the bottom.

 

Both braids complete. I had this overwhelming sense that the style we were emulating would never have been done this way. Something big was missing from our equation because the hair was far too uncontrollable.

Both braids complete. I had this overwhelming sense that the style we were emulating would never have been done this way—with freshly-washed, untreated hair. It’s a truth, universally acknowledged, that hair is harder to style when freshly-washed and without hair products put in it.

 

 

The finished 'do with fresh-washed, untreated hair. It felt and looked precarious.

A front view of the finished ‘do. Everything was secured with pins alone. It felt and looked precarious.

 

Back view of the hairstyle. Everything is secured with pins alone, and it was dicey at best. A stiff wind would have made it come tumbling down.

Back view of the hairstyle. A stiff wind would have made it come tumbling down.

 

Side view of the hairstyle. The general shape was correct, but I felt the underlying architecture was flimsy.

Side view of the hairstyle. The brass pins, at least, did a great job pinioning the braid to itself to create the vertical shape.

 

We had completed the first half of our experiment: braiding and arranging hair without any product in it. I experienced the challenges untreated hair brought to the process. As you can see in the photos above, it’s passably okay, but doesn’t really look as sleek and contained as imagery from the 14th century portrays it to be. I couldn’t imagine Drea going about an active day without the braids slipping free and falling apart.

I had given this some thought leading up to Drea’s visit, in fact. I pulled out The Compleat Anachronist issues #144 and 145, “Unveiling the Truth: Medieval Women’s Hairstyles” by Barbara Segal and read with interest her hypothesis that flax seed gel could have been used to optimize long hair’s texture when braiding during the 14th century.

 

The Compleat Anachronist, issues 144 and 145, by Barbara Segal. I recommend it to anyone interested in historical hairstyling.

The Compleat Anachronist, issues 144 and 145, by Barbara Segal. I recommend them to anyone interested in historical hairstyling.

 

Flax seed gel is incredibly easy and fast to make, and YouTube has a number of instructional videos. While the author did not provide evidence from before the 16th century to support the concept, it is certainly a rather common-sense and reasonable one, and I was willing to experiment. Before Drea arrived, I made some gel, enhancing it with essential lemon and lavender oils for scent. I have affectionately taken to calling it “vegan snot”.

 

Finished homemade flax seed gel, along with essential oils to give it a pleasant scent. This stuff is not going to win any beauty contests on appearance. Yuck!

Finished homemade flax seed gel, along with essential oils to give it a pleasant scent. This stuff is not going to win any beauty contests on appearance. Yuck! But it sure smelled wonderful.

 

 

Drea holding the flax seed gel (VEGAN SNOT!!).

Drea holding the flax seed gel (VEGAN SNOT!!). This delightfully unappetizing wonder-gel will store for a month or two in the refrigerator.

 

Now it was time to try the hairstyle with flax seed gel. Getting it into her hair took a while. Patience and a wide-toothed comb did the trick. When the hair felt slightly tacky to the touch and there were no more slippery or fly-away sections, I deemed it ready for braiding.

When you have all the hair gathered into your hand to begin the braid, I find it easiest to twist the hair so that the braid will be angled to face outward in the same plane as the face. We see this in the art of the time as well.

 

Hair has been gathered to the temples, twisted forward or counter-clockwise, and the braid has begun. Already, the difference in control is amazing.

Hair has been gathered to the temples, twisted forward—or counter-clockwise in this view—and I’ve begun the braid. Already, the difference in control was amazing, thanks to the gel.

 

I braided the hair as tightly as I could manage, which was considerably more tight than I could achieve with plain, untreated hair.

 

The gelled braid was infinitely sleeker and easier to control.

The gelled braid was infinitely sleeker and easier to control.

 

The hair gel was a complete success. Thanks to it, I did not need any hair bands or ties to hold her braids in place while fiddling with other things.

 

Both braids complete and holding together with nothing securing them aside from flax seed gel. Already this product was worth the effort of making it.

Both braids complete and holding together with nothing securing them aside from flax seed gel. Already this product was worth the effort of making it.

 

Next, I folded a braid in half, so that the bottom portion of the braid was bent toward the back of the head. I used a sturdy brass pin to  hold the folded pieces together, no gaps showing between them. The bent portion of the braid only proceeded about halfway up the length before veering off to the back of the head. Using more straight pins, I tucked the gelled ends under and secured the end of the braid on the far side of Drea’s head.

 

Drea assists with the folding of the braid. Some 14th-century braids bend exactly like this and do not get pinned together before proceeding to the back of the head. But that's not the style we went for that day.

Drea assists with the folding of the braid. Some 14th-century braids bend exactly like this and do not get pinned together before proceeding to the back of the head. For an example, see the Marie de France bust at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City. But that’s not the style we were attempting.

 

 

See how the braid is a solid piece, no loops, no rounded "puppy dog ears"?

See how the braid is a solid piece, no rounded loops? I wiggled the pin between both folded portions to hold them firmly together.

 

The iconic silhouette of the 14th-century braids was coming together.

The iconic silhouette of 14th-century braids was coming together. The pin should be out of sight, nestled in the middle of both portions of folded braid.

 

With the gel, wrapping the hair and securing it on the back of the head with pins alone was an easy process.

With the gel, wrapping the hair and securing it on the back of the head with pins alone was an easy process.

 

I repeated these steps on the other side. I loved how manageable the hair became, once it contained gel. The slipperiness and fly-away concerns were solved. It was a dream to work with. I’m convinced that most women either hardly ever washed their hair in order to let the natural oils in the scalp develop and spread throughout the hair, or they used a hair gel, like the flax seed-based one I used. Perhaps they did a combination of both things.

 

The finished hairstyle, from the front. It looks worlds better than the un-gelled version does.

The finished hairstyle, from the front. It looks worlds better than the un-gelled version does.

 

Side view of the finished hairstyle.

Side view of the finished hairstyle. Note the ears are covered for the most part. You will see this in the figural art as well.

 

Back view of the finished hairstyle. With the gel providing some stickiness and stiffness, I have much more confidence that the pinned arrangement will not fall out over the course of a normal day's activity.

Back view of the finished hairstyle. With the gel providing some stickiness and stiffness, I have much more confidence that the pinned arrangement would not fall out over the course of a normal day’s activity.

 

Drea's chapel à bec, which she hand-felted and formed. This was the style she had in mind when she approached me for help with the braids. She was super-pleased with the finished look!

Drea’s chapel à bec, which she hand-felted and formed. This was the style she had in mind when she approached me for help with the braids. She was super-pleased with the finished look! (I couldn’t bring myself to crop down the mammoth pheasant feather in this photo. That thing was a rock star all on its own.)

 

 

The braids look lovely when framed with a simple silk veil.

The braids look lovely when framed with a simple silk veil. I put a Birgitta-style linen cap on her first, then pinned the veil to it.

 

I only had a few brass pins up to the task on the day of this experiment. Through the years I’d accumulated (and lost) lots of brass pins, but for the most part, they weren’t sturdy enough for holding thick braids in place.

 

My brass pin collection. Much used and abused through the years and yet still insufficient to the task at hand. I could only use the butch ones on the left for the braid pinning. I got away with using the thin ones when securing the braids to the back of her head, but it was iffy.

My brass pin collection. Much used and abused through the years in service to pinning my veil to my table-woven band. The thin ones were insufficient to the task at hand. I could only use the butch ones on the left for pinning the hanging braids. I got away with using the thin ones when securing the braids to the back of her head, but it was iffy because of their thin and sharp form. Most of these are better suited to pinning veils.

 

Later, I found a maker on Etsy who made me a bunch of custom-sized pins. I asked them to make the points a bit dull since this is for hair (which sits close to tender scalps), not fabric. I ordered them in 2-inch and 3-inch sizes.

 

Brass pins, custom-made to lengths of 2" and 3" by MinionMakers on Etsy.

Brass pins, custom-made to lengths of 2″ and 3″ by MinionMakers on Etsy.

 

If you want custom-made hair pins, please do get in touch with them. Let’s support the small businesses out there. If I order again, I will likely ask that they make the loops at the heads of the pins smaller to reduce their visual profile and come more in line with extant examples.

While my own hair may never make as full an appearance as Drea’s can, I am now armed with good brass pins and a bag of flax seeds, and can produce a solid 14th-century hairstyle upon command without using anything modern. This was a fun learning and teaching experience for both of us. I look forward to getting my hands on more heads of long, full hair for further experimentation.

Coloring the Fencing Master in the Getty Fiore’s Segno della Spada

Or, How Coloring Can Teach You More About Medieval Clothing

This story begins because my husband, Gregory Mele, owns a martial arts studio called Forteza Fitness & Martial Arts in Chicago.

 

Greg doing what he loves best—working with swords.

Greg doing what he loves best—working with swords. Photo by Scott Bell.

 

It serves as the home of his first love, the Chicago Swordplay Guild, which he co-founded with like-minded others in 1999. As the Dean of the Guild, he built it into a formal school with traditions and deep pedagogical standards. The Guild focuses on Italian martial arts from the 14th to the 17th centuries. In particular, Greg teaches Fiore dei Liberi’s Armizare, a fighting system using multiple weapon forms and grappling. At any given time, there are over 100 active members in the Guild. It’s a large, eclectic, social family.

 

The Chicago Swordplay Guild marching in the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade in downtown Chicago, November 24, 2016.

The Chicago Swordplay Guild marching in the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade in downtown Chicago, November 24, 2016. Photo by Jesse Kulla.

 

As part of advancement in the Guild, students take on progressively larger projects and skills assessments. This begins with the Companion rank, moves on to the Scholar rank, Free Scholar,  Provost, and culminates in the rank of Master. One of Greg’s longtime armizare students, Erin Fitzgerald, prepared for her Free Scholar rank over the past year. She chose an ambitious art project as one of her qualifying works. She decided to reproduce the Segno della Spada (“sign of the sword”) which is a pedagogical diagram found in 3 of the 4 known copies of Il Fior di Battaglia (“The Flower of Battle”). This is the seminal manuscript describing Fiore dei Liberi’s martial system, which scholars believe first appeared in written form in 1409.

She combined elements from 2 versions of The Flower of Battle to create a much-enlarged version which would hang on the salle wall.

  1. The fencing master from the Getty Manuscript (“Il Fior di Battaglia”, MS Ludwig XV 13, c. 1409):

 

Il Fior di Battaglia ("The Flower of Battle") c. 1409: MS Ludwig XV 13, folio 27r , Getty Museum, Santa Monica, CA, USA.

Il Fior di Battaglia (“The Flower of Battle”) c. 1409: MS Ludwig XV 13, folio 27r , Getty Museum, Santa Monica, CA, USA.

 

  1. The animals from the Pisani-Dossi Manuscript (“Flos Duellatorum”, private family holding, c. 1409):

 

Flos Duellatorum ("Flower of Battle") c. 1409, Pisani-Dossi Ms, Private Family Collection, Italy.

Flos Duellatorum (“Flower of Battle”) c. 1409, Pisani-Dossi Ms, Private Family Collection, Italy. The tiger (on the left) looks far more noble than the one in the Getty manuscript, which Greg bluntly asserts “looks like a rat”. I have to agree.

 

Greg is publishing a new book—the first in a series—written with Tom Leoni, which goes into detail about the history and context of these manuscripts. The first book also includes a professional-grade translation of the Getty Manuscript’s text by Tom. There will be an Indiegogo campaign to fund the project with pre-orders in the next few weeks. Stay tuned to the Freelance Academy Press site for that announcement if this topic interests you.

 

Flowers of Battle, the first book in a 4-book series written by Tom Leoni and Gregory Mele. The book is finished and ready for publication. Subscriptions will be sought via Indiegogo soon.

Flowers of Battle, the first book in a 4-book series written by Tom Leoni and Gregory Mele. The book is finished and ready for publication. Subscriptions will be sought via Indiegogo soon.

 

The Getty segno was drawn in monotone ink strokes with some minimal cross-hatching for shading. The manuscript as a whole was never colored. Erin concluded its visual effect would be far more dramatic with full color. She contacted me for advice on interpreting the clothing worn by the central figure, who is identified as an exemplar of a fencing master. I was delighted to help with this unique and fun project.

 

My pencil-colored template along with clothing and accessory notes for Erin.

My pencil-colored guide along with clothing and accessory notes for Erin.

 

I worked up my interpretation, colored it in with colored pencils, and then wrote up my explanation for what the fencing master was wearing. I gave all this to Greg to give to Erin at sword class at Forteza last year, around August. Below is a more detailed explanation of the choices I made to help Erin bring the Getty segno‘s well-dressed fencing master to brilliant, colorful life.

 

 

The master's head and neck as originally drawn.

The master’s head and neck as originally drawn.

 

The Master's head and neck as painted by Erin.

The Master’s head and neck as painted by Erin.

 

Our man is wearing a chaperon, which began its fashion life as a hood turned sideways. The mantle of the hood dangles over his right shoulder, while the hefty liripipe (or tippet) dangles down the front of his body on the left. The fabric around the face opening—which is now serving as the insertion point for the top of the head—is rolled back to display a minever lining. Minever is a term for the white winter belly pelts of the Eurasian red squirrel, cut to include part of the bluish-gray  back-coat. For information about furs used in clothing during this time period, see my article, A fur primer for 14th and 15th century European clothing. Such linings on hoods were common in this time period and had been for the century beforehand as well.

The mantle of the hood has a thick decorative band around its hem. This is where the straight-forward stops and the interpretation begins. I believe the most common material used for such a plain band would also be fur. In this case, however, since we cannot see the pattern formed by the pelts when sewn together, I’ve taken the liberty of assuming it should be a solid white fur, to match with the white of the minever lining. The fur was either pured minever (white squirrel bellies cut to exclude all other color) or lettice, which is the larger pelt of a solid-white weasel). Based on art from the time period, it’s difficult to know the type of fur we’re seeing.

What color would the fabric of the hood itself be?  I opted for a dark, serious color—black—imagining that this fencing master had gravitas and authority. He may have been expensively dressed, but that didn’t make him a peacock. I think the fabric would have been a rich wool—teasled and trimmed to buttery, soft perfection.

 

The Master's head and shoulders as originally drawn.

The Master’s head and shoulders as originally drawn.

 

The Master's head and shoulders as painted by Erin.

The Master’s head and shoulders as painted by Erin.

 

The short, fur-covered mantle on his shoulders is a little more problematic to interpret. It is part of a garnache, or guarnacca in Italian, which is a flowing cloak with either  one slit on the right or two slits for both arms, covered in an attached shoulder mantle, usually furred. It’s easy to spot the fur pattern (bellies surrounded by back-coat fur), but you can also see they’re much bigger than the squirrel-sized bellies lining the chaperon. Rather than torture myself with possible types of fur this could represent, I opted for simple. I suggested to Erin she interpret this also as white bellies surrounded by gray back-coat fur. Whether the artist intended these to be minever (a pattern particular to squirrel pelts) or a larger animal’s fur, I can’t entirely know.

One thing worth noting: there is a textual source from 1351 France that describes an order for a garnache and chaperon for the king, made with matching fur (ermine) and fabric (veluau vermeil, or golden velvet). The text specifies a split on one side, to free the right arm. This shows a precedent for purchasing the two together as a matching pair.

 

The garnache was a cloak made with an integral, fur-adorned shoulder mantle.

The garnache was a cloak made with an integral, fur-adorned shoulder mantle. Here, a list of materials needed to make a golden velvet garnache with an ermine shoulder mantle along with a matching chaperon. Glossaire archéologique du Moyen Age et de la Renaissance, Part 1, (A—G) compiled by Victor Gay.

 

The slit with buttons visible at the center-front of the shoulder mantle allows the garnache/guarnacca to be pulled over the head and then snugly closed up to the base of the neck. We are used to thinking that shoulder mantles on hoods are either entirely pull-over or completely buttoned from the chin/neck to the bottom, but this is an example where that was not always so. Lest you assume the buttoned slit could be fanciful, consider that in this 1381 funereal effigy for Alda d’Este, Niccolo d’Este III’s aunt, the same buttoned flap appears.

 

Alda d'Este's elaborately decorated hood is only partially buttoned to achieve a close fit around the neck. The garment still remains a pull-over. Her effigy dates to 1381 and is in Padova (Padua), Italy.

Alda d’Este’s elaborately decorated hood is only partially buttoned to achieve a close fit around the neck. The garment still remains a pull-over. Her effigy dates to 1381 and is in Padova (Padua), Italy.

 

The Master's mid-section as originally drawn.

The Master’s mid-section as originally drawn.

 

The Master's mid-section as painted by Erin.

The Master’s mid-section as painted by Erin.

 

In keeping with the somber color scheme of his chaperon and the concept that they were a matching pair, I imagine the garnache/guarnacca was made of a high-quality black wool, which would certainly have popped against the contrast of white belly furs.

For his bag-sleeved gown, I thought a deep, rich green would complement well—not too ostentatious, nor too drab or grim. As a bonus, the Chicago Swordplay Guild’s colors are also black and green. I imagine his gown consisted of a fine wool or a sturdy, yet nicely-draping silk twill. Note that his collar, peeking above his shoulder mantle, is also green, as gowns in this time period frequently had collars. There is probably a button or some other closure on the collar, but the artist did not draw it. I also see a band around the middle finger of his right hand, and so I encouraged Erin to paint at least one gold ring. Rings were a popular form of jewelry in this time period and would have been appropriate on a well-accoutered man’s hands.

 

The Master's full garnache and gown as originally drawn.

The Master’s full garnache/guarnacca and gown as originally drawn.

 

The Master's full garnache and gown as painted by Erin.

The Master’s full garnache/guarnacca and gown as painted by Erin.

 

We can see the bottom of the gown, which has a deep hem, likely composed of fur. There’s a good chance the gown itself is lined in fur. As mentioned above, it’s impossible to guess whether this would have been pured minever (squirrel bellies), lettice (white weasel pelts), or some other variety of short, white fur. Regardless, the white fur band around the hem nicely balances the white fur seen on his head and shoulders.

The hardest part of this whole interpretive challenge was figuring out where the garnache ended and the gown began. Due to the bunting-shaped drape of the bottom of the garnache over the front of his body, it was easy to see that this particular garnache was made with only one arm slit, on the right. His left arm has pulled the hem up with it, as it rests in crossed-arm repose. In the image below, which is a century older than the one under current study, you can see the same draping pattern for a right-opening garnache. It’s clear our man is wearing the same garment.

 

A garnache worn the same way as the fencing master wears his. From "Traité de fauconnerie", MS Français 12400, Bibliothèque nationale de France.

A garnache worn the same way as the fencing master wears his. From “Traité de fauconnerie”, MS Français 12400, Bibliothèque nationale de France.

 

I fudged my understanding the most with the drape of fabric on his right side. At this point, having figured out he’s wearing a gown and a garnache/guarnacca with an opening on the right side, I wasn’t concerned that I might altogether misinterpret or leave out a garment. It was just a matter of making the drapes look realistic. The white spots are the presumed fur lining of the garnache/guarnacca, which would also likely be made of solid white fur.

 

The Master's calves and feet as originally drawn.

The Master’s calves and feet as originally drawn.

 

The Master's ankles and feet as painted by Erin.

The Master’s ankles and feet as painted by Erin.

 

Perhaps I had the most ease deciding on rich, brick red for his legs and feet. In this time period, footed hosen were common. These were sturdy leggings that extended over the foot and were re-enforced with a thick, leather sole. Another possibility, of course, is tall, leather boots. Either way, a rich red was entirely appropriate and in fact, common, color-wise. Those crazy, curved points were a done thing too.

And now, the full painting, along with Erin Fitzgerald, the artist and newly-made Free Scholar:

 

Erin Fitzgerald, Free Scholar of the Chicago Swordplay Guild, with her full-color Segno della Spada. It hangs in the center of the longest wall in the training salle.

Erin Fitzgerald, Free Scholar of the Chicago Swordplay Guild, with her full-color Segno della Spada. It hangs in the center of the longest wall in the training salle.

 

Erin, encouraging a dagger fight with Christian Cameron, one of the visiting challengers at her Free Scholar Prize Play.

Erin (nickname: “Trouble”), encouraging a dagger fight with Christian Cameron, one of the visiting challengers at her Free Scholar Prize Play.

 

This impressive work was unveiled at Forteza Fitness on March 11, 2017, when Erin successfully played her prize and earned the rank of Free Scholar of the Chicago Swordplay Guild, making her only the 5th person to do so in the Guild’s eighteen-year history. It is 8′ x 6′, painted in oils over gessoed canvas, with applied gold leaf. It will remain on the wall, beautifying the space and reminding longsword students of the historical pedagogy behind their lessons.

 

 

Charles VI Coat Armour Repro, Part 4: Sewing It All Together

This is the fourth in a series of blog posts describing the process I undertook to recreate the child-sized coat armour on display at the Musée des beaux arts in Chartres, France. This installment covers the sewing techniques used in attaching all the pieces and finishing all the edges. You can find the earlier installments here:

  1. Dyeing an Imperfect Lampas
  2. Recreating the Pattern
  3. Padding and Quilting on a Frame

Once I had all the pieces quilted and cut to shape, it was time to stitch everything together, make the buttons and buttonholes, and finish all the edges. I used the techniques I observed during my examination of the original. If you want to compare what I’ve done against the original, you should take a look at the photos in my article <link>, which the curator took at my request and which are not published elsewhere.

I acquired red silk quilting thread from Superior Threads and undyed linen sewing thread from Wm. Booth, Draper.

I started by connecting the lining pieces along the long seams, using a sturdy, undyed linen thread and a tight running stitch.

The lining assemblies sewn together into one complete assembly along side and back seams.

The lining assemblies sewn together into one complete assembly along side and back seams.

 

I then did the same for the outer assemblies.

The outer assemblies sewn together along the side and back seams to make one complete assembly.

The outer assemblies sewn together along the side and back seams to make one complete assembly.

 

Sleeve assembly came next. The original coat did not have any exposed seams, including inside the sleeves. This meant that I had to fold the sleeves in half length-wise and first sew the silk edge together, good sides facing each other.

The red stitches are where I sewed first, to finish the outside seam.

The red stitches are where I sewed first, to finish the outside portion of the sleeve’s long seam.

 

I then folded over the edges on the linen and sewed them together using an invisible running stitch that ran between the folds, out of sight. This would have been a stronger join if I’d used a proper ladder stitch, which is this situation’s equivalent to using stab stitch instead of running stitch.

Using an invisible stitch to finish the lining-side seam on the sleeve's long seam.

Using an invisible stitch to finish the lining-side seam on the sleeve’s long seam.

 

A sewn-up sleeve, inside out.

A sewn-up sleeve, inside out. The curved long seam is running down the middle.

 

Very carefully, I turned the sleeves right-side-out when finished.

The right sleeve, laid flat so that it folds along the curved long seam.

The right sleeve, laid flat so that it folds along the curved long seam.

 

A matching set of sleeves. Left sleeve on the left, right sleeve on the right.

A matching set of sleeves. Left sleeve on the left, right sleeve on the right.

 

I was beginning to see the shape of this tiny coat armour coming together.

 

The shoulder seams have not yet been sewn together, and the lining assembly has not been inserted yet, but already it was starting to resemble the real thing.

The shoulder seams have not yet been sewn together, and the lining assembly has not been inserted yet, but already it was starting to resemble the real thing.

 

Next, I put the lining inside the shell assembly, with the flatter, base sides facing each other. I stitched along the back seam on the inside, connecting the shell with the lining with a large overcast stitch. I had to be careful not to poke the needle all the way through to prevent the light gray thread from appearing on the crimson outside fabric. The original maker used undyed linen thread, so I used the same.

The overcast stitching on the original was as crude and obvious as that seen here. This was a brute-force stitch whose purpose was entirely practical rather than for style.

The overcast stitching on the original was as crude and obvious as that seen here. This was a brute-force stitch whose purpose was entirely practical rather than for style.

 

I then attached the lining’s shoulder seams and the shell’s shoulder seams.

A view of the back, shoulder seams attached.

A view of the back, shoulder seams attached.

 

Remember when I mentioned making a mistake in the last blog post? I said that using the undyed linen for outer assembly’s base layer caused a problem. On the original coat, the buttonhole flap was created solely from the outer assembly while the placket behind it was created from the lining assembly. The backside of the buttonholes were going to be visible, of course, and that linen needed to be the good stuff. Instead, the backside of my outer assembly—the base layer of linen that had been stretched on the frame—was the undyed linen that I had intended to hide. To fix this discrepancy, I basted a strip of good cream linen to the backside of the area where the buttonholes would go.

 

I folded the lining assembly back out of the way, and laid down a strip of the finer linen along the opening edge on the inside of the shell or outer assembly.

I folded the lining assembly back out of the way, and laid down a strip of the finer linen along the opening edge on the inside of the shell or outer assembly.

 

 

Before sewing any buttonholes, I had to make some buttons and practice buttonholes to confirm their width against the originals on the coat.

Practice buttons and a swatch for practicing buttonholes. Always warm up your buttonholes on a practice scrap before doing them on the good stuff!

Practice buttons and a swatch for practicing buttonholes. Always warm up your buttonholes on a practice scrap before working them on the good stuff!

 

Next I sewed the buttonholes, starting at the bottom. Tip: Always start your buttonholes or your lacing holes from the least-visible end of the area you will be covering. For front openings, this is the bottom. For sleeves, this is the area furthest from the wrist, unless your buttons extend all the way up your arm. In that case, the elbow area is the best place to start, working your way out from the center. You’ll get better as you go, and your earlier, less-wonderful ones will not be the first ones scrutinized by onlookers.

I left a sparse amount of cotton padding between the fabric layers under the buttonholes; just enough to give it body, but not enough to hinder the sewing process.

 

Some of my buttonholes were noticeably longer than others. Oops. Fortunately, this is barely noticeable on the front. Note the quilting stitches on the body piece are crimson. This is the backside of the shell or outer assembly, which was quilted with crimson silk thread.

Some of my buttonholes were noticeably longer than others. Oops. Fortunately, this is barely noticeable on the front. Note the quilting stitches on the body piece are crimson. This is the backside of the shell or outer assembly, which was quilted with crimson silk thread.

 

 

I then started the placket, or underlap. I laid down a strip of crimson silk lampas over the undyed linen of the lining assembly’s left front opening. This red strip would lay directly behind the buttonholes when finished. I did not attach it on both long sides of the strip; only on the inside long side initially. I took care to attach it at a deep enough distance from the opening to eventually hide the basting stitches between the layers. Also, I had to stitch only as far as the first layer of linen, to prevent the thread from showing on the outside of the lining.

 

I attached the silk placket piece with crimson thread along its inside edge. The outer edge stayed open to accommodate the addition of padding later. Note the quilting stitches on the body piece blend in with the linen fabric. This is the backside of the lining assembly—the undyed base linen—quilted with undyed linen thread.)

I attached the silk placket piece with crimson thread along its inside edge. The outer edge stayed open to accommodate the addition of padding later. Note the quilting stitches on the body piece blend in with the linen fabric. This is the backside of the lining assembly—the undyed base linen—quilted with undyed linen thread.)

 

At this point I had not yet finished any edges.

 

You can see the unfinished neckline, front openings (including buttonhole edge and placket underneath), and hem.

You can see the unfinished neckline, front openings (including buttonhole edge and placket underneath), and hem.

 

Everyone’s favorite part of sewing is sleeve attachment (ha ha). Just as with a normal sleeve insertion, I put the right-side-out sleeves into the inside-out armholes from the inside of the garment. I sewed the silk sleeve edges to the silk armhole edges.

 

The silk outer edges have been sewn to each other. You can see some of the red silk stitching on the part of the armhole closest to the top of photo.

The silk outer edges have been sewn to each other. You can see some of the red silk stitching on the part of the armhole closest to the top of photo.

 

 

To finish the lining edges, I turned them inwards and whip-stitched them to each other with a tight, tiny stitch length for extra strength, as the original had.

 

The finishing on the inside of the armhole.

The finishing on the inside of the armhole.

 

With an s-curve sleeve cap like this coat has, the long seam of the sleeve runs down the back of the arm.

 

The sleeve seam sits in the middle of the back of the sleeve. This combined with the S-curve of the sleeve cap angles the sleeve downward.

The sleeve seam sits in the middle of the back of the sleeve. This combined with the S-curve of the sleeve cap angles the sleeve downward.

 

Once the sleeves were on, I returned my attention to finishing the buttonhole edge and placket. The original placket was padded, separated by a line of quilting down its center. I added raw cotton between the silk strip and the lining assembly and quilted the central line. Then I finished the buttonhole flap’s edge, using an invisible running stitch.

 

Here you can see the inner channel of the placket is completed, and the buttonhole edge is in progress.

Here you can see the inner channel of the placket is completed, and the buttonhole edge is in progress.

 

 

With the buttonholes finally squared away, I turned to completing the placket. I placed more cotton against the inner channel and then whip-stitched the placket closed, cutting it to the abbreviated, angled length seen on the original.

 

 

The original maker was not terribly concerned about which thread was used to close hems. Finishing was frequently done with undyed linen thread.

The original maker was not terribly concerned about which thread was used to close hems. Finishing was frequently done with undyed linen thread.

 

I then went back to the buttonhole edge and sewed small stab stitches parallel to the opening, about 1/4″ in from the edge to reinforce it, as I realized the original had this, and I’d almost skipped over it.

 

The placket does not extend the length of the front opening, but instead angles inward at the top and bottom, leaving one buttonhole at the top and 3 at the bottom with no reinforcement behind them. I misjudged something somewhere, because the original's placket leaves 2 buttonholes unprotected at the bottom, not 3, like mine.

The placket does not extend the length of the front opening, but instead angles inward at the top and bottom, leaving a few buttonholes with no reinforcement behind them. Here you can see the left front upper assembly folded back out of the way. The crimson lampas lies on the inner-facing side of the left front lining assembly.

 

But then, a small disaster presented itself. I realized I’d accidentally sewn an extra buttonhole! The original had 27 buttonholes, and I’d managed to sew 28. I decided to patch over the bottom-most buttonhole. To disguise the patch, I lined up its top edge against the bottom edge of the buttonhole above it and re-stitched the bottom half of that buttonhole to hold the patch in place. Then I folded over the patch’s edge on its right side, and attached it with tiny stitches. Later, when I finished the left edge and the hem, it would blend completely.

 

You can't see the top edge of the patch at all, because it's hidden under the bottom row of buttonhole stitches. On the inside, there's also a patch of cream linen.

You can’t see the top edge of the patch at all, because it’s hidden under the bottom row of buttonhole stitches. On the inside, there’s also a patch of cream linen.

 

 

With the buttonhole hullabaloo finally behind me, I connected the two assemblies to each other next. I sewed the lining (with placket) and shell/outer (with buttonholes) together with an invisible running stitch, just past the buttonholes.

 

An invisible running stitch connects the inner and outer assemblies to each other. This also hides the original basting stitch holding down the strip of lampas.

An invisible running stitch connects the inner and outer assemblies to each other. This also hides the original basting stitches holding down the strip of lampas on the placket and the strip of good linen behind the buttonholes respectively.

 

 

The neckline isn't finished yet, but you can see the ingenious method by which the placket was originally designed. The maker used the lining assembly edge to create the placket, while the shell or outer assembly was used to create the buttonhole flap.

The neckline isn’t finished yet, but you can see the ingenious method by which the placket was originally designed. The maker used the lining assembly edge to create the placket, while the shell or outer assembly was used to create the buttonhole flap.

 

 

You can see the patch covering the inside of Rogue Twenty Eight, the useless extra buttonhole, in this photo.

You can see the patch covering the inside of Rogue Twenty Eight, the useless extra buttonhole, in this photo.

 

Next came the button-side opening. I finished it by turning the rough edges of the outer assembly in to face the turned-in rough edges of the lining assembly. I whip-stitched them together using the undyed linen thread, as had been done with the original.

 

stuffed some cotton in the open edges of the two assemblies before attaching them to each other.

stuffed some cotton in the open edges of the two assemblies before attaching them to each other.

 

Finishing the neckline was the next logical step. The original coat does not have a collar. Instead, the neckline is bound with an on-grain strip of crimson lampas. I laid the binding strip good-side-down, against the good side of the neckline edge and stitched it with running stitches.

 

I started with a rather wide strip, to make sure I had enough. I could always cut it down if needed.

I started with a rather wide strip, to make sure I had enough. I could always cut it down if needed.

 

 

Then, I folded the strip over the rough edges and ratcheted it down tightly before overcast stitching the tucked-under binding to the lining.

 

The finished neckline. At this point, the buttons still need to be sewn on, and the cuffs and hem need to be finished.

The finished neckline. At this point, the buttons still need to be sewn on, and the cuffs and hem need to be finished.

 

The finished neckline, placket, and buttonhole flap.

The finished neckline, placket, and buttonhole flap.

 

Next came the buttons. The original coat had 11 spherical buttons and 16 flat-faced buttons, both covered in the silk lampas. The flat-faced buttons were stitched through in concentric circles. For the spherical ones, I was hard-pressed to come up with the right material for the stuffing. They were clearly not made from wood or metal, as they had some amount of give. It was also clear that self-stuffing them with the lampas would not achieve the desired firmness or smoothness. I know I’m going to get teased for this admission, but I ended up using lint from my clothes dryer’s lint trap. What can I say; it worked perfectly!

I made the flat buttons from a thick sheet of industrial, 100% wool felt from McMaster-Carr. I cut out disks and shaved off some wool at an angle on the underside to sharpen the edges and create the mild conical shape seen on the originals. Then I covered them with silk and stitched through in 3 concentric circles of stitches.

 

The buttons sit ready to be sewn to the front opening with a thread shank.

The buttons sit ready to be sewn to the front opening with a thread shank.

 

I sewed the buttons to the right front edge using a silk crimson buttonhole twist thread. To form a sturdy shank, I looped the thread between the backside of the button and through the edge 3–4 times before winding the thread around the loops as tightly as possible. I then poked the needle back through the edge of the front opening and tied a knot on the inside, between the outer and lining assemblies. Since the hem had not yet been sewn, I could easily reach up between the two assemblies and tie hidden knots.

 

The top button is flat, followed by the 11 spherical buttons, and then the remaining 16 flat-faced buttons.

The top button is flat, followed by the 11 spherical buttons, and then the remaining 16 flat-faced buttons.

 

 

Buttons in this time period were not off-set from the edge; they were placed directly on the edge and typically had shanks, rather than being the kind with holes cut in them for stitching them down flat on the surface of the garment.

Buttons in this time period were not off-set from the edge; they were placed directly on the edge and typically had shanks, rather than being the kind with holes cut in them for stitching them down flat on the surface of the garment.

 

 

Close-up of the flatfaced buttons attached.

Close-up of the flat-faced buttons attached.

 

On the original, the maker had done a running stitch about 1/4 inch in from the finished edge, presumably to keep the padding from bunching against it and reducing its sharpness. I did not take this step, but in retrospect I should have.

On to the sleeve hems. They were something of a mystery on the original. The original bottom edges had been worn away, so there is no way to know whether the current conserved finishing is accurate to the original. There may have been a binding like the neckline, or perhaps even a full separate cuff.

I chose the most straightforward course and folded in the rough edges, whip-stitching the hems closed using the red silk thread.

 

Maybe this is how the original coat's sleeve hems were done. It's plausible and in keeping with the techniques applied elsewhere on the garment.

Maybe this is how the original coat’s sleeve hems were done. It’s plausible and in keeping with the techniques applied elsewhere on the garment.

 

The skirt hem, with its shallow, wavy scallops, was the only remaining piece I had to finish. And man, it was the hardest part of all. This is because the deep fullness of the stuffed channels results in a superfluity of fabric at the hem. There’s no easy way to smooth out the rough edges before finishing them in the wavy shape seen on the original. Indeed, the hem on the coat armour is slightly gathered all around in order to make it lay flat rather than buckle.

Complicating matters further, the original assemblies had each been prick-stitched about 1/2 inch in from the hem edge, presumably to hold the padding up so it would not pool at the hem. The lining assembly had been stitched with linen, while the outer assembly was stitched with red silk. The short, widely-spaced stitches show on the front (i.e. on the lining and on the outside of the coat), while long floats must exist on the inside, out of sight. This means the maker had to finish the prick stitching first, and then attach the two assembly edges together last.

I was running out of time, as I was working on this last task in England, on my way to the International Medieval Congress at Leeds in July 2012. I was presenting my paper and planned to show the reproduction as a visual aid. As a result, after completing the prick-stitching on the lining assembly, I gave up on prick-stitching the outer assembly. I proceeded directly to hemming the two assemblies together with an overcast stitch. It was a challenge to wrangle the extra fabric to create smooth wave shapes. Later, I should have gone back, picked it out, and done the prick-stitching first to hold back the padding. Now, 5 years later, some padding has migrated south and is plumping up the hem too much. It’s on my to-do list.

 

View of the lining hem. Could be better. At the time, I had not differentiated between running and prick stitch, and so the stitches you see here are running.

View of the lining hem. Could be better. At the time, I had not differentiated between running and prick stitch, and so the stitches in linen you see here are running stitches.

 

View of the outer hem. Not quite right, but close.

View of the outer hem. Not quite right, but close.

 

At last, I was done (more or less). It turned out remarkably close to the original and I’m proud of the project. I finally understand how makers coaxed such sleek, structured silhouettes from puffy, quilted panels of fabric. With densely packed cotton built to varying and curving heights and widths with the help of a quilting frame, the body can be transformed into a new shape.

 

The final reproduction, back view.

The final reproduction, back view.

 

 

The final reproduction, back view.

The final reproduction, back view.

 

 

The final reproduction, inside view.

The final reproduction, inside view.

 

The inner and outer assemblies are only attached in a few places: the center back seam (the rough overcast stitching mentioned above), the armholes, and all the edges (front opening, neckline, and skirt hem). The original had a line of light stitching that ran horizontally around the waist on the lining side, but does not show through, obviously, to the outer fabric. This could have been an anchoring stitch at the time it was added, but felt as though it were disconnected by the time I examined it. I omitted it from my reproduction, unsure of its necessity or purpose.

 

Displaying my project in August 2012 at the Arts & Sciences Exhibit at Pennsic War, an event sponsored by the Society for Creative Anachronism.

Displaying my project in August 2012 at the Arts & Sciences Exhibit at Pennsic War, an event sponsored by the Society for Creative Anachronism.

 

I estimate that the time it took to create this garment once I had the materials in place was approximately 200 hours. Surely a more experienced maker could move considerably faster through the quilting and sewing. Even so, if the time were cut in half, that is still a significant resource sink. It’s clearer than ever that such garments could not have been cheap to purchase. In fact, they likely existed solely at the pleasure of the most monied classes. These were not cheaper substitutes for other forms of armour, but armour in their own right. Men-at-arms wore them in a complementary manner with other armour pieces, such as mail and possibly plate.

I hope you enjoyed this series and learned a few new things. I certainly learned a lot from the process, and as always, my mistakes taught me the most.

Charles VI Coat Armour Repro, Part 3: Padding and Quilting on a Frame

This is the third in a series of blog posts describing the process I undertook to recreate the child-sized coat armour on display at the Musée des beaux arts in Chartres, France. The prior installments can be found here:

  1. Dyeing an Imperfect Lampas
  2. Recreating the Pattern

The truly laborious stage was upon me now. I had dyed the silk lampas, mapped out the exact reproduction-sized pattern, and had acquired key materials:

  1. Appropriately weighted and twisted threads in crimson silk and natural linen
  2. High-quality, off-white linen for the lining (washed, dried and ironed)
  3. Medium-quality, natural linen for the interfacing (washed, dried, and ironed)
  4. A large amount of raw cotton
  5. A big, white, plastic quilting frame.

 

 

Clockwise from top left: undyed tabby-woven linen from fabrics-store.com; a warm, oyster tabby-woven linen from ulsterlinen.com, the crimson-dyed silk lampas, and raw cotton.

Clockwise from top left: undyed tabby-woven linen from fabrics-store.com; a warm, oyster tabby-woven linen from ulsterlinen.com, the crimson-dyed silk lampas, and raw cotton.

 

I deduced in the course of my examination of the coat that the complex padding and quilting design could best be executed with a quilting frame. The quilted channels are complex and variable in their size and curve. The cotton was placed between the quilt lines as well, rather than layered between fabric pieces and quilted through, sandwich-style. Given the variable nature of the channels, the least complicated way to proceed was to build the padding and quilting on top of a stretched-flat surface. Indeed, the original was made in two assemblies that bulged outward on their surfaces, but which lay relatively flat against each other on the inside. The give-away hint for the use of a frame is a D-shaped cross-section. Don’t forget to read my formal paper with my analysis if this topic interests you.

 

The lining and outer body assemblies were padded and quilted to separate base layers of linen.

The lining and outer body assemblies of the original were padded and quilted to separate base layers of linen. The silk lampas was reinforced with a layer of linen interlining. This would provide structure and support to the silk. It makes sense to use a backing of linen for any coat armour project involving a silk outer layer.

 

Since this entire garment was made from two mirror-images of padded and quilted assemblies, I decided to begin with the lining assemblies of the front pieces. First I prick-and-pounced the pattern stencil to transfer the lines and curves to a large rectangle of natural linen fabric. Then I reinforced the powdered ink with pen. This fabric would serve as the base upon which I would build the padding and quilting. The drawing of the pattern and quilt lines would be my guide. Because this fabric would never be seen anywhere on the finished garment, I used serviceable natural linen from fabrics-store.com.

 

Front piece patterns stretched on the frame. I went over the original prick-and-pounced outline with pen, though it appears faint in this photo.

Front piece patterns stretched on the frame. I went over the original prick-and-pounced outline with pen, though it appears faint in this photo.

 

I stretched the stenciled fabric on my quilting frame. I then laid another rectangle of high-quality cream-colored linen down on top of the stretched linen base. This linen was a perfect match to that of the original coat’s lining. I found it on ulsterlinen.com. It was tight plain weave with even threads, no slubs, and was simultaneously buttery to the touch and sturdy. Beginning in the middle, I pinned the top layer to the stretched layer along a central quilting line. This involved lifting the fabric and checking the stencil guides on the base fabric at regular intervals.

 

Smaller rectangle of creamy linen pinned to stretched base linen along a line of quilting in the piece's center.

Smaller rectangle of creamy linen pinned to stretched base linen along a quilting line in the piece’s center.

 

I stab-stitched the linen along this line, holding one hand above the frame and one below it to speed the stitching along. Stab-stitching is similar to running stitch, except that the needle is passed through the fabric at a perpendicular angle. Running stitch passes the needle at an angle well below 90°, because the needle is wiggling in and out of fabric layers before being drawn all the way through. Stab stitching is a sturdier stitch as a result because there is more thread moving between the layers for any given length of stitching.

When finished the first line, I folded the linen back to one side and placed a line of shaped, compressed, raw cotton padding up against the sewn join.

 

 

The first channel's padding, laid out and ready to be secured with stitching.

The first channel’s padding, laid out and ready to be secured with stitching.

 

In retrospect, I included two errors in my handling of the cotton for this project. The first was the density I achieved in each channel’s padding. My results felt too pliable and airy, and I was never quite satisfied with it. In casual conversation in 2013 with a new friend, Christian Cameron, he wondered whether soaking the cotton in water and then squeezing it to the shape desired might be a better way to get increased density for each channel. I discussed this with another friend, Jessica Finley, sometime later in 2015, who immediately experimented with it. She generously sent me her sample results, based on the dimensions of the top half of a front piece of the coat armour I had studied. It turned out markedly more rigid and compressed than mine did. Unfortunately, you cannot experience this with a photograph, but here’s a picture of her sample:

 

Bowed and carded cotton rolled into tubes and then secured into channels by machine. Jess added the silk layer by hand afterwards. Remarkably stiff!

Bowed cotton (see below for more on bowing) rolled into tubes and then secured into channels with machine sewing. Jess added the silk layer by hand afterwards to avoid staining the silk with soak-through from the wet cotton. The result was remarkably stiff—more so than the original—but the intervening centuries and handling of it could have contributed to an increased laxity that wasn’t there in the beginning. It could also be that the original had slightly less-compressed padding, but the method used here by Jess is completely plausible and scalable for different densities.

 

To get the cotton in the shape needed to fill the flaring and curving channels, she did the following:

  1. Soaked bowed (see below), raw cotton in water until it was fully drenched,
  2. Drained it and then pressed it flat on a level surface (like a cookie sheet),
  3. Treated it like a sheet of thick paper and rolled it up tightly, pulling off or adding portions as needed to expand or contract the shape, and
  4. Used a rolling pin to squeeze out excess water from the rolled tubes of cotton.

She also tested two different oils soaked into the cotton and compared them to cotton that had been doused with water and then compressed as described above. OIL 1 was boiled linseed oil combined with carbon while OIL 2 was plain boiled linseed oil. OIL 2 made the tube incredibly stiff while OIL 1 did not, and the third tube—made stiff with water—had an ideal result. The cotton was packed densely but still had some give.

 

Channels hardened with oils and water. This was a Goldilocks experiment—Oil 2 was too hard, Oil 1 was too soft, and Water was just right.

Channels hardened with oils and water. This was a Goldilocks experiment—Oil 2 made the cotton too hard, Oil 1 left it too soft, and H2O was just right.

 

The second problem was lumpiness. I did not work hard enough at homogenizing the raw cotton to reduce lumps and clumps. Jess helped fill in a missing piece of this puzzle again when she found evidence of a historical method called “bowing”, which makes raw cotton fluffy and uniform. I think that would have greatly helped prepare the cotton for compression, had I known about it when making my reproduction. Here’s a video of her trying it out. She confirms that bowed cotton is far easier to compress into flat sections that can then be rolled into smooth, curved shapes.

 

Two 10 oz. lumps of cotton. The top lump has not been bowed while the bottom lump has. Bowing helps create uniform air pockets throughout the lump and provide improved fluffiness.

Two 10 oz. quantities of cotton after being stored in identical plastic gallon-sized bags. The top lump has not been bowed while the bottom lump has. Bowing helps create uniform air pockets throughout, which improves fluffiness.

 

I now think that bowing the raw cotton in combination with water-assisted compression is the best way to achieve the density required in the real coat armours of the 14th century. When applying silk on top of a water-damp wad of cotton, however, it will be up to future experimenters to decide whether to baste down the interlining until the cotton is dry and then more carefully stitch the silk on top (as Jess did in her experiment), or to take a chance and apply both the interlining and silk at the same time over the damp cotton. If any of you try these techniques, please do share your results with me.

Meanwhile back in 2012, I folded the fabric back over the line of wadded cotton and pinned down along the next quilting line. I replaced the pins with another row of hand-stitching. I repeated this process, working outward from the center. Working from the center outward helps to minimize the fabric’s grain distortion as it is sewn down over humps of cotton with varying degrees of height and width in different areas.

 

The first channel of the first front piece, stuffed and quilted down.

The first channel of the first front piece, stuffed and quilted down.

 

Three padded and quilted channels.

Three padded and quilted channels.

 

When I reached the center-front opening, I then worked from the center to the side seam.

 

The first front lining assembly, padding and quilting completed.

The first front lining assembly, padding and quilting completed.

 

I continued this work from the center outward until the lining assemblies of both front pieces were completed.

 

Both front lining assemblies completed on the frame.

Both front lining assemblies completed on the frame. Note the parentheses-shaped waves in the fabric bracketing the waist area. More of the fabric was taken up in quilting the wider areas than in the waist area. This causes buckling and grain distortion. If you work from one side to the other, by the time you get to the far side, your fabric will be stretching in an increasingly wavy pattern. Make sure you work from the center outward.

 

While the single piece of base linen was cut large in order to fit two pattern pieces entirely on the quilting frame, I cut the finer linen smaller for the process of covering over and quilting the cotton in place. I took a guess at how much width to allow, though there were two other ways I could have arrived at a more precise measurement for the fabric width.

  1. While examining the original, I could have molded a measuring tape over every hump in each pattern piece’s widest points to find the width of the original fabric.
  2. Or, I could have used math—π × diameter/2, where diameter = width of the widest channel—to find an approximate width of fabric used to create each channel. If one were to slice a channel in half to look at its cross-section, it would look similar to a semi-circle or the letter “D” turned sideways, hence the formula for finding a circle’s circumference, divided by 2.

I moved on to creating the linings for the back pieces and the sleeves next. When I completed all lining assemblies, I cut out the body pieces with a generous seam allowance included. I left the sleeves attached to the original base fabric rectangle because I would eventually pad and quilt the other side of that fabric with the silk crimson assembly. More on that later below.

 

Front lining assemblies completed and cut out with a generous seam allowance.

Front lining assemblies, completed and cut out with a generous seam allowance. I could not create the scalloped hem until later when I had the silk assemblies done and everything could be sewn together.

 

One of the back lining assemblies, completed and cut out.

One of the back lining assemblies, completed and cut out.

 

I then repeated the entire process for the outer body piece assemblies topped in crimson silk lampas. I used the undyed linen as the base layer as well as for the interlining mentioned above, which reinforced the fine silk.  I used the modest, undyed linen for these layers of fabric because they would be out of sight once the garment was finished. Turns out I was incorrect on this matter. In the next post in this series, I’ll show you exactly where I went wrong and how I fixed it.

 

A line of padding applied on a front assembly made with an interlining of linen and the outward-facing silk lampas.

A line of padding applied on an outside back piece assembly made with an interlining of linen and crimson silk lampas. Here, the linen and lampas are folded back on the right.

 

 

A channel in the middle of one of the front pieces.

A channel in the middle of one of the back pieces, loaded with cotton and pinned for the next line of stitching.

 

Progress on one of the back pieces.

Progress on one of the back pieces.

 

 

Back piece assemblies, still on the frame.

Back piece assemblies, still on the frame.

 

On the right front piece, I mis-judged the width of the fashion fabric needed. I had to patch a small section as seen on the left in the photo below. On the finished garment, this mistake is virtually invisible.

 

Outer front pieces, still on the frame. Due to an under-estimation on fabric width needed, I had to patch the most bulbous part of the chest.

Outer front pieces, still on the frame. Due to under-estimating the fabric width needed, I had to patch the most bulbous part of the chest.

 

For the sleeves, I had to flip over the sleeve lining assemblies finished earlier and re-stretch them on the frame. The original coat’s sleeves were made this way—both the lining and outer assemblies were attached to the same base linen piece. This is why the sleeve was made of 6 layers of material while the body pieces were made of 7 layers. The lining and outer body pieces each had their own base layer of linen. As with the body assemblies, I used the fine crimson lampas and an interfacing of undyed linen for support to complete the outer portion of the sleeves. I stitched the quilt lines slightly off-center from the lining’s quilt lines to avoid making the crimson thread visible on the lining side.

 

The sleeve lining assembly and outer assembly were both attached to the same base layer of linen. The quilting thread of the outer layer had to be slightly offset from the quilting thread of the lining layer to avoid showing through on the lining side.

The sleeve lining assembly and outer assembly were both attached to the same base layer of linen. The quilting thread of the outer layer had to be slightly offset from the quilting thread of the lining layer to avoid showing through on the lining side.

 

 

Both sleeves completed.

Both sleeves completed on the frame.

 

Both sleeves, cut out. One is shown outer-side-up and the other is shown lining-side-up.

Both sleeves, cut out. One is shown outer-side-up and the other is shown lining-side-up.

 

At last, I completed all assemblies and was ready to sew them together!

 

All body pieces cut out and ready to be sewn together

All body pieces cut out with a generous seam allowance.

 

These garments were hefty and highly structured. Quilting frames enabled makers to put together thick and complex padded and quilted assemblies with relative ease. Embroiderers used frames in this time period for the same reasons pourpointiers, gambeson, and coat armour makers did—they make it extremely easy to control the materials involved. Without a tense base, you have to wrestle your materials quite a bit more and may even require special tools to control them. This is a clear-cut case for the use of Occam’s Razor. In addition, a D-shaped cross-section for any padded and quilted assembly reveals frame usage.

If you have the ability to make an adjustable frame that can be held on a sturdy base, all the better. I made due with a fixed-size frame and had to waste a lot more base linen as a result. Your frame needs to be held by something other than you, because you will need both hands free for the quilting.

In the next installment, I’ll show you how I sewed everything together, added buttons and buttonholes, and finished all the edges using the techniques found on the original. Stay tuned for that monster of a post next week! Update: Sewing It All Together, the final post.