Monday, November 18, 2013

Mid 14th Century Armor

I have chosen the mid 14th century as the time period for the first set of tutorials for the SCA on a Budget series largely because of the armor of that period. While mid 14th century clothing is simpler than the clothing of later time periods, it is not any simpler than clothing from earlier time periods. In contrast, the armor of the mid 14th century is more complicated than the armor of earlier time periods, which might lead you to wonder why I chose that period as a starting place for my tutorials. The answer is fairly straightforward, which is that the armor of earlier time periods does not meet the minimum armor standards for SCA rattan combat. Furthermore, the armor of the mid 14th century is far simpler than the armor that comes even a few decades later. Because of this, the mid 14th century is a "sweet spot" in medieval history where the historic armor is sufficient to meet SCA armor standards, but is simple enough to be made by novices with limited tools and metalworking experience. Ideally my focus will be around 1351 which would make the armor perfectly suited to the Combat of the Thirty (CotT), a special type of melee that occurs at large events like Pennsic

So, what would a mid-14th century knight or man-at-arms wear into battle?

I urge you to first watch this video titled "How a man shall be armed" which has been prepared by La Belle Compagnie, a Hundred Years' War reenacting group that has done some remarkable research. The armor that we will be making will be most similar to the armor worn by the man on the left from 1337, the start of the Hundred Years' War.

Helmet: Nothing says medieval armor like an awesome helmet. For the mid 14th century, you have a few options. If you are planning on making the helm yourself, the simplest option is to make a great helm. By the mid 14th century, the great helm was going out of fashion, but they could still be seen on the field. Great helms have the main advantage of being simple and requiring minimal tools to make. They also look pretty cool. However, they have the disadvantage of having limited visibility and of presenting flat striking surfaces (not all of them do this). An example of a nice great helm is worn by the fighter who is facing us in the first image of this forum thread:

The most popular style of helm is the bascinet, which is seen in the video linked above. These were initially worn underneath great helms, but ultimately they developed into a helmet of their own. They initially did not have any form of face protection, but visors and nasals developed quickly afterwards. In the SCA these are often made as a fairly cheap starter helmet and face protection is carried out by welding steel bars together to make a "basket" for the face. As far as making these yourself, they aren't terribly difficult, but do require some more tools than the great helm, are a little more difficult to shape, and require access to welding equipment. If you are going to buy a helmet, this is probably your best bet.

A third option is the kettle helm. I won't go into much detail about them, but essentially they are a steel wide-brimmed hat. Medieval kettle helms lacked face or side protection, but SCA versions typically include a bar grill and some metal slats to met the minimum armor standards. These are about the same difficulty to make as a bascinet, but have a few more pieces, so they're a bit more expensive to buy.

Choosing between these helm styles will largely be a question of aesthetics. In general, I recommend simply buying your helmet, as making your own requires some metalworking skill, access to materials and tools, and will take a relatively long time to complete on your own.

Padding: The first layer of any armor is typically padding that serves to cushion the body against blows, provide a place to attach other pieces of armor, and make wearing armor more comfortable. Typically padding was made from cloth, with a natural undyed or bleached linen outer shell that is padded by either stuffing some form of material into channels stitched into the fabric or by quilting layers of thick material between the layers of the shell. Historically the stuffing would be a natural material, and I urge you to do the same. When armor was stuffed, materials like un-spun wool, horse hair, and raw cotton were used. If you use the quilting method where you stitch multiple layers of fabric together, this would be accomplished by using many layers of linen or 1-2 layers of fulled wool. Interestingly the padded layers actually offered significant protection from arrows, as layered cloth is fairly puncture resistant, and raw cotton in particular seems to wind itself around the shaft of arrows that spin as they pass through the padding.  I have had success using fulled wool to pad my 16th century arming doublet. Wool serves as a very breathable layer of padding. In addition to the materials I've listed here, bamboo quilt batting also works quite well.

Depending on how you count, there are 2 or 3 different padded garments that you will want to create. The first is a garment that is sometimes called a gambeson or aketon and protects the torso. The construction of this garment is similar to the Bocksten man tunic. The second garment you'll want are padded cuisses. These cover the upper leg and also serve as a place to attach the knee cop. Building these two garments first is probably your best bet, as all of the rest of your armor will fit over top of your padding and/or will be attached to it. The third padded piece goes inside your helmet and serves as padding for your head.

Elbows and Knees:

SCA armor standards require that you protect both your elbows and knees with rigid protection. For the purposes of this suit of armor, we will accomplish this with simple elbow and knee cops that do not have any lames and does not involve any articulation. This will keep it simple and keep costs down. Making elbow and knee cops isn't particularly hard, and for many new armorers, they are their first piece, so making them is definitely an option, however these aren't usually terribly expensive pieces to simply buy either. Depending on your willingness to shape metal and your overall budget, you may consider simply buying these pieces. Once you have made or bought them, they will be attached to the sleeves of your padded gambeson and to your padded cuisses. This will help keep them in place. You will also usually need to add a strap that will go around the joint to keep the cop in place.

Wrist and Hands:

If you are planning on fighting with sword and shield, the cheapest way to protect your hands is to wear demi gauntlets (that protect the wrist and hand, but not the fingers) and put a basket hilt on your sword and shield (to protect your fingers). If you plan on using two-handed weapons (great sword, spear, polearm), you'll need full gauntlets that protect your fingers too. This gets expensive, there's really not a great way around that. Demi gauntlets are harder to make than elbows, but they're not too difficult. Getting fingers and thumbs to articulate correctly, however, is fairly tricky, so you're probably going to end up buying gauntlets.What's more is that protecting your hands is really important. It's fairly easy to break a finger in SCA combat, and since most people work with their hands, that's not really something you want. Hockey gloves are the bare minimum protection required by the rules, but they're really marginal in their protection. Fighting with them, especially sparring with pole arm or great sword while wearing them, is asking for broken fingers. Don't skimp on your hands.

Legs and Arms:

Armor for your legs and arms is optional, but highly recommended. The simplest and cheapest way of armoring these body parts is using splinted armor. Splinted armor takes the form of metal splints riveted or sewn to a leather or cloth backing. This method keeps the amount of metal shaping to a minimum and is a fairly forgiving and flexible method of armoring your limbs. As far as limb armor goes, the forearms (vambraces) are the most important part to armor followed by the upper leg (cuisses). Upper arm protection (rerebraces) are also a good idea. Lower leg protection (greaves) can also be useful. Striking below the knee does not count as a legal blow in SCA fighting, but it happens sometimes and it hurts. Splinted greaves will also improve your appearance.


Neck protection is required. At a minimum you will need to attach a chain maille drape to your helm. However, in my opinion, this is a very poor method of protecting against thrusts which are highly prevalent on the melee field. I recommend that you also wear a gorget to protect your throat. Gorgets don't really exist in the mid 14th century, however you can make a simple gorget in the same way that you make a coat of plates. While it is inaccurate, it will aesthetically match the armor. Furthermore, if you wear a chainmaille (or leather or quilted cloth) drape from your helmet, the gorget will be hidden.


The SCA requires that you protect your kidneys with a minimum of thick leather. Some people do this using a weight lifting belt. If you have finished your gambeson, you can put on a leather belt underneath to protect your kidneys, and that will serve as sufficient armor to meet the rule requirements, but I don't recommend it. Historically the body's main protection would have been chain maille, however during the mid 14th century, coats of plates started to be worn. You can see an example of a coat of plates in the video above. Essentially this is constructed by riveting overlapping plates of metal to a leather or cloth coat. This provides rigid protection for your torso and serves as kidney protection.


The appropriate style of shield for the mid 14th century is a "heater." Aluminum is a popular choice for making shields in the SCA because it is light, but they are also expensive to buy. Some people use street signs to make them, but this method still requires that you affix some form of edging on your shield. A more attractive, cheaper, and more attractive method is to make a bent plywood shield.

Sunday, November 10, 2013

Seam Finishing Techniques

When I made my first few outfits, something that I didn't know about (but really wish I did) was seam finishing. I was never really "formally trained" at sewing, so nobody had ever explained to me that if you didn't finish the seams of your garments that they would fall apart the first time you put them through the wash. If you've ever had this happen to you, then you'll know that this is indeed a very sad thing.

Now, there are plenty of ways to finish your seams, and I can't cover them all, but I will talk about a few common ways to do it. Some of these require extra equipment, while others work best when hand-stitching.


Probably the easiest and most-straightforward method of finishing your seams is by using a serger. Now, you're probably thinking, "What's a serger?" Simply put, it's a special kind of sewing machine that finishes edges and they look like this:

Finishing seams with a serger basically involves running the machine around the edge of each piece of fabric before you sew them together. It really couldn't be any simpler (unless you could figure out a way to never need to thread one). Sergers also typically trim the fabric edge so you get a nice clean finish. For an example of a serger-finished edge, grab the nearest t-shirt, turn it inside out, and take a look at the seams. You'll see that they are essentially wrapped in thread. That is what a serger does. The major drawback of a serger (aside from the difficulty in threading one) is that it requires an extra piece of equipment, and they aren't exactly cheap. It is worth checking with sewers in your local group to see if one of them has a serger that they'd be willing to let you use for your project (I don't own one, but borrow my roommates when I need to use one). If you can't find a serger, you can approximate the effect by using the zig-zag stitch on a regular sewing machine. It won't be quite as strong or as neat, but you can get pretty close with careful stitching and trimming (Of course this requires you to have a sewing machine as well). 

If you find that you lack the fancy machines necessary to serge/zig-zag stitch the edges of your garment or if you want a more medieval look, felling your edges might be for you. Felled seams often appear in canvas tents and sometimes jeans are constructed using them. Felled seams are a historical method of assembling garments and are quite strong (which is why they're used in tents). If you are sewing by hand, this is probably your best bet for most seams. Essentially they are done by having the two pieces of fabric (blue and green lines) wrap around each other as shown in the image on the right. They can be done by hand or using a sewing machine. The orange lines show roughly where the seams go when hand sewing. I like to do these by overstitching. This is shown in the image below:

For machine sewing, you can get a special presser foot to help you make them, but this is unnecessary. Unfortunately you'll find that there really isn't a way to do this without creating a visible machine stitch, which is something I like to avoid when sewing medieval clothing. However, you might find this to be acceptable, particularly for undergarments (shirts, braies, etc). Furthermore, you can create a hybrid where you do the first seam stitch with a machine, roll the felled seam over, and finish with a hand stitch (hem, overstitch, etc). 

This is another good explanation of how a felled seam works:

This is a reasonable tutorial for how to make them using a sewing machine:

Another way of finishing edges is to roll them over. This tucks the raw edge inside the roll so that it can't unravel. Rolled seam edges are shown above, and they can be carried out in a couple ways. The neatest way is to put a narrow hand-rolled hem around each piece and then sew the pieces together, but a quicker way to do it is to simply stitch your fabric pieces together, leaving a wide seam allowance (3/4" - 1.5" depending on how much fabric you need to leave yourself). Then, simply fold this seam allowance over twice, tucking the raw edge inside, press with an iron, and stitch the edge down (by overstitching, hem stitch, etc). You can also do this with a sewing machine, but like before, you'll have a visible machine stitch (unless your machine can do a blind hem stitch, but most can't). 

This is a good tutorial on doing a hand-rolled hem:

For a quick reference sheet to some basic sewing stitches, look here:

Note: What I have called overstitching during most of this tutorial is referred to as a "whip stitch" by this stitching guide. For rolling over and finishing hems, there are several stitches presented in this guide that will work just fine including the whip stitch, vertical hem stitch, cross stitch, and even slip stitch. However, you will probably find that the simpler, spiral ones are a bit faster. 

Monday, October 21, 2013

The Bocksten Man Tunic

The tunic worn by the Bocksten man
The Tunic:

The first garment we will focus on for our reconstruction of the Bocksten man outfit is the tunic. The tunic worn by the Bocksten man is a fairly typical example of geometric construction, meaning that the pattern is comprised solely of geometric shapes (rather than complex curves). There are several advantages to this method. First, this method avoids wasting fabric by making use of rectangles and right triangles. Second, this method simplifies the process of patterning, as it breaks the body into component simple shapes. It should therefore be obvious that this fits our design principles of being both cost effective and simple. However, it is also a highly authentic method of construction, as geometric construction is present in archaeological finds that date back to pre-roman times and forms the basis of garments well into the 19th century. With regards to historic costuming, understanding geometric construction will serve us well not only in making medieval tunics, but also in the construction of virtually every other garment including medieval braies, chausses, hoods, dresses, and arming garments as well as shirts and other undergarments during the renaissance.

Tunics as an Undergarment:

In general, two layers of tunics or more is appropriate. Historically, an undyed or bleached white linen under-tunic would have been worn against the skin. This layer had the benefit of being more comfortable against the skin than wool and would also have been easier to wash, which would have been important considering that its proximity to the body would have meant that it would be soiled with sweat and oil. This garment does not seem to have survived the burial of the Bocksten man, which is somewhat typical, as vegetable-based fibers (like linen) are more prone to rotting than animal-based ones (like wool). The outer layers of tunics would generally have been constructed out of wool and could have been dyed fairly bright colors.

When making an under-tunic for yourself, it is reasonable to make it slightly shorter than your outer tunic and also to skip the insertion of the center gore (the triangle inserted into the middle of the front and back). I find that it takes me approximately 2 yards of 60" wide linen to do the undertunic and about 2.5 yards of 60" fabric to make the outer tunic.

Tunic of St. Francis of Assisi , also geometrically constructed

Geometric Construction:

One way to layout the Bocksten man tunic
To the medieval tailor, the purpose of using geometric construction was to waste as little cloth as possible. Fabric was expensive in the middle ages, as it all had to be made by hand. Wool, for instance, required that somebody raise sheep and shear them, that this wool be carded, spun, and woven into fabric. This fabric was then further treated by the process of fulling and was finally dyed. The production of other fabrics such as linen weren't any easier, and you can imagine the difficulty in unwinding the cocoons needed to make silk. The resulting fabric would have been rectangular in shape and would have been about 22" wide, limited by the arm span of the weaver. As a result, geometrically constructed garments are patterned primarily using rectangles and, at times, using triangles that can be formed from rectangles. The resulting patterns waste very little fabric and also allow medieval tailors to take advantage of the selvedge (finished edge of fabric that runs down both sides and that doesn't unravel). Modern technology has changed how fabric is woven, so these days we typically have 60" wide fabric to work with. This allows us to make our pieces a little wider if we need to, but really it just changes how we lay out our patterns. The image to the right demonstrates roughly how to lay out a geometric pattern for the Bocksten tunic using modern 60" wide fabric. That layout comes from a rather good tutorial on making the Bocksten tunic (link in the caption). The tutorial was posted by a user named Alric on the Dagohir forums and it provides fairly detailed instructions on the construction of the Bocksten tunic, so rather than reinventing the wheel, I'm simply going to direct you to go read that tutorial on how to make the tunic and will instead provide guidance on a few key features that I think are a little tricky or that the tutorial doesn't address well. 

The Historical Pattern:

The original bocksten tunic is a fairly simple tunic constructed from rectangles and triangles, as we've mentioned previously. The original would have had full-length sleeves and would have been long enough to reach mid-calf. You will also note that the triangular "gores" that are inset along the sides and center front and back give the tunic some added fullness. These gores seem to start around the natural waist, in contrast to the St. Francis tunic shown above, where the gores proceed all the way up to the armpit. The original was made out of medium-weight twill-woven wool. For recreating this tunic, a plain fabric or a herringbone pattern would both be good choices. In the SCA, we often use linen as a substitute for wool because it is a little bit cheaper, a little bit cooler, and a little bit easier to acquire. If you choose to use linen, I recommend a medium to heavy weight linen (5 - 7 oz) for constructing the tunic

This Site provides details on the actual pattern and pieces of the Bocksten tunic. You'll note that some of the pieces (like the right sleeve) are actually pieced together from smaller pieces. This would have been done on the original piece simply because the tailor ran out of fabric pieces large enough to make the whole sleeve, so instead he put two together, and voila! sleeve without waste. You probably have enough fabric to make this a single piece, so you can probably simplify the pattern by avoiding some of those seams. However, if you find that you need to piece fabric together in order to get a whole piece, by all means, do that, it's period.

Sleeve and gusset layout from original
If you examine the historical pattern closely, you'll see that Alric's tutorial made a few deviations from the original. First off, you'll note that Alric uses square armpit gussets where the original uses triangles. Second, you'll note that the sleeves of Alrics pattern are simple trapezoids, while the sleeves of the original are more rectangular from the shoulder to the elbow and finish with a trapezoid for the forearm. Don't worry, Alric's method is completely reasonable and falls well within the normal variation in geometric construction. However, if you look closely, you'll see that the pattern layout for the sleeves and armpit gussets could actually be cut from the same rectangle.

Another difference you'll notice is that the neck on the original Bocksten tunic is a simple oval, whereas Alric's tutorial uses a hole with a slit, forming a "keyhole" shape. Once again, both methods are reasonable and well within the variation of construction seen in medieval tunics, so feel free to use the method you prefer. Note, however, that on the original, this ends up requiring a larger neck hole (because your hole head needs to fit through it), but allows for a simpler method of neck hole finishing. I will address finishing the collar in a future post, as it is probably one of the more complicated aspects of tunic/shirt design.

Other Notes:

  • Alric's tutorial doesn't address seam finishing techniques. Seam finishing is crucial if you want to wear your garment more than once, because well, fabric falls apart after you cut it unless you do something to prevent it from unraveling. Because there are several possible methods of seam finishing and because it is important for all garments, not just this tunic, I will be posting a separate post that is dedicated solely to seam finishing techniques. 
  • Alric assumes the usage of your shoulder measurement to find the body block width. This might not work if you are on the heavier side. Instead I recommend also measuring the circumference of your chest (at the nipples) and your belly (at the bellybutton), dividing those two values in half, and using the larger of those three measurements (shoulder width, chest/2, belly/2) as figure "B" when following his pattern. 
  • Alric doesn't really mention adding seam allowances. I typically add an inch to each measurement to give me a half inch of seam allowance on all sides. If this is your first attempt at making a pattern, I recommend adding 2 inches, because it is far easier to remove material than it is to add it later. 
The next post in this series will show you how I begin making my own Bocksten tunic. I'll also be posting some tutorials on seam finishing and on finishing the collar.

Friday, June 7, 2013

Overview of High Medieval Clothing

Given that the SCA is a medieval organization, it should come as no surprise that personas from the high middle ages (approx 1000 AD - 1350 AD) are relatively common within the organization. This popularity has significantly influenced the availability of clothing, armor, and accessories that are available from SCA merchants, but it has also meant that a significant amount of research on how to make items from this time period are readily accessible. There are several reasons for the popularity of this period. For one, it is the clothing and armor of this period that many people think of when they envision medieval knights. However, for our purpose, making an authentic kit with little money and little skill, the high medieval period has several benefits:

  1. Clothing patterns are relatively simple - Nearly every garment can be constructed from rectangles and right triangles
  2. Fitting clothing from this period requires little tailoring
  3. Clothing construction can be accomplished with only 1 basic sewing stitch
  4. Clothing from this period is quite comfortable
  5. You can buy clothing from this period off-the-rack
The Medieval Outfit:

Medieval clothing, like modern clothing, served several roles. It preserved the wearer's modesty, protected them from their environment, kept them warm, and displayed their social status. Clothing typically was worn in layers, which provided great utility in carrying out these roles. Typically, the layers that touched the skin were made from undyed or bleached linen, while outer layers were constructed from dyed wool. The colors could be fairly bright, and the idea of medieval people dressed only in shades of dull brown certainly is not reflected in images of medieval people.

Images of Peasants laboring in the Maciejowski Bible (13th century) showing typical medieval outfits

As mentioned above, underwear garments were worn next to the body and were constructed from undyed or bleached linen. These layers needed to be washed most frequently and linen is a strong material that is relatively easy to wash. 

Image of a laboring peasant from the Maciejowski Bible
A modern recreation of medieval underwear layer including braies, shirt, and coif. Chausses are also shown (in green). Image from Historic Enterprises
Braies: Braies were worn to cover the upper legs and are essentially medieval boxer shorts.

Shirt: A linen shirt or under-tunic was worn to cover the torso and arms. They were constructed in much the same way as the tunic, extending to around knee level and including long sleeves.

Coif: A coif is a small linen cap that was worn on the head to cover the hair. It served to protect hats and hoods from the dirt and oils found in the hair.

Outerwear included chausses, a tunic, and frequently a hood. These garments were historically constructed from dyed wool fabric, however within the SCA they are frequently constructed from dyed linen. While wool is actually surprisingly breathable and cool in the summer, linen is cooler and also cheaper, which is why it is popular among members of the SCA, as many events are held outdoors in the summer.

Rear View of the Bocksten Man outfit (circa 1350) showing outer layers. Image from:

Chausses: Chausses or hose were worn to cover the foot and lower leg. They are essentially thigh-high socks that are pulled up and over the bottom of the braies. Unlike modern socks which are knitted, medieval hose were cut from woven cloth on the bias (diagonally) to provide some degree of stretch and were sewn together. They were held up by being tied to the waistband of the braies or a separate belt and/or by garters worn at the knee.

Modern recreation of outfit from Manesse codex showing a long tunic, belt, pouch, hood, and shoes. Image from:

Tunic: The tunic covered the upper body. The basic shape is a long-sleeved 'T' that flares from under the arms or from the waist. Generally tunics for working-class men fell to below the knees, while tunics for wealthier men fell to mid calf or longer.

Modern reconstruction of Bocksten outfit showing tunic, hood, and coif. Image from:

Hood: In the middle ages, hoods were typically a separate garment from cloaks. Medieval hoods typically had a "tail" called a liripipe and included a mantle that covered the top of the shoulders. Sometimes the edge of the mantle was cut into various shapes, or dagged, as a form of decoration.


Shoes: Shoes were typically constructed of leather and may or may not have had a pointed toe. Shoes from this time period were turnshoes meaning that they were sewn together like an inside-out bag and were then turned so that the seams were left on the inside. Ankle boots seem to be the most commonly worn type of shoes during this period.

Belt: Medieval belts could be leather or fabric. They were typically rather narrow (~1" wide) and were fastened with a buckle.

Belt Pouch: Pouches served as a way of carrying small items like money, dice, small trinkets, etc. They were often suspended from the belt, but sometimes they were worn underneath the tunic for added security. Both kidney-shaped and trapezoidal pouches are good choices for this period.

Hat: Medieval hats served the same purposes as modern hats, sun protection, warmth, rain protection, and decoration. Both straw and felted hats seem to exist during this period, and there are portraits of laborers wearing hats that are very similar to modern straw hats. Felted hats were made in various shapes including the "bycocket" popularized by Robin Hood.

Cloak: Cloaks were worn for added warmth and served as medieval rain gear. Cloaks were essentially a blanket, however circular or semi-circular cloaks are more fashionable than the rectangular cloaks seen in the early middle ages. As mentioned above, hoods tended to be worn as a separate garment. Cloaks were fastened with a metal clasp called a brooch.

Shoulder Bag: While one might describe the shoulder bag as a purse, they were worn by both men and women and would have served to help carry items that were too large to fit in a belt pouch.

Modern reproduction Shoulder bag aka "Pilgrim Bag" Image from:

Knives: Knives were a commonly used tool for medieval people and were frequently carried in sheaths suspended from the belt. It may have been common for people to carry two knives, with one being specifically meant for use as an eating utensil and the other serving a more utilitarian purpose. Medieval people carrying two knives can be seen in various visual sources and the Bocksten man was also found with two knives.

Image of various reproduction medieval knives, daggers, and even a spoon. Image from

Daggers: Certainly not every medieval person carried a dagger at all times, but those who were travelling or who were members of the martial class did seem to wear them. "Ballocks" daggers are popular choices amongst reenactors in part due to their distinctive shape, but other dagger styles such as the rondel dagger are also available. 

Friday, April 12, 2013

Persona and Kit

What is a Kit?

When I talk about building a kit for the SCA, what I mean by kit is the set of equipment that is necessary for you to be involved in your chosen activities in the SCA. All kits will involve garb, as every person is required to make a reasonable attempt at medieval clothing. However, there are other objects that can also be included in your kit. The particulars will vary on these as an armoured fighter's kit will involve armour. A rapier fighter's kit might also involve some armor (like a nice gorget and gloves) along with their swords. An Archer's kit might involve a bow, quiver, period arrows, etc. Those who don't do any of these activities but camp a lot with the SCA on the other hand, may find that for them a kit means a tent, camp furniture, etc.

Choosing a Persona:

The first step in putting together your kit is to identify a particular place and time that you are interested in portraying. For some this is relatively general (14th century France) for others it is highly specific (Swabian landsknecht from 1560). There are several factors worth considering in choosing your persona. The obvious ones are whether you have a particular interest in a certain place or time and whether you want to fit in with a local group that tends towards a certain period (like the 14th century mafia in Atlantia or Calontir's anglo-saxons). However, when attempting to keep costs down, it is important to consider the balance between looking good and having the resources to achieve that look. In general, the later in period you go, the more complicated and fitted clothing gets, the more difficult the armor gets to make, and as a result, the more time or money it will take to make your kit.

The "One True Century":

This last concern was the reasoning behind my first baron's explanation of the popularity of the 14th century mafia. The SCA minimum armor standards essentially require rigid joint and head protection, however early medieval armor doesn't provide this, while later medieval and renaissance armor involves a greater degree of more difficult to make plate armor. During the 14th century, however, historically accurate armor meets SCA standards and also can be made to look good by someone with minimal skill. Meeting SCA minimum standards with earlier period armor relies on hidden sport armor, while later period armor simply requires more complicated work. Garb also follows the general trend that the earlier in period you go, the less fitted the garments are, and so the easier they are to pattern. pre-14th century, you can make pretty much everything out of rectangles and triangles. By the 15th century, much of the clothing requires fitted curves in order to achieve the right shape. This is not to say that later periods are impossible, just that they are harder. For those whose primary interest is not in making things, it may be advisable to choose a persona for which it will be simpler to make and acquire the basics of a kit rather than to choose to portray a persona for which the appropriate gear will take a greater degree of determination. For the purposes of this series, I'm avoiding the assumption that anybody wants to make their own things, but rather I am assuming that the reader understands that they may need to make their own things. I will attempt to keep things simple for that group.

Things to Consider Including in your Kit:

Garb: This will include not only clothing, but also footwear and accessories as well. I will make a post about accessories in the future, but suffice it to say that without appropriate accessories and footwear, most SCAdians simply look like they're wearing some weird pajamas. For inspiration, take a look at the Armour Archive's 2013 show off your "soft" kit thread: (Soft kit usually refers to garb, as opposed to armour which is hard)

Armor: Matching garb and armor in a single kit gives you greater flexibility in terms of which clothing you wear to an event and allows you to stretch the number of outfits you have. It also helps your armor fit better, because often, armor was made to be worn with a particular kind of clothing. Keeping your armor pieces consistent with each other and consistent with your clothing is the most straightforward way of looking awesome. I recommend taking a look at the Armour Archive's show off your kit thread here:

Feast Gear: For the most part, my instructions for feast gear will be to pick up some cheap wooden salad bowls at good will, but an authentic feast gear kit can really help build the medieval experience at feast.

Tools: These are going to be discipline specific items such as archery equipment, musical instruments, puppets or other props for performance arts, etc.

Camping Gear: This would include tents, camp furniture, beds, cooking gear, day shades, etc.

Miscellaneous: There are probably things I have forgotten, however banners displaying your heraldic device are a common thing to have in the SCA and might be something you want to help make you, your encampment, or your day shade look pretty.

Monday, March 4, 2013

The Catch

In my last post I claimed that you can put together a good kit for the SCA inexpensively and I'm sure you thought to yourself, "What's the catch?" Well, the short answer is time. The classic project management pyramid demonstrates the need for a balance between three main constraints; time, cost, and quality. As noted in my previous post, our goals are to keep costs down and do things well, so we should expect that this will come at the expense of speed. In our case, putting together a nice, cheap kit is going to require us to spend more time doing research, shopping for deals, and probably making things ourselves. However, you should not be left feeling like you cannot play until your kit is done. For that reason, this post will be focused on what to do until your gear is ready and a few tips for getting your kit put together more quickly without sacrificing quality or spending a lot of money.

Loaner Gear:
A lot of newcomers feel uncomfortable borrowing garb/armor/camping gear/etc from other people (who may be relative strangers after all). I think this largely stems from the value that our mundane (modern) society places on being self-sufficient, however your local group can in many ways drive this feeling as well. When I joined the SCA as a 22-year old first-year graduate student, my local group was made up of a group of married adult professionals who were approximately 30 and who had been playing SCA for a decade (or more). In general, this group had all the stuff already and were established enough in the SCA to take care of doing their own thing. Taken together, I very much was left feeling that I needed to take care of myself, and in retrospect, this isn't an approach that I recommend for newcomers, particularly if they are on a budget.

Most SCA groups (and some individuals) have garb, armor, camping gear, tools, etc that they don't use or don't use frequently that they are willing to loan to newcomers in order to help them get involved/put their kit together. As I mentioned in the introduction, putting together a good, cheap kit is going to take some time, so the best way for you to get involved while you're working on your kit is to borrow garb to get to events, borrow armor to wear at practice, etc. Remember that this gear is meant to help newcomers (like yourself) get involved, so don't feel embarrassed/weird about borrowing it. However, there are some expectations that you should keep in mind, and even if they don't state them explicitly, you should follow:

1) Be responsible for what you borrow: It should go without saying that you shouldn't trash other people's stuff, but you also should be sure that you are using and maintaining their gear appropriately. For instance, if you borrow a tent and aren't sure about how to set it up or how to pack it, ask. Some people are very particular about how their gear should be used and sometimes the care of equipment may not be straightforward (such as needing to air a tent out after use or needing to avoid using soap on cast iron)
2) Make progress on acquiring your own gear: Loaner gear is meant to help newcomers while they get their own kit together. At the point where you decide that you are going to pursue the SCA/an activity in the SCA, you should make progress towards acquiring your own equipment. Remember, there may be someone who needs that gear more than you do.
3) Pay it forward: A lot of people in the SCA who have been playing for years (or even decades) got their start as proverbial 20-year old poor college students like yourself. I'd bet that they remember that experience fondly and that many of them will be more than willing to help you out. As a newcomer, you'll find that there really isn't a good way for you to pay them back for their help (it isn't like they need a T-tunic), but that isn't really what they are expecting. If you stick with the SCA, someday (and it might not be that far off in the future, really) you'll be in a position to help another proverbial 20-year old poor college student put together their first kit, and you should do so because that's really what makes the SCA awesome.

Ask for Help:

One of the coolest things about the SCA is the wide variety of skills that are represented within our group and the general willingness of people who have such skills to teach others. In terms of our goals to make a high quality kit cheaply, getting expert help can save us quite a bit of time and money. While help with making things is the most obvious way we can get help, consider asking for help with your research as well. It is likely that more experienced craftspeople can point you towards appropriate sources for what you are trying to make and many will loan you books and source material if you ask. Furthermore, if you are't familiar with how to do research in the first place, you may even ask someone to teach you how. In my local group, we are awash with librarians who teach people how to do research as part of their job. There may be people who are able to help you with your research based on their mundane skills/professions even if they aren't particularly familiar with the time period/crafts that you're trying to do (librarians, scientists, writers, etc).

In terms of making things, getting help from those who are familiar with whatever craft you are attempting can save you time and money and improve the quality of your kit. More experienced helpers can provide guidance that avoids wasted materials, point out reasonable shortcuts that can save you time, and sometimes provide you with tools and workshop space. The right tools can save you a lot of time and make it easier to build a good-looking product. Furthermore, there are some objects which really can't be made without certain tools. As before, remember to respect the help that you are given. Take care of any books/tools that you borrow or use. If someone invites you over to their shop, follow their rules, bring a 6-pack, and be courteous.

Hunt for Bargains:

To a certain extent, putting a kit together cheaply means buying as few items as possible, but sometimes you can find some great deals on items that you need which can result in you getting a nice object cheap and quick. For starters, at many events there are what I like to call "SCA yardsale" merchants. These are typically people who have been playing for a while and have realized that they have no need for the 15 sets of garb, 3 suits of mismatched armour, 5 sets of wooden feast gear, and various candles and baskets that they have acquired over the years. These sales are good places to pick up wool and linen fabric, no-longer needed garb, armour bits from peole who have upgraded their kit, and books. In the past year, I've picked up a pair of knee cops for $20, a pair of rapiers for $25 each, a pair of rubber band guns for $15 total, a whole bunch of wool (some of which was free), and a few other sundry items for only a few dollars. When you are just getting started, these types of sales are probably the best place to pick up some basic feast gear (wooden bowl, tankard mug, wooden spoon, knife) for only a few dollars (usually less than $5 total) as well. These merchants are usually just trying to get rid of stuff, so they are also typically willing to haggle, especially if you are taking several things off of their hands.

Most other merchants at events and online are actually trying to make money, but you may find that you need to purchase from them at some point. If you do, be sure to pay attention to their clearance sales, etc. At most major wars there is typically a "midnight madness" event where the merchants have special sales. Several of the "major merchants" at events like Pennsic have clearance bins where they are selling seconds, discontinued products, surplusses, and one-off pieces at drastically discounted prices. At last year's Pennsic, for instance, my little brother managed to acquire a pair of well-made period shoes and a leather sutton-hoo pouch for about $50. The last day of such events is also a good time to hit up the merchants for deals. Many of them would prefer to sell their product for a slightly lower price than pack it up and haul it home. Also remember that even though these merchants are a bit more formal than the SCA yardsale types, they are still often open to a bit of haggling, especially if you are buying several objects.

One last piece of advice when looking to buy things is to do you research in advance. Know what sorts of objects would be appropriate for your persona so that you don't need to replace them later, and get feedback from other people about the seller. At a major event like Pennsic, it is worth asking more experienced SCAdians to guide you around the merchant area to help make sure that you buy the right thing from the right person at the right price.

Tuesday, February 19, 2013

SCA on a Budget


The up-front costs of getting involved in a historical group such as the SCA can be pretty high. As a newcomer, you will, at the very least, need garb, but you will furthermore need armor if you want to fight, tools if you want to get involved in crafts, camping gear if you want to attend some events, etc. The costs of these things can add up quickly, which by itself can be stressful, but this is compounded by the sense of urgency of feeling that you are behind or that you cannot participate until you have acquired all of these things. This time crunch often compels newcomers to buy or make things as quickly and as cheaply as possible, but this is a mistake. Such early purchases are often quite wasteful, resulting in the acquisition of gear and equipment that isn't pretty, isn't medieval, and sometimes isn't even useful.

I have created this series of web posts in order to help newcomers to overcome some of these initial hurdles. One of the greatest strengths of the SCA is that members love to help out newcomers, but this help can be a two-edged sword. Newcomers are often overloaded with information by their local group, by members of online forums, etc; however they typically do not have a good way of determining which information is good and which information is bad (And plenty of it is just plain bad). I found that combating misinformation (provided by very well-meaning people) was quite frustrating and decided that I needed to put together a comprehensive, straightforward, and high-quality resource to help guide newcomers through putting together their first garb, armor, camping gear, etc. To be clear, the goal of this series is not to contain all of the medieval crafting knowledge ever. Instead, the goal is to simplify the process of researching and assembling a high-quality, but simple medieval outfit. In other words, when a newcomer comes to me and asks, "What should I do about garb?" I want them to be able to follow the instructions on this site to make an outfit that they can be proud of, that will look and feel medieval, and will last them for several years.

So, who is this guide for? Well, obviously I'd love it if every newcomer would have the chance to read it (at least, once it's finished), but I think the primary audience is people with little historical costuming experience regardless of sewing experience. My goal for many of these guides will be to allow people with almost no patterning, assembly, sewing experience to follow them. The other audience that I hope will give these guides a chance are people who have minimal interest in historical costuming and sewing, such as the stereotypical "stick jock" of the SCA. For those individuals, I hope that this guide will show them how cool medieval clothing can look and that it will demonstrate that accurate clothing is neither harder nor more expensive than medievaloid alternatives. Finally I hope that these guides will demonstrate how accurate medieval clothing (and armor) works better in many cases than modern alternatives.

With these objectives and target audiences in mind, let us begin by discussing our design principles. In project management, there's a saying, "You can have it cheap, fast, or good. Pick two." This is certainly true of putting together your gear and kit for the SCA. However, in many cases, we emphasize the first two principles (cheap and fast) over the last one (good). The effects of this should be obvious, shoddily constructed gear that doesn't look medieval, doesn't hold up to wear & tear, or even worse, simply doesn't work. So, my first admonishment is to instead strike a balance between these three design principles when you approach making/buying your gear.

Keep it Cheap: I should state here that purchasing all of your gear is certainly an option, but in general it is cheaper to make things yourself. There are caveats to this of course, as some things require special skills and equipment that actually make buying them a better option. While I will be focusing on tutorials throughout this series, I will also include suggested merchants who make quality products at a reasonable price. The  main ways to keep costs down are to shop around and look for sales, avoid wasting materials, don't buy things you don't need, keep things simple at first, and finally, to borrow tools and expertise when possible.

Do it Fast: The focus of this series is on tutorials to help you make things for yourself, so I should state outright that this is going to take some time. I often tell my friends to avoid sewing on a deadline, but I think this is true of most crafts, especially when you're new at them. Rushing through projects is a good way to waste materials, to spend a lot of time with a seam ripper, and to end up with mediocre stuff. So, instead of rushing, we will focus on planning. This series will keep the time-cost as low as possible by pointing out short-cuts, keeping the projects simple and modular, and by prioritizing more essential pieces. Finally, in some cases, striking a balance between time and cost will cause me to recommend the purchase of key pieces of equipment.

Make it Good: At the end of the day, the SCA is in many ways a medieval dress-up party, not a reenactment group. However, what's the point in a medieval dress-up party if you're not wearing medieval clothing? Fortunately for us, accurate medieval clothing doesn't have to be hard, it doesn't need to cost a lot of money, and in most cases, we can replace skill with power tools (sewing machines are really good at making evenly spaced stitches). The tutorials in this series will show you how to dress like a medieval person using layers of simple, well-constructed garments and appropriate accessories.

Before you get started, it is worth putting together a plan. Such a plan will include the following steps that will help you to determine how to balance between the three design principles of cost, speed, and quality.

Determine Your Interests and Budget: It is important to start from reasonable expectations and with a full understanding of what you will need. Obviously every SCAdian needs garb, but if you're interested in fighting in armor or rapier, shooting archery, playing music, etc those interests will change the amount and type of the gear you need. Furthermore, your finances are going to determine how much you need to make yourself and what you can buy. If you just need garb, for instance, and have a budget of $500, you can probably just buy what you need to look super spiffy (As long as you make good choices. You can spend a lot of money on crap.). If your budget is more like $100, we might need to get creative. Furthermore, it might be the case that you have to consider budget over time. You might not have $150 cash right away, but could set aside $20/month for a while. 

Decide What You Want To Look Like: Ultimately, looking good while dressed as a medieval person is about making choices and the first big choice you need to make is what you want to look like. I recommend choosing a persona that strikes a balance between what you want to wear and what you can afford to wear (money, skill, time). Likewise, I suggest that once you pick a persona that you stick with it (at least until you have the money, skills, and time to change it). This is for three reasons. First, having a complete and coherent look is the most important and easiest way to look good. Mixing and matching clothes or armor from different time periods looks more Mad Max than medieval. Second, it is ultimately cheaper to stick with a single period. Eventually you'll end up wanting more garb, especially if you end up going to something like Pennsic. It will be cheaper to make more clothing from the same period, because this will allow you to mix and match outfits as well as re-use accessories. You don't want to find yourself needing shoes for when you dress Tudor, another for when you dress Viking, and yet another for when you dress like a Crusader. This gets expensive fast. Finally, as you work within a single place/time period, you'll start to understand its aesthetic. This will help you in future projects and will allow you to phase in increasingly better pieces as your gear wears out, stops fitting, etc. 

Decide What You Can/Want To Make: The big question here is what are you realistically able and willing to make, and what do you need to buy? For the most part, making things yourself can save on cash, but time is also valuable. If you hate sewing, it might be worth your money to commission someone to make you clothing. Likewise, some pieces of gear, especially armor, either cannot be made at home (like rapier swords), require more tools than you realistically can get, or will require skills/time that you don't have. The precise balance of these factors will depend largely on your budget and other resources. As an example, I will typically recommend that newcomers who want to fight heavy simply buy a helmet. Most helmets are going to require some welding, so that's not a reasonable thing to expect to make on your own. Furthermore, I also recommend that newcomers simply purchase elbow and knee cops. They aren't terribly difficult to make, but they are also not terribly expensive to buy, which means that the time and effort spent making them is probably worth simply buying them unless your budget is super small or you're really interested in making armor. When it comes to clothing, shoes are a similar example. Typically leather needs to be bought by the hide, and shoes require a few different thicknesses of leather, so you'd end up buying 3 hides of leather in order to make a single pair of shoes. Furthermore, shoes are a bit complicated and poorly fitting shoes = pain and suffering. At the same time, you can get a reasonable pair of period looking shoes for around $60, so for most, it's a better choice to simply buy them. 

Plan Ahead: Once you've decided what you're going to make, it's time to plan out how you're going to do it. Figure out what materials and tools you will need, and make a plan to acquire them. You'll probably end up needing to buy your materials, but you can often find other SCAdians who are willing to loan you their tools or allow you to come over to their house to use them. Keep in mind that many projects end up using the same materials, so sometimes it is better to buy in bulk. Furthermore, when buying things on the internet, consider buying all of what you need from the same place at the same time to save on shipping. White linen, for instance, gets used not only for shirts/under tunics, but also for braies, coifs, linings, padded arming garments, etc. You should calculate what you need and buy that all at once to save on shipping. Some places also offer bulk discounts when you order fabric by the bolt, for instance.  Knowing what you need and when you'll need it will allow you to shop around, look for sales and discounts, and help you put your gear together in a reasonable time frame.