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.