Getting started in a reenactment organization can be a daunting task. Putting a complete kit together often requires a newcomer to not only acquire clothing, but also accessories such as shoes and belts, armor, weapons, camping gear, etc. One of the strengths of the SCA is its relatively low bar for entry (an attempt at medieval clothing). Likewise, the SCA is in many ways an organization for people who make things, and so many newcomers will find plenty of people who are quite willing to help them learn to make their own equipment. Unfortunately, this attitude sometimes results in a lot of pressure for newcomers to make all of their stuff. It seems obvious that making things yourself is cheaper than buying them and likewise, that this would lead a website that is geared towards helping newcomers put together their first kit on the cheap to also support this line of reasoning. However, the reality is not nearly this simple and in many cases it is far better for people to simply buy some or even all of the gear that they need.
Why would this be the case?
Well, for starters, we need to recall a previous post where we discussed that every project must balance time, monetary cost, and quality. As stated before, you can have things good, fast, and cheap: pick two. In the case of the imaginary newcomer that this site is geared towards helping, we must remember that they do not have an abundance of free time, free cash, or crafting skills. Therefore, if we focus solely on reducing monetary costs, then we must either expect to spend a lot of time making things or we must choose to make low quality stuff. In general, this series tries to balance these two things. Certainly making things requires some amount of time. This is kept to a minimum by keeping things simple (one form of reducing quality). However, sometimes making things isn't really an option. This may be because the piece of equipment is complicated, takes specialized skills, and sometimes it's because you can't buy the materials for the price of buying it.
When should we make things?
1) When we want to: Doing things is kinda the point of the SCA, and crafting can be incredibly rewarding. If a particular craft is something you're interested in and if an item is something that you want to make, it may be worth prioritizing making the item (at the expense of time and possibly quality). Certainly, however we must temper our choices with a solid dose of reality. It is certainly feasible for your first garb project to be a full Elizabethan gown, but given how complicated such a garment is, you would need to be realistic that either the project won't turn out very well or it will take an extraordinary amount of time (while you essentially learn how to sew). Keep your early projects simple and work towards projects that your skills will allow you to successfully complete in a reasonable time frame. Remember, you're going to want your gear sooner rather than later.
2) When we don't hate doing so, and:
- Buying is too expensive: If your budget is really small, you don't really have many other options than to make things yourself. At the extreme end, it may be worth considering whether the SCA is a hobby that you can afford at all. Ultimately hobbies are luxury items, and if you're making a choice between eating this month and buying fabric for a tunic, your priorities need to be reevaluated. Even making things yourself has a cost (materials, tools, instruction, time), and while the SCA tends to extol the virtues of upcycling, recycling, and repurposing mundane objects and materials, the reality is that doings so is actually fairly difficult and requires a skilled craftsperson, not a novice to pull off well.
- It can't be bought: Simply put, some personas are more popular than others. Merchants tend to have those personas covered pretty well, so if you're looking for viking or 14th century stuff, it's almost certainly available for purchase somewhere (and it's probably better than you'll make on your first attempt). However, SCAdians like to be different, and for many people, this expresses itself in their choice of persona. If you're trying to be something less popular, however, you might not be able to buy the gear you need to complete your kit. From the perspective of keeping costs down, an important consideration is to choose a persona that is popular so that you can benefit from the myriad of freely available research, inexpensive "starter"-level gear, and crafting help.
- It's a group project: Sometimes local groups get together to make a whole bunch of a particular gear. Shoulder bags, coifs, veils, and banners are popular choices, but entire outfits and even armor are sometimes built as a group activity. You should try to take advantage of these opportunities to make things even if you aren't very experienced or aren't particularly keen on that form of crafting in general, as the group atmosphere can make things more enjoyable, and making things as a group tends to mean that expertise, tools, and materials will be available for free/cheap.
When should we buy things?
1) If you dislike making things: Seriously, if you absolutely hate sewing, just plan on buying your clothes. It isn't really worth the stress, aggravation, etc and you're reasonably likely to be happier with the final product made by someone who 1) has experience making things and 2) doesn't hate it. Remember that your time has value, and if you're spending your time doing something you hate, you may as well just get an extra part-time job. Of course, this approach requires us to make compromises. One of the big ones is that you're likely going to be limited in the period of clothing that you can accomplish without spending a bunch of money. Clothing gets increasingly complicated starting around 1350, and much of the later clothing requires an individual fit, which makes buying clothes off the rack difficult and expensive. At the same time, earlier medieval clothing is fairly simple, isn't personally tailored, and is relatively inexpensive to purchase.
2) If you don't have time to make things: Obviously if time is your limiting factor rather than cash, by all means, just buy what you need. There are a few variations on this, however. For instance, if you're spending your time sewing your clothes, you might elect to simply purchase a belt and/or pouch because you don't have time to learn an additional crafting skill. You also might find that some tasks aren't really worth your time. For instance, my wife does tablet weaving and offered to make black twill tape for use as trim on a pair of pants that I'm planning. However, she has plenty of other projects on her schedule and the twill tape itself is fairly cheap to just buy, so it probably isn't worth it for her to weave it by hand. Similarly, many medieval notions can be made (hooks and eyes, buttons, lacing cords), but sometimes it might just be worth buying, as these are often cheaper than the time-cost of making them. This also has particular relevance to newcomers. As you are putting your first kit together, you, by definition, don't have things to wear in the mean-time. If a project is going to take you months to complete, you might find that buying it is a better option so that you have it now rather than later.
3) If you lack the necessary skills/tools: To a certain extent, it is expected that you can learn quite a bit by attempting to make things, but some projects are more complicated than others. Basic sewing and armoring projects can be carried out using fairly minimal tools and without much previous skill, but putting together a full suit of plate armor requires quite a bit of time, skill, and certain specialized tools that probably end up costing more than the armor itself. It is important to be realistic about what skills you can acquire given your resources (are you teaching yourself, or do you have an instructor?) and time-frame (Can you wait 5 years to get into your first garb?).
4) If it's not worth it: Sometimes you'll find that buying something is cheaper than buying the materials or you'll find that the difference in cost between the finished product and the materials is so small that it's just worth buying it. Similarly, if something takes a lot of skill to make and can be bought rather cheaply, it's worth just buying. Consider shoes. Shoes are usually made of leather and often require several different types/thicknesses of leather. Leatherworking requires some tools certainly, but leather is often only sold in full hides, so a single pair of shoes might require you to buy $300 worth of leather, even though you'll only use a little bit of it. Furthermore, you'll expect to pay about $8-10/square foot for the leather, and a pair of shoes uses 5-6 square feet. If you consider this material cost and compare it to the cost of purchasing period shoes (about $75), you'll see that 1) You have to buy a lot more materials than you'll need at significant cost and 2) There isn't much savings from making it yourself. Finally, shoes are a bit tricky, and if you don't get a good fit, you'll end up in quite a bit of pain. Coming up with a good pattern for your feet will waste quite a bit of materials as well (good thing you got a whole hide). Because of this, you'll typically find that it isn't worth the hassle of making your own shoes.
What about barter?
SCA members often suggest barter as a way of keeping costs low, but on the face of it, this isn't necessarily a feasible plan for newcomers. For starters, there's often the assumption that the parties are exchanging goods that they have created, for instance, trading leatherwork for clothing. However, our proverbial newcomer doesn't necessarily have other skills with which to make things either, so they can't trade a belt for a tunic, because they don't know how to make either. That being said, bartering labor for gear may be a reasonable task. This labor may not be in the context of the SCA. You might find that someone's willing to make you clothing in exchange for mowing their lawn, cleaning their gutters, etc. Similarly, there are lots of camping events, and often people are willing to trade garb, armor, a place to sleep, etc for people to cook meals, wash dishes, setup and tear down tents, and watch their kids. At major wars, there are even merchants who hire people to man their booth who provide clothing, meals, etc to the people who work for them. These arrangements ultimately are on an ad hoc basis, however, so there's nowhere I can point you to in order to find them. You'll have to ask around on your own.