A and S Class: Research – Helpful tips and discussions

Please note: If you wish to reproduce this in any way please credit me. We all work very hard and share our knowledge freely in the SCA. It would be a shame to find my work in someone elses name. Thank you. 


Research talk

Darton Collegium, AS XLVII (June 2013)


Back ground – a bit about why I chose to do this talk…..

I struck gold when I stood in the Brughel room in the Prado in Madrid.

I was in heaven. So many in front of me – all big, all able to be seen in detail – full detail, and in the other room many other Flemish artists from the same period.

We have one Brughel in the Auckland Art Gallery and honestly – who knows how long we have had it as even that was a surprise to find a few years ago.   Growing up in Auckland New Zealand we didn’t really have much in the way of visual history no matter how hard you looked, unless you went to the specialist historical village in Howick,  as you are lucky to see a house or structure older than 110 years give or take in everyday life around Auckland.

The Auckland museum has in the last 5 years put on display two 1700’s outfits – male and female, one early Victorian dress, and a few Edwardian to modern outfits, totaling roughly 20 outfits spread over the whole museum. There are a few pre-fifteen hundred’s pots, glasses, mugs and pewter plates in another room. If you wish to search for what is relevant to re-enactment of pre 16th century Europe that is it for us in plain sight.

Being able to see things in the flesh in the past five years has opened my eyes to many possibilities. There is nothing like standing in the spaces that my ancestors did – walking through a Tudor house, a Cathedral, a neolithic structure, or going to a museum to see the garments we have all poured over time and time again in the Janet Arnold books and other resources that detail extant artifacts.

How I have been able to see these things…

It took me until I was 28 to realise I was allowed to travel. Until then I listened to other people’s fears and issues and believed them. Thing like – ‘It was too far away’. ‘It would be too expensive’. ‘I couldn’t do it on my own because I might die’ (thank you Mum…),’ what would you see anyway if you didn’t have enough money to do it right’ and ‘how could you ever have enough time – two weeks in the school holidays is not enough time so why bother….’

It took me sacrificing a lot – time with friends and family, personal time for me, but I was also lucky enough to be in the personal circumstances at the time without a family or mortgage to be able to work 16 -18 hour days, seven days a week in between trips on several different jobs (teaching and costuming) in order to be able to save and work towards travelling to see things that would inform my practice in historical costume – and I am not exaggerating those hours.

I now have amazing memories and interesting experiences, but I need to not want to work towards doing it like that anymore.

Also the last trip was a little too annoying due to lack of funds, choosing whether to eat or see Guernica was just something I don’t want to do again. Eating won.


The Talk:

So let’s put all this talk of research into context then….note: this talk is aimed primarily at people with limited access to travel

I must have seen the same Brughel painting at least 5 times, in different galleries…in different cities

In the Thyssen in Madrid, I saw a non Brughel on the wall upstairs – it was Brughel but a modern take to which I did a double take as it was almost perfect.

I also have seen the same pictures of Henry the Eighth all around England and a few of the same of Edward….

So many reproductions both in real life and in the books, and in the books – the colour changes considerably and often. So how without the real things in front of us, can we really know?

How to do it if you are stuck in a country with no visual history….

–          Art galleries / Art Museums – they may not have the painting, but they may have a specialist book that no one else has on the artist…or be able to order one in. They may also have prints and postcards. Most galleries have online catalogues that you can browse and see their paintings on line, you can also request information from the museums about certain art works.  A quick Google search usually brings up the galleries catalogues.

–          Books, lots of books from libraries, museums, school libraries, book shops, second hand dealers, amazon, friend’s houses – where ever! Just be wary of Victorian Era produced books and things from the 1930’s….there are some special books written with great authority that make leaps of faith and judgement within them, there are gems of information amongst them however. Read them after you have read the others….

–          Amazon – some books let you look inside – you can read a bit from that even! But you never know when you will score a deal and finally own your own copy of ‘Woven into the Earth’ or ‘Elizabeth’s wardrobe unlocked’! Beware taking certain books as gospel however – ask around about polarising books such as the ‘Tudor tailor’ and others in that vein….they may be less ‘authentic’ than you realise until you know a bit more about the subjects.

–          Specialist libraries and Librarians– Auckland City library in the central city has a basement that has actual illuminated manuscripts that Isabel Winter used for her book research and they are happy to show you. Wellington has Te Papa’s library that has two whole bookcases worth of books, there are journals and articles from overseas and much, much more, the sad part is they now require you to book a time – it used to be open all day like a normal library – but it is worth going to to look up the journals from overseas.

–          Specialist institutions – there is a place run by the Catholic church on the north shore that supports two artists in making icons and sculptures . They do their practice as it would have been done back when Giotto and Duccio were alive.  The pigments, the glues the gesso – are all made from period materials and done by hand. This is a goldmine for period painting, proving you never know what is in your backyard so poke around! If you want more details on this particular place – please feel free to contact me.

 –          Specialist networks – like the Costume and Textile association of New Zealand, they have a symposium each year and might be able to direct you to people that know things. There are others like the fashion museum of new Zealand (an online forum) and the Costume Society in the Uk, for a subscription they send you their journal quarterly.

–          Specialist courses – searching historical costume/fashion uk, or historical costume america, historical costume institutes will all come up with courses and websites dedicated to the study of costume. have a look at what they all offer – sometimes there are online courses associated with them, or they house collections. One example is http://theschoolofhistoricaldress.org.uk/ houses the Janet Arnold collection, and the Alan and Vanessa Hopkins collection.

–          Museums – Auckland War Memorial Museum have a library and a textile conservationist. I am sure Wellington does also. As I have already said  – you can also contact places like the Met, the V and A and all the other major museums to ask for photos and extra information. If you are lucky enough to be travelling there, email them in advance and ask if you can book a time to see things. There is a new specialist museum in London attached to the V and A for textiles that has opened….it may hold wonders…

NOTE – if you are travelling to the UK and want to go into places like the British library and see their books etc. that aren’t on display – you need to go through a massive rig moral and fill out lots of forms, have lots of id and search for what you need in advance on their webpage so it will be waiting for you…you can’t just walk in….please take note of this. The British museum on the other hand is different, you can just walk in and look at things – it is well worth it.

–          Specialist pages on facebook – look in your friends likes, you never know what you will see! There is an Elizabethan costuming page, and many others. Once more – treat it all with a grain of salt, we are all just people with differing opinions and ideas. You may also want to join pages specific to the SCA – there are musicians pages, artisans pages and many more.

–          Pintrest /tumbler etc.– are  good for pictures, but as with everything – be wary. Pintrest is a place where people put the stuff they like etc., it doesn’t mean they know what they are doing or that they have gathered resources from the same region/country/time period….

 –          Internet pictures – lots and lots of them…but books are more trustworthy in my opinion (even if they do occasionally print them reversed or mess with the colour – books are definitely NOT infallable) as you don’t know what has been done to pictures on the internet – how they have been manipulated, what they have been cropped from and if they have been photo-shopped etc. Also references may have been changed on the information about what you are seeing.

–          Internet research – don’t’ just do an image search and a normal search, use an ADVANCED search (found at the bottom of the page on a google search) this means that it filters it to what YOU want to see.

 –          Google scholar – type ‘Google scholar’ into the title bar and it will take you to a special search engine….then go looking for what you need. This is very very handy.

–          Specialist on line book and journal sites – there are a few of these, once again you have to search for them. One useful one that lets you read a certain amount for free is http://www.jstor.org, you can pay a subscription on most of theses types of sites to view unlimited books etc online which is helpful if you are doing a lot of research on a particular thing.



Reading about the time period from books and the internet and thinking about the following questions…..

If you are looking into a particular artifact that you wish to produce, focusing on the things that surround it, not just the object or costume is a good thing to do. This broadens your understanding of where and why it fitted into society at that time…

Some helpful questions may be:

who was in charge of the country /region at the time?

how were the fields worked?

what was the main source of income?

who traded with who and for what?

who had married into the royal family and brought their fashion from their country with them.?

What dyes did they have

What materials did they have access to?

What was the climate? Was it in the ‘little ice age’ etc.?

What seam treatments were common?

Did they know about bias cut?

How did they give birth and who looked after the babies?

What were the roles of the different genders and classes?

What were their diets like and why?

What dwellings did they inhabit?

How did they sing/dance/hunt/ cook/ work?

Everything and anything else that is relevant to the period you are looking at?


Take for example a particular type of garb – maybe think about:


–          What came before fashion wise?


–          What came after fashion wise?


–          What other countries does it look like and how does it differ?


–          How was it constructed in period and how was it sewn with what tools?


–          Is there anything extant – i.e. left over to examine on the internet/in books? And how useful is it?

–          Who is an expert in the field already – do you know of anyone in the S.C.A or another re-enactment group – can you contact them and talk about your ideas/your research so far?

And then – once that is done….printing, photocopying, reading, highlighting, and seeing what is good for you and what you resonate with.

Purely sitting for hours looking, searching out every detail and then every detail again is one of the easiest ways to feel confident before cutting into your fabric, it is however not the be all and end all – don’t fall into the trap of getting so worked up into ‘it’s not right!’ that you never start….

You will always discover new things and you will always get halfway through something and realise that is may not be the ‘most correct’ that it could be – but never give up.  For as long as you can say to the best of your knowledge at the time that you tried your best to do It in an informed way, then even if you discover something half way through – you can use it next time and be happy that you just furthered your knowledge in a certain area.

Just remember –

We aren’t all born knowing everything

We aren’t all born able to do everything

And unless we know where the resources are and how to best access them then how will we be able to find things to best inform our practice?

And once you have a base knowledge and do more and more reading – then you start to see things that match and things that just jump out as being slightly dodgy…

GENERAL rules for researching

–          Ask people – you never know who knows what, or who has tried what….

–          Don’t be afraid

–          Read a lot – and not just the internet

–          Beware the internet – the problem goes like this…

  • One person says something on their page.
  • Other people want to say something on their page about the same thing but are unsure.
  • They see the page that says what they want to say.
  • They think – well – they said it – it must be true
  • They write it on their page
  • The process continues
  • And soon, lots of people have the same fact (with no referencing as to where it came from ) on the internet….and soon it is truth without basis….but people keep believing it.

–          Never stop looking for things to prove and disprove your ideas on the subject

–          Work out why you are so interested in the project and when it gets hard – keep that to inspire you again.

–          Remember that the trees can obscure the forest – if you find yourself immobilised by fear that you aren’t going to ever ‘do it right’ just do it anyway, there may never be a right way and it doesn’t help  anyone to be afraid of trying your best at the time.

–          Look at class, region and country very carefully – don’t just assume one place did one thing and therefore everyone else did that too.

Little discoveries which lead to thought…never discount anything!

I was standing in-front of one of the paintings and I actually laughed out loud. So many re-enactment camps I have been to where I have heard people remarking that ‘they didn’t have filled rolls in period’….well, I can now happily tell you that they did, at least I the 1530’s in Flanders, and I have the photo of the painting to prove it!

This shows us that you should never discount something on hearsay or lack of seeing things for yourself.

One of the most polite ways of dealing with that kind of situation that I have found (unless you truly wish to argue your case) is by saying ‘well, I have never seen it but I would love to see your research on that’…..then you don’t feel put down or put out if you are the other person and you never know – you may learn something new!

It is a horrible reality – but you sometimes come across people within re-enactment that aren’t the most helpful or complimentary for the pure fact that they are jealous or insecure themselves. Some people will go out of their way to tear you down, and that is a also a societal issue in New Zealand with tall poppy syndrome ,it is not the point of the society to breed this – but then subcultures are a microcosm cross section of real society…and not everyone is a saint in real life either.

Process for my recent work….to illustrate my point

I entered the IR33 realm of Venus competition and this was my motivation for all this. There is more to these notes – I have picked bits and pieces out – but this is to show how I have used my own advice above.

I could have chosen to edit my entry – to not put in all my ‘failures’ and ‘issues’ – however, whenever I am teaching my students at school, I tell them to put into their folders all the problems they had and treat them as experiments. I explain that the examiners want to see what went wrong and how they fixed it/problem solved the solutions and why. I choose to take my own advice here – to suck up my pride and to include my mistakes in the hope that it might help someone else in the future and it would also show my process.

                 “I decided to hand sew the project, this was because It was a fairly straight forward project and there was no intense embroidery/labour on every part of the outfit.

I stumbled on the competition 3 days before it closed, so I needed to get a move on, and I also needed to work fast knowing working a full time job during the day teaching as of term two, and still doing costuming for shows in the evenings and weekends, as well as a few commissions and trips to Christchurch for S.C.A. weekend workshops, and events in Auckland and Australia and beyond like may day, a ball, GNW, the Bloth and Pennsic all coming up in the next 3 months, so time would be tight.

Wanting to hand sew a complete garment is something I have wanted to do for a while….time just never lets me get away with it however. I hand finish everything I make, and barring sewing the straight seams on the skirts and the bodices, hose and doublets etc. I have hand sewn most of my recent outfits as the machine won’t go through most of the layers, and I don’t like machine stitches showing anywhere.

As I said time was tight – so I decided to start to the best of my knowledge at that moment in time,  and research into while doing it….fully knowing I would probably have to start again if I was really unsatisfied…

This pains me – as I usually research for months – sometimes years, and refuse to start till I have the right decision and material. I research,  mull, look, think, research more and then launch into whatever I am making, but I knew if I did that this time I may not have had time to actually make the dress…however…

I have since starting and getting the basic things done, been asking around my friends – especially the ones that do a lot of hand sewing, reading a lot of articles and books that talk about the extant seams and finds of all areas and time periods. My friend also posted on the Elizabethan costuming face book page asking peoples thoughts on bag lining, and the way people thought things should be done…the answers were varied and interesting. Some confirmed the way I was already doing it, some said that whip stitching everything individually then whip stitching it to each other (lining and outer), and then whip stitching all the pieces together was the only ‘true’ way…..and then others have said no that is rubbish and that school of thought only came into existence ten years ago due to a few people overseas….as I said – many and varied.

There is a late period doublet example of this whip stitching method…but as we all know – just because one piece of clothing does it from one place, in one time period…it doesn’t mean it is the only way for all time.

My friend in Auckland forwarded me a website that she had used years ago and on closer inspection she realised she had misread the instructions and had been doing it differently all these years…she said she was amused because her way had worked so very well, but for this next project she would try it their way.

My other friend down in Christchurch suggested a way – and I was amused because it was the way I had done by default for my previous Italian dress and my 1569 dress. Because I wasn’t seeing the forest for the trees and was quite immobilised by all the different ways – and what was the ‘right’ way – a trap that people fall into now and again and it can be quite debilitating.

I literally couldn’t bring myself to continue because I didn’t want to ‘do it wrong’, and therefore be judged (silly I know). I was paralysed and now I can finally move on….with a solution I had been doing by default in the past….just another one of life’s lessons…

Now that I am able to continue on and I have settled for sewing the bodice in the way that I will explain with pictures and words below….I think I can now continue.”

And I did – I started the bodice again, doing it the ‘right way’ and since I have also found through more research that they did use back stitch on straight seams in slightly later garments examined in a recently published book looking at extant costumes from the V and A.

Now some of my personal thoughts on RESEARCHING AND MAKING:

–          We don’t know the real or exact way they sewed things etc. so…..

–          At this point I would like to say – before I make anything if I am able I research for a VERY long time into as many avenues that I can think of. I look at all the paintings I can from the period as the first thing. I like to study the way I think that it is made…..all the details that I can see.

–          I read as many books as I can that are ‘trustworthy’ on the subject and surrounding era (over the years you start to realise what is helpful etc.. although I never discount the ‘dodgy ones’ – as there are a few points that ring true) and try to avoid other peoples blogs/sites about things….not because I don’t trust or like them, but because I like trying to look at things with fresh eyes, and I do not like influence in that way.

–          I like being able to figure out how things are shaped and cut so they look like the paintings, and I like being able to also figure out the construction of something as it would have been in period by looking for seams and shapes in the paintings

–          I like to be able to use the correct or closest to materials as possible for linings, interlinings and outers. Sometimes money and selection makes this a little hard. Using the right materials not only makes it look like the paintings, but it helps with the fit.

–          Due to time availability usually doing the shaping and cutting wins along with correct material choice and the right embellishments etc. and not so much the right seam treatments that will never be seen inside, if I am just straight sewing with a machine. If the seam needs to be felled i will do that – but if I don’t have time I will sew the straight seams with a machine, but I prefer to hand sew.

I can now this year– as I finally have enough clothes to just wear at events – want to start hand sewing and doing things to as close to possible as possible…..

–          I don’t put in boning where it is not meant to go just to support my bust. I prefer to create the look from the ‘right’ patterning.

–          I use bamboo boning (bamboo blinds) to simulate reeds in my stays – not plastic cable ties etc, I like to substitute for the closest possible thing if I can…I don’t need several layers of thick canvas to give the cable ties or rigeline support, bamboo, silk and linen hold up just as well I have found.

–           I use only natural materials for patterning – and even better if I can use the actual material that I am going to use for the final thing for pattering,  for example a big poofy sleeve out of the same stiff silk,  so it falls the way it should right from the beginning.

–           I try to use what people would have had – pins, material, chalk – I am not too fussed about zipping people into kirtles etc….if I can’t get the look with what they would have used, then how do I know I am doing it right to the best of my knowledge and abilities at the time….

–          I like to figure out what I want to do in my outfit – whatever time period  and class I am dressed in, what would I have needed to do in it (and also what will I need to do in it in a S.C.A. camping/event context…)

–          Seams and cut and materials could have been influenced by what came before and after – never disregard anything till you absolutely want to.

–          Regions, countries, and time periods can all offer something different – and therefore I take everything with a grain of salt, especially people using an extant high class back lacing kirtle that has 40 years difference between it and a working class in the fields kirtle from a different country as the only reason as to why they have laced their peasant outfit up the back….

ONE LAST RANT on that topic of assumptions…

I also need to say this at this stage.

I, like many people think that Janet Arnold is a Goddess for what she has done for our furthering of knowledge and amazing documentation. I just can’t get over how much she gave us and the amazing conservation work/understanding of extant garments her and everyone she worked with carried out.

Seeing first hand in Germany, Italy, and America some of the outfits and dresses illustrated in Patterns of fashion, gave me an even larger insight into how and what we have due to the countless hours of work done by all those involved. I would at this stage encourage anyone who is interested and who is able to go visit these outfits in person – as there is a lot of extra information on display and detail that the books just can’t show you.

The only downfall I see with this wonderful documentation in patterns of fashion etc. is that there is STILL so much unknown (and I may be unpopular for saying this) but when it comes to people taking that research and only that research as basis for their reconstruction of history, it can be dangerous if you are saying that is the only way.

I have seen too many times people justify low class garb reconstruction choices that are based on high class extant offerings and others disregard time period in order to fit in with Janet Arnold’s books and research for their project. There are regional variances to consider.

After seeing the same portrait of Henry the eighth all over England where ever I went many years ago, I had a theory about ‘back in the day’ a portrait being made of a new King/Queen. The portrait is painted to celebrate a new reign or spouse, and it is then taken around the country to show the masses (nobles included). After seeing this portrait,  the local nobles start saying – ‘oh I want one of those dresses…local tailor, make me one’, and said local tailor, like us, may have to reconstruct from a painting, especially if it is a style that is new to court etc. I have seen many of these paintings all around England – copies of copies to send to the masses, Royal progresses would have caused a sensation like this also. Our recent Queen Eva of Lochac (S.C.A New Zealand and Australia) has created this phenomenon in the modern era – a few of my friends have wanted to copy her ‘fashion’ on the field and in court due to how stunning she looked in her reign.


I also have some issues with people taking working class garb and making say a back lacing kirtle to go with it – just because the kirtle in patterns of fashion is back lacing and is roughly the same time period. If you are getting up to milk your cows at 4am, the last thing I would want to do is deal with a back lacing kirtle! Reconstruction in my opinion should consider ALL the issues and key factors involved in the process.

Rant over….thank you

Hope some of the above helps in researching and good luck!

If you want to contact me or disagree with anything I have said – feel free, I am always happy to be wrong, the above are merely things that helped me that might help others.


Please note: If you wish to reproduce this in any way please credit me. We all work very hard and share our knowledge freely in the SCA. It would be a shame to find my work in someone elses name. Thank you. 

One Response “A and S Class: Research – Helpful tips and discussions” →
  1. This has now been given at a few events – including Coronet in Northern Ireland, 2014 and a Kingys Lake college meeting in Southern Ireland 2014.


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