Thursday, May 26, 2016

AAR: A Country Ramble

Three years ago, I discovered this adorable bed and breakfast in the Kettle Moraine in Wisconsin - a reproduction of an 1840s stagecoach inn, faithfully decorated with antique beds and furnishings (with all the modern conveniences of plumbing, electricity and HVAC). It seemed purpose-built for a semi-immersion event. My mind churned it over for a year and some change before I figured out exactly what I wanted to do. And last week, my dream event came true - portraying pleasure travelers at an inn, going "rambling" during the day and enjoying the lovely inn at night, with a small group of friends who were specially invited.

The Gentleman Friend (aka Mr. Watkins) and I set off on Thursday and arrived at the inn on Thursday evening. The event was to start on Friday afternoon, but we wanted to make sure we had everything set up logistically. We took the opportunity on Friday to go scout out trails - we'd never been in the Kettle Moraine State Forest, so we needed to make sure the trail was accessible to everyone in the group, was interesting enough to keep everyone entertained, and was manageable in cage crinolines and leather-soled shoes. We were lucky - we stopped at the forest headquarters to grab maps and pay for our permit, and we got a hot tip from the ranger about a likely option just down the road. It turned out to have everything we wanted. This was an auspicious beginning! We celebrated with a Tex Mex lunch.

Everyone arrived in the afternoon - a group of several friends from across Minnesota, Wisconsin and Illinois. We had a brief meeting, went out for dinner as a group, then settled into our comfortable rooms for the night.

We woke up in 1860. Walking downstairs to the first floor in my wrapper, I discovered Mr. W. already awake and reading in the tap room. He had seen some of the other guests coming down for coffee and tea, but no one was around yet. The morning paper had arrived with plenty of interesting news and advertisements. Slowly, the rest of the guests filtered down for breakfast - cinnamon toast with syrup and jam, berries and cream, and local sausages. The newspapers had arrived, and the innkeeper was full of her own local tidbits - the train was delayed, she informed us. Thankfully, none of us had planned to leave that day. Conversation at breakfast revolved around getting to know one other - who we were, where we had come from, and what our travel plans were. I told our fellow guests, Mr. and Mrs. Warren, that I was visiting with my friend, Mrs. Middleton, and my sister, Mrs. Chapin, on our way to the resorts further north. Mr. W. was there as our escort. The Warrens were in between visits to their two sons, one of whom resides in Madison and the other in Milwaukee.

After breakfast, we retired to our rooms to change for the day. Once we were dressed (several of us in sporting outfits, with walking staffs), we set out to see the countryside. There was a nearby rock outcrop, known to the locals as Brady's Rocks, which we wished to see. We began first by walking across some tall-grass prairies - the sun was warm, but there was a nice breeze to mitigate that. We climbed a hill to see the view over the countryside, with its ridges and "kettles". Some of us stayed at the overlook, and the rest valiantly pressed on into the woods, to see Brady's Rocks, which were quite picturesque tucked back in the woods.

Back at the inn, we had a leisurely lunch on the porch. Some of us retired to rest (as they were traveling for their health, after all) and some of us sat on the porch. Mrs. Pestel read several stories to us, and Mrs. Lucking filled us in on the latest story in Harper's, The Woman in White. The rest of us sewed, or simply lounged about and enjoyed the peaceful afternoon.

In the evening we all sat down for a rustic but hearty dinner, with a delicious custard and raspberry preserves for dessert. Major Lucking offered a few toasts during the dinner. Afterwards we retired to the parlor for a relaxed evening. Some of the ladies played cards, while others read or knitted. Mr. Ackeret, Mr. Watkins and Major Lucking played an old board game, Every Man To His Station, which left them, according to Mr. Ackeret, needing to reconsider their life choices. The moral of the game was, apparently, a bit hazy, since every action required a forfeit.

The next morning dawned bright and clear. The newspapers waiting in the parlor provided interesting conversation about the Democratic Convention and the unprecedented split in the party. As we finished our breakfast (a delicious egg pie), we discussed our departure and where we would be headed next - some of us were headed home, some on to other adventures.

All in all, it was a fabulous event, and everything I wanted. We were able to achieve some experiences that few people get to have, like 1860s hiking, and the opportunity to experience pleasure travel. This event encompassed so much of what I want to achieve in mid-19th century events - finding opportunities in our own backyard to focus on being civilians and discovering through experimentation just what it was like to live in the mid-19th century, separate from the military. For these types of events, all you need is friends who want the same thing and are willing to have fun and work toward an immersive environment.

Have some pictures! They're slightly less terrible than usual!



As a note: the inn where we stayed is Eagle Centre House in Eagle, Wisconsin, between Madison and Milwaukee. It's a really gorgeous place, with a lovely innkeeper who deserves every single shout out I can give.

It's me! With a new dress that miraculously got done and FIT!
The elusive Gentleman Friend, in his 1860s clothes. It was his first event, and we almost killed him, but he survived, despite pictorial evidence. Better yet - he said he'd do it again!

Tuesday, March 22, 2016

There and Back Again (or, maybe I'm crazy)

It's that time of year when I re-emerge and give all sorts of excuses about where I've been! Here's a list of all the things that happened in the last year:

May: I went to the reenactment of President Lincoln's funeral in Springfield. It was a long drive to get there, and it was very warm, but I'm so glad I went. It was a meaningful experience that moved me to tears as I came to understand the grief experienced by the nation in 1865. I also became CSPAN-famous.

June/July: I got a new job! I switched from being an instructional designer for a retail corporation to a senior instructional designer for a healthcare organization. It's a step up and I really enjoy the company I work for and the team I work with. In the midst of all that, I was prepping and planning for...

August: Being civilian coordinator for a massive reenactment at Fort Snelling as we reenacted the return of the Second Minnesota to St. Paul in 1865. I spent the majority of my time in 2015 planning this thing, and it was absolutely worth it. The experience was incredible and one I won't forget any time soon.

It was also really hot out. My curlicues and glistening face prove it. It will become a theme during the rest of the year.

September: I moved! Just down the hall in the same apartment building, but moving is moving. I now have my own sewing space, and a greater appreciation for all the fabric I own. It takes up a lot of space and is heavy to lug, even if it's just down the hallway.

A week later...

October: I went to a small, private reenactment in Illinois. I might be crazy, but this event is important to me and I made it happen. It was also too hot, but it was a peaceful time hanging out with friends and sleeping in my home-away-from-home dogtrot.

November, December and January were the busy times at the new job, and the holidays, and getting ready for other stuff like...

February: My reenacting group's annual formal ball! Pictured elsewhere on this site in other years, it was a lovely time as usual. It was even more special because I brought The Gentleman Friend to the Friday night sociable. It was his first time dressing up, and he looked pretty snazzy if I do say so myself.

And there was an extra day in February, so we took advantage of that by getting engaged! It is very exciting and we're both very pleased with ourselves. We bought each other rings, and I am pretty much in love with mine - it is an antique from England, almandine garnet with seed pearls.

We will need to find a new pseudonym for him, because soon he won't just be The Gentleman Friend!

But, there was no time to rest, because the next day was...

March, and it was time for me to present at the Civilian Symposium in Harrisburg! It was truly an honor to be on this year's faculty, and to present with Jessica Craig on planning civilian-focused, history-heavy events. And of course, I got to make a dress - the tradition at the Symposium is that all the faculty get a length of the same fabric (dress length for women, vest length for men, usually two different fabrics) and told to make a garment from it. I decided to try something different and do 1840s. It was such a fun and unique experience, and I hope to be able to do it again soon!

And that, gentle readers, brings us up to date. I am currently working in Pittsburgh for the week (and sincerely, Pittsburgh is both a charming and a weird place, with its hills and its friendly people and its salads with french fries on top) but I am ready to get back home and start on some new adventures! I am hosting an immersion event in May, I have some commissions keeping me busy, and then there's this wedding coming up...but I hope to be able to tell you all about it here!

Monday, April 27, 2015

Ask Me Anything: First Round

I'm very busy getting ready to attend the Lincoln Funeral in Springfield this weekend - leaving town on Thursday means I'm working on a new bonnet right now! I'll have plenty of pictures to share when I get back, but to take a break from the stitching (because I've been going gangbusters for the last few weeks, guys), I'm answering a few questions from the Ask Me Anything I posted last week! You guys ask good questions, so I'm just picking them out as I am able to answer.

"Do you plan to branch out into bustle era any time?" - Elizabeth M.

You know, probably not. I have nothing against the bustle era at all. It's just not my jam. I think most people have a certain period that they're in love with, and mine stretches from about 1770 to 1864 (recent events having taught me that yup, the love stops right at 1864). That's sort of where my interests in history fall as well.

But then I see something like this, and all bets are off.

"Where do you do your research on the small elements that make your impression so awesome?" - Cheyney M.

Cheyney specifically mentioned the trim on the sleeves of this dress. Don't let small children see this picture, my chronic case of BRF might scar them for life.

I am really not crabby in reality! I swear!

It's less about research and more about developing The Eye. When I say "The Eye", I mean the instinctive knowledge of what just looks right, and what looks off. I think there's something innate to this; when you have a visual aptitude, you can just naturally look at something and know that it's "on" or "off". When I was a teenager, I had a covered hoop from a sutler, and I knew that something about it didn't give me the silhouette that I wanted, and when I figured out what it was (too big, too long, not enough of a dome shape), I redid the waist and adjusted the boning to make it smaller. However, I also think it can be learned by anyone willing to take the time to start training their eye and thinking visually.

 Whenever I get to researching something, I start by looking at as many examples as possible to develop my eye - print fabric, baskets, transferware china, you name it. I'll utilize a lot of different resources, but my favorite is just to dive into the digitized collections of museums - Kent State, the MFA, the V&A, the Met, Old Sturbridge Village, and so on. I'll also look at illustrations, images and fashion plates. I could write a whole treatise on what I look at, but I'll consider color, shape, size, how it compares to other examples, and what the majority of examples I find show. In the picture above, I got the inspiration for the trim from a dress at the Smithsonian (which I now can't find pictures of, naturally) and my main consideration was in getting the scale right. How big is the trim? How is it positioned? What is the scale of it going to look like on the sleeve I've created. (Insider tip: getting those chevrons angled just right on shaped coat sleeves took a long, long time, and many time trying the sleeves on before I got it exactly the way I wanted it).

If you're trying to recreate a specific look, Elizabeth Stewart Clark suggests a great idea: take a picture of yourself/the item/the dress you have created, and then take the image of the original you're trying to replicate, and put them side by side. And then ask yourself, "What do I need to do to make that look identical? Why doesn't this look like that? What's missing or different?"

So, to conclude what was probably a longer answer than necessary: look at as many things as you can possibly get your hands on, and think critically about what it takes in all aspects to make it look right.

Wednesday, April 15, 2015

Ask Me Anything!

I have been conspicuously absent after the Symposium, and I apologize for that. I even promised pictures and AARs. Bad Betsy - but there are good reasons for it, which I am currently working on.

In the meantime, I'd like to do an Ask Me Anything! I've already posted on my Facebook asking for questions, so I'm putting it out here for those who aren't friends with me on Facebook.

Ask me anything - about reenacting, about myself, about anything! Don't be shy! And if you are shy, use the form at the right to send me an email. I can't promise to answer all of them, but I will sure try my hardest!

Friday, February 27, 2015

New Adventures

Hi everyone! I'm just checking in while I sit here at the airport, waiting for my flight to board. I'm off on a mid-winter vacation to Washington, DC to visit my brother and his girlfriend. I'll be visiting lots of museums and hope to take a Civil War walking tour, so stay tuned for pictures and such.

After spending four days in The District (see, I can blend in!) I will be heading up to Harrisburg for the Civilian Symposium! You may know it by its former name, The Ladies and Gentleman of the Mid-19th Century Conference. This is a dream come true for me, and I'm super grateful to my reenacting group for helping to make it happen by providing me with some scholarship funds. I will be enjoying the lectures, drooling in the vendor room, and yes, I have a dress for the fancy-dress party. If you're going, I hope I'll see you there - make sure you say hi! And if you won't be there, I'll be sure to share lots of pictures.
Sneak fancy-dress preview...

I've been very busy getting ready for this! This winter has been a lesson in diligence as I replaced all the things I lost. I owe so much to some really generous friends who came through for me and provided me with some things, including a cage crinoline kit and some undergarments! Still and all, I had to wait for my new corset (courtesy of Originals By Kay) to get here, and had to build the new cage crinoline.
I had a little bit of help...

With a little luck and a prayer, I got it done in time for my group's ball last weekend! It felt so victorious to get dressed up and put on the Empress Gown again. I even got a decent full-length shot of it - I know, it's only been two years...

Now that that's done, I still have a couple other things to get done, like another petticoat or two and some more chemises and drawers, and plenty more to procure, but I'm just glad I can get dressed up for the Symposium.

My flight will be boarding in just a few minutes - and yes, this time I am carrying on all my Civil War we go!

Monday, December 1, 2014

What I Learned When I Lost Everything

On October 13th, after the aforementioned lovely weekend of living in the 1860s, I arrived at Union Station with Civil War Bestie Ashley to catch a train that would take me home to St. Paul. I checked my bag in at the Amtrak counter - we both cheered when the scale read 49.6 pounds - .4 pounds under the baggage limit, which was a feat, considering it contained almost all of my reenacting gear from the past weekend's immersion reenactment. The woman checking me in smiled that benevolent, "Oh you silly kids" smile, and took my suitcase away.

That's the last I have seen of it. My worst nightmare came true - my reenacting clothes are gone.

The details of my dealings with Amtrak are long, and sordid, and are best told on another day. Suffice it to say that at this point, six weeks later, they cannot explain what happened to it or give me any idea of when they will find it. For the last six weeks, I have felt what it is like to lose the core of your reenacting clothing. Thankfully, I still have most of my dresses. The dresses that were in the suitcase were fairly unique (one of them was my mourning dress) and losing them is a big hit. The worst part is that I do not have a single undergarment to my name. No corset, no cage crinoline, no petticoats, not even a chemise.

A claim has been submitted for the (gut-wrenching) worth of everything in the suitcase. The story isn't done, and we will have to see where things go from here. But I'm not interested in talking about the details of what exactly went down - I want to tell you the life lessons that I have learned from this ordeal.

It's Just As Awful As It Sounds. I cannot put into words the awful feelings I have felt the last month. You know the eight stages of grief? I went through all of them. Disbelief, despair, anger, bargaining...I was down with all of them. I still am, to a certain extent. To put it into words for people, I told them to imagine an artist who watched all their paintings go up in flames. It's not so much the physical items themselves as what they represented - time, energy, the amount of research, all the love and attention to detail that I poured into each of those things.

There are a few things that are more gut-wrenching than others. Possibly one of the worst is my cloth doll, Dolly. I'm just a big little girl, and the idea of Dolly being lost forever still brings me to tears. Don't judge.

So I wallowed in my grief for a month. I wept copious tears on the shoulders of my friends, my family, and my Gentleman Friend. There was an incident at work where I got stuck in my office because I was too ashamed of my mascara streaks to get to the bathroom and wash my face. But...

You Can Rebuild. I didn't start feeling better until I started taking action. I created a spreadsheet that listed every last thing in the suitcase. I hunted down documentation for those prices. The price I came up with is vomit-inducting (let's just say it's four figures, and it's more than I make in a month at my decent corporate job). Once I made that list, though, I saw the length and breadth of what I lost. I realized just how replaceable everything was, and though it was scary to look at that spreadsheet with all its rows and prices and amounts, it made everything seem more realistic.

Advice Is Not Always Helpful. I have struggled with this point. People are genuinely nice and caring, and that caring sometimes comes out as helpful advice. The problem comes when that advice is offered over and over and over again. Ask me how many times I've been told how to file a claim with Amtrak. Ask me how many times I've been told to check eBay, Etsy, and the like. The answer is "A whole heck of a lot."

Of course I'm not angry with people. Those who offer advice generally (not always, but probably 99% of the time) offer it in a spirit of helpfulness, and often because they too have lost luggage and know what the process is like. What I have taken away from this, for myself, is that when I plan to offer another person advice or helpful hints, I should pause and ask myself if it's necessary. Much more helpful to offer a sympathetic ear and a pat on the back. This video touches on that:

People Are Wonderful. When something like this happens, it's quite easy to feel very much alone. I was absolutely that fox in that deep, dark hole. I felt like I was fighting this battle alone, and the burden of it was very heavy. Then my friend, Melissa of The Deviant Dressmaker, suggested I put out on Facebook what I was going through, and ask for some help to get some things sewn. I anticipated a few people offering to sew me some undergarments to at least get me to a few events in the coming months.

What I got was overwhelming. People crawled out of the woodwork to offer help. I posted a list of everything that had been in that suitcase that needed to be made (nothing store-bought, and nothing manufactured), to keep it straight. Less than 24 hours later, almost everything had been spoken for, from my chemises and drawers to my wrapper to my cage crinoline (yes, my cage crinoline is being replaced by the generous and amazing Carolann Schmitt). There are people who can't sew, but offered materials to those who could. There are people who can't sew, and asked me what they could buy. There are people who I have never met, and people who didn't even know me before this, but they heard about what happened and want to help. There are still people offering help, and I'm actually turning them away, because there's nothing left to be made. It's all being relaced.

After all that stress and anxiety, feeling hopeless and helpless and full of despair, I finally broke through. I honestly cannot believe how kind and generous people are. There aren't words to express the gratitude I feel, or the warm-fuzzies that are filling my heart to overflowing. I take it as a very large pat on the back, that there are people out there who appreciate me and who care about me and who want to see me smile, in spite of everything. A huge thank you goes out to all of them for their kindness and generosity. If there's anything I want to take away from this, it's that people are good, and that I have amazing and wonderful friends.

Monday, October 27, 2014

You Win Some, You Lose Some

It's been a busy fall! I'm sad to say that other things besides reenacting have kept me busy. I took a couple of trips to visit friends and have been staying very occupied at work - when one works in retail, the autumn becomes eaten up with preparations for helping lots of people have very merry holidays.

Earlier in October, I was away at an immersion event. My Civil War Bestie and I traveled to southern Illinois, to a little collection of original log cabins. It was a very small event, but we got to spend time with some friends I do not get to see nearly often enough, and make some new friends that I can't wait to see again.

The front room of this dog trot was our home away from home for the weekend - and I daresay it's now a permanent home away from home. I'll be honest - I haven't done a lot of real "roughing it" kind of events, mostly because I'm not a real roughing-it kind of girl. For this event, I got to be a maid in the tavern and serve meals and wash dishes. I gathered kindling and hauled firewood, kept the fire going in our cabin, and hauled buckets of water with a shoulder yoke (that's one I can cross off my reenacting bucket list!).

I absolutely adored this event, and I can't wait to go back. I was so impressed that all the attendees really, truly paid attention to the "no cell phones, no cameras, nothing modern" rule. So often everyone agrees to these rules, and then around Saturday afternoon things go wonky and things start to slip out. You see a camera or two pulled out, or catch someone smoking a modern cigarette. I didn't see a single cell phone all weekend. It was marvelous, and so vanishingly rare.

I also learned things. I've been in this hobby for well over a decade now, and certain things start to feel like a broken record - the same event, doing the same programs, every single year. It takes an event like this to shake me up and keep me on my toes, and to learn things I hadn't learned before. I learned just how important it is to have a fire in the morning (not just for the heat, but to pull out the damp). I learned what it's like to sleep on a rope bed, and how important spooning is (VERY). I learned that when you don't have much else to occupy you, sitting on the porch and sewing while watching the neighbors going about their business (and gossiping about them) is really just as good as TV. I learned what the real pace of life was in the rural Midwest.

Like I said, it was a marvelous weekend. And then tragedy struck. You see, I had used a major transportation service to get to this event, so that I didn't have to drive by myself. I had checked my bag in with this company, and it got to Chicago just fine. But on the way back, it didn't make it back to St. Paul. And it still hasn't made its way home yet. It contained a good portion of my reenacting gear - three dresses, all my undergarments, my corset and cage crinoline, all the way down to hair pins and pomade. I have a spreadsheet detailing the entire replacement cost of the suitcase and its contents, and it's stomach-churning.

To say I am a bit distracted is an understatement. I can keep it together for about five days at a stretch, and then I have a meltdown. It's been two weeks, and I still have hope they will find it, but it is very hard to sit and wait, not knowing when and where it will turn up, and to fill out the claims forms like it's never going to be seen again. I have been doing all the right things and handling everything the best way possible (and the next person who says "Did you do XYZ?" is going to be strangled, so please, no helpful advice needed).

If you are a praying person, prayers would be appreciated (I've got St. Jude, St. Christopher and St. Anthony on this). If you're not, crossed fingers and good wishes are appreciated too. I'm looking forward to the day when I can report back that everything is back, safe and sound.