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.

Monday, September 1, 2014

The Summer Side of Life

Well it's been a while, hasn't it? Life has been simultaneously busy and un-busy for me. Summertime is always busy with everything - travel, hiking, canoeing, drinking on patios, sitting on balconies, and enjoying what has turned out to be my ideal kind of summer (warm days, cool nights, low humidity, just enough rain).

There just also hasn't been a ton going on, reenacting-wise. I'm prepping for some fun stuff in the next couple months, including an out-of-state immersion overnight, so that has taken up some attention. I've also been blogging more of my food adventures over at the Historical Food Fortnightly, so be sure to follow that blog to keep abreast of what I've been up to in the kitchen! Teaser: sometimes I win, sometimes I lose.

I've also been working on some other writing projects and presentation proposals for some really awesome things, so my writing energy/time has been diverted elsewhere. All the same, I've been working on some posts, so stay tuned for more of that!

And - new background, which I love! Thanks to Shabby Blogs, as usual.

In the meantime, fall is when I usually take on some commissions. I have some spare sewing time between October and April and am willing to take on a few projects for customers. I don't do much by way of menswear, but all my skills (embroidery, sewing, millinery, etc) are for hire. If you're interested in hiring me to make something, send me a message!

Wednesday, June 18, 2014

Reproducing Puff Pastry

I’ve been asked from several people about the process for making the puff pastry for the plum puffs on the Historical Food Fortnightly. If I’m calculating correctly, based on the reactions I’ve gotten, I may be the only person in a 100 mile radius crazy enough to make her own puff pastry. The process itself is not difficult, or even fussy, it’s just really, really time-consuming. It takes a few hours to do it completely. That said, the results were so incredible that it’s definitely something I’ll be trying again.

As I mentioned in my original post, I looked at different recipes from different eras and discovered that puff pastry has not changed much in the last 170 years. Good news! I felt comfortable taking some tips and tricks from modern recipes and utilizing them with the historic recipes. Now that I’ve got a handle down on the process, and know that I can in fact make puff pastry, I will probably try a more purist version of a historical recipe, just to test the difference.

I made a simple paste dough of flour and water. You want it to be wet enough to hold, but not so wet that it gets sticky. I set it aside to let the gluten relax.

Next, I chilled the butter. I found a variety of techniques for getting the butter into the dough, but the best technique (modern) I found was to take room-temperature butter, put it between two pieces of cling wrap, and press it down into a flat disc. I did that, and then chilled it. A bit of a cheat, but not so dissimilar from period techniques of putting butter shavings or pats of butter on the dough and folding it up.

Once the butter was chilled, and the dough relaxed, I rolled the dough out. I put the disc of butter on top of the dough, and folded the dough up over the butter so that the butter was completely encased in dough. Mrs. Hale describes it as folding it up like an envelope.

Then, I rolled the dough out to a half an inch. I folded the dough in thirds, turned it 90”, and rolled it out again. This is referred to as a “turn”. I did one more turn, then chilled the dough - the butter was starting to get soft, and the trick for a good puff pastry is to keep the butter from breaking through the dough. So, after every two turns, I chilled it for about half an hour, wrapped in plastic wrap to keep it from drying out. What you’re basically doing is building in each layer with the folds. The more turns you do, the more layers the dough will achieve. Six turns is standard, but more can be had if, I don’t know, you’re under house arrest or an insomniac.

One last chill, and you’re ready to cut out. Cutting out in circles makes a ton of waste. It was sad. I baked them at 400 degrees - you need a hot oven to get enough puff. I was concerned about going any hotter (my apartment oven is a bit unreliable) but I think next time I’d bump it up to 425 to get even more rise. I baked them for 15 minutes on baking sheets lined with parchment. Once they’re baked, you need to leave them untouched as they lighten/harden. Think of it like a meringue or something - it needs to cool.

So that’s it! It’s pretty simple, as long as you stick to the rules and have enough time and space to make it. I think the key is plenty of chilling between turns, to keep the butter manageable.

Thursday, June 12, 2014

Historical Food Fortnightly Challenge #1

It's here! The Historical Food Fortnightly (which I've taken to calling the HFF for expediency's sake) has kicked off. Our first challenge was Literature - foods from literature, or inspired by literature. I thought it was a good way to start off - not too challenging, but still requires research, and tickles one's creative fancy.

I chose plum puffs from Anne of Avonlea. I blogged about the experience over at  the HFF blog. Melissa also posted her results for baked apples from Emma, which look super delicious!

I've been absolutely blown away by the enthusiasm for this project. It's been so amazing to see how many people are participating, and how enthusiastic they are. The Facebook group has been full of inspiration and encouragement. We're also supporting each others' bad food decisions - there was a consensus made this evening that anything with the word "bread" included in the name can be eaten for breakfast, including breadcake (totally legit, right?). It's just so cool to see a little brainstorm that I had turn into a worldwide phenomenon!

This weekend I'll be posting some highlights from other participants, and teasing the next challenges over on the HFF blog - keep an eye out for it!

Saturday, May 31, 2014

On Mourning Impressions

This past weekend I went to the Memorial Day service at Fort Snelling National Cemetery. This year’s ceremony had a decidedly Civil War slant, and a good friend of mine was the keynote speaker. The First Minnesota Infantry was in attendance, and I went along in mourning attire.

I created my mourning ensemble last fall (as long-time readers will recall) for a presentation I gave on mourning and death rituals. For me, it was a no-brainer - Memorial Day is about soldiers who have passed away, it began as a day of decorating the graves of veterans, ergo mourning.

When I got there, however, the weight of what was happening felt very heavy. There were hundreds of people there - many of them veterans, many of them the families of those who had served. I realized what I was - a representing everyone who had lost a loved one to war, and everyone who had been left behind. It was an awesome responsibility, but it was very heavy, and for a while I felt incredibly awkward. My life has been remarkably free of grief, and I felt like an imposter.

Thankfully, I was able to pull it together, and many people told me afterwards how much my impression meant to them. I even got a few emotional hugs. It was overall a really positive experience, and it caused me to do some heavy duty thinking about what a mourning impression really means.

It seems to be timely. This week there has been a lot of discussions in groups of reenactors on Facebook about when and how a mourning impression is appropriate, and sharing their experiences with displaying mourning impressions. Some shared their experiences of wearing mourning while grieving the real-life loss of a loved one. A lot of the stories shared were disheartening - women who had been jeered at, who had been interrogated or otherwise accosted with invasive questions. Perhaps even more disheartening were various posts I saw around blogs and social media of women portraying armies of widows, frolicking and mooning for the camera while swathed in black, and presenting the “myth-tory” of mourning instead of the hard facts.

This has brought me to a few conclusions about mourning in reenacting, specifically about how to present mourning when one is not actually grieving a loss, which I would like to share with you:

Grief Is Real. To those experiencing it, whether living historians or those among the visitors and guests to an event, grief is overwhelming and tangible. You may know who these people are based on their attire, the context of the event, or your own prior knowledge of the participants; however, there may be no way of telling who is grieving, and how, and for whom. Therefore…

Treat Mourning As Real. If you see someone at an event in mourning attire, treat them with the same respect you would afford anyone who had suffered a loss. Their use of mourning attire will, hopefully, clue you in to what kind of loss they have experienced. Leave your sarcastic comments or snickering for later; ascertain politely about the nature of the person’s loss.

If You Are Doing a Mourning Impression, You Are A Mourner. If you are actually grieving for a personal loss, this is unfortunately a seamless impression for you. If you are, rather, honoring the hundreds of thousands of those left behind by casualties of the Civil War, then it is your honor and duty to present them in a somber, serious, and respectful impression. Do not go into histrionics, and forget the “merry widow” trope, both of which cheapen the reality of those who grieved then and those who grieved now. The weight of presenting real grief is heavy, and it is now your personal responsibility to carry that load, and to act like a real mourner.

So Do It Right. Before you even consider putting on black, do real research. Use primary sources to find out exactly what they did - avoid going to secondary sources, which have (to be frank) bastardized and muddied this niche topic. Seek out letters, diaries, and etiquette manuals to determine what was actually done. While there are certain elements we cannot reproduce, purchase accurate fabric based on what they wore, and utilize the appropriate accessories. Mourn according to your relationship with the deceased - leave widows’ weeds to the actual widows. Follow the actions prescribed for and followed by those who mourned - this will give proper context and understanding to mourning.

If You Cannot Do This, And You Are Not Really Grieving, Do Not Present a Mourning Impression. Those who have to scramble to put on mourning after a sudden death already have a difficult enough time. If you are not grieving, and want to present a mourning impression, you owe it to those who have suffered losses today, and the many women and men who grieved their sons, brothers, fathers, relatives, and friends who died in the Civil War to do it the right way. There isn’t anything cute or funny about it; it’s not another pretty dress.

Here's why I feel strongly about this: Ann-Elizabeth Shapera, a street performer at a Renaissance Festival, has written an excellent book about improvisational theater for street performers, called Easy Street. It’s an fabulous book for anyone who does modified first person/my-time-your-time impressions or deals with the public in any capacity. The point she makes which stuck out to me the most is that, whether we like it or not, we invite those with whom we interact to understand history by acting as a mirror for them. Our emotions, our actions, our motivation invite the visitor to feel emotions with us, and to remember how they have felt those emotions, and connect their experiences to history and the greater human experience. Think about that - when you present a mourning impression, you’re connecting with every visitor who has experienced grief and loss in their lives, and inviting them to connect with the experiences of the women who lost loved ones in the Civil War, and through that, connecting them with every single person who has experienced grief and loss.


It’s a pretty big and bold statement, but I felt it on Memorial Day and it was a big and bold and important feeling. It’s the kind of statement that cuts through the noise of pretty dresses and niche impressions, and it reminds us of what’s really important and that the way we present ourselves matters, to us and to others.

Wednesday, May 21, 2014

The Sewing Academy in St. Paul: AAR

As I mentioned in my last post, in late April I attended a Sewing Academy workshop series, and it changed my life.

Starring your usual cast of characters: Betsy, Ashley, Sarah, Kit, et al

Well, "attended" is putting it mildly. My reenacting group, the Living History Society of Minnesota, put it on. I had a big hand in planning it, but the minute it was suggested that we bring Elizabeth Stewart Clark out here this spring, I was sold and knew that I would do whatever it took to make it happen.

I've said it before and I'll say it again: if you're not familiar with Elizabeth Stewart Clark and the Sewing Academy, and you're a mid-19th century living historian, you are not trying hard enough. The Sewing Academy is a one-stop shop for everything and anything related to the mid 19th century. Everyone there researches and documents. EVERYONE. And they are nice about it. If you've ever been burned by mavens and bossy betties, go over to the Sewing Academy and see what a real expert looks like. There are people there who have been researching the 19th century for decades, and people who are just starting, and they're all learning together and sharing their knowledge. And Elizabeth Stewart Clark rules over them all benevolently, distributing free patterns and articles and generally being amazing.

I have to say, if you want to bring Liz Clark to your locale for a Sewing Academy series, it could not be easier. She takes care of everything, and is wonderful at coming up with workshops and seminars to fit exactly what you need. The planning process was great. Getting to meet her was magical - she's been my hero for a decade, we've had a casual conversational online acquaintance for a couple years, and she was so sweet and kind and wonderful in person.

These are our excited faces. I think we looked like this 85% of the time.

The workshops themselves were fantastic. We had some workshops on basic skills, like creating bodices and skirts in miniature. We had some advanced workshops like whitework embroidery and bodice draping. There were seminars on deconstructing CDVs to figure out the construction of women's clothing, fabric choices and suggestions, and best-bet wardrobe options. My favorite workshop was on pattern play - we got tiny adorable bodice patterns, and learned how to slash and spread, swing darts, add and remove features, and more. We learned all sorts of ways to make interesting sleeves. It was truly mind-blowing!

Pattern play at tea - pretty much the best Saturday afternoon ever

My favorite seminar was Living Citizen History. There was too much to sum up in a couple sentences, but it was basically a reiteration of all the things I feel strongly about: that living history is a transformative experience based on senses, and that when all the right sensory information (sight, sound, smell, taste, touch) comes together, life-changing experiences happen for the public and for participants. Accuracy matters, because it just does, and we owe it to ourselves and others to strive for accuracy and expect it of each other.

If that sounds rather heavy, let me assure you that the weekend was full of a LOT of laughter, and a more-than-small bit of geeking out. And I was once again turned into a meme, with Liz, which may be the pinnacle of my existence on this planet.

Have I mentioned the massive bag of goodies I came home with? The company was excellent, and it was just an amazing time. Everyone went away asking when we can do it again - and I hope the answer is "very very soon"!

(In related news, I need to find an acronym to make "mid 19th century" easier to type out, because it's getting really, really old.)

Wednesday, May 7, 2014

An Exciting Announcement!

There have been lots of plans in the works, friends, and many exciting things to come! Two weeks ago, Elizabeth Stewart Clark of the Sewing Academy came out for a workshop series with the Living History Society. I will write more about that in a separate post, but as a teaser: her butt has been in the front seat of my car. (Insert fangirl screaming here)

Prior to that, however, Melissa of The Deviant Dressmaker (aka my protege) and I launched an exciting new blog project: The Historical Food Fortnightly!

I approached Melissa with this idea some months ago, and still don't remember how it popped into my head - a year's worth of challenges, every two weeks, asking participants to research, document and reproduce historical food dishes and recipes. She thought it was a cool idea too, so we've been plotting and scheming over the winter and have now launched the project!

The idea is shamelessly inspired by other fortnightly challenges from around the interwebz (in particular Leimomi of The Dreamstress, who has given us her blessing). Every two weeks (or fortnight - get it?), a new themed challenge begins. Each participant creates a dish inspired by that theme. They then post their results on their blog, along with their documentation and research. We'll share our own results, and highlight some participants as well.

We announced the project two weeks ago, and the response has been overwhelming. We're already close to 200 participants on the Facebook group, plus blog followers. We have people participating from all over the world, and from all different eras. There are professional living historians who cook historic foods every day at their sites, hobbyists with a variety of experiences and skill sets, historians who like food, and foodies who like history. There are people cooking foods from the 1950s all the way down to 10th century Vikings and Ancient Greece (like, I can't even wrap my mind around that, they must be made of magic).

I hope you will consider joining us, gentle reader - the only rule is "research and document", the rest is up to you!

Thursday, April 3, 2014

Sharpening Your Pencil

Anyone tired of hearing about my day-job yet? This has been a really critical time for my team and I, and we've been working extra hard while making plans for the year. We have a new boss who is awesome and really wants to take our team to the next level. In a planning meeting this week, she used this analogy: "Everyone is like a pencil. We are all great and work hard, but occasionally we get worn down and we need sharpening to make us even better."

This, of course, is a pretty good analogy for anything in life. It naturally got me thinking about reenacting (because let's face it, everything goes back to reenacting). In what ways do we (and can we) sharpen our pencils as reenactors?

One of the biggest mistakes reenactors can make (in my opinion) is to become complacent about what they know, or what they think they know. Knowledge is a living, changing thing with a quantifiable life - just check out this video of author Sam Arbesman, summing up his book The Half-Life of Facts, which discusses this exact topic. He focuses more on science and medicine, but the same holds true for social sciences like history.

 In the past decade, since I started reenacting, digitized collections have exploded all over the Internet, allowing historians access to collections all across the world. It has put information right at our fingertips and made it even easier to compare different sources and find new avenues of research. We no longer have to go across the country or around the world to find the resources we need.

It also means that every day there are new things being digitized. Google Books, the Library of Congress, Project Gutenberg, the Digital Library and are all digitizing new sources every day from some of the greatest research libraries in the world. Museums like the Met, the Kyoto Institute and LACMA are photographing their collections of historic clothing. This means that the things we thought we knew ten years ago (or even yesterday!) are now potentially outdated as we discover new sources we may never have stumbled across otherwise.

 There are lots of fads we have seen discounted, myths dispersed, and the nuances of life and material culture in the mid-19th century better defined. When I started reenacting nigh onto thirteen years ago, it was widely assumed that straw bonnets were only for summertime wear, gigantic hoops were "in", and those rugby-striped stockings were all the rage.

Today? We now know that straw bonnets show up well into the fall in fashion illustrations. Ladies have a better understanding of the realistic ideal size of a hoop based on one's height and shoulder width. And the pendulum has swung back and forth on the striped stockings, with new research being added all the time.

Those are only three examples. Imagine if one hadn't done any reading or research in those ten years, figuring that they had all the answers they needed for a good impression. Think about how outdated their research would be! Their pencil would, indeed, be quite dull.

We owe it to the public to whom we present to keep our pencils sharp. We owe it to the historical community as well- we are representatives and all play a vital role. Most of all, we owe it to ourselves to challenge ourselves to a better, broader, sharper understanding of life in the era that we interpret.

How do you sharpen your pencil? What plans do you have for sharpening your pencil? Leave a comment!

Thursday, March 27, 2014

Winter Weekend 2014

I just realized the other day that I never posted anything about our winter ball! My group puts on an annual Celebration of Winter each year, known also as "Winter Weekend". It is a weekend full of funtivities and socializing, the centerpiece of which is a formal ball on Saturday night.

I'm a little biased but I think we throw the best ball in the region. One of the best parts of our ball is the location, at a well-restored historic Masonic temple. We get to use candles there. Dancing by candlelight - does it get any better? I also have wonderful, beautiful friends who make wonderful, beautiful dresses and show up to be wonderful and beautiful (oh, and the guys clean up nice too). The emphasis is on recreating a very accurate experience, with proper etiquette observed; all the gents dance with all the ladies, and no one sits out. We also have a massive, sit-down formal dinner during the evening, with recreated Victorian food and actual service a la francais, which is such a rare treat.

This year, we hired a professional photographer (my friend Anne, whose work has been shown on this blog before, and who is still as amazing as always, if not more so) to document the ball and get some really good shots of all the action. You can see more at her blog, but here are a few of my favorites. Enjoy, and see if you can spot Yours Truly!

Monday, March 17, 2014

How To Drink Tea

Just a brief post to wish you all a Happy St. Patrick's Day! If you're in the northern hemisphere, I hope spring is coming your way! It's very gloomy and cloudy here today, but we have temperatures above freezing! This weekend I ate soda bread and watched my favorite movies and TV  shows that remind me of my time in Ireland - The Quiet Man, Waking Ned Devine, and Father Ted.

I have other blog posts I'm working on, in between being sick (seriously, three times in the last six weeks, I'm sick of being sick!). For today, though, I want to share an article written by dear friend, former roommate, kindred spirit, freelance writer, fellow crafter and all-around good egg Ada from Of Woods and Words. She wrote a really splendid article about the proper way to brew a pot of tea. I never enjoyed tea until I started taking tea with reenacting friends who knew how to brew A Very Proper Pot and discovered a whole new world of aromas and layered flavors and rituals.

So, pull out your tea pots, dump those leaves right in, and enjoy!

A Lady Taking Tea, Jean-Simone Che Chardin, 1735

Thursday, February 27, 2014

So I've been a little missing...

...and there's good reasons for that.

First, my laptop decided it wanted to go to sleep for a really long time. Like, a forever long time. A shorted motherboard left me computerless for a couple weeks. I stayed in touch with the world via my smart phone and tablet, but there's no replacement for a decent computer. I now have a new lovely laptop (christened Jenny Lind).

I was also ill a couple times. I don't know if you know this, but I am a big baby when I'm sick. I had the cold from hell for a couple weeks (a resurgence of the bug that had me down just before Christmas) and a recent bout with a stomach bug (ew). Being a baby means that I pretty much put off everything when those suckers hit, and I've been playing catch-up ever since.

The good news is that I am back on my A-game (mostly) and I have lots of things that I've been working on for posting here. Stick around!

Tuesday, January 14, 2014

Tips Tuesday!

I don't know if this is going to start a trend here, but it's Tuesday so I thought I'd share a helpful tip with you! I have a bit of an obsession with life hacking and get a really sinister kind of glee when I find a new way to hack my life and make myself more productive.

I was recently involved in a discussion on Facebook about burn tests. A burn test is a test one does to find out the fiber content in a piece of fabric; you burn a scrap of fabric and check the results to determine what kind of fibers are included in the fabric. It involves smelling the burning fabric, observing the ash characteristics, and observing the way it extinguishes. Most fabric shops have labels on their fabrics denoting the fiber content, but industry standards allow fabric manufacturers to be a bit misleading. The big fabric mecca warehouse outlets often do not have fiber content listed on bolts - or if they do, it's something generic like "wool blend" or just plain old "twill".

I'm lucky - my local fabric mecca will burn fabrics for me. Most people have to get swatches and burn their own fabrics, sometimes out in the parking lot (which does look a little suspect to the non-fiberfiles). Making sure you always have your burn test materials on hand when you go shopping is important, but if you're like me, that's a dicey proposition.

The best way to make sure you have all your burn test supplies on hand? Make a traveling burn test kit. Before I explain, let's remember that anything involving fire should be done in a controlled environment, with water on hand, and taking every precaution necessary to prevent burns. Fabric burns fast; fabric of an unknown fiber source can behave in unexpected ways (like melting or burning very quickly). I take no responsibility for those who perform burn tests without using common sense; try this at home, but you do it at your own risk. Alright? Alright.

First, get this flow chart from The Lovely Doll Company and print it out.

I think it has the best information and makes it quick and easy to decipher just what you're looking for. You can laminate it and roll it up so that it stays fresh forever, or fold it up as-is if you don't mind occasionally reprinting.

Next, get a small tin like an Altoids container. Bonus points if you recycle, but if you need to buy new, Specialty Bottle sells small tins as well. A metal container won't get wet, but you could use anything you find helpful - a plastic container, a small bottle, and so on.

Finally, add a child-proof lighter or matches, whichever is your weapon of choice for causing a conflagration, and a tool for holding onto the fabric, as it's a really bad idea to light any fabric while you're holding it in your fingers. The best choice is a pair of forceps from a medical supply company or, if you're lucky, your local pharmacy. You can also use tweezers, but be careful with smaller tools.

Voila! Put it in your car or in your purse and you have a burn test kit for the fiberfile on-the-go. All your supplies will be together for your next trip to the fabric store.

What other tips do you have for fabric shopping? Share in the comments!

Thursday, January 9, 2014

A Eulogy for My Favorite Fabric Shop

Say it ain't so...

With the end of October last year came the very, very sad announcement that Mill End Textiles, a local chain of  fabric outlets in the upper Great Lakes region, is closing for good. The rumor mill has it that the stores will be completely closed by February. To that end, please indulge me in a little bit of public grieving.

Oh, Mill End. What shall I do without you in my life? You were the first fabric shopping experience I ever had when I was 14 years old and needed cotton shirting for my first sewing project in Clothing Tech class at Johnson High School. I got the fabric for my first monstrosity of a pagoda-sleeved calico dress from your hallowed aisles. Since then, at least half of my historical dresses have come from Mill End.

You were always there. When I needed a couple yards of fabric to make up a little girl’s pinafore for a museum in Oregon, your stacks of flat-fold calicos were like the Promised Land. Whenever I needed a silk remnant for a lining, you were there. You were better than any therapist has been or could be for me. Your employees were ever-patient while I dithered over the contrasting fabric for my wrapper. They celebrated with me when I found the acorn fabric, they ooh-ed and ahh-ed with me over the Empress gown fabric, they agreed that that red and green paisley was just so ugly it was beautiful. They turned a blind eye on the quiet evenings when I laid out a variety of silks to take pictures to send to friends for opinions and further pondering. And whenever Joanns or Hancock let me down, you welcomed me back with open arms and said, “It’s alright. Have a coupon. And all calicos are 50% off this month.”

Do I even need to mention the convenience (and inconvenience) of your location just a stone’s throw from work? And yes, though SR Harris will step up to fill the large Mill End-sized hole in my heart, there will still be no beating the convenience and proximity.

At least I have your massive, massive fabric sale to console me. But I shall always regret you.

Wednesday, January 1, 2014

The New Year's Come

It's a new year! I wish you all the best and brightest for 2014 - nothing but lovely things and lots of happiness. And I hope you celebrated New Year's Eve exactly as you wanted. I know I did - my reenacting bestie Sarah (of the immersion event and St. Louis ball fame) came for a visit. We went out for Chinese food, then stayed in and watched movies with hot toddies. I am proud to say that we made it past midnight, though it was touch-and-go for a while.

Cruikshanks "New Years Eve"

Since the new year is a time of setting goals and making plans, I'd like to share with you some of my goals for living history in 2014. There are some other ones, smaller and/or more private, but here's a smattering:

  • Attend more events "just for me". I do a lot of events during the year that involve me demonstrating, teaching, or presenting. I like these events and I think they get best at the heart of why I do living history, but I had a lot of fun last year at events that I went to just to enjoy myself. I need to keep that balance in mind.
  • More undergarments. I say this every year - "This year, I'm going to sew more sets of undergarments." Maybe this is the year it will actually happen.
  • Branch out. 2012 and 2013 were the years I branched out into Regency. I'd like to sew more Regency outfits, and actually have the opportunity to wear them. I've also been itching for an 1830s dress for no particular reason. I'd also like to work on 18th century things too - I have the linen for a dress, and drill for stays. Which leads me to...
  • Supportive undergarments. I'd like for 2014 to be the year I conquer my fear of corsets and stays. I think I'm ready for it.
  • Travel to an immersion event. There are a couple contenders, and I'm not sure if any of them will pan out (time and money are a huge factor, naturally). But I'd like to go some place new, meet new people, and try out a new impression. Which may mean...
  • Working impression. I do a lot of things in the middle-class and upper-class end of things. I'm happy and comfortable there and I enjoy creating a really good interpretation of that. I do think it would be good for be to branch out into a working impression, both researching a persona and creating the clothing. I may have the opportunity to test out a working impression this year. More on that later.
  • Blog More! In 2013, I got back to blogging, and I have so enjoyed it. I love sharing my experiences and getting comments from those who follow me, and having a place to share some of my thoughts. It's also been fun to look back on things and have a record of where I've been, what I've been thinking, and what I've been doing. So, here's to more blogging in 2014!

To help me achieve all of these goals, I am hereby throwing my hat in the ring for the Historical Sew Fortnightly 2014! I hope this will give me some interesting new directions in my sewing. Feel free to join me!

What sort of goals do you have? Any projects you're planning? Share in the comments!