attack_laurel (attack_laurel) wrote,

One sock, two sock... well, just one sock so far, actually.

So, as pinkleader mentioned, I knitted my first sock ever this weekend. No, not the one in the icon - I don't have pictures of the finished product yet (though pinkleader took some, as I recall).

It's a pretty lame sock, but I've never let being lame stop me before, and hey, it fits. I'm trying to put together some bits that I'm not worried about people touching for the Maryland Sheep and Wool Festival demo (we're listed as "medieval and renaissance textiles demo") in May, since it's a guarantee that by the end of the weekend, everything I put out will have been pawed over multiple times, even if it is attached to a display board (which it will be - no-one is walking off with my stuff).

I've done a lot of work with the public over the years - in addition to the Jamestown stuff, I've done outside demos, and as we all know, the general public is rife with misinformation about the past. I've had people question the colour of my clothes ("shouldn't you be in brown?"), the quality of my clothes ("didn't lower class people dress in rags?"), the food I've made (and a lot of "is that real?" questions), and it's all from an assumption that everyone in the 16th century dressed in brown and grey rags, ate like pigs, lived like pigs, and simply couldn't have nice things because "everything was much cruder then". Not only that, it was plain, dull-coloured, and drab.

The "dull drab plain" concept is simple enough to talk about - people accept the idea of dyes and people wanting bright colourful things pretty easily (once you tell them), but the idea that machine-made things are finer than hand-made things is a frustrating and difficult concept to correct. It comes from an understandable place - to show that something is hand made these days, it has to have slubs and mistakes, and look "rustic" to differentiate it from the mass-produced things most people use to furnish their lives. As a result, the mental image of "hand made" most people carry is that of American Primitive or folk art. How they reconcile that with the paintings of nobility, I'm not sure, but I assume they heavily divide things in their heads so that the upper classes are all fancy, and the lower classes all accessorize with mud.

I've even had friends complain that if they make something too well, people don't believe it's hand made, and so they have to leave work unfinished, or at a level they do not consider high quality, so the general public "knows" it is really hand crafted.

Frustrating, as I said. More than once, I've had a tourist state to me that things were less well made "back then", and it takes quite a bit of work to disabuse them of this notion. Actually, many things are a lot less well-made now, thanks to the twin gods of efficiency and profit, and you can't get the kind of quality work once available, because no-one wants to pay artisans the extra money.

As a result, you can't get a lot of the things that used to be made in the 16th century, including fabrics, the bricks used to make Tudor chimneys (they're specially shaped), and forget about finding a good stonemason or plasterer.

I've been browsing through the MFA Boston on-line collection because pinkleader , cathgrace and I are going up to Massachussetts in May for a combined MFA curatorial visit and Plimoth embroidery session. It's actually worth browsing the whole costume collection (though it takes a lot of patience), as the most amazing treasures turn up that one would never think of seeking out. If you ever need to prove to someone that they "made thingz gud bak then", just check out a museum's on-line collection.  

The great thing about the on-line collections is that they have unlimited space to show everything they have.  While most museums have to limit their real space to the best of their collection, all museums have scads of middle-of-the-road stuff donated by people who inherited a bunch of random junk they want to get rid of.  Luckily, this "junk" gets preserved in museum storage, and we get to see what the average punter was wearing 200 years ago.  Most of the things I've highlighted are very middle class, the equivalent of Target and Wal-Mart, or maybe the higher-end stores in a suburban mall. 

(Warning; the MFA site won't let you back out of it easily; use a new browser window to cruise the links.)

This fan, for instance; it's a delightful thing called a "bouquet fan", designed to look like a bunch of flowers when closed. Absolutely darling (and easily reproduced!), but not very expensive to make.

Or This hair comb - it's not even gold, but it's amazingly delicate (and I totally want one to wear in my hair instead of a coronet - too bad it's way OOP).

Going a little further back (to the 1700s), this knitted bag is something I want to be able to do some day. Not because I have anywhere to wear it (heck, I don't have any real use for my frog needlecase), but because something this beautiful needs to be in my possession. Totally. And even though it is silk, it's still not a really high-end item.

Of course, the further back you go, the harder it is to find everyday things, but the Cheapside Hoard in the Museum of London is a fantastic example of middle-class jewelry (just in case you get someone trying to tell you that your enamelled pendant is too fancy for your persona, or something). And ciorstan? How about some(possibly) knitted silk garters c.1575-1600 ? They claim they're silk-knit (I'm not sure whether they mean the gilt is knit, or the garter is knitted), but we'll find out for sure if I can get to see them.

And finally, our sense of whimsy appears to be hard-wired into us - witness this Coptic child's tunic, with duckies!

The quest for beautiful surroundings goes back to the first caveman painting the day's hunt on his walls (and probably the first cavewoman telling him she preferred a blue decorating scheme for the front cave).

(Ooh, sexist joke!)

But it really is a fundamental part of our emotional make-up - we want beautiful things. It takes a conscious effort of will to make things deliberately ugly (ref. most 1960s municipal architecture), and most people really don't see the point. In a machine-made age, the "homey" nature of rustic handwork becomes appealing, but prior to the 20th century, the more delicate, well made, and perfect, the better.

I think it is essential to keep these skills alive, even if they have no practical use (the "practical only" doctrine led to all those dreadful '60s and '70s public housing projects, remember). Every person who picks up a craft that is in danger of disappearing helps keep our history alive.

And terrible or not, my socks are part of a long and ancient tradition of hand knitting. a complete amateur.
Tags: accessories, costume, history, knitting

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