Saturday, October 4, 2014

What I did on my summer vacation, or "How this project got stepped on by a giant robot"

For the past little while, I've been distracted from this project by an overwhelming surge of The Other Things that make up my life. For this I apologize because I've been less than communicative. Sometimes I get so far into my own head that I'm out of cell range. My wife and I went on our first vacation in years and I saw parts of my own state that I've never had the privilege of exploring before.

Sometimes you just have to get in the car and go for a three-day drive.
No leather was worked, no wood was carved, no sheep were sheared. I did clean out my shop before it started raining and we built another oven and baked some bread, but that was revisiting a guild that already had its checkmark.

For all intents and purposes, the Renaissance Artisan was 'out' for most of the summer.

Which isn't the same as saying that I've been idle...

As you probably know that before anything else that I do, I am a writer. I make sense of the world by telling stories about it. Whether it's history or fantasy, it's all words to me. When I'm lucky, I get to share those stories with others. Writing is my vocation and my first love. This means that at any given moment, I have more than one project on the docket and often when a deal is being considered, it is confidential until all the papers are signed.

Which is a long way to go toward saying that this week, I signed a contract with a small UK-based publisher called Crooked Cat Publishing to bring my humorous science fiction novel Howard Carter Saves the World to bookstores. The official announcement was made by my publisher yesterday via social media.

I've been bouncing off the walls ever since.

Howard Carter is a novel that I just sat down and told the first story that occurred to me, taking it wherever my fancy led, no matter how bizarre. Aliens who learned about earth by watching Sesame Street? Done. Secretive government agencies? Mysterious universities? Mad scientists? Got it all. Giant robots? Oh, the giant robots...  I wrote it all in public (rather like I've been doing here) posting chapter-by-woefully-unedited-chapter on a blog, writing live and in front of a studio audience. No laugh tracks allowed!

If you want to read a bit of it, here's a free short story that gives you a general sense of the storytelling and characters from the novel. 

Which is a long way of going about telling you that I'm sorry I dropped this to run off and do that, but I will be back in the workshop in a week or so. I have a half-finished costrel and a shoemaking project in the wings. I've also been making connections to get a proper handle on the life of the Worshipful Company of Woolmen, plus the weavers, spinners, mercers, and tailors that lie at the end of that supply chain. 

In the meantime, I have some up-front work to do on getting Howard Carter ready for print and I'll be ducking in and out as my editor and publisher need me. If you would like to join me on that part of the journey as well as this one, I'm inviting you to come with me on the next step of the journey as we prepare Howard for his debut at Amazon and other online booksellers.

Side note: Would it be cheating to use this as part of a study of the Worshipful Companies of Stationers and Clerks?  Just a thought...

However it goes, my goal in that project and this one is to put out a story that is good enough for you to read and enjoy, one that you love enough to not only read but to recommend to your friends. I've worked in publishing at enough different levels to know one thing for certain: positive word of mouth is how success happens.

There will be much, much more later.

- Scott

Sunday, May 18, 2014

Continuing on with Costrels, Cordwaining, and 6th Grade Leatherworking Lessons...

Welcome back. Where was I? My workbench is such a mess right now...

Oh, yes... cordwaining. We were making shoes, weren't we? 

When we left off, I was getting started on a pair of shoes to cover those wooden lasts you can see on my bench in the photo above. Unfortunately, it took about ten seconds of testing my hand on the short list of necessary stitches provided to me by Francis and the site of Marc Carlson, before I remembered how out of practice I am and just how long ago it was that I learned all this stuff.

When I was in sixth grade, back in Missouri, I was enrolled in a class called "Industrial Arts" where we learned to work with wood, plastic, and leather. It was fun and it taught me nothing that would be useful in any industry practiced anywhere in that postal code, even in the 1980's. But it did put me on the path that led straight to this project.

Flash forward to a new century, and I started going into more three-dimensional leather sculpting, making Commedia dell'arte masks. As I believe I've mentioned before, those masks are complex and challenging and fun to make , but I didn't fully appreciate how much they are just an entry-level project compared to proper shoemaking.

Cordwaining might well be the most advanced class of leatherworking I ever attempt. I was ready for shaping leather, but not for the sewing. There's not much sewing in the masking trade.

To prepare properly, I'm going to make two projects that are neither mask nor shoe, but which will allow me to practice key aspects (read: sewing) of the craft that are specifically relevant to the cordwainer.

The first project will be a costrel, which is a water vessel and a step back into the guild of horners and leather bottellers. Last time, we made a jack with a flowerpot, but this time we're essentially going to make a leather barrel for holding water.

When it's done, it will look something like this.

But we have a few steps we have to take to get there, and at least one cool cordwaining tool to make in the interim.

More tomorrow.

~ Scott

Sunday, February 23, 2014

Status Report

So, the reason we've been delayed this time is because our camera is screwed up. It doesn't recognize the SD card and none of the many suggestions from the online "What to do when your Canon DSLR loses its mind" fora have helped.

I would just carry on anyway, but I screwed up my hand last week in my typical too-humorously-clumsy-to-be-real fashion.

While out trolling for rusty tools in Port Orchard on a rainy day, The Engineer and I were walking back to the truck when I reached into my pocket to fish out my keys. My pinkie finger went through the key ring and I pulled the keys out and flipped them up into my palm in a jaunty manner to unlock the truck with the remote fob. After the truck chirruped in greeting, I let the keys dangle from my pinkie while I got into the cab.

My wet boot sole then slipped on edge of the door sill and as I fell forward, the keys caught on the edge of the seat and my poor little finger was pointing the wrong direction.

Which isn't a good look for anybody. It makes your gloves fit funny.

If my youthful experiences as a drummer taught me anything it's that my left hand isn't really game for anything too intricate, so I'm on hold for the nonce.

In the meantime, I've made a felt prototype of the shoe and discovered some fit issues that I'm glad weren't discovered after we went to full leather. I'll document those and the changes I'll be making to the shoe pattern once the camera has recovered. Also, my experiments in 16th century joinery are similarly impacted by not being able to hold a hammer or pretty much anything else heavier than a serving spoon in my right hand at the moment.

It's amazing how such a seemingly inconsequential finger plays into everything you do with that hand.

On the bright side, I have this DVD of Peter Follansbee teaching 17th Century carving techniques and you don't need your pinkie to hold a remote control. So there. Once I can again wrap my hand around a carving chisel or a sewing awl, I'll have a lot of pent-up and lovingly hand-crafted artisanal frustration.

So we have that to look forward to, I guess.

C'est la vie.

~ Scott

Sunday, January 26, 2014

Occupational Hazards: My mother the shoemaker...

My mother was a nurse for most of my life, until she retired. Except at one point when I was a kid, out of frustration with some aspect of the nursing trade, she went to work in a local shoe factory. More than anything, I remember the smell of the glue on her clothing when she came home.

And you thought my grandfathers were my only link to the trades...

It's probably just as well that I did not know at the time about n-hexane polyneuropathy, an occupational disease endemic to these shoe factories brought on by exposure to the very glue that I remember so well. Thankfully, factory life didn't agree with her and she went back to nursing in pretty short order.

Nursing has its own hazards, just as sitting at a desk typing does, but occupational diseases are not a modern invention. Our repetitive strain disorders and bad backs and neuropathies born of the chemical age are nothing new. N-hexane polyneuropathy is just the modern equivalent of an 18th century disease known as 'shoemaker's colic'. Hatters were famously driven mad by the mercury they used, and so on and so forth...

Something we should probably talk about more often is the occupational hazards of the artisan life.

To get a bit nearer our period, let us wander off to Jamestown and take a gander at some scary-looking femurs that bear the marks of a lifetime of cobblers using their upper legs to pound on.  In the image at the right, you can get a glimpse inside a 16th century shoemaker's workshop from my old nemesis Jost Amman.

Note the way the two men in the foreground are working with the shoe on their thigh. The strap you can see holding the shoe in place, running under the heel of the bloke on the left is the shoemaker's stirrup I described last Sunday.

Image from the
website's "Written in Bone: 
Century Chesapeake" exhibit. 
Jost's guys are sewing, but hammers were also used to condense and work-harden leather, especially soles, and if you do that on your leg for a lifetime, your body is going to defend you from the damage. When you damage a bone, it repairs itself -- damage it enough repeatedly over a long enough period and your body will adapt, build up extra bone to protect itself from the next blow. Eventually, the layers of bone will build up and you end up with a sort of anvil attached to your femur.

Do me and yourself a favor: learn from their mistake.

It would make sense, in a way, for this to be more common for cobblers than cordwainers since sole repairs would've fallen to the cobbler. Though I should note that the Jamestown website doesn't draw a distinction between the two, and on the frontier there might not have been one.  On the muddy reaches of the Virginia coast, I would think that pounding hobnails into soles was a more common task than not.

A bone spur like that must've leant itself to one hell of a limp.

It's a cobbler's life, I guess.

Not all occupational markers are skeletal or so terribly painful. Bakers and blacksmiths have burns, which would theoretically heal and leave your skin all the more impervious to future burns. As I mentioned, the scars and bone spurs were the result of the body's attempts to protect itself.

On a side note, when I'm watching TV shows like NCIS or Bones, when they confidently describe the working lives of the men and women whose skeletons they're examining, I often wonder how hobbyists throw wrenches into the works on such occasions. I may be a writer, but I have several that might confuse a forensics team if I ever ended up on the table in an episode of Bones. My left incisor has been worn down years of cutting thread with it and I have a shoulder thing that's the result of a stint as a stockman at WalMart* in my youth preceded by a couple years in the pressroom of a local publisher. Compound that by all the adventures this project have led me on and I have to wonder what the CSI folks would make of my body.

That might seem a bit macabre, but ashes to ashes, dust to dust.

Food for thought anyway.

~ Scott

* You know that thing you hear about where Wally World comes to town and before you know it they're the only game in town? Yeah.

Saturday, January 25, 2014

A Joiner's Toolbox: The Axes of Evil?

The TSA doesn't tend to like me very much. You see, I like to fly to the Midwest or South and bring back loads of rusty things that make metal detectors go "BEEP!" It's not my fault that all the good old tools, all the greatest houses of rust and dust really, are in the middle and southern reaches of our country.

As The Engineer says: "All Scott's favorite souvenirs are all on the No-Fly list."

The axes of evil?

If you look at the many, many, many* paintings of medieval and renaissance woodworkers and their tools, you will note four tools that are given particular prominence: Planes, chisels, a frame saw, and a nice big axe.  We'll get to the frame saw soon, but in most of these images, the axe is front and center.
A Joiner's workshop from my old nemesis: Jost Amman's "Das Standebuch" 

of 1568 (via Wikimedia Commons)

Everyone who just said "Aren't those for chopping down trees?" gets three demerits and must report to the Forbidden Forest after class, where Professor Ash will teach you why chainsaws were invented.

Have you ever chopped down a decent-sized tree with an axe?

I have and I don't recommend it. Of course you can do it and once you get the hang of it, it's not the worst thing in the world. It certainly didn't seem to keep our ancestors from darn near clear cutting the Americas, but never forget how eagerly they took to an invention that was originally a surgical tool (yes, really) once it had been properly biggie-sized and offered up as a bane for trees and zombie hordes alike.

But that's another tale. We're not chopping down a tree today, just cutting it to a manageable size for employing other tools and to do that, we will need a range of axes.

The prominence of the axe in woodworking has fallen considerably since the saw mill became more prevalent and lumberyards grew neat stacks of sawn and pre-dimensioned lumber. While the chainsaw might have spelled the end of the big felling axes, it was the 2x4 that killed the carpenter's axe.

(Left to right) Carpenter's axe, large "Kent" style side hatchet, small "Kent" style side hatchet, and a head for a broad axe.
Thankfully, great grandpa kept his and I picked up a couple more in my beloved web of rust emporia scattered across southern Missouri. The largish Kent hatchet in the picture above was an inheritance, the rest I rescued and brought home to Washington to the consternation of my wife and airport security.

Use your axes for good, my friends. Never evil.

Axe? Hatchet? Plumb? Side? Broad?  (Watch who you call a broad, pal...)

An axe, Roy Underhill likes to say, is essentially a piece of steel mounted on the end of a stick. One of the few things everyone can agree on is that. After that, the nomenclature gets a bit contentious. We can't even decide how to spell it with England and America using an axe or an ax, respectively. The main problem is that the axe has been around almost as long as humans have, and every culture has named it and the parts of it as suited their fancy.

Thus, we're going to be a bit generic with our terminology. Also, a hatchet is a small axe. Alas, there are sizes of these tools where different people will refer to it as one or the other at whim, sometimes in the same sentence, but really it's about size more than anything else.

As you already know, I tend not to get too caught up on taxonomical issues anyway. Honestly, as long as you can tell the handle from the sharp bit, you're going to be fine.

Here are the absolute basics...

Just remember this: shape dictates the use.  
In the drawing above, you can see that I delineate a difference between a "wedge" axe and a "side" axe. 

A side hatchet and a "boy scout" style wedge hatchet shown
side-by-side for comparison.
The side axe is flat on one side and specific to a right or left handed user (actually many can be either, you just flip the head over and mount it the other way on the haft). A side axe is mostly used for hewing a round log into flat faces. The bevel forces the wood off to only one side and tends to take relatively small pieces, leaving a relatively flat surface behind to be dresses with other tools such as a plane. Logs are turned into timbers by hewing away the rounds with enormous broad axes which are 'sided' like the hatchet you see in the photo at right.

The wedge style is for cleaving or splitting. You can dress logs with a wedge axe if you want to, but it's more work because the double bevel pushes the wood in both directions and tends to break fibers and knock out a chunk of wood rather than taking a slice. I'm tempted to say that there's not as much finesse in a double-beveled axe, but you can use it to do most the things you can with a side axe if you're willing to put in the work.

Mostly though, a wedge is a splitting tool and boy can it split kindling.

Speaking of splitting kindling, there's one other type of axe that we need to talk about: The Froe. A froe is an axe in the same sense that an adze is -- they are technically axes, but their blades are turned at angles to the handle that we're not used to seeing so that they can do some very specific jobs.

The froe is all about riving wood. Riven wood is split, but not in a haphazard manner like firewood, but very accurately and in careful consideration of grain direction so that you have boards you can work with when you're done.

My froe making short work of a fresh bit of a plum tree.
Almost all the wood used by an Elizabethan joiner was riven rather than sawn to dimension. Sawing was reserved mostly for shaping or doing any sort of cutting across the grain (which a froe or axe are ill-suited for).

All of this is preparatory for doing what's nowadays generally known as "Green" woodworking. In this case, "green" isn't used in the Al Gore sense, but rather in the sense that no one is baking the tree in a kiln before it gets to your workbench. Many of these tools and techniques we're going to talk about are sort of useless on kiln-dried fir from Home Depot. The bit of plum tree I'm splitting in the picture above was cut the day before from an old tree growing in my garden.

The nice thing about greenwood is wet and springy and above all, easy to work. Unfortunately, it will also rust your tools, so you have to take care.

More on that later when we start making things with all these tools out of all this wet wood. For now, I'm going to refer you once again to Peter Follansbee and Jenny Alexander's excellent "Make a Joint Stool from a Tree: An Introduction to 17th Century Joinery" (Lost Art Press, 2012) or to any of Peter's excellent appearances on The WoodWright's Shop on PBS.

If you don't have access to a trove of old tools, can you make do with a double-beveled axe or modify one to make it work? Of course you can. But I'll let an expert deal with that. For expansion of this topic, this is a video that woodworking gurus Christopher Schwarz and Peter Follansbee filmed on this same subject.  Enjoy.

~ Scott

*It helps that Jesus was a carpenter, or at least his dad was. Depictions of the Holy Family are almost inevitably filled to the rafters with tools. In many ways, the artifacts of the Mary Rose ship's carpenter and the Vasa ship's carpenter are just confirming things we already knew from period depictions of Joseph. 

Sunday, January 19, 2014

Cordwhatnow? A layman's guide to shoemaking tools and terms

Much to The Engineer's chagrin, my shoemaking project has quite overtaken the library. Thankfully, I've recently obtained a toolbox capable of organizing it all, so at least it's contained.

My leatherworking kit has been taken over by shoemaking. (Giant robot panda bear is optional equipment. Coffee is not.)
For whatever reason, shoemaking more than any other craft I've yet assayed has a language all its own. You don't have to speak the language in order to do this thing -- you never really do to be honest -- but you should know at least the basics if you want to communicate with other shoemakers out in the world or on the interwebs.

In the course of my research, I have assembled a short (and woefully incomplete) glossary in my notebooks of just the terms that pertain to what I plan to do. For an exhaustive list of shoemaking terms, I recommend this excellent one compiled by Marc Carlson: Glossary of Footwear Terminology.

For us, the following shall suffice:

Awl: For shoemakers, this is a dedicated metal bodkin with a handle, designed to poke holes in leather. They are very fine and very sharp and shaped specific to a task. Not to be confused with woodworking "scratch" awls or bookbinding awls, which are not suitable for most shoemaking tasks.

The wrong tools: From the top, A large scratch awl, a small scratch awl, and a 
bookbinding awl. These are not appropriate tools for sewing leather and will 
do more harm than good.

The correct tools: (from the top), an 1800's inseaming awl, a modern sewing awl with 
interchangeable blades, and another 1800's fine closing awl. Note their shape and how 
fine/sharp they are. These will not mangle your leather. Find them and use them.

Boot: A shoe with a cuff that extends up the leg as low as the ankle or as high as the upper thigh. The most common argument about footwear is how common were boots, how high, and under what circumstances were they worn and by whom.

Channel: A groove cut in the leather to protect a row of stitches that are laid at the bottom of the groove.

Clicking: Cutting out a pattern.

Clogs: Not just for Dutchmen any more. They never were, really; wooden shoes 
showed up anywhere there was mud or the potential for stuff falling on your toes.

Clog: A wooden-soled shoe with a leather upper, commonly worn as work boots are now, also worn over a lighter shoe as a type of patten. In particularly muddy or dangerous places, they could be made entirely out of wood with a carved-out inside for the foot.

Closing: A general term for sewing the leather pieces of the shoe together, usually edge-to-edge (a butted seam)

Closing Block: A half-round piece of wood used as a sort of sewing anvil, used to maintain the tension of leather that will be sewn on a curve. Usually held strapped to the showmaker's knee with a leather strap while sewing.

Cobbler: A shoe repairer, forbidden by English law from working with new leather, enforced by the guilds. (Do not call a shoemaker a cobbler.)

Cordwainer: A shoemaker, derived from 'Cordovan/Cordoban' leather, a specific durable leather named after a city in Spain from whence it was exported. Commonly a deep reddish color and used today to describe that color.

Counter: A reinforcing layer of leather sewn inside the shoe as a stiffener to prevent additional stretching or wear in a zone that would prone to that, such as the heel or instep.

Cowmouth: A broad-toed shoe that was common in the early-Tudor period (peaked during the reign of Henry VIII) commonly thought to have been brought to England, as so many early fashions were, from Germany.

Flesh-side: the side of the leather that was facing the animal.

Foot: A place to keep your shoes. A thing that usually hurts at the end of the day, often an indicator that your shoemaker doesn't know what he's doing.

Gouge/Plow: A tool used to cut away a broad channel of leather, sort of a combination of a skivving knife, a chisel, and a shovel.

Grain-side: The side of the leather that was facing the world when it was still attached to the critter that made it.

Tools for dealing with tacks: (from the back, left) Two english style shoemaker's 
hammers, a French shoemaker's hammer, a tack hammer made by a local 
blacksmith, pincers, and a tack-puller.

Hammer: Shoemaker's hammers are broadly split into English and French styles. They are used for a variety of purposes from forming/compressing leather to driving tacks (though I don't advise using one hammer for both)

Heel: Made of wood or stacked leather, shoe heels did not commonly appear until the very end of the Tudor era. It's believed that the advent of heeled designs was the complcating factor that lead to the abandonment of right/left (see: Crooked lasts) designs.

Sewing: From the top, anti-clockwise: Sticky wax for binding thread to bristle,
long-fiber hemp thread.

Hemp: Alongside linen, hemp was probably the most common plant fiber in all of history. Spun from strands of the cannabis sativa plant it is strong and rot-resistant and historically widely used to sew all manner of leather goods as well as weaving durable cloth and spinning rope. These days a fiber most commonly used to make beaded jewelry by and for those who want to 'stick it to the man' in defiance of laws designed to curtail the plant's use as a psychotropic drug. Cultivars used for fiber production are absent or extremely low on the tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) that makes carbon-based life forms crave Twinkies when ingested.

Last: The foot-surrogate over which the shoe is formed.

Lasting: Stretching the leather over the wooden (usually) last and nailing it in place. Commonly divided (at least for our purposes) into crooked or straight lasts. Crooked lasts have a defined instep, dictating the right/life nature of the final shoe. A straight lasted shoe can be worn on either foot, but requires months of tortuous breaking in.

Latchet: A strap that holds the shoe in place, commonly with a button or tie. Latchets are the defining characteristic of a shoe by the same name, that became more common in the later Tudor period.

Mule: A backless slip-on shoe, worn in our period by all genders, but still common today in the women's section of the shoe store.

From the top: a gouge, a paring knife, an edger, a plow/plough, another paring knife.
Not Shown: Sharpening stones. All tools used in leatherworking should be razor-sharp
Paring knife: Before it was a common kitchen implement, the paring knife was used to clean up the edges by trimming away excess leather away from the shoe after the sole and upper were joined.

Patten: A protective wooden platform strapped to the foot to raise a walker out of the mud or at least to provide traction.

Peg: A wooden stake driven into a heel to bind and stabilize the stacked/laminated leather.

Pinking: Decorative cuts and holes sometimes cut into shoes and clothing in the Tudor period. It survives today as broguing.

Pump: A light turnshoe with a thin sole meant for wearing mostly indoors. Worn by all genders, but survives today in the women's section of the shoe store.

Quarter: The sides of the shoe extending around the back.

My favorite skivving knife was made by sharpening a butter knife I picked up at a 
thrift shop. Probably the sharpest knife in the drawer.

Skivving: Using a sharp blade on the flesh-side of the leather to thin the leather, especially in areas you want to sew through.

Sock: Not a sweatsock you wear on your foot, but a cloth liner sometimes sewn into a shoe which serves a similar purpose.

Sole: The bottom layers of the shoe, usually broken down by layer: insole, midsole, outsole, etcetera.

Stirrup: A leather strap that goes under the shoemaker's foot and up over the knee to hold secure a shoe and/or closing block while working with it.

Many skivving tools of modern design: From the back: A round knife, a 'potato 
peeler' skivving 'knife', and a modern razor skivving tool. The benefit of the
top two is you can change blades if they get dull. 

Trenchet: A multi-use shoemaker's knife and the symbol of the cordwainer's trade. They were often given elaborate blades and pokey bits until it seems like something stolen from a Klingon in the Star Trek universe, but quite real and very difficult to find these days. Survives today as the round knife, which is little better than half a trenchet.

Turning: When a shoe is sewn inside out so that the seaming is all on the inside and thus protected from wear.

Vamp: The part of the shoe that covers the toe, upper foot, and extends around the instep to meet the quarters on either side.

Welt: A strip of leather used to join the upper to the sole of the shoe.

If you're lucky, your shoemaking will also include one or both of the following:

Read whatever you want, but did I mention that coffee is not optional?

Coffee: In order to make shoes, the shoemaker must be awake and preferably alert.  The Elizabethan tradesman was woefully deficient in caffeine, but he had pretty much all the beer he cared to drink, so alertness while working might be my biggest anachronism.

Why do fools fall in love?

An Engineer: Actually, a mate who finds your tomfoolery charming rather than annoying, who is willing to put up with odd tools and odd looks from TSA agents. They don't have to be an engineer, but it helps. It's high time I acknowledge that this silliness would not be possibly without my lovely, talented, and above all patient mate, Kristin.

Saturday, January 18, 2014

Living Elizabethan: All Work and No Play...

The local news and gossip is awash with stories of our local team's quest to move a small leathern object of possession by hand or foot from one end to the other of a gridded field of dispute against the fervent wishes of their opposite numbers in counter-coloured uniforms who rise up to stop them. It is given me by local lore and custom that Our local sportsmen are better at achieving this endeavor successfully than any other group of combatants similarly accoutered.

Certainly this seems to be the current obsession of townsfolk in every restaurant, bar, party, and workplace that I enter.

(Go Seahawks.)

Of course I'm being a bit silly, but since I'm not a football fan it all seems a bit silly anyway. (Unless we're talking about the Stanley Cup, in which case an overwhelming obsession Makes Perfect Sense!) One of the things I feel like I did wrong in putting this project together was overlooking how the Life Elizabethan really worked.

And believe it or not, that includes football... well, sort of.

So today, let's talk about other things on an Elizabethan's mind. The things of passing import beyond the immediate pleasure of watching or participating... which is to say games.

Henry VIII was a huge football fan and enjoyed playing, though his game would be as unfamiliar to European football (soccer) fans as it would be to American fans of the gridiron. Though rugby fans would feel right at home.

We've talked about Archery, the practice of which was instituted as a matter of law in the centuries preceding Elizabeth's accession in order to train men for war rather than allow them to be distracted by games like football.

Not that Archery wasn't considered a sport or didn't lead to competitions. Around here somewhere, I have a partial court record of a man accused of witchcraft for being too greatly improved at archery, which to me just reeks of a competitor's jealousy. It led to many games meant to sharpen the instinct and aim of the archer from the benign (swinging targets) to the cruel (shooting at a cat in a bag**).

Thanks to Shakespeare*, we know more about what our Elizabethan townsfolk were up to on a day-to-day basis. Our Elizabethan forebears weren't necessarily so wrapped up in work they had no time to play. The rise of the artisan class meant upward mobility and with upward mobility came free time. Beyond archery and football, there were also card games and dice, tables (better known these days as backgammon), baseball-like games such as rounders and stool ball, hurling (for our Irish cousins), tennis (another of Henry VIII's favorites), bowls, badminton...  Also, anywhere there are competitive spirits and things that can be pushed, ridden, or rolled (horses, carts, wheelbarrows, rounds of cheddar...) there will be racing.

They didn't have a Superbowl or Lord Stanley's Cup to vie for, but our modern affection for sport is nothing new and it would not be all that surprising to our forebears.

~ Scott
Rounders: Your humble author at the bat...

* Let's face it, without The Bard drawing our attention to it, the Elizabethan period would be just another period dimly remembered from history class. Type "Life in Chaucer's England" into the Amazon search screen. 88 hits on that Amazon search and most of them different editions of the same book or irrelevant to the subject. There were 552 hits on a similar search for Shakespeare's England almost all of them actually about the life and times of the Glover of Avon.

**"If I do, hang me in a bottle like a cat and shoot
at me; and he that hits me, let him be clapped on
the shoulder, and called Adam."
-Benedick, Much Ado About Nothing,

Saturday, January 11, 2014

Wrapping Peasants, Part I: Drafting a pattern for shoes...

Where was I before my holiday travels got sucked into that polar vortex thingy we're all tired of hearing about? Oh! Right. We were making shoes. For this, we will have to backtrack a bit to October, when I was devoting time primarily to research while recovering from my mystery ailment and various ensuing nonsense...

Part One: In Which I Run Afoul of Congress

With a finished pair of lasts in hand, my next step in my shoemaking journey was to contact Francis Classe for advice. Our conversation ranged across the spectrum of tools and patterns. This inevitably led to a tussle with the US Postal Service, who waylaid my attempt to pay him for some tools, including some surprising ones: Boar bristles, which he offered to sell to me at a very reasonable price. If only I could get the check to him (Yes, a check; if you don't know by now I'm a bit of a Luddite, you haven't been paying attention.) which I finally sidestepped by at long last succumbing to the embrace of Paypal. . . God help me.
Two closing awls and a bundle of boar's bristles. I'm semi-convinced that
Francis raises wild boar in his back yard because he seems to have an 
inexhaustible supply of these bristles... 

While I was waiting for the USPS to get their appointed rounds out of their dark of night (ahem), I headed to the library to seek out a copy of "Stepping Through Time: Archaeological Footwear from Prehistoric Times until 1800by Olaf Goubitz.  It is essentially the book on the subject. Goubitz, who died in 2007, was a Dutch archaeologist who dedicated his life to the conservation and study of historical leather artifacts, which led to books and articles like Stepping Through Time... and Purses in Pieces. His books are full of tireless scholarship and hand-drawn patterns and replications of shoes from shipwrecks archaeological digs throughout Europe.

Thanks to his tireless efforts, I am able to approach this part of my project with more confidence that I'm approaching the subject in an historically-sound manner than I have at any other time in the past 13 months.

I'll do my best not to screw it up.

Thanks to the magic of Inter-Library Loan, in short order, I found myself in possession the People's Copy of this seminal work. By which I mean that The Library of Congress was apparently the only copy available, which led to me being the guardian of this important book, as the United States government went on hiatus almost immediately after I picked it up.

Needless to say while I was the Keeper of Congress's Preeminent Pre-modern Shoemaking Text, I took copious notes and chatted a bit more with Francis before settling on a pattern and a plan.

We'll gloss over the fact that when I returned the book after my 2-week guardianship, the librarian finally opened the envelope taped to it and discovered an admonition that I was Not To Take This Book Out of the Reading Room. She and I agreed that our legislators were far too busy arguing to care about my minor flouting of congressional mandate.

Either that or I've doomed my soul to Congressional Library Hell...

Normally this would be my idea of heaven... unless the shelves were unalphabetized.
And I had to re-shelve the books... (shudder)

Part II: On the Drafting of Patterns

As a painter, I've always been fond of the curious and somewhat controversial pastoral paintings of Pieter Bruegel the Elder. Especially the detail on the costumes, customs, and clodhoppers. These are the feet of two bagpipe playing peasants in the painting 'Peasant Wedding' clad in some charmingly simple-looking shoes.

Detail from The Peasant Wedding c. 1566 by Pieter Bruegel the Elder, Image source: Wikipedia
As I mentioned, Bruegel's bucolic depictions of peasant life are somewhat controversial in many circles, so I try not to trust them if I cannot back them up from more conventionally reliable sources. Which is where our old friend Goubitz comes in.

Among the shoes he documented from digs in the Netherlands were these, which I re-drew from his book. Handily, he provided a schematic of the pattern pieces as well, as you can see below.

This is where we get to the pattern drafting part of our program.

Note: I am basing my drafting methods here on years of experience drafting patterns for clothing, further informed by an article contained in the book Handmade Shoes for Men by Laszlo Vass & Magda Molnar.

This is something we'll re-visit at least twice more after we're finished with the shoes, and it's an important aspect of everything we do as we clothe our renaissance working man (or woman) from toe to head. At each level of dress, we will find ourselves wrapping parts of a body in paper and imagining flat drawings from 450 years ago into three dimensions.

Which entails a lot of paper and a helper. When drafting patterns (or as I like to think of it: "Wrapping peasants") it is best to work with a friend.  Which makes it especially appropriate since it was the week of Christmas when I started laying paper over my shoe lasts and making with the Scotch Tape and sharpies.

Once I had the shoes wrapped in paper, I approximated the seam lines from Goubitz's drawing on my new three-dimensional model, guessing in places where and how I would compensate for the contours of the wooden foot, marking out how the vamp and sides come together.

Then I used a shop knife to cut along the seam lines, cutting the paper away from the last and laying them out flat to check that they approximate the pieces that Goubitz drew for his book. 

From paper to leather to shoes... simple enough, right? We can only hope.

More later,

- Scott