A&S: From the Sublimely Beautiful to the Immensely Practical

By Mary of Montevale
Reporter, Pennsic Independent

Beneath the high wooden beams of the Barn, to the rising crescendo of multiple conversations, a crowd of visitors moved with snail-like speed past four long rows of tables. This was the eleventh anniversary of the Arts and Sciences Display at Pennsic.
Garb, embroidery, calligraphy and illuminations, furniture, maps drawn in ancient styles, tablet-woven trim, metal castings, French hoods, furniture, even axes and knives…it was an overwhelming demonstration of talent, time, and love.
Many of the artisans waited beside their displays, graciously responding time and again to the same comments or questions. “How long did it take you to make this?” “That’s beautiful work, milady (or milord).” Perhaps the most effective, a simple and spontaneous, “Oh…my…God!”
“We have so many wonderful artisans, and they can’t all come to Pennsic.”
The West Kingdom’s Arts Minister, Duchess Eliana Fraser advertised in the kingdom monthly newsletter and at events for items to bring with her for a second year in a row. Duchess Kaaren Harkendottir contributed four embroidered items including a pair of West Kingdom cloaks, a gown which was gifted to Duchess Eliana, and a Princess Pouch. This is a tradition in the West, Her Excellency explained to me. All queens and princesses stepping down from their reigns receive a rose pouch. The dark blue pouch with a shades-of-white appliquéd and couch-worked rose was a gift to The Mad Duchess Cyneswith at the conclusion of her most recent reign as Princess of the Mists.
“Oh, and I’m also the Khan of the Great Dark Horde.”
This was just an afterthought from the only resident of the Outlands to bring an A&S project to the day’s display. Actually, he had two projects, both examples of hand weaving, and he had set them out side by side to show how much his work had improved from his third piece of work (a set of variegated-blue hand towels) to his eighth, a top band for a ger, which will adorn the guard ger of the Great Dark Horde at Pennsic 38.
“It fits in our dining room next to the china cabinet. I told [my husband] if we didn’t have a place to put it the other 11 months, we weren’t even going to start it.”
Baroness Ardis Bluemantle and Langdon Greymorne of Æthelmearc displayed a hand washing station that looked to be nearly 7 feet tall. Langdon built the orange-colored painted piece after being inspired by an extant 15th c. German alpine carved wood cabinet. The Baroness painted the trim, acanthus leaves from the Mary of Burgundy Hours, c. 1500. You may be seeing it again next year; they intend to plumb the cabinet so that it will have gravity-powered running water.
“It’s uncomfortable sitting on the beading.”
That’s only one of the reasons Anna Bella Di Cherubino of the East placed real pearls all over the bodice and sleeves, but only on the front panel and around the hem of the Elizabethan gown she will be wearing tonight at the Pennsic Masked Ball. The other reason is that the stunning gown weighs about 70 pounds. Creation of the gown began with inspiration from the fabric itself, a welted brocade. Contributing to the overall weight besides the pearls were sequins, gold trim, glass beads, and gold lace. “The gold lace,” the seamstress told me, “weighs a couple of pounds just by itself.” A couple of hidden secrets help to keep such a gown from being an overwhelming burden for the woman wearing it: a real “wheel” of cane in the hoop skirt beneath it supports the weight of the skirt; and an arrangement of cords runs through the hoop and the skirt into the garment’s bodice for lacing. The gown is not making its debut at the masked ball tonight; it has previously been worn at Birka, a well-known Eastern event.
Pewter melts at 480º Fahrenheit
THL Etienne le Couteau des Roches of the Middle is the metal caster who created the tokens that teachers in the Pennsic University received when they signed in at A&S point. Etienne, who had been casting hot metal for about eight years, uses soapstone for carving molds and Bondo (an auto body filler) for making mold a from extant objects such as coins. On display this day were some Society officer tokens, Middle Kingdom award tokens, replica coins cast for a gaming-themed event, and a period Lord Mayor’s chain which had been used by Etienne’s local group. Making…ahem, “copies” of authentic coins can be documented as far back as Roman Britain. Soldiers would take a coin from their pay, mold clay around it, fire the clay, and then had a usable mold into which molten local, cheaper copper could be poured. If you are interested in doing pewter casting, Etienne said, the materials are available from merchants at Pennsic.
“I just can’t sit with empty hands.”
Trimaris was the other kingdom with only one artisan at the exhibition. Mistress Ekaterina Zvyozdosamtseva (called “Koshka”) was “her own walking canvas,” as one lady who stopped to admire her embroidery remarked. The embroidery style on Koshka’s head cloth, her gown, a 13th-14th c. Tiraz towel laid on the display table, and a work-in-progress still in her hands as she talked, is a double running stitch, which is a precursor to blackwork. The head cloth, the smallest piece of the lot, took eight months to complete. The motifs, stitched primarily in blue, and less often in the other two primary colors as well, have been used in Egyptian textiles since at least the Coptic weavings of the 4th-5th centuries. The back of each piece is as fine as the front. Two women listened, fascinated, as Koshka described the special frame her lord made so she could work in their van during long road trips. When in use, the frame rests against the dashboard of the vehicle.
“I pray to Odin every time I dye with madder because he is the Jokester. I figure it can’t hurt.”
In the plethora of marvelous projects on display, this reporter’s eye was drawn almost immediately to a rainbow “mosaic” of hand-dyed hanks of wool. THL Odette de Saint Remy of Ealdormere, wearing a gown of handspun wool, stood on the other side of the table on which lay her project: an “Anglo-Scandanavian Dye Study,” whose purpose was to show the possible colors available to people in Northern Europe in the 9th-11th centuries. All the plants she used have been documented to the British Isles or Scandanavia, and sixteen of them were raised in Odette’s garden. Nine plants were harvested wild, some to add to the variety, others to supplement a type she had raised. Madder is apparently difficult to work with, maybe even notoriously difficult, if I judge from comments made by others viewing Odette’s work. She explained to me that the color you achieve can depend on the pH balance and the plant’s condition, although the color will usually range from coral to red to fuchsia pink.
For this project, she used no edible plants except sorrel whose roots yield brown to rust colors, leaves result in pale green shades, and seeds give warm orangey to copper colors. The sample wool hanks dyed with Queen Anne’s Lace ranged from chartreuse to darker woodsy greens. Odette said a friend got a bright yellow shade from the same kind of plant, and the difference may have been due to the water used during the dying process. She also raised woad and dyed with it for this project. The resulting color was no surprise at all.
“Next I may take some from here and some from there to create a new design.”
The reproduction of a portion of the Bayeux Tapestry done in naturally dyed lambs’ wool on linen by Iofa merch Macsen of Meridies is still a work-in-progress. Having seen the original in situ in its museum in Bayeux, France a couple of times, even I could tell that Iofa has reproduced the exact style of stitches in the exact colors. The panel on display was from a section of the Tapestry right before the Norman horses begin their charge. In addition to her work on display today, Iofa has researched documented evidence of early dates for embroidery in the British Isles and is working on writing up the results of her research. Will she be reproducing any other panels of the Bayeux Tapestry? She is not yet certain; the section displayed today will become a pillow when it is finished.
This year’s adult A&S display mixed the breathtakingly beautiful with flashes of down-to-earth practicality, and more often than not, within a single piece of work.