Patchy internet connection makes for late blogging… but at least I have something interesting for you: a video about testing medieval arrows and their success at breaching armour.



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One of the questions I regularly get is about yarns – specifically about the use of plied yarns. As in “Did they really use single yarns in the Middle Ages for weaving?”

This is a fascinating question, because it shows how strongly we are influenced in our perception and our thinking by what we are used to. Most of the yarns that we can find in shops for crafting are plied, at least two-ply (that is twisted together from two single yarns, for those of you not familiar with that stuff), more often with more plies than that. Typical knitting yarns have four or even six singles plied together – so plied yarn is what we are most familiar with.

If we venture into weaving, most modern machine-spun yarns are rather soft, and not very strong. Consequently, modern hand-weavers use plied yarns for their weaving, at least for the warp. Many machine-woven fabrics do still use singles, but this is not obvious unless you look very closely at the weave, so it is outside our normal perception.

All this, taken together, leads to many people assuming that plied yarns were used for everything hand-made, like they generally are today. This, however, is not the case at all, and the “why” becomes clear once we think about the processes involved.

After preparation of the fibre – by washing and combing or, later in the Middle Ages, carding, the spinning process begins. This is a time-consuming thing, and there is a limit to how fast you can spin. (Yes, even if you learned how to spin when you were very young – just like there’s a limit to how fast a given person can run. Or knit. Or cut up carrots. This will be different from person to person, depending on their talent, their practice, their current form, and how focused they are, but at one stage, everyone reaches their personal speed limit, and that’s it.) Personally, I get to about 60 m per hour with a drop-spindle and distaff spinning short suspended, and I do consider that a decent speed yet still sustainable for a longer period of work.

A fabric of about 10 threads per cm in both warp and weft would be considered a middling-quality fabric in most archaeological textile terms. For an equally middling-quality garment, I would calculate roughly 3 m in length at 1 m in width, enough for a tunic for a full-grown man or a floor-length dress for a smaller woman. (These are all rough estimates here, and numbers have been chosen to make for slightly easier maths. Because. You know. Maths.)

To weave this amount of fabric, we would need a warp that is a bit longer than 3 m, as ther will be some loss at the top and bottom, plus there’s always some shrinkage at the end. So let’s settle for 3.5 m length when we warp for our fabric; that means 3.5 m times 100 cm warp width times 10 warp threads per centimetre… makes 3500 m of warp yarn. Three and a half kilometres. With my spinning speed, that would be close to 60 hours pure spinning time. (Realistically, you would add to this the time needed to skein the yarns, and also to dress the distaff whenever the fibre has been used up, so we’d be higher than that – but for our simple example, we’ll leave it at this.)

Now we have the warp. The weft will use almost the same amount of yarn, as we have 100 cm fabric width times 300 cm fabric length plus say 20 cm to account for shrinkage times 10 threads per cm of length – so we’ll be at about 3200 m yarn for the weft. Again, that’s close to 55 hours of work.

We’re now at a spinning time count of roughly 115 hours. For weaving with singles. Imagine you’d want to weave with two-ply yarn now… this means you would have to spin twice as thin (which will definitely not be faster, rather it will be slower, due to a number of reasons), and twice the amount. And then, in the final step, you will have to ply the yarn. Let’s just assume that everything is done at about the same speed, for ease of calculation – now we have not 115 hours of work, but 345 hours. Or, if we break it over into a modern 35 hour week, that would be 9 weeks and 6 days instead of 3 weeks and 2 days. Both, by the way, only if you actually spend every single second of every day’s work hours at your task (and we all know that this is possible, right? Happens all the time everywhere, I’m sure…).

So obviously, plying was not something done all the time, as it would have eaten up all the time. Whenever it was not really necessary, it was not done, and it’s not really necessary for weaving fabrics, which would have been the bulk of textile production. There are techniques where you do need to ply for things to work properly – sewing, nalbinding, knitting, tablet weaving, some forms of braiding – but for normal weaving, saving the time and effort would have been a no-brainer in most cases.

Let me get back to the question that started all this. What is really intriguing about this question is how much our modern experience colours our perception of what is normal, and how things are generally done. With the yarn question, it becomes pretty obvious that this is the case, as things are very clear here. There are other topics, other areas, though, where it is by far not as conspicuous. For instance, industrialisation and mass production has also formed our expectations about how things look or should look – which is, often, “totally identical”. If you have mass production not by machines, but with a human element in them, there will be differences between the individual items, and that is something we are not used to as much anymore.

An even more tricky aspect of this? We are very much used to most of our daily life things being mass-produced. They are affordable, or cheap, in most cases. Things not mass-produced, but made by hand, can be more expensive, though they are not necessarily that much pricier. Our perception that they will cost more, however, can keep us from even inquiring after a craftsperson about how much a custom-made item would cost. It also narrows our own imagination on what is possible to make. I remember a blacksmith friend telling me about customers coming into their shop to order a fence, asking for a catalogue with the patterns available – and they were astonished, and a felt a little swamped, when they were told that there is no necessity to keep to the samples shown, they could also make up their own pattern ideas.

Things like this, living in the back of our minds, reinforced by our daily life objects, are harder to trace than where the plied-yarns-are-the-only-thing thing comes from. They are, however, just as likely to skew our picture of things, and our perception, which can be rather harmful when trying to reconstruct past industries or societies. Once more, watching one’s own brain think and asking some questions about where a concept comes from is definitely a good thing!

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Sometimes, with all the bad news coming in from all sides – climate change, weird politics and even weirder politicians, wars, people drowning in the Mediterranean, insects dying – I feel like anything I can do is just so small and so insignificant I might as well give up.

That’s not true, though – and one reason I enjoyed the weekend excursion with the BUND so much was that we heard a lot of success stories. Yes, wild cats are still very rare, but they have a better chance now. Yes, it is still too dry in the summer, and water scarcity will become an even bigger problem in the next decades, but there are ways to keep trees alive without wasting water. Yes, there were new roads and new railroads built in the last years that made a huge scar in the landscape, but at least some measures were taken to give the wildlife a chance to cross those roads, and protected areas were enlarged to lessen the impact at least a little bit.

Sometimes it’s just small things – small steps. But I try to remind myself that small steps are steps, too. We’ve switched from carton-packed milk to milk in glass bottles a while ago, and I’m amazed at the difference this made in the amount of our waste. There’s still a lot of things you cannot get in returnable or re-useable packaging, especially a lot of dairy products, but every carton not bought – helps.

We’ve been bringing our own bags to buy loose produce for ages now, re-using the flimsy plastic bags that you get as often as possible. There’s still one coming in occasionally, so we won’t run out soon; they are small and lightweight, so I tend to stash one or three of them in backpacks just in case I need one when I’m somewhere. There’s a sturdier folding bag in my handbag as well, also just in case. Some of the plastic bags, when they start to give out at the handles, get a last use to collect used cat litter or as trash bags for otherwise yucky trash (we usually don’t use a bin liner bag).

As paper bags are not so much better than plastic bags, I’ve been trying to cut down on these too, recently. Most of the paper bags we have coming in are from buying bread at the bakery, and that is very easy to avoid: I just bring a clean cloth bag, and the baker drops the bread in there. No trouble, no fuss, no paper bag. There are still a number of paper bags coming home with me from bakeries, for instance when buying sticky, cake-y things that won’t do well in a cloth bag, and they get re-used as liners for the compost bin.

Every bag counts. Every step counts. Even if it’s a small one – it is still a step. If we all do the little steps we can, the world will move into the right direction. And while we might not be able to reverse every damage done to the planet, we can still do our bit to save as much as possible!

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I’ve spent this weekend teaching weaving to six wonderfully enthusiastic people – and I can tell you that while everyone enjoyed it (as I was told so) – I think nobody had more fun that I did.

Tablet weaving is one of my favourite teaching topics. It’s simultaneously easy and brain-bending. There’s simple rules to follow, and within those rules, you are completely free to do as you wish. Mistakes are easy to make, but they are also easy to spot, and after a while you make less and less of them. And for teaching purposes, with the system that I have developed for weaving both “normal” patterns and twill patterns, it’s even not relevant whether someone has been doing tablet weaving before or not.

So everyone gets the basic explanations, then we get to work making a warp, and then weaving starts. Which, about inevitably, results in a room full of very quiet, very concentrated people, exploring the structures and possibilities of tablet-woven bands, conjuring up patterns. It actually was so quiet that I could hear a pin drop. (Yes, I actually tried. It was only just audible, but that was because the floor in the room was relatively soft, so the pin made very, very little noise.)

In my course description, I purposely did not promise that we’d get into twill, as this can be hard to gauge. While a weekend course is usually enough to at least touch the basics (the plain background, and the principle of how to weave a motif in that), I can’t guarantee that more will be covered, as this very much depends on the individual group. In some groups, the weavers want more time to explore diagonals patterns, for instance, and that, of course, is a wonderful thing as well.

This weekend, however, everybody was keen on getting some twill shenanigans done, and so we did. I can tell you that for me as the teacher, seeing that first line in everyone’s band move first there, then here – that is the most exciting simple line that I know. Also, it means that I get to tell one of my favourite teaching stories: The one about the little renegade tablet that wants to start a revolution.

That is another thing teaching in this style has taught me – if you work paperless, without drafts, stories and mnemonic aids are wonderful tools to help explain things, and to help remember them. I don’t know how pattern instructions were passed on in medieval societies, but I could well imagine a teacher tell a story to the pupils to help them remember what needs to be done at a given place in a pattern. It would probably not have been the story about a little tablet being a revolutionary and turning everything around (which is something that would not have latched onto basic cultural knowledge and background as it does with today’s people), but it might have been something else fulfilling the same purpose. Songs and stories make wonderful tools for keeping things in minds, and I thoroughly enjoy teaching with stories. And daring little revolutionary tablets that prepare their revolution in the underground, quietly, looking like every other tablet for a while… until, suddenly…

Posted in tablet weaving, teaching thoughts, textile techniques and tools, work-related, workshops | Leave a comment

Now that you’ve heard the gist of my adventures in Dublin, it’s time for some other news: I’ve been doing a newsletter in German for a good while now, and I’ve finally decided to offer one in English as well. So if you’re interested in hearing about news from the pallia online shop once a month, with a spattering of other information thrown in (such as most popular blog posts of the past month, or information about exhibitions or other possibly interesting things), you can subscribe to the English newsletter by clicking here. (You can also subscribe to the German one via this link, should you be interested.)

The newsletter, like the German one, will come out monthly, so September will be the first time – and I’m very much looking forward to this, as there will be a few new things in the shop for it!


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So what else is there to tell about my Dublin adventures? There was a talk about medieval textiles and textile crafts, which was very well received according to what I heard afterwards. I had the pleasure of sharing that panel with Jeannette Ng, who later during the convention accepted her award for Best New Writer (congratulations again!).

I also enjoyed my two other panels (proper panels, not talks, this time) about archaeology in SFF, and about costume research and documentation.

I also got to meet (and hold, for a short time) this guy:

and I got to meet a real Lady Astronaut, as Dr. Jeannette Epps was at the convention. Which was a “wow” moment as well.

There also was cake (because life is better with cake, even if it is only store-bought chocolate cake from Tesco’s), and weird chocolate both from Ireland (Cadbury’s Mint Oreo. Delicious, if you ask me.) and from Germany (I brought some Knusperflocken for people to try) and from New Zealand (which will host next year’s convention) and, if you are generous in what you count as chocolate, choc-covered malty caramel Timtams from Australia.

Finally, one of the really nice things about WorldCon is how easy it is to meet people, and chat with them, making new acquaintances and learning things about their bits of the world. I was delighted to see again quite a number of people I’d last met in London, back in 2014 (one of whom saved my voice by bringing me a pack of Fisherman’s Friends). Even though there’s never a load of time to catch up, it was wonderful to see them again and chat. It was also totally delightful to see so many authors, whose work I love to read, and it felt like so many of them stopped at my table in the hall and enjoyed seeing (and, in some cases, buying) something completely different. (Which were the moments when I silently went “squeee!” in the back of my head. As you do. Right?).

All this would never have happened if not for Gillian prodding me to come to London in 2014 (because apparently, London is right around the corner from Erlangen, if you ask an Aussie) and for my wonderful Irish friend helping me out at the table, making it possible for me to sneak away to my programme items, the Escape Artists Live panel, and, occasionally, even to the toilet:

Thank you! (Also, I’m still bad at taking phone selfies. Obviously.)


Posted in conventions, markets and fairs, the market stall, travel | 1 Comment

I mentioned badge ribbons in yesterday’s post, and some of you may have wondered what that is. This is one of the things I was introduced to back in London, at my first WorldCon, and I had so much fun with them back then already, which was repeated this year in Dublin. But I should explain first…

When you have an attending membership and turn up at the con registration, you are getting a badge with your name on it (or a badge name/alias/nick, whatever you put in the form when you got your membership), where you come from, and your membership number. This is your pass to enter the convention and all its panels and so on.

Underneath that plastic badge, you can stick ribbons – which are printed textile ribbons with a sticky stripe, (hopefully) in the width of the lower edge of the badge. You get “official” ribbons if you are a programme participant, dealer, or otherwise involved with the con; or if you are a Hugo finalist. You can also get ribbons from various other places – from authors, groups or societies, and from individuals who had an idea for a ribbon, had some made and now hand them out to those who ask.

There are some people (especially children) who make it a game to get as many ribbons as they can, and I’ve seen some kids walk around with a trail of ribbons that was about three times as long as they were tall. My haul was not huge – tiny in comparison, in fact – but each of them made me ridiculously happy. I got the “lack of yarn” handed out of the blue by someone passing my table, and thus could not even tell others who had given it to me, having no clear memory of the person in question. That was different for the “shiny” ribbon, whose maker walked around with a Kaylee parasol, and thus was relatively easy to spot. The TANSTAAFL came, of course, from the Heinlein Society table – it’s one of my favourite bits of Heinlein’s writing, and I was looking forward to getting one of these even before the con started… and the Cast of Wonders ribbon, obviously, also makes me happy, being one of their narrators.

So. Ribbons. Some don’t care for them, some collect them, and it’s definitely a thing at WorldCon. Plus they are a good conversation starter should you need one!

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