Saturday, 22 May 2010

Problems with Piles

Last Monday I did indeed attach the lining of my Armada gown to the bodice, and was able to get rid of about half my basting stitches in the process. I did them in turquoise to make them obvious, and they increasingly annoy me as the dress begins to take shape.

I spent the latter part of the day cutting out the final few pieces of the gown. The skirt is predictably very large, so it took four widths of material to make. Two of the panels are shaped to make it fall open nicely at the front, revealing the magnificence of the forepart. The cat was out and the kitchen floor was available and surprisingly clean so I spent time happily measuring and cutting whilst listening to Counterpoint on Radio Four (and only getting the musical theatre questions right- but that's another story).

It all appeared to be going swimmingly- I remembered, for once, to adjust the tension on the sewing machine. I had previously forgotten to do this, resulting in such puckering frustration (!) that I pushed the poor little machine over in temper. But this time, tension levels of both machine and operator being correct, the sewing was beautiful. Lovely straight seams and even joins, and not too much gouging of my fingers by stubborn pins.

Feeling jolly smug, I held my handiwork up to the light to survey it and saw to my horror that one of the front panels was UPSIDE DOWN. Well, not even upside down, because then I could have un picked it and turned it around. No, this was a special kind of upside down that only velvet can deliver. I had drawn out the shaping on the wrong end of the fabric, so the shape was right but the pile was laying the wrong way up. This meant that the light fell differently on to each side, like the stripes in grass. My black skirt had a panel with a very grey look. This is clearly not acceptable to Queenie. So there's nothing for it- I have to unpick the panel and cut out another. Ghastly prospect- I can't even think of a better joke about piles.

But hurrah hurrah, I have a confirmed booking for Strangers' Hall in Norwich for 23rd July. Queenie will be getting attired at 2pm in this lovely Medieval hall, hopefully before an assembled crowd. If a miracle occurs and the Armada costume is finished by then, I will bring it along!

Monday, 17 May 2010

Pussy Cat, Pussy Cat, Where Have You Been?

My new project, as mentioned in my previous post, is well underway. I'm making a version of the outfit QE1 is wearing in her 1588 Armada portrait. Its a black velvet affair, covered in all manner of bows and fripperies. In the portrait the sleeves are white and covered with gold embroidery. Embroidery is not my forte so for the sleeves and partlet I've opted instead to use gold material with beading upon it.

The weave in the fabric kind of suggests a heart shape, so I've picked that out in tiny white pearls, with a dangly droplet at the bottom of each heart. In between the hearts I've got a blue glass bead (not quite able to run to sapphires at this stage)surrounded at the four compass points by large pearls. It looks lovely, even though I do occasionally have to retrieve the loose pearls from the gentle ministrations of my cat, who loves shiny pretties as much as I do. I was worried about authenticity because I couldn't find many Tudor examples of the heart shape being used, but Tudor Tailor Ninya was kind enough to send me some pictures of clothing which used the heart motif in the late 1500s, so all is well.

The sleeves themselves are 'verthingale', which means they are boned to stand massively proud of the wearer's arms. I had to push hoops of steel boning into pre-made slots to achieve this. On paper it looks completely simple, but in reality it took two of us and an awful lot of forceful language to get them into place. Unattached verthingale sleeves look like tipsy wizards hats, but I am pleased to report that they are now complete, as is the bodice of the gown and its lining, and today's task is to join them all together.

The bodice and skirts are made from black velvet, and will look super -eventually. In the meantime, the velvet sheds tiny black dots all over my house whenever I have to cut it. The dots look uncommonly like a mass of dead fleas. I do a lot of my cutting out on the living room floor where I am locked in a bitter struggle for rug-space with the cat. The cat usually wins. When the online purchase of velvet first arrived I was eager to get on with cutting out from my pattern pieces. I delivered the cat to the garden unceremoniously and reverently spread the roll of velvet out on the floor, covering about six square feet. I carefully chalked out the first piece; the back of the bodice, a shape roughly 30cm(1')square. I left the room for a second and returned moments later to find the cat back inside, nonchalantly washing, positioned most precisely not only on the brand new rolled out velvet, but sitting in the very centre of the single chalked-out bodice shape. A neat trail of tiny damp paw prints betrayed her path from the edge of the fabric.

She looked awfully pleased with herself. Like the cat that got the Queen, one might say...

Wednesday, 12 May 2010

The Tudor Tailor rocks

The Tudor Tailor is (or are- there's two of them) brilliant! As well as writing a fabulous book which includes patterns even a mathematical twerp like me can scale up, and having a tremendous website, they are also extremely NICE.

I was having a bit of a crisis of confidence over some costume issues and emailed Ninya and Jane with a question. Ninya emailed back within 24 hours with a friendly, informative and reassuring response saying amongst other things that she thought I'd done an excellent job on my costume and wished me all the best for my new project!

So I'd better get on with it I suppose...

(I've put a link to their website on my links section- it seemed the best place for it after all).

Monday, 10 May 2010

Making Progress

D'you see what I did there with the title? Eh?! Geddit?!! A little play on words for you...

Elizabeth's 1578 Summer Progess brought her to East Anglia and she visited Thetford en route to Norwich. Never one to let a tenous connection pass uncommemorated, I was invited by Melissa at Ancient House Museum at Thetford to be 'in residence' as Queenie for a day. This was fun! I did my dressing up/stripping off talk, did a speech about my Progress, took some questions and then the day was rounded off by appearing as guest of honour at a Tudor banquet prepared by the museum club children.

The questions from the children were amazing; very serious and well thought out. One lad asked me what I thought the greatest achievement of my reign was, and another wanted to know my views on Catholicism in Norfolk. Then I found my Achilles heel- the Janes. Apparently, in my head, Jane Seymour and Jane Grey are totally interchangeable. Oops! Realising I was getting into sticky territory I had to launch a rescue package of stock phrases such as 'I care to think not of those wretches' and 'the Block is too good for some'. To top it off, I unleashed my favourite escape clause: I glowered at the adults and threatened to send them to the Tower for allowing their children to ask such insolent questions. Off with their heads!

As a result of that splendid day I got a couple more bookings; one to a school in Thetford and another to the Norfolk Lacemakers Society.

At the school I spoke at morning Assembly, did the dressing thing and also made pomanders out of oranges and cloves (quite difficult in costume). At lunch time I sat in the staff room, where I think the teachers must have thought they were sharing some kind of stress induced communal hallucination: me, white-faced and bewigged, drinking tea and reading the ESPO catalogue.

At the Norfolk Lacemakers Society I arrived as a sort of Queen-o-gram in the middle of their Christmas lunch. The Lunch had been postponed till February due to the snow, but it was lovely. Surrounded by all their delicate, gossamer lacy creations I spent the day painfully aware of the comparatively inexpert stitching holding my costume together. The ladies were particularly interested in the construction of my dress, having recently been treated to a visit by those Goddessess of historical costume, the Tudor Tailors. Eek- but mine seemed to stand up to their elegant scrutiny! Some of the ladies were kind enough to share their latest project with me. They were painstakingly reconstructing a piece of 16th Century gold and silver lace held in Norwich Carrow House Textiles Museum. They'd managed to find real gold and silver thread (like wire to the touch) and a patient husband had handmade individual sequins from a sheet of metal- meory fails but I think they were thin brass). The attention to detail these ladies maintained, their genorosity and willingness to share their skills and knowledge with me made this a really special couple of hours. Thank you!

It was a Dark and Stormy Knight...

What happened right next was fairly boring really. Queenie had to rest up while I got to grips with being a Victorian Workhouse Inmate. She made a few visits to Norwich Castle but other than that she became a large and slightly inconvenient heap of pearls and red silk stored under my piano at home.

Then Black Knight Historical happened. Ian Pycroft (there's a link to his website on my Current Bookings page) booked me for a Living History event in Lowestoft where I had to flounce/strut up and down all day talking to members of the public in First Person as Elizabeth I. This produced varying reactions...many thought I was Queen Victoria in spite of the red frizzy wig, white face and blackened teeth. I started on about my terrible troubles with The Tooth Worm to one elderly lady who didn't realise I was QE1 at all, and said sympathetically yet bewilderingly, 'Oh I am sorry dear, I thought you were just pretending'. I still can't quite grasp how many layers of suspended disbelief were happening at that point.

I also received a swift and some might say brutal induction into the world of Re-enactors as opposed to Live Interpreters, when some 15th Century enactors refused to acknowledge my being there because I 'didn't exist yet'(!?). The line between re-enactment and live interpretation is a fine yet twisted one. (If you are desperately interested there's a really good explanation of it on this website My reading of this difference is that for Interpreters, the focus is on the presentation of a character in first or third person in order to communicate facts or feelings to invoke sympathy, understanding, empathy or even shock in the onlooker. For Re-enactors the act of 'being' the character as accurately and authentically as possible, with all the right accoutrements, is key.

So bearing in mind the authenticity issue, which is to Re-enactors as electoral reform is to Lib Dems, that day I had forgotten my cuffs, little ruffs for the wrists. This didn't go down well with my re-enacting colleagues. It's also a bit tricky playing a famous Queen as opposed to an unknown artisan, because people want to be photographed with you (those who know me will appreciate that clearly this is an anathema to me) and I was lucky enough to be photographed by the press, of course, waving my un-cuffed hand. The picture is at the bottom of each page of this blog, because its a great pic even without those darn cuffs.

Anyway the Black Knight himself was there dressed as Henry VIII (Queenie's pa) and, cuffs or no, we had a great day. There was, I recall, a rather lovely falcon in a very cute leather hat. There was also a giant horse there, which in the chronologically organised parade at the end was right behind me, because Oliver Cromwell was riding it, and we had no Stuarts to seperate us. Gah. I'm not keen on horses, I always expect them to rear up all hoofy, and neigh at me.

Under the Black Knight's watchful eye I also participated in the Living History Fair at Mannington Hall in October 2009. So many photo opps- so little time! Outdoor photos from Mannington form the bulk of those on my Gallery page. Travelling to the Hall was interesting. Bumrolls, farthingales and Vauxhall Astra seatbelts do not mix well. I travelled the ten miles or so from my home semi recumbent, on my left side in the front seat, looking out of the window at a peculiar angle, causing consternation at traffic lights. On arrival in the field used as a car park I had no option but to roll out of the car, narrowly avoiding a cowpat, and startling Oliver Cromwell's horse.

Mannington was like an NMAS reunion. As always I spent more time lifting up my skirts to show my underwear than doing anything else. Maybe I should rephrase that... But a great time was had by all. The falcons in their hats were there again, and my revolving exit from the car had already allowed me to get my own back on that horse (for harrumphing unnecessarily behind me at Lowestoft). I bought a beautiful little pomander made from a walnut. I spoke to some Saxons who definitely DID acknowledge my presence in spite of me not existing yet, because they started excitedly waving potions of earwax and mouse-blood at me.

It was all fab. I couldn't wait for whatever happened next!!

Saturday, 1 May 2010

What happened after How It All Began

I developed a 30-minute talk which started at the bottom layer of the costume (the shift) and worked upwards until I was fully dressed.
Originally, on the designated days, I made the talk known to the public by way of a dramatic announcement over the loudspeaker system at the castle, until this was found to be disrupting the Dungeons Tours. Therefore I had to find another way to grab an audience, so I wandered about barking for business in my shift (quite a shock for the unsuspecting Castle visitors). Aided and abetted by the wonderful Vera as my Ladies' maid, I usually managed to scrape up 3 sittings of about 50 people per day: the usual mixed bag of non-English-speaking tourists, harrassed mothers with toddlers in fairy wings and colourful wellies, highly interested ladies of a certain age, and their resigned and rather disappointed husbands.
But word spread, and I developed a fan base of one slightly obsessed 9 year old girl who turned up in her Disney princess costume to see me every time I was on. I expanded the talk to include details on Queenie's 1578 progress to Norwich, and sent for a new wig, 'The Queen Elizabeth Deluxe', all the way from Covent Garden. Audiences were generous with their comments, even though I still panic slightly and mix up the Janes (Seymour and Grey) if I'm overexcited.
The costume began to evolve. My friend Sarah made me a beautiful little pearl
headdress and also a jewelled belt from which to hang Elizabeth's prayer-book (a little Bible I covered in black silk). My friend Annie organised my face paint for me and made a giant sack to keep the costume in. Numerous acquaintances made it their mission in charity shops to find any number of pearl necklaces for me to dismantle and re-use. Regular visitors to the castle became familiar with Queen Elizabeth, and she was even granted a Dudley on a couple of occasions.
Then- shock, horror- I got a new job. I moved from the Castle to work as Live Interpretation Officer with the Learning Team at Gressenhall Farm and Workhouse Museum. This was brilliant for Rachel but not so good for Queenie, as the building is 18th Century and Lizzie is most definitely not. Whatever would happen next...?