THE SHIRE - Making Garb, Travel Plans, and a Home in the SCA
STAMINA - How I Became a History Major
THE TREBUCHET - A Siege Engine Leads Me To Medieval Reenactment
“Oh, yeah,” the Viking warrior adds, donning his ornate helmet once more. “I made some of my armor myself, but not all. And yes, you could get your own there, too. We hail from the Principality of Northshield, after all, and Northshield needs shield-maidens.”
For the second time tonight, I am positively drooling.
SCA: Society for Creative Anachronism
ANACHRONISM | əˈnakrəˌnizəm | noun: a thing belonging or appropriate to a period other than that in which it exists, especially a thing that is conspicuously old-fashioned
So what the bleep is it?!
A few days after that trebuchet demonstration at the college where I met the Viking warrior Halfdan "Leadfoot" of the Shire of the Inner Sea, also known as Hal Jensen, I headed down to the tavern on the waterfront where the local chapter of the SCA held their weekly meetings.
Although I’d driven past that establishment countless times, I’d never been inside before. It was a quaint brick building with a blue roof, an old-tyme chimney, and bright red awnings over the windows. Along the shores of Lake Superior in April, it was still too cold for anyone to be outside on the front patio, but inside the place was a warm, cozy labyrinth of booths, tables, and bar, done in dark woods and more brick.
The Scadians, as I would learn they were called, met in a quieter nook in the back. There Hal introduced me to a handful of other men and one lively, spunky girl named Meagan who also went to our university. They spent several hours regaling me with tales from past events and telling me about their favorite activities among the myriad available.
After a time, they asked me which of these pastimes sounded the most intriguing. All I could do was drool. I was pretty sure I would need to acquire several clones of myself in order to do half of these activities justice.
At the meeting, there were a few fighters in the bunch, an archer, and two fencers including Meagan. They all did varied arts and crafts, and nearly all of them liked to dance--court dancing, not belly dancing, although Meagan had been thinking about giving the latter a try. I assured her that she should and promised to show her everything I knew.
By the end of that meeting, I was so hooked that I also attended the on-campus meeting with Hal and Meagan later in the week. There I met some of the other members of what they called “The Shire.”
Specifically the Shire of the Inner Sea, named for our position on Lake Superior.
The next weekend, many of the members from both groups showed up for Hal’s costuming--excuse me, garb-making party. He had told me how much fabric to get for that most crucial item any proper Scadian needed to own: the cloak that would keep me warm and dry.
Conveniently, while dancing for a huge private party at the Greek restaurant a couple weekends before, I had received an exorbitant number of tips. (Thank you, Synchronicity.) This had allowed me to splurge on six yards of the softest tan wool for the outside layer of the cloak, and another six in silvery-cream-and-antique-gold brocade for the lining. I’d found both on sale at the clearance table. I determined to make the cloak reversible, so I’d have the heftier layer for general wear and inclement weather, and I’d have the pretty under-layer for fancy occasions. Plus, double-layer would be warmer--y'all know what a wuss I am in the winter.
At the party, Hal and varied other hospitable souls helped me choose a pattern and cut it out, to be sewn at home where I had my own machine. Some people bought hefty cloak pins to close theirs, but since those pretty much only existed at the promised Merchant’s Row at the events (no online shopping in those days), I closed mine with a frog I found at Joann Fabrics.
On my college budget, all my fabric had to come from thrift store finds I could hack up, or the fabric store clearance tables. 60-wide was my friend, as were the clearance trims. After pulling out my monstrous Historical Encyclopedia of Costumes, I started dreaming. Then I started drafting.
Now, you have to understand, I am NOT a visual artist. To give you an idea of how bad I am at drawing anything lifelike…well…with all my years drawing cheerleading choreographies and pyramids, I could do a mean stick-figure. And stick-cats, stick-cows, stick-hippos…
I do not…draw.
I do, however, have a long-held affinity for tracing, so when I later found a Spanish and Moorish Fashions coloring book, I squealed and hightailed it home to replace the original blocky, asymmetrical hack-drawings I’d made of my dream-garb. By finding the generalized line of the garment I wanted, I could use the drapes and folds shown in the encyclopedia to alter and tweak.
What I really wanted was this:
Historical Encyclopedia of Costumes
Page 153, 141, 157, 171, 161
But on my budget, with only a little over a month before Castle Fever, I had to start more like this:
Page 185, 133
I made two outfits, one for the arrival on Friday night, and one to wear on Saturday before I would change into my good-enough belly dance costume after supper. I had my sweats for sleeping, hidden inside the tent, and I also hauled out my long-johns and wool socks in case the temperature dropped. Within a couple events, I would also acquire a simple cotton T-tunic for general hanging out in camp, as well as a shift and a floofy-sleeved undershirt. But for that first event, I had shorts and sweats for setup and breakdown of camp.
Eeeep! I'm nekkid!
Super-Dork at breakfast with Sam before breakdown on Sunday.
My First Night outfit came from a pattern they’d had at Hal's garb party. I made the most simple bodice from a textured, indigo blue fabric that I’d found on sale. It wasn’t period fabric, but it was sturdier than all the thin cottons, and more affordable than the brocades and groovy upholstery fabrics. I put grommets in the sides so it would lace close to my ribcage. From that, I hung skirting of a thick cream gauze over a blue circle skirt (which could also double for belly dancing).
Thank goodness I’d already learned the hard way that, when tracing the circumference of one’s circle skirt using the length of one’s hip-to-hem measurement, one needed to add in the extra inches that one would be hacking out of the center for the waistband. Ahem.
That black circle skirt with the gold trim around its too-short hem--you know, the one that I wore everywhere in my early Scadian days? Yeah, that was a happy accident. It became one of my favorite layering skirts, and was the one I brought for dancing at my first event. But I hadn’t meant for it to be that short.
Sunburnt at my third event - Pennsic XXIV (1995)
And yes, I still have that black skirt. The green one was made from a retro pleated dress I hacked up and trimmed with cheapo gold. I wore it at the restaurant with my cabaret costumes, but around the fire and buried under other layers, you could barely tell it was made from tacky stretch-knit. Hey, you can't beat $3 for a twirling skirt. It's the yardage that kills you. The coin belt and the vest were my first purchases from Merchant's Row at War, and I still have those, too, along with the black-and-gold scarf I won at my first Pennsic dance contest:
Post learning curve, my second circle skirt turned out perfectly. So that more of its sapphire blue could be seen, I ran two wide stitches up the front of the cream overskirt for gathering, and called that good-enough as well.
Upon noticing my interest in swaths of draped fabric, someone at the party made the suggestion of a super-easy, super-cheap garment that would hide a myriad poor-girl, short-time ills. Ills like stretchy leggings and a modern, long-sleeved cotton shirt. It would even help obscure garish, brown hiking boots--the only kind of boots I had.
For this daytime wear adventure, I bought an obnoxiously beautiful, soft and flowy, raspberry-hued king-size sheet--on sale, of course. After folding it into quarters, I cut the edges into a rounded, oblong shape that was longer in the front and back, and shorter on the sides--my neck-to-ankle measurement, versus my shoulder-to-wrist length.
Pink Ghost: activated.
Then I cut out a squared neck hole and sliced two vertical slits into the front, just at my ribcage. I decorated the neck hole and the slits with blue-and-pink flowered trim. Finally, I slipped the ends of my white silk scarf through the slits. Onto my shoulders the pink ghost-tent went. I then grabbed the scarf ends to pull the front of the garment close against my torso. I tied it behind me and lifted my arms out to the sides.
My garish “mundane” clothing disappeared in a swath of raspberry folds. It was actually quite pretty, considering what a simple hack-job it was. It gave me as close to this look as I was going to get for my first event:
That dress made me feel way more elegant and Maid Marian-esque than the T-tunic. In the tunic, I just felt like what I’d been called so often as a kid: a boy, now with longish hair.
It had grown past my shoulders again after I’d whacked it off the year before, and was back to my customary brunette without a trace of that awful dark brown that had plagued me since Twelfth Night. That meant I would be able to start putting it up into fancier hairstyles that medieval ladies wore, rather than having to hide it like my leggings and nasty boots. However, for my first event I either wore it in a ponytail or hanging loose.
Doing my Hermione Granger impression in mah undergarments after somebody asked me, "Oh, so you wanna know how heavy real armor is? Try this on!"
The first "good enough" belly dance outfit.
Remember this restaurant costume and those black MC Hammer pants I wore when I won that dance contest with Mari in eleventh grade? All that, combined with the black circle skirt, was my starter dance outfit that Hal and his friends had approved so I wouldn't be branded as that most notorious of dastardly dancers: the "jingle-bunny." Not only were cabaret costumes not period dress, I had been assured that no one would ever take my dancing seriously and that I would be a target for drunk, lecherous men if I showed too much skin.
Because...you know...if you dress like a nun you'll totally be safe from it. 🤨
You have to remember, this was northern Minnesota in 1995, so even the most noble and honorable gentlemen were indoctrinated into this mindset of preemptive measures because it was a very active reality. Females who "dressed like sluts" were considered to have "given license" to be harassed, molested and assaulted. In spite of our seeming progress, there are too many places where this victim-blaming, slut-shaming bullshit still rings true.
At twenty-two, I was still searching within the Christian faiths for that place where spirituality resonated with my heart, personality, dreams, and especially my female body, so guilt and shame ran rampant through my psyche. I was little more than a small-town kid--a gawky, sheltered, loud-mouth mouse with shield-maiden aspirations, trying out a budding belly dancer's slink. (I told you, I'm a walking dichotomy.) So when older, more experienced people told me that I needed to be careful of how I dressed if I didn't want to bring the wrong sort of attention down onto myself, I believed them.
Even showing my midriff was pushing into "jingle-bunny" territory, but a girl has to start somewhere and I was told that my garb attempts would be given a lot of leeway as a first-time newb. I was also promised copious protection if anybody hassled me. Given the height and breadth of some of my male shire-mates, and the stern glint in their eyes when they said it, I believed them about that, too.
So there I was, all garbed up for my first SCA event. Hal had promised me a ride, so the only things missing were an affordable tent, my feast-gear which I would obtain at Merchant’s Row on Saturday morning, and my Robin Hood.
Alas, my noble-hearted rogue was off in California, attending art school because he could draw considerably better things than stick-figures. In fact, Kyle probably could have made stick-figures look quite fabulous if he’d been inclined, so he’d needed considerably better instruction than what was available at the university where we’d met. We had been separated for the greater part of our relationship, so as I drafted out fantastical gowns and dreamed of shining armor, I sang many swooning and mooning songs. I had Princess Bride and Robin Hood--both the sappy and the adventurous--on repeat, and I yearned for the day when my fiancé and I would be reunited for the final and eternal time.
Okay, okay, I admit it. I also mooned about how good Kyle's ass-whupping legs would look in tights. I wondered if I’d ever be able to convince him to attend an event with me and wear some. Or wear a kilt. Or knightly armor. Or even a T-tunic. I’d heard some guys preferred to go as commando in their tunics as Scotsmen were said to go beneath their kilts… 🤔🥰😍
Any of these options sounded good because my beloved looked extraordinary in (or out) of anything he wore.
Yes, someday I would be returned to Robin Hood’s loving arms, and I sincerely looked forward to him robbin’ my…neighborhood. He did, after all, possess the key to my heart and a whole lot more, and I couldn’t wait for him to get back to unlocking it all, now in a myriad medieval ways.
The unexpected death of Hal Jensen halted the frolicking in an instant. Not long after his garb party, I walked into the classroom where the university chapter met, expecting to be greeted by Hal’s huge grin and his bearhug.
Instead, I was met by a grim looking Meagan, and an equally grave face that never appeared at the on-campus meetings: James. One of Inner Sea’s leading lords had come to tell us that everybody’s favorite Viking had fallen. It hit me like a catapult stone to the heart, followed by the crossbow bolt of memory slamming into my brain. Another group of friends. Another unexpected death. Two-and-a-half years ago. I knew from experience--it was good that I wasn't on my feet when James told us.
The loss of Hal rocked our shire and far beyond. It cast a cloud of gloom over our meetings, practices, and events for months.
I did go to Castle Fever, but I rode with James. Our drive to Wisconsin was pleasant yet somber, and I kept looking out the window, wondering how leadfooty Halfdan would have been, what we would have been talking about as woodlands gave way to pastoral countryside and changed back to woods.
Hal and I had never struggled to find topics of conversation, and he had fast become one of my favorite people both on and off campus. Of all the people who knew him, I couldn't name a single one that didn't feel the same about him. He was one of our shire's primary meet-and-greet representatives, even though he hadn't been involved for all that long. It was simply his way, not only in the SCA but in his whole life.
Service and honor were Hal's middle names. He was a member of Alpha Phi Omega, a service-oriented fraternity, and he ran the on-campus escort service. If you were nervous about walking across campus alone, you could call that organization and someone would be there to ensure you got to your destination safely. His generosity, selflessness, protectiveness, and kindness had recently earned him the Sieur Du Lhut Award for outstanding leadership and service.
In my near half-century on this planet, rarely have I encountered a more extraordinary person than Halden Jensen. Even fewer have blessed me by calling me "friend."
Unlike so many guys who flung that word around when all they really wanted was to get into my pants, Hal truly meant it. He demonstrated this, not only in how he treated me, but more so how he treated everyone around us with the same courtesy and enthusiastic consideration. In our brief friendship, we had spent many a night plotting garb and armor with the crew as we watched period movies. We talked history and nerded into the wee hours about everything under the sun. Shortly before his death, a group of us had gone to the opening of the most talked-about movie of the season: Braveheart.
I found it a fitting last movie to have watched with him, and couldn’t stop hearing bagpipes the whole way to the event.
In spite of our melancholy, James proved a wonderful travel companion. He was one of the father figures of the Shire, equally friendly, geeky and talkative, and I couldn't have asked for a more knowledgable veteran to show me the ropes.
Well after the sun had set, we pulled up to the registration tent. It was marked with a sign that read “Troll” for the old legend about trolls guarding the bridge. Once we’d registered, paid the site fee, and signed the release waiver, we received our site tokens--stamped silver medallions that hung on a piece of twine. We were required to wear these everywhere we went.
Once the pleasant and welcoming Trolls ushered us onward, we entered fairytale land. Friday night was the only time that vehicles were allowed in the camping area, in order to leave the illusion as undisturbed as possible. Same with wearing “mundane” clothing. (I hear it’s now encouraged to call it “modern” for PC reasons, but back then it was “mundane.”) Our arrival clothes were allowed only long enough to set up camp, although I would soon notice that plenty of Scadians even did that fully costumed--excuse me, “garbed up.”
Some also liked to drive to and from the site in garb. Extra bonus if stops for gas, food, or supplies needed to be done. They called this game “Scaring the Mundanes,” something I was already used to from my days in theater when we would all go out to eat after a show in our stage makeup.
But that first night, James eased me in gently. We road-tripped in modern clothing and he only switched to his reenactment dialect once we pulled into Troll. He was also a player at the Renaissance Festival, so his accent was well-honed.
By the time we drove to the area designated for our shire, many people had already arrived. Ladies in veils and sweeping gowns strolled the road, their long trains swishing behind. Lords--yes, in tights, kilts and tunics--congregated around the fires with drinking horns and huge tankards. Children scampered through the lantern-lit campsites in little tunics or pretty gowns. Another lady with an ornate crown entered a campsite with her tiny dog, and everyone rose to bow or curtsey.
My owl-eyes drank it all in. “Is she a queen?” I asked.
James smiled. “No. Her Royal Majesty is not scheduled to attend this event. It’s a small one, and she is from Ealdormere.” At my raised eyebrow, he explained, “Ontario. Ealdormere is another principality in our kingdom, the Kingdom of the Middle or just the Midrealm.”
“Midrealm? What’s it in the middle of?”
He laughed. “The East and West Kingdoms.”
“Oh…” I could see that I was going to need a map to keep it all straight. “So if that lady wasn’t a queen, why is she wearing a crown and why did everybody bow to her?”
“She was wearing a coronet, not a crown. Did you see the six round balls on top of it?”
I shook my head. All I’d seen was the shiny.
“Well, that is how you know she’s a Baroness, and they bow to her because she is nobility.”
Make that a map and a handbook of the rules and customs. Also the special dialect.
His deep baritone laugh rumbled out. “You’ll get the hang of it in no time." As James brought the truck to a halt, he swept his hand toward the campsite. "Here we are. Home-sweet-home for the weekend.”
I leaned forward to peer through the driver's side window at my new home. When I saw it, I gasped in wonder.
CHOOSE YOUR OWN ADVENTURE
--UP NEXT: THE SCA BY DAY - My Corners of Make-Believe
--I wrote more about Hal HERE. R.I.P.
--OR: There are more newbie costuming adventures from this era HERE.
--THE NAVIGATION TABLE OF CONTENTS
GEEKING LINKS --Society for Creative Anachronism
--A boatload of SCA Garb patterns on Pinterest
--Historical Sewing, Research & Shenanigans
--A massive playlist on Garb & Hairstyles