Well, it has been a while, hasn’t it? I hope to get back to this blog more often in the future. I’ll be starting a PhD in the Fall, studying the 18thC again. I'll be spending the summer getting back into that mindset and with that, some blog entries on re-enacting and life in the 18thC.
Last evening, we had a pretty good conversation about re-enacting, and getting started. I have never felt that this hobby need be expensive. Your largest purchase should be your tent, your home away from home. But even that doesn’t have to be expensive, if you choose wisely and make timely decisions.
Ok, so where does a person start? I have long though that the personal kit and clothing should come first. What are the basics? Well, looking at the 18thC, you’ll need a shift/shirt, petticoats or breeches, some kind of sleeved garment, and a hat. Oh, and shoes, but I’ll chat about that later. This basic kit would also work in other time periods, just figure out what the basics of dress are for the group you want to play with and go from there.
That’s an important note; find out what the standards are for the group you want to play with. Get to know people in that group as they will be an invaluable resource.
OK, so your first step is going to be learning how to sew. Trust me, this will make your entrance into the hobby so much cheaper and better for all around. If you could poke your siblings with your fingers repeatedly growing up, you can learn to sew. It’s basically poking fabric with a needle. Just as easy as your brother’s arm, and people will like you better for trying. Not everyone knows how to make patterns from scratch. Even I will use commercial patterns from time to time to shorten my workload. There are some really great ones out there and some really horrible ones. Find out from your group which ones they like to use, they may even have lending copies that you can use.
Each group has some form of “good, better, best” dress regulations. I am going to lay out what I think are my “good” standards. Start off with civilian kit. Even the military units had people who started out in civilian dress. You can do all the drill, have all the fun and become part of your group much quicker if you start out with basic civilian kit. And you’ll feel more confident, because it’s yours. Start out by asking around if people close to you, ie, Mum, has any left over, natural fibre fabrics from other projects. Do some research to see what would be appropriate for your character. If in doubt, stick to solid colours, colours found in nature. If nobody close has any left over bits, head to the fabric store. Ask the ladies at the store where the bargain fabrics are kept. Ask for help. Tell them you need natural fibres if at all possible. Really, trust me, it’s not just a “period, or not” issue, but also a safety issue and a comfort issue.
Here are the rough estimates you’ll need for each garment:
1. Shirt/Shift – 3metres of White, or very pale Natural Linen, or cotton/linen blend. This garment covers most of your core body, and below your bottom.
2. Breeches/Petticoats – This garment covers from your waist down, to the appropriate length. Breeches usually take two leg lengths, from your actual waist to below your knees. Get someone else you measure this length. Petticoats take three leg lengths from actual waist to ankles. Again, ask someone else to take this measurement. If you don’t know where your actual waist is, tie a snug elastic around your waist and see where it wants to hang out, that’s your actual waist. Modern waistlines are way down on our hips.
3. Sleeved garments – This is without question the most hotly contested garment in the hobby. Just take my word for it and wear one while you are in public, at all times, even when it’s hot, yes, just do it. For men, this can be a sleeved waistcoat, that garment will take about 3metres of cloth, one for each the back and front, one metre for sleeves. Most garments of this type would have been lined, so 3 of fashion fabric, 3m of lightweight, natural coloured linen for the lining. For women, you can start out with a simple ‘T’ shaped bedgown, lined or unlined. The fabric measure is roughly twice the measurement from shoulder to hip.
4. Hats and caps – Your hair needs to be kept in a period fashion and covered at all times. Much like the debate over sleeves, just do it and don’t complain. You will get used to having something on your head in short order and folks will appreciate your trying. For women, little fancy linen caps can be made or bought relatively cheaply. For men, you can start out with a simple beanie style workman’s cap until you get the funds together for a tricorn hat. A workman’s cap can come in several patterns, the easiest I’ve found being a tube that is gathered up at one end. The tube fits your head, and should be longer than a ball cap so that it flops over to one side.
5. Shoes (and socks) – Not everyone can afford Sarah Juniper shoes, they are the dream shoes of most re-enactors. I started off with a simple military style, heeled, oxford shoe. The plainer the better. Men can get away with black dress shoes. Again, the plainer, the better. These can come from second hand or army surplus shops. You needn’t spend a lot of money on these, especially since you’ll be wanting proper shoes before too long. The next step up in footwear is either Fugawee or Jas. Townsend. They will run you between $100 and $250. They are good, basic quality footwear. Then, you can look at more expensive, and possibly custom footwear. That’s where Sarah’s shoes come in, at the top of the custom market. You will get some fabulous shoes from her though, hand made in the proper technique. Socks should be either knee length or longer. I have cut the panties out of tights, bought plain cotton knee socks, and have knit my own wool stockings. There are many places that you can find good socks for very little money. Get ones with really opaque coverage, and ones long enough to go over your knees so they stay tucked into your breeches cuff.
6. Eating kit – Start scouring the second hand shops. Here you can often find wooden salad bowls that will suit the purpose for many years to come. Many re-enactors carry a wooden bowl throughout their entire career. Look for one that you can drink coffee from, or soup, or eat a basic meal from. Then you’ll need a knife and a spoon. You’ll have to do some research here, to find out what styles are suitable for the period you are doing. Spoon shapes change over the course of a two hundred year period, as do knife styles. Do some looking and asking around before you buy, so you don’t get left with something that doesn’t work, you aren’t happy with, and you can’t sell.
7. Sleeping kit – Again, head out to the second hand shops and the army surplus. You’ll need to find yourself a wool blanket. If you can find this indispensable piece of gear, you don’t need a tent right away. You can find shelter just about anywhere in camp, or in the bush. Most men on the march had just a wool blanket for bedding. If you are allergic to wool, line it with a plain coloured flannel sheet, white if possible.
8. Luggage – The other piece of indispensable kit, the market wallet. Pack all your gear that you aren’t wearing on your body in this. It is a rectangle of fabric stitched together along the long edge to form a tube. Leave the center of this seam open, and hem, about a third. Then place the long seam in the center of the tube and stitch the short ends shut. Roll your wool blanket up and small as possible and tie shut. One man, one kit. This works for woman too.
With this basic kit, you can hitch a ride to the event with just about anyone. You’ll be fairly self sufficient with very little space being taken up. If you stop along the way for supplies, some bread and good cheese and a bit of oatmeal will take you through most meals fairly cheaply. Remember that most re-enacting persona, in period, would not have had much. For the most part, they are basic soldiers or they are refugees. Think about your kit with regards to how you would have carried it in period. If it’s on your back, you don’t want much. A basic civilian kit could cost you as little as $100. Once you’ve got it down and spent a summer in the field, only then start to expand your gear. Then you’ll know what works for you and what doesn’t, and what works for the group you’re now a member of.
Most importantly, have fun. Oh, and leave your phone and your modern wrist watch in the car, you won't need them and will enjoy the experience so much more if you really live it. Trust me.