Stitching Through Time…Appreciating Your Wonderful Talents!

My Grandma Novak, now in her 90s, has spent a lifetime developing a skill that in current days, is rather uncommon…

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She is a master embroiderer, an artist of cross-stitch…

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She’s learned every technique, using every sort of thread, bead and pattern…

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She worked in the quaintest of stitch shops for some years, offering advice and assistance to others learning and practicing the craft…

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She attended events for embroidery, entered her fine works and won awards for her special pieces…

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I’ve viewed her stitching, hung around her house, all of my life. I even tried my hand at cross-stitching once and had a little fun with it, though the bug didn’t bite me (this art form requires a very particular, loving patience)…

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As I recently snapped a few photos at Grandma’s, I got up-close to some of her works and was awed. I was awed at my grandma’s hard-earned talent, but also for everyone out there who works to learn and perfect an art over the years…

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I got to pondering, how often do we wonder what it’s truly worth, concerning our individual passions and talents? I mean, who will ever really see and appreciate those things we work hard at? You might spend hundreds of hours practicing or producing something that hardly gets but a fleeting premier out in the world. I sometimes think that way about my books…

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But I guess when I thought about it, I truly felt that if you love what you are doing, you must enjoy every moment of it, no matter who may ever deeply appreciate what you’ve accomplished. Sew, knit, dance, write, sing, cook, plant, bake, click your camera, marathon, draw, create…Stay Inspired…enjoy your passions and pursuits, for you.

But just in case we ever feel that our special talents are hardly appreciated, I’m certain that we’re wrong. You inspire someone else, right now! Of course, no one can truly grasp the time and hardship it took to do what you do, except you. But others do see and admire what you do and make in this world…I promise!

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 Grandma Novak, your stitching is the most special in the world. Mom, you are a true artist with a beautiful imagination and your costumery is incredible. Grandma Ina, your garden is alive with color and bounty because of your caring hands, and you’ll always be the best cook I know. Charlie, your drum solos are amazing and your commitment to music and percussion is awesome. Dad, your master creations in the garage are truly extraordinary.

Thank you for inspiring, me.

Lady In A Green Dress

This one was called the green dress, for the light olive color. It was a beloved gown (and still is, though there is no way I could squeeze into it nowadays). I wore this one for two seasons as a courtier in the Bristol Renaissance Faire’s Guilde of St. George when I was 20-21 years old…

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Lita, artist and designer, has a way of making elegant creations without the showy additions. Simple is often the most beautiful. How much fun I had running around Bristol’s enchanting outdoors in that dress!

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Lita is also quite the milliner, having made this hat from scratch. Oh yes, this woman has ninja milliner skills. Using plastic cross stitch canvas, she cut out the parts of the hat with precision (how does she do it? I’m not even sure I know how to use a measuring tape properly), then did the same with velvet fabric, and then handstitched the entire thing. She measured my head so that it would fit like a glove. It still does all these years later (for I guess heads don’t get bigger over time the way waistlines are apt to do).

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I danced a lot of courtly dances in that gown, and still remember the sway of the skirt as it swished over the farthingale. How merry!

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I also had a jolly time tripping over dozens of inanimate objects, like that hapless cushion there on the ground. I did it gracefully however, as if I hadn’t a care in the world…

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I also often swung on an enormous swing in that dress, an attempt to get a breeze in the 90 degree weather!

And, I remained dutiful in my role as a maid of honour to Her Majesty, Queen Elizabeth I. She is there at the front of the line wearing her noble purple. Oh heavens! How much fun, and how much history I learned. The memories of my days in that green gown are priceless…

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Lita (artist) and I (author) are still working diligently to prepare for this year’s opening day at the Bristol Renaissance Faire! We will be getting to know our tented shop this very weekend, considering how we will delight guests with our displays of historical fiction & fantasy books and art. We are The Quill and Brush and you will find us on King’s Landing at the perimeter of Lake Elizabeth. Opening day is July 9th! We can’t wait to see you there!

Pretty As A Picture

These photos are of my cousin, who is some years younger than I (though now a young woman). Lita (my mother, artist & costumer) made this Elizabethan gown for her for an outing at the Bristol Renaissance Faire.

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This little lady was so patient (in quite warm weather and having never worn a full costume before), and so polite (walking here and there with grace), and so pretty! I don’t know how she did it; when I was her age (and well beyond it) I fussed a great deal with my costumes (squawking when something didn’t fit) and romped around like a wild thing on the run (hardly graceful). She was a natural! A true noble!

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The headpiece was spectacularly stitched with pearls lining the top and a veil hanging from the back. The white and green color combination smiled upon youth and innocence. The entire silhouette was perfect, with a crisp bodice and perfectly measured skirts over just the right size of farthingale. Such a well crafted costume!

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And look at that pretty smile, the perfect accessory for such an ensemble!

I think kiddos make the best historical reenactors; mini nobles and peasants, awesome! They make the reenacting of history more authentic. For instance, it is ever obvious when adults are acting in their costumes (as much as they try to be a merchant or lady-in-waiting, etc.). But when children are dressed up and start playing, talking and running, they forget that they are in costume and just behave naturally (just being, not acting).

My cousin was a lovely addition that day, and certainly convinced all that she was a noble young lady from the days of yore!

A Merry Band

This photo was taken when I was about to turn 13. I’m the one to the top, furthest left. Lita made all of the peasant costumes shown here and all of the kiddos were the children of a couple who were friends with my folks. My mom put in a good bit of work to make sure everyone had a costume for our special outing. What a merry band of children we made! Running, yelling, laughing! It was summer and a festival day!

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I grew up an only child and things were quiet for me. Being just one, I was also very independent. So, it was always a romping experience to gather with this troupe of brothers and sisters for a summer barbecue, a weekend camping outing, or a trip to the amusement park. But the best excursion of course, was to the Bristol Renaissance Faire! What fun we had!

Always A Lady

I had this dress on my mind today, remembering when I was but a youth. I was about 13 years old here, but I recall this dress like it was yesterday. I don’t want to make the other gowns jealous…but it’s my favorite.

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I love that in this dress, all that was around me was exciting and I wanted to learn everything about Renaissance history.

I love that it meant time with my mom at our favorite place; the trees, the music, the costumes, and those summer grilled foods.

I love that I was wearing something that my mom made for me during the dull winter, but that when spring came and I tried it on for the first time during alterations, I had something to look forward to…summer, dressing in a costume, being dazzled by a world of courtiers, merchants and fools!

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I love how I felt: happy, healthy and alive on this single day. It teaches me to strive to take advantage of each day that I have right now. I don’t want to take anything for granted.

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I have a distinct memory from that day. A court actor in an elegant gown said, “All you need is a hoop, and then you’ll be a lady.” It was a harmless remark; noble Elizabethan ladies wore farthingales under their skirts. She meant that once my costume had a hoop, I’d look like a noble. Sadly, I didn’t understand. I wondered why I wasn’t already a lady, when I thought I was. I felt sad. Children don’t always understand what adults mean.

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I was a persistent child however, and my mother ordered me a little hoop in a tiny catalogue of historic recreation pieces. It was a big deal to send in a check and an order form, waiting for that hoop. No internet orders back then!

I had my hoop, and Lita crafted many more gowns, and with them were more hoops. And I grew up.

But remembering this dress and this day, farthingale or no, I certainly was a lady. I’m thankful for the wonderful women in my life, who set the example. They wore no hoops at all, just jeans!

Lady Of A Summer’s Day

Another one of Lita’s magnificent creations, the one we call the ‘mother’s dress’. This image was taken when I was 22 years old, the role was a reenactment of a Lady Mary Hastings of Queen Elizabeth’s court. She was a married woman with children, and Lita designed the gown to appear modest and mature (a closed partlet, natural colors, no excessive flash).

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Of all the costumes, this one wins the award for perfect fit! When one is reenacting history, and wearing a costume, it shouldn’t look like a costume. What the actor is wearing should look like their everyday clothing. In this gown, I actually felt like a normal woman going about my day, no tugging, adjusting, agonies (from cutting corsets or sharp and loose boning). The gown was not too heavy, no back aches or tripping over hems, the weight was perfectly balanced.

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I was very fond for how the collar was delicately tacked down with little gold beads instead of plastered around my neck. I can’t stand any clothing around my neck (I would have made a fussy Elizabethan having to wear all those starched lacy collars). I also loved the fabric textures and colors; natural color combinations can look every bit as rich as bright ones. And, I loved all the muted gold cording at the sleeve ties and around the hem of the overskirt, as well as the olive velvet lining the hem and running up either side of the forepart.

It was just the kind of simple yet noble gown I could see meandering around an English manor house in, and one Lita envisioned for that lady of history, something Lady Hastings might have worn on any normal day.

Pretty in Paisley

Lita and I are known to have long, animated conversations about costumes, history, and a variety of topics that fall within. We reference period films, look at printouts of centuries old paintings and discuss costumes we’ve seen here and there. And so, for each of her creations, we have a name for it so that parts of them can be easily referenced. This one is the paisley dress.

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These images were taken when I was 16, in the backyard taking a stroll. We named it the paisley dress because of the pattern in the bodice and forepart (which in these photos is tied up the front).

For an Elizabethan dress, an ornate forepart would be seen at a downward V at the front. However, how useful to be able to tie up the overskirt to save the fine forepart from damage in inclement weather!

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This was one of her first Elizabethan gowns, and though not worn with any frequency, found its way out of doors on a number of occasions. The farthingale was slight and we were not using a bumroll, so the silhouette was natural.

I absolutely adored the flaps of fabric at the bottom of the bodice, which gave it such a crisp look. The bodice was firmly made and the fabric itself was a striking gold and maroon.

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Of course, I felt like quite the lady! Nothing better than sauntering around the yard in a gown. I’m not embarrassed to say, I’ve done it a great many times.

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Lita was making me laugh, she always does. Over the years, she’s made it difficult to keep a straight face when it was most appropriate to do so. But what is life if you don’t laugh, and often!

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I don’t think my bangs were the appropriate hairstyle for the Elizabethan period, but they sure were when I was 16! Ah, costume nostalgia…think I’ll drive over and dig through Lita’s costume room, take another twirl in the yard. Oh wait, it’s only 7 degrees outside…that stroll may have to wait!

Feather Fans & Candlelight

These were taken when I was about 15 years old. Lita had the delightful whim to make an 18th century style dress, though there was no plan for the gown to be worn anywhere. In fact, this may have been one of the only times it was worn. The fabric was a very soft turquoise-blue color, a satin blend (stiffer, less wrinkly, less static).

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These were captured while I stood in the living room, taking the dress for a spin. I love that they are in black and white, though I wish we had some in color too. 18th century style gowns required panniers to extend the hips. Here however, pillows tied around my hips made substitute. I think her ensemble is charming!

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At that point, I didn’t have any particular interest in 18th century history, but every other period instead it seemed. However, we’d watched Dangerous Liaisons, The King’s Mistress, Amadeus and countless other period films that pointed that direction, more than a few times each. Period movie buffs, yes we were! And still are!! Where’s the popcorn and Raisinets?!

So, it is fun to find these photos where Lita was inspired to that era, long before we flew to Venice to don costumes for the Carnevale, and long before I’d started writing Venice, which nurtures that century and its clothing in detail throughout the book.

That’s an artist for you; their sewing machine (or brush or pen…) takes them wherever they are led to go, whenever inspiration bites. Love it!

Candy Canes On My Shoulders

Just starting college, I was fortunate enough to join the Guilde of St. George, a group reenacting the court of Queen Elizabeth I. Their home is the Bristol Renaissance Faire in Kenosha, WI, though they also volunteer at schools, libraries and other venues, to share Elizabethan history. Here is Lita’s (the costumer) fabulous creation!red3.jpg

These first three images were polaroid photos! I guess we didn’t have time to spare, we needed the photos in hand immediately. They were taken in the spring just before my first summer in the guilde. Ah, the anticipation I felt! I’d already been attending Elizabethean dance and reenacting workshops all that spring.

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These were taken before the dress was completed. It is fun now to look at before and afters, as they remind you of the phases that a gown must go through to get the right fit. I was to wear this dress for about 10.5 hours each Saturday and Sunday for 9 weekends in weather that grew into the mid-nineties, and humid at that, over outdoor terrain (rocks, roots, hills). Even after dress rehearsals, I better understood how the dress and I were getting along, and Lita made some adjustments.

Here, the hem was yet to be measured. Lita already knew (with that clever-artist-sewing-brain), but I learned that the front must be higher (or you trip 50 times a day) and the back longer to cover the bum role to get the correct silhouette. Also, one must make the chemise sleeves longer than your shirt sleeves would normally be. Once you get the bodice on, it pulls the sleeves up and they’ll be too short otherwise.  I also learned that before you work with fabric, you must wash the fabric (even a few times). This is because, unwashed fabric inevitably either bleeds color or shrinks dramatically once exposed to rain or a spilled goblet of water.

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We also discovered that in spite of the excellent wire boning that was used within the bodice, a serious corsette (as every noblewoman reinactor in the guilde wears), is the only way to keep the bodice from folding at the tummy. The following season, Lita made one excellent corsette (which I think straightened me out and made me grow taller by 2 inches).

In the end (seen below at the faire), the cream petticoat (underskirt) was removed for this striped one. Did you know that Elizabethans wore stripes? Yes indeed! The cream would not do out of doors, as it became grimy with dust the first day. And, I had a serious thing for chocolate ice cream at the time, oops! The sleeve ties were removed in favor of hidden hooks and eyes as I get ribbons caught on everything.

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Though I’ve always said I have a favorite amongst all the gowns that Lita has made, it’s actually not true. I have a place in my heart for every one. What did I love about this gown? First, the pearls. I am a sucker for pearls. Those strands around my body…if it was acceptable to wear pearls like that today, strung and swinging around my torso, I’d be the lady to do it. I love how the pearls are dotted everywhere, even the hat. Secondly, Lita’s chemise was incredible. It is painstaking work to hand-fold the cotton at the neck and at the wrists before sewing it into the body of the shirt. That with the pretty little bands of color that played off the gown, loved it. But my favorite part? The upper part of the bodice was her best bodice work in my opinion. The stiff candy cane shoulder rolls and exceptional design kept the bodice from falling down my arms or shifting (I’ve got sloping shoulders and get pretty darn grouchy when my costumes shift about).

It was so exciting to be a part of the guilde that first season, and I learned a great deal of history. But you know what made such delightful memories? The workshops, the dance classes, and all the planning with Lita. We’re like history gossip girls when we get together, we can talk costumes and history for hours!

A Little Peasant Girl

This photo is a special one for me. Though not the very first costume, it was one of the first little renaissance dresses that my mother made for me. This was taken at the Bristol Renaissance Faire when I was about eight years old.

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I, like other children who visit the festival, was fascinated with all the performances, games and shops. I couldn’t wait to go to this faire each summer, and we’d visit often during the 9 weekends that the festival is open. I remember waking up on summer Saturday mornings like it was Christmas, so excited to dress up and go to Bristol. We’d hop in my mom’s jeep and off we went, a whole day out of doors, cheered by the spectacles, the music, the sounds, the festival food.

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I was very, very happy. This was the time my excitement sparked for history, the root of where I became inspired to imagine and dream, the reason I became an insatiable reader and eventually a writer.

And though I’ve heard my mother say that her early creations were a little rough around the edges (because she was just teaching herself to sew), I’d say to all those aspiring to make costumes for your children and yourself, or in taking up any art form for that matter…imperfections don’t matter, the experience of making, your learning and the joy your creations give others, is what does.

This dress was perfect, mom.

All The Pretty Things Part II

Ugh, I’m injured! Nothing catastrophic, just a mean pulled muscle in my neck. Sleeping wrong? Lack of stretching before I exercised? Stretching my neck to look at the pastries in the bakery window? Who knows. And there’s a second injury…my foot slipped and I kicked the leg of the dining room table yesterday. One of those bizarre little accidents that don’t look too bad, until you start to feel some sort of painful internal swelling. So now I can’t turn my head without wincing and I’m limping. It’s my pretty look.

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Before bed last night, I had a heat pack on my neck and an icepack on my foot. But thanks to the very friend who I wrote about in my post All The Pretty Things, I heated up that pulled muscle in style!

This is her creation! Using fabric scraps, she sews a pouch and fills them with cherry pits! I’d never heard of this before until I saw one that she’d made. She said she’d been using them for years and they’ve been a comfort to her family. You place it in the microwave and heat it for a short time and all of the cherry pits soak in the heat and keep the pouch warm. When the heat runs out, you simply reheat. You can reuse the same pouch for years.

Last night, I was so thankful that she’d gifted me with one. It eased my neck pain before bed and I was able to fall asleep. For all those crafty folks out there, this would be an excellent holiday present! It’s a truly useful gift that keeps on giving! And it’s pretty too!

All The Pretty Things

For some time, I had this blouse that was ill fitting. If I were honest, I don’t even think it fit properly the day I purchased it, but I loved the colors and the fabric so much that I bought it anyway. And every time I wore it, it just didn’t feel right. After many wears, I simply gave up.

For those who know me, I’m neither a shopper nor a keeper. I don’t like shopping for clothes at all, and when I’m through with a garment, I have no trouble throwing it away if it is ruined or giving it to charity if it isn’t. Only, I couldn’t part with this blouse! I’d look at it in the closet all of the time and knew that if I wore it, I’d just feel uncomfortable all day. But what to do with it?

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I have a lovely friend and mentor who is fabulous with a sewing machine. One day, she told me that together with her young daughter, they’d made little bags to give away as party favors for a birthday party, using fabric scraps. When I saw photos, I felt the outcome was exceptional…the kiddos at that birthday party went away with a very special gift to remember the event! And then, I thought of my blouse.

This photo is the result. This mother-daughter team repurposed my beloved blouse so exceptionally that I felt the quality was better than what I’d find in a shop. With what they were able to render from my top, there were three bags of different sizes made. I love them. I use them all of the time.

However, these are more than pretty bags. They embody re-use, and happily with an item I couldn’t part with. But also, they are caring craftsmanship by two ladies who were proud of the work of their hands, thus making something beautiful and useful. Rather than just another thing I own, they make me smile when I use them because they are special. They remind me of how lucky I am for the friendships in my life. And they remind me of what it means to not just gobble up yet another thing at the big chain store, but to value the good things in my life.