Archive for August, 2012

Elderberry wine is started


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That’s me, helping Thorgeir take out the core from the bowl he made on his spring pole lathe.

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A Glut of Elderberries

I think I have at least 5 lb, which will be more than enough to make a small batch of wine and some tarts, or possibly a syrup. Researching elderberry wine history has been a little frustrating. The best source has been John Evelyn, but he lived in the 1600’s. Many websites cite Hippocrates, Dioscorides and Pliny, but never footnote anything. Most use suspiciously similar language, which is never a good sign. I have a recipe I like, from http://winemaking.jackkeller.net/elderber.asp, that isn’t too wildly different from Evelyn’s recipe. Compared to finding solid evidence to support making this folk wine/medicine, making the wine should be easy.

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Part of the Parks Canada programming at l’Anse aux Meadows this year was a series of courses offered by members of the Dark Ages Recreation Company (DARC) team. In addition to lectures on the Oseburg Find and norse fashion, demonstrations of bead making and coin minting, there were hands-on classes to learn tablet weaving and naalbinding. I taught this along with Thora (Parks staff), Aesa and Kadlinn. At the first class, Aesa got people started in a way that was very effective; this has always been something I really struggled with, so I am sharing her method here.

First, make a slip knot at one end of a piece of wool yarn (make a loop so that the short end is underneath, then reach through the loop to catch the underneat section and pull it up – not all the way through – and pull the ends to tighten the original loop around your new loop)

Thread your needle on to the long end of the yarn. Holding your loop at the knot so everything is flat, thread the needle down through the centre of the loop, then out over the tail of your yarn (a blanket stitch). Repeat this about six times.

Pull on the short end of your slip knot to make it very small. You should now have a tight circle of blanket stitch loops.

Continue making blanket stitches in a circle, threading your needle through each loop in the previous row of stitches for each blanket stitch. You can increase the number of stitches (and keep your work flat) by doing two blanket stitches in each loop. As you work, you can add extra loops every two or three stitches, or as often as required to achieve the shape you want.

Eventually, you will run out of yarn. Cut a new piece, then unravel the plying at one end, and fluff up the individual fibres. Don’t be afraid to fluff up 4-6 inches – the longer the better. Do the same unplying and fluffing to the end of the yarn that is in your work. Then rub the two fluffed ends together vigorously to felt them together. A little water helps (most people just use a bit of spit. I don’t know why it seems to work better). Once it is well felted, rethread your needle and continue as before.

Here is a picture that demonstrates each of the steps:


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Dyeing experiments

Last week, I tried three dyeing experiments. Here are some pictures of what I tried. The first used horsehair plant in sea water in a copper pot, with a few alder twigs thrown in for tannin. The pot was boiled up and left to sit overnight. I then added wet wool, heated it for several hours, then left it in the pot over night.

The second experiment used alder leaves and twigs in brook water in the copper pot. This time, I simply cooked up the alder and wool at the same time, simmered it for several hours and then left it over night.

The third experiment used the inner bark of silver birch. As I noted in an earlier post, the birch was soaked for about 24 hours, then heated with the wool for several hours and left to cool for a second night. I’ll be re-trying this one with salt water and an iron pot, as Thora says she has gotten nice bright colours that way. 

Here are some pictures of the results. The first one shows the horsehair dye (very pale greeny beige) and alder (an okay yellow). The second shows the birch (pale salmon). I’ll add another that shows all three experiments together, along with the original undyed wool to show the changes, as soon as I can get a copy from the photograper.


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I was asked to make a replacement bowstring. I know nothing about medieval archery, so after some consultation with the archers here and Russ, an archer in Peterborough Ontario, I decoded to make it of hemp, using slyng (whicpcording). I did a four-string cord. For the top end, I started the slyng part-way down the threads, so that I could make a loop and splice in the loose ends. This gave me a much stronger loop than simply tying a bowline. The other end was to be attached with a boyer’s knot (timber hitch), though I’m not convinced I actually tied one properly. There was no serving (the bit in the middle of the bow string that protects the string from the arrow nock), as there is no evidence one way or the other. I didn’t wax the string to protect it, but the owner will do so later.

Jorunn and I making the bowstring using slyng.

Detail of the splice, above.

Following the advice of Ragnarr (the resident blacksmith, who comes from a fishing family) about splicing rather than using a bowline, I went back to my braided horsehair fishing line and tried splicing the hair in to form a loop, rather than whipping the end, as the whipped end came apart too easily. Splicing horsehair proved to be very challenging, however. Eventually I got a rather messy splice in place – it holds fairly well, but I plan to reinforce it with a whipped end. I also tried twisting the horsehairs and plying them, but the splice didn’t hold there either. My next experiment will be to try using slyng to make a splice, just like I did for the bowstring. I am also going to try and get hold of some pitch to help “glue” the whipping and splices into place. I haven’t documented this to the Viking age yet, but I saw something similar at Louisbourg and this has given me a lot of ideas for future research into things to do with rope and cord.

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