Category Archives: clothing

Spinning as a noble woman’s activity


I’m right now working on a baby blanket for a dear friend. Instead of going to the craft store and buying some big ol’ skeins of acrylic, I decided to be totally crazy and knit the blanket out of an organic merino that I handspun myself. And I don’t use a spinning wheel. I use a top-whorl drop spindle. The yarn weight is fingering size or thereabouts. Between the yarn weight and the intricacy of the knit (a basketweave) and the fact that I have to repeatedly stop knitting to spin up more yarn, to say this blanket is taking awhile to finish is an understatement.

The Royal Palace in Palermo was renowned in the Norman era for its tiraz, or silkworks, and the island produced a lot of silk, in raw materials (reeled silk and yarns) and in finished fabric. The amount of silk used by the palace actually amazed visitors to the island; Alexander of Telese famously noted that during the coronation feast of Roger II, even the servers were clad in silk. Though the embroiderers at the tiraz seemed, especially in the Norman later years, to be eunuch males (ibn Jubayr interviewed one of these embroiderers when he visited Sicily in the reign of William II), many of the weavers, and definitely the spinners, were women and girls.

And one thing knitting my blanket and my take on the cap of St. Denis has given me insight into, every single pair of hands that could possibly produce threads and yarns were probably needed to keep the tiraz’s production up to speed. Most of the scholars who have written about the tiraz are often men and definitely not engaged in fiber arts. I don’t think they understand just how intensively every woman and girl needed to spin and reel, and how long this takes.

This, my friends, is a degummed silk cocoon in which the worm has been allowed to get out:

Because of the closeup, this looks much larger than it actually is. It’s actually only about two inches long and fluffy because the fibers have been pulled out in the action of taking it out the bag (where it stuck to the mass of cocoons in there). I’ve angled it so you can see the open end. Handling it is very interesting; the fibers catch upon the slightest roughness on my fingertips. Shea butter is my friend.

This is my spindle. That’s about half a cocoon hanging off there, the fibers of which I am drawing onto the spindle as singles, and then using a modern-day ply on the fly technique to make into a 3-stranded yarn for knitting. That’s the result of about 20 cocoons so far.

This type of cocoon would not have been used by the spinners of the tiraz, however; because the worm was allowed to chew its way out, there are many short and broken fibers. Because of this, instead of getting a nice long continuous fiber when I spin, the short and broken fibers produce a thread that’s slubby. What the spinners would have used was reeled silk. Let Cindy Myers, the Silkewoman, show you her method of how to reel silk from cocoons and what reeled silk looks like.

Think of all the silk that had to be reeled, twisted, dyed, and woven to produce King Roger II’s cloak. Really think about this, and you can understand why Roger’s palace (and the palaces of William I and William II) were filled with mostly unnamed women and girls (we only know the regents such as Adelaide and the queens such as Elvira). Whether Christian, Muslim, or Jewish, noble, free woman, or slave, they weren’t sitting on their butts praying and embroidering (the noble Christian ladies), bathing in fountains and eating peeled grapes (the Muslim slave girls) and waiting for the king and his warriors to get home. We already know that in 1147, when the Normans sacked Thebes, hundreds of silk workers, mostly women, were taken back to Palermo to help improve the tiraz. But there was a tiraz at the palace when the Muslims held the island, and after the Normans conquered the island, they certainly would have wanted to continue such a prestigious – and lucrative – business.

One thing that I’ve built into my persona, Adelisa Salernitana, is that she spins silk yarns and threads as a supplementary source of income and as an activity as a royal lady-in-waiting. It is known that in the nearby Fatimid court, royal women did spin; famously, Rashida, the daughter of the caliph al-Mu’izz, was said to have “earned her living from spinning yarn and never laid a hand on anything from the royal treasury for her subsistence.” Incidentally, her sister ‘Abda has reputed to have at least 30,000 pieces of Sicilian cloth at her death (“Women and the Fatimids in the World of Islam,” by Delia Cortese and Simonette Calderini).

Keeping the women gainfully occupied was also a concern of the Fatimid vizier al-Afdal, who at his death in 1121 had among his effects two trunks full of gold needles for the use of the female slaves and the women of his harem.

Here’s another example of how important this work was even in upper class households. A century after Roger II lived, the Damascene scholar Shihab al-Din Abu Shama composed a poem in praise of his wife, Sitt al-‘Arab bt. Sharaf al-Din al-‘Abdari.  He extols her noble lineage, her wisdom, her mercy towards orphans, and her many virtues, including her contribution to the household income. He writes:

She always attends to household chores

despite her youth she shies away from nothing

tiraz embroidery, needlework with golden threads

cutting cloth, sewing and spinning

She moves from this to that and from that to this

not to mention the cleaning, the cooking and the washing.

(“Marriage , Money, and Divorce in Medieval Islamic Society,” by Yosef Rapoport)

I reason that if Adelisa wanted to build a life for herself and her soldier-husband outside the court, she had to raise money, and the best way for her to do that – and the most traditional – was by spinning. With a royal workshop to be supplied, threads she spun would have gone into secular and sacred textiles, to her profit.

In motion, part 2


The beautiful and fabulous dancer Lee Ali has just shared several photos of my performance at the Tapestry dance event in Rhode Island last September. It was the first time I tried to recreate a “Sicilian dancing girl” performance.

The costume, as you can see, moved well, although I really still have to fix the sleeves and neck of the overtunic, and get proper headgear.

What HAVE I been doing of late?


A friend of mine had pointed out that I had not been active here since January.

Ooops. Well I can say that work began to eat my life steadily starting just after the holidays, and then there was preparation for some dance performances in February, March, April, and May. And then there was my sister’s wedding as well.

But I have completed a few projects and did some displaying and teaching. There is my interpretation of a knit cap from the 14th century (seen in the thumbnail), done in handspun silk. It’s based on the cap in byssus found at the cathedral of St. Denis, France. Here is my paper on it. I displayed the cap and the paper at the Mudthaw Arts and Sciences competition back in March. Here is a closeup of the cap so you can see the stitches:

I also did some cooking for that event, in which I contrasted two recipes featuring rabbit – the Qanura of rabbit (rabbit in walnut and vinegar sauce) from the Anonymous Andalusian cookbook, and the traditional Sicilian rabbit in sweet and sour sauce. Here is my paper about that.

And last month, I taught a class about Norman and Muslim Sicily at the East Kingdom War Camp in the Barony of Carillion in June. I have no paper to go with that, but I did share some food – my version of the emir of Catania’s chicken dish, a cold salad of roasted eggplant, chopped celery, capers, pistachios, sugar, mint, and vinegar, and things to nibble on – tuna-stuffed olives, and chilled cherries. It was a warm day and the cold food was welcomed by the class attendees. I gave a brief history of the Norman kingdom and the Muslims before them, and what happened to the Muslims after the island was conquered by the Normans.

I’ve also been doing some reading. Right now, I am trying to get through Alex Metcalfe’s “The Muslims of Medieval Italy.” It’s been slow going as I have had a lot of distractions. But it is essential reading for trying to understand the Muslim influences in the culture of the Norman kingdom.

I am hoping that a class slot opens for the East Kingdom University Collegium in August, because I would like to teach how to use a silk sari to create a 12th century Norman Sicilian tunic. But we’ll see about that.

So that’s about it for now. More to come!

The Cappella Palatina muqarnas

The Cappella Palatina muqarnas

EDIT: I’ve made some scans and have adjusted the images as best as possible. Wish I could have copied these in glorious color, but sometimes you have to work with what you can get.

On Thursday, I braved the holiday tourist crowds and took the train from Trenton to New York City. My destination: The Stephen A. Schwarzman building of the New York Public Library. My reason: The library had this set of books and they had kindly reserved them for me in the arts and architecture reading room.

One book of this four-volume set was my holy grail of Norman Sicily research. Before going to Sicily in November 2006, I had read several mentions of a fantastic wooden painted stalactite muqarnas ceiling in the Cappella Palatina of the Norman Palace – the ceiling allegedly had scores of Islamic paintings of courtiers, musicians, dancers, and drinkers, done in the 1130s-1140s. I could not WAIT to see this ceiling for myself, in real life. So, imagine my disappointment when we reached the Cappella Palatina with our tour group … to look up at the nave ceiling and see nothing but netting. Yes, the chapel was in the process of being restored and the ceiling was being worked on. The rest of our time in Palermo, I scoured stores trying to find a book of photographs of the chapel. I did find one book which had great photos of the mosaics, but just one small, rather blurry photo of the entire nave ceiling.

After getting home, I started to run down the references to the Cappella Palatina ceiling, and found that they led to one book published in 1950 by the Italian historian Ugo Monneret de Villard, “Le pitture musulmane al soffitto della Cappella Palatina in Palermo.” A search on Abebooks yielded one copy, for about $85, with shipping. I ordered it and waited (it was coming from Italy). Once it arrived, I was a little disappointed. It’s wonderful, but it’s in black and white, and contains only a small number of the paintings. Still, it was better than nothing.

Last year, there was news that the chapel restoration was finished and there would be a lavish four-volume edition by the Italian publisher Franco Cosimo Panini, and one of the books would contain full-color photos of the muqarnas alone. As you can see from the previous link, this would not be something I would be able to purchase, and I looked for a nearby university library that would allow me to access the books. The closest in distance to me is the Firestone Library at Princeton University. Not only would it cost me more than $200 a year for access to the books, it seemed that since the books arrived in the fall, they were nonstop checked out by professors and students in the university’s medieval studies department. Bless you, New York Public Library. Once I found out that they had the books, they reserved them for me. For free. I would just have to get my butt up to New York.

So, I did. And made a stack of photocopies as well.

What I found out:

Admittedly, I was a bit focused on the types of images I paid attention to. I was specifically looking at the ladies – the dancers and the musicians. And the new photos did not disappoint.

One of the seven musicians playing goblet drums that I found in the muquarnas images.

The musicians played a variety of instruments – ouds, rebabs, end-blown flutes, psalteries, tanburs, and drums. The most common type of drums portrayed, surprisingly, were small goblet drums, the head played with right hand while the left hand gripped the instrument at the bottom or the throat. Unlike a Persian tanbur, a Turkish darbuka, or an Egyptian doumbek, the drums were shaped symmetrically; the bottom was as large as the top, and the throat very small, with a molded ring around it. I counted seven representations of goblet drums, played by female and male musicians, as opposed to four paintings where the ladies were playing frame drums (two round and two square drums – no jingles on them, unlike riqs). Three ladies were playing wooden clappers – sticks held in the hands. One female and one male musician were playing oval drums that were held on the lap and struck with a stick held in one hand. There were absolutely NO portrayals of finger cymbals of any kind.

The dancers were a revelation. Some of them held short scarves in their hands; one had thick golden bangles on her wrists; some of them danced as they played their instruments. What I had thought, in this photo,  was a long single scarf whipping around her was actually the very long ends of her ‘isaba (head scarf), trailing from the large knot on the right side of her head. Most of the ladies, dancers and musicians, wore these very long ‘isabas wrapped around her takiya (also called taquiyah), a sort of bulbous head cap (more about the takiya can be found here, in the “First Encyclopedia of Islam: 1913 to 1936”).  The fringe of their hair could clearly be seen on their foreheads, peeking out from their headgear, as well as their curled side locks on their cheeks. Many of them had a dot between the brows, and three small dots low on the cheek. Some of the male musicians had them as well, as well as the male nadim, or drinking courtiers. I theorize this was makeup and tattoos (especially as the Berber ladies of North Africa tattooed their faces well into the early 20th century, and Sicily had a lively trade with Fatimid Egypt – which included slaves).

(You can see a color picture of the scarf dancer and some of the other figures, very briefly, in a photo montage, at the Fondazione Federico II Website.)

The ladies not wearing the ‘isaba/takiya/taquiyah head gear wear what look surprisingly like large crowns. They in fact bear a very strong resemblance to the Persian headgear worn by Duchess Roxane Farabi, but there is no center cap visible nor a spinel, and they seem to have the ends of a long scarf trailing from them. These may be the original form of the taj (crown) worn by traditional Tunisian brides and the headdresses worn by classical Andalusian musicians of Morocco, and probably derived from Persia.

The scarf dancer and her attending musicians. Note the taj-like headdresses the musicians are wearing.

The tunics were painted in shades of pale blue, pale green, red, and yellow. Some were plain, some were patterned, with with a floral scroll or geometric, regular designs (and in two cases with patterns representing large white daisies). Interestingly, the pants worn under the tunics do not seem to resemble the sirwals popular in the SCA, using Uncle Rashid’s pattern. For one thing, they seemed to scrunch at the ankle; admittedly this effect could be achieved if the pants were long and bunched up. The legs also seemed straighter, but again, the pattern can be modified to provide this effect

Fortunately for us, on page 526 of the volume, a woman is depicted with the front of her tunic hiked up at the center through her belt, clearly showing her drawers. These seem to have soft, loose legs, ending in the ankle scrunches. They are definitely not the crazy Michelin Man-pants worn by the 16th century Morisco women of Spain.”Our Lady of the Underpants” is flanked by two musicians,  a lady playing a fipple flute and another playing a goblet drum. Perhaps she is getting ready to cut a rug and needed to get her robe out of the way?

Thank you, “Our Lady of the Underpants,” for flashing your drawers at us. Generations of medieval Islamic costumers will be grateful. On a more serious note, check out the taj-like headdresses of her musician attendants.

Very few of the ladies seemed to wear any sort of belt – and the ones who did were musicians, not dancers. One seated musician has a golden belt with three golden balls hanging at the front. I have no idea how this belt was constructed, and the painting is not detailed enough to make a guess. The belt of “Our Lady of the Underpants” is a simple band.

Note this frame drummer’s instrument has a word in Arabic on its surface. If you can read it, please let me know what it says!

What does this all mean for my garb? It’s back to the drawing board for my ‘isaba. It will have to be a lot longer than I had originally thought, and the ends will have to be tapered. I will try using a soft, fine white silk – possibly silk broadcloth, if I can find it, but a heavier-weight habotai may have to do.

The blue silk tunic I constructed for Bhakail Yule and future events still needs its brocade hem. My red tunic with the golden dot pattern needs its shoulder/upper arm bands.

Most of all, I need proper pants. Next step – play with Master Rashid’s pattern.

Oh, and I need a proper taqiyah. My original cap pattern needs to be redrafted, yet again.

I have a lot of work in front of me.

In motion …


(This is an edited update, as someone very properly pointed out that I should have talked a little bit more about what I actually did during my performance.)

In September, I was privileged enough to attend the Tapestry dance retreat in Rhode Island and perform in the Saturday evening salon. I am still hugely thrilled that Tempest accepted my proposal: an interpretation of what a dancer at the court of Roger II would have done. I’m still working on producing a more authentic outfit. I wore the prototype for my performance:

My cap is wrong, the pseudo-tiraz band is set too low in the sleeve, my headband is not of linen and is knotted on the wrong side, but my makeup and spit curls are looking pretty good!

I wish I could get hold of the video that was being recorded; also, there’s a better pic one of the attendees took that she hasn’t been able to share with me yet … I’ll ask her again.

And I will continue to work on this. Silk for tunic No. 2 is cut out, needs to be shaped and sewn. The pattern for sewn linen cap is drafted. I just have other things to work on first.

Oh, and here are the books that I want, need, and desire. Only $1,325!

The Firestone Library in Princeton will only let me look at this set if I pay something like $200 a year. Um, no. It seems like they have one copy and it’s always checked out.

I am proud of the spitcurls, which I wound up affixing with soap and bobbypins to set them. I am not making this up; I had forgotten my modern hair gel and I was desperate. Coating the locks of hair with just-wet soap and setting the curl with bobbypins until they were dry held them together long enough for the performance.

The makeup is based on the look of the dancing ladies and female musicians of the Cappella Palatina muquarna -the spot of blush low on the cheek and the three dots in the middle of it (which I think is indicative of some facial tattooing, especially likely if these ladies were Berber from the Maghreb); the darkened brows; and the heavily kohled eyes (modern eye liner); and lip stain. I did not use “period” cosmetics, mostly because I wear contacts and will not screw around with anything that could damage my eyes..

I’m still pretty proud of this tunic, the sari was an extremely good find and a great color and pattern. I will end up redoing the sleeves one day, though. One other thing I noticed, though, is the neckline is too wide and low; the collar really should be up closer to the neck. Hmmm. Another thing to work on for tunic No. 2.

Anyway, for the performance, I chose to dance to two very short songs, as the performance time was limited to 7 minutes. At first, I was going to dance to some songs from Calamus’ “Splendour of al-Andalus.” Though I love the CD and I theorize that the Muslims who emigrated from Sicily to Spain after the Norman conquest had influenced the music (as they did the poetry) of that place, and today’s Andalusian music of North Africa derives from the Arabs of Spain, none of the songs on the CD truly grabbed me or were too long, or not quite long enough.

I did wind up dancing to an Andalusian song, from Eduardo Paniagua’s “Tesoros de Al-Andalus. Música Clásica De Los Reinos De Taifa,” specifically an instrumental called “Me Visitó Quien Esperaba.” It was lively, it made a great intro piece, and Taifa Spain was in the same period of time as Arab Sicily and Sicily just after the Normans began to conquer it, plus the Sicilian and Spanish Arabs did have ties in trade and family. Additionally, the most costly slave girls were trained in music and dance and poetry in Seville. According to the source Habiba quotes in the article, the highly trained singing (and dancing) slave girls were high valued by the Maghrebi rulers of North Africa. Additionally, according to what I have read, it was actually illegal in Sicily to have native-born Muslims as slaves; thus the highly specialized singing/dancing girls of the palace in Palermo were certainly imports. Certainly, some of them might have even been gifts to Roger II, sent as tokens after his admiral George of Antioch captured Tripoli and Cape Bona.

My second song was one I had mentioned in a previous blog entry, Al Qantarah’s “Montedoro.” Though I had no documentation for it, it at least was Sicilian, had the Arab elements in it, and made a great piece to dance to, including a nice taxim at the beginning.

My prop is a long white scarf, a common accessory for dancers pictured in the muquarna of the Cappella Palatina, on Fatimid lustreware plates, and even the ancient dancing girls of Samarra.I used the scarf like a streamer or a half-veil, whirling it around and playing with it.

For dance movements, I actually looked much more toward Persian dance than modern bellydance. Standing shimmies, graceful poses with arm patterns and snakearms, sedate shoulder shimmies, small hops, spins, and grapevine foot patterns were mostly the moves I used. I may have thrown in some very large figure eights at the beginning of “Montedoro,” but truth be told, most modern bellydance moves get lost in the all-enveloping tunic. Floorwork is very much a modern American invention, so again, I didn’t include anything like that.

In the end, I was striving to give something that would bring the viewer back to a particular time and place, and I am hoping that the music, the costuming and makeup, and the motion did that.

Clothes make the woman


In the SCA, you see a wide range of garb. It ranges from the exquisite late-period Elizabethan to the two-bath-towels-pinned-at-the-shoulder sort-of chiton. People who sew tend to have spiffy garb. People who don’t sew make do with eBay finds, thrift store finds, and generic Renaissance faire wear. Or they have friends who are good at sewing make them spiffy garb.

Once you settle into a persona, you’re supposed to create some garb based on your time/place. For many, this is usually easier said than done – especially if you’re in a period and place with very few pictorial depictions, like Sicily in the 12th century.

And then there’s the bellydancer aspect to it. I freely admit that when I decided “eff this” to Florentine wear and got heavily into tribal bellydancing, I was attending events in jingly kuchi belts, cholis, face plastered with bindis, etc. Not just al Hafla or Southern Regional War Camp, when there was dancing going on; it was all events.

However, one thing I NEVER did was claim what I was wearing was “authentic.” Answers were, “No, I just like it,” “I dance, so it’s in my closet and easily accessible,” or “Most of my sewing time is devoted to troupe costumes.”

Recently, I’ve started to address this. In doing research about what a dancer in 12th century Sicily might have looked at, I found images such as this one:

The image comes from Ugo Monneret de Villard’s “Le pitture musulmani nel soffito della Capella Palatina in Palermo.” It’s a large-size book of photographs taken of all of the figural images of the muqarna ceiling. It’s hard to get. I found mine on Abebooks a few years ago, and it cost me about $85 shipped from Italy. My copy was printed in 1950.

Notice a couple of things about this image? She is not wearing a jingly belt, a bra and belt set, or a choli. She is wearing a tunic, undertunic, and pants, and has some sort of skullcap surmounted by a knotted headband. She has some dots on her face (forehead and cheeks) that could represent some simple tattooing, like that of the desert peoples of the Maghreb (particularly Tunisia).

Inspired by this, I created myself this:

(picture courtesy of Baroness Cateline la Broderesse, MKA Jennifer Guyton, who has many talents)

I made this outfit specifically for Mudthaw in 2010. What am I wearing? I have on simple salwar pants (not seen in the photo), a linen undertunic, and an overtunic made from a silk sari with lots of pale gold brocade work. I have a cap that is a crocheted snood, and a linen headband with a side knot (also not seen in the photo).

I did not do any harquus marks on my face; I was still playing around with the makeup then.

Overall, this is better, but this is still not quite right. For one, the crocheted snood as a cap. Not only is crocheting not period, I can’t even find any evidence for knitting, at least of headgear, until the 14th century, with the byssus cap of St. Denis.

The decorated bands I have in the sleeves should be set into the shoulders and the undertunic is not quite right, being very wide of sleeve (I actually have the sleeves stuffed up into the overtunic sleeves). The salwar are actually a pair I snagged from a modern salwar kameez set, but they were simple and fit me.

So, it’s an A for effort, but to me this is still not passing grade yet. But at least I’ve opened up a few people’s eyes with it. “If I could wear something like that, I’d wear Middle Eastern garb!” I had one court baroness tell me.

Tune in next time as I wave around some blue silk to start on a new Sicilian tunic, and talk a bit about Sicily’s silk industry …