“Mystery box” project #1 – felt

Our team has chosen a number of related items to make which will use all the raw materials provided (plus some extra materials):

  • a handbound book with a chemise cover based on the one in the Ghent Altarpiece, made of green silk velvet, red-dyed cotton braided edges and pompoms, and pewter decorations (see picture below)
  • hypocras from the recipe in the Forme of Cury, a late 14th C cookbook
  • a hypocras strainer called a manicum hypocraticum
  • an illustrated manuscript page with the recipe for hypocras, on handmade paper
  • papermaking needs: lye water, and felt pads for pressing the paper
  • not using the mystery box materials: mould and deckle for papermaking, sewing frame for bookbinding
Due to the team members’ other commitments, I’ll be doing most of the making. Antoinette will be casting the pewter and bending the cane for the hypocras strainer, and Alessandra will be doing the braids for the chemise cover.
The first project was making felt. I scoured the raw wool (below) in a wool detergent (much to my chagrin, I didn’t even think to use the traditional medieval method – urine – as another team did), then carded it.
The first step in felting is to lay down a cloth. I used the calico for this. Prepare a large container of soapy water. Next wisps of the carded wool are laid in an even layer in one direction onto the cloth, covering an area larger than the finished piece of felt is to be. Two more layers are added, each layer at right angles to the one before. As the wool is laid down, dampen it with the soapy water.
Dampen the whole thing with the water and press it down all over to make sure all the wool is wet. If it is too wet blot up the excess with a towel. Soap up your hands and GENTLY rub the cloth. Every few minutes gently lift the top cloth and reposition it. After about 10 minutes turn the whole pile over and work from the other side. Continue until you can no longer pinch up loose wool from the surface.
The next step is fulling. On top of your cloth-felt-cloth stack, place a bamboo mat (sushi mat/ placemat/ blind) and roll the whole thing up tightly. Tie the roll closed with strips of cloth tied in bows. Now roll the bundle back and forth, making sure it rolls all the way round each time. When the bundle starts to loosen, unroll it, tidy it up, re-roll it starting from the opposite end and repeat the process until the felt is tsable and no longer stretches when you pull it.
Next rinse it, first in hot water, then in cold. Squeeze, don’t wring. Wash in cold water with a little vinegar added, then rinse again. Roll in  towel and squeeze dry. As it dries, roll it with a rolling pin for an extra smooth surface.
My felt didn’t turn out very well. I didn’t pull the wool out into small enough pieces to start with, and rubbed the wool too hard, resulting in clumps of felt which weren’t stuck together. I remedied this by needle-felting a bit more wool over the top to join it up, then continuing the felting process. It came out rather thicker, lumpier and smaller than I’d intended, but was still ok to use for papermaking.

The Stormhold “mystery box” challenge

This year’s Stormhold baronial arts and sciences championship is a bit different from previous years. For a start, we can choose to work in teams. Each team has been given one of ten identical “mystery boxes” containing:

• a log of hardwood (unfortunately, rather insect damaged)
• a length of cane
• a large piece of unbleached calico
• a piece of white cotton fabric
• a length of white cotton cord
• a length of white cotton webbing (possibly lamp wick?)
• a small ingot of pewter
• a piece of leather
• some raw wool
• some whole spices: cinnamon, nutmeg, star anise and allspice

The teams have three months to make whatever medieval items they can from these materials. Other materials can be added, and all the finished items need to be documented. Our team is myself, Antoinette and Alessandra – The A Team. The competition is due to be judged at the start of September, and the winning team will be declared the Baronial Arts and Sciences Champions for the year. Our team is well underway with our projects, which all have a related theme. Some of them will involve skills we’ve already mastered, but some will be completely new challenges. More on this to follow…

13th century Spanish tablas board with instructions

In the 13th century, King Alfonso X (Alfonso the Wise) wrote the Book of Games, which included instructions for chess, tablas and dice games Here I’ve made a copy of the tablas board depicted in the Book of Games, along with playing counters, dice and instructions.

The board is made from plywood with a face grain that looks similar to the one in the Book of Games (illustration above), with the surround and detailing in tasmanian oak. There is a chess board on the other side. The playing counters are made from contrasting timbers – jarrah and willow – turned on a lathe then sawed into slices. Medieval counters were often made of elaborately carved ivory, but simpler wooden ones also existed. I started making bone dice from a boiled and cleaned lamb shank, but mislaid the dice after cutting them and ended up making wooden dice instead. I later found the bone cubes, and will eventually make replacement bone dice.

The manuscript is written in pen and ink and painted in egg glair tempera on parchmentine. It is an English translation of the todas tablas instructions (the version of tablas closest to modern backgammon), in the same format as the original Spanish manuscript.