Monday, September 29, 2014

Gender Equality

Gender equality (and the lack thereof) is an important issue that every person needs to fight. Emma Watson, whom many know best as the actor who played Hermione Granger in the Harry Potter films, is a UN Ambassador now.  Her speech to the UN for the HeforShe campaign is very important.  Gender inequality effects both women and men.

Furthermore, Emma Watson alludes to another important aspect of the gender equality issue: gender is a spectrum, not two opposing views.  Science has shown us that there are something like an 80% overlap between virtually all social/emotional traits between men and women, and that it is a giant mishmash, not a bimodal distribution (which would depict one peak for women and a different peak for men, with overlap at the bottom of the bell curves).  That means that there are not trends that are different between men and women that are biological, not cultural, in any trait not involving physical attributes (such as upper body strength, where there is a bimodal distribution between the sexes).  All traits involving sensitivity, dreams, ability to parent, nurturing, connecting with others - all of these show that there are far more differences within the genders than there are between the genders. What does that mean?  It means that there are essentially no differences, besides base physical ones, between genders.  People should be treated as people, not as genders.  When no gender fits: A quest to be seen as just a person, is a great article on another aspect of this issue.

An important video on the issues that are particularly plaguing US politics lately is below. Every action mentioned in this video has been attacked by laws in the United States in the past few years.

I don't often post about social issues on this blog, as this is mostly my space for creative outlet and letting the world know what I've been up to lately.  Occasionally, though, some videos strike such a cord with me that they will be uploaded here.  Please, take a moment to watch, and think.  I am a feminist.  I hope you are, too.  If you hate the word, follow the meaning anyway.  It's important, and current, everywhere.

If not me, who?  If not now, when?
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Thursday, September 25, 2014

Heraldic Cookie Cutters

Earlier this year, a dear friend of mine got elevated to the Order of the Pelican, the highest award given for service in the SCA and one of the peerages.  For his elevation ceremony, I made him cookies based on his heraldry by designing and making custom cookie cutters. They were designed in Adobe Illustrator (with the help of another friend) and laser cut out of acrylic at i3 Detroit, one of the best hackerspaces in the Midwest.

It took a couple iterations to get cutters that worked well.  (Please excuse the poor quality of the photos - these were taken with my old camera as it was dying.)  The first one I designed was huge.  I made the outside cutting edge really deep, and the inner impressions shallow.

Making cookies with these intricate cutters was painstaking and difficult.  I had to re-coat the cutter with flour between every press, press it as hard as I could into the dough, and then very slowly shake the cutter until the dough came free.

To decorate the cookies, I dyed powdered sugar icing and painted it on with a paintbrush.

The big cookie cutter left pretty good impressions that were easy to fill with icing.  There were a couple problems with the big cookie cutter, though.  Because the cutting edge and the impressions were on the same piece, the cookie had to be really thick to let the impressions get deep into the cookie. Otherwise, the cutting edge hit the counter before the dragon and wheel even touched the dough.  These deep, thick cookies took a LOT of dough to make, and were just too gigantic for one person to eat.  (Also, I forgot about the reversal effect, and made the dragon facing the wrong direction.)

My second design included two separate cutters: one for the inner impressions, and one for the outer cutting edge.

Cutting Edge

Inner Impressions

It was very easy to not make the impressions deep enough on these cookies.  A lot of time and effort was needed to make sure that most of the cookies turned out with decent impressions.

The design was painted with tiny paintbrushes.  Working with a friend, it took well over an hour to paint about twenty of the cookies.  I ended up leaving most of them unpainted.

Painted or not, these cookies turned out pretty magnificently!  The cutters were gifted to my friend, should he ever want to make his own heraldric cookies.  :)

If anyone wants anything custom designed and lasercut (out of chipboard, acrylic, or wood, typically), I know someone who accepts commissions and is fantastic at it.  I imagine he could improve upon my designs here to make better cookie cutters.

Have any of you made creative cookies or food decorating techniques?  ~Kell
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Monday, September 22, 2014

Rapier Notes: How to Deny a Flank

At Baron Wars this past summer I had a great discussion with our rapier general, Peter, on what is the best way to deny a flank.  This is a tactic that occurs during line fights.  Below is a picture of two lines fighting, orange versus green.  The black markings are their swords, dagger, shields, and bucklers.

Flanking is when one side curves around the outer edge of a line of fighters.  It's a great tactic because several people can flank one person on the edge of a line, turning it into a 2 or 3 on 1 fight. It becomes much easier to kill that end person, and then continue killing on down the line before the next person notices that their buddy is dead (sometimes called "zippering" or "zipping" a line).

Denying the flank is how you try to address (and hopefully, stop) the people who are flanking the end of your line.

Turn to Face Them

One of your natural instincts when people are starting to circle you is to directly turn and face your opponent(s).
What happens, though, when the flanking fencers start to press in, and you need to move backwards?

Often, when all you do is just pivot to face the flankers, you end up getting pushed backwards into your line.  This causes lots of havoc at the end of your line, your people end up dead before you know it in the chaos, and then your side has lost the fight.

Move Forward to Confront Them

The next thing you can try to do is to move forward to confront your opponents.  That way, they won't be able to wrap far around the edge of your line, which breaks the flanking, right?
You can see the problem with this maneuver below: it leaves a gap between you and the end of your line.  You've essentially just made your line one person shorter, without the next person realizing that they are the new effective end of the line.  This makes your neighbor really vulnerable to zippering, and soon your line is dead and your side has lost the fight again.

Move Out and Back a Bit

The final move you can make is to move out and back a bit.  Make sure when you're doing this that you're yelling "flankers on the left!  Left flankers!  Flankers!" really loudly so that your neighbor knows what you are doing.
This makes your line curve somewhat naturally into the flank.

It may seem like your giving into the pressure from your enemies, but it's also the safest way to defend an end being flanked.  As you can see below, if the outer fencers press you in, you fold back underneath your line.  Not the most ideal situation (being flanked is never an ideal situation), but much better than backing up into your allies and making the flanking easier for your opponents by confusing your allies.  

I hope this helps people learn some ways to respond to a flank.  Again: don't just pivot, as you can get backed up into your line, and don't move forward, opening up a gap in your line. Move out and back.  Always, always, yell that there are flankers when you notice them.  If you're further in the line and you hear "flankers" being yelled to your left, pass the message down the line - "flankers to the left!"  Having active communication up and down your line is how you avoid being taken by surprise.  Make sure you yell "DEAD!" as loud as you can if the flank overtakes you.  Communicate, communicate, communicate!

~Birke die Jägerin
Order of the Cavendish Knot
Dragon Army Pentamere XO
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Thursday, September 18, 2014

Commission: Sailmaker's Palm

A sailmaker's palm is a tool used by rope makers, who often need to shove needles through very thick material.  This can be hard to do with regular thimbles.  The sailmaker's palm positions a custom thimble into the meat of the thumb, where a lot of force can easily be applied without hurting one's hands.

I made a custom-fit sailmaker's palm for Odo, a SCAdian who is skilled at reweaving the ends of tent ropes into loops, to remove the knots which can unravel and collapse your tent. My inspiration came from this tutorial, which uses a hammered penny (supplied by Odo, who is also a metalworker, brewer, woodworker, and more - yes, he's a Laurel) and a piece of cork to make the thimble. 

This palm is fully lined with a soft, strong suede leather, so none of the edges will dig uncomfortably into the hand when it's used.  It has a buckle closure, which will last a long time and make it easy to take on and off.  It is custom fit to Odo's own hand.

Want something custom made out of leather?  Want something repaired?  Contact me.  ~Birke die Jägerin
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Monday, September 15, 2014

Corduroy Jacket into Skirt

Last winter I turned an old corduroy jacket of DeForest's into a skirt!  The original jacket (I'd already removed one of the sleeves) is above,and the skirt is below.  It's quite comfortable, adjustable, and warm - the perfect fall or spring skirt to wear with a pair of boots as the weather is changing.

This skirt is a quasi/fake wrap-around skirt.  Frankly, all the stress of my life over the past two years has caused a bit of shape fluctuation in my midriff and hips, and it's important to me to make my clothes adjustable, as I'm not sure what my body shape will be in the future.  I no longer make full wrap-around skirts, as I did in high school.  I find it annoying to have my skirt flapping around and potentially exposing myself in wind.  Instead, I make fake wrap-arounds, where the front "flap" is almost entirely sewn down.  I leave the last few inches of the wrapped-around overlap unsewn at the top, so that the skirt waist is adjustable by a few inches.  

The first step in the process of making the skirt was removing the sleeves of the jacket.  The sleeves then got turned into the waistband/belt.

The long rectangle got folded in half and sewn to the top of the skirt, then turned and topstitched.

The original hole where the sleeves were got sewn shut at an angle to smooth the transition into the side seam.

Pinterest just saved my bacon on this next step!  I couldn't remember what technique this was, so I went to my board called "how to do useful things," hoping I had pinned it.  Yes! This method is called "bound buttonholes," and it created a beautiful slit in the waistband for the belt to wrap around through.  The first part of this picture shows the outside, and the second part is the inside seam.  This is now a very strong part of the skirt, so I don't have to worry about the stress of the belt ripping through the top layer of the waistband.

I lined the skirt with a lovely red linen from my stash that happened to match perfectly!  It was machine sewn to the inner waistband seam, and then handstitched along the bottom, covering up all the seams on the inside. Gnome thought she was more important than a picture of skirt lining, and jumped in.  She's probably right.  :)  ~Kell

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Thursday, September 11, 2014

The Leatherworker's Roundtable

At Pennsic this year, two of the leatherworking merchants got together and held a Leatherworker's Roundtable - a simple gathering of leatherworkers, to meet, ask questions, and discuss techniques with one another for two hours.  It was fantastic!  Here are my notes on the new tips I learned.


The Metropolitan Museum of Art has very detailed photos of leather goods, including shoes.

Square is a great business for running your own credit cards (for small business owners who sell items in person).

Weaver Leather sells leather wholesale only (need a business license), but they have great prices on leather.  They sell minimal amounts of soft leather, though.

Ohio Travel Bag is a good source for closures, including micro-rivets.  When buying hardware, consider stainless steel hardware - it doesn't corrode like nickel plated hardware does.

Spotted Pony Traders is a great supplier of deer and elk leather - better than Weaver Leather.

Notes on Materials

Leather glue: DAP Contact Cement is similar to Barge Cement, only it's cheaper and will glue to more things than just leather - it will grab onto wood and bone better than barge cement.  3M spray adhesive also works great for light leathers.

Eco Flow dyes are discouraged by one leatherworker.  They are very environmentally friendly, which is great, but they are ~90% water: the colors run if the leather gets wet.  The color is also not very reproducible.  Eco Flow dyes also don't permeate the leather all the way.  These leatherworkers prefer to use alcohol based, oil based, or acrylic based dyes.  (I will have to experiment with this.  So far, I've noticed no problems with using Eco Flow dyes.)

Saddle soap: two versions.  Glycerine based and wax based.  Glycerine-based saddle soap will set off TSA alarms (they search for nitroglycerine).

Neatsfoot oil will soften veg-tanned leather.  It's used before stretching leather in making saddles.

Make your own edge smoother: buy a wooden knob from Home Depot, cut a notch in it, sand the notch down.

Notes on Techniques

Add a welt to heavily used seams (pouches, shoes): add another piece of leather between the seams to keep the seams from ripping through the leather.  Looks like piping, with the leather coming out of and then going immediately back into the seam (folded over leather).

When dying and painting, it's best to dye the leather, then sheen the leather (with a wax-based product) to lock in the dye, then apply acrylic paint on top of that.  Another leatherworker in a previous year told me to paint and then add a light coat of oil on top to lock in the paint, so there are different recommendations on how to do this.

Texturing techniques:
  • Stibbling: Uses a blunt tool to hit damp leather over and over again.  Compresses with small bumps.
  • Pricking: Uses an awl to hit damp leather over and over again.  This pricks the leather, making it more porous.  This will dye very differently than the rest of your non-pricked leather.

How to make sword sheaths that don't hurt blades:
  • Use veg-tanned leather, as this has no acids in it.
  • Don't dye the leather where it will touch the blades.  Don't use oil-based dyes (the next soaking step will ruin the dye job).
  • Oil the crap out of the leather, to remove all the water from the leather.
    • Lightweight kitchen oils work, like olive oil and clove oil, because these don't spoil.  Vegetable oils will spoil and collect dirt, as they aren't as filtered as olive oil and others.
    • Soak the leather in it.  Can marinate the leather in it if you have a basin it fits into.  Can also take the sewn sword sheath, hold it over a sink, and pour oil into the sheath until it oozes out of the leather.  Do this twice.  Can get a piece of PVC pipe and fill that with oil and soak the sheath in that.
  • Viking sheaths sometimes were lined with sheepskin, with the wool side towards the blade. The lanolin in the wool oils the sword.

Use fire to melt wax on sinew knots - carry around a lighter to do so.

Cleaning well-used boots: once a month, scrub with a glycerine-based saddle soap.  Then oil them with mink oil.  A couple days later, add a wax-based saddle soap for top coating (for waterproofing).

How Period is the Modern Leatherworking?

Fastening: We use the same stitches that they've always used.  Essentially all of our hand-stitching is period.  They didn't really use rivets in period.  Some cobbling was used (using nails to hold leather together).

Decorating: Leather was more often embossed instead of tooled.  Also, they didn't have swivel knives, even when things were tooled.  There is some incising done in period work, but all with straight knives (the curves turned with the hand).  Less incising (less tooling) in period leatherwork.  Embossing, stibbling, and pricking were used.


I'm excited to learn how to make sheaths that are safe for blades that rust easily - like our rapier swords.  I will be playing with that at some point in the future, for sure.  :)  ~Birke
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Monday, September 8, 2014

Commission: Eye of Sauron Water Bottle Holder

Leather water bottle holders are my all-time favorite piece of leatherworking, for practicality and sheer awesomeness. It allows one to hide a modern water bottle without resorting to using glass (which is heavy and breakable) or the hardened-leather carriers (which can degrade with time, though they are also a great choice). The water bottle can be easily switched out if it breaks, so the leatherwork lasts many years if the leather is properly cared for. It's attractive and comfortable, allowing you to carry water hands-free and without weighing down your belt. Mine works so well that I keep it hanging by my door at all times, and use it in my regular, non-SCA/LARP/reenactment/etc life, too. Not only that, it also insulates the bottle, so the water stays colder much longer than it would regularly when open to the hot sun.

This post is about a commissioned water bottle holder I made for a Dagorhir fighter, Shark. Dagorhir is a combat-based LARP (live-action role play) based in both medieval history and Tolkien's Lord of the Rings. Shark wanted a leather water bottle holder to hide and insulate his modern water bottle on the fighting field. He fights for Sauron's side, so he asked for the Eye of Sauron to be incorporated. Elements of blue and silver, the colors of his heraldry, were also added into the overall design.

I started by designing the Eye of Sauron.  Leather scraps were chosen to mimic the flaming eye.

Next, my pryography tool was used to burn the leather.  Non-veg-tanned leather curls when burned, which added a 3D aspect to the leather flames.  The burning on the front also gave it a look of soot and charcoal, making it come alive further.

The raw edges of the design makes it match his armor!  Another happy customer.

A leather water bottle holder will get stiff with age if not properly cared for, as it gets wet a lot.  If only water has been on it, the leather can be conditioned by applying neatsfoot oil (or another leather-safe oil) to re-soften it and restore the natural oils in the leather.  If other liquids are splashed onto the leather (for example, I often drink Gatorade at events), follow my instructions to recondition sweat-soaked leather.  Gatorade is just another salt-laden liquid, after all.  :)

If you are interested in a leather water holder, please contact me!  ~Kell
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Thursday, September 4, 2014

King of the Throne and Bowser's Castle

In this post, I'm going to talk about a couple fun rapier melee games you can try with your fencers!  Previously, I have talked a lot about the game Fox & Hound.  This post explains King of the Throne and Bowser's Castle.

King of the Throne

Optimal Number of Fencers: At least 20.  If you have a lot more - say, more than 50 or 60 - expand the number of "thrones."
Materials/Set-Up:  One large-ish field.  One hay bale (the "throne"), set in the center of the field.  One stopwatch.
Resurrection: Yes - a rez line or rez point at the back edge of each side of the field.
Death From Behind: Yes.
Time: About 15 minutes per run.
Scenario/Rules:  At several unspecified time checks in a 15 minute battle, the side who possesses the throne at that time gets a point.  The marshal running the battle sets the mystery time points ahead of time, so that only they know when the important times are.  In order to possess the throne, one fencer must be sitting on the hay bale, with their butt on the bale and their feet on the ground.  (Emphasize both butt and feet placement for safety.)  The winning side has the most points at the end of the battle.  

This scenario can be run several times, with chats between each run, so that fencers can learn how best to take and defend an objective.  This melee game teaches that the objective is not always to kill your opponents: the first fencer who reaches that hay bale should plant their butt down as quickly as they can.  It might be the split second difference between winning a time check and not winning one, even if they die immediately.  Learning how to defend places without any edges is also an important skill (one I know I need to improve upon), and also how to attack said defenses.  Anyone have any initial comments on how this is best done?

Bowser's Castle Tourney

Optimal Number of Fencers: At least 4 fencers and 2 marshals.  Probably fun with up to about 20 fencers.
Materials/Set-Up:  Lots of rope - two 100' sections of cotton clothesline rope should make the pieces, if I remember correctly (one 100' section was used up making the bridges, and I made the circles a long time ago.  Perhaps more is needed.).  Perhaps several colors of duct tape (see future variations for why).  A medium amount of space - probably about half a basketball court would work.  See pictures and explanations below for setup.
Resurrection:  No.
Death From Behind:  Absolutely not.  That could get dangerous in this scenario.
Time:  One hour is probably enough for a smaller number of fencers (~6-8).  Two hours is enough for more fencers (up to 20), along with more time for discussions about tactics and ideas.
Scenario/Rules:  The main concept of the Bowser's Castle tourney is that there is an odd geometry of circles and connecting bridges laid out on the ground, and the rest of the ground is lava.  The name comes from the many similar battles in Mario video games, where there is an odd assortment of stone pathways to fight on surrounded by lava on all sides, with no (or little) explanation for how you arrived in this strange setup.

There are no walls in this game, just pathways, so you can fence over the lines.  If you step on a rope, though, you're dead!  It is recommended that there be two active marshals during this scenario, to keep a lookout for people stepping on the lines.

Here's a picture of it laid out on the ground at this past weekend's Summer Revel.

Since that might be hard to see, I outlined it with yellow lines in the photo below.  You can fight 1 vs 1 in this - which we tried - but the real fun started when we made it a 2 vs 2 melee game.  Each fighter starts within one of the circles, not knowing who is on whose team until the marshal calls it out just before lay-on.  Then you try and be the last team alive!  If your team wins, you get a point (regardless if you were alive at the end or not).

Here is a fencer walking across the largest of the circles, to give you an idea of the size.  The smallest circle (bottom left) is tiny.  All of the circles and bridges are different sizes, which forces you to make different tactical decisions based on where you are.

This was the first time I have run a tourney of this nature, and I've never seen anything like it before.  Before it started, I joked that this trial run was to see if the game was fun, a train wreck, or both!  Surprisingly, it turned out to be magnificently fun and educational, and not a train wreck at all.  Here are some of my thoughts that came out of the first run of this tourney:

The MIC needs to figure out a way to make sure that each fencer is getting an equal number of overall fights, so that the points are fair.  This could change depending on the number of fencers fighting.  If there are enough fencers, a waiting line could make sure that people get roughly the same amount of fights.  If there are fewer fencers, perhaps keeping a tally of how many times each person has fought is better.

The biggest bridge - on the right side of the picture - is the perfect width for a 2 vs 2 line fight, with two fencers on the bridge and two fencers in the big circle.  I've never before managed a 2 vs 2 line fight.  I will probably be designing a bridge tourney of this size to practice line fighting with small numbers of fighters soon.  I actually made my first successful cross-shot during this!

The tactics change wildly based on whether you start with your teammate in the circle next to you, or your teammate in the circle across from you.  One of the biggest things to emerge from this game for me is the need to make instant snap decisions and go with them - you often don't have the time to consult with your teammates.  You only have a few seconds between when the marshal assigns the teams and then calls lay-on.  The team that wins tends to be one that makes the quickest decisions and yells out orders immediately, and follows them immediately.  These are very important skills to hone.  There are many scenarios on a battlefield when the quickest decision and execution wins (just think of what happens when a hold is lifted).

This is a great exercise in battlefield awareness.  If you have a fencer who is having issues with consistently being pushed into the side of a listfield (who doesn't appear to sense where the edge of the world is), this is a great tourney to throw them in to.  It makes people practice awareness of their surroundings without being forced into a plank setting, which adds a lot of other constraints to fighters.

Future Variations:  The fencers in this tourney loved it, and immediately started coming up with fun variations on this tourney.  Here are some of our initial thoughts:

  • To decide the teams in 2 vs 2 melees with the current layout: roll a die to determine if teams are split along the horizontal, vertical, or diagonal.
  • Color code the circles with little pieces of duct tape flags along the perimeter. This would allow flexibility in assigning people to circles. Fencers could roll a die to determine which circle they are in, or rotate through all the circles in the tourney.
  • Add more circles! Make the space bigger - add in a 5th circle around the edge, and a 6th circle in the middle, adding connecting bridges into the center circle. This gives a LOT more options for movement.
  • Just go crazy with the weird geometry and make more circles and bridges randomly! Switch them up occasionally throughout the tourney! Who knows what madness and fun could happen.
  • Have more flexibility than just 2 vs 2 scenarios. For example, you could roll a die that says whether teams are equal or lopsided, and then what color circle the teams are against ("all fencers against the purple circle fencer!"). To make scoring more fair, give different numbers of points depending on whether you're outnumbered or not. For example, if you're outnumbered 3 to 1, you get 3 points for every kill you manage to make, whereas the other three fencers only make 1 point as a team if they kill you before you kill all three of them.
  • If you have more circles, you can have more fencers... six circles allows for 3 vs 3, 2 vs 4, etc.
  • Kill the Evil Queen scenario: There's an evil queen in the smallest tower. She has two guards, one in each of the bridges next to her tower. There are two heroes in the opposite circle  The guards cannot go through the queen's chamber (that would be disrespectful!). The heroes win if they kill the queen. The queen/guards win if they kill the heroes with the queen still alive. No one wins if the heroes and queen both die in double kills.
So many ideas!  I'm excited to run more tourneys like this.  I love designing tourneys that force people to think a lot and exercise skills that normally would need a lot more fencers to achieve.  This is fantastic, and I will be running some of these variations in the future.

~Birke die Jägerin
Order of the Cavendish Knot
Dragon Army Pentamere XO
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