Friday, February 10, 2023

Roman Era Briton Common Woman

Back in November I had the opportunity to present a historical impression to a few classes of middle schoolers. I thought a lot about what I would cover and planned to present about Bronze Age Britian but at the last minute I changed my mind and went with Roman-era Britian and what a day in the life of a common woman may have looked like in that first century AD. 

I did this so I could bring a big basket of Bronze Age clothes in case any of the kids wanted to dress up and show their classmates what an earlier period outfit looked like. Since the majority of prehistory garments from this area of the world are made of simple rectangles and are tied, pinned and draped to fit the clothes I brought fit a wide variety of people. To my surprise and joy the kids loved dressing up, fastening on necklaces, wearing a cloak, playing the drum I brought and passing around the baby doll I brought to demonstrate what a baby from that period may have worn. 

For my own outfit, I made a new dress based on the Gallic Coat, a fascinating garment that was discovered almost perfectly preserved in a grave of the 1st century at Martres-de-Veyre. 

This garment, while not found precisely in the area I was portraying, is one of our best examples of the kind of clothing a common person probably wore throughout this part of Europe during the 1st century AD. I found a great article on recreating this coat on Scribd. This type of garment is cut as two rectangles with a hemmed slit left open for a neck opening. Two rectangular sleeves are attached, forming a T shaped garment. It is possible that the original garment had very slightly shaped sloping shoulder seams that were likely created by increasing the seam allowance at the shoulders rather than cutting the rectangular panels to slope at the shoulders. 

For my dress, I used a plaid wool flannel fabric in shades of blue and green. It is documented that celtic people in Britian used checks in this period and colors for dying their fibers. This is in contrast to the earlier Bronze Age clothing that was likely not dyed and relied instead of the natural color of sheeps wool (in this period the sheep utilized for their wool had brown hair) to create patterns in fabrics that were woven as checks or stripes. 

I also made wool sewn stockings based on the stockings from the same grave at Matres-de-Veyre. 

For both the dress and the stockings I used 2 ply wool yarn, waxed, to hand sew and fell the seams with a short running stitch and closely spaced slip stitches. 

Since it was getting near winter at the time I made a hood based on the Orkney Hood, dating from a bit later (the earliest possible estimated dating is from around 250 AD). 

The hood is made of one piece of material that is cut to shape and the hem is finished with a fringed band. My version has just one band with separate, applied fringe. The original hood was made with two bands of tablet woven material with the fringe incorporated into the woven bands. It is probable that the original hood was made for a child or a small person and appears to have been constructed out of recycled materials that originally came from different garments. 

My hood is made of heavy herringbone wool and is, like the dress and stockings, unlined and sewn with felled seams in 2 ply wool. The fringe is grey wool yarn looped and knotted just above the hem of the band. This hood is incredibly warm! 

I accessorized with a small leather belt pouch, a braided linen belt and my leather shoes that I made for my Bronze Age impression last summer. I used twill tape to tie up my stockings above the curve of the calf to keep them from slipping down. 

 The twill tape is linen and may not be accurate to this period but it is likely woven bands of wool would have been used as garters in much the same way. Underneath the dress I wore a long sleeved linen T shaped shorter tunic as an undergarment. It is rare to find evidence of hemp textiles from this period since the material deteriorates so quickly, although some evidence does exist, generally as fibers preserved inside bracelets or behind brooches or pins. 

For my cloak, I dyed a black and white wool skirt I bought at the thrift store in blue and wore it pinned around my shoulders. The cloak is rectangular, as one unpieced panel (the original skirt was pleated and made as a wrap skirt). The selvedges finish off two of the edges and I left the other two edges unhemmed and frayed into a slight fringe. 

I brought different foodstuffs that could have been available to Britons in this period, at this time of year - smoked meat (in this case, pork) fried and wrapped in wool. Dried plums, hazelnuts and bread made of oat and rye flour with a little salt and water and baked as small cakes. 

The story to go along with my impression is that I was a woman traveling from my village to visit my sister, who had just had her first child earlier in the year. I had had to wait til this time (November) to visit her as before then I had been busy helping my family and village with preparations for winter, including food harvest and preservation. 

But now, that was finally accomplished and I could spare some time to bring my sister some gifts from our household and meet my new nephew or niece. 

It was really fun dressing my daughters life like baby doll and bringing the doll in to incorporate into my impression. It was the most popular thing ever at the demonstration that day and everyone wanted a chance to hold the baby. I was a little surprised the middle schoolers were so enthusiastic about the doll but it was a very pleasant surprise! We decided the baby was a girl and her name was Hyfryd - a Welsh word meaning lovely or delightful. 

Much love,