Challenge of the Traveling Scholar 1/5: Midlands

[This is an in-persona post based on the Challenge of the Traveling Scholar.]

A bow from Sofya Chyudskaya Smolyanina to my fellow scholars on this traveling challenge. My travels recently took me to the Shire of Ravenslake in the north Midlands, where I taught my first class in my challenge on September 17.

Many good people at this event were engaged in teaching and learning martial arts so that they may better defend our fair realm, likely from the nomadic tribes which continue to encroach upon our lands. I, however, joined a small band of artisans in teaching more peaceful arts. I set up camp along a small path and offered to share my knowledge in the ways of leathercrafting to any and sundry who expressed an interest.

In total, I had eight students over the course of the day. The first was a small boy who — while very enthusiastic about hands-on learning — might have given me a gray hair or two under my povoinik. I turned to talk to another student for all of ten seconds, and when I turned back to him, he had found my sharpest and most dangerous knife. No fingers were lost, luckily, nor skin broken, and the other student was patient enough to come back later in the afternoon when the child had been reunited with his parents. She and another student made covers for ax blades; two others made scissors sheaths, and a few more practiced carving and stamping. One student began a small pouch for a brooch, which we agreed she could finish when I meet her in two weeks at a Fox Hunt. Enough students also were kind enough to donate a few rezanas for the cost of leather so I can request more from my supplier for future lessons. All in all, I consider this teaching experience a success.

There was also time to cool my wearied feet in the waters of a small, babbling brook below a copse of trees next to our site. While I now live in the booming metropolis of Novgorod and am used to large bodies of water like the Volkhov River and Lake Ilmen, it reminded me of small brooks that fed into the Dniepr by my childhood home near Smolensk.

Now, I am resting at home. And as the saying goes, at home, even one’s own walls are a comfort. Yet I must look to my books and continue preparing for my next class in another region. Where and when that will be, I know yet not…

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My Challenge of the Traveling Scholar

Earlier this summer, I was chatting with a friend of mine who said she felt like she needed a new way to challenge herself in the arts and sciences. She’s done the research, she’s made things, she’s entered pentathlons in A&S faires, and she’s taught classes. What next?

So I suggested, “Why not teach a pentathlon of classes?” Since we live in the SCA kingdom of the Midrealm, we have five regions — so she could teach one class in each region. Each class would represent the divisions of the A&S faire, in the same way as a pentathlon faire entry.

She happened to like this idea, and because it dovetails with another issue — encouraging more people to travel to events outside their home regions, and get more people to learn about and recognize each other — we decided to make it into a challenge to more teachers in the kingdom.

And, well, I found myself getting swept up in the momentum. I haven’t been teaching as many types of classes for a while, so I figured this challenge would give me a much-needed push to do a little more research and share more about what I’ve been learning and doing.

The rules are simple:

Time duration of the challenge — from August 1, 2016 to July 31, 2017

Teach at least 5 classes, one in each region (Midlands, Constellation, Pentamere, North and South Oaken)

Each class needs to represent a different division of A&S (or total 4 out of 5 divisions among the 5 classes):

  • Division 1 – performing arts
  • Division 2 – fiber arts
  • Division 3 – technical sciences (including research)
  • Division 4 – studio arts
  • Division 5 – domestic arts

Post a message in a Facebook group for the challenge, in character for your persona about your experience traveling to the event and teaching the class.

There is more to the challenge for those who want to go above and beyond this scope and try to teach a pentathlon of classes in each region, or at each event. Knowing where I’m approaching this challenge from, and how many classes I’ll be able to attend in each region before the end of next July, I’ll consider it an accomplishment if I can achieve the bare minimum.

I’m giving myself an additional challenge to prepare more of my classes in Russian topics. I just taught a general leatherworking class yesterday, however, so I’m not sure if I’ve already lost that challenge or if I’ll pull together a Russian-themed studio arts class by then. I’ll count it for now, because…I taught a class and it applies to the challenge.🙂

Other classes I’m preparing:

One on The Song of Igor’s Campaign for Division 1 (and because I’d like to do more teaching of literary topics anyway).

Division 2 — I’ve done a variation of a class on ozherele (Russian collars) that I could teach again, or teach a hands-on class about Russian embroidery techniques, or one about various Russian costume accessories.

Division 3 — I’m still puzzling this one out. My best bet is probably research. Or, it could be a lecture class on Russian metalworking finds….hmm.

Division 4 — Technically I’ve already accomplished this one, though I might do something more Russian-oriented in the way of leatherwork, birch-bark writing (or craft), or maybe even decorative metalwork if I learn more about making jewelry bits.🙂

Division 5 — This could be something on food and beverages, advice from the Domostroi on running a Muscovite household, or lessons learned about Novgorodian domestic issues by reading birch-bark letters (I recently read Letters One Thousand Years Old and gleaned quite a bit that could be shared in a class. Literate peasants had plenty to say!).

Again, this is all subject to change. Nothing is final until I’ve taught the class and completed the challenge. Here goes!

Each time I complete a class and write about it in persona, I’ll share the written entry here on this blog.

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Shakespeare Update

Every time I come back to this blog, my first reaction is “Yikes, it’s been a long time since I’ve last updated!” So, yeah. This past year has been a hectic one in many ways, and taken a huge chunk out of my time and energy away from the research and making I’d like to do.

But the good news is that I’m finally getting back on that horse, so to speak — and thought I’d share a quick update on my Shakespeare exposure this summer.

King John — I finally went back to this after abandoning it sometime last year and finished the play. The biggest takeaway is that there are good reasons why it’s not performed, largely to do with a few plot holes and awkward transitions. But there is an interesting character in Falkenburg (?), a bastard son of Richard the Lionheart (who cares if history says Richard was gay?) whose irreverent sense of humor gets him a knighthood and position leading Eleanor’s army. He enters the story with a conflict with his brother, the second-born, legitimate son, in a dispute over the inheritance of land and title. It draws an interesting parallel with John’s claim to the throne when his elder brothers both have their own sons. There is also a lot of soliloquy given to Constance (?), the mother of Geoffrey’s son whom John kidnaps. It might be interesting to see a couple of these scenes performed, though I doubt there are that many performances out there to choose from.

Twelfth Night  — I finally saw this performed live this summer, when some friends had a spare ticket to see it at the Illinois Shakespeare Festival. All in all, it was an enjoyable performance, set in the 1910s.

Hamlet — We saw this at the Illinois Shakespeare Festival as well — 1 1/2 times, in fact. The first time was canceled just after Hamlet’s “To be or not to be” soliloquy” because of rain. As much as I was disappointed in the weather interference, it lent to some unique dynamics in the play itself, notably when guards complain of chill even as the actors and audience are suffocating on a very hot, humid evening, and when one of the players describes a storm just as the thunder rumbles in the distance. Outdoor performances have their dramatic advantages as much as their setbacks.

This production is also noteworthy for its casting of a woman as Hamlet, Deborah Staples. This is the first time I’ve seen any performance with a woman in this role, and she played it beautifully. She didn’t try to “butch up” the character by overtly pretending to be a man, but just played the character, channeling the spirit while everyone else used male pronouns. There were notes of outrage that I haven’t picked up in other famous portrayals that fit well with the character and reminded me of a few women I know in real life. I still haven’t seen that many productions, but I’d place this well above Kenneth Branaugh’s and Kevin Kline’s respective movie roles. David Tennant is the only other actor I’d put on this par in terms of making the character and story come alive.

One last entertaining interaction with the greater outdoors came at the very end of this show (when we saw the entire, uncanceled performance). Just after Horatio says “May flights of angels carry thee to thy rest,” a plane flew overhead. I rode home imagining that the plane was taking Hamlet to rest in Cancun. My thoughts devolved from there to imagining Hamlet on vacation in Mexico…

“Oh, that this too too pallid flesh would burn, fade, and resolve itself into a tan…”(Well, he is a Dane after all, and probably burns more easily than tans, right?)

“Alas, poor Yorick! They’ve painted his skull for Dia de los Muertos, Horatio.”

Ahem. Anyway, in other Shakespearean news, I’m rereading Taming of the Shrew, which I haven’t read since college. There’s a lot more that I’m picking up now that I’m not reading it all in a few hours the night before class. There’s still a lot of baggage I’m unpacking about gender roles in Elizabethan marriage, though it’s interesting to note the essay by Anne ___ accompanying the play in the Riverside Shakespeare comparing Petruchio’s method of taming a woman against other practices considered in pop culture at the time that we today would revile as a hundred times more abusive. There’s still a lot of abuse leveled at a woman who’s already powerless in marriage as defined by Elizabethan culture, however, and I still prefer modern adaptations, but there are some comic elements in the original play that help make it bearable.

It’s also come up in conversation a few days ago that it’s been a while since I last read A Comedy of Errors, since I didn’t recognize a passage from it — so I know what I’ll be reading next. After that, I have the Song of Igor’s Campaign cued up and a couple other books on medieval Russia. It’s good to get some reading goals again.

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I first began experimenting with cordials sometime in the early 2000s. For the latter half of that time, I’ve been keeping track of my recipes and notes on a wiki that I threw together for cooking-related stuff.

I’ve had some hits and misses…and sometimes, I’ve lost track what I’ve done with a bottle or notes before I could add them to this page. By and large, however, what I’ve made can be found here.

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This is the body that I almost buried in the backyard


Viking FAILboots!


So it’s not a real body. By the time I realized that I’d made so many mistakes that I couldn’t do anything to make this pair of boots turn out well enough to give as the gift they were meant to be, I was so embarrassed that I felt like burying them in the backyard as if they were a dead body. Over a month later, I’ve had time to reflect and get over my self-pity and my shame, and think of the failure as a step in a very long learning process…and laugh. This blog post is about sharing the mistakes that I made in the hopes that I, and others who attempt shoemaking, can avoid them in the future.

This lesson in particular is not without irony. Experimental archaeologists can look at a piece of leather that’s been buried in the mud for a thousand years and make a new reproduction based on how the old piece would have looked when it was brand new. I, on the other hand, attempted to make a brand-new pair of boots based on someone else’s reproduction of a Viking find, and inadvertently made a pair that looks like it’s been in the mud for a thousand years.

What were they supposed to look like? Check out the pair on the far left on this site:

*Viking shoes

The design was based on two-toggle boots from the 9th-10th century. Stepping Through Time by Olaf Goubitz shows a pair of this shape from Dorestad. My friend Gunnarr gave me the pieces that he had already cut out; they only needed to be stitched together. Sounds simple, right?


Since the boots were to be a gift for him to wear during his elevation ceremony into the Order of the Laurel, I decided to make them even more special by customizing them. I tooled a laurel wreath onto the sole of each shoe as a subtle decoration that would be hidden from most people, but visible to other laurels approaching him as he knelt in the ceremony. (My wife, who is a laurel, assured me that this was a great idea and not at all offensive to the dignity of the Order.)

Since I couldn’t be there to deliver the boots in person, I got even more creative and decided to decorate a Zappos box and make it look like some sort of medieval shoe delivery service, relayed by friends who offered to take the boots to the event for me. (Soffos — shoes by Sofya!)

My cat, chewing on the box...because of course he is.

My cat, chewing on the box…because of course he is.

The box decorating never happened. By the time I realized that the boots were turning out horribly, horribly wrong, there wasn’t enough time left to start over. Poor Gunnarr had to be elevated without new boots, and I consoled my shame by perusing the failures of others on

What went wrong? I had a variety of excuses:

1. Modern dyes and products didn’t behave as they had on previous projects.
I started with a Fiebings mahogany dye on the uppers. When that turned out much redder than it looked on the swatch I had made of the exact same dye, I added a coat of Eco-flo dark cocoa brown dye. Satisfied with the color, I then added a clear coat of Fiebings resolene to seal the dye and keep it from rubbing off and/or staining things inappropriately.

I then attempted to soften it with mink oil. In other projects, this has worked to darken the leather and make it softer and supple, even on top of resolene. With this project, however, I was using a different brand of mink oil that apparently does nothing at all the same as the old brand. This was “golden mink oil” by Fiebings. The old stuff was a brand I don’t remember, white mink oil purchased at a shoe store. Fiebings is considered a reputable brand, however, so I expected it to be better.

Since the mink oil wasn’t sinking in, and the resolene had made the leather uppers feel more like shiny, hard plastic, I decided it was time to try out some deglazer — which states on its label that it’s supposed to remove glazes so leather can be redyed. This was Angelus, another highly reputed brand among leathercrafters. It smelled like nail polish remover (which makes sense, given its supposed function). It took most of the shine off the leather, so I figured it had worked. I added a fresh coat of dark cocoa dye and some more mink oil, and some neetsfoot oil for good measure.

When the time came to soak the shoe and turn it right-side out, the dye started flaking off. And, since I had used up the last of the dark cocoa dye, I had no way of patching up any bald spots. So, I began frantically trying to rub off as much of the dye as I could so that the boots would at least have an even coating. As the boots dried I ended up scraping and scraping, until some patches of leather looked really dry, scratched up, and dented. And, unfortunately, there were some small dark spots of the original dye that I absolutely could not remove, giving the boots an oh-so-pleasant moldy appearance.

The dye, as it was flaking off the wet boots

The dye, as it was flaking off the wet boots


What to do differently: Avoid modern dyes and resolene altogether. Save the neetsfoot and mink oils until after the boots have been turned right-side out.

2. Turning the shoe is hard on tooling and dyes in general.
I learned why so few shoes have tooled decoration on the soles: the act of soaking the leather for the turning process makes the tooling really susceptible to damage. Also, I thought that dyeing the leather uppers prior to sewing would prevent me from getting dye on the soles…WRONG! The water kept getting browner and more like tea the longer the boots were soaking in it, meaning that the soles were getting dye, too. And, because I made the additional mistake of drying the boots right-side up, that meant that the tool bench I dried them on embedded further indentations into my tooled design. Check out these before and after shots:





What to do differently: If I use any dye, I’ll carefully add it after turning the shoes — which should be dried up-side down on some sort of peg so they can be suspended in the air. I might try tooling after turning, too. It may be tricky, but there might be a way to get a flat surface in the shoe for it!

3. Sole leather is really hard to bore consistent box-stitch tunnels into, especially when it’s really aged and hardened.
Part of the trouble with ongoing projects is that the materials can sit around for a few years before they ever get made into something. I’ve learned the hard way that thick leather only gets more challenging to work with as it ages. Most of my experience has been on pieces thinner than 8-9 ounces, so 12-14-ounce leather takes more muscle than I’m used to using.

Complicating the issue is that getting the box-stitch tunnels to all have the holes in the sides at a consistent measurement takes some practice and finesse, which is not something that comes easily when I’m trying to hammer an awl through the leather with brute force.

As a result, my sole stitches bring the two pieces together unevenly, creating a gnarled “dumbest ‘gator in the swamp” look to the seams.

What to do differently: use the youngest sole leather possible, or settle for thinner leather — 9-10-ounce might be more workable than 14-ounce. I may have to toss out some large pieces of sole leather that are already really difficult to cut with a knife; if they’re difficult to handle with hand tools, I can’t guarantee that I have much control over the stitch holes.

Another option would be to use a Dremel boring tool attachment, if one exists. Otherwise, I may have to try to make an awl guider similar to the one shown in Frazier’s Compleat Anachronist on The Basic Craft of Turnshoes.

4. You should at least test the fit on the foot, or get a last.
I made this pair without a last — which, supposedly, it’s possible to do, but because I was making these boots for someone long-distance, I couldn’t exactly test the fit when the first pair looked like it might be a little small. I don’t know. I’m still hoping these will fit the recipient, but I won’t know for sure until he tries them on. The toes look a little small. Leather also shrinks when it’s wet. This pair not only got wet, but dried and hardened, meaning that we might have to get them wet again just to see if he can get his feet into them.

I’m starting to realize that while it’s possible to make shoes without a last, the last really helps shape the leather to the foot, especially in creating a rounded shape that makes room for the toes. I’d like to start making lasts, but that’s a level of woodworking I haven’t gotten to yet — meaning I might have to shelve shoemaking until I can figure out how to make lasts, too.


Theoretically, these are shaped for human feet.


What to do differently: either use a last, or use thinner, more flexible leather. I think part of the issue with getting this leather to shape properly was that the upper was already rather stiff (partly because of my own gaffes with modern products, but also because it was at least 5-7 ounce veg-tanned leather to begin with, which is already fairly stiff. That kind of leather would make awesome boots, but it work better with lasts, I think. For lastless shoes, flexible chrome-tanned leather may be necessary to bend with the shape of a person’s foot.

There are other mistakes and regrets that befouled these boots — not re-examining Goubitz’s drawing to see how I should add the toggles, using the wrong type of stitch on the side seams, leaving the Zappos box out where my cat could chew it up — but the lessons there are fairly self-explanatory.

I’ve already promised Gunnarr that I will make him a fresh pair of boots. For that pair, I’m hoping to have him try these on so we can make any adjustments to the pattern necessary, use some fresh pieces of leather, and pray that I will have learned from these mistakes.

My favorite Russian proverb is “The first pancake is a blob.” In other words, if at first you don’t succeed, keep making boots until you do. And then, make boots…like a Viking.

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Norse Rune Belt

Recently, my friend Gunnarr Alfljot was elevated to the Order of the Laurel. I offered to make him a belt and a pair of boots in honor of the occasion. The boots will be addressed in a separate blog post, but for now, let’s focus on the belt.



Gunnarr wanted a dark brown belt with a generic buckle that he can replace, as he is a master silversmith and can make a more customized buckle sometime down the road. This buckle is simply stitched on without rivets (which is a more period-appropriate attachment method anyway).

To suit his Norwegian Viking persona, I decided I wanted to incorporate some poetic reference in runes. My friend Reyni-Hrefna really made this possible, as she not only recommended a few epics but also found the original Old Norse text for the passage I chose, and translated it into runes. I carved the runes into the leather with a craft knife and gave it some depth by stamping one side of the letters with a flat-edged stamp and mallet. The cross marks were handled the same way, and the small circles were added with the tip of a retractable pen and the tip of a modeling tool.

The passage comes from the Poetic Edda, Hovamol — the Ballad of the High One, Stanza 10:

A better burden | may no man bear
For wanderings wide than wisdom;
It is better than wealth | on unknown ways,
And in grief a refuge it gives.

The stanza, in Old Norse:

Byrði betri
berr-at maðr brautu at
en sé mannvit mikit;
auði betra
þykkir þat í ókunnum stað;
slíkt er válaðs vera.

The first part:



Part 2:



Part 3:


Part 4:




Overall, I’m happy with the way the tooling and coloring turned out. I actually used two different dyes, a mahogany and then a dark cocoa brown when the mahogany turned out redder than I wanted. I sealed the belt with resolene and conditioned with a combination of neetsfoot oil and mink oil. If I had to do it all over again, I might forego the resolene and just use multiple coats of neetsfoot, but because this was a gift I didn’t want to risk any of the dye rubbing off on clothing.

Next time, maybe I’ll try getting into some more period dyeing materials!

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Holy Crap, has it really been almost 20 years?!

In August 1995, I discovered the SCA, and it’s been a part of my life ever since. To commemorate this involvement, I’ve started drafting an SCA resume — not because I’m applying for any particular office, but to keep track of what I’ve done so far. I figure I’d better start recording these things before I forget them completely!

After putting together a list of all the offices I’ve held, I might be able to sum it up as “local stuff service.” I’ve held more types of local offices than there are offices I haven’t. There are some that I am not likely to ever hold (cough, marshal, cough cough) — but I’ve learned never to say never! Right now I’m really enjoying being a regional MoAS, but I keep coming back to the local offices because that’s where it seems the need is greatest. At least, that’s how it feels for someone who’s always lived in small local groups. Maybe if I can convince more of our local members to take up the open offices, I won’t feel compelled to raise my hand.😉

This is still a rough (and un-proofed) draft, but it’s a statement of progress for me to blog about it. And, if anyone gives me some feedback, it will be that much more likely for me to refine it a bit more!

Check out my resume here…

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