The Art of Research
By THL Cassandra of Glastonbury
So, you have the research fever. The only cure is to go forth on an informational quest. Whether your plans include an A&S entry, an Insanity Project, an article, or simply satisfying your curiosity, research is a way to touch the past by exploring how something was done. The challenge is the more common anything was the less information seems to be available. The textile arts are notorious for this. After all, every woman could spin and weave from childhood.
Bibliographies are a gold mine of potential reading material. They can be found in the back of a book you already have, in an article, or on the web. Annotated bibliographies describe what is in the book and why the creator of the bibliography thought the book is worth a read. The more specific your research, the less time you have to read books, that while are interesting, do not pertain to the topic at hand.
Interlibrary Loan (ILL) is your friend. Libraries can order a fortune in rare and obscure books for you free or for a nominal charge. Libraries connected to a college or university have even better luck ordering for you than will your local library. Sometimes you do not even need to be a current student. Many libraries extend lending privileges to alumni or community members.
To buy or borrow, that is the question. Several factors to consider are budget, space, and contents. How much does that book cost and what will I have to give up to get it? Where am I going to put it? No, adding on to the house is NOT really my best option. Are the contents worth the cost and shelf space? My rule is that after I have borrowed the book three times I might as well shut up and buy it.
There are many web sites and newsgroups to pursue. Use caution. There is a lot of information available and some of it is not reliable. Double-check your findings and your sources. A site published by a university or research foundation has more creditability than a "personal" site.
If you plan on citing a web site, get permission from the owner. There are copyright laws to be considered. It is the same for books and articles.
Learn how to use the advanced search features in your favorite search engine. Three to five words should give you a manageable return for your efforts. I like www.google.com because it will let me search web sites, newsgroups, and pictures. There are also specialized search engines that are geared for one topic only. Several are designed with medieval studies in mind.
Some newsgroups have search engines within the group. This is a great feature for finding that thread that you were not interested in six months ago. While the content of newsgroups may be primarily opinions, they can provide useful how-to or how-not-to information from someone who actually tried to do what you are researching. They are also good sites for book reviews because some of the members are obsessive enough to read everything that pertains to their field of interest.
Museums are wonderful sources for primary documentation. There are specialized museums that focus solely on one area of expertise. Also consider your local museums. They can bring in traveling exhibits. Admittance fees are generally reasonable. Some forbid the use of cameras, so it is a good idea to check policy before visiting. If you are fortunate to be on good terms with the curator, it might be possible to obtain a closer look at some of the exhibits.
Exantant specimens are a primary source. There is no arguing with a bog or burial find. It can be measured, photographed, and subjected to all sorts of tests. We know where it was found and what was around it.
The sad truth is that textiles do not hold up well. If wool, many insects consider them to be food. If plant fiber, they become compost. Bogs do a good job of preservation, however, the tannin can interfere with accurate carbon dating and mask signs of dyeing.
A museum presents you with your chance to see the object of your quest live with only a plate of glass separating the two of you. Here lives a source of primary documentation - maybe. Check the fine print. A replication, however carefully researched and reproduced is still a replication. Museums will use these and label them as such, commonly when setting up displays or tableaux. Forgeries and hoaxes can be done so well that even the curators are fooled. This is especially true if the hoax is also several hundred years old.
Consider how the artifact is preserved and displayed. Was it necessary to use a stiffener, backing, or frame to display the fragments? Also consider how it was treated during its life before the museum. A large tapestry may have been cut up into pillow-sized squares when the fashion changed. The gown may have been mended poorly or remade from an older gown. Did some unknown artist touch up a faded painting or tapestry 200 years ago thus changing details and chemical compositions?
My experimentation with "Virtual" Museums left me convinced that they were for people with high speed internet access and those interested in an overview. The interfaces need work and I want the option to get details on individual parts of exhibits. Like most weavers, I am not happy unless I can get thread counts, drafts, fiber micron readings, and any other bit of trivia that comes to mind.
Portraits are an excellent source of information regarding the art of painting. Since an artist made his living by rendering his clients in the most flattering light possible, take the image with a grain of salt. It helps to remember definitions of beautiful and elegant have changed drastically over centuries. Without seeing the cloth up close and having a chance to turn the gown inside out to see the seams, we have no way to know what details were altered by the painter or how the gown really looked.
Some pictures from other sources, such as a Book of Hours show people engaged in humble (useful) occupations. Please consider artistic license and that the artist likely has never turned a hand at the work portrayed. There is one picture of a dyer that shows folded cloth lying next to the dye pot where it could be splashed and ruined. Another shows a loom that is physically impossible to work and a lady attempting to weave.
Court records are another source of information about what people owned, used, and how they lived. You can find wills, contracts, and lawsuits pertaining the creation and disposal of textiles. The main drawback with these is that the people keeping records do not go into great detail about the items in question or about their construction. However, you can find wage, guild, and other economic information here.
Great households kept detailed inventories of household furnishings and clothing. Some of these listed not only the cost for the materials, but also the cost of the labor. With clothing, it was very apparent that the bulk of the cost was in the material, not the labor. Queen Elizabeth's Wardrobe Unlock'd by Janet Arnold is an excellent example of such a resource.
So, you've read the books, looked at the pictures, chatted with those who share your interests, taken a pilgrimage to a museum, and still wonder what it would be like to weave enough cloth for a gown. A project researched and completed from the raw materials through the use of the finished product gives a very tangible form of reality to the research and to the work and skill that go into something as basic as clothing. Here is where you find the small gaps in your research. There are small steps that are omitted from records and pictures because the details were common and "everybody" knew how to do that. Great detail was kept on the making of a queen's gown, but not that of a village granny's gown.
Just hand over the data and no one has to get hurt.