Posted by: Aunt Magaidh | February 28, 2010

Musings of a Ren Faire Newbie – Part 2, nuts and bolts

Disclaimer:  If someone takes issue with what I write here, please understand that as a newbie, I can only speak to what I have experienced over the last couple of years.  I don’t know much about the politics or history of the various guilds, performers, or faires.  No disrespect is intended.

As I said in Part 1, I am a relative newcomer to the Renaissance Faire world.  For the last 2 years, my family has gone to small Ren fairs with a Scots reenactment guild. This set of blog postings are to document my thoughts about how my family entered the faire world and maybe help my readers who may be interested in joining the Ren Faire community.  Remember, people, this is my personal experience and opinion, not gospel.

Why and how do you want to play at faire? It’s a great question for the newbie.   I know it’s not the least expensive hobby nor is it the easiest.  I could have just stuck with my knitting and spinning in my little livingroom with my connections to my knitting circle and occasional visits to wool faires and it would have been a lot cheaper.    During a class at the recent Renaissance Symposium there was a comment from one of the instructors that “if you are shy, you’ve picked an interesting hobby to participate in”.  (I’m paraphrasing.)

Well…both Husby and I are relatively shy and not into acting.  What were our reasons for taking up this hobby?

  1. My daughter had gotten bit by the acting bug in middle school, but was really getting drawn to people that were a little too “Diva-ish” for my taste.  We wanted to find a theatrical outlet for her where the theater family was a bit more grounded.  When we took her to her first Ren faire (a large one), she was smitten within 5 minutes of walking through the gate.  Then we found out that for her to participate, one of the parents would have to be involved.  (Minors need guardian’s permission and presence.)  So, we needed to find a guild who could deal with minors and family perspectives.  Luckily, we found a guild that is family oriented, which means that there are other family members who are watching out for her and helping her develop in ways that her parents (not drama people) can’t.  And our guild introduces her to others with other skills and interests.  Now she has outlets for acting and music and just goofing off in really creative ways.
  2. It was a hobby that our entire family could participate in.  As The Daughter was turning into a teenager, we wanted to find a hobby where we could still interact with her instead of being isolated from her.  At faire there is PLENTY of room for her to be independent, create her own circle of friends, and build her own reputation as a performer/reenactor.  At faire, Husby and I can see her occasionally and have events that we can share with her.  Bonus: Husby and I have formed friendships with people whom we share interests with!  Our circle of friends is expanding and that is a good thing.
  3. Living history.  Our family is into archeology, anthropology, and do-it-yourself.   At first I had to find out if we wanted to do hardcore reenactment or play reenactment.  Actually, that was quickly answered: we didn’t want to actually live the time period.  (The weekends are short enough without feeling exhausted because you had to haul water, cook all your meals over an open fire, and wear completely authentic clothes the entire time.) Being at faire gives us a chance to figure things out and play around with our interests to do things the old ways with the conveniences of ice chests and fire starter.

So…you see it’s all The Daughter’s fault.

But onward…There are some definite elements that helped us join the faire community and get our feet under us as brand new Rennies.

Research. You have to research the time and area you are going to play, as well as how faire people organize themselves.  If you do the research about the time, trades, and cultures you are interested in –  you become a more successful faire participant.  It makes it easier to find where you are going to fit in.

I learned early on that the internet is my friend. By using the information that is on the internet, I found articles and websites that helped us learn a lot about the history of the time period.  I studied images of clothing.  I researched sailing routes, maps, food and recipes, who married whom, who knighted whom, who offed whom, and what herbs they probably used to off them.  (Me distracted?  No way – oooh shiny!)

And then I found the specialists.  Yeay!  They cited their sources and told their readers where they were headed next to dig up some dusty book or fondle some extant gown.  I highly recommend the SCA articles rather than the generic articles.   The SCA people are crazed researchers who share their information (Bless them!) and I totally took advantage of that tendency.  I found free garb sewing patterns, tips on period appropriate spinning, and recipes.  I’ve since become a research junkie (“What fish were harvested at Loch Creran area?  Hmmm.  I wonder if I can find images based on their scientific names?”)

Here are some favorite (NOT comprehensive) websites to start your research:

I also learned that flyers and websites for individual faires can help you learn an awful lot about how a faire runs, who is playing at a faire, how well you might fit in a group.  The producers of faires put a lot of information on the web so that people can get it easily.

Finding a group to play with. As a newbie you need to find out where you fit in the Rennie world.  It was a little daunting to come to the community without having grown up in it or being sucked in through friends.   I mean, really what were our connections?  None.  Zip.  Zero.   We had to go out and make some.

This took a bit of doing.  I started by finding who was involved with faire by perusing the internet information available.  I went to the faire websites and checked who was listed as guilds and performers.  (Look for a button that says “attractions”, “entertainment”, “join us”,  or “participation”.  You can then find the guilds and performers to contact.)  Then I looked for those groups’ websites to find out what they said about themselves.  Next was checking the groups out at faire.  I know that I took a couple of circles around a couple of faires observing guilds and talking to the players as well as the membership officer.

For me the process of elimination helped a lot.  I had to find a group that 1) had kids in it; 2) had a reenactment bent vs. stage performance bent; and 3) was local (gas prices were close to $4 per gallon).  Don’t forget that finding a faire family involves your budget. And budget means time and money.  I had to look at how many faires we would be required to attend, how much time we had to put in for meetings and whatnot, what the dues were, and what it would cost to clothe and accessorize our characters.

I had whittled my selections to three groups who were relatively local.  One group didn’t have their website fleshed out enough to give me a good picture of who they were.  Another was too expensive: dues plus the fact that my family couldn’t afford to be part of court group just based on the cost of garb.  The third one had a good website (slightly out of date), their mission statement of what they were and what they weren’t, pictures of their members, archived newsletters, and a calendar of events.  Bingo.  We met with them.

Various groups have different ways of nurturing their new recruits.  Some better than others.  Some more structured than others.  The group we chose is pretty casual in their structure and the way they create a space to play.   They helped us assess our basic garb and flesh out our first season wardrobe with hand-me-downs and loaned pieces.  They introduced us to other faire people and told us what to expect at each faire.  They made sure that we had a camping spot.  In the first year, it really felt like we were new additions to a family.

Build a character. Don’t be overwhelmed.  First step is to match the energy of your new faire family and find a role in it.  Some guilds/groups have very clear roles to be played.  Others, not so much.  You’ll find out a lot about what role you’ll be expected to play when you research the group you join, whether it is the street actors or a military guild or a singing troupe.   (I’ll give more detail in Part 3, Building Character of this Musings series.)

Faire clothing.  Garb is really not costuming – it’s what you wear for a weekend at faire. You really need to think about clothing that will stand up to the activities that you are going to do.  (Climbing trees?  Getting in brawls?  Progressing with court through 100 degree weather?) The hat is really not just a prop, it keeps the sun off your head.  The layers of clothes protect your skin from sun.

There are oodles of websites to research garb.  Many groups will give you a list of basic garb appropriate for the image they are trying to present.  Check in with your costume officer/garb maven.  (I’ll talk about my garb adventures in Part 4, Gilding the Lily.)

Being healthy at faire. As our beloved Safety Officer, Dame Kaitlyn says, “Water, water, water.  Sunscreen, sunscreen, sunscreen.”  And after she does that, she may ask you when you ate last and when you last went to the privy.  (Gotta keep your blood sugar up and your bladder is the truth teller of whether you’ve been drinking enough water.)

You really need to focus on taking care of your health when you are at faire.  Most faires are in hot weather, so dehydration and heat are problems.  You have to drink a lot more water because you are out and about walking more than you normally do at the office job.  We put our tankards to use!  I’ve also learned to pack lots of good snacks that my family will eat.   Barky, a long time faire actor, recommends carrying some trail mix in a pouch attached to you so you can get some compact food energy even if you are constantly moving.

Food at faire is also probably fattier or less balanced than the food you eat at home.  If you are camping or can have fire in your encampment, cook simple meals that include fruit and veggies!  Really, even taking bagged salad and a few apples or grapes can help you feel better (uh…um…and regular) during faire season.  Last season I started taking advantage of the guild firepit.  I’ve reinitiated potluck family breakfasts and dinners in the guild (and friends) so we can 1) save money and 2) get balanced meals.  We had some awesome food last year ranging from Roast Salmon to Stewed Capon to Vegetarian Chili to Killer Scrambled eggs with both real and veggie bacon.  Bonding over food has been lots of fun in the guild!

Camping is part of being a Rennie. Tips: Pack light.  Quality counts. Multiple use is great. Usually I’m an over-packer, but for faire, I just don’t have room for all the luxuries.  And you don’t have excess energy at the end of the weekend to deal with packing the excess junk you only used for one or two nights.   (I usually wear jeans for traveling and take down because they are practical and tough.  I pack sweats and extra socks for sleeping because I hate being cold.)

Use a good sleeping bag and tent, and don’t forget the ground cloth and rain fly.  If you are a little creaky in the joints (like I am) an insulite pad is essential.  Life sucks when everything is wet and cold.  Another option for the non-camping souls is to get a motel room nearby.  About half of our guild use trailers or motels or condos, the other half roughs it.  Don’t get caught up in ideas of having to be macho.  You need to take care of your body to be able to be bright and cheerful for a day at faire.

My ditty bag is full of mini-sized toiletries and first aid supplies.  I have a camp towel – one of those incredibly absorbent towels that backpackers use. It packs light and dries quickly.  The multiple use winner? Liquid castille soap (like Dr. Bronner’s) can be used for washing hands, hair and will cut through grime and grease on skin and clothes, if necessary.  Also can be used for shaving if that is something you need to do.

And if you are in bear (or racoon) country, don’t forget that you should never leave any toiletries  (or edibles) in your car or tent. Use the bear boxes. Please.  The bear doesn’t deserve to be punished because you were dumb.  (Bears who raid human habitations are often killed because they can’t be reformed or relocated.)

Favorite gadget?  The suction cupped toothbrush case.  happy suction toothbrush holder set - photo

Last tip: Make new friends. Really.  This is what gets you pulled into the faire community quickly.

Although my husband and I are relatively shy and we were quite comfortable with hanging out with our guildmates, I made a point of  meeting people we saw regularly.  I introduced myself to the chainmail vendor, and after some conversation with her about the technology of pulled wire allowing for the development of knitting needles, and how the chain mail and knitted fabric  share similar structure, we made a point of agreeing that I should visit the booth during faire.  I took my wool and combs to the chainmail vendor and talked about how the combs can be defensive weapons.  It was a fun outing and low stress.  It gave me a chance to practice my bad Highland accent with a friend.  And it pulled the customers interest – especially as we tested (gently) how my wool combs could go through the chains.  And as the vendor and I geeked out over how it worked, the customers were also watching and learning about the chainmail and spinning techniques.  Score!

I may not remember the name of the potter at the Woven Potter, but she and I are friendly and recognize each other.  At Folsom last year, her booth and my guildyard were right across from each other.  She would work at her wheel and I would spin and we’d have a conversation across the road – with patrons walking through.  It was great fun and the patrons were passively involved in our gig…sometimes stopping to see what she was doing, sometimes watching me, sometimes bouncing between us.   Good business.  Good patron experience.  Great fun for us. (Her name is Moriah.  The spinner in the  booth is Carolyn.  Geez…I need to visit with her again as well.  See?  The internet is a great tool! Here’s their website:

At the recent Ren Symposium I finally met my new faire friend, Vonnie.  She commented on my previous post

You didn’t mention the ‘meeting new friends’ class at the fair. It was an unstructured and ongoing class that met at different locations and times, usually impromptu. THIS class was my favorite.

She’s right about the “meeting new friends” class.  It is the best class.  Vonnie originally saw me at faire spinning while she was singing.  Then she introduced herself to me through the knitting webgroup Ravelry.  During chats on Ravelry we made plans to meet at Symposium so I could give her some pointers on drop spinning.  Good move.  After the tutoring session she introduced me to her friends and I introduced her to mine and suddenly there were 14 people going to dinner together.  They are all people that I will try to get to know better over the course of the faire season.

Wow…this has been a long post.  But I think I’ve covered most of the structure of joining the faire community.   “But Magaidh, you haven’t talked about creating a character or costumes!”  Right.  Look for Part 3, Building Character and Part 4, Gilding the Lily.  Those pieces needed to be handled separately so I could get the ideas clear and my eyes didn’t cross.

Until then,




  1. You are doing a great job of this Kat! I am very inspired by you.

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