Posted by: Aunt Magaidh | July 21, 2010

Musings of a Ren Faire Newbie – To what lengths accuracy?

Disclaimer:  If someone takes issue with what I write here, please understand that as a Ren Newbie, I can only speak to what I have experienced over the last 3 years.  I don’t know much about the politics or history of the various guilds, performers, or faires.  No disrespect is intended.  Remember, people, this is my personal experience and opinion, not gospel.  Oh, yeah…and be forewarned that I have a distinct bias for the historically focused  vs. what is convenient for showing at faire.

Here it comes…the most dangerous zone for a Ren Newbie.  Please make sure that you have a 6 foot wide clearance around the place you are sitting.  And that the pets and small children are at the other end of the house.

Historical accuracy.

Was that a scream?  A groan?  Have you all caught your breaths?  Are you grabbing your swords and leather tankards?  Or are you donning your tapestry bodices and pastel colored off the shoulder chemises?  Is your head covered?

Man, this is a tough topic to take on.  Every time I meet a veteran of faire, I prepare myself to learn another set of uncomfortable …Truths? Legends? Myths? Opinions?  It’s enough to make a Newbie give up and watch a Disney princess movie.  Or get dinner at Medieval Times.  Or…but I digress in hopes of procrastination and avoidance.  But I must go on.  It is my duty to other Newbies.

When you first decide to become a performer at faire, you are told that you need to get a character and a corresponding kit together.  (New vocab word: Kit – basic faire clothing, accessories and survival gear approved for public viewing at the faire you are attending.)  You are given a list of approved guidelines – either from the organizers or your new guild.  You’ve probably started looking at eBay and online vendors for supplies.  You may have started reading the miscellaneous articles online.  You may or may not have been instructed by your guild leaders about the history your guild portrays.

For the last couple of Ren Symposiums, Bill Watters taught a class “Popping the Bubble” in which he takes on the myths of what is portrayed at faire as historical.  It’s a great class.  Mostly because it makes people question what they have accepted as truth.   There are some things that are theatrical conventions adopted for the purpose of faire – only the queen wears purple and Scots wear kilts so that they look different from Irish.  You learn that one veteran’s idea of historical accuracy is so narrow that you can’t slip a piece of paper between the gaps, while another’s standards are wide enough to accommodate a parade of elephants, two abreast.

Me?  Well, I learned about bits and pieces before we joined our guild. Most of my consequent research was spurred on by my wanting to know how I could be a crafter and where I fit in the picture of my guild and the fairs that we visited and the other actors we interacted with.  Also, Husby and I are great fans of what we call “Dead Guys”.  We go to museums/cultural centers to see archeological dig exhibits, living history, reenactments, “this really old house/ship/covered wagon”, etc.  Daughter’s first museum outing was to the DeYoung Museum to see the terracotta soldiers of China…she was 4 weeks old.  Now she is lobbying for us to visit friends at Civil War reenactments.  (We’re considering it for next year’s family vacation.)

But I digress.

It seems that historical accuracy for Ren faires is a sometimes thing.   (Please see my earlier blog about “Suspend Your Disbelief”.)  What bugs me is when things are actively presented as historical when they aren’t and it’s just as easy to present something better with the same or just a little bit more effort. Personally, I choose to be as historically accurate as I can afford (in money and time and physical comfort), and that is my fun and the standard that I hold myself to.  (I try not to impose those ideals on others, although I do share my standards with people I recruit.)  And I’m clearly not hard core enough to go the SCA route myself.  When I have patrons ask about my authenticity, I tell them my limits, what isn’t strictly authentic, and direct them to other resources if that is what they are looking for.

When you research history, you find stuff aimed at school projects or SCA or historical costume fiends. But to find the historical incorporated in faire information is a little hard.  You end up looking at the living history center websites and search for reenactor guidelines.  You take it on your own to start connecting the historical with how you can embody that research into the person you become at faire.

Which brings me to my latest project.  I am participating in a new faire this year, called Much Ado About Sebastopol.  It is to be a historically focused Ren faire that is a fundraiser for the local school.  Here is the website,  It’s artistic director, Rydell Downward, is a gentleman whom I admire for his passion for historical presentation.  He just happens to be the Guildmaster for the Northern Branch of The Guild of St. George and a veteran Rennie. (Here’s a link to that guild’s info –  Check out their resources page!  It’s awesome.) My friend Cate, who portrays a Masterweaver at faire and with whom I hang out with knitting, spinning and cooking, is also involved as the Crafts committee chair and Workshops co-chair.  She got me involved in this faire.

I auditioned in June by talking with the casting group about my experience with reenacting.  What was really interesting was we were asked to prepare to discuss our proposed character.  During my interview, I was asked to respond in the character of my proposed personality (in as good an English accent as I could manage – bad). I was asked about whether I was married, what I did for work, what I did for fun, if had children, and how I practiced religion.  Although a little daunting for me, I loved the fact that these topics were brought up.  It made it so much easier to think about this stuff and drop into character.

The artistic folks are going to hold rehearsals and workshops on speech, costumes, acting.  Thank the Little Fishies!  I love that they are going to help people really create a village where we know each other and interact with some familiarity and common background!  So.  My journey to this faire is making me stretch my Newbie legs.  I have to adopt a new persona because it is an English faire, situated in a village where the Queen is visiting one of her favorites during a harvest festival.  Scottish Spinner Magaidh is becoming English Spinner Margaret Greene.

I also have to adjust my dressing mode.  Just looking at the draft costume guide I’m excited.  They cover the “encourage” and “avoid” lists early on and I like it.  (No drawstring chemises, no tapestry sofas…) I like the challenge.  (Mostly.)  A historical outfit!  I’ve been researching the outfits that are easier and relatively less expensive to make.  I’ve been evaluating what I have in my garb tote that is appropriate.  I’ve been looking at what are historically accurate for my faire station and what I can afford to make in my mundane budget.  Yowza.  I hit the pattern sale at Joann’s (see previous post about commercial patterns). Nope, appropriate wool cloth is still out of my budget.  Likewise the online $5/yd linen.  I’ve been creatively haunting thrift shops, old sewing stashes, fabric liquidation stores, and even ye old Walmart fabric dept.  I have scraped together enough fabric to create a partially new outfit.

Thank goodness that some other people have done this for loads of years and make it easier for me.  I’ll be using an existing coif, straw hat, and linen or cotton petticoats.  I have to sew a new smock and a bodied petticoat/fitted kirtle.  I’m considering a jacket/doublet.  Here is my inspiration: Extreme Costuming. (This woman has got it going on!  I love her site and information and examples.  Gorgeous.)

Check out these lovely ensembles!

copyright L. Mellin 2008

copyright L. Mellin, 2008

Although clothing is the first thing that people see, I also look forward to fleshing out my character.  Here is what I know about my persona for this faire…and based on history as I’m learning about it.

Name: Margret Greene

Occupation: Put-out Spinner for the masterweaver.  As the head spinner, I sort and evaluate fleece as it comes to workshop.  I also help select and train apprentices for the Masterweaver.

Family: Married to drover for the masterweaver.  Husband is Benedict Greene.  We’ve been married for 20 years and are genuinely fond of each other.  One living child (lost 2 sons as babes), daughter, aged 16 and unbetrothed!  (Trained in cooking and spinning. Apprenticing with baker.  Looking for suitable match.)

Entertainments: I enjoy seeing the plays when actors come to the village.  I also make (and drink) cordials.  Favorite cordial this year is the herb and strawberry cordial.

Religion: The Queen’s religion.  I attend chapel as often as I’m told to.

As I said earlier, it is my duty to my fellow Ren faire Newbies to share my experiences and questions and research and findings so that you can have an easier time joining in.  WE CAN look as authentic as the history snobs in our first couple of seasons without ploughing in hundreds and hundreds of dollars.   I’ve learned that by choosing earth toned, linen-textured or heavy woven pattern cottons a lot of our kit is more authentic looking than what is easily obtained on eBay.  Sometimes the line or construction of a garment is what makes the difference.  I’ve gotten good enough at pleating that I’m not frozen in my tracks anymore when I check out instructions on creating costumes.  My family carries things around in fabric bundles, baskets, or leather pouches – I now have pieces of cloth in my basket that can become a carryall, a hand towel, a hairwrap, or a quick covering for a camera depending on our needs.

Yes, you will do lots of reading of articles and lots of looking at pictures online.  (I’m going to encourage you to visit the link to St. George’s resources.  It covers history, language, costuming, names…all sorts of things – You start to read about how navigation was based on stars (and sailors didn’t look like Jack Sparrow) or how pastry held any number of fillings.  It starts to sink in and you start to look around the faire in a different way.  You notice the leather bindings on a canvas pavilion.  You see the buckle on a shoe.  You start to know which chairs or benches fit more comfortably.  You become more aware of your speech.  At the very least you start to slow down, you ditch the word “okay” and ask “what hour is it?” instead of asking for the time.  You start to stand differently because the clothes and shoes are different from your “mundanes”.

I kind of think of this learning process as steps in choosing a drinking vessel for faire. You start off as a patron who finds a glass-bottom pewter mugs at the thrift shop.  Then you join a guild and find out that the glass bottoms are not right and tend to break.  You are given a hand-me-down metal one and are told that even these are not right because it would have cost a fortune for someone portraying peasant/laboring class.  Then you start looking at the wooden tankards and somehow know that the pretty multi-block tankards aren’t right and they are awfully bulky on your belt loop.  And then you check out the leather tankards and know something is still a bit off even if you’ve abandoned the utility belt look.  And then you pick up the ceramic mugs and wonder how long you’ll have it before it falls out of your basket or if it is a correct glaze.  Finally, you give up and just head to the ale stand and gulp down a cool one so that you don’t have to carry the plastic cup.

So here is my challenge to you Ren faire newbies:  Be as accurate as you can be as you start this hobby.  It doesn’t have to cost more, in fact it can save you money and comfort in the long run.  It is fairer to the patron.   It makes you look real instead of someone who is in costume.  It’s easier than you think and there are lots of people who are happy to help you figure things out.

I’ve got a lot of ground to cover before September.  See you around.

Aunt Magaidh



  1. Loved the article… Keep up the good work. This energy you have is fantastic. Good luck with Sebastopol. Don’t forget if you find any good websites for our time period you can add them to our guild links page.

  2. Hi, Rydell mentioned your blog and I thought I’d check it out. I’m very impressed–you write very well. As for fabric, wool is sometimes on sale at Joann’s for half or even 60% off. I got some great plain black wool to make a cap for my daughter’s boyfriend. It was $12.50 a yard, but you only need about half a yard (measure first, or course, but it was 60″ wide.) At Valhalla faire, one of our household women was wearing a really neat headdress. It was a plain biggin cap, with a folded 18″ square kerchief tied and fold and pinned on top. It sounds difficult but was really very easy and quick to do and looked great. If you are interested, I’ll draw a picture and send to you (I’d need your email) Or we can connect on Tribe. I look forward to meeting you at Sebastapol.

  3. ::Loud Applause::

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