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The Inexpensive Garber

How to buy a used sewing machine| What fabrics to use| Trims| Patterns| Accessories for your costume| Little People's Garb

Allrighty then. So you want some 10th to 11th century Viking costumes, but can't afford the price tags of ready made? No problem. With the right tools and a little sewing know how you should be on your way in no time.

    First I would like to say first and foremost that the opinions expressed in this section are solely my own, and not the general consensus of Vykland. The purpose of this section is to provide a reference for those looking to get a few reasonable costumes underway without breaking the bank. Any historical buffs who take issue with the materials or designs suggested in this section are free to take it up with me, but don't badger the other members/web authors of Vykland. Enough said.


1) Sewing Machine

    Firstly, unless you plan on spending forever and a day sewing, you'll need a sewing machine. If you are an avid parouser of garage sale wares, you've probably seen many machines offered up for under $20, but were too wary to buy. Don't always be intimidated by their used condition, since most people buy a machine with all good intentions, but end up selling it because it wastes space. Also, just because a model is older doesn't mean it is any less efficient, or that parts are harder to find, then a newer one. In fact, the one I'm using now is a 20 year old Singer that I snagged for $10, and I have no complaints! As long as you stick with a major brand name, you should be able to order manuals, and parts, no matter how old it is.

    When you find a likely machine at a lawn sale, ask to try it out. If the machine truly works, the owner should have no objections. Some of the most misleading problems with machines are thread tension problems. It may seem like a machine isn't operating properly even though there's nothing wrong with it, because the tension is too loose (stitches looked "picked up") or too tight (causes the material to buckle or scrunch up). To loosen or tighten the tension, there's a numbered knob above the needle. The closer the knob is turned in towards the casing, the tighter the tension. This is for the thread tension. For bottom winders, the bobbin tension is a tiny screw in the bobbin casing (the circular part where the plastic bobbin fits). For this screw, a tiny turn goes a long way (only fiddle with this if the thread tension doesn't work). If the owner is familiar with the machine, ask them to explain the tensions and attachments. Also, if there is no scrap fabric to test on, a paper napkin or paper towel will work just as well.

    If you are at a flea market, or somewhere where an outlet is not available, if you turn the wheel by hand, it should give you an indication of whether any gears are stripped inside, or if there is a jam or something (if the wheel won't turn, don't buy). Open up the throat plate and the bobbin compartment and make sure the bobbin moves smoothly while you're turning the wheel. If it's a bottom winder, push down the button and make sure the bobbin casing lifts up. And, keep in mind that risking $5 or $10 on a machine that runs for at least $100 new isn't that much of a risk at all!

    Once you get your machine home, clean it! God only knows how long its been sitting in a garage or attic! If you have a manual with your machine, use it's specific cleaning instructions. If not, first, get some 3-in-1 oil or sewing machine oil, and a small brush (a paint brush with stiff bristles is fine), and turn off the machine. Remove the throat plate, and lift out the bobbin. Clean out any dust inside, and put a drop of oil in the track that the bobbin casing sits in. Next, lift up the hinged part of the top, and unscrew the large screw that holds the top on. My top needs to be slid to the left, then lifted up, but other models may be different. If you have a manual, it should tell you what to do. The hinged door on the left side of the machine will also swing, and stay, open now. Clean carefully!! with the brush, without putting any pressure on the gears inside. The general rule for the inside of the machine is that if it turns, or goes up and down or in and out, oil it! When you first run the machine, there will be a little residual oil, so run a piece of scrap through first. Clean your machine thoroughly at least once a year, and brush out the bobbin area after each use, especially after sewing materials like flannel or velvet.


    Since we're not going for the extremely expensive, hand loomed stuff here, any cotton based material is fine. Some people, they know who they are, have even been known to make a nylon fabric look authentic (and stunning, I might add) If you live near a (dare I say it?) Wal Mart, they usually have material that's as cheap as $1 a yard. I've gotten some nice cottons this way, and even a heavy black denim that made a great cloak! Another cheap alternative is to pick up curtains, tablecloths, or bed sheets at garage sales. If you're looking for brocades for a bodice, you can't get any thing cheaper. White bed sheets can be dyed with either onion skin, sumac (it's not poisonous) or, goldenrod to get a nice orange, burgundy or yellow that's actually quite authentic.


    Trim can end up costing more than the material to make your dress or tunic. Some fancier pieces can be as expensive as $10 a yard. Since you'd need at least 1 1/2 yards to do the cuffs and placard of a tunic or the neck and cuffs of a dress, it can be quite expensive. If you like hand embroidery and have both the time and the patience, there's a cheap, woven tape that's good for this, available at most sewing shops. Also, get in the habit of checking the remnants and mark-down bins- it usually pays to buy an exciting trim when it's cheap, and find a use for it later.

    Another alternative (the one I use) is a bias tape maker. This beautiful invention folds under the edges of a strip of fabric to make a neat, even bias tape. If you start out with a pretty, metallic fabric, you can get stunning results, and even if the fabric is expensive, it only takes about 1/4 of a yard to get several yards of trim. To use the bias maker, simply cut the strip, thread it through, and iron it down (use the lowest setting on the iron- most metallics scorch easily). It's that simple!

    Fur strips also make an excellent (and authentic) Viking trim. If you happen to snag old collars at yard sales, there's really nothing more you need to do then sew them on. If, however, you're working with a larger piece that you need to cut down, it can be more tricky. If you just cut the fur, it tends to give it a weird, shorn look, that isn't that pretty. If you take a damp comb and run it in a straight line through the fur, you can separate or "part" the fur just like you would your hair. Use bobby pins to keep the part in place while you carefully cut down the middle of the part. Remove the bobby pins and brush the fur back into its normal position.


    See the clothing section of our links page for patterns that are available on-line, or, follow our instructions to make a tunic or chemise, or our early garb patterns. Another option is to visit your local sewing store, and peruse their modern patterns that might be applicable. Usually, sleepwear patterns tend to be the most realistic (because they're made with fewer pieces and tend to be baggier), but any dress or sweatshirt pattern that doesn't have zippers, buttons, or added collars, cuffs, etc... and is made with few pieces, should be fine. If all else fails, e-mail me , and I'll send you a zip file of some of my favorite patterns (they'll eventually be posted here, once space permits!).


    Having basic garb is good, but don't forget to accessorize with belts, pouches, jewelry, drinking horns, and shoes!


    Belts are relatively easy, and cheap to make, so don't go without one. For a traditional man's belt, take a length of suede or leather (available by mail order at Tandy Leather, or you may find a leather or suede jacket to cut up at a Salvation Army, or garage sale) that is long enough to go around the waist with an end that hangs past hips and slightly above the knees. Hem the edges to make a belt about 1 to 2 inches wide. Attach a heavy ring, about 3 inches in diameter, to one end (I got mine at Pennsic, but my Grandfather tells me that they should be available at Hardware stores, or somewhere that sells saddle equipment).

    Another good belt is a piece of heavy, woven cord. If the piece you've bought (clothesline works well if you take out the inner nylon stuff) is too white and new looking, soak it in coffee or tea. Or, a piece of fabric can be hemmed (or, if you haven't the time, roll the fraying edges under so the won't be seen) and worn like a sash belt.


    Belt pouches are a necessity (especially if you're like me and tend to take your glasses off at events- without a pouch I'd be on my tenth pair this year!) and easy to make. Take a rectangle of cloth (if your dress is plain, why not use a pretty brocade or velvet for contrast) and fold in half with the right sides of the fabric together. Sew up the sides, and fold down a piece about an inch long at the top. Sew this down, open up a small hole, and thread a drawstring through. If you don't want to hang your pouch by the drawstring, two small strips (ribbon works well) can be sewn on the back to run the belt through. Add trim, fringe, or fur (maybe a head?) for decoration.


    If you have the time (and the leather- although I suppose a heavy cotton or canvas could work) to make shoes, check out Viking Footware, which has some patterns on various styles of shoes (keep in mind that you can always sew the patterns over a pair of moccasins so that you have the sole of a real shoe). If you're not inclined to abuse your fingers sewing leather (or if you have foot problems that require real shoes) there are other alternatives.

    If you like sandals, (although I wouldn't advise it at a party or during battle-ouch!), roman style lace ups are reasonably authentic, and can be bought at any big shoe store. Or, for a "poorer" look, you could wrap your feet (over your shoes) with fabric, and then strap it down with leather strips.