Five Years on the Farm: Taking Stock

In the early 1970s, my husband’s parents built the house we now live in, as a week-end place.  A crew set the pilings, but everything else was done by my in-laws and their three teen-age kids.

In 1975, the happy crew poses on the newly finished house.

In 1975, the happy crew poses on the newly finished house.

Fortunately, I missed most of that work, because I didn’t get into the picture until ’76.

As the years passed, and all the siblings started families of their own, the house was “built-into” rather than “added onto.”

In 1988, the downstairs was partially built in, and my fashion sense was questionable.

In 1988, the downstairs was partially built in.  Work might have progressed faster had my “fashion sense” (seen here in a plaid romper) not dazzled the minds of  those working.

The house was essentially complete by 1990, and we all gathered here often for long weekends, but the focus was on having fun, not doing maintenance.

Our girls with their catch in '91.

Who can spend time on house repairs when there are fish to catch?

More years went by, and our young families got too busy to even visit the farm much.  And after my father-in-law passed away in 1999, the house just sat there for ten years.

So when we moved up in 2009, we had a lot to do.

A sturdy house in need of TLC.

A sturdy house in need of TLC.

We have now been here for five years, and we have made the house more pleasant than I ever thought possible.  (I really wanted to start over, and keep this house just as a huge art studio.) Painting the house was a good start, and I think the best improvement was replacing all 30+ windows with new energy-efficient ones.

farm house

It looked a lot better once we painted it, even though the color was a little too mint-y.  But to me, the  balcony and stair rail looked too heavy due to their dark color.

Last month I did a little project that gave me a big lift.  Our balcony color was too dark to match the house color, I thought.  I finally painted it white, and I love how it looks now.

white balcony

White paint on the balcony and stairway –  I can’t say that’s the finishing touch, but it’s an improvement.

kitchen before

We also turned this…

kitchen after

…into this.

We have done a lot of work inside too, as in building a whole kitchen downstairs, but for some reason the painted balcony is what feels like the tipping point for me — you know how construction crews put a little tree on top of a high rise when they have all the girders in place?  That’s how I feel now.  We still have plenty to do, but the hardest part is over.

When we moved to the farm, I thought the best way I could share it would be to document and preserve the nature here. Since it had been virtually untouched for 50 years, I thought maybe a greater diversity of species had managed to hang on here than at other nearby sites.  At first, I could only identify about 30 of the plants, and where those were on the continuum from endangered to invasive, I had no idea.  The same with animals – I knew there were rabbits, deer, doves, turtles, etc., but I didn’t know specifics, like: there’s more than one kind of dragonfly, hummingbirds migrate, or, some snakes can swim really well.

So over these last five years, I have learned more about nature and best practices for management.  I have joined some resource organizations, and my nature guidebook collection has increased exponentially!  I have documented over 200 species of animals, plants, and fungus, and I know there are a lot more out there.

Here are some of the ones I saw yesterday afternoon:

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With major work on the house behind us, I feel like I can take the time now to focus on the biodiversity inventory of this farm. I found a wonderful site for sharing observations, run by National Geographic, Project Noah. Here is my page on the platform, and I am also putting that link in my sidebar.  You can upload nature pictures even if you don’t know what you have, and experts will help you identify the species.  I have already used that feature several times.  I also love getting artistic inspiration from their mission, National Geographic’s Great Nature Project.

I started uploading wildlife spottings a few weeks ago, and one of my pictures has been chosen for Spotting of the Day, for August 25.  As Dre at Grackle & Sun would say, “Commence the Squeeee!”  :)

I have posted pictures of our pond here before, but I found this one from 1981 and thought it would interesting to compare.

The pond in 1981.

The pond in 1981.

The pond in 2014

The pond in 2014

I have been so fortunate to be part of this farm for almost 40 years.  Changes have happened all around us and will continue to happen, but we hope to preserve this spot of nature for the future.



Imps, Fairies, and Friendly Spirits

Imps, Fairies, and Friendly Spirits

During the day my kitchen looks like an ordinary place –

(doing a mouse-over will make the pictures more vivid)


Just an ordinary kitchen shelf – come china, some cookbooks, some linens, some silver..


…some strategically located chocolate chips…

–but at night, I hear strange noises, and the next morning, things are out of place…

photo montage

“Here’s the one I’m looking for, Upton’s Standard Operas.”

It's opened to "Cinderella".

“Tonight we’ll open it to Cendrillon.”

Oh my goodness!

“It feels so good to stretch!”

book 2 a_e

“Good evening, ladies. Tonight’s refreshments are on the upper shelf.”

A helping hand.

“What do you mean, you don’t think I need any more refreshments!”

What is up there on top of that shelf?

“Come on up!  There’s plenty for everyone!”


"Chocolate and opera for EVERYBODY!"

“Chocolate and opera for EVERYBODY!”

For the 1 Day 1 World Project, we are up to the hour of 3:00 – 4:00 am.  Not much happens around here at that hour – fortunately Jude got me thinking in new directions with her ghost story.  I have always loved those old cartoons where the kitchen products come alive in the depths of the night and cause a little mischief, so I decided to create my own.

I was also inspired by Cindy Hickok’s fabulous Café de Musée, a thread-painted grouping of beloved figures from art.

My friendly spirits came from an old book about opera, and a Dover Book clip art book called Trades and Occupations.  I learned all kinds of new PhotoShop tricks from the book How To Cheat in PhotoShop Elements 12 by David Asch.

I had so much fun doing this!  I just hope I remember all the techniques I learned, the next chance I get to play around with photos.

When the People Are Away

This week I am going to cheat be creative with my 1 Day 1 World Project entry, for 1:00 – 2:00 am.

I didn’t do anything at all last week, and here is why – I couldn’t think of anything new to do.  I am often up til 2, and I could go outside and walk around and take pictures of toads and spiders and munching caterpillars, but I’ve already done that.

I hesitated to use these game camera photos, because they’re not from this week (and they’re not the most exciting game cam pictures I have, either), but to me the big picture of this whole project is to see what is going on around the world at a certain hour, so they fit that bill.  Here is what goes on out in the Hill Country of Texas between 1 and 2 in the morning.

whitetail deer

Whitetail deer


Raccoon at water trough

whitetail deer

Whitetail buck in velvet at water trough

axis buck

Axis buck at feeder

When we go to visit our ranchito, it’s not uncommon for there to be over 700 pictures on one game cam.  We don’t have TV up there – instead we pop the camera chip into a laptop and go through all the pictures to see what animals have been taking selfies in our absence.  Some of the other species we get are gray fox, porcupine, feral hog, turkey vulture, red-tailed hawk, cottontail rabbit, and elk – going through the pictures is more fun than Christmas.

Sadly, it’s also not uncommon for some 4-legged someone to investigate the game camera and break it.  Here are some of those famous last shots.

animal nose

Elk nose, I think.

animal ears

Raccoon ears, I’m guessing?

deer extreme close-up

It’s all fun until someone breaks the lens!  :)

I love how these wildlife cams give me an effortless glimpse into these animals’ lives.

Textiles from Turkmenistan

Last week my husband had to travel to Turkmenistan for his job.  He travels quite a bit, but this country was a challenge.

Turkmenistan is mostly desert, located just north of Iran and Afghanistan, and it was part of the Soviet Union until 1991. So the population mostly speaks Turkmen, with a little Russian thrown in, and my husband was working with a Chinese company.  He doesn’t speak any of those languages.  But even though few people speak English, American dollars are one of the two currencies accepted.

It has a totalitarian government.  Reporters without Borders called it the second worst nation for press freedom in 2012, coming in behind North Korea.  About ten years ago, the former President for Life closed all the hospitals outside the capital city, this in a country the size of California.

So this was a little worrying to me.  If there was a medical issue, or if an official wanted to pick up some “auxiliary income”, communications could be a problem.  In fact, even before he left, my husband had communication problems – he couldn’t make definite arrangements for a way to get back from the work facility, to the closest city 2 hours away, and then from there back to the capital of Ashgabat.

Thankfully, he had an uneventful stay.  He had one day to sight-see a little, and leaving an open-air market, he saw a little old lady with a table set up on the street.  He went to check it out, and found the perfect gift for me!

hand-knit socks from Turkmenistan

Hand-knit socks and camel toy from Turkmenistan.

These are handspun and hand-knitted, I’m guessing from camel or goat hair.  They look rough, and you can feel little plant burrs and seeds in the yarn, but they are so comfortable.  They are so precious to me, because this is the kind of craft that disappears when modern culture comes on the scene.  They cost the equivalent of $8!

I wish I could talk to the little lady who sold them.  I bet we would be able to communicate with sign language.  I would love to know what animal the fleece came from, whether her family raised those animals, if she did the knitting herself, who taught her to knit.  From the little I have learned about her country, I cannot imagine the changes she has seen in her life, but I think we would find some common ground in textiles.


Photos from the Dark

For the 1 Day 1 World Project, we are at the hour of 11 pm – 12 am.

I had seen a photography idea of going out at night and shooting close-ups of plants with the flash, so I decided to try that.  (It’s not something that really represents my normal 11 pm hour, but I am using this project to do things a little out of the ordinary for me.)

caterpillar on pokeweed

The pictures showed a lot of detail, but I didn’t think they were very interesting.  But when editing them, I noticed this caterpillar chomping away at my pokeweed plant.  I use pokeberries for natural dye – but the caterpillar is welcome to the leaves!

caterpillar and pokeweed


Bayeux Tapestry – Books, Part Two

Reading about the Bayeux Tapestry made me want to know more background information on the Normans – where did they come from?  Why did they want to expand into England?  I mean, the north of France is a pretty nice place, why weren’t they just content there?  So here’s what I read:

1)  Norman Conquest:The Battle of Hastings and the Fall of Anglo-Saxon England by Marc Morris.  This is my absolute favorite out of everything I read. It is structured almost like a novel, with the chapters alternating between England and Normandy, and chapter-ending cliffhangers, but what I love best is its informal tone and pithy remarks.

If we had to sum this new society up in a single word, we might describe it as feudal – but only if we were prepared for an outbreak of fainting fits among medieval historians.  The problem with the word feudal, they will tell you, is that it is not actually a medieval word at all, but a coinage of sixteenth-century lawyers…(p. 48)

Morris quotes from different source materials, explaining who wrote them, when, and why.  Some are copies of the same book, the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, kept in different monasteries and therefore, annotated by people of differing loyalties.  He builds these varying viewpoints into a rich, lively account of how the Normans conquered England and what happened afterward.  I particularly like how he personifies the source books:

The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, having dealt with the murder of Alfred, thereafter maintains a studious silence on political matters for the rest of Harold’s reign, commenting only on ecclesiastical affairs and the state of the weather.  (p. 38)

‘We do not know’, says the D version of the Chronicle, ‘who first suggested this mischief’, not for the first time infuriating us by hinting that there was some wider conspiracy at work, but failing to divulge anything in the way of details.  (p. 120)

(I keep picturing the Chronicle books as looking like the little Geico insurance box character in the commercials, raising their eyebrows and whistling while they keep their politically-incorrect opinions to themselves.)

Morris’ book explains the importance of the Tapestry feasting scenes that I found puzzling – the Normans were raiding the countryside deliberately.  William didn’t want to have to march his men to London, and risk them being spread out to be picked off.  He wanted to sit tight and make Harold come to him. In Hastings, the people were Harold’s own tenants – he had a special duty to protect them, so he rushed off to do so, possibly without a full fighting force.

Some of us have problems keeping history straight, in part because the same names and places recur so often – Morris does such an excellent job of distinguishing between people and making them memorable, that I feel that I actually know all the people (not that I would want to – most of these people were horrible to each other!).

2) The Normans: From Raiders to Kings, by Lars Brownworth.  I’m not sure this book even mentions the Bayeux Tapestry, but it is a very quick and interesting account of the background of the Normans.  It also goes beyond the Battle of Hastings to tell about other Norman families who supported the Byzantine emperors, and ruled Sicily.

3)  The Handfasted Wife, by Carol McGrath.  There are only three women in the main body of the Tapestry – Edith, the mysterious Ælgyva, and an anonymous woman fleeing a burning house.  This novel combines that anonymous woman with the historical character of Harold’s first wife, and mother of his six children. When Harold becomes king, he puts her aside while he makes a better match politically, and yet, after the Battle of Hastings, she is the one called to identify his body.

I wanted to like this book, but I just couldn’t lose myself in it.  I felt like it skipped over the big events (Harold’s wife and mother are in a tent close to the battlefield the night before…and then it’s the next day and the battle is just over), while making sure to regularly include authentic details of medieval life, as if there was a checklist.  “On Wednesday, we ate pottage and drank ale, oversaw the mead brewing, went to Vespers services, and spoke to the woodcutter.”  (That is my own totally made-up sentence, but it sums up my impressions.)

However, this book had some interesting plot twists  – for example, after the Conquest, Harold’s mother, Gytha, retreats to her city of Exeter and defies king William, withholding the tax money.  I was absolutely sure that the author had taken liberties with history here, in the interest of creating a strong female character – but no!  All of that is absolutely true!  And I didn’t learn that from the non-fiction books on the Normans, so it was worth my time to read this book too.

4) Bonus Video – Battlefield Detectives: Who Got Lucky at Hastings?  You’d think, that with the enormous impact the Conquest had on history (for example, 20 years afterward, only 8% of the land in England was still in the hands of its original owners – about a fifth of the English population had died; 200,000 Normans and French had moved in, the English language was no longer used in official documents, and castles popped up everywhere), that there would be a plethora of videos on the subject.  In all of Amazon, and Netflix, I could only find one.

It’s from 2003, and I think their “experts” are a little questionable – a modern day horse-trainer, a woman who is stitching her own replica of the Tapestry, and a professor who thinks that Harold is shown with an arrow in his eye to reflect God’s punishment for perjury (because losing your kingdom and getting hacked to death are not punishment enough?)  There is also a corporate trainer with a PowerPoint comparing Harold and William to CEOs.

However, they do a very nice job of explaining what the terrain was like in 1066, and why it took place where it did, so it was worth the 49 minutes of my life to learn that.

So now I know everything I need to know about the Bayeux Tapestry and the Battle of Hastings.  Except I just found a Battlefield Britain episode on IMDb, and I also found another novel by Georgette Heyer…






Bayeux Tapestry – Books, Part One

The Bayeux Tapestry seems so modern in its objectivity.  It presents what happened, but you can never tell what side it’s on.  No individual stands out as looking more handsome and heroic than any other, both armies are shown fighting bravely and also suffering casualties, and both sides are shown looting and rampaging.

So through the centuries, people have wanted to know who made it, and where.  It used to be attributed to William’s wife Mathilda.  Now the general consensus is that it was commissioned by Odo, William’s half-brother, who was bishop of Bayeux.   I haven’t brought him up before, because I was trying to give just the bare outline of the battle, but he is in the Tapestry four times – once in the thick of the battle, on horseback, rallying the Normans.

Bishop Odo with his club. (I love the guy in the bottom border with the two spears lodged in his shield!)

Bishop Odo

It might seem like a bishop is the perfect candidate for commissioning the Tapestry, but he wasn’t your average bishop.  After the Conquest, he became earl of Kent, and was periodically left in charge of all England whenever William had business back in Normandy.  The chronicler Orderic “tells us that Odo ‘had greater authority than all the earls and other magnates in the kingdom.'” (Morris, Norman Conquest, more about this book tomorrow)

Odo was known to solve land disputes by taking the land in question himself, even church property.  In 1072, the archbishop of Canterbury wrote about Odo’s land-grabs in a complaint to the king.  The king agreed to investigate – so many properties were affected, that it took three days for the hearings.  At a different abbey, Odo packed a court with witnesses so he could pry 28 properties away from it. And that is just a small sample of his handiwork.

I have a hard time believing that this man would bother to commission a linen and wool embroidery.   If he ordered any hangings at all, I think he would have to have the best –  silk, gold thread,pearls, and jewels – and, I think, he would make sure he was represented as the biggest, boldest figure of all.

So who else could have commissioned it?

Carola Hicks has put forward a very interesting possibility – someone who was known to be educated and artistic, someone who had run a royal embroidery workshop – Edith, Edward’s queen and Harold’s sister.

Perhaps following the example of her mother-in-law, queen Emma, Edith had commissioned a similar, public-relations type of book. It is now called The Life of King Edward, and it portrays Edward as saintly and celibate – it’s as if Edith is pointing out, “If he had done his duty and sired an heir, this Conquest business would never have happened!  It is not my fault!”

Besides Harold, Edith had four other brothers – Swein, who abducted an abbess, murdered his cousin, and died on the way home from Jerusalem; Tostig, who, not content with being the mere earl of Northumbria, raised two separate rebellions, and was killed by Harold just weeks before William invaded; and then two more who died with Harold at Hastings. Given that tumultuous history, you might see why Edith wasted no time in offering fealty to William, and paying tribute.  Her strategy worked – unlike most of the English, Edith was allowed to keep most of her estates, and when she died, William had her buried with honor.

Commissioning the Tapestry could have been another way for Edith to profess her loyalty to William, as well as include flattering references to the equally powerful Odo.  The creation of a narrative intended for the eyes of the new order in England, both Norman and English, a court-based audience that included the kin of warriors who had fought on both sides of Hastings, is the only way to account for many of the ambiguities that divide commentators today.  Did the Tapestry favor William or Harold?  Was it made so that Normans could impress the subjugated foe?  Or so that the English could flatter, yet secretly insult, the victors?  These conflicting aims could be convincingly reconciled by someone with a foot in both camps, an English person who accepted the Norman occupation but who was still concerned to provide a dignified defense of Harold’s conduct. ( I don’t have page numbers, but this is e-reader Location 708 of 8023.)

Edith might also choose the events to justify Harold’s coronation – “Yes, King William, it’s true that he swore allegiance to you, but then, it was Edward’s dying wish that he take the throne!  I was there!  I know!  What else could he do?”

If Edith was the patron, I also think that could explain the choice of materials.  When king Edward was alive, Edith is recorded as making clothing for him, using gold thread and precious stones.  If any of those expensive supplies were left, she might want to avoid bringing William’s attention to them.  She might want to present herself as a humble subject, offering her time and effort to her new liege lord, without piquing his interest as to just how many rich materials she had tucked away.

There are many more mysteries and tales about the Bayeux Tapestry – Who is Ælfgyva and why is that cleric touching her face?  Why are some of the scenes out of order? Did Harold really die from an arrow to the eye? – but those have been written about extensively.

As a matter of fact, Carola Hicks says that there were over 500 books and articles written about the Tapestry, as of 1999, so I may not have found the Ultimate Source.  But here is a little about the books I read, if you want to learn more.

1)  The Bayeux Tapestry: The Life Story of a Masterpiece, by Carola Hicks.  It is extremely well-researched and balanced.  While Hicks proposes Edith as its patron, she also gives the evidence for other possible patrons.

I was most interested in the first three chapters – The Plot, The Patron, The Project.  The rest of the book covers the history of the Tapestry over the years, and that is fascinating too.  Dickens and Tennyson saw it, Napoleon and Himmler took it.  She also has chapters on the Tapestry’s use in movies, political cartoons, and ads.

2)  A Needle in the Right Hand of God, by R. Howard Bloch.  This book also has a wealth of information about the production of the Tapestry, down to the twists per meter in the warp and weft, and descriptions of the embroidery stitches.

Most of the book is explaining the multicultural sources for the images, from Scandinavian images of boats to Byzantine silks of lions and griffins.  I found these chapters very “listy”.  Bloch would say something like,”Aesop’s fable of the Crane and the Fox is also seen in The Baysdowne Psalter of 1306, Pope Pius XIII’s cope for Ascension Day services, and Duke Ormondier’s sword hilt,”  (I made all those up, by the way), but there wouldn’t be pictures of any of them, or even information as to where you might find those items to see for yourself.  I ended up skimming a lot.

Also, Bloch’s theory is that the Tapestry was made especially to unify the disparate elements of English society:

…the Tapestry interweaves elements associated with Anglo-Saxon, Scandinavian, and Norman culture.  And in this way, the surface of the textile expresses a desire for reconciliation among the principals to a bitter and extended struggle.  (e-reader Location 2995 of 3276.)

The Bayeux Tapestry is inclusive…It is the artistic embodiment of a pluralism within the sphere of social relations, giving expression to competing claims in England, while working toward a synthesis by which they might converge at some moment in the future. (e-reader Location 3008 of 3276)

To me this seems to be attributing too much good will to the makers of the Tapestry – I can see Edith justifying her family to the current rulers of England, or even Odo commemorating his career, but I just don’t see someone creating the design with an eye to making everyone feel included in the new regime.  I think the victors usually commend themselves for the conquest, without worrying about the feelings of the conquered.

Alright, well this ran longer than I thought – but, Hey,people!  I have read something like 1400 pages on this topic! – so I will finish reviewing resources tomorrow.

Bayeux Tapestry – the Basics

So when we left off yesterday, king Edward of England had finally succeeded in ridding his kingdom of his unwanted adviser, Godwine, and Godwine’s whole family.

For a short time it looks like Edward might get to run England as he pleases. He even gets William of Normandy to cross the channel for a visit, and although we don’t know for sure, it seems that they make a deal – Edward will pass the kingdom down to William (who is his second cousin after all, whereas Harold is just his brother-in-law), in return for his support and protection.

But then Edward makes a fatal mistake.  In 1051, in order to cut taxes, he disbands his mercenary fleet. A year later, Godwine and family take advantage of the now weakly protected coast to return with a strong force.  Many Englishmen join his cause, possibly because they oppose the idea of a Norman succession. Edward is forced to pardon Godwine, and restore everything he had taken from the family.  Even Edith returns from the nunnery.

Godwine dies in 1053, but that does not stop his family from expanding its influence – by 1060 Harold and his brothers control all of England except Mercia (a large section in the middle of England).  Two of them attack Wales and win.   Edward seems to give up on politics, and retreat more and more into religion and hunting (which later earns him the nickname The Confessor).

And that’s where we are when the Bayeux Tapestry opens.  Edward is on the throne, looking kindly at Harold.  The first half of the Tapestry shows Harold’s adventures – he sets sail (perhaps to arrange for the return of two men being held hostage in Normandy), ends up across the Channel in the hands of Guy of Ponthieu, is rescued by William of Normandy, and helps William win a decisive battle.  I have not been a fan of Harold, but I would think his help in the battle would make William grateful, but instead he has to become William’s vassal.  We see a ceremony in which William gives him arms, and then Harold is shown —

—well, you tell me.  What do you see here?

William seated on the left, Harold standing on the right – Vassal?  or just Vacillating?

Scene 23

I see a very unhappy man who either cannot reach both boxes at the same time, or can’t choose which one to pick.  He looks conflicted about the whole situation.

But it turns out to be one of the most important scenes in the Tapestry.  From the Norman point of view, he is swearing loyalty on holy relics!!!  You can not take that back!

From the Anglo-Saxon point of view, he is swearing under duress!!!  Everybody knows that William won’t let him return to England until he swears loyalty, so that doesn’t count! (In one written account, the Anglo-Saxons said that William hid the relics under a table, so that Harold did not even know they were there when he swore allegiance.)

Harold returns to England (with only one of the hostages) and talks to king Edward. He looks to be in trouble, maybe explaining why he was only half successful.

Harold is second from left – he does not look like a man who’s been pushing the king around and running England.

Scene 25

Shortly thereafter Edward dies, surrounded by only four people – Harold, Edith (who, you remember, is Harold’s sister), a servant, and a cleric.  Two men hand Harold the crown, one of them pointing backward to the dead king Edward, as if to say, “That’s what he wanted!”

The center scene of the Tapestry shows Harold enthroned. Viewers would think – Is this what was supposed to happen?  What about the oaths he made to William?

We immediately have some portents of doom, as people point up to a comet (which we know as Halley’s comet), and a ghost fleet shows up in the lower border.

A messenger sails over to William, William builds a fleet, and the Normans launch their invasion, with ships full of horses (new technology at the time).  As they land in England, the Normans build fortifications and ravage the countryside for food, and then pause for a feast.

Warriors use their shields as portable tables; nobles have a banquet table set up for them.

Scene 43

I find this puzzling.  Two huge events have been left out of the Tapestry –  William had made an earlier attempt to sail to England, but his ships ran aground in Brittany, where the Normans jumped on the opportunity to attack the locals; while back in England, there had been a whole different invasion just a few weeks before, with Harold defeating his own brother Tostig and the king of Norway.

So, those events are skipped, but the Tapestry artists take the time and effort to show people eating?  (My husband says it’s obvious – this is the commercial break.  “This battle is brought to you by Channel Fisheries – for the freshest chowder, choose Channel!”)

After the feast, we have numerous scenes of the battle.

What skill at capturing the action!

Scene 53

The Normans fight on horseback, while the Anglo-Saxons fight on the ground, behind their wall of shields.  Both sides are shown fighting bravely, and in the bottom border we see dead and dismembered bodies, and people stripping the dead of their mail shirts. Harold is killed, and the Tapestry ends with a raveled edge  – the missing part is probably about 1.5 meters long, and would show William sitting on the throne.

Okay, so that’s the basic story line – if you’re just here for the history lesson, you can go now.  Come back tomorrow for the conspiracy theories.

But if you are a crafty sort, and you’re interested in the actual construction of the Tapestry, here are the basics.

It is 70 meters long and 50 cm high, on a base cloth of linen.

There are nine sections, but they are sewn together so well, that the seams are very hard to notice.  (It was thought there were eight sections – the ninth one was noticed in 1998, but that was not publicized until 2004, so some resources say eight.)

Two of the sections are 14 meters long, which leads historians to believe that the linen was woven on a horizontal treadle loom, which would have been new technology in Europe at the time.  Traditional European looms were vertical looms, a lot like Navajo looms in our day.  There are 18-19 warps per centimeter, or about 45 warps per inch.  That is fine weaving, especially when you consider that all of that linen would have been spun by hand, with drop spindles.

Here’s one thing that astounds me – the cloth was initially woven at 100 cm wide, and then cut in half the long way!  If you know anything about cloth, you know that when it is cut, it unravels.  We weavers love a good strong selvege, and dread a cut in our cloth.  It would be faster for me to weave a skinny piece of cloth the full length I needed, than to weave a wider piece of cloth, cut it in half, and hem the resulting cut sides.

The other sections are various lengths.  Historians think they may have been cut up to allow more stitching teams to work on them simultaneously.  (Only once in my reading have I come across the notion that maybe a mistake was made and the piece cut out, which, if I had been working on it, would surely have happened to me.)

In reading about all the changing political factions of the time, I have wondered whether some sections were cut out because they portrayed events that it was suddenly not politically expedient to show!

The embroidery yarn was all wool (with the exception of one or two small areas of linen).  Three dyes were used – weld for yellow, woad for blue, and madder for red.  These were used in different mixtures, to come up with a total of ten shades.

If you would like to know more about how the designer and stitchers worked, Carola Hicks has a wonderful, detailed explanation of all the materials and techniques that were used, in The Bayeux Tapestry: The Life Story of a Masterpiece.   R. Howard Bloch has chapters about the source material for the illustrations in his book A Needle in the Right Hand of God: The Norman Conquest and the Making and Meaning of the Bayeux Tapestry.

Next up – some interesting theories about the Tapestry – who made it and why – and some good resources for learning more.



Bayeux Tapestry – the Backstory

All I wanted was to stay inside for an afternoon, out of the heat, and learn a little more about sail history.  “I bet historians have written about the ships on the Bayeux Tapestry,” I thought, “How long could it take to find out about that?”

Six weeks, five books, and one video later, I am slowly emerging from the world of the 11th century, full of information (but none of it on ships).

Norman ships in the Bayeux Tapestry

from Wikimedia Commons

The Bayeux Tapestry* depicts the Battle of Hastings in 1066, when William of Normandy invaded England and defeated its Anglo-Saxon king, Harold.  It is 70 meters long and 50 cm tall, and probably took a year or so to make, so I think it deserves more than one post.  I’m planning to do three – this one on the background story, then a shorter one on how it was made, and then one that sums up the resources I used.

I think it’s easier to understand who is doing what in the Tapestry, if you know what was going on with their families a generation or so before .  For me it boils down to three people who were at the heart of things. (Because this is just a blog post, and not an HBO series, I am going to leave out many many spouses, siblings, rebellions, exiles, and deaths.  Also, I am not a historian, and even real historians aren’t sure of all the details, so please view this as just a rough idea of what went on.)

Richard II, duke of Normandy, is the first person. He doesn’t come into the story much, but he’s a relation of half of the people that do.

The second is his sister Emma, who gets married twice, both times to men who have children from previous wives.  Emma does not fit the stereotype of demure, retiring medieval women.  She is ambitious and  manipulative, and she is involved in struggles between her sons, between her sons and their half-brothers, and between her sons and her advisers.

We know a lot about Emma, because she left us a book all about herself.  Written about 1041, by a hired writer, it is titled In Praise of Queen Emma (Encomium Emmae Reginae).  It may be the first book written strictly to put a positive public relations spin on the life of a living person.

As a piece of special pleading and blatant flattery, Emma’s Encomium had no precedent.  It was not the biography of a long-dead saint, but dealt with recent political events and the deeds of herself and her contemporaries.

-Carola Hicks, The Bayeux Tapestry: The Life Story of a Masterpiece

Emma’s first marriage, in 1002, is to Æthelred, the king of England.  They have three children, Edward, Alfred, Godgifu.

Æthelred does not have a peaceful rule.  In 1013 and 1015, the Vikings invade England and set up a king.  The first time Æthelred takes his family to safety in Normandy, returns when circumstances allow, and rules again.  The second time, the children again flee to safety with their uncle, duke Richard II, but Æthelred has died.  Emma remains in England, and marries the new king, Cnut of Denmark**, and has a son with him, Harthacnut.

The third person, Godwine, is one of Cnut’s advisers.  We know that he is an  Englishman, but nothing else about his origins.  By 1018 he is made an earl, is married to Cnut’s sister-in-law, Gytha, and before too long is in charge of all of southern England.  We will skip over all their children except Harold and Edith.

Things run along as usual for the next 20 years – lots of territorial disputes, plots, feuds, death and destruction.  Over in Normandy, duke Richard II dies.  Edward and Alfred are living peacefully with their cousin Robert, who rules Normandy for about seven years.  He then suddenly decides to go off on Crusade, leaving the kingdom in the hands of his seven-year-old illegitimate son, William.  Robert never makes it back, dying on the way in 1035, and back in England, Cnut dies that same year.

Queen Emma wants her son Harthacnut, to be made king.  But there’s another son of Cnut from a previous marriage, Harold Harefoot***, so people pick sides, and the struggles resume.  Harthacnut is already king of Denmark and power struggles there keep him from rushing over to rule England.  After two years, his faction in England starts to lose patience, and everyone is thinking about switching to Harold Harefoot.

It looked as if the queen’s grip on power, assiduously maintained through her marriage to two English kings, was about to end because of her son’s continued absence.  It must have been around this point that she recalled she had two other sons living in exile across the channel…Emma appears to have turned to the sons of her first marriage in a desperate attempt to improve her diminishing political fortunes.

Marc Morris – The Norman Conquest: The Battle of Hastings and the Fall of Anglo-Saxon England

In 1036, her younger son Alfred comes back to England, but Godwine (being Cnut’s man), is pretty sure that this son of Æthelred will throw him out of power, and he engineers an attack on Alfred and his men.  Alfred is blinded and soon dies of his wounds.  (Emma says in her book that someone forged a letter in her name to convince her sons to return.  Historians believe “the woman doth protest too much.”)

Harold Harefoot does become king for a while and Emma is driven into exile.  Then in 1040, Harold dies,  Harthacnut finally gets to be king, and of course Emma is back in power as well.  By all accounts, Harthacnut is a terrible king –  he has Harold Harefoot’s body dug up and thrown into a fen, he raises the taxes 400%, and has his forces burn the city of Worcester when the citizens protest the tax.

And then, he suddenly invites his half-brother Edward, to come back from Normandy and be a co-ruler.  Because monarchs are famous for sharing power like that.  But Edward believes him and comes to England.

(One thing that amazes me in all these machinations, is that even though half the people who are sent or summoned to another kingdom end up imprisoned or killed, people continue to blithely accept invitations.  I would be afraid to set foot outside my hovel.)

According to the Encomium, Harthacnut, Edward, and Emma are “sharers of rule,” comparable even to the Trinity in heaven.  Historians have a hard time believing that this was Harthacnut’s idea, and think that he may have been pressured into it by other strong leaders, maybe even Godwine.

This little experiment doesn’t go on long, because in summer of 1042, Harthacnut drops down while drinking at a wedding, and dies.  Let me quote from my favorite, Marc Norris, again:

A good Viking way to go, to be sure, but also one with more that a hint of suspicion about it, given his massive unpopularity, and the cup that had been in his hand.

It might seem that Harthacnut’s death would make the road ahead all rosy for Edward, but he still has Godwine to contend with.  Before Edward even dreamed of ruling, Godwine was building power and wealth for 25 years.  Edward knows he must have Godwine’s support to stay in power, and even marries his daughter Edith.

Does Edward know that Godwine arranged for Alfred’s death?

In 1051, after six years of marriage to Edith, with no heir on the horizon, (and according to Edith, no consummation of the marriage) Edward announces that he is making William of Normandy his heir.  Other power struggles come to a head at the same time, and Godwine raises up men against Edward, but on the threshold of civil war, it becomes obvious that Godwine will lose.

He asks the king what he will have to do to come to terms of peace, and Edward reportedly says, “Give me back my brother alive.”

Godwine and all his grown sons (including the Harold that will be in the Tapestry) flee and go into exile, and Edward banishes Edith to a nunnery.

So!  We are almost caught up to the time of the Tapestry.  If you want to see it for yourself, this is a panorama. And this is an English replica, that has good short explanations of what is going on each scene.

* Any mention of the Bayeux Tapestry is honor-bound to explain that it is not really a tapestry, in which the picture is created as the fabric is being woven, but an embroidery, in which the picture is sewn on top of an existing piece of cloth.  Since the word “tapestry” isn’t found in the English language until 1467, and the first mention we have of the Bayeux Tapestry is from 1476, I really can’t get too exercised over this.  Terms change.

** A chronicler of the time said that Cnut ordered her to be fetched as his wife, but Emma’s version was that he wooed her back from Normandy with presents.

*** He gets his nickname later, and no one really even knows why, but I’m using it here to distinguish him from the other Harold, Godwine’s son.





Textiles at the Briscoe Museum

As many times as I’ve been to San Antonio, you’d think I would have seen every attraction in the city.  But when I was there last week, I noticed the Briscoe Western Art Museum, just across the street from La Villita, the historic art village.  I thought I must have been so busy shopping at Village Weavers over the years, that I had missed a whole art museum!

I went in to check it out on Thursday morning, and was relieved to find out that it just opened in October of 2013, so it wasn’t a case of me being totally oblivious over the years.

It is a lovely museum, very open and light-fiilled.  I enjoyed looking at all the galleries and it looks like they have room to add many more exhibits.  What I liked best was the way they mixed the objects on display – a gallery might have a wagon or a windmill positioned in the middle of photographs, sculptures, and musical instruments, with a documentary video playing as well.  Everyday working objects were placed along side of fancy or historically important ones, and many cultures were represented.

Of course I focused mainly on the textiles.  I didn’t realize it until I looked at my photos, but most of the clothing exhibited was men’s clothing.  You don’t see that so often.

So here are some wonderful examples of men’s clothing from the 1800s.  (Taking photographs through cases never turns out very well, but I am always so happy when a museum allows photography.  You can study the piece at your leisure and you see so much more detail.)

Remember that if you do a mouse-over, the colors will look more intense.

Mexican officer's uniform

Mexican officer’s uniform

jacket detail

Detail of the heavy gold thread.

coat with gold braid

Mexican officer’s coat

war shirt

Blackfoot war shirt (back) from about 1880s – 1890s.

comanchero jacket

Comanchero jacket, circa the 1750s. (Comancheros were Hispanic traders who traded with the Comanche people.) Those flowers were dyed with natural dyes, and they have lasted for 260 years!

And here is something you see even less often – horse trappings.  I haven’t had any horse-related textiles on the blog before!  Another field to research.

embroidered saddle

This incredible piece is labelled “Silk-embroidered Spanish viceroy saddle”, from the 1600s. That is blue velvet in the center section!  I think it needs a whole new term made up to do it justice.

iron fringe

This fringe is made of iron. Can you imagine how it jingles?

flower detail

Such precise stitches!

rabbit detail

The cloth ground looks like a repp weave to me.  Or an unsheared velvet?


I love this courtly couple!  With the plumes in her hair, her fan, his walking stick, their fine stockings – they cut a fine figure.

And if you need any further reason to plan a trip to the Briscoe, it’s right on the gorgeous River Walk in San Antonio.  The River Walk (Paseo del Rio) is a pedestrian walkway that meanders along about five miles of the San Antonio River, in the heart of downtown San Antonio, but below street level, so you can mingle with all the other turistas without worrying about getting run over.

River Walk 1

River Walk 2

River Walk 3

I have been traveling so much this summer, I haven’t had much time to do much with textiles – I was happy to get to see some fantastic pieces at the Briscoe!