Doreen Gunkel is an independent researcher from New Mexico, USA, who with great gusto is getting to grips with her ambitious plan to recreate a medieval woman's garment, from fleece to final product. The original garment is from Greenland; and, funny enough, it is now popularly known as 'the Greenland gown'.
I had the great pleasure of interviewing Doreen in order to find out what motivated this intrepid re-creator to take on what must be the ultimate in retro-style makeovers.
ASM: Hello Doreen, good to meet you! And thanks for agreeing to be interviewed by the Anglo-Saxon Monk!
DG: Greetings Chris! Thank you for taking time to discuss my research.
ASM: So straight to it: What exactly is the Greenland Gown Project?
DG: This project is part experimental archaeology and part mystery/detective story all rolled into one. The original goal was to recreate a 13th-century textile found in 1921 in Herjolfsnes, Greenland. It has become widely known as the Greenland Gown.
The idea is to recreate it as accurately as possible twice, using two different primitive sheep – one for each dress. The hang, quality, and form of the textile are to be taken into account.
One of the sheep is the Navajo-Churro, of Spanish origin, found in the American South West. The other sheep is the Icelandic Sheep – found in Iceland – and was most likely the source of the fibre for the original textile.
ASM: So why should we be taking notice?
DG: Well, there are several reasons to take notice, Anglo-Saxon Monk!
Firstly, these textiles are being produced from the raw fleece through the finished product completely by hand. There are no modern machines – no floor looms or sewing machines – being used to produce the final results. I am using a spinning wheel for convenience of spinning: the amounts of warp and weft I need to produce is 15,000 yards [13, 716m] per weaving each dress. The actual spinning method used at the time the dress was made was the bottom whorl spindle.
I am working very hard to rediscover and use the 13th-century methods of cloth production. Of course, some minor modern methods are being used. Washing fleece in urine is not acceptable to my neighbours!
ASM: Fair enough: a bit too whiffy, as we say in England.
DG: The second most important reason is the detective/mystery story that is being written during the research. I look forward to sharing this with all of you!
ASM: Aha! You’re after a second interview, I see. It will be done. Now, Doreen, I wonder if you would mind telling my blessed readers something about yourself. How would you describe yourself and what you do?
DG: If I had to take a label that most describes myself and my life, the Elephant's Child [a reference to the story by Rudyard Kipling] would fit the best. I have always had an insatiable curiosity that has gotten me into trouble more than once. But it has also served me well, by making it OK for me as an adult to try new things and learn what others might not find in the least bit interesting.
I am currently retired due to a workplace accident and needed something to keep me interested in the world. The project has given me that motivation and drive. I am seeing a trip to Europe in my near future!
ASM: Ooh, exciting! What's on your itinerary?
DG: Greenland, where the dress is; Iceland to look at the Icelandic style of warp-weighted loom, and Norway .... well, because there are some really cool people and sites there! All in all, a month in the north Atlantic sounds like a fun trek. Much knowledge should be brought back.
ASM: Now it’s clear this field of research fascinates you – and not just because you get to be a wanderer. But how did you get interested in the first instance?
DG: I belong to a medieval recreationist society known as the Society for Creative Anachronisms. I have been part of this organisation for 23 years. Before I became involved, I was with another historical recreationist organisation which had the exploration of the American continent as its focus.
Even earlier than that, my father was an unpublished researcher and avid reader of the topic of the European and Pacific battles of World War II. So my entire life has been spent surrounded by history.
All my fields of research have been for personal interest. And this one started out the same: I wanted that dress made with that fabric! Well, as you can see – forgive me – the rest is history! So many people saw what I was doing and before I knew what had happened, it just took on a life of its own.
ASM: What’s your research methodology?
DG: My research methods take a forked approach.
The first is experimental in nature. There are few written instructions for the use of the tools we see in documents of the time. The grave goods and other archaeological finds in various places show us how the tools looked in actuality.
There are only so many ways these items can be used to produce fibre that will make the textiles in the archaeological record. My method is to work with the tools and find the most likely way they were used. This is based on the idea that the sheer amount of production needed would have been done as efficiently as possible.
The second method is data mining and a kind of storytelling with an academic flare. I follow one bit of information to the next and put all of it together to produce a story that makes it all work. If I should find a piece that does not fit, I go back to the last place things worked and reassess.
ASM: So what kinds of challenges do you face?
DG: Where to start?!
Time is one of the biggest ones. I have so many layers to my life, as do many. So I tend to work with the one that yells the loudest first. But I am currently evolving methods to balance the chaos by setting boundaries.
Another challenge is my work space: I live in a small place and have no studio or office to work from. I do have plans in the works to find space, but it will cost money I don’t have. The large parts of the project, that is, the crafting of the warp-weighted loom and the weaving, are on the schedule.
I do a lot of presenting of the project, and so scheduling this can take valuable time away from the actual work; but it is very important as it keeps the project from vanishing in the minds of the followers.
The physical work can be overwhelming as it is mostly processing. Much of the physical work is new to me as I am working to discover the best way to produce the best results. I like to tell people that I can spin but, I am not a spinner. I can weave but I am not a weaver.
ASM: Are there ways, then, that interested people – some of my blessed readers, for example – could help with any of your challenges?
DG: Proofreading is a big thing. Once I write something, I need someone who has the time and ability to proofread. I can format and do the other minutiae to produce the papers.
Translating is another issue, especially documents from the Scandinavian countries. I don’t speak nor read in any other language. Translators are invaluable because there may be information in these papers that would bring some data together that may be otherwise overlooked.
Also, academic papers cost a small fortune; just being able to look at them to see if the information inside is pertinent would be great. So trying to find alternative sources of documents, old and new, would be good.
ASM: So, blessed readers, if you can help out in any way, please contact Doreen through her website. Now, I’ve been wanting to ask you: Is there a growing community of people – in the flesh and virtual – interested in medieval textile production? If so, why do you think that is?
DG: In my own case, because of being accessible to the public, the following and interest has grown exponentially. I tend to do three to five events a year: some are speaking engagements, some are living history demonstrations, and I encourage impromptu contacts through social media and email as well.
Interest in medieval textiles relates to all sections of the historical textile world, from tools to finished items. Some people want to know about the sheep and why I chose them. Others want to know about the weave of the cloth and what makes it so special.
The list could go on. Now, to answer why, I would have to say, I honestly do not know.
ASM: Well, perhaps not everyone can be a real medieval person like yours truly, so discovering what medieval folk wore is the next best thing! [Methinks I’m being laughed at here.] Finally, Doreen, what do you have in store for us over the next few months?
DG: I will be continuing with my blogging on the web site. The hope is to start getting audio files up with presentations from the beginning of the project through current work, and then videos of the techniques being discovered and used during the recreation of the fabric and the dress.
The big goal for the year is to get the warp-weighted loom built in the Icelandic style and start practice weaving! I will have to learn how the tool works before I put the actual threads on the loom and make cloth.
I have several bits of research done that I am going to write and publish. These I hope to get done in the next 6 months.
I often set pretty ambitious goals for myself. We will have to see how far I get.
Well, I’m sure we want Doreen to fulfil her ambitions. And I’m really grateful to such a friendly, obliging interviewee – even if she did laugh at me.
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