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Tips on Research

How Do I Research? A Very Simple Guide

Duena Acacia de Navarre

I often get asked - how do I make my work more authentic. How do I research? Below are some simple guides and common pitfalls to get you started in the right direction.

Things to be cautious of:

  • Never start with an idea of what you want to make and then do the research to prove it – this is called reverse documentation, were you try to make the research fit what you want to make. The problem with working backwards is that you often reject any research which does not suit what you want to make and this biases the result so that you get what you want, and not something that is authentic.
  • Be critical of drawings – a lot of costuming books have drawings of outfits rather than pictures or painting of original works. These books can be useful in that they give you an idea of what an outfit could look like but be careful as some artists are not very good historians and there can be mistakes. The best way to be sure is find some pictures of original works (paintings, sculptures, surviving articles etc) and compare these to the picture. If you are not sure how good the book is, then ask someone before you buy (laurels can be very useful with this).
  • Don't just making something a certain way because everyone else is making it that way. We all (at sometime) make something that we have seen someone else make, and assume that it is authentic. Just because someone else has made it does not mean that it is right. Before you do this, ask some questions on what that person has basing their work on. Check out the research before you start.
  • I saw it on the Internet – there are some excellent web pages but there are also some really misguided ones. Remember the rule of three; find some other pages, books etc which support that research. Another avenue is to ask someone of their opinion of the research (laurels can be very useful with this).
  • Beware religious works – Artists often take a lot of licence with religious works, and they are often not depictions of what people actually wore. If you have found a picture that you want to recreate, then check and see if you can find other non-religious paintings which depict something similar.
  • Look at the date of the drawing, painting etc – is it a similar date to the subject of the painting? Ours is not the first generation to be fascinated by other time periods, artists have been doing it for centuries. Check when the date a painting or sculpture was done. If it was painted in the 16 century and it depicts roman dress then it is more than likely to be incorrect if you want to make a roman dress.
  • Almost all research is opinion – the earlier the time period the less surviving artefacts and the more that researcher have to “fill in the gaps” with educated guesses. Some guesses are very well researched, some aren't. Again the best way to check your research and make an informed decision on what is authentic is to get other opinions.

Things to Do

  • Rule of three. So you have seen a picture of a period painting in a book and you want to make it. Is one picture enough? How much research do you need? When it comes to research – more is more! But let's face it, we all live busy lives so sometimes we all ask – what is the minimum I can get away with. The answer to this is that you should avoid making anything unless you can find at least three sources. For example: you want to make red and yellow stripped hose – can you find three works which show or document stripped hose? With at least one of them showing the colours you want? If you can then you can be reasonably confident that your outfit is authentic.
  • Discuss and share your ideas. Two heads are better than one! There are many places where you can share your ideas and research and perhaps pick the brains of other people who may be researching the same thing. Places that you can go are your local A&S, SCA guilds, local group email lists and specialist e-mail lists. The specialist lists can be very useful as there are many international and national ones which focus on single issues for example embroidery and cooking.
  • Access as many different sources as you can. The more variety of sources that you can examine the better your research will be. For example: if you are trying to recreate an outfit, don't just look at paintings. Sculpture, surviving garments, archeologically finds, household accounts, sumptuary laws etc can help to give a more complete picture than just one visual source. This advice also holds true for the documentation itself – books, internet, pictures etc. The more variety the better.

Just remember, there can never be too much research! – We are a society which aims to increase knowledge of medieval life. So every bit of research we do and share, benefits the whole society.