10 November 2005

Research - Don't Panic!

Hi all. It's been a bit hot to sew here the last few days, but I hate to go too long without posting something. So here is a small article I wrote yesterday for my SCA Embroiderer Guild newsletter. An upcoming competition category is a minimum 300 word article on something embroidery related, so I wrote this article on research method to help people who might not have done much research in the past. It's pretty much just an explanation of how I do it, but it might be helpful to people. A printable version of the article is available - warning the link is directly to a pdf file of 1.6mb.

This article is to help with the first part of the category, writing an article. Many people find writing documentation or an article to be intimidating or hard work. It can be both, but the thing to remember is Don’t Panic!

Everyone does their research in a different way, in this article, I’m going to outline how I do it. It may not suit everyone, but it might give you some helpful ideas.

Getting Started

The first part of research is to decide on your topic. With embroidery, that can be anything:

  • A specific item eg Bayeux Tapestry
  • A specific technique eg opus anglicanum or klosterstitch
  • A specific material eg silk, linen, wool, metal, leather
  • A specific type of accessory eg hats, caps, purses/pouches
  • A specific place or time period eg England or 14th C Saxony

Where To Find Information

Once you’ve decided on a topic, you need to start to do some reading. If you have no idea about your topic, a good place to start is a generalist book or historical survey. These are the books with generic titles like “Art of Embroidery: History of Style and Technique” by Lanto Synge or “Complete Guide to Needlework: Techniques and Materials” by Mary Gostelow or “Needlework : an illustrated history” by Harriet Bridgeman and Elizabeth Drury. These books tend to cover a very wide range of time and geography, not useful for indepth study, but generally good to get you going by pointing to specific items of interest and also by checking the bibliography, a source list of further in-depth reading materials.

Once you’ve done the general reading and have some leads, you can start getting into the nitty gritty (if you so choose). Other sources of information can be:

  • The Internet – it can be a very valuable tool, but remember, just because it’s on a web page, doesn’t make it true. Try this website for information on evaluating web sources (http://lib.nmsu.edu/instruction/evalcrit.html). The Internet can be a great place to find booklists for example, the West Kingdom Needleworks Guild has a categorized booklist available on its website - http://www.bayrose.org/wkneedle/booklist/Book-Intro.html
  • Books/Articles – old fashioned but still the best way to find information. Use you local library, uni library or ask people who might have copies of specific books. Also you can often find articles written by other SCA people on topics. You can use these articles, either for content or to read the bibliographies. But as always, attribute any information you get from them.
  • Contact Museums/Researchers – I’ve had great success by directly contacting museums, librarians and researchers directly asking them for help. As always, be polite and to the point. When contacting people give them as much information as possible when asking about an item (eg if there is a catalogue or accession number, quote it) and ask specific questions.
  • Ask Other People – don’t forget to ask other people who might be interested in the same topic. Even if they can’t give you the information directly, they might be able to point you in the right direction. Use mailing lists etc as well as local people.

Taking Notes

Once I’ve chosen my topic then we move onto the reading and research. When I take notes I have system. On my note paper, at the top of the page, I write the full bibliographic details of the book – author, title, publisher, year of publication in black pen. Then, as I got through the book, in the left hand margin, I put the page number of the book in green pen. Any notes are then written next to this in blue pen. I find colour coding very useful, but it might not work for everyone. If I want to make a direct quote, that is, copy word for word into my documentation, I write this in the notes in red pen, slightly indented and surrounded by quotation marks and the page number written at the end of the quote.

My notes often are just words or bullet points, something that will jog my memory. If my notes go over more than one page, I number each page at the bottom right hand corner. I use the same system when I am working with photocopies. I highlight in yellow highlighter, I indicate topic sections with green pen (if not done in the work itself, more common in older books) and I underline in red anything I want to quote. If I go back I can then pull this into my notes. The above technique can be adapted when getting information from websites, articles, oral interviews (yes, you can talk to people and use that info) etc

While you might use a different system, when researching, it is a good idea to make sure you get the above information in your notes. There is nothing worse than finding a really great quote or small snippet of really cool information and then not being able to find where you got it from!!

Pulling Your Research Together

Once you’ve done your research, it is time to pull all the information together. How you structure that information will depend on who or why you are writing. In this case, we are talking about documentation or an article for a competition, so let look at what the WCOB website says about how entries are judged. They are judged on 5 criteria, all of which can be applied to an actual embroidered item or a piece of writing:

Documentation. If no documentation is present, the work must score zero in this category. The documentation should provide the sources (books, original pieces, etc.) on which the piece was based, and may also provide a discussion of them. The documentation should also provide information on the date and place for the work (e.g. Elizabethan England), and on the materials used, including any substitutions made and the reasons for them (e.g. I have used DMC cotton rather than the more period silk, because it was cheaper).

So you need to have a few basics in your documentation/article:

  • What are you making/writing about?
  • What period is this from?
  • What was it used for?
  • How was it made?
  • Did you do anything differently than how it was done in period? Why?

Or the abbreviated form: Who, What, Where, Why and How?

When writing your article, why not start with these headings? They offer a good basis for structuring your documentation/article. So write these headings down, and as you read through your research notes, if you see something that goes under one of these headings, write it down! This could be in the form of bullet points or sentences, whatever you are comfortable with. Once you’ve done, this you need to start editing the research, this will mean things like getting rid of duplication (many books may repeat the same piece of information, you only need to one piece of information, but you can say you found it in say three different books), getting rid of information that isn’t relevant to what you are writing about, finding gaps in your information (you’ve read a heap of books, but none of them tell you what colour threads were used or where the item is currently held) so that you can do further research if necessary.

Then, once you have culled your research, you start putting it together in its final form. When I put my documentation/writing together, I tend to use the following headings:

  • Background – this is where I tell why I chose the item, technical information (materials, size, condition, historical context ie is it a typical piece or a one off etc)
  • Pattern – this is where I tell how I came up with the pattern (is it a straight copy or the result of looking at lots of related items and designing my own pattern)
  • Materials and Techniques – this is where I discuss how the period example was made (tools, materials, stitches etc) and how my example was made and discuss the differences. For example, using cotton instead of silk because of the cost of silk, wool blend instead of wool because I can’t get hold of wool. For this section you want to make sure you explain you know how the original was made, even if you did it differently.
  • Reflective Notes – what did I learn, if I would do things differently the next time, what I found difficult, if I enjoyed the project etc
  • Bibliography – a list of all the books/articles consulted, in alphabetical order by authors last name.
  • Credits – if someone helped you, provided you with information on a really good book, lent you something etc, it’s nice to acknowledge that

Again, how this is done is up to you, but I like to start with bullet points and then expand these into sentences and paragraphs.

Use of Sources. These points are for the way in which the embroiderer has used the period pieces and documentation in making the piece. If there is no documentation, this will need to rely on the knowledge that the judges have of this particular style. This category will cover the level of authenticity” of the piece and points will be awarded for creative uses of sources in a period style.

As part of your documentation, you need to demonstrate that you did research. You can do this in a couple of ways. Firstly, when making a statement in your article, back it up by stating where you found the information, this might be as simple as putting the last name of the author and page number of information in brackets after the statement or starting you paragraph by saying such and such, in this book, says such and such. Or you can go the full monty, so to speak an use footnotes or endnotes (if you know how to). Secondly, you need to put in a bibliography. Obviously, the more books/articles you bibliography has, the wider reading it demonstrates. I would think that using ten books would probably score more points than using one book. However, one thing to remember is the quality of your sources, one really in-depth book or source on a topic is worth more than five dodgy, badly written or researched books. Quality does count over quantity.

Technique. These points will be awarded for the execution of the embroidery - i.e. how well the embroidery is done. The assessment of technique will depend on the style of the piece, and will include a judgment of how appropriate the technique is.

OK, going back to my earlier statement, this one might be a bit hard to talk about in relation to an article. Next!

Use of Materials. These points will be given for the appropriate choice of materials for the stye and purpose of the piece. This section will also take into account appropriateness of colour, weight of thread and type of ground fabric, both as they relate to period examples and to the overall style and consistency of the project.

Ibid OK, next!

Presentation. This category enables the judges to award points for style Judges should also award more points to pieces which have a purpose, and which are finished, or include a substantial amount of work (especially with larger projects).

Presentation is important with an article. What I do is get the words out of the way first. They are put into my word processor, with clear headings. Then I think about putting in pictures. I usually include an image of the original object at the start and an image of my finished item at the end. I use clear, easy to read text. It can be tempting to try and “medievalise” your article by using fancy fonts etc. If you must use them, try using an easy to read one and only for headings. Stick with something simple for large amounts of text. Print it in colour if you can, especially if there are nice pictures. Think about putting your article in a folder (but pick one that the article can be removed easily if the judges decide they want to write feedback on it for you).