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Entering SCA Arts and Sciences Competitions and Displays

It's a very intimidating thought to put your work out for everyone to see. Even more intimidating is the concept of "Documentation" that everyone talks about but nobody seems to be able to adequately define. This page is meant to encourage people to get the guts to enter their Arts and Sciences, help them improve their documentation, and give moral support for the times they get back negative comments.

One note of caution first: entering A&S competitions is not for everyone. Some people need the friendly competition and deadlines provided by competitions, but others just feel beaten down by the experience. If you are not interested in producing items which can be documented to SCA period, or if you do not take constructive criticism well, maybe entering A&S competitions is wrong for you. If you're not sure, enter a display first, or find a small local competition to enter rather than going for a large competition that is the centerpiece of an event.

Decide what to enter

You should plan to enter competitions and displays in advance. Throwing an item on a table without documentation often results in getting back negative comments based on misunderstandings that could have been avoided with a little explanation. For competitions that encourage entrants to enter multiple categories (Triathlons, etc.) it is especially important to plan ahead and have all items and documentation finished well in advance.

Enter items that fit the parameters of the competition or display. In the SCA, that means items should feasibly be pre-1600 (or 1650 in some areas). Some competitions or displays may be more limited than that, perhaps in order to encourage entries from a particular place or time. There may also be unwritten assumptions; for example, machine embroidery is not usually considered a valid entry for the "Embroidery" category. If you have doubts about whether your item fits the display or competition, ask the person running A&S BEFORE you go to the event. They don't like disqualifying entries any more than entrants like to be disqualified.

Enter items you are proud of. A Competition or Display is a chance to show people what you can do... so show off! If you feel pressured to enter something you're not proud of, promise yourself and the person(s) pressuring you that you will make a new item for a future Display/Competition that you can be proud of. If you are entering a Pentathlon and only have four items, don't enter something inferior solely for the sake of filling five categories. The world won't end if you only enter four, I promise.

Enter your best work. Please don't use the "scatter approach" where you enter everything you can drag out. Judges cringe when they see a category filled with items that are all obviously the same person's work. It wastes their time to have to go through and comment on each in order to pick out the best pieces. Narrow down what you want to enter, and then ask someone else to help you decide among the last few pieces.

Enter items for which you researched before you created. It shows in your documentation and in the final product.

Don't worry if the item isn't flashy, complicated, late period, etc. Well-made simple items often win out over flashy ones because the judges look closely at the workmanship, materials and authenticity of the piece. 

Making an item to enter

When you make an item that will someday be entered in a competition or display, plan each step carefully and take notes. In a re-creationist society, we value things that are made with materials and methods that are close to what they would have been in the time or place we are re-creating. But there are some things that are simply not practical... like using materials that are dangerous or extremely expensive or simply unavailable. Unfortunately, I don't think everyone in the SCA will ever agree on what is definitively "not practical"! So consider all your options and then remember to write down why you chose what you did in your notes.

Research first and then make the item. It's much easier that way to be confident that what you're doing is "right".

Use materials and methods that are close to what a person in period would have used as their first choice. I say "first choice" because many people in the SCA are hung up on "documenting" things that might have been possible but were very unlikely to have been created. Think of it this way... if someone were re-creating the 20th Century and they decided to build a dome tent by stapling together velour fabric, you'd laugh. Sure, we have tents and staples and velour, but combining them in that manner is just silly. Try to make the item in a manner that wouldn't have seemed "silly" to someone from the time and place you are re-creating. 

What is Documentation?

People looking at an item for the first time don't always know what it is supposed to be, how it was made, or where and when it is supposed to be from. Documentation is a way of giving the viewers of your item the information they need to view it properly when you can't be there to explain it to them. Good documentation makes it easy for them to find answers to the questions they think of when they look at the item. If the information they want to know isn't there, or isn't easy to find, they may get frustrated.

You might notice that documentation is really fairly easy to do if you start writing stuff down when you start the project. Documentation is difficult to do at the last minute because you won't always remember where you got your inspiration from, or you may have returned a key book to the library. So as you work on a project that you think might someday be viewed by others, jot down some notes to answer the questions they might have. For example:

  • What is it?
  • Where is it from?
  • What time-period is it from?
  • What is it made of?
  • How was it made?
  • Where did you get the ideas of how to make it?
  • Did you consider making it other ways?
  • Why did you choose to make it the way you did?
  • What did you learn from making/using/wearing it?
  • Would you make it differently next time?

Now you're started on the right track... think up your own questions that pertain specifically to your item, and we'll come back to discussing how to put it all together later.


Back-documenting is when you have an item that has already been made or you've already made choices about how you will make it, and then you research to find out if you can rationalize your choices as "period". Sometimes this is unavoidable, but in general it's a bad practice because your natural inclination will be to make the facts fit your conclusions instead of vice versa. Sure, you might be able to establish that someone could have made the item the way you made it, or with those materials, but it may not have been their first choice. If you find yourself doing too much back-documenting on something, it may be better to just not enter that item and instead make a new item to enter in a future competition.

Good Research

Good research demonstrates that the item you made existed in the time and place you are re-creating, and would have looked similar to your item and would have been made of similar materials. So how do you get that information?

You can start by asking other SCAdians, but don't rely solely on what other SCAdians tell you. There are a lot of SCAdians who give very good, accurate information that they have personally researched, and a lot of SCAdians who repeat things they've heard somewhere (sometimes changing the meanings or conclusions in the process). Nod and smile at the latter, but endeavor to become one of the former. Read sources yourself instead of relying on what others say about them. Inter-library loan can get you a lot of books, and many common SCA-period sources can be purchased from SCA merchants.

Learn to evaluate whether a source is Primary, Secondary, or Tertiary, and how valid it is. Librarians can go on for hours about this! In general, rely on sources from the period you are re-creating (items dug up from archaeological sites, manuscripts, paintings, etc.), and recent scholarly works. There was a lot of interest in the Middle Ages in the late 1800's and early 1900's, but when you find a source from that period, be careful not to rely on it alone.

Go to the library. Actually get yourself there and start looking through their catalogues and listings of periodical articles. It takes time, and you have to sort through a lot of stuff, but it's worth it for the satisfaction of finding even one article you might not have read otherwise.

Photocopy or take REALLY detailed notes of sources. You might think of a question later and wish you had the original text/image in front of you. 

Writing the Documentation

I've heard a lot of competing theories on what the best possible documentation consist of, especially when it comes to length. Some people say you should fit all your documentation on one page, others insist a highly detailed notebook with tabbed dividers for each section is best.  But the main thing to keep in mind is that the documentation is not for you, it's for the person reading it. As such, it should:

  • Be easy to read/skim
    • Typed, not hand-written
    • Large, standard font (NOT a script or calligraphy font)
    • White or very light-colored paper, no background design
  • Contain a summary of the most important points at the beginning
    • Do not include your name for competitions!
    • Description of the item
    • When/where it is from
    • What it's made from
  • Have clearly identified sections
    • Judges may not have time to read the entire thing but need to be able to look stuff up when they think of a question
    • Example Sections: 
      • Overview/Summary
      • Design (research on item)
      • Materials Used (explain choices)
      • How it was made (OK to include mistakes)
      • Finishing
      • What I learned (how you would do it differently next time)
      • Sources/Bibliography
  • Use pictures/photocopies only as necessary
    • Don't put a whole book out as documentation
    • Summarize or quote text with a footnote/endnote
    • Photocopy the applicable images. If the picture is large, or there are a lot of things on the page, it may help to circle the area the reader should look at with a highlighter.
  • Be proofread by someone else for spelling and grammar mistakes

Write your documentation ahead of time, allow a few days to pass, and then re-read it to see if you missed something or can make it clearer. Think of all the stuff they told you to do when writing papers in High School or College.

When re-reading, think about educating the reader... remember they may not be familiar with your item. Don't document general things like "they used soap in the Middle Ages"; explain things specific to your item like "15th C. Germans used wood ash/lanolin soaps for washing wool fabric".

Be matter-of-fact in your explanations. Don't apologize or plead for understanding, just explain what you did, why, and what you might do differently.

Presentation of the Item

When you get ready to put your item into the display or competition, think about how people will view it. An item that is meant to be worn, such as a gown, glove, or hat, may look better on a form that mimics a body, hand, or head. But you may not want people to be able to tell that the form is made of modern materials... so cover the parts that will show with fabric.

Some items may benefit from being "accessorized". For instance, which looks more medieval: food in a Tupperware container, or food in a nicely carved wooden bowl? Sometimes displaying something else with the item makes it easier to understand, like putting pins in a pincushion. 

If the item is entered into multiple categories (cross-entered), choose the category it should be displayed in carefully. You may want to display it in the category that fits it best (i.e. if it's a leather item with a teensy bit of embroidery, put it in Leatherworking rather than Embroidery). You may want to display it in a category that doesn't already have a lot of entries so it stands out better. Then make sure there is some way that judges of the cross-entered category know where to find the item.

If there are multiple parts to your entry (like skeins of wool dyed with various dyes or bottles of perfume, each from a different recipe source), label them.

If the item is very fragile, make a sign for it (separate from your documentation) that warns the viewer. It is always OK to ask general viewers not to touch, but judges may wish to touch the object in order to evaluate it. If you have concerns/questions about whether and how the judges may handle your item, talk to the person running the A&S competition.

Make sure your documentation is clearly marked and positioned close to the object. If a judge can't find your documentation they may assume you didn't provide any.

Getting Bad Scores/Comments

Before you look at your scores and/or comments, remind yourself that everyone gets bad ones sometimes. EVERYONE. Sometimes it's a matter of a valid criticism, but sometimes it's simply that the judges weren't paying attention to what was in front of them. I can tell you so many stories... sometimes a judge doesn't really have basic knowledge you were assuming they would have. Sometimes the judge wants to suggest something but words it in such a manner that your feelings get hurt. It happens. You need to remember that this is a learning experience, and that the judges do not think any less of you as a person, and may in fact have really admired your work... they just needed to think of something to comment on.

It's OK to be hurt and disappointed and to share those feelings with a trusted friend or your spouse, but be careful how far you let anger carry your words. The SCA is a very small world when it comes to rumors! If you really have a bone to pick with someone, wait until you've had a bit of time to think it over, and then approach the person directly. You may be able to clear up a misunderstanding or teach the judge how to be kinder in the future by telling her that you want to listen to her advice, but that it hurt you. Most judges are quite eager to help entrants improve, and will endeavor to smooth your feelings and give you lots of support.

After you're over some of the initial upset, start to think of how you could avoid getting those same comments next time you enter something. Don't be afraid to contact a judge for clarification or further advice. If it appears that the judge missed something that was in your documentation, figure out how to make your documentation clearer or more concise next time.

Congratulate yourself

No matter how your entries did, remember to be proud of your accomplishments. Getting your work into an Arts and Sciences display or competition takes a lot of effort, and you should reward yourself. Talk to people afterwards who saw the items and ask them if they noticed yours. Often you will get a lot more compliments verbally than in writing, since most viewers don't write comments when they like something. And take care of your work in case you ever want to display it again!

All content copyright the author, Jennifer Munson munson.jennifer@gmail.com The author makes no guarantees for instructions and recipes on this site; neither does she accept responsibility for their outcomes. Verbatim copies may be made for educational purposes only provided they contain original copyright marking.

This page created August 4, 2001

Last updated August 02, 2005