A Conversation with Jean Martin | Local Vocal | Pittsburgh | Pittsburgh City Paper

A Conversation with Jean Martin

Twenty-five years ago, Jean Martin made her first "Plague Rat" out of fake fur. Since then, she's sewn thousands of these stuffed animals and is called the "Rat Lady" by friends in the Society for Creative Anachronism...

Why rats?

I had made a friend a fake fur cape and I saved some of the scraps. When I first joined the Society  [for Creative Anachronism] they played a version of hot potato where they threw a stuffed rat around. So I made my first plague rat with the idea of getting people to play the game. Nobody wanted to play "Plague Rat," they just wanted to buy one. I made three more.


What did people think of them? Instant hit?

Yes! Instant hit! I took them to one of our events, a big dealing in New York, and I sold out.


All three?

Yes, all three. And I realized I had a hit on my hands.


How do you make them?

I think it takes me 15 minutes to make one rat. I cut out 20 rats, and I sew 20 rat bodies, and then I sew maybe 42 rat ears, and then I take them back to the sofa in front of the television set and I sew 20 rats, put eyes on them and stuff them and sew up the rat body. It's one-woman mass production. I can sew these beasties in my sleep.


Do people outside of the Society for Creative Anachronism buy these?

I've tried them at Renaissance Fairs -- they don't work there.


How about regular people?

Well, I'm not sure how many people would like a plague rat. Noooo. Someone I know from the SCA bought a rat, and he puts it on his desk when he's having a bad day at work. People come in and say, "What's that?" And he says, "It's a plague rat." And they go away.


Tell me about Pennsic War.

I love Pennsic. I love seeing my friends. I love selling the rats. People come in from all over the United States and all over the world for Pennsic. It's one of the biggest medieval history events there is. Every year I share a booth with Karen the Witch, who makes stationery and cross-stitch patterns, and Mike the Southern Baptist, who sells jewelry. "IT'S THE RAT LADY! HEY, RAT LADY!" All day. After 20 years of sewing rats at Pennsic, I have a small following. About twice a day, I take two handfuls of rats by the tails, and I walk through the merchants' area chanting my rat song. I can do it in French, too.


How many rats do you sell now?

Pennsic, I make over a hundred. My record is 156 for Pennsic 25. I make another 20 or 30 during the year to sell. Christmas is a big rat season.


All together, how many rats have you made?

Let me see. ... God almighty, I have made more than 1,200 rats in the past decade! That's terrifying. By now, you'd think I'd find something better to do.


The rats have always been this cute plump size?

Well, every time a friend has a baby I give them a rat. Baby's first rat, it's a very special moment, because they're just the right size for a little kid to hold. I've made larger rats. I made a line I called sewer rats ... didn't move quite as well. It was five years ago, I remember, because I was having my 20th Rativersary. And we have royalty in the Society -- people who are chosen to be king and queen for six months. I gave her majesty the queen of this area's kingdom, it's called Aethelmark, a pair of extra-large rats. Her majesty was rather pleased with me.


Do you keep any of the rats?

Noooooo. I don't particularly like them. Now you make 150 rats, it starts wearing on you after a while. I do kind of like getting rid of them. Some people buy a rat every year. They're collectors. I don't understand it.


Do cats like to tear the rats up?

One fella had a cat who brought his rat into the middle of the room every time they had company and tried to mate with it.


How do you like the moniker "Rat Lady"?

Well, I get used to it.

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