Saturday, 23 January 2016

The Dorestadt Shoes - Assembling the Tools

It's been a long time since I had time to write here, but I've finally been able to squeeze in some time for blogging. I'm going to try and finish up this series on the shoes I made last year (!) so that anyone dropping by the blog will have some idea of how to do the same thing, should they ever want.

Once the initial research for the shoes was done, I waded in to Step 2: furnishing myself with the specialized tools and the materials I needed to make the shoes. Overall, this kind of shoemaking doesn't require that many specialized tools or materials. These are the main ones:

  1. A sharp knife
  2. An awl
  3. Bristles for sewing (or needles)
  4. A closing block
  5. A stirrup
  6. A matched pair of Lasts
  7. Linen thread
  8. Coad (a sticky wax)
  9. Leather (vegetable tanned)
For a sharp knife, I just use a replaceable-bladed utility knife. It's not ideal or historically accurate, but it's inexpensive and easy to control. I have a very nice diamond awl, but for reasons I'll explain later, I got myself another awl with a narrower, rounded blade. I got the awl as sharp as possible on my stones and strop, and later, ground it to a flat, slightly rounded tip and resharpened it.

The bristles I used are wild hog bristles that I got from Francis Classe, the fine authour of the wonderful Raised Heels blog ( Boar bristles were likely used by leatherworkers of all stripes instead of needles, though it's unclear when they were first used. 
Lystyne Lordys Verament, a late 15th century shoe-maker's will set to verse, mentions them alongside other shoemaking tools, so we know that by the late medieval period they were being used. It seems likely, given the stitches used on shoes throughout the medieval period (and into the modern period), that some kind of flexible thread guide was used, and boar bristles are ideally suited. If you don't want to spend the money or time trying to get boar bristles, I've been told that 25-30 lb fishing line makes a good replacement.

The awl and a few boar bristles for sewing.

A closing block is a rounded bit of wood that assists in making the closing seam, the seam(s) on the upper part of the shoe. I made mine out of a bit of 2x4 that I rounded off at the edges. I'll get into the exact technique in a later post, but basically the leather is held against the closing block on your thigh by the stirrup while stitching is done with the awl and bristles. The stirrup is just a long leather belt that loops under your foot and around your thigh and secures the leather while you're working. When I made mine, I just used an old belt blank that was too marked up to sell, added a cheap buckle and made a long slit in the middle. The slit is so that the stirrup can be tightened on either side of the area you're working on to give a more secure fit.

Here you can see the awl, the boar bristles, and the stirrup hard at work.

Lasts are hard forms shaped sort of like a human foot - it's most accurate to say they are shaped like the inside of a shoe. Modern lasts are very different from Medieval lasts - in modern shoes, the lasts provide the shape for the shoe, while in the Medieval era the lasts were used mostly for a sewing support while doing the lasting seam. I'll be doing an entire post on lasts after this one, as they are pretty important to how I decided to make these shoes.

For linen thread, I used two different thicknesses - one was 3-cord linen thread for the closing seams and other fine work, and the other was 7 cord linen thread for the lasting seam (the seam that holds the sole to the upper).

I used a kind of coad called 'blond wax' for...pretty much everything I make, actually. It's a mix of roughly two parts pine gum rosin and one part beeswax. There are a million recipes for this kind of wax, many of which use tar, tallow and other substances, but this was the easiest for me to make. Alistair Muckart (AKA William de Wyke) has a wonderful post on his blog for how to make it - he does a better job explaining than I could. Find it here:

 Finally, the leather. I used 5/6 oz leather for the uppers (2 -2.5 mm thick) and 8/9 oz leather for the sole (about 3-3.5 mm thick). You could probably use 4/5 oz leather for the upper if you wanted, but the fine stitching on the closing seam of the shoes might be weak in that kind of leather (you'll see what I mean when we get to construction.) I used 2/3 oz calfskin leather for the edge binding.

When I make another pair of these, I'll use thicker leather for the sole (more like 10/11 -12/13 oz), both for increased protection when walking and for an easier time of doing the sole seam.

The tools gathered and in use!

Coming up next - making the lasts!

Saturday, 9 May 2015

The Dorestadt Shoes - Background and Research

As I've mentioned before, one of my big projects for 2015 was to make my first pair of Medieval turnshoes. Previously at SCA events I've been wearing some iron-age style "ghillie" shoes, and I find myself in need of an upgrade.

However, my wife insisted that I make her a pair of (and I quote) "Viking booties", rather than making my first pair for me. As a good and thoughtful husband, I acquiesced, and began work early on in the year.

The "Viking Booties" that my wife wanted were based on a style of shoe with overlapping flaps attaching to toggles - finds of these types of shoes occur all over Northwest Europe, everywhere the Vikings raided and traded (though perhaps only coincidentally). Specifically, the shoes are modeled off of a find from the 10th century settlement of Dorestadt in the Netherlands (hence the name Dorestadt Shoes).

The Dorestadt Shoes. (From Stepping Through Time,
Goubitz, 2001, p. 147)

Partway through the planning process, I was encouraged by some of my SCA friends to enter something in the Kingdom Arts and Science Faire for Ealdormere. That put a deadline on things, but I thought I'd have enough time to get everything done.

I've decided to approach shoe-making with maximum historical accuracy in mind. I want to do my best to reproduce the techniques, materials, and tools in use at the time. That means a lot of research.

Luckily there are a number of very good websites and blogs chock-full of information. Marc Carlson's website is a phenomenal resource, and you'll see it referenced everywhere anyone talks about Medieval footwear. It has some great, in-depth discussion on tools and techniques, as well as a few tutorials on shoe-making.

My other two web-based sources are blogs. Alistair Muckart's blog, Where are the Elves?, is another great resource. His tutorials on making coad (shoe-maker's wax) and rendering tallow have both been very useful. He's also got photos of shoe cross-sections that offer a lot of insight into how they were made - this is great when you're having trouble visualizing how everything goes together.

Francis Classe's blog, Raised Heels, is more specifically targeted to late period shoes and other footwear incorporating raised heels or platforms of some kind. This is kind of out of my period, as I usually muck about in the early Middle Ages. A lot of the skills and techniques are the same, however, and just as I started this project he was working on a pair of the exact same style of shoes that I was! Fortune was smiling on me there - seeing an accomplished shoemaker at work (and getting some helpful tips!) was very helpful during the whole process. He also provided me with some boar bristles for sewing - more on those later.

There are a number of very good books out there on Medieval shoes, but they approach them from a decidedly archaeological angle. Stepping Through Time by Olaf Goubitz is basically the Medieval shoe bible. Goubitz was an authority on archaeological leather, especially shoes, and made pioneering strides in standardizing the cataloging and description of shoe finds. Despite it's scholarly goals, it's quite the accessible work, and Goubitz's sense of humour shines through on several occasions. Stepping Through Time looks primarily at shoe finds from the Netherlands, but shoe styles were not heavily regional in the Middle Ages so the styles found there wind up being representative of shoes throughout Northwest Europe. This book has recently come back into print - it was apparently getting very hard to find.

The other book I relied heavily on was Archaeological Footwear by Marquita Volken.The focus of this text was to discover and classify the main cutting pattern types of all pre-industrial leather footwear. It's an amazing work, and the categorization of all shoe finds into a small number of basic pattern shapes is not only a great feat of analysis, I also found it very useful when drafting up the pattern for the shoes. Archaeological Footwear is decidedly less accessible than Stepping Through Time, but it's worth the slog. The really big value for this text is the absolutely massive catalog of shoe types in the back - pretty well every shoe type found in Europe is represented. It's basically a gold mine.

I also made some use of Shoes and Pattens and Leather and Leatherworking in Anglo-Scandinavian and Medieval York. Both of these are good books, but Shoes and Pattens is a little dated (and a little too late period to take in the shoe type I wanted to make). Leather and Leatherworking is a good resource, but a lot of the information overlaps with Stepping Through Time so it didn't see as much use as it should have.

To make a long story short, I did a crapload of reading before I started the actual work. The basic plan was this:

1. Get all my equipment and materials together.
2. Take all the measurements I need from my wife's feet.
3. Make a pair of wooden lasts (sewing supports for making shoes) from the measurements.
4. Create a pattern for the shoes based on the last.
5. Cut the leather using the pattern.
6. Make the shoe.

In the next post I'll discuss the materials and some of the tools I used making the shoes and lasts. After that, I'll get into the last-making, then on to the actual shoe-making! Stay tuned.

Saturday, 10 January 2015

Making a Leather Flacket

Behold, the humble leather flacket.

I've made about a dozen of these things now, of various shapes and colours, and I thought it was time I made a post about my process.

But first, a brief note on terminology! YAY!

Depending on who you ask, this kind of bottle can be called: a bottle, a bottell, a costrel, or a flacket.  All these terms, except the flacket, I have heard applied to vessels that look more like a keg with a flattish bottom - like this vessel in the Museum of London. I've also heard costrel used as a general term for a drinking vessel of any sort.

In Black Jacks and Leather Bottels, Oliver Baker describes a leather flacket like this:

It is of an elongated pear shape,and there is a fairly. thick projecting seam right round it. In this seam are rounded projections, two on each side, which form loops by means of which it was carried. The seam is not thickened but simply consists of the edges of the two sides brought together...

That seems like a good description of what I'm making, although the shape varies from pear or pumpkinseed shaped to round.

So, how does one make a flacket?

There are two schools of thought: one favours casing and molding the leather over a wooden form, trimming the excess, and sewing it together. The other favours stitching the two pieces of leather together first, soaking (casing) the leather, and then packing it full of something, like sand or barley.

Honestly, the first method is probably the most historically accurate, and achieves a consistent shape as well as providing a base for tooling the leather. Most preserved examples of flackets are assymetrical, being flat on the back and rounded on the front - that's almost impossible to achieve with the sand-pounding method. Medieval leather workers were certainly used to using wooden forms in other disciplines, such as shoemaking.

However, my skill with woodworking is lacking  (though I hope to improve) and I use the stuffing method. If you want to see an example of the wooden form method, the Leather Working Reverend has an excellent post here.

The process starts with the pattern. I don't use a historical pattern per se, I just drew a few shapes that I liked and thought would work. The best part about this pattern is that you only need one piece. When scribing the pattern on to the leather, I flip the pattern horizontally to account for any minor errors in symmetry. Once cut out, you end up with two (hopefully) identical pieces of flask shaped leather.
The two pieces of the flacket, along with the bristol board pattern piece on the right

After that's done, I gouge my stitching lines and mark the spacing for the sewing. Note that this wouldn't have been done in Medieval times. The earliest use of a pricking wheel for leather working is the 19th century, I think.

 I use two rows of stitches along the outside of the bottle. This way, if one row of stitches fails, the other will hold it together. It also makes for a slightly better seal.

Now we get to the most time consuming part of the whole process - the stitching. I'm lucky with these bottles that I can use a stitching clamp to hold them in place while I sew - otherwise I would need to glue the edges and hold it between my knees, which is more difficult with thick leather like this.

As usual, this is the "saddle stitch", where a hole is made with an awl and two needles are passed through it. The needles are each at one end of the thread, so it amounts to kind of a double running stitch that is very strong. I use linen thread waxed with coad, a mixture of beeswax and pine rosin that keeps the thread from rotting and helps lock the stitches inside the leather.

Stitching part way done

Stitching completed!

After this is done, I burnish the edges using a horn or bone folder. I used to use a horn one that I bought, but I discovered that a bone folder I had made at an SCA event worked far better and quicker. Perhaps the commercially-made folder is too finely polished to provide enough friction?

Now we get to the forming. I soak the bottle for about an hour to make sure the leather is really pliable. Then I do some initial opening up by blowing some air into the bottle. This basically gets it open enough that I can fit a funnel in the mouth and start pouring in barley. I use barley because that was what was used in the original how-to I followed - most people apparently use sand.

  When the bottle is full of barley, I pack it down with a wooden dowel, then pour more barley. I keep doing this until the leather is stretched as tight as possible, and packing no longer stretches the leather.  Not only does this give the bottle the most volume, I've found that fully stretched leather holds its form better than leather with more stretch in it.

Now we have to let it dry. This is important! If you put even slightly damp leather into hot wax, the leather will crumple or burst, wasting all the work you've done (and on a side note, possibly spraying hot wax everywhere. It takes awhile to dry, sometimes as much as two days, because of all the barley inside. This is where the wooden form method is nicer too - it would dry in much less time.
The stretched and packed bottle, drying.

While the bottle is drying, I usually get on with the woodworking side of things - namely, carving the stopper and cutting the toggle. Both of these I cut from oak branches. The toggle is pretty simple - I cut a button about 1/4 to 1/2 an inch thick off of the branch, then drill 4 holes in it. Then it's sanded and finished. Leather lace attaches the toggle to the finished bottle and forms a loop for the belt. The loop goes around the belt and hooks on the toggle. It's secure and quick to undo - my wife thought it up after looking at some Finnish belt-trappings and seeing something similar.

The stopper I carve while still part of the branch. This is pretty simple too - 95% of the work is done with a sharp knife. The stopper is a little crude - nothing at all like the turned stuff you see woodworkers produce - but they work, are a hard-wearing wood, and give the whole thing a kind of rustic flavour.

The finished button and stopper. Note the shoulder on the stopper, tricky to do on oak with just a knife!

Now we're getting to the final steps - waxing and lining the flacket. First the flacket is immersed in beeswax that's been melted in a double boiler. The double boiler part is key! If the wax gets too hot, it will boil the leather and it will crumple. The double boiler prevents the wax from getting above 100 degrees celsius. I'm always careful around melted wax and pitch - remember to wear long gloves and long sleeves.

Immersing the flacket in hot wax
I immerse the flacket in the wax until I stop seeing bubbles rising to the surface of the wax, indicating the leather is fully saturated. This can take anywhere from 5-10 minutes, I think, though I've never timed it.

Once removed from the wax, I wipe off the excess wax from the outside with a wad of paper towels. you have to do this while it is still hot or the wax will solidify and you'll have to immerse it again to melt the wax. Then I let it cool. The leather slowly darkens from a light to a dark brown as it cools, resulting in a dark chocolate brown. The colour is the result of the dark beeswax I use, I think.

The waxed flacket

The final step is to line the bottle with a pitch and beeswax mixture - this is similar to the coad mixture I use to wax my threads, and the same as the lining for the leather mugs I make. I melt the pitch and beeswax together (a 1:1 ratio), then pour it carefully into the bottle and roll it around, making sure the pitch gets into the seams where a leak is most likely. The pitch and wax lining is food safe and more resistant to impact, heat, acidity and alcohol content than just beeswax alone, though hot drinks, pop and orange juice are still no-nos!

Then, once it has cooled and set, I test the bottle for leaks. I fill it full of water and leave it on the counter for an hour or two, standing up between a couple of mason jars. If there's no leaks, it's good to go! The toggle and stopper are added and the flacket is complete.

"Ve meet again, Herr Flacket."

So, the inevitable question is, how historically accurate is this thing?

Well, there's documentary evidence of leather bottles and flasks as far back as the 10th century, though I don't believe there are extant examples from before the 15th century. Those bottles show some signs of being made on wooden forms, given their consistent shape and asymmetry. So the barley-stuffing method is iffy, but plausible. The leather is vegetable tanned, and while modern veg-tan leather is very different from historical stuff, it's used in the same way and achieves the same result. Unless I was pit-tanning the stuff myself, I'm unlikely to find better.

The thread and stitching are pretty period accurate - linen thread was used commonly on everything from shoes to bottles. The wax on the thread is similar, but not exactly the same (medieval recipes use black pitch instead of clear yellow rosin, apparently), but once again it serves the same function.

Bottles and flackets in period probably weren't hardened at all, as they show signs of patching and repair, and many were cut up to be used as patches for shoes when their life ended. My hardened bottles can't be patched or sewn - nothing short of a heavy blade wielded with considerable force is going to pierce them. I wax them to give them extra durability and water resistance, and I think the trade off is worth it.

 The lining is pitch and beeswax. There's no evidence of beeswax being used in period for lining vessels, but the modern pitch (the rosin) is too brittle at room temperature for my liking. Period pitches were apparently a little more flexible. Once again, a good compromise.

The shape isn't perfect but it resembles several flackets that existed in period, including some from the Mary Rose, so I'll chalk it up to artistic license.

So it won't pass a close inspection by a Laurel or a history professor, but it mostly looks the part and has a lot of elements that are accurate. It's perfect for SCA or Ren-faire type events, or just as a unique water carrier for a long hike.

If you're interested in purchasing one of these, I have several shapes and sizes available in my Etsy Shop.

Thanks for reading!

Monday, 29 December 2014

Wrapping up 2014

Well, that year went quick.

I'd expected to do more blogging, but was given a stern reminder by reality that leatherwork is time consuming. I've ended my first year in business on a high note - lots of orders moving in December and a couple of successful Christmas markets under my belt. I feel like I've got a hold on things - even if its just by a finger!

The new year holds new challenges. Aside from a couple of in-progress custom items, I've got a lot of how-to posts I want to write and a few new areas I need to explore - including carving and tooling. But the biggest thing I want to get into this year is medieval shoe-making. I've made a few primitive "iron age" type single-piece shoes and, while crude, they've kept the family shod at SCA events. Now I'll be heading down the rabbit hole into turn shoes - new stitches, new skills, and maybe even some woodworking (gasp!).

I hope your year was a as good as mine. Stay tuned - if nothing else, next year should be interesting (even if only for catastrophic failures).

Wednesday, 17 September 2014

My Suppliers

When I first started doing leatherwork a couple years ago, I had only one supplier (Tandy Leather Factory) and one goal: amass my materials and tools as cheaply as possible. My reasoning was this: if I got tired of doing leatherwork, it would be less of a loss with cheap tools. And with cheaper materials, my learner's mistakes would be less costly.

I still think this is a good decision for starting out - leather is expensive, and so are good tools. That being said, it became almost immediately clear to me that if I was going to be at all serious about my work, I would have to get serious about my supplies and where they came from. Some cheap tools (like stitch markers, groovers and things) work perfectly well, while others (awls, punches, etc.) end up being more work than they're worth.

Disregarding economic reasons, there are various ethical concerns involved. Where was the leather tanned, and what did it take to get it to me? what impact did it have on the local environment and people? Do I want to support businesses that exploit the their workers and damage the environment through negligence? What does it say about me if I purchase supplies from such companies? How can I demand change from governments and corporations if I refuse to change my own purchasing habits?

When I buy something, I like to know where and how it is made. Now that I've started a business doing this stuff, I think it's important that people know what goes into the items I make. I evaluate my suppliers (and supplies) based on a lot of things - quality of the product, it's relative environmental impacts, the distance it has to travel to get to me, and the conditions workers deal with. I've had varying degrees of success (as you'll see below) but I think it's worth the effort.

Supplier #1 - Longview Leather (Longview, Alberta)

Don Vincent, the proprietor of Longview Leather, knows his business. Right now, he's the only Canadian supplier I know of for Hermann Oak Leather (see below).  He's also got a good selection of quality hardware, like belt buckles, swivels, etc. Recently, he's begun stocking more tools and a much larger variety of leathers.

But where Longview Leather shines is customer service. Don has called me to double check orders, to give me the option of waiting for better quality leather to come in, and has even given me store credit when shipments are a little late. He's sent me samples of leather he had got in limited quanities he thought I might like. He's never taken more than a day to answer my emails. If it sounds like I'm gushing, well, that's just the way it is. I never have a problem buying from Longview, and the stuff I've gotten is top rate.

Supplier #2 - Hermann Oak Leather (St. Louis, Missouri)

This one's not really a direct supplier - I only purchase their products through Longview Leather - but they're key to my process. Hermann Oak leather is a high quality vegetable tanned leather made St. Louis, Missouri, from North American steer hides. There's simply no comparing it with cheaper imports. It's firm, has little stretch, stamps well, takes oil and dyes well, and holds up well to hard use. As an added bonus, for my SCA/historical stuff, it's the closest match to leather tanned in ancient times and the middle ages. 95% of my items are made using this leather.

Being sited in the U.S., they have stricter environmental standards than tanneries in the developing world (There's a reason Hermann Oak is one of the last tanneries operating in North America - most have fled to less-regulated countries). And, because Hermann Oak  is vegetable tanned, there are fewer toxic byproducts produced. It's not perfect, but leather tanning has always been, and likely always will be, something of a dirty practice. For more information, see their Environmental Statement or Tannery Tour video.

Supplier #3 - Douglas Tools/ Sheridan Leather

Bob Douglas makes tools I regularly drool over. He now sells his tools directly through Sheridan Leather (themselves a quality operation). I would buy more from Sheridan Leather, but shipping and duties become prohibitive for regular supplies. The one tool I've bought from Douglas Tools there is the awl and awl blade. The awl handle is made from cocobolo and has a smooth, comfortable finish. It takes a little getting used to if you like a contoured handle. The blades, though, are worth their weight in gold. These are handmade and come sharpened and polished. They go through leather  easily and hold an edge. After probably hundreds of hours hand stitching with these blades, I've only ever stropped them to keep the edge up. They are expensive ($27.00 for a blade) but the time saved on re-sharpening, and the ease of stitching, make them a worthwhile investment.

Supplier #4 - Isle Away Apiaries (Manitoulin Island)

This is the most local supplier I have - they're right here on Manitoulin Island. They produce high-quality honey and beeswax from their 65 hives. Their honey is delicious, and their wax is great - and I must say, among the cheapest I've found. I mostly use the wax for making leather finishes or for hardening drinking vessels. Nancy Kains, my contact there, is super friendly and knows her stuff - they run courses on bee-keeping as well as their own operation. I'm not sure if it qualifies as 'organic' or pesticide free, but given what I know of the immediate area, there doesn't appear to be much intensive agriculture nearby. I'm confident that it's as close to organic as honey and beeswax can get without certification.

 If you're ever on the Island, buy some Isle Away honey - you won't regret it.

Supplier #5 Campbell-Randall
I don't purchase much from Campbell-Randall, but they're a critical supplier of mine. As far as I've found, they're one of the only retail suppliers in North America for large rolls of unwaxed linen thread. I mostly use their Barbour linen thread. The thread is consistent and looks great on the leather. Much better, in my opinion, than the synthetic threads I once used. I don't really know how it compares to other linen threads. Customer service at Campbell was very good - they answered my questions promptly and helped me track my order when it got held up at the border.

The linen itself is made from flax and is a natural fibre. When I can get it, I use the Barbour linen thread that is made in the United States. I haven't been able to discover where the flax is grown - according to FAOSTAT, flax fibre is mostly grown in China, Russia and Europe. Canada's flax industry focuses on the export of the seeds from the flax, so it's not likely grown here.

Supplier #6 Tandy Leather Factory

Ah, Tandy. The Wal-Mart of leather suppliers..

Tandy's low end tools are a boon to beginners. You can get into hobby leather working without spending a huge amount of money. To be honest, I've purchased most of my tools there. They have an online store, they have good shipping options, and the staff has always been helpful and friendly, though they don't reach the gold standard of Longview Leather.

The down side: If you want tools made of good steel that will hold an edge, or ones that are adequately pre-sharpened, look somewhere else. Most tools are made overseas, and there's no way to check up on the manufacturing or environmental processes - though I did get a marble slab on sale there that has a large "Made in USA" stamped right on the underside.

I have no idea where their different grades of vegetable-tanned leather come from. Most leather is tanned overseas, in China or India, where working conditions are often questionable at best, and environmental regulations are lax or simply not enforced, but I have no way of knowing where it is sourced from. The quality of Tandy's leather varies considerably, and when you're not able to go to the store and pick and choose what you want, you get whatever they decide to give you. Even though the leather is cheaper by the square foot, it often results in less useable leather over all, making a hide like Hermann Oak a better investment. When you buy Tandy leather on sale, it seems you get lower quality hides as well - clearing out leather that has already been picked over for the best.

When I buy from Tandy Leather, I do so because I can't really find what I need anywhere else. I do get my rivets and lace from there, as for the most part  all suppliers carry the same stuff. I have to stress that I have no problem with the service I've received from their staff, but overall the quality is lacking and I have concerns about the sourcing of most of their products.

Final Thoughts

From the list above, it's easy to see that I am far from being a 100% sustainable business. But with some time, effort, and money, I'm able to ensure that most of my consumables (leather, thread, wax etc.) are made from natural materials. Where I can, I buy high-quality tools from skilled craftspeople. I try to avoid purchasing tools and supplies of unknown source and impact, and I reward companies that meet my criteria with continued business. Aside from all these ethical concerns, I think that this kind of thoughtful sourcing has resulted in higher quality raw materials for my crafting, and in the end, higher quality finished products.

It's not always easy, or cheap. And it's a constant struggle to improve on my sustainability. But I sleep better at night knowing that my customers receive items made with both quality and conscience.

Thanks for reading.
Jake Diebolt

Wednesday, 3 September 2014

Making of a Leather Mug

Drinking vessels made from animal hides have a long history, going at least as far back as the neolithic period - a crude leather cup was found in a stone age context in London, England, for example. Hide vessels hung on in use long after earthenware, metal and glass came on the scene. There have even been found clay bottles, shaped and glazed in such a way as to the mimic the look of a leather vessel, down to finely inscribed stitching.

Leather vessels were at their most popular in the British Isles, particularly England. Here we see the leather bottles, flasks and blackjacks that evoke images of British sailors and pirates, quaffing grog or ale on the high seas. Sturdy leather drinking vessels go back at least to the Saxon period, and by the 14th century there was a guild of bottle makers in London, specializing in crafting drinking vessels of leather.

If you're going to an SCA  event, a leather mug will serve you well as your quaffing implement.

Quaffing. Not even once.

But then, you're here to find out how it's made...

Well, I have to begin with this: the mugs (or jacks) I make are not particularly historical. Most of the surviving examples are tapered, being larger on the bottom to be more stable aboard ship. And the handle shape is just something I thought would be most comfortable. The traditional jacks would have been made from harness thickness leather, about 30-50% thicker than the leather I use. And the waterproof lining would have most likely been a pine, spruce or birch derived black pitch, whereas I use a combination of pine gum rosin and beeswax that is golden in colour.

That being said, the materials I use, and the general techniques, are pretty close to crafters from the Middle ages. And the end result would not look out of place in a medieval setting.

It all starts with a pattern. You can find numerous mug patterns online, but after looking at several I decided to draw up my own. I've experimented with a couple of handle styles and found I liked the D shape, so that's what I used. As far as sizing, I found a convenient form to use for the leather - a glass honey jar of just about the right size and shape. From the measurements of the jar I laid out the pattern on bristol board, complete with an over sized bottom piece and a filler piece for the handle.

Once the pattern was cut out, I laid the pieces out on an 8/9 oz hide and marked the outlines with a scratch awl. Then, with a knife and straight edge (and great care going around the curves) I cut the pieces from the hide. This is always the most stressful part of the process for me - a slip up here can be costly.

When I've got the pieces cut out, its time to prepare them for stitching. I use the stitching gouger to cut a shallow channel into the leather along the bottom of the side of the mug, and outline the double-stitching around the mug handle. This way, when the threads are pulled tight, they will sit flush with the surface of the leather. It looks nicer and saves wear.

After that, I round the edges with an edge beveler - later, when I burnish the edges, it will form a smooth, rounded edge.

Once all the prep is done, I glue the handle parts together with contact cement. I use a minimal amount of the stuff - it smells awful and can make a mess if you're not careful, but it bonds like iron when done correctly. None of the cement ever touches the parts of the mug in contact with the drinks. I usually avoid gluing things, but previous attempts to stitch this without gluing first turned out sloppy-looking.

The glued handle assembly, complete with the handle filler piece.

While waiting for the glue to dry, I soak the bottom piece of the leather mug in water- this renders it able to be formed and moulded. For this next part I owe thanks to Angster on, who did a great tutorial on making a Tudor-style mug. (One might call it a Tudorial, eh? Eh?...well, I thought it was funny.) I mold the soaked (or "cased" leather) over the bottom of the glass jar, and then take a metal hose clamp and force it down over the leather. Then all I do is tighten the hose clamp until the leather is tight against the jar.

The bottom of the mug, forming on the honey jar.
With the bottom of the mug forming, it's time to stitch the handle. Leather hand stitching is a little different than hand stitching fabrics. You use one long piece of thread with a needle on each end. One needle is held in each hand, and the awl (a sharp, narrow-bladed tool used for making holes through the leather) is held in your third hand. You can already see the problem. With a little dexterity and some practice, you learn to hold both needles and the awl without ever setting them down.

I use linen thread, waxed with 'coad', a mixture of pine rosin and beeswax, not very different from the lining the mug will get later. This mixture prevents the thread from rotting and makes it slightly sticky. Once the threads are pulled tight, the coad melts and then solidifies on the threads in the leather, adding strength to the seam.

First you punch the hole through the leather with the awl, then pass the needle from the opposite side through the hole. Then you take your awl-hand needle and pass it through the hole, and then pull them both tight. I loop the thread around the needle on the other side, so that when the thread is pulled tight it helps align the stitches the right way and forms a knot inside the leather, increasing the strength of the seam. I'll go into a more detailed explanation of the technique in a future post, but for people who can't wait, there are dozens of excellent videos on YouTube detailing hand sewing techniques.

After that, it's rinse and repeat. It takes about 3 metres of thead to do the outer seam on the handle, and a little more than 2 metres to do the inner seam. For this part at least, I hold the mug in a "stitching pony" (a clamp that acts as a third hand) my dad made for me. Thanks Pop!

Note the awl and needle held in the same hand. Please do not note the scruffy pseudo beard.

Also, I just realized that the T-shirt I'm wearing in those pictures was a gift from my Dad too. I really am a self-made man though, I swear!

Finally, the handle is stitched. This is the longest part of the process - just the handle probably takes upwards of 2 hours.

Stitching on the handle completed
Now this part of the mug is soaked as well and forced over the honey jar, and left to dry overnight. I wiggle it around a bit on the jar to stretch it somewhat, so that it's easier to remove. The first couple mugs I made were a real pain to get off of the jar.

The next bit involves stitching in the bottom, which has dried into the shape of the bottom of the jar. This is a little trickier to do as the mug can no longer be held in the clamp. Instead, the mug has to be held between the knees while you sew. I left the honey jar in for this part, it helped the mug maintain it's shape while I sewed. Yes, this is exactly as awkward as it sounds, and I end up doing a lot of sewing like this, where a clamp can't help. Unlike some stitching ponies, mine isn't magical.

Special thanks to Red Clamp #1 - without you, this mug wouldn't have been possible.

With the bottom sewn in, the mug is (structurally) complete. Now I carefully trim and sand the edges, and burnish them with a horn folder by dampening the leather and rubbing the horn vigorously over it. Done properly, the edge loses its frayed appearance and becomes smooth.

Now we treat the mug to make it capable of holding liquids.

The first step is to soak the mug in molten beeswax. This hardens the leather to an almost plastic-like consistency and completely waterproofs the leather. From my research I don't believe anything like this was done in period. The mugs were made from very thick leather and would likely have held their shape without stiffening - besides, for most of them medieval period beeswax would have been very valuable as candles for the Church, and likely not available for making the ubiquitous leather vessels. However, I choose to harden the mug because of the thinner leather and the increased durability, as well as the waterproofing angle.

I melt the wax in a double boiler big enough that I can dip the entire mug at one time. You can do this by melting the wax, painting it onto the leather and leaving it in a hot oven, but you have to be REALLY CAREFUL, or the leather will overheat and crumple. I consider a double boiler something of an investment.

I immerse the mug in the hot wax until bubbles stop rising to the surface - this is the beeswax soaking into the leather and forcing pockets of air out. Then I remove the mug, and wipe off any excess wax with paper towels. If you leave the wax too long, it cools and becomes difficult to remove. Now the mug looks like almost finished. The beeswax darkens it substantially - partly because that's what oils and waxes do to veg-tanned leather, and partly because I use a dark beeswax.

Now, the final stage - lining the interior of the mug with the beeswax/pitch mixture. The pitch is pine gum rosin, a food safe pine resin product. It's approved as a food additive by Health Canada, often added to powdered drink mixtures (for what purpose, I honestly don't know). It bears only passing resemblance to the pitch used in actual period vessels - that pitch would have been black and more flexible. In solid form, it's crystalline and almost translucent, and looks like this. (I don't get my stuff from that site, but the people I use don't have as nice a picture). When solid, it's hard but brittle. By adding the beeswax, its easier to work with and a little more flexible. As a bonus, the melting temperature is lowered, so you can fix any cracks in the lining with a hair dryer or some careful use of the oven. Beeswax alone is too fragile in my opinion and melts in very hot weather, springing leaks easily. My original beeswax-lined leather bottles were prone to leaks, but they haven't leaked at all since I relined them with this mixture.

I measure out a 50/50 mix on a kitchen scale. This seems to work, but I may experiment in the future.

I melt the rosin inside the oven in a tin can - it takes longer than on the stovetop, but I have more control over the temperature and if there is a fire, it's contained. I set the oven to about 120 degrees celsius.

The melted rosin, ready to have the beeswax added
Once the rosin is melted, I add the beeswax, put it back in the oven and melt it in. Then I carefully stir the mixture together to make sure that the wax and rosin aren't separated. Use something you don't care about - the mix is a pain to get off.

Once everything is mixed, I carefully pour the liquid into the mug. Then it's a matter of rolling the mug around, VERY CAREFULLY, allowing the liquid to coat the full interior of the mug. I let the liquid settle extra thick on the bottom, where leaks are most prevalent. I haven't yet managed to get a perfectly smooth internal finish, but honestly it doesn't affect the function the mug at all so I don't worry about it too much.

The mug shortly after lining - the hot wax and pitch mix is still partially translucent.

Finally, while the lining is still warm, I scrape any rogue bits of pitch off the mug with the back of a butter knife and try and even out the lining as much as I can. And here's the finished product!

Overall, the process probably takes 5-6 hours, spaced over several days because of the soaking steps. The mug works great for cool liquids - but acidic liquids soften the liner a little, and high-alcohol spirits will straight-up dissolve it, so be careful! My own mug is my favourite beer glass. I've probably had a few dozen beers out of it and the lining shows no sign of deterioration. Try some traditional dark ales out of it - I think you'll like it!

If you'd like to purchase a mug like this, I have it listed on Etsy here, and a black version listed here. And if you have any unanswered questions, ask them in the comments below.

Thanks for reading!

Wednesday, 30 July 2014

Fox and Geese

A few weeks ago, my wife, daughter and I travelled to Tiverton, Ontario for the Baron's Brouhaha, an SCA event put on by the canton of Northgaedham in Ramshaven. Our gracious hosts, Their Excellencies Penda and Sibylla, put on quite the event at their farm, and apart from a vicious windstorm that blew down half the tents, things went very well.

Perhaps because there was so much action packed into two days (including a modified version of Buzkashi that had armoured lords and ladies chasing each other around in pursuit of a plush sheep - just as awesome as it sounds), one of the more interesting parts (for me) of the event was nearly overlooked. The intention was to have a Fox and Geese tournament, but I think the only people who ended up playing the game there were my wife and I and one other couple.

I'd never been exposed to Fox and Geese or any of the other games in the 'Fox games' family (Halatafl, Asalto, etc). For those that have never played, the game is relatively simple. The version we played had one fox piece and 13 goose pieces. One side plays the geese, whose goal is to trap the fox so that it cannot move. The other side plays the fox, whose goal is to capture enough goose pieces (by jumping the pieces, like in checkers) that the geese can no longer effectively trap the fox.

The cross-shaped Fox and Geese board, with fox and geese arrayed in their starting positions.

The game is asymmetrical, and that's what makes it so interesting to me. When one plays as the fox, you have to move to disrupt the geese and isolate them so you can pick them off. When one plays as the geese, you have to make sure your pieces move as a single mass in cooperation, constantly supporting each other. It's easy to imagine a mob of geese chasing a cunning fox around a barnyard in this game!

Shortly after I got back from the Brouhaha, I set about making a Fox and Geese game out of leather. I patterned the board out on bristol board, including all the connecting lines.

Next, I cut a 9" x 9" square out of 3/4 oz vegetable tanned leather. Once I had this square, I took the pattern I'd laid out on the bristol board and laid it on top of the leather.

 I took my scratch awl and poked holes through the bristol board and into the leather underneath, leaving a small indentation in the leather at every line junction. Once that was done, I took a wet cloth and dampened the leather all over to prepare it for tooling.

The cased leather. It didn't take much water for such thin leather.

Once this was done, I waited a little while so that the leather was damp, not overly soaked, then began tooling.

I don't have a lot of experience in tooling or carving leather, but in this case it was pretty straightforward. All I used was a fid awl (a blunt awl used for widening lacing and stitching holes) and a ruler. It was as simple as connect the dots!

Good thing I washed behind my ears before these pics.

One thing I found was that going over a line with multiple strokes not only left a deeper impression, it burnished the leather slightly and darkened the lines better.

The tooling completed

Now, on to the pieces! These were pretty simple. I made these out of some scrap 8/9 oz veg tan so they would be thick enough to pick up easily.  I have a large, round punch that I used for the goose pieces. The punch was pretty dull and I didn't sharpen it much, but by dampening the leather a little before punching I was able to get through the leather. For the fox piece, I tried to give it the look of a stylized fox head, angular and menacing. My wife commented that it was "cute". Meh, close enough.

I dyed the fox piece with my "iron black" dye - made in a high tech fashion from specialized materials (a jug of vinegar and some steel wool). There's a bunch of names for this dye (vinegaroon is more common) and there are better recipes than steel wool and vinegar (using copperas, copper sulphate and water achieves the same thing, apparently). The way it works is the same - the iron oxide in the solution combines with the tannins in the leather and turns it black. Adding some concentrated tannins beforehand keeps the dye from sucking all the tannins out of the leather and destroying it.

The finished pieces.

Once the pieces were cut out and the leather had dried, I made a little pouch for the pieces out of some scrap kipskin. Finally, I applied some beeswax and olive oil leather finish and the rest is history.

Or at least historical.

I've played a few games since and I think I've finally got the hang of playing the geese.

All in all, this was pretty straightforward. Unlike most of my leather projects, most of my time was spent laying out, measuring and double checking, rather than handstitching. The pouch is hand-stitched, but it was small enough that it didn't take much time.

If you'd like one of these games for yourself, you can find it listed here at my Etsy shop.

Thanks for reading!

Jake Diebolt