As an author of a medieval fantasy novel, “Legend of theMystic Knights” and a historian, I was fascinated with the armor worn during battle in the middle ages. We have many misconceptions about the armor used in combat in those days, including that it was always metal and worn only by knights.
As you recall in a previous blog, full suits of armor was very rare during much of the medieval period. It was costly, and hard to forge. Most knights, who could afford it, had only had partial metal armor such as a helmet or breastplate. In the last days of the medieval period during the early period of the Renaissance, the knights finally did wear full plate metal armor and those that did were like tanks on the battle field, impervious to most attacks (until new technology made them obsolete).
If most knights, and other fighting men, did not have the ability to wear full plate armor, then their solution was leather combined with some form of chain mail or steel or ring mail. This post will deal mostly with the construction of leather armor.
Leather armor had been used in warfare since there was warfare. The ancient Greeks used leather as the primary soldier defense. Leather if soaked in hot water or oil, becomes very rigid and stiff, giving the wearer good protection against attacks. If you reinforce the leather with pieces of iron or rings, then that leather armor becomes even more protective. If you add chainmail to this armor, then it has the potential to shield you against most attacks.
Many of the readers may remember, my blog in the summer where I bought a piece of leather at a local Renaissance festival. If you recall, I purchased it from TandyLeather.
I had seen some leather armor for sale on the web or even at some of the medieval fairs I attended over the summer. I thought these items were pricey; In fact, I saw a vendor inform someone they could make leather spaulder (this protects the shoulders similar to football pads) for over $1,500 U.S. That price is ridiculous, so I decided to take my piece of leather and make my own.
Over the past several months, I have been working with this leather to make armor. This is something I did in my spare time, barely working on it a few minutes a night. Whatever the amount of time and money I spent on this project, it was not $1,500 worth.
I knew little to nothing about working with leather in making armor. To educate myself I went to the web and learned as much as I possibly could. The following is not a tutorial, or even a step by step instruction of what I did, it is merely presented to you as a stepping off point for you to determine if working with leather is something you want to do.
Step one of any project, is to figure out what you are going to make. This may seem like a simplistic approach, but there is a decision you have to make. Are you going to get supplies to meet the needs of your creation? Or, is your creation to meet your supplies?
I choose the latter. I had the leather purchased already. So whatever I was going to create, it had to meet what I already owned. I could not afford to buy larger pieces of leather than what I already had.
I created a template for my breastplate by using a tee shirt I cut down the sides. I realized I would have enough for the front, but it would not cover my back past the shoulder blades. The back of my breastplate would consist of straps to hold it on, but it would not be full sized as the front.
Now you need to now trim your leather to match your template; I have found a pair of thick scissors which worked fine for me, but my fingers and hands are a bit stronger than most. You may find an exactor knife, or other cutting instruments that will work well. If you do go with the scissors route, expect your fingers and hand to be sore the next day.
To work with leather and make it into a shaped form, you need to harden it (as mentioned above). To do this, you need to place the leather into hot water, this does not have to be boiling, but the hotter the water the harder the leather will become. Depending on the size of your leather, you will need an appropriate sized container for the water, I used my bathtub. You submerge the leather into the hot water; you will see bubbles coming from it, and maybe even hear hissing noise from the air bubbles escaping. You can tell when it is ready to use, it becomes playable almost as if you are holding something rubber.
In this rubbery state you need to form the leather. Luckily for me, I own a brass Spartan breast plate. If you do not have anything similar (such as a garment mannequin), I know of people who have worn thick sweatshirts and a garbage bag and placed the leather and worn it while it dried. Understand, if you are to do this, it may take several hours for the leather to take shape. You can, however, wear that until it takes your form and then store it where it can dry properly, just make sure if it is bent it will then take that new form.
Once it is formed, and dried you need to dye it. Remember the dye will come out different than you might anticipate, so use a piece of the trim you cut off previously as a test strip. I wanted my armor to turn a dark brown, but it came out almost a black color.
You can dye your leather two ways. One is by submersing the leather into the dye, but this should be used for small items. The other way is to paint it on. Take a brush, put it into the dye and brush it onto the leather, you may need to put several “coats” of the dye on to get the wanted results. After dying, make sure you give it proper time to dry. Again, before you dive into this try it on a sample piece of leather.
This is where I will stop this week. Next week: we will resume our tour of making a leather breastplate.