Leatherworking Images from the Middle Ages

Some things never really change…

While looking through my image archive I came upon some leather working illustrations dated to the early 15th century.  All but one of the images below is from the extremely informative Mendel manuscript dated 1425 created at Nuremberg, in what is now Germany.

Nuremberg ca. 1648

Creating leather from animal hides has been an important process for many thousands of years with various types of leather created dependent upon the intended use (e.g., shoes, belts, gloves, parchment, shields, ties, lariats, etc.).  Creating quality leather from a hide not only requires in-depth knowledge of the process, a little chemistry, and a little bit of hard labor.

These illustrations are an invaluable snapshot in time and space of tradesmen plying their skills.  We can learn from these.  I’ve arranged the selected images below in an order that makes sense to me from the processes I have used or seen over many years.  In  my short journey to Morocco many years ago I was lucky to wander through the ancient tannery there and see leather being produced and products made on a remarkable scale in ways that have probably not changed in several millennia.  That is what we see below.

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Furrier – The furrier is sorting what appear to be “hair on” skins either for sale or for making warm clothing.  This was northern Europe after all.  The tradition of trapping or hunting fur-bearing animals is probably as old as human’s time in cold climates.

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Soaking the hides –  The first step in making leather often involves soaking the hide to hydrate it, sometimes even promoting a brief spell of bacterial growth to “slip” the hair.  Most leather manufacturers, however, want to prevent any contamination and use other methods to swell the hide by adding caustic lime (a.k.a. slaked lime, slack lime, limewater, or Ca(OH)2). This tub might be a tanning tub containing tannins from plant material (hence the name “tanning”).

Mendel_flesher

De-hair and fleshing (a.k.a. drudgery on a pole) – The man above is de-hairing a sheep skin on a fleshing beam; a fairly dull and not very fun project for me.  My face probably resembles his when I do this task more than a few times in a row.  He will then flip the skin over and clean the membranes, fats, etc. from the flesh side before a second bath in the caustic solution.  For parchment, I understand that there was only a partial rinse after this but for soft and supple leathers, the skin is rinsed thoroughly to neutralize the pH then treated in a low pH (acidic) bath to make true tanned leather.

Mendel_parchement maker

Final Scraping in the Frame – Skins are often stretched on a frame to dry and further scraped for a consistent and smooth surface.  The hide above is destined to be parchment so it must be a perfect as possible.

What does all this become?

Just as today, people need and use leather for its plasticity, strength, and durability.

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Here we see a cordwainer making shoes.  It looks like he in the midst of attaching a sole while sitting at his workbench.  The simple tools of the trade are laid in front of him and some finished shoes are displayed behind.  Patterns or forms hang on the wall and his pail, probably for water, sits at his feet.

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Our workman above is showing leather hose, a popular bit of clothing in its day.

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The purse maker is doing a bit of fancy work while his scraps lie beneath his feet; a nice detail.

furrier thong cutter

I’m not sure what this guy is actually doing.  If anyone knows for certain, please let me know!

Mendel_I_035a_v

Here we have another shoemaker (cordwainer) hard at work at his bench.  Shoes have always been in demand.  That is a classic shoemaker’s knife on the bench,

1425c - Mendel Housebook I, Fol 27v

The belt maker had an assortment of belts and is in the midst of punching a hole.  Good timing for capturing this image.

Bag maker

Another bag maker creating a classic belt pouch and displaying his wares.

Landauer Twelve Brothers' House manuscript, c. 15th century

Another take on the cordwainer from the same period by a different artist with a couple of other tools in the background (from the Landauer manuscript).

Why are these guys all old?

A little background – an interesting story of the Zwölfbrüderhausstiftungen (the Twelve Brother’s House).

From BiblioOdyssey, a fine, but sadly dormant weblog:  “In 14th century Germany, a wealthy trader by the name of Mendel established a charitable endowment in the city of Nuremberg, known as the Twelve Brothers House Foundation (Zwölfbrüderhausstiftungen). A dozen elderly and unwell (but capable) citizens were (I assume) given a place to live in exchange for their performing work duties.

Although the house life and routine was said to have been inspired by the example of the apostles, there was a fairly anti-clerical or anti-religious tone to the rules and priests were formally excluded from being taken in as one of the ‘brothers’. The house served as a model for the commencement of similar charity foundations in other German cities.

Mendel’s grandson began the practice in the 15th century of having sketches made of each of the brothers engaged in their chosen employment together with detailed notes about the tools and practices relating to their work. The manuscripts were updated until (I think) the beginning of the 19th century, although portraits of craftsmen engaged in their work were only produced in the 15th and 16th centuries.”

I hope you enjoy learning from these images as much as I do.

 

Cobbler’s Workbenches

7000910_1_lI have come across these little benches for quite some time and I find them fascinating. I even started a folder in my image library for them.  A quick search around the web finds many of these in auction houses, on Ebay, Craigslist, and elsewhere, generally at exorbitant prices.  It appears they generally end their long lives as side-tables in a middle class home, assisting in the creation of nothing; just a curiosity to a collector. cobblers-benchThey really are remarkable and interesting professional tools; clearly bespoke to the needs and means of the craftsman who used them.  You can almost see their ancestry written upon them; a Roman or Medieval bench with simple splayed legs, a cutaway for seat, a little rail to keep tools from rolling away.  Later some small tills might be created to segregate nails and needles, and knife slots added so that they might be handy but safe.Genuine-Cushman-Colonial-Creations-Cobblers-Bench-Coffee-Table-245-Dealer-5534Really, a simple slab of wood, but as “needs must” it becomes a little workshop, self-contained.

Drawers or cubbyholes became a natural addition to the workspace as the bench replaces tool caddies.  Some can be locked up for safe-keeping and fancy builders made more comfortable seats.

shakercobbler2The essential layout seems to always be the same.  We are, after all, given the same basic human shape and the need is the same.  Organization, convenience, and a solid place to work.cobblerI can see this type bench being useful for other crafts as well but it would definitely end up modified over time to suit the specifics.CBENCHEven the above humble specimen has found a home, holding more collected crafts.  Slowly dying as a curio for some of us to ponder as a useful holdover from an era when we made for ourselves.CLbenchThe designs seem varied as the places they originate and the ingenuity of the makers.  Cordwainers, cobblers, leather bag makers, can all find the beauty in this design.primitivecobblerMany a zapatero could still find great assistance with a shop setup like this.earlycobblerI could make great use of this as an itinerant craftsman.  And maybe I shall someday.
shakercobbler
Perhaps, by looking into the past, we are seeing a better, simpler future

Cobbler at work, no citation, no date. Click for "source".

Cobbler at work, no citation, no date. Click for “source”.

“Round and ’round the cobbler’s bench, the monkey chased the weasel…”

Irish Brogues and Other Simple Shoes

It’s time for new shoes.  After a soon-to-be-finished commission for a leather satchel, I intend to dive into a brogue-making project in the style of 19th century Ireland.  This basic design certainly dates back much further than this as shown by archaeological finds in bogs throughout Europe.  Don’t confuse these brogues with the more modern usage such as:

ModernBrogueThis is a brogue in the Scottish/Northern English semi-formal fashion with decorative holes reminiscent of the drains left in old field shoes.  Nor is this to confused with the type of shoe that some modern-primitives call “ghillie-brogues” or more properly, just “ghillie”:

These earned their proper name from Scottish Ghillies; a term used to denote game wardens, hunting and fishing guides, and sometimes, even poachers.  A simple shoe style that probably goes back several millenia in Europe.

What I decided to shoot for was a shoe that is relatively simple to produce, is closed for winter use, and can be regularly worn in public without arousing too much comment.

birdshoe

Haarlem, Netherlands, ca. 1300-1350.

To me, something like the “bird shoe” above is very cool but not really acceptable in an unforgiving office environment.  I would gladly hunt elk in these but for some reason, modern work culture has a fairly standardized and limited uniform.  This style tends to be cut from a single piece and sewn around three-quarters of the sole.  This one is punch decorated, probably to show off the stockings inside, a sign of wealth.  This is a form of “turn-shoe” or soft-sole sewn inside-out then “turned”.  A sturdy high top 12th century Dutch example with a center-seamed upper is seen below.  In my opinion, these would make a fine winter shoe.

shoe_12th

12th Century center seam shoe from the Netherlands.

I can’t help but see the similarity between these and North American center-seam moccasins.

BogShoeThe style above is a well-documented Irish “Type 1” dating anywhere from the 1st centuries A.D. through the Middle Ages.  A little more complex in construction, especially to get a perfect fit, it has been argued that these may be the result of craft specialization in the early Christian period of Northern Europe.  I plan to make a pair of these and contemplate them as a possible design for teaching simple shoemaking.  There is some real sewing involved, but not enough to intimidate most beginners.

shoes-fig3

From: Lucas, A.T. (1956). Footwear in Ireland. The Journal of the County Louth Archaeological Society 13(4).

For those who know American moccasin styles the pattern above seems very familiar as a one piece, side-seam shoe.

So, this brings us to the “Irish Brogue” or Type 5 shoe.  These are known well up into the nineteenth century and I wouldn’t be surprised to find them in even more modern contexts, especially amongst the poorer populations.  There are similar shoes depicted in Colonial America, probably made in the home for lack of money or access to a cordwainer.

Newports

Early American shoes from Newport, Rhode Island.

The above brogues appear to be a “built” shoe, having separate soles, multi-pieced upper, and a heel lift; the only difference between these and others from the period is the lack of ties or buckles.  Although difficult to tell from the image, they are likely constructed similar to those below:

Lucas, A.T. (1956). Footwear in Ireland. The Journal of the County Louth Archaeological Society 13(4).

Lucas, A.T. (1956). Footwear in Ireland. The Journal of the County Louth Archaeological Society 13(4).

Hopefully, updates will soon follow to track the creation of a new pair of shoes.

Jack Boots

1The Shoemakers’ Shop of Colonial Williamsburg, Virginia has posted an excellent photo-essay of making a pair of 18th Century Jack Boots.  Their leather work is phenomenal and shows real craftsmanship.  Any leather worker can appreciate this even if they never intend to make a pair of shoes.  This pair is particularly interesting with the fire-tempering and waxing that occurs.  Their research is in-depth and is well documented.

histJackbootStages of heating and finishing the boot.

2Perfectly stitched in the traditional manner.

3The upper coming together.

4Ready for waxing.

5A judicious use of heat.  The grass keep the temperature relatively low.

6A finished specimen.  Ready for riding.Have a look at their Jack Boot page.  There is commentary with each photo.  While not full of detail, the images go a long way to understanding the process.

 

 

The Shoemaker

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A real treat from the Sifting the Past blog.  It is worth checking out if you are interested in researching the past through images of the period just prior to mass industrialization.  The Townsend’s have a couple excellent websites including an interesting 18th century cooking blog with videos.  There is so much in this painting that describes the time and the craft of the cordwainer.  There is a palm awl and lasting pinchers in the lower right, the ever critical strap for holding the shoe while sewing, the sewer’s palm for pulling tight the lock stitch, as well as the hammer, mallet, and knife of the trade.  He is holding the sole awl in his left hand.  The basket on the work bench contains a great bone tool made from a metapodial bone as so often found prior to the 20th century when craftsmen made their own tools.  I want my shop to look this great sometime soon.