Medieval Turnshoes

I’m re-sharing an older post of some experimental turnshoes I made quite a few years ago.  These were based on some Scandinavian examples from the archaeological record.  They came out pretty good for a first try.  My only modification would be to tighten the width through the arch and lengthen the toe area slightly.  I have since learned that this problem has been well-understood for centuries by shoe makers and is why modern shoe lasts often look long and narrow to the amateur eye.

Finally “finished” enough.  These were rubbed down with a “tea” made from walnut juice, worn dry, and later oiled.

This was my first attempt at a proper turnshoe.  Basically a variation on the shoes worn in Europe and parts of Asia from the Iron Age (ca. 500 B.C.) through the early modern times (ca. 1700s).  This pair is made without a last (form) so construction is similar to other moccasin-type shoes.  There are quite a large number of early shoes found in archaeological contexts in Europe so many designs are known.  This is inspired by, but not slavish to, shoes found in the British Isles and Scandinavia in the early part of the last millennium.

I was sorry to not document the pattern making but, as can be figured, the upper is a single piece side-seam make by wrapping the foot, marking a rough outline of the plane where the upper meets the sole, cutting off the wrapping, and cutting to shape.  Really, I’ll try to make record of this in the future but, for now, I suspect there are other tutorials out there.  Besides sewing, the turning is definitely the toughest job as this was some very thick, tough leather.

Still damp from the turning and shaping.

My slightly sloppy side-seam.

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.


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.


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”).


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.


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.


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


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!


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.


Don’t Let Your Arrows Droop With Feathers Low

LutrellArcher2A sheef of pecok arwes, bright and kene,
Under his belt he bar ful thriftily,
(wel koude he dresse his takel yemanly:
His arwes drouped noght with fetheres lowe)

Geoffrey Chaucer, The Canterbury Tales, Prologue, The Yeoman, lines 104-7.

How to make a ‘medieval style’ possible pouch; more traveler’s gear

Here is a great little instruction set on how to make a European Medieval-style belt bag. You see these in paintings and illustrations on just about every traveler. Not only will you come out with a nice bag but it is a fine and simple introduction into leather working and sewing. All makers need to start somewhere and this might be the right project.

Wild Tuscany Bushcraft

Old style bushcraft: a medieval possible pouch Old style bushcraft: a medieval possible pouch

During the Middle Age was common carrying small items like coins, keys, inside pouches or purses attached to the belt.
There are many archaeological and iconographical documents, you can search for your favorite patterns, but there is a model that in my opinion, is one of the best for a bushcrafter.

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Medieval Tinsmith

Tinsmiths were the sheet metal workers of the preindustrial days in Europe, the Middle East, and Asia.  This almost certainly includes Africa as well but I haven’t been able to find any depictions yet.  These craftsmen created many everyday objects and mended all sorts of metal.

75-Amb-2-317-82-r.tifHere we see a smith creating a flask.  I doubt he would be whacking it from that height but old images of carpenters and smiths use this convention to show the movement.  Behind him are some of his wares including a pitcher, something shaped like a bottle, and a pile of funnels.  A stack of prepared metal sheets sits on a table next to him.

75-Amb-2-317-155-v.tifThe lantern maker has more great tools.  He is set up in front of the window for light.  His work surfaces are stumps but his bench is a fancy trestle type, not the typical tenon leg affair one normally sees from this period of history.  In this image, the smith is in the act of soldering the base onto the lantern.  This is the oldest image I have found, so far, of a soldering iron in use.  The little three-legged pot on the floor is a brazier, holding coals to heat the iron and he has a pretty nifty stake tool on the bench.  I think it’s a shears but please correct me if I’m wrong on that one.

Carpenter, 15th-16th Century

Prior to power sawmills and corporate lumber production, much of the carpenter’s project time was filled with simply making trees into boards. Most illustrations I have found of preindustrial carpenters feature someone hewing, planing, or chiseling with the occasional scene of sawing a board to length or width.

An image is just as much about what is chosen for inclusion as that is left out.

I love to ponder the details of old illustrations and paintings to really see what the artist was trying to show us. These images are no doubt biased in what they choose to show; and for good reason. There is a semiotic tradition in Medieval illustration to choose certain symbols to denote specific trades or historical characters and it should be remembered that the illustrators are not necessarily experts with the trade they are depicting.


If I were to let my hair and beard grow out a bit, I think I could pass for this guy.

Here we have the same carpenter from a previous post dated to around 1414.

The foreground holds a familiar skirted six-board chest with iron hinges and an escutcheon plate around the presumed locking mechanism. Either he is building these or perhaps it holds his tools. Beside it is a nice little cabinet of similar construction. He is working on a simple European bench with through-tenon legs, popular since the later Iron Age. His board is secured simply by four bench dogs.

Only four hand tools are shown. The frame saw, plane, chisel, and mallet. No doubt his dividers, straight edge, and winding sticks are in the box.


Just for fun, here’s another carpenter from about a hundred years later hewing a board to size with a bearded broad-axe. The work sits on a pair of saw horses with the typical tenon legs. Also, note the iron dogs used to secure the board to the horses. Living in the era of screw clamps, we don’t use these as much but they are still occasionally found holding boards while being glued like so:

clamping dogs

And finally, a late 16th century carpenter cross-cutting a plank. I like this image as it depicts more tools, though in less detail. Chisels, hammers, and a square hang on the wall, a plane sits in the background, and the broad-axe sits on the floor next to the hewing stump. The frame saw hasn’t changed at all. I don’t know if the supprt under the board is unique but it appears to be stepped to hold planks at graduated levels. Pretty nifty if you ask me. And finally, a couple of details about the clothes; I love the sagging stockings and the patched elbow of his shirt. Definitely dressed for work.


Occupation, Wood Turner ca. 1425

75-Amb-2-317-18-v.tifStill gathering old images of tools, occupations, and craftsmen.  Now I just need time to edit and post them in a sensible way.  To kick off this series, it’s a wood turner and his lathe from the early 15th century (German).  I think the artist may have neglected to show the tool rest here.

This one goes out to Kiko, Mick, and Veloja for their recent enthusiasm for the foot-powered lathe.


Over the weekend, I was able to design and nearly finish a new leather haversack.  I’ve wanted to make one for a while but I’m always hesitant to start a big sewing project if I don’t think I’ll finish it in a short time… I hate lingering unfinished projects (not to say I don’t have a few lying around).

DSC_0613[update: outdoor photo of the finished haversack.]

DSC_0620So, while this idea has been bouncing around in my skull for some time, I was inspired by running across a beautiful bag from Morocco in a store in Santa Fe a couple weeks ago.  It was about 20″ square with a flap that covered the entire body and was supplemented by a small pocket inside and a larger, open pocket outside.  So voila!  That’s exactly the design I was pondering.

DSC_0609It didn’t occur to me to document the process right away, and I didn’t do it well, but here’s how to make a haversack in a few pictures and very few words.

A little historical trivia because I am an archaeological geek; “haversack” means “oats bag” and is associated with soldiering, pilgrims, and other travelers for at least two millennia.  Something very like this was carried by Roman Legionnaires and is shown on Trajan’s Column.  Here’s a likely reconstruction of their bag:

Click the image for more information.

Click the image for more historical information on this bag.

Okay, back to the business at hand.  The layout consists of three connected square sections, in this case 18″ x 54″ (18 x 3).  I happened to have a beautiful soft bend of 8 oz. vegetable tanned leather from Spain that just barely fit the size I needed.  This used most of the side, so I used some similar weight shoulder for the pockets.  I gave the whole thing a dye coat of tan water dye as the pieces were cut.

Below is the basic bag coming to life, outside pockets visible, with a third pocket inside, not shown.

DSC_0617I like the simplicity of this design, but at this point was forced to decide as to whether the stitching will be outside and visible making a flatter, but bigger bag (see backpack for external stitching).

Finished backpack

Click for larger.

An observation: folks who don’t MAKE stuff, don’t always appreciate the large number of steps in an apparently simple project like the above.  For example: the inside pocket must go on before the outer (so you can get to the stitches), rivets need to be set before they are hidden away, edges skived, beveled, and burnished, stitch holes punched, etc.  Above is the bag nearly ready to “close”.  Hope I didn’t forget anything.

I sewed it “inside out” to hide the seam and to puff out the body a bit.  Turning back out was quite a chore and took some struggling but in the end, I think it looks good.  It’s not really quite this red but that’s an issue with my camera and photography skills.

DSC_0609DSC_0614DSC_0615It shouldn’t be assumed that this is cheap.  The body alone is 6.75 square feet of leather meaning you need about 10 square feet of good hide to start with to make the entire bag.  With the materials and all the labor involved, it’s easy to see how a leather worker can often charge $500 or more for a similar project.  I buy up leather in quantity when the price is low when I can but this project still could cost over $150 in materials alone.

But in the end, it’s really an heirloom of a centuries-old design.  It will improve with age and hopefully this is a creation that will outlive me.