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.

75-Amb-2-317-96-r.tif

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.

 

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Dép lốp or “Ho Chi Min” Sandals

I was looking up a link for someone and rediscovered the video today showing how to make tough and durable sandals from discarded tires.  This style is well-known in Southeast Asia, particularly in poorer areas.

https://photos.travelblog.org/Photos/20411/111103/f/749561-viet-cong-made-sandals-from-truck-tyres-1.jpg

If you are interested in sandal-making, you can hardly go wrong with this design if you have access to old tires.  I suggest watching the video if only for the remarkably sharp knife this maker is using.  Using tire material is a little heavy but will truly last a lifetime.  The straps fit purely by friction so they are continuously adjustable while the waterproofness of the material makes them perfect for the wetlands and jungle.

I understand this style was created in the 1940s when old tires became abundant and some creative shoemaker had a Eureka moment.  There is also a short write-up on this style on the always interesting Huarache Blog if you are seeking more information about this shoe.

Another step toward self-sufficiency and off-grid knowledge for the Mayhem Shoe Collective.

Mayhem Shoes for the Dystopian Survivor

“The first rule of Project Mayhem is that you do not ask questions…”

this may be my new teaching mantra

I am considering calling my custom footwear “Mayhem Shoes” (at least until Chuck Palahniuk’s space monkey lawyers make me stop).

I teach a couple classes about low-tech shoemaking a few times per year in the primitive survival skills community.  The designs I focus on are styles that can be made by one person in one day; a popular theme in early historic examples.  Some require a lot of cutting, some require sewing.  There is an off-grid, neo-Luddite attitude about making your own shoes.  In fact, I think I will register the name Dystopian Leather Works as my new business.  I’m considering a small business venture to go into custom production of the shoes I teach people to make as well as expanding the custom leather work I currently produce.

DSC_0111

The author at work.

DSC_0156

A dedicated student finishes in a day.

The kinds of people that take these classes are from all walks of life, not just survivalists, historical nerds, or experimental archaeologists, but folks who want to make things for themselves for whatever reason.  I’m finding that there are others who might just want the handmade product without the labor of making them. In a day, an attentive student can produce a wearable (and good-looking) pair of serviceable shoes like the carbatina (ghillies) above.

DSC_0100

An experienced craftsman creating some new sandals in the class.

Another finished pair.

For those looking for a more modern look a fine pair of sandals can be made with just a few hours, cutting and sewing.  These are easily re-solable and should last the better part of a lifetime.  Look familiar?  Chaco and Teva didn’t exactly re-invent the wheel; just updated the materials and outsourced the work overseas.  Even in the wilds of Canada, traditional ghillies can be a useful part of the wardrobe.  Mike made these two years ago and they still protect his sturdy peasant feet.

DSC_0082

As long as you can stick with it while safely using a knife, the class is a cinch.

There is something very satisfying about taking a piece of nondescript, vegetable tanned leather and creating a lasting and useful object with your own hands.

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Attention to detail makes a fine finished product.

The beauty is truly in the details.  Serious students often bevel and burnish edges to give their shoes a “finished” look, suitable for public wear.

DSC_0092

A pair of saintly sandals nearing completion.

Above, a student trial fits the uppers before attaching the outsole.  In my classes, the outermost sole on any of these shoes may be a durable Vibram material, a softer but grippy Soleflex, or natural leather.  The latter option is popular with those who are interested in treading lightly on the earth or those who are concerned with earthing or grounding.

DSC_0089Learning as community.  It is always a very social event to teach these courses.  No matter the variety of backgrounds, we are sharing an ancient craft in common.

DSC_0087As in all leatherwork, neatness counts.  A good hand with a knife is a great asset for shoemaking.

DSC_0086Test fitting the straps for buckle placement and strap length.

DSC_0084This style sandal may be tied or buckled but I have found that a 3/4″ center bar buckle is about the easiest to work with and adjust.

DSC_0104Bowing to modern convenience.  For the classes, we use contact cement to adhere the insole, mid-sole, and outsole.  This insures a good connection and will hold up even if the stitching doesn’t last forever.

DSC_0119The author demonstrates the wrong way to rough out a pattern.  Cutting out oversize pieces for the sake of time-savings.

DSC_0118Tough rubber soles will make these sandals last years and are easily replaced.

DSC_0137Trial fitting a ghillie after soaking in water.  They feel ridiculously thick and stiff for the first hour or two but tend to suddenly relax an become a part of the foot after a soak in neatsfoot oil.

DSC_0136Ready for taking part in the highland games or dancing at a cèilidh

DSC_0134Sometimes it helps in shaping to take a hammer to the leather when it is stiff and wet.

DSC_0130It is important to leave the channels free of glue so that the straps may be adjusted in future.  You never know when you might need to wear some black socks with those sandals.

DSC_0131 DSC_0133Helping a student skive out some particularly stiff areas.

DSC_0154Mom tries on her new shoes before going home to make some for the whole family.  DSC_0139Even an old shoemaker is interested in this ancient design.

DSC_0180  DSC_0178 Happy and diligent students show off their newest creations.  These could be directly from the shoe store.  But without the satisfaction of knowing you did it yourself.

DSC_0176

Above are few photos from previous classes.  Thanks to all who come and make!

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Project: Mayhem Shoes

“The first rule of Project Mayhem is that you do not ask questions…”

this may be my new teaching mantra

I am considering calling my custom footwear “Mayhem Shoes” (at least until Chuck Palahniuk’s space monkey lawyers make me stop).

I teach a couple classes about low-tech shoemaking a few times per year in the primitive survival skills community.  The designs I focus on are styles that can be made by one person in one day; a popular theme in early historic examples.  Some require a lot of cutting, some require sewing.  There is an off-grid, dystopian attitude about making your own shoes.  In fact, I think I will register the name Distopian Leather Works as my new business.  I’m considering a small business venture to go into custom production of the shoes I teach people to make as well as expanding the custom leather work I currently produce.

DSC_0111The kinds of people that take these classes are from all walks of life, not just survivalists, historical nerds, or experimental archaeologists, but folks who want to make things for themselves for whatever reason.  I’m finding that there are others who might just want the handmade product without the labor of making them. DSC_0156In a day, an attentive student can produce a wearable (and good looking) pair of serviceable shoes like the carbatana (ghillies) above.

DSC_0100For those looking for a more modern look a fine pair of sandals can be made with just a few hours, cutting and sewing.  These are easily re-solable and should last the better part of a lifetime.  Look familiar?  Chaco and Teva didn’t exactly re-invent the wheel; just updated the materials and outsourced the work overseas.  Even in the wilds of Canada, tradtional ghillies can be a useful part of the wardrobe.  Mike made these two years ago and they still protect his sturdy peasant feet.

DSC_0082There is something very satisfying about taking a piece of nondescript, vegetable tanned leather and creating a lasting and useful object with your own hands.

DSC_0081The beauty is truly in the details.  Serious students often bevel and burnish edges to give their shoes a “finished” look, suitable for public wear.

DSC_0092

In progress photo with tools of the trade. The authors well worn sandals are on the left of the photo.

Above, a student trial fits the uppers before attaching the outsole.  In my classes, the outermost sole on any of these shoes may be a durable Vibram material, a softer but grippy Soleflex, or natural leather.  The latter option is popular with those who are interested in treading lightly on the earth or those who are concerned with earthing or grounding.

DSC_0089Learning as community.  It is always a very social event to teach these courses.  No matter the variety of backgrounds, we are sharing an ancient craft in common.

DSC_0087

As in all leatherwork, neatness counts.  A good hand with a knife is a great asset for shoemaking.

DSC_0086Test fitting the straps for buckle placement and strap length.

DSC_0084This style sandal may be tied or buckled but I have found that a 3/4″ center bar buckle is about the easiest to work with and adjust.

DSC_0104Bowing to modern convenience.  For the classes, we use contact cement to adhere the insole, mid-sole, and outsole.  This insures a good connection and will hold up even if the stitching doesn’t last forever.

DSC_0119The author demonstrates the wrong way to rough out a pattern.  Cutting out oversize pieces for the sake of time-savings.

DSC_0118Tough rubber soles will make these sandals last years and are easily replaced.

DSC_0137Trial fitting a ghillie after soaking in water.  They feel ridiculously thick and stiff for the first hour or two but tend to suddenly relax an become a part of the foot after a soak in the neatsfoot oil.

DSC_0136Ready for staling the game or dancing at a cèilidh

DSC_0134Sometimes it helps to take a hammer to the leather when it is stiff and wet.

DSC_0130It is important to leave the channels free of glue so that the straps may be adjusted in future.  You never know when you might need to wear some black socks with those sandals.

DSC_0131 DSC_0133Helping a student skive out some particularly stiff areas.

DSC_0154Mom tries on her new shoes before going home to make some for the whole family.  DSC_0139Even an old shoemaker is interested in this ancient design.

DSC_0180  DSC_0178 Happy and diligent students show off their newest creations.

DSC_0176

Above are few photos from previous classes.  Thanks to all who come and make!

Mid-Cut Huaraches From Tuxpan, Jalisco

These are beauties.

Huarache Blog

Tuxpan in Southern Jalisco is a small town well known for its Tacos “Tuxpenos” and less known for its unique Mid-Cut Huarache style.

That being nowadays said their is so little demand for the Tuxpan Huarache “Tejido con Talonera Alta” that it can only be made on to order by the only remaining Huarachero in Tuxpan, Armando Ortiz, whose other styles can also be seen in The Huarache Directory HERE

tuxpan side 34

tuxpan back 34

tuxpan multiview  Huaracheria Ortiz

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Taller De Curtiduria González – Vegetable Tanning the Best Huarache Leathers

Huarache Blog

Unlike almost all of mainstream footwear, Huarache leather is still vegetable tanned using wood. Few tanneries in the world still offer vegetable tanned leathers because of the slower tanning process and higher raw material costs.

Not only are the wood and organic matter used to tan the leather renewable, but the vegetable tanning solution doesn’t create toxic carcinogenic bi-products such as Chromium IV to which tannery workers and waterways can be exposed to.

The natural benefits of vegetable tanned leather are that the organic tanning process has a much lesser environmental impact and the leather maintains some of its natural quality to stretch and adapt to your foot shape.

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Jesús and Antonio González the father and son tanners still practice this traditional and centuries old tanning method and unlike modern tanneries still tan by hand.

They are considered by many local Huaracheros to be the best vegetable tannery in the Mexican state of…

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The Shoemaker

the-shoemaker_follower-of-david-teniers-ii_1800

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.