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Moulding leather

One of the outstanding attributes of vegetable-tanned leather is its possession of the qualities which enable it to maintain a moulded shape.

Methods for exploiting this ability have been developed around the world over hundreds of years. Objects as dissimilar as helmets, shields, boxes, gun cases, masks, drinking cups, cigar cases, bowls and sculptures have all been created using one of the procedures I will be describing, or certainly very similar to it.

To mould anything, leather which is vegetable-tanned, or has similar characteristics, should be used. The belly section of a hide is ideal for easy moulding, though the flesh side of a belly (a belly being 7-10 square feet) will, of course, have a looser fibre-structure. That doesn't preclude other parts of the hide, it's simply that the belly is the easiest section to use for anyone without experience of moulding leather. 

The definitions of the various parts of a hide are shown below

Side....A+C+E or B+D+F, Back....A+C or B+D, Shoulder....A or B, Double shoulder....A+B, Belly....E or F

As I may have mentioned briefly in an earlier page, the leather trade in the UK, and in almost every other country in the world, operates in square feet. A figure 16 stamped in the corner of a skin or hide means it measures 16 square feet. Fractions of a square foot, ¼, ½ and ¾, are indicated by a small figure 1, 2, or 3 written just after, and just above, the whole number.  And as a vegetable-tanned hide comes in eight weights (or thicknesses) there is a wide selection. That's even before you get to the densest of all, sole leather, which is measured in irons and bought by the pound weight. One iron = ¹/48"; therefore 12 iron leather is a quarter of an inch thick. Leather in these thicknesses weighs somewhere between 14oz and 18oz per square foot. It is also expensive!

However, before any vegetable-tanned leather can be moulded, or for that matter, readily accept any decorative impressions, it has to be "cased". That is dampened with clean warm water applied with a suitable cloth or foam-rubber sponge to the flesh side, or wholly immersed in warm water, in a container large enough to hold the leather without scrunching it.

The length of time the leather is dampened for or soaked will depend on its thickness, and only experience gained by trial and error can indicate how long that will be, plus how much moulding is going to be attempted. It is only by going through this wetting process that the fibres of vegetable-tanned leather can be made soft and pliable.

It is whilst the leather is replete with the water (though it should be left to mellow for a short time) that it can be formed into three-dimensional shapes by using moulds or formers or even to a degree, freehand. It can, in this state, be easily manipulated by hand, being pulled and stretched as necessary.

Confusingly the names of the vessels often refer to a volume as well as a shape. The most common terms, in increasing size are:
Gyspen:- a specific type of Blackjack, usually small (up to a quart) with flat, tapering sides. The term only appears during the 16th and 17th centuries. Comparatively rare when compared to wooden stave-built tankards or horn cups.
Flacket:- a flask shaped leather bottle with a volume of up to 3 pints. These may have been a leather cover over a steel or iron flask.
Jack (or Blackjack):- a leather jug with a volume of 1 quart to 3 gallons. Drunk directly from, or used with horn cups or Gyspens. Known only as pots, cans or stoups of leather until the 16th century.
Pottle:- a pot or tankard of 4 pints, also a term used to describe any container holding four pints, certainly up there with the firkin and hogshead. Very uncommon.
Costrel:- a barrel shaped vessel with a volume of typically up to 3 gallons but possibly much more. By far the most common type of bottell.
Bombard:- a jug similar to a jack, with a volume of between 3 and 8 gallons. To some extent, a military vessel used for serving beer to soldiers.
Upright types of Bottell seem to have usually been just called Bottells.

Leather drinking cups and water carriers have been in use since Neolithic times, but it was during the medieval and later Tudor periods that they became particularly popular.
For leather to be shaped it has to be worked when it is wet. When air dried it becomes what is known as jack leather, therefore, medieval leather vessels became known as jacks. In Tudor times, a wider base was added, presumably to promote better stability. The jack continued to be used until Nelson's time but by then they were known as Boots, thus the naval phrase "Fill up your Boots" meant to  "have a drink".

Jacks, or tankards as they later became known, were used during the Crimea War as they didn't make a noise on the battlefield and could be easily repaired in situ.

Leather jacks and tankards were used during the 20th Century, particularly in the mining and steel industries, as lots of water was drunk because of the dusty and hot atmospheres. In Yorkshire, particularly in the Barnsley mining area they became known as Jingle Boys because the bells attached to the bottom of the handle were rung to attract the water boy.

In the West Midlands steel mills Jacks became known as Piggins. They had a whistle attached at the bottom of the handle and it was blown to get the attention of the water boy. From the "Piggin Whistle" came the popular pub name which was nothing to do with farmyard creatures! Water jugs were also made from leather during early medieval times. Between 1485 and the end of the Tudors in 1603 they became known as Bombards because the body shape resembled the barrel of the bombard gun (they were called bombards from the Greek bombos meaning a loud buzzing noise). Leather bombards were very popular in large sizes because the leather was very light in comparison to its strength and durability. Such vessels were used throughout society from the man in the street to royalty. The only difference was that the higher up society you were, the more decorated the jack or tankard would be. There is ample evidence of English royalty giving leather jacks to continental royalty because they were only ever made with an integral inner waterproof lining in England.

Leather drinking vessels were in use at the same time as glass, pewter and pottery. However, glass was very expensive, pewter ran it a very close second and pottery was easily broken. Leather was relatively cheap, available and strong, and was therefore widely used.

Glass was so expensive that even well-to-do middle class families invariably owned only one glass goblet which stood in the middle of the table as a communal wine goblet. The servant holding the leather bottle would stand in the corner of the room ready to replenish the glass when needed. He was known as the Bottler, which, eventually, became corrupted into Butler.

Waterproofing of the finished tankards was accomplished in several ways. During earlier times the grain side of the hide was turned to the inside of the vessel because that part of the leather is the most naturally waterproof. The outside would be the flesh side which was rubbed with animal fat in earlier periods and later with either beeswax or boiled birch tree sap. The tree sap turns black when boiled and consequently its application to the outside of a jack resulted in the the description "Black-jack".
The Black-jack was an especially large, strong version and it was from this that the tall riding boots of the Cavaliers got their name of jack-boots. So, in between fighting roundheads, they would also have merry sessions of drinking their boots-full, which later became the term "drinking bout". Then there was the whistle-drinking cup. This had a pipe in the handle and when you needed a refill you would just give a shrill blast so you could "wet your whistle" once more.

Eventually the waterproof membrane was placed only on the inside of the vessel. Beeswax was also used, but was an expensive method that needed replacing at regular intervals. More commonly used was birch tree sap (the birch tree emits sap only for a short period of time (about four weeks) during spring) which, currently has been replaced with Brewers Pitch, a material used to caulk old wooden beer barrels (brewers pitch, being the traditional method of re-caulking wooden beer barrels, or lining water tanks and pipes prior to the advent of modern epoxy resins). Brewers pitch is acceptable in contact with consumable liquids.

In archaic English, "jacked" meant boiled, and leather jacks were leather cups boiled in pitch. British sailors were known as Jolly Tars or Jack Tars. Their cups, on shipboard and in public houses, were these tarred leather cups. They were practical, for leather was constantly available in those days before refrigeration and plastics, and tar was used for everything from the roof to oakum and from the the cow to medicines. Such mugs were durable, cheap to manufacture and too light to be fatal in brawls (an important consideration). Presumably, one grew accustomed to the tarry taste, and no one lived long enough to die from any cancer associated with the tar.


How to case leather


Three-lace flat braiding

Step 1. Begin with a length of leather that has been cut into three strands. Step 2. Now pulling leather strand 1 over leather strand 2. Step 3. Next pulling leather strand 3 over leather strand 1. Step 4. Then pulling leather strand 2 over leather strand 3.

Continue working the braid by repeating these steps until you reach your required length ending it in whatever fashion you choose.

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leather shapes leather shapes