Leather Etui and their uses
These clever leather cases are astoundingly ubiquitous in museums and private collections. Most of them date from the 15th century, but there are examples from the 14th and 16th centuries as well.
I have been attempting to make them since 2018. You may see some of my previous efforts in last year’s exhibit here. https://athenaeum.baronyofmadrone.net/exhibit/rotrude-halfblind/
There are period examples of book boxes, pen cases, ink bottle holders, reliquaries, even a hat box for an imperial crown! I have only just scratched the surface of what can be done with this intricate and versatile art.
Today I will show you the particulars of one single project, from initial design to completion.
The Parameters, and the Initial Research
I was commissioned by a friend of mine, one Guillaume de Garrigues, to make a case for his recorder. I have not seen any extant examples that are specifically labeled as recorder cases, but I see no reason why it would not be A Thing. These cases are often created to fit small precious things, particularly small precious things that one might wish to carry upon your person. An expensive imported recorder seems to fit that description exactly.
He needed a case to fit a recorder that is 1 1/4″ in diameter, and an exact length of 12 11/16″. I have a wooden dowel that measures 1 3/8″. We can do this!
I have seen extant cases that are long cylinders. This one is labeled as a case for scrolls. It was the case that I based most of my design and construction upon.
Big Thanks to The Met for providing lots of lovely pictures.
Guillaume requested a design that featured St. Cecilia, patron saint of musicians, as well as his personal Coat of Arms. He also expressed a fondness for Toulouse Crosses as a design motif, and a passing thought that perhaps Cecilia should be shown with an organ, for recognizably.
To the visual research mines! *
I found several images of St Cecilia that roughly fit our desired time period and location. (France and/or Italy, 15th century).
I also learned something about the crazy stories that comprise the Lives of Medieval Saints. (Virginity! Divine Hallucinations! Being boiled alive!)
This was the image I found most useful.
Cecilia does not have an instrument here, but I liked the drapery and her crown and hair. I thought it would mesh nicely with the Madonna on the French case.
Now all I needed was an organ.
I don’t need to be going down a super long rabbit hole on medieval organs. I have enough to do.
So I am going to let someone else do that for me.
I found a good picture of an organ that someone re-created, in a 15th century style. Here it is, accompanied by a painting of a more elaborate version from the later half of the century.
It’s a tertiary source, but I thought it a nice one. The lines of it are clean and simple, and I think I can draw it easily.
I decided to take all of these elements and combine them, to replace the Madonna on the French scroll case and form the front design for my recorder etui. I ended up with this.
Pretty happy with it, honestly. It’s rough and the design is a bit top heavy. But so is the original piece, and I like it.
Next, the Coat of Arms.
On the French Case, the Arms are positioned on the round top. Interestingly, they are completely off-center, and the backgrounding around them is wobbly and does not always meet the edge.
I theorize that this is perhaps because the Coat of Arms was carved before the case was put together, whereas the background was carved and stamped afterward. I think that the carving on this was done in stages, rather than all at once. So that is what I shall do with mine.
HOWEVER, after doing a few scale drawings, I determined that even if I were to carve the shield out beforehand, the top of this recorder case is simply too small to fit a fair depiction of Guillaume de Garrigues’ Arms. He’s got like, a full on tree with tiny acorns on it… Yeah, that’s not happening. I need to put it somewhere else.
Fortunately, I found several other examples of the Coat of Arms being put on the front or back of the case. And I have to fill out the other side of this anyway. I’m done with drawing Saints.
So I’m going to go ahead and put these arms on the other side of the case. It’s gonna look something like this.
So that’s the major design elements, anyway. I decided to do either an acorn or a Toulouse cross on the top of the cap, and some frilly acanthus vinework to fill out the length of the case on both sides.
After consulting with Guillaume, we decided to nix the Palm Frond. While it is a super period element, it does clutter up the image, and the symbolism would be entirely lost on our more modern audience anyway.
He agreed about the top cap being too small for his arms, and chose the Toulouse Cross as an alternative.
Tools and Materials
The leather I use is a 4-5 oz vegetable tan, commonly sold in leather supply shops everywhere. I have been purchasing small amounts from different sources, hoping to find one that I like enough to buy from consistently. So far the supplier does not seem to make much difference, though I have noticed that the lighter the color the harder it is to get the black dye to sink in. I can only conclude that they must be using some sort of bleaching agent.
I suspect that modern tanning methods are possibly similar but unlikely to be the same as the methods they used in the 15th century. But the hell if I am going to tan my own leather, so I will use what is readily available, and try not to worry about it.
I often use thicker scraps of cheap belly cuts for the insides of my cases, as the first stitched layer is not visible at all. The disadvantage is that bellies are stretchy, so if you pull it snug over the form, you run the risk of having it shrink and warp.
I use a plain straight leather needle with a triangle tip, and the thread is prewaxed linen.
The glue I use is a gelatin glue made of rabbit-skin, which is still used today for sizing artists’ canvas. It must be heated to liquefy before use, and becomes thick and tacky as it cools. I love it.
I use a big glass vase with a small canning jar inside as my “double boiler.” I pour water from my teapot, and I get about an hour of work in before I have to replenish the heat. Works great.
For skiving I use the 6 dollar folded metal thing with disposable razor blades that you can find hanging from every pegboard in every leather shop. Someday I will own a fancy super sharp chisel skiver, but for right now this one does the job just fine.
For the tooling I used a “pointy stick” (my awl), and a plain craft knife. I am also fond of the little spoon tool, for pressing in corners and edges.
I also have a purchased stamp that makes four tiny circles in a row. Given the look of the background on the extant items, I don’t think this particular tool has changed much over time. (I feel similarly about the wee spoon tool). The medieval tools were probably made of something other than stainless steel, but the shape of the tip is almost certainly the same.
I sometimes use the swivel knife for long straight lines, because it is easier on the hands. But the swivel knife is a post-industrial invention, so I try not to use it too much.
The white stick is a burnisher made of beef bone that my husband carved for me. I love bone tools for working leather. I wish I had more of them. This one I have to use sparingly, as it works a little too well- any leather I touch with it tends to get very very shiny.
The Construction- Part 1
These cases are usually made of at least two layers of leather, laminated together with glue. I can’t quite tell if the original is two or three.
The top cap is clearly two layers, an inner stitched layer and an outer glued layer. Judging from the gentle slope that is occurring on the other side of the loop, I think I know what is happening here. The case is two and a half layers- the half layer is a thin piece that is placed smooth side out where the main case meets the lid.
It hides the stitching, it’s simple and clean. So that is how I will build my case.
I started with the stitched interior, fuzzy side out. I do this in two parts. The top lid is separate from the case body from the beginning, so that I do not have to cut them apart later.
I decided to do the lid in three layers, for extra strength and so that I would only need one dowel size for the interior. This is one way in which I think I may have deviated from my period example.
It is also a step I am thinking to go ahead and skip next time.
Once I have my lid and body stitched together, I put on the half-layer and the end caps. This is the middle stage of the construction.
I could have done the top cap tooling before I glued it on here. I did not, which is another way in which I deviated from the original. But I decided that a simple Toulouse cross would be perfectly easy to carve on afterward.
The Construction- Part 2
Now that I had the interior built, I could move on to the final layer. This would be the outside leather, which is the one that is decorated, dyed, and has the hanging loops cut in.
For my square cases, I often tool them completely on the block, after all the main gluing and construction is finished. That is harder to do on a cylinder, so I think that at least some of the carving must be done before the final layer is glued on. As previously discussed, I suspect that on our extant example, some of it was done before, and some of it after. So that is what I will do.
First, the surface preparation. This involves cutting the pieces and then skiving all of the edges, to get that seamless finished look.
The observant among you may have noticed some irregularities in the continuity of the photos. There is a reason for that.
Okay, so one reason is that I am easily distracted and often forget to take photos in between steps. But the main reason was that I ended up having to do the entire outside layer twice. All of it. Everything.
Harken! For here is my Tale of Woe!
So I did the tooling for the cap portion, and I decided to put it together first. I figured that with the cap all together, it would be easier to smooth out the leather and make the body fit the cap, rather than try to do both sections at once.
As I was putting the final layer on, I realized I had made an error. My overlap was facing in the wrong direction.
At this point, I knew there was a high likelihood that the edge would pull away when I pulled out the loops. To my dismay, the next morning I was proven right.
I had to redo the cap.
Fortunately, I had been assembly-lining another recorder case two steps behind this one, thinking to throw it up on my etsy after. So I had an entire extra interior already assembled, as well as an exterior layer already cut to size but not skived. I skived it and carved the lines, with the correct overlap position this time. The second attempt was a go!
I wasted like, almost a full weekend of work on the now-useless first cap. It’s all good, it’s fine. It’s just more practice, right? And there were some small irregularities in the carving that I was able to correct the second time. Maybe it’s all for the best.
It was not fine. I was only halfway through.
After my cap disaster, I started in on the design for the body. It’s just leaves and vines, mostly freehanded, and I’m happy to zone out and just do it. Once the vines are in, I go to cut the loops… And I realize that the whole thing is upside down.
Now, at this point, I might have decided that this was not a problem, design-wise. Leafy bits could trail up or down, after all.
But I had another, bigger, problem. Because I had already started cutting in the loops, measuring carefully from what I thought was the top, my loop placement was now out of proportion. As you can see, I attempted to compensate by cutting more loops, hoping to reach the other end and balance it out. But the measurements did not line up.
I couldn’t put this layer on my case. Those loops were already cut. No matter what I did now, it was going to look awful.
I burst into tears and threw it down. I would have to do the body all over again. After having to do the cap all over again. DESPAIR.
I set it aside, and I ordered more leather. To make myself feel better, I took another look at the extant case, which has several (less devastating than mine, but still major) mistakes in it.
As previously mentioned, the top cap is off-center. I get it, that would be easy to do. But my favorite irregularity is this one. All of the other loops are placed to sync up nicely, but this one… just isn’t.
I still don’t know why. Perhaps there was a flaw in the leather that the artist had to work around? Perhaps, like mine, it was just a boneheaded mistake. Whatever the reason, the artist clearly fudged though it anyway, and hoped maybe no one would notice.
Well, *I* noticed, person who has probably been dead since 1490. I SEE YOU and I FEEL YOUR PAIN.
The Construction- Part 3
I got a new flat of leather, and I waited a week or so, to soothe my poor bruised ego. At long last, it was time. No more mistakes.
I redid the cap, and it was good. Then I redid the acanthus leaves, cut my loops, and put the body together. Now it is starting to look like a case!
Color and Finish
I could have called the case finished here. Many of the extant etui are uncolored. But to be true to the scroll case, and because it looks nice, Guillaume agreed that it should be black.
I like to get black via an iron oxide dye, called vinegaroon. It’s not so much a dye as a forced chemical reaction.
I’ve done it several times before (see previous exhibit), so I felt pretty confident in the process. However, there are enough variables here that it’s never a sure thing, so I had reason to be a wee bit nervous.
I put my pad of steel wool in a jar with a quart of apple cider vinegar, and I left it outside for six weeks. The ensuing sludge is then painted onto the surface of the object, where it reacts to the tannins in the leather, and turns black.
This being a natural process, using organic materials, there is always potential for variation. This case was no exception. On both the body and the cap, there are a few spots where the black color is either slightly blotchy, or did not quite sink in at all. But they are small and subtle, unlikely to be noticed by anyone but me. I couldn’t even get it to photograph well. Also, not for nothing, but plenty of the extant cases sport blotchy dyejobs as well. So there, nyah.
With all that being said, here is a glimpse into my process.
I did have one thing happen that I did not expect, and I’m fairly certain I know why.
The vinegaroon does sometime require multiple coats to sink in all the way, particularly if there are super blotchy gluey parts. That was not the surprising part to me. The surprise was the distinct coat of rust that ensued after the second vinegarooning.
Now, I did not panic about this, not yet. I’d had this happen before, but in small spots. Never the entirety of the case.
It’s just… rust. Like a fine powder of it. I knew what to do, and I think I know what happened.
When I say “left the jar outside for six weeks”, that is exactly what I did. I put the jar on my porch and let it be.
However, as of this winter, I have moved house. My previous porch, and the ensuing jar, were in full sunlight for most of the day. My current porch faces north, and is in perpetual shade. I think what happened is that without full sun, my vinegaroon could not finish the process of turning rust into leather dye. So it had to finish the magic, outside the jar, in the air and light. I could be wrong, but that’s my theory.
Not a big deal, just a bit more work. I took a toothbrush and some neetsfoot oil and I scraped that rust dust off. Ta-Da! All is well again.
This process also shrinks the leather a small amount, and renders it more waterproof. One fear I had was that the shrinkage would leave a large gap between the body and the cap piece. There did turn out to be a little bit of a gap… but it was around the same size as the gap on the medieval example.
I’m happy with it. Even if I was not, there’s nothing else left to be done.
So I laced in a strand of twisted linen thread, and declared this project finished.
Enough pontificating! Let us see the glamour shots!
Unlike the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, I have neither a fancy lightbox nor a professional camera. But hopefully these shots I took with my cell phone in the light of my living room window are adequate.
Overall, I was very pleased with this project, even with all of the mishaps and frustrations. I learned a lot, and I am beginning to feel more confident in some of the skills involved, many of which are still entirely new to me.
Get more leather! Use it to hold your stuff!
Case, French, 15th Century, Metropolitan Museum, New York
I’m sorry, museum photographer! I drew nasty red MSpaint lines all over your beautiful pictures. It’s educational use, I swear!
Initial C, Manuscript Cutting, V&A Museum, London
A nice detailed blog post about Medieval Handheld Organs, by an author researching a book.
Bohemian Case, Musei Civici di Venezia
Paris, musée de Cluny – musée national du Moyen Âge
(site is entirely in French, and not the easiest to navigate. Lots of great pics though.)
The Visual Research Mines. NOT an official citation (see asterisk below).
* I use my pinterest to collect relevant pictures and to view them in the aggregate. I use Google Reverse Image Search when the pinterest page fails to properly link back to a reputable origin (such as one of the very fine Museums listed above). If I still can’t find the original, I file that image away as an anomaly, and it can’t be used as a primary source.
It’s low effort and it’s cheap, as far as research goes. And there you have it.
Hope you enjoyed! Please feel free to leave a comment. (I Live for them!)