Laminated Leather Cases (Etui), based on 14th-16th century examples

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By Rotrude HalfBlind

In 2018, my friendly neighbor (the Lovely Local Laurel Morgan Donner) proposed to me that she would like to make a leather case for her cell phone, and would I like to make one too? This being also on my “someday projects” list, I said “sure!”
So we got together for crafty time, and we both made one of these cases. She was satisfied with having made the one to use, but I was not. I wanted to make more of them, and get better at making them.

So I made more of them. And they did get better. Now I have dozens of the things in my house, and my kitchen smells like vinegaroon… My gods, what have we done!?!

Etui in Art

These cases show up with some frequency in paintings, usually associated with scholarly figures or saints. They come in a variety of shapes and purposes, such as inkpot holders, book protectors, and eyeglass cases. They often seem to be a symbol of someone who works, (as in, not a noble) but with their minds and hands rather than with rough labor.
Perhaps the excessive belt swag shown on “False Seeming” is some sort of comment on ostentatious bureaucracy? Whatever it means, I am grateful for it, because that is a fine array of leather goods he’s packing.

Extant Etui

Fortunately for me, many museums have examples of these cases in their collections, and many of those collections have been put online. Once I started looking for them, I seemed to find them everywhere! The scope of their shapes, sizes, and functions is even more diverse than in the art. Everything from sweet tiny needle cases to clever ink stands to burly hat boxes for kings. Even a shoe reliquary! Whaaaaat?

Ohmigosh these used to be so common! Why do I not see more of these? They should be everywheeeerrrrreee….!

Would you like to see more? Below is a doc I compiled for a class. It’s still just the tip of the iceberg.

Construction Clues

Along with putting forth beautiful full color pictures, many of the more internet-savvy museums have taken care to also get interior shots. I get the sense that perhaps some enterprising soul has come before me, to pester these fine folks about construction… So a great big thank you to them all!

In looking at all of these, I have come to a few conclusions.

  • These are all very individual pieces, each one made for a specific purpose. Some of them, (especially the book boxes) share many similarities, but no two are truly alike.
  • Many of them have taken care to conceal most if not all of the constructive stitching. Which is good, because said stitching is often a hot mess. (This is exactly opposite of most modern day leather work, which tends to emphasize tidy stitching, used as a decorative element in itself). When there is visible stitching, it is much neater, and tends to be on smaller, less intricate pieces.
  • The etui appear to be glued together in laminated layers, ranging from two to as many as five (!). The outside layers have their edges skived, so as to keep a seamless look.
  • The hanging loops seem to be pulled off the sides while the leather is stretchy and wet. They are often decorated just as ornately as the rest of the piece, possibly at the same time.

Coloring and Decoration

Many of these extant cases (I would even say the majority) are a dark brown or black color. This color could come from a dye, or an iron oxide (called vinegaroon). It is also possible that some of these were not black originally, but became so with age.

I am personally of the opinion that most of the black cases were, in fact, intended to be black. I am dubious of the notion that it would be common to get an even, glossy coating of iron oxide into the leather by accident. Not impossible, sure, but not my first assumption.
Vinegaroon is cheap, easy, effective, and appears to provide a degree of extra water proofing. So far as I am concerned, the only reason not to use it is if you do not want your cases to be black.

The next most prevalent color of cases is what looks to me like the natural leather color, with or without paint on top of it. This makes sense to me, as the natural veg tan leather is quite handsome, and would probably provide the best painting surface.

I did find one case that was a dyed red color, I am assuming with either cochineal or madder. Unlike the vinegaroon (or a modern alcohol dye), which can be applied after the case is finished and the tooling done, I theorize that the red leather was more likely dyed before working. You can’t exactly dip these cases into a simmering dyebath- hot water is their kryptonite, and the glued layers would immediately separate away! So a madder dyed case is on my list of things to try, as I have yet to achieve it.

I am told that it is possible to dye leather goods blue, yellow or green, and I have seen period recipes for it. However, I have yet to find any images of cases in these colors, either among the extants or in the art. So for me, these other colors are pretty far back-burnered, at least for the time being.

Many of these cases are painted, and some of them are even gilded!
I assume most of the paint is some form of tempera, though I suppose it is possible that later examples could be oil based.

To me, it seems that in most of the examples, the paint is saved for tiny detail work, such as floral bits or coats of arms, and not necessarily done all over the entire case. This tracks with my experience with tempera, which says that small sections of paint stay on the leather pretty well, but the more you put on, the more likely your paint will crack, chip, and fall away with handling. There are some exceptions though, and it could simply be that some colors of paint are just more likely to flake entirely off, leaving the natural color of the leather behind them. Perhaps the passage of time has served to fool me.

Gilding, however, tends to be all over. Go big or go home with the gilding!

But How do you Make Them?

Going from looking at a picture to making a thing is scary. There’s just so much to mess up or get wrong! I can’t take a time machine back to 1450 and ask somebody how to make one, so I will just have to use my best guess. And much like, say, Burgundian gowns, I think it is possible that people used multiple methods to make similar-looking things.

So my way may not be accurate for every time and place that they were making these. But I like to think my methods to be plausibly accurate enough, that a 15th century person would find nothing about it to be at all surprising.

I guess the best place to begin is the beginning.

My First Etui

This is the very first foray, made on Morgan Donner’s dining table. It has four layers, two inside and two out. The stitching is up the back rather than in the corner, and the tooling is simple line work. Many flaws are hidden by the dark brown color, which is a modern alcohol based dye.
It served to hold my cell phone very nicely. That is, until I got a new one, which was significantly bigger. (Stupid technology, always marching on!) Now it holds my membership and fighter cards. It’ll probably be among my grave goods when I die.

The Next Steps- Practice and Process

Sooooo… turns out, I am not so good at remembering to take sequential progress pics. Here is a sort of loosely affiliated series of steps, using examples from multiple different cases. Maybe it is helpful anyway.

Below, a doc I made for the class I taught in October 2019. I have learned a few things since then, but the working process is discussed much more in depth. There’s just… there’s only so much you can explain using pictures.

Experiments, Successful and Un

Vinegar Black, or Vinegaroon

It took me a while to work up to making vinegaroon, but once I did I found it very satisfying. Trusting in the expertise of a stranger on the Internet, I put a puff of steel wool into a jar of apple cider vinegar, and left it on the porch for a few weeks. At first, it smelled like appley death, but once I poured it off and left it for another week, the smell dissipated, into a far more pleasant whiff of metallic vinegar. The irony vinegar then reacts with the tannins in the leather, to make a lovely, deep dark black.

Red and Orange from Madder

Dyeing the leather case was a fail. For one, I did not have enough madder to make a good sized pot at adequate concentration, so the color was far too dilute. The dye also reacted strangely with the glue, and the warm water threatened the structural integrity of the case. Boooooo!
So I let the case dry, and then I painted it with the vinegaroon. The iron oxide covered up the blotchy pink completely. Phew!
As mentioned earlier, I think it must be necessary to dye the leather red before working it, rather than after. At some point, I will most certainly try this, because Red.

The hemp, however, was a resounding success. Will certainly dye hemp with madder again! It makes for lovely, extra-period hanging cords. They’re great. I’m tickled pink. Heyo!

Tempera Paint

Long before I experimented with vinegaroon, I dyed a case a deep dark brown with a modern dye, to imitate the color. I then decided to paint this case, using a tempera paint that I mixed into the egg myself.
(I could go into more detail on tempera paint, but since it really deserves to be its own project, I won’t do that here).
The paint itself seemed to work quite well, though it was certainly a learning process. It was more translucent than acrylic, and had a texture and a drying sequence unlike anything I had used before. But, bold hearts and steady hands prevailed, and I was quite happy with the end result.

Until, that is, about two weeks later, when I noticed that the alcohol-based dye had seeped into and through the tempera pigment, rendering it dull, brown, and lifeless. The paint had cured to hardness, but the pigments were overwhelmed. A tragedy!

Let us try this again…

I had done two things wrong. I had over-saturated the brown dye, and I had not primed the surface for paint at all. So for this next case, (already well in progress), I not only used a far lighter coat of the dye, but put a good base of white gesso behind the portion to be painted.

I am told this cases’ owner is quite happy with it, so all’s well that ends well there. But I will never mix an alcohol dye with tempera paint again.

I scraped off the paint on the animals case, and repainted it completely. It looks much better now, but I have put far too much time and effort into the thing to sell it. I suspect it will be donated for a tourney prize at some point.

The Ever-growing Etui Family

I have made… I dunno, A Lot of these now. I learn new things every time.
I started out using square blocks for book (and cell phone) sized cases, and lately have switched to making more pen and needle cases. The cylindrical cases go much faster, as it is easier to do some or all of the tooling before they are put on the block. I think that if/when I do teach a class, the hands-on demonstration will be of a cylinder.

Where to From here?

I am still not as good at making these as I would like to be. There is a delicacy and an ease to some of the tooling on the extants that I feel I’ve yet to achieve. While my carving work has improved A Lot since the first etui, it still doesn’t hold a candle to the best examples of this medieval art.

Like this one, for example. It’s just so beautiful I want to cry!

Book Box, 1475-1500. Private Collection. Via RBA.

The extra-thin layers that partition many of the smaller cases is still completely beyond me, and I’ve only made a few of the diverse array of possible shapes.
Honestly, I may never be satisfied. But there are a few goals I have set for myself of things to work on in future.

  • Attempt to make a red case, dyed with madder.
  • Do more experiments with the tempera paint. (See if it will stick over the vinegaroon, for example). Try it with duck eggs, and with other pigments. Paint more. More paint!
  • Get some thinner leather, make at least one multi-part case.
  • See if fish glue works in the same way as rabbit skin.
  • Keep practicing vinework, and get better at tooling. Doing more scribal work may help.
  • Attempt to make some leather covered wooden boxes. May require the acquisition of some brass or iron hinges.
  • Possibly attempt some gilding?
  • Figure out how to teach a class or workshop in such a way that the students can take a case home with them.
  • Keep spreading the Joy of Leather Etui throughout the Knowne World!

Leather is a fantastic and underused material, and I am excited to keep learning about it. I hope other people want to learn about it, too.
Get more leather! Carry around your stuff!


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28 Replies to “Laminated Leather Cases (Etui), based on 14th-16th century examples”

    1. Cutlery would be an excellent use for one of these! I have found several examples of spoon, pick, and knife cases. One was even specifically for dental tools. I guess for the dentist on the go? Eeep!

  1. Really fascinating work! I’ve always been amazing by people who are good at leather tooling (I know it’s a lot of practice, and I could probably *become* good, but I don’t have the patience or really the interest in focusing that long on it ^_^).

    As for dye, you may already know of it, but The Plictho of Gioanventura Rosetti is a fantastic period dye recipe collection and includes a whole section on dyeing leather. It’s something I’ve been meaning to try at some point, but so far I have my hands full just with dyeing fabric.

    1. Rosetti! That’s the name!
      I saw the bit on leather dye in somebody else’s library at a craft night, didn’t write down the source, could not remember the name for the life of me, and can’t just go back to said craft night and find it.
      So… you’re amazing! You found it for me! Thank you!

    1. Yes! Some of the cases could be tooled first, then built. Or possibly sculpted into a general shape, (with the relevant sections pushed out from the back), then built, then more detailed tooling added on top. I suspect that is the way that the more complicated pieces (such as the shoe reliquary), were made.
      The methods I think really depend on the shape, and the quality of the leather. I think these cases could be and were made several different ways. Sometimes you can suss them out by finding the artists’ mistakes! There is at least one case where the design is off-center, and I think that is an example of the leather being tooled before the case was built, because that is one of the risks to this method..

  2. 15th century box for wafers. So many questions! Sealing wafers? Edible wafers? Eucharist wafers? Edible or utilitarian? Sugary or plain? Crunchy or kind of tacky? I feel like we could spend 15 minutes discussing the potential uses of this one extant piece alone.

    Whoops, ahem. Really nice presentation 🙂

    1. Given the fancy gilding and size of the case, I assumed the intended contents to be communion wafers, perhaps for a priest given to travel.
      I have no theories as to the quality of the bread product. 🙂

      1. It’s possible that I have misjudged, however. I had not considered sealing wafers at all! Lots of these cases are made as part of a scribal kit…
        I mean, whoops! Ahem. Thank you, Guillaume!

  3. Rotrude, it was great talking with you about this project in person, it was impressive work then. You have seriously improved your skills, your presentation, and well, everything! Great work!

  4. WOW!!!!

    I LOVE THESE!!!!!

    Your work is amazing! I wish I could look at them in person! They look like they would fit right in a painting or illumination.

    I can’t wait to see more!

  5. Wish I could find something of that nature in Frankish stuff- need to carry the inhaler and spacer thingie…

  6. I have always been fascinated by these cases, so glad I can put a name to them now! I am a container collector by nature and have always wanted one. Have you thought about making something really large like a coronet box? Are these more difficult the larger they get? Also would you be able to make these from leather that is already dyed rather than dyeing them after they are tooled and sewn together? I honestly have not done any leather working to speak of and find this to be quite intriguing.

    1. Yes, containers are the best!
      Since many of the extants are from either Italy or France, they do get categorized as “Etui” in museum collections. I am informed that etui is simply the french word for case. 😛
      I have thought about making larger boxes, but it may be a “someday project”. Boxes that have wooden cores covered in leather seem to be common as well. I have acquired some smallish craft wood boxes that I think may be appropriate, but I have yet to begin. Said boxes almost always have iron hardware, most of which is currently a bit out of my price/effort range. One day!
      They are certainly more expensive materials wise one they get bigger! Difficulty is harder to measure. The tiny delicate etui provide their own sets of challenges, requiring a lot of precision and detail. However, the most time consuming part of the process is usually the tooling, especially of the background. The more tooling, the more complicated the piece.
      As for dye, I do not yet know the answer to that question. I do not think that leather dyed with the vinegaroon can really be tooled after. The process of making it black seems to really shrink the pores, making the leather more water proof, and for tooling you really need your leather to be wet.
      However, I have yet to try dying the leather with a plant based dye (such as a madder) before tooling. I think it may be possible, so long as you do not fully boil it. But I could be wrong. It is on the to-do list!
      I had also not really done any leather work at all before I started making these. I suspect an actual pro leather worker would be baffled (and possibly dismayed) seeing my process.

  7. Your boxes are beautiful. After watching Morgan’s video when it came out I have been wanting to try to make them to go with the books I bind but I am still stuck in the “it is scary” phase.

    * What weights of leather do you find work best for each of the layers?
    * Which of your “Family” of cases is your favorite so far?
    * If you had one piece of advice for someone just getting started what would it be?
    * What rabbit hole item did/are you going to get Morgan Donner into to make up for your new expanding craft?

    1. Thank you!

      Most of my leather came from the discount scrap bins, so there is a variety. If I had to guess I would say most of it was somewhere around 4-6oz. I would like to one day get some that is nicer and a thinner weight, to more closely replicate some of the smaller penners and cases.

      Every time I make a new one, chances are that one is my favorite. But if I had to remove that qualification, I would probably say either the natural finish Fiore Animals case, or the second small black needle case.

      For someone getting started, I would say don’t be afraid of the glue. it sounds scary, what with the soaking and double boiling, but it is actually very clean and simple to use. You just can’t squirt it into threads like Elmer’s. You have to get it to soak into the leather, saturate it until it is glistening, so that the two pieces are married and as one. Once done, it cleans up easy, dries clear, and doesn’t smell. It’s lovely.
      Also, I was shocked at how many of the other crafts I’ve done had relevant skill sets. If you’ve worked in wood, fabric, or ceramics, you will have a leg up in learning this thing. It’s kind of like a language.

      Lol, Morgan Donner is pretty good at getting into her own rabbit holes! But once we’re allowed into the outside world again, I suspect there may be some costume related shenanigans afoot. Maybe we will conjure up some of the swoopy flash Burgundian snazz I have been pondering for ages…

  8. Excellent start and very interesting. I enjoy working in leather and there are some techniques that would be wonderful to add to my skill set. You inspire me to expand my craft to art. I look forward to talking with you.

  9. This is absolutely fascinating! I really hope to try this now. Your work is really intriguing.

    1. Hello! I store small accessories that I might need immediate access to, but don’t want to keep put in the open. I have used these cases for glasses, keys, small tablets, cards, pens, and money.

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