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.
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.
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!
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!
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!
Morgan Donner’s video on the leather case she made. This is all her fault. She started it.
A youtube playlist that gave us many of the needed steps to start with. It is mostly unedited footage, so strap in for a long quiet watch.
Here is the place where I keep many of the images I have collected. It is however a cluttered mess, (just like my house!) so enter at your own risk.
Some of the Museums who have put up pictures of these cases. Search ability and languages vary.
An old forum post, with some very useful information about vinegaroon, and about leather in general.
This most excellent fellow makes many fine leather goods, some of them similar to mine. Website is all in French though, fyi.
Another artist in France, making a similar case. Her method is different from mine, but a perfectly valid interpretation. I like that she took care to use period-appropriate tools. This website is in both English and French.