Making a spectacle of oneself…

When Glenda needed new glasses, in part inspired by an article in The International Routier (back in its Dead-TreeWare days), we thought it would be fun to see if we could make a pair of leather framed spectacles using the old lenses. We enlisted the optician in the project, getting him to turn the lenses as small as he could make them on his equipment. They came to me marked “left” and “right” with a prominent arrow indicating the direction of “up”. They’re still probably 120-130% the size of the originals.

Leather framed spectacles, typical of the 15th century. (Occhiali)

The lenses are sandwiched between two layers of 1.6mm cow hide, with the nose bridge reinforced with hidden bronze wire. The construction method is an approximation at best. I know lenses were held in the horn and bone framed glasses with a spring made from copper-alloy wire but haven’t been able to see a leather framed pair closely enough to work it out. There are a sewn pair similar to this from 16th century Italy, but the stitching may be decorative rather than structural.

Our leather framed spectacles, the pattern with the ties is slightly later than the 15th C pair above.

The tie is fingerloop braided, the other option would be a silk ribbon but modern silk ribbons aren’t as strong as 17th C ribbon due to the thickness and weave. Many 17th century portraits show people with their hands clasped together with a ribbon coming out from between them. This may be a spectacle tie.

Glenda’s worn them a few times, apart from the problems with fogging because the lenses are so close to the face, they frighten the punters at public shows. Not just second glances, we’re talking about grown adults grabbing the kids and pulling them away and screaming. We were just expecting Biggles comments. If you make a pair, keep them for private events.

Three pairs of German leather and horn spectacles. From top, 1583, Dresden; c1600 Nürnberg; c1600 Nürnburg. (Corson)

Leather spectacles may have been a cause of some friction between the guilds, spectacle makers must have sourced leather from the Leather Sellers Guild, no doubt being blamed for forcing the prices of hides up by the various competing leather guilds.”The SMC [Spectacle Makers’ Company] particularly disapproved of leather frames, a forcibly held position that might explain the growth in popularity among the makers for using horn. Leather frames were seized from the noted optician John Yarwell by the Company’s inspection team in 1692.” The College of Optometrists, London, Gallery > Seventeenth Century Spectacles.

There are a number of pairs of leather framed spectacles from 1520 t0 1730 on display at The On-Line Museum and Encyclopedia of Vision Aids


Baker, K., Spectacles in the 17th Century: A Short Summary, in The International Routier Vol 13, No4, Summer 1997-98
Blankert, A., Rembrandt — A Genius and His Impact, National Gallery of Victoria 1997
Corson, R., Fashions in Eyeglasses, Peter Owen, London 1967
Occhiali, G., Eyeware, Chronicle Books, San Francisco, 1997


An almost-right saex scabbard

This post is a warning for young players, going back in time to somewhere in the youth of the Internet. Back in those days, a fast connection was a dial-up connection with a 14.4kbps modem, a big website was anything over 1MB, and 800 x 600 in 256 colours was high resolution. The excellent series of YAT publications weren’t widely known here and and the publications that were available were more of the glossy coffee-table types. Online catalogues and web sales were years away and photos were only used on the most data-intensive sites. The images we had access to in the Antipodes were not of the finest quality, and lead to errors such as this.

I’d been given a combat-grade saex with a forged iron blade, leather bound scale tang hilt (the scales were two thickish slices of a branch with the bark still attached) with held together with rough steel rivets. The point was 10mm in diameter and the “edge” was 3mm thick. It had seen some use in combat and was rough, ugly and I couldn’t get my hand all the way around the hilt, but you don’t look a forged blade in the mouth. It didn’t take me long to reshape the point and file and grind an edge, and there was enough meat on the tang for me to be able to turn it into a whittle tang. I made the hilt from a carved lamb bone from a roast we had, with 3mm brass plates at each end. The tang passes through the backplate and is peened over. The buckles are made from the same lamb leg as the hilt, using opposite sides of the lower end of the femur near the joint. I then needed to make the scabbard.

Saex scabbard, loosely based on one from Jorvik. The original has much coarser knotwork but still shows paint in the same colours.

I knew of an illustration on the Regia Anglorum website and spent a ridiculious amount of time trying to work out the knotwork design. I relied heavily on contemporary manuscript knotwork, and drew the techniques from the MoL Knives and Scabbards book. I got it wrong.

This is the original illustration I was working from. If anything, I've been able to clean it up a bit.

It wasn’t until we got to York in 2003 that I realised that I was too keen to see the manuscript knotwork on the leather and that I’d misunderstood how the scabbard was used. The knife should fit almost completely in the scabbard, with the different knotworks corresponding to the blade and the hilt.  Here’s a photo of two similar scabbards I took in Jorvik:

Two saex scabbards at Jorvik.

The upper one shows similar punch work to this one from the Yorkshire Museum up the road.

Saex and knife scabbards in the Yorkshire Museum

The one on the right is discussed in another post. The one on the left is the one I attempted here. I’m happy with the stamped decoration along the edge of the blade, but the knotwork is completely wrong and the execution is 11th-13th century. I’ll have to remake it one day, but I need to work out if I have to shorten the blade first. The York postcard below shows someone else’s interpretation of a couple of scabbard, they have their own problems but aren’t bad.

Postcard: Replica leather knife sheath from The Jorvik Viking Centre.

I suppose the moral of the story is to make sure your references are clear before you begin anything.


 J. Cowgill, M. de Neergaard,  N. Griffiths, Knives and Scabbards (Medieval Finds from Excavations in London), HMSO London, 1987

Regia Anglorum,, accessed 26 April 2006.

Mystery Object – Jeff’s leather bottle

If you were following the Costrels thread, you probably saw Jeff’s comment down the page. Following some correspondence, Jeff to sent me these photos of his leather bottle.

Leather bottle - front view

Leather bottle - side view

Leather bottle - other side

Jeff notes in his email:

“I’ve attached some pictures with the bottle next to a 12″ ruler. After further research my best guess at this point is an early wood canteen or bottle covered with leather. I don’t know enough at this point to try to date it or where guess where it originates from.”

At a really rough estimate, the volume is 2.5L/0.5 gallon. I’m making stuff up here, but by the way the loops are done, the work appears to be that of a saddler, I have no idea to the origin or age of the item. Does anybody else have any information? We’re looking for something a bit firmer than my supposition.

Thanks to Jeff Steere for his kind permission to publish his photos here.

I saw this glass example in the National Gallery of Victoria recently and was struck by the similarity in the shape. Height is about 250mm, it’s late seventeenth century although the shapes all hung around for hundreds of years.


English standing flask, 1688. NGV D176-1973

Diminutive Costrels

A recent comment on Destructive Testing of Black Dye finished with the remark:

Love to know your thoughts on that wee little costrel at the MOL sometime….why is it so wee?! why is it such an odd flat oval shape?

The costrel in question is this one, although others are known to exist.

Small costrel in the Museum of London.

Oliver Baker mentions it on p56 of his magnum opus of 1921, Blackjacks and Leather Bottels. I’ll quote the section in full.

One dimuntive but charmingly designed bottle is in the London Museum at Lancaster House, and has, between three vertical raised bands, lines of foliate decoration of Gothic character. It was found in the Town Ditch at the Old Bailey in 1913, and is of great interest as giving a rich example of the bottle of the Middle Ages. It measures nearly four inches [100mm] in length and three and three-quarters [95mm] in height.

Figure 22 from Baker

Baker’s drawing shows it sitting on it’s base rather than lying on it’s back as in the photo at the top, and the base appears flat and much the same shape as my Mary Rose one. It is unclear if Mr Baker was drawing what he saw, or what he thought it should be, however his detail on the decoration is very good. The larger costrel in the same cabinet at the MoL also appears to be ovoid, however looking at the ends, I think I can see that it was originally flatter on the bottom and has slumped in the conditions in the museum.

The leather is thinner than on the larger costrels, so moulding would be easier. From evidence from other sites, the decoration may have been painted.

As for use, we’re getting into Making Things Up ™ territory. Baker’s measurements give it an approximate volume of 300ml, or half a pint, roughly the same as a glass of  drink. That also translates to 2 gills, so two standard measured of gin in the 16th century.

I would love for it to have been for the 15-16th century version of high octane moonshine, but that would disolve the pitch lining. It may have been for a particular drink, or medicine or may have been a scale model to test a new design without using too much expensive leather. They could, like me have an order on the books to make a bottel for a small teenager…


Baker, O., Black Jacks and Leather Bottells, privately printed for W.J. Fieldhouse, Cheltenham 1921

Stuart Period Bracer

Back to the early modern period this time. Glenda has hyperextension of the elbows, and needs a little extra protection from string strike. We went looking for an historical precedent and of course, found it. This woodcut is of an archer from Finsbury Field who sports a bracer that nicely covers his left elbow.


The Finsbury Archer. Some references claim this is Charles I

The design is simple, flat piece of 3.2mm leather cut to shape and fastened by tieing with thin oil tanned leather straps. The design is Glenda’s and is both elegant and serviceable, I was responsible for the execution.


Long bracer, based on the Finsbury Archer. The extreme narrowing at the front of this one, when compared with the woodcut is because Glenda has delicate wrists and the bloke in the woodcut don't.

Again, the red dye is based on Ascham’s preference for cordovan. The stamped decoration is inspired by one of the Mary Rose bracers.

I’m rather taken by the Finsbury archer’s shooting glove, the two string fingers of the glove appear to be separate pieces sewn to the rest of the glove, with a seam continuing down the back of the hand. Ascham and Markham both are fairly specific on the nature of the shooting glove. I’ll quote chapter 5 from Markham as the language is more modern:

A shooting glove is a necessary armor or defense for the hand, to preserve it from hurting or galling, so that a man may be able in his fingers to bear the sharpness of the string to the uttermost of his strength, for when a man shoot, the violence and might of his shot lay in the foremost finder, and the ring finger; for the middle finger (which is the longest) like a coward starts back and bear no weight of the string, in a manner at all; therefore, the two other fingers must have thicker leather, and that must have the thickest of all, whereon a man loose most, and for sure loosing, the foremost finger is most apt, because it hold best, and for that purpose, nature has yoked it with the thumb. Leather, if it be next to a mans skin will sweat, wax hard and chafe; therefore, scarlet for the softness, thickness and wholesomeness, is best to line the glove with all; …

This shooting glove, should also have a purse on the back of the hand, where in the archer shall ever carry a fine linen cloth and wax, two necessary things, for any man that use shooting; some men use gloves or the like on the bow hand, for fear of chafing; because they hold so hard. But that error happen (for the most part) when a bow is not round, but a little square, therefore fine tempered wax shall do well in such a case, to lay where a man hold his bow; yet I do not condemn the wearing of a fine thin cut fingered glove on the bow hand.

Rumour has it that there is such a glove in the Museum of London collection, as yet uncatalogued and unpublished. I’m yet to see it.


Markham, G., The Art of Archerie, 1634.

Soar, H., The Crooked Stick, Westholme, 2004.

11th Century Saxon quiver and bracer

This was a commission to make a set of 11th century Saxon arrows and matching archery equipment. The remit was to use original materials, designs and decoration, but otherwise to please myself. The bow had a 45# draw at 28″.


11th C quiver and arrows. I've used goose feathers, pitch and linen thread on the arrows.


Evidence for bracers is missing from this period. The only bracers I’ve seen are 7th – 8th century bone, and 12th century leather. There doesn’t even seem to be any pictorial depictions in between, which is suspicious when details like the knots in the timber and thread binding on the arrows is shown in some of the pictures.   


11th C Saxon Bracer/Arm guard.

I’ve made a reasonable guess, based on everyone else’s reasonable guesses. It’s a bugger trying to shoot with baggy sleeves without one. The source in this case is Osprey’s Campaign Series 13, Hastings 1066 by Gravett, but I’m not kidding myself that it’s in any way accurate. Made from 6mm veg tanned harness butt and 2.5mm top grain leather. Decoration is dot circle and triangular stamp as on the quiver.


We’re on firmer ground here, with quivers mentioned in the seventh century works of Aldhelm; “…just as the warlike bowman… when his bow is tensed by his powerful hands and arms and arrows are drawn from the quiver…” and depictions on the Tapestry. This one is based on the primarily based on the Tapestry, construction methods are inferred from other Saxon leatherwork of the period, such as the shoes from Parliament Street, York. 3mm top grain vegetable tanned leather; buckles are bronze, pine wood disk in the base. Stitching is done with natural undyed hand plied linen thread, beeswax finish over modern dye. Decoration around the top is done using a matched pair of triangular wooden stamps I made to do my saex scabard, and large dot-circle done with a rounded centre punch and a piece of brass tube. Colours are an interpretation of the Tapestry’s colours – I’ve used light brown where the embroidery was light and dark brown where the tapestry uses dark thread. The top roll contains a piece of split willow to retain its shape and protect the arrows when bumbed aginst rocks and the like.

Bayeux Tapestry marginalia

Archers immediately below “Hic Est Williemo Dux” at the end of the Tapestry. Quivers are shown sitting upright on the ground in the next panel, indicating flattish bottoms.

Examples of Saxon Archery

Franks Casket

Egil rains feathery death on his house guests. Lid of the Franks Casket, British Museum c.700, British Museum

St Edmund

St Edmund gets nailed to a tree, Life of St Edmund, Bury St Edmunds, c.1120 Pierpont Morgan Library MS M.736, f.14


Rebels cop feathery death Harley Psalter, Canterbury c. 1000. British Library Harley MS 603, Psalm 2, f.2


Bernstien, D. J., The Mystery of the Bayeux Tapestry, Weidenfield and Nicholson, London, 1986

Gravett, C, Hastings 1066—The Fall of Saxon England, Campaign Series 13, Osprey Publishing, London 1992

Levick, B.  accessed 25/02/08

Paulsen, Arrows and Bows from Hedeby (Pfeil und Bogen in Haithabu), in Das Archaologische Fundmaterial VI, Von Harm, Schleswig 1999 translated by H. Griffiths.

Strickland, M and Hardy, R, The Great Warbow, Sutton Publishing Limited, Phoenix Mill, UK 2005

Soar, H. D. H., Secrets of the English War Bow, Westholme Publishing, Yardley PA, 2006 

Destructive Testing Black Dye

In the store book of Charterhouse School, Godlaming is an entry under the year 1618: mending of pottes and pannes with waxing clensing and colouring of Jackes xiiiis. (Baker, p73)

While nicely justifying my use of beeswax, it refers to the practice of recolouring black jacks. Jacks, generally being black, were coloured with with a particular type of dye that contains a quantity of iron in solution. The iron reacts with the tannin in the leather, forming ferric tannate. There are any number of recipes around covering a wide range of preiods. Some start with oak gall in an iron pot , others with iron scale or even hot iron in an acidic solution (Theopolus, Bk1, Ch38). It tends to be a very dark blue-grey, which darkens to black on
application of wax, tallow or other forms of fat. For a comparison see What Tallow Does to Dyed Leather. So how often would it need to be redyed, or would it just need retouching on the scrapes and rewaxing be sufficient for the rest?

Some years ago, I was attaching a leather rim to a shield and left an offcut outside with a few iron tacks sitting on top. The following weekend, after a few showers of rain (yes, kids it used to rain in Australia once), I discovered the leather fairly crisp from having all the remaining fat washed out and a strong black colour. A few friends and I had been having a pseudo-argument about colourfastness of medieval dyes in the letters pages of the magazine New Hedeby. Never one to miss an opportunity to do some extreme testing, I cut the black leather in half, nailed one half to the fence and sent the other to one of these friends who, at the time, was living in Port Hedland. They keep the sun turned up to 11 all the time in Port Hedland. He also attached his to a post in full sun.

The results? Mine was still black when about 10 months later the fence blew over. His continued to be black until two years later, when the leather finally crumbled to dust.