Tuesday, September 24, 2019

Product review: Crazy Crow bag

Last year, RAT member Ivor (Crispianus) alerted me to the book Leatherwork from Elephantine (Aswan, Egypt):  Analysis and Catalogue of the Ancient Egyptian & Persian Leather Finds.  Among other useful information, you can see on page 102 (104 of the PDF) an Achaemenid-period bag in the form of a cylinder with a circular bottom and drawstring top.  While it may or may not be Persian, it at least gives solid evidence for a kind of purse or pocket that was carried during our time and within the borders of the empire.

A reenactor needs a small bag that can be kept on one's person for holding phones, money and other possessions that are best not left unattended around camp.  This bag is just about appropriate for that purpose.  It should be easy enough to make a replica should you have the time to do so, but similar bags already exist for the reenactment market.

One that caught my eye earlier this year is marketed by Crazy Crow Trading Post:  the large ball bag.  (British readers may pause to finish laughing before reading on.)  Its basic structure and even its size are similar to the Elephantine find:  6-1/2 by 4 inches (165 by 102mm) versus the Egyptian bag's 140 by 95mm.  The Egyptian bag is sewn with linen.  Its leather wasn't tested for tanning technique, but it has the color of and somewhat looks like smoked wet-scrape braintan.  The Crazy Crow bag is most likely made of a chrome-tanned cowhide split, dyed to resemble smoked braintan.  I have no idea what the stitching is made of.

There are some minor construction differences:  The Egyptian bag has two side seams where the Crazy Crow bag has only one, with thin folded rands on one side seam and around the bottom seam which the Crazy Crow one lacks entirely.  The Egyptian one also has a pattern of punched holes near the top, which could of course be added to a commercial bag after purchase if you have a small awl.

In person, the Crazy Crow bag is made of medium-weight suede, rich golden (a color that can be achieved by smoking undyed leather), with a much shaggier surface than would be produced by wet scraping.  The long drawstring is made of the same leather, which is thankfully not very stretchy.  Note that the catalogue description implies that these bags are made of various leathers - I expect they use whatever they have on hand that works - so the exact weight, color and texture will probably vary somewhat from one batch to the next while still fitting the general description of moccasin-weight cow suede.

As for practical use, I selected and borrowed some items that you might want to keep close to you at an event:  a 5-3/4 by 2-7/8 inch (147 by 73mm) smart phone, wallet, coin purse holding a few emergency medicines, roll of 10 bills and key ring with various mechanical and electronic keys.

The answer:  just about.  The drawstring almost entirely hides the top of the phone.  You would probably also be able to cram a passport in there.

Conclusion:  This isn't a top-of-the-line item, but it will certainly do if you're pressed for time to construct one that's a little more authentic. 

Monday, July 15, 2019

Cold-dyeing with madder root, part III and last

On July 3 I put the chamois in the dyebath with several rocks to keep it all underwater.  After just over a day, it was already showing heavy, but uneven, staining.

I took it out, swished it around and rearranged it every day for the next four days, toward the end of which it seemed not to be taking on any more color.  After that, fears that it may have eventually started to putrefy drove me to take it out.  The initial plan was to let it dry, rinse out any unfixed dye and bits of madder root, and put it back in the bath if the color wasn't satisfactory.

The chamois after drying but before rinsing.

I rinsed in about half a dozen laundry room sinkfuls of cold water without soap or detergent (per the advice of RAT members).  After several rinses, the color of the water began to redden less, but lots of leather fibers started slipping.

Both after the initial dyebath and after the rinsing, I pressed as much water as I could out of the leather, then draped it over a box fan on low to dry, kneading and rearranging it every half hour to keep it soft.

The finished chamois is noticeably lighter and duller than before rinsing, though not quite as bad as it looks here (it actually has a bit more yellow than you see).  Interestingly it seems that most of the slipped fibers during the rinse came from the shaggier side, which I take to be the flesh side.  It's now much smoother and more washed-out in color than the shorter-napped side pictured above.

So, success?  Well, for a given measure.  The leather is certainly red.  It's just not as rich or as even in color as we've come to expect.  For all I know, this could just be what madder-red leather looked like in ancient times, but maybe there are factors that would result in a better color, such as larger vats or more frequent stirring.

One last note:  The plastic bucket I used was also stained.  I wonder, if I use it for future dyeing projects with other colors, will they pick up some pink from this one?

Thursday, June 27, 2019

Cold-dyeing leather with madder root, part II

After soaking the chamois in mordant solution for 24 hours, I drained it, pressed it, and spread it out to dry in the sun today.  It'll remain dry until the dyebath is ready to use.

I'm a little concerned about what the soak might have done to it, since the water had turned faintly chamois-colored.  Did the alum and/or the cream of tartar attack the aldehydes, liberating some of the fish oil?  I'll have to knead it once it's dry and see whether it's turned rawhide-ish.

Yesterday meanwhiles, I started getting the dyebath ready to use.  I'm using the recipe and numbers from Wild Colours.  Luckily I had a manygallon bucket on hand as well as a jar of calcium carbonate I bought for use as a white paint pigment last year.

Although the numbers call for using a 1:1 ratio of madder to fiber by weight, I used the entire 100 grams of madder for 71 grams of leather because I can't be bothered and what am I going to do with 29 grams of madder anyway?

I put the powder in the bucket, poured eight quarts of water over it, sprinkled on the calcium and stirred it all up with my hand in a rubber glove.  Then I covered it in Saran wrap and set it on the back porch, with another plastic bag tautly pulled over the top of the bucket to prevent rain from filling it up.  (In hindsight, another sheet of plastic wrap would probably work better for this purpose.)  It will sit for four days to a week and then the leather will soak in it for four days to a week.  So, next update in about two weeks.

Wednesday, June 26, 2019

Cold-dyeing leather with madder root, part I

I plan on an all-new akinakes and scabbard for Plataea 2021.  My previous designs have used acrylic paints on the leather scabbard or leather facing.  Since I'm hoping to eliminate as much non-period materials as possible this time around, and I never figured out how to make a water-resistant paint for leather, my current aim is just to use a dyed red leather facing and maybe a bronze applique.

The trouble with dyeing leather is that the equivalent processes for fabric usually involve simmering them in water with mordants and dyes, but simmering leather invariably causes it to shrink and harden.  To work around that, I'm attempting both the mordanting and dyeing processes "cold" (which is to say, not hot enough to cause the leather's collagen protein fibers to coil up, which is what causes shrinkage and hardening).

Cold-mordanting is not unheard-of, as Sea Green and Sapphire describes.  Heat merely speeds up the process, but if you leave the fiber to soak overnight, you really only need enough heat to dissolve the mordants.  For me, all this is theoretical, and Heidi is speaking of wool, not leather, so we'll see whether it holds true in my situation.  It's my understanding that mordants for wool will work on leather, since both are proteins.

I'm using aluminum sulfate, which providence caused me to buy a pound of back when Allegheny Art was still operating in my town.  I have most of that left.  Ancient Mesopotamian records often mention alum and madder in association with leather, so we know this is a period-appropriate method.  Cream of tartar is, of course, readily available in grocery stores, and people should have at least been familiar with it in the Achaemenid period, since it readily precipitates out of fermenting grape wine.  Admittedly I don't know whether it was used to assist in mordanting at that time, but I'm willing to admit it as a plausibility.

The chamois leather in this attempt is from the nearby Ace Hardware.  It's also sold at Pep Boys, Home Depot, and probably other large auto supply and hardware stores.  Chamois, as I've noted before, is a type of fat-cured leather; the only difference between it and braintan is that the fish oil in chamois generates its own aldehydes as it oxidizes, so it doesn't need smoking to introduce them.  Thus, the fat is already permanently bound to the collagen, so wet chamois can be allowed to dry without kneading and will be easy to re-soften.

After cutting off some snippets for last year's casein paint experiment, I was left with 2.5 ounces of chamois.  Using the ratios from Botanical Colors, I came up with measurements of 14 grams of alum (just under a tablespoon) and 4 grams of cream of tartar (just under a teaspoon).  I dissolved both in Pyrex cups of hot water.  Interestingly the cream of tartar didn't seem to want to fully dissolve; around an eighth of a teaspoon of powder coalesced at the bottom of the cup no matter how many times I swirled it.

I dumped it all in a sink with warm tap water, added the chamois and kneaded it until it was thoroughly wet.  Tomorrow it gets hung out to dry, and with any luck we'll have some good weather ahead for the next stage.

Friday, March 29, 2019

Product review: Fluted brass beads from Crazy Crow

Fluted spherical beads, nowadays commonly called "melon" beads, were a common feature in Achaemenid jewelry and were even used on the thigh cords of akinakes scabbards.  They could be made of metal, stone, glass or ceramic, and often, but not always, featured a small rim at one or both openings.

I recently acquired a bag of fluted beads from Crazy Crow Trading Post.  They are advertised as hollow but heavy and 3/8 inch (about 9.5mm) in diameter; no indication as to whether that refers to the stringing length or the width.  I chose brass as a substitute for gold.

As you can see, they are not quite as advertised...

While the metal used may indeed be brass, it's "red" brass (that is, with a low zinc content and thus a more coppery orange hue) rather than the common yellow brass that it appears to be in the catalogue and online photos.  This isn't necessarily bad, but it does mean they're a less effective substitute for gold and look more like a medium- to low-alloy tin bronze, which was also used for some beads.  Reinforcing this effect is the fact that the beads are "raw" brass with no protective coating.  As you can see, some of them are rather badly tarnished.

In other respects, the beads do live up to the ad copy.  They measure a hair over 9mm in width and 9.5mm in stringing length.  They're surprisingly heavy, much more so than some of Crazy Crow's other hollow metal beads that I've bought, though lighter than solid beads would be.

The raw brass gives me pause.  While all unpainted metal would be "raw" in period, it would also be difficult to polish these without leaving any polishing agent in the grooves or getting it into the inside of the bead, where it could permanently etch the metal (I have seen Brasso do this when allowed to remain in crevices).  Therefore keeping them bright and shiny would be a challenge.

Otherwise, I think these would be excellent for period jewelry if you know what they are and how to use them.  As a substitute for bronze rather than gold, they would probably be appropriate for an impression of a well-off but not especially rich person.  Also, they might be useable on the thigh cord of a small akinakes, paired with a small chape - my examination of Persepolis reliefs indicates that the width ratio of the chape to the bead ranged from 3.57:1 to 5:1, so a 9mm-wide bead could be paired with a chape that is at most 45mm across.

Tuesday, March 19, 2019

Analysis of an unprovenanced akinakes

I've just stumbled across a curious article from last October by Sean Manning of Book and Sword.  It concerns the analysis of an iron/steel akinakes purchased "from dealers in Tehran" along with iron Luristan-style blades in the 1960s.

The dagger is a fairly standard design and could fit in with known finds from Achaemenid territory or elsewhere in Asia.  What interests me is that the article includes a photo of the top of the pommel, the first I've seen of an iron akinakes, showing a tang with a wide rectangular cross section peened flush.  The pommel was apparently a separate piece from the rest of the grip, with the sturdy peened tang holding it firmly in place.

Assuming this is a genuine Iron Age artefact, it is the first evidence I've ever seen for the construction of an iron akinakes hilt, and indicates that the iron akinakes was NOT created in a single piece like the bronze proto-akinakai from Central Asia.

Sunday, January 6, 2019

Ceramic water bottle by Pamela Cummings

Over the years, I've come to see pottery as a somewhat neglected area of reenactment gear.  We focus on war to a great extent, but you can't present a realistic image of ancient peoples without also showing how they lived day-to-day, and in that sense, the objects of day-to-day life are just as important as weapons.  Indeed, the majority of individuals would have used weapons rarely if at all, while everyone would have used wares for eating and drinking on a daily basis.

For some years, I've wanted a ceramic water container to replace the leather ones I used at Marathon 2011 and 2015.  Ceramic bottles and canteens are much better-documented than the molded leather ones, and a simple wheel-thrown jug is of comparable price or even less expensive than a commercially-made leather costrel.  (Not to mention, waxed leather can be damaged if left out in the sun - ceramic won't be.)  A water container of a convenient size for carrying is essential, so it's my view that that's the logical place to start your pottery collection.  You need to drink, of course; why duck into a tent to sneak a sip out of a plastic bottle when you could be drinking out of an authentic container in public?

There is some reproduction pottery on the market for Classical reenactors, but as usual, for material specific to the Persian empire, you'll need to go custom most of the time.  I commissioned this bottle from Pamela Cummings of Harrisburg, whom I met at the 2018 Crafts in the Meadow fair at Tyler Park last October.  Pam was a pleasure to work with, and very understanding and accommodating as we worked out the design, delivery and payment.

Pam based the bottle on several finds from Persepolis, found in that ever-useful repository of information, Oriental Institute Publications 69.  I requested it in a 12-ounce capacity, the same as a can of soda.  We consciously deviated from the originals in two ways:  1)  they were made of brown clay with several partial washes of various dull colors, but to simplify things, this reproduction doesn't have additional colors, and 2)  the originals, as with almost all Achaemenid pottery, were unglazed, whereas Pam applied a clear matte glaze, both to make hers waterfast and more comfortable to drink out of (people often find that unglazed pottery is rough against the lips).  While it may look glossy in my photographs, in person it has a more mild sheen and could perhaps pass for being lightly burnished, which is also a technique known in Achaemenid pottery.

Pam normally includes a small initial stamp on her works.  Understanding that some reenactors don't want this on their gear, she offered to leave it off.  Personally, I think that if a trademark isn't large and distracting, it's not a problem - no one thinks we're eating and drinking out of actual ancient museum pieces anyway - and I see it as a segue to discussing how we go about obtaining our items and the fact that these ancient arts are still very much alive.

A bottle like this can be stopped with a tapered cork from the hardware store, and cork is a fairly ancient material - the oak species it comes from is native to the Western Mediterranean - though I'm not sure exactly how widespread it was in our period.  I suspect a waxed wood stopper would be more authentic for an item coming from the Iranian plateau.