Pouches were an essential feature of medieval clothing; a survey of art of the Middle Ages from nearly anywhere in Europe shows that both men and women wore one or more pouches attached to their belt. I was inspired by a small drawstring leather pouch from London described by Egan and Pritchard (1991). This pouch (#1695) dates to the late 14th century. It was made from a small piece of deerskin folded in half; the finished pouch had a height of 88mm and a width of 90mm. The sewing material was not preserved, but a line of stitching went up both sides, and along the top edges. A similar pouch in the Museum of London still has similar stitching from an edging woven with tablets to simultaneously hold the pouch together and bind the edge. This is my first complete leatherworking project; I started this because I admired the original pouch, and to learn more about working with light-weight leather.
It appears to have been common to decorate leather objects with silk thread during the Middle Ages. Pederson (1992) describes an assortment of leather shoes and scabbards from 12th c. Norway that were sewn and decorated with silk thread. My interpretation of this is that some items were made of leather for functional reasons when a high level of sturdiness was required, but were decorated with expensive silks to raise these items above the common.
I used a small piece of soft deerskin for the body of the pouch. I wanted leather light enough that I could push a needle through without first punching or poking a hole. Two of the pouches from London were made from deerskin (Egan and Pritchard 1991). The silk thread was size B buttonhole twist. I purchased it dyed, but the shade of dark green I chose would have been obtainable by overdyeing woad (blue) with weld (yellow) to produce green (Liles 1990). No other materials are part of the finished pouch.
Constructing the pouch
Egan and Pritchard gave no specific information about construction methods for this pouch, but Crowfoot et al. (1992) describe in more detail how tablet woven edgings were applied to cloth and leather pouches, as well as to cut edges on garments. Crowfoot et al. state that leather pouches were finished with fewer tablets than cloth ones, probably because they were less likely to fray. The leather pouch in the Museum of London was finished with two four-hole tablets. I chose to use eight tablets with all four holes threaded because this gave a nice edge with the combination of leather and silk that I was using. The tablet weaving is worked in a circular fashion. The weft is threaded on a needle, and passed through the leather seam from right to left, then through the shed of the tablet weaving from left to right, and pulled tight. This creates a tablet-woven tube mounted on the edges of the leather, and the weft of the tablet weaving also holds the seams together. Using this method sews the seams and finishes the edge neatly in a single step. I used eight tablets for the edging, threaded alternately S and Z. The four warp threads from each tablet were tied to a weight to maintain constant tension while weaving the band to the leather. I dropped the weights over the back of a chair so they would hang vertically but still exert tension on the warp. It took some leverage to push the needle through the leather seam, so I held the pouch while I assembled it. This required a bit of dexterity, but worked better for me than trying to clamp the pouch down.
I began assembly at one of the bottom corners. Many medieval pouches in paintings and illustrations had tassels at the corners. Rather than trying to hide the tablet weaving warp, I could turn it into tassels if I started and ended in the appropriate places on the pouch. I wove up one side with all eight tablets together, all turned forward one-quarter turn for each pick of weft. Using individually-weighted tablets let me push the twist out as it built up. When I reached the top corner, I split the pack in two, and each half continued along one side of the opening. At the far side, the two packs rejoined, and the last side was sewn together.
Although the original pouch had two leather drawstrings, I decided instead to use two silk fingerloop braids. The leather is soft enough that silk braids wouldn't wear excessively, and using fingerloop braiding allowed me to increase the amount of glitzy silk I employed. One of the scabbards described by Pederson used a 5-loop braid as a carrying braid, and a similar braid from Oxford was used as a shoelace, so fingerloop braiding and leather items were mixed. Fingerloop braids were commonly used as drawstrings on cloth pouches during the Middle Ages (Crowfoot et al. 1992).
I used a 5-loop (10 strand) fingerloop braid. Most of the fingerloop braids found in London and dated to the 14th c. (the timeperiod of the original leather pouch) used 5 loops, a convenient number for a single worker. The structure is described by Speiser (2000) as "an unorthodox braid worked with crossed loops", and is world-wide in distribution. It is described as a "broad lace of five bows" in two 15th c. patternbooks (Stanley 1974, Griffiths 2001). Instead of fancy end-finishes, I chose to simply tie knots. Knotting the ends is simple and provides a convenient place to grab for pulling the bag closed.
The use of silk tablet-woven edging and drawstrings makes an ordinary leather pouch into an elaborate but functional luxury item for the well-dressed 14th c. English noble. The small size and lack of beltloops on this pouch suggests that it would have been used to hold small valuables, and kept tucked inside another pouch or container. This practice is known from period texts (Egan and Pritchard 1991). My method of construction of the tablet-woven edging, using warp-weighted tablets, worked very well for this small item, and would probably also work well for longer edges such as sleeve bindings. The tablet-woven edging is restricted to cloth and very light leather because it must be possible to push a needle carrying the weft through the seam. Punching heavier leather might work, if the distance between holes corresponded properly to the weight of the thread in the tablet weaving. Because the leather is so thin, one edge of the bag stretched out of shape while I was applying the edging to the top, so the bag is no longer perfectly even. I had only used the tablet-woven edging technique on cloth, which does not stretch in the same way. I enjoyed the working process, and intend to make more of these in both leather and cloth – one can never have too many little bags.
Crowfoot, Elisabeth, Frances Pritchard and Kay Staniland. 1992. Textiles and Clothing 1150-1450. Medieval Finds from Excavations at London: 4. HMSO, London.
Egan, Geoff and Frances Pritchard. 1991. Dress Accessories 1150-1450. Medieval Finds from Excavations at London: 3. HMSO, London. Second edition, 2002, Boydell Press, Woodbridge.
Griffiths, Jeremy. 2001. The Tollemache Book of Secrets. The Roxburghe Club, London.
Liles, John N. 1990. The art and craft of natural dyeing: Traditional recipes for modern use. University of Tennessee Press.
Pederson, Inger Raknes. 1992. Silk threads on leather objects from the Middle Ages. In: Bender Jørgensen, Lise, and Elisabeth Munksgaard, Elisabeth. Archaeological Textiles in Northern Europe: Report from the 4th NESAT Symposium. Det Kongelige Danske Kunstakademi, Copenhagen.
Speiser, Noemi. 2000. Old English pattern books for loop braiding. Self-published.
Stanley, E.G. 1974. Directions for making many sorts of laces. Pp. 89-103 in: Rowland, Beryl (ed.). Chaucer and Middle English Studies. Kent State University Press.