Stuffed Leather Bottles

leather bottles

Over the past couple years I’ve made a few attempts at making leather bottles. I am calling these “stuffed” because they were made by pouring a stuffing agent into the bottle to give it its shape.

My first two attempts had some setbacks that caused me to think I had ruined them with mold growth, and they sat in a drawer until a friend of mine asked me for help making one of her own to give as a gift to her husband. She had found an entirely different set of instructions online — and while I had some reservations about some of those instructions, there was enough good information to fill in the gaps of my knowledge from my previous attempts and make the first two pieces salvageable.

What’s a leather bottle, you may be asking? What evidence do we have that these were created and used in the middle ages? Most extant bottles that have so far been discovered have been English, from the 16th-17th centuries — before glass bottles became more common for storing liquids. Leather may have been a prevalent bottle material before then, but there is less evidence. A few bottles were found on the sunken 16th-century Mary Rose ship, and the pattern I used for two out of three of these bottles was inspired by one of them. Other bottles were commonly made by shaping the leather on wooden molds rather than stuffing them, but until I get a wooden mold made, the stuffing method will have to do.

Many thanks to HL Tadhg madAedain uiChonchobhair who taught a class at Gulf Wars last spring, from whose handout and pattern I made two of these bottles. Thanks also to HL Earic Orvander, who took some time with me a couple years ago at Pennsic to explain the process and draw a rough diagram of a bottle shape. I took copious notes and made my first bottle based on his recommendations.

For the sake of simplicity, and because a lot of the instructions for making this style of bottle overlap, I will point toward this Instructable for the basics and add my recommendations for altering the steps based on what I have learned from these three. The pattern by HL Tadhg is slightly different, but I don’t have a digitized version to share.

Altering the pattern: Make sure that the seam going down from the mouth of the bottle to the sides (not including the handle) is a smooth line. To stuff the bottle you will need to shove a dowel or tool handle into the bottle to push sand (or another stuffing agent) into the edges along the seams. Having an angle means that it will be impossible to shove the sand into some of the edges because the dowel won’t be able to reach around a corner. (See the “holey water” bottle: my first attempt, made from my own pattern, had similar corners and the bottle is wrinkled rather than inflated in those spots because I couldn’t reach them.)

I also recommend altering the handle holes to be more like triangles or rectangles rather than perfect circles, as that is closer to the original styles. I have seen several patterns that call for creating these holes by using round punches — which is okay if that’s easier for you, but if you have difficulty punching through two pieces of thick leather (as I was taught the method), some quick work with a craft knife is the easier (and more period-appropriate) way to go.

Finally, make sure that the mouth of the bottle has right angles going downward before sloping outward. The second bottle I made (the one with the flat bottom) angles outward from the lip, and it doesn’t seem to hold a cork as well.

Choosing a thickness of leather: Unless you are so strong that you cannot use thinner pieces of leather without having to worry about breaking through the leather when you stuff it (“HULK TEAR!!!”), a thinner weight of leather will be easier to use and creates a more lightweight finished product. This last bit could be important if you are carrying a water bottle around all day along with other items. The flat-bottomed bottle was made with 12-ounce leather and was VERY difficult for me to work with. The round-bottomed one was made with 6-8-ounce leather and the “holey water” was made with 3-4-ounce. Again, unless you are a big galoot with more strength than finesse, you shouldn’t need such a heavy weight. (Not that there’s anything wrong with big galoots — if you know you are, own it! If you’re nice, I may let you carry my tool box.)

Marking a cork area: I don’t really understand the necessity of this step. What I did learn from these bottles was that it’s better to leave the cork in the bottle when it’s drying with the stuffing inside, so that the leather will form to fit the cork. A bit of dowel rod in a width that fits the opening should suffice. Dipping it in wax when you cover the bottle will also help to ensure a secure seal.

Glue: I would NOT recommend adding glue to something that you want to be food-safe.

Stitching: I would also NOT recommend using a drill to bore the seam holes, as that would remove leather rather than just cut it. An awl will create holes that will close themselves back up as the leather relaxes — it is just pushing the grains apart from each other. Drilling or punching removes pieces of leather that will not close themselves back up because the removed leather is permanently gone. Why would you want this in something designed to hold liquids?

My recommendation — use a diamond-shaped awl to bore the holes. A completely round awl will create a round hole, but a diamond shape will accommodate the shape of a threaded needle eye. This means that it will be easier to sew, with less strain on your hands, the thread, and the needles. (In my experience, round awls increase my likelihood of breaking threads and needles, especially with thicker leather!)

The Holey Water bottle has two rows of seams. This may create a more watertight bottle, but so far the single-seam bottles seem to hold water just fine. Time may tell as the bottles get more wear.

Stuffing the wet bottle: I’ve found sand to be best so far. I tried using lentils on the holey bottle, but ran into a major problem — once the lentils were wet, they swelled up and became impossible to remove. And, because I had made that pattern with a smaller mouth, there was less room to remove the grains. In the end I was shaking them out over a few weeks and they started to mold. That was enough to put me off the project for about a year and a half until I made the second bottle in a class using sand. Based on my experiences I wouldn’t recommend using any type of dried food to stuff a bottle.

I filled up my bottle and kept shoving in more sand, then filled it with water and shoved in some more. Because it was then dripping wet and couldn’t stand on its own, I dried the round-bottomed bottle by suspending it inside a utility sink with a pair of long cooking chopsticks. The flat-ish-bottomed bottle was made at a camping event without those amenities, so I kept dropping it down on a picnic table to flatten the bottom. Because of the seam, it’s still not flat enough to stand on its own. For this design, if you are going to make a bottle with a seam on the bottom, you need to account that it will never stand on its own and prepare to suspend it to dry so that it will fill into a nicely rounded shape and thus fulfill its destiny.

Waxing: You can mix in paraffin with the beeswax to cut expenses, but beeswax gives it the best luster in the end product. You can also cut expenses by melting Crayola crayons to pour inside — apparently they are food-safe to protect all the kids who like to eat crayons, but only Crayola brand. And, inside the bottle, you don’t need it to be pretty.

The flat-bottomed bottle was first covered with crayon wax on the inside and a mix of paraffin and beeswax on the outside. This produced a mostly brown color on the outside but it had some whitish discoloration that made me worry that it had not been completely dried when it was waxed, and that water was mildewing. When the other two bottles were waxed (the Holey bottle sat unwaxed for a couple years until I could get around to waxing — this project forced me to finish up!) I went ahead and re-waxed the flat-bottomed bottle.

Putting the bottles into the oven after waxing seems to be a crucial step. Not only did it help the wax seep into the leather (as opposed to sitting on the surface) but it gave them all a beautiful chocolate sheen. Even the flat-bottomed bottle lost its whitish discoloration.

Using the oven, we put the bottles onto a board that had pegs to help them stand upside-down. This helped them melt the wax mostly evenly, but the bottles with the thickest amounts of wax finally had to be turned right-side-up to get the wax around the mouth melted — and because the wax was starting to melt out of the seams where we needed it most! When we tested our bottles with water they each needed a squidge more wax in a couple spots (sure, that’s a technical term…now) on the inside.

I’d argue, based on the bottle I made while camping, that heating with an oven is a crucial step in the waxing phase for ultimate hardening of the leather and absorption of the wax. To finish, take the hot bottle out of the oven and polish with a soft cloth. We used pantyhose — I’m not sure where this recommendation came from, but it seemed to work.

Final notes: Making these bottles gave me a better understanding of the process and how to recover the first two projects. Plus, it seemed to create a “bug” in my local group, as a couple more people have decided they want bottles, too.

I wasn’t feeling terribly inspired with the tooling on the final bottle, but if I create another one, I’d aim for something inspired by the character of Sir John Falstaff in Shakespeare’s plays. He is someone I associate with an affinity for bottles, anyway. I’d also like to attempt a few stand-on-their-own molded bottles, but that will have to wait until I have better woodworking capabilities. In the meantime, I’m more tempted to create a leather mug. I think I’d get more use out of that than a canteen, anyway. These have been fun projects, but there are so many dozens of others on my to-do list. For now, I’ve finished up a couple of unfinished works, and perhaps gained another “dot” in leathercrafting.

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Experimenting with Cuir Bouilli, Part 1

At this stage of my leathercrafting hobby / habit, I’ve made a few things that I’ve hardened with hot water using a cuir bouilli method — a couple knife sheaths and a small cell phone pouch. None of these projects have been terribly scientific; I made sure to use an exact temperature of water, but haven’t known how much to account for shrinkage. The sheaths were dipped in water with the knives included (encased in cellophane) so that the leather would shrink to shape around the knives.

I know that cuir bouilli will shrink leather, but essentially, I don’t know how much. The answers I’ve gotten from fellow leathercrafters has been as varied as their methods for cuir bouilli itself. So, I’ve decided it’s time to conduct an experiment.

The two main questions I’d like to answer:

a. How much does leather shrink? and

b. Do different weights / types of leather shrink or react differently under the same method?

What I hope to gain from the answers to these questions is a better understanding of the leather and whether thinner pieces can be hardened and used in place of thicker pieces.

There is a more practical purpose in this knowledge, too, which leads to another question. In conversations with fellow Slavic Interest Group members, the subject has come up regarding the use of leather as a stiffening material in hats. It’s been suggested that a thicker, heavier leather is necessary in order for the hat to hold its shape and support the weight of beaded, embroidered outer fabric. The down side to using this material is that the thicker leather combined with a liberal dose of pearls and other beads can make the hat uncomfortably heavy to wear.

I’d like to find out if I can use a thinner weight of leather by hardening it via cuir bouilli. How thin can I go? If the leather is so lightweight that it’s very flexible when it’s soft, will it harden into an unpredictable shape? What’s the needed weight for a cylindrical piece to harden without distorting itself? Could I use chrome-tanned leather (as it’s not useful for much else and will be hidden inside a hat so it doesn’t need to look pretty) or is chrome-tanned leather immune to cuir bolli? Furthermore, how much larger would I need to cut a piece to account for its size after it’s hardened and shrunk?

Lastly, it’s been suggested that water-hardened leather should not be used in a hat because if the hat were to get wet, the leather would lose its shape again. Based on my previous experiences with hardening leather, I have a suspicion that it would not change shape with re-wetting — but I don’t know for sure.

So, let’s find out!

My method:

I’ve cut several pieces of leather into three-inch squares. I’ve tried to get a sample of every weight that I have in my personal stock, including both vegetable-tanned and chrome-tanned leather. I plan to dip each piece into 180-degree F water for 20 seconds each, then examine them for hardness, shape, and size.

This is the cuir bouilli method that I’ve used in the past and it has successfully hardened 5-9-ounce leather. This includes a 5-6-ounce leather that I made into a small phone pouch, which had some slight dents from the process, but I think that happened because I fumbled with it during the dipping.

Because any indentations that happen to leather while it’s being dipped become permanent once it’s hard, I need to account for those indentations in this experiment. I will dip each piece with a pair of metal tongs and hold it along the middle of one side. That will still give me three other sides to measure for shrinkage and I can compare the dents between pieces to see how different pieces might be affected differently by the same tongs. I am also noting here which pieces have imperfections in the raw state. Especially with my chrome supply, these are scrap remnants that already had markings when I got them.

The pieces, and the results:

I wrote the descriptions for the soft leather below before conducting the experiment, but the before and after photos here should tell the bigger picture:

leather experiment 1

leather experiment 2

1. 1-2 oz. veg
Soft: very thin and flexible, smooth, pale pink color. This sample was cut from a relatively new hide, ordered just a few months ago. The sample is slightly wrinkled because I cut it from a narrow corner, probably from a leg.
Hard: Shriveled and curled, darker. It shriveled vertically more than horizontally. It’s stiff but still bendable.

2. 2 oz. deerskin (probably  chrome-tanned)
Soft: very thin and flexible, supple texture, milk chocolate color. Stretchy. There is a wrinkle running through the middle that is thinner than the rest, possibly scar tissue. This sample is from a hide I purchased a few years ago and is mostly depleted.
Hard: No significant change.

3. 2-3 oz. pigskin, veg
Soft: very thin and flexible, slightly bumpy texture, slightly tan color. This sample is at least a couple years old.
Hard: No significant change, except for a scorch mark from the tongs.

4. 3-4 oz. elk hide (probably chrome)
Soft: thin and flexible, supple texture, black. Slightly stretchy. I bought this hide at the same time as the deerskin. This sample has a couple small indentations.
Hard: No significant change.

5. 3-4 oz. milled
Soft: Tandy advertised its milled leather as a type that “acts like vegetable-tanned leather.” This hide is thin and flexible with a smooth texture almost as supple as the elk hide. Beige, very slightly stretchy. In past projects I have NOT found this hide to dye evenly or take tooling as well as veg leather in its weight. It is more flexible than its veg equivalent.
Hard: It shriveled and curled more vertically than horizontally. It’s stiff but still bendable.

6. 4-5 oz. veg
Soft: Flexible, yet stiffer than the lighter weights. It’s at least a couple years old and slightly tan. Mostly smooth, but with a few tiny wrinkles. We’ve used this hide for multiple bags and other projects that need a toolable, flexible leather.
Hard: This piece shriveled more than any other, and is stiffer to uncurl. It also darkened considerably and became slimy on the surface, perhaps a symptom of the leather dissolving.

7. 5-6 oz. veg
Soft: A little stiffer, yet still slightly bendable. Slightly tan, smooth. At least a year or two old. We’ve used this leather for pouches, leather bottles, cuffs, and other small projects. Easily toolable.
Hard: Very stiff, curled and shriveled. Much darker. This was the piece I thought would most likely work for hat shaping. It’s stiff enough now, but there doesn’t seem to be much rhyme or reason to its shrinking.

8. 6-8 oz.  veg
Soft: Stiff, very slightly bendable, tan, very smooth. This hide is at least a few years old. We’ve used this leather for knife sheaths and other encasements for sharp objects, bottles, pouches, tool storage cups, and other items that need a bit more durability and stiffness.
Hard: Stiffer, yet still flexible, uncurled but with sharper edges. I had hoped this piece would be a second likely candidate for hat shaping.

9. 6-7 oz. chrome
Soft: Slightly more bendable than #8, supple texture, burgundy/gray. There are a few very slight wrinkles in the surface. This piece came from some remnants I bought a few years ago. It’s been used in a pouch that has gotten some wear and tear, yet retained most of its shape.
Hard: No significant change.

10. 7-8 oz. chrome
Soft: Stiff, yet slightly bendable, not as smooth surface, walnut brown/gray. Another remnant, a couple medium-sized wrinkles through the length of the sample.
Hard: No significant change.

11. 8-9 oz. chrome
Soft: More flexible than #10, very slight suppleness, dark chocolate color all the way through. Another remnant.
Hard: No significant change.

12. 9-10 oz. chrome
Soft: As flexible as #6, slightly supple texture, black all the way through. Another remnant.
Hard: No significant change.

13. 12-13 oz. aged veg
Soft: Very stiff, barely bendable at all with bare hands while dry. Very smooth, darker brown similar to red oak or brown cheese. This hide was donated from a friend and I have no idea how old it is, but I’d guess at least a few years. This leather is very difficult to cut with a knife, almost impossible with leather shears. A power saw might be the easiest option.
Hard: No significant change. The edges are sharper, the color is slightly darker.

14. 12-13 oz. mystery leather
Soft: As flexible as #8, supple, dark chocolate on the outside and graham-cracker-colored on the inside. My original guess is that it’s chrome-tanned, possibly oil-tanned, but I usually see chrome leather as being gray on the inside or the same color throughout. It’s possible this is a pre-dyed veg leather. It’s another remnant that I bought at the same time as the other chrome-tanned pieces.
Hard: This piece curled slightly, but retained its flexibility.

Conclusions: It’s safe to say that chrome-tanned leather is not affected by cuir bouilli. Of any of the pieces, the biggest surprise was the lack of change in the pigskin, because I believed this to be vegetable-tanned. Maybe there is a difference in the types of animal leather (most of the other pieces were cow hides).

Of the vegetable-tanned pieces, I expected the thinnest pieces to lose their shape. What I did NOT expect was that the rate of shrinkage in the other pieces would be so inconsistent. I cannot, based on these results, choose one to make into a hat band, because I need a consistent rectangular shape that will support the weight of beaded embroidery and provide me with a reliable size upon which I can design said embroidery.

For now, my science is wrong and it’s time to start over with a different sort of experiment.


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Painted wooden lucet

lucet painting

Just a quick addition to my kit: I got two of these wooden lucets at Gulf Wars last year, and now I’ve painted one of them. Based on extant finds from before and after period, it’s safe to assume that people decorated everyday objects, especially wooden ones.

I found this little kitty in Medieval Russian Ornament, as part of an illuminated letter dated 1120-28 in the Joureff Gospel manuscript. I adjusted the image slightly so that he is sitting up and looking upwards — to the lucet-making, thread-dangling action. The curlicues are also part of the original illumination.

lucet inspiration

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This is a pair of mittens I made back in January. These are made from green wool with elk leather lining. The fur trim is from a detachable fur collar piece that I inherited in my grandmother’s fur collection. I’m not sure which animal it came from; I chose the piece because it’s closest in color to some red fox fur I have on a hat that I want to wear with the mittens.

This was entirely hand-stitched, mostly with white hand-spun wool purchased from Wolf & Phoenix. (The fur was attached with brown cotton thread.)

I’ve never really done much embroidery with chain stitching, so this project gave me a bit more practice with that. I thought about filling in the larger sections of the embroidered design with a satin stitch, though I couldn’t seem to get it to look right with the thicker wool.

The design comes from this page of embroidery designs.

Embroidering with white wool presented several “teachable moments” — here’s a list of things I learned NOT to do next time:

  1. Use transfer paper or white pencil to mark the pattern onto the fabric, not washable markers. I’ve used washable markers with embroidery in the past and it’s been handy because I can wash the marker out when I’m finished. It stays longer than chalk and it’s easier to get exact lines compared to a wedge of soap. However, it stained the wool along the outer edges of the embroidery. I left it as-is on the left mitten, where there’s a faint blue-green tinge around the edges where I used a teal marker.For the right mitten, I decided to rinse out the marker before sewing the fabric to the leather lining. This led me to the next lesson…
  2. Don’t use an iron to dry out sopping wet wool that has white embroidery. There must have been some kind of residue on the iron. The fabric flattened and dried out nicely (and didn’t shrink because both fabric and thread had already been pre-shrunk). But, it left brown marks on the white embroidery. Argh!

Since I drafted this post in January (and finished uploading images in July), the stains have not been as noticeable in daylight. Still, I decided not to delete the lessons above because I want to remember to treat white thread differently when I embroider it onto colored fabric. Overall, I like the color combination of the grinch-green and white detail.

Here are other photos of the making process:

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Leather pouch with decorated girdle loop

So, I’m finally getting around to uploading photos off my camera from all the projects I’ve worked on over the past few months. One of them was this girdle-loop pouch made for Helewyse DeBirkestad for the Midlands Largesse project.


The design is based on a style common in the 13-15th centuries, with a decorated flap and belt loop. The purpose of the hole in the belt loop is for carrying a small feast knife. I added her heraldry to the flap and carried over the theme of the acorn and oak leaves to the shape of the hole in the belt loop, as well as a pattern of leaves around the sides. (I also added an oak leaf to a drawstring pouch that went with this gift.)

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For the most part, I was happy with the way the pouch turned out. I wanted it to be functional and an improvement on previous pouches I’ve made. I also added a card sleeve to the back for additional storage, which is something I plan to do again in future projects.



The one thing I might do over is the flap closure. I didn’t allow much space around the device to add any closure, and by the time I realized that it would need one, I had to choose between putting it in the middle of the design or at the tip. I’m hoping that having it so close to the tip doesn’t hurt the shape of the flap as it gets used.


This is the little drawstring bag I made before I had the inspiration to make the bigger pouch. I also made a little keychain out of the acorn shapes cut out of the belt loop.


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Just a quick update on my Shakespeare exposure project…two nights ago I finished reading Cymbeline. This is one of his later romance plays that I started to read over a year ago and had to put aside for some reason or another, and couldn’t remember much of anything about it. This time around I read from the beginning, then went back to the Riverside’s introductory essay last night to get a little more background information.

This post isn’t meant to be any sort of essay or literary criticism because that’s more of a mental commitment than I’m ready to get into for now on this project. However, I will share a few short reflections:

  1. This play seemed easier to read than some of Shakespeare’s others, in terms of grasping the vocabulary and context. I’m not sure if it’s because it was written toward the end of his career and possibly closer to a more contemporary vocabulary, or if the scenes were shorter on average, or what — but it seems I breezed through it much more quickly.
  2. Imogen, the heroine, is one of his better lead female characters. She’s strong, confident, smart, and doesn’t go insane. And, she has perhaps the majority of the plot of the play. Then again, Shakespeare set a pretty low bar with his female characters, so take that as you will.
  3. This play also has some rather disparate plot points that come together clumsily in the final scene. According to the introductory essay, George Bernard Shaw thought it was stale, even by 19th-century standards. But then, some of that is par for a Shakespearean play.
  4. This is classified as a romance. A lot of the tropes seem to be set up for a tragic ending, then everything turns out happily ever after (except for the wicked stepmother and her idiot son — yes, there’s a wicked stepmother — but that’s another note to explore later…). I wonder if perhaps this was originally meant to be a tragedy, then something happened to make Shakespeare change the ending. That could explain the convoluted developments that help set things right — ghosts of dead family members and the god Jupiter changing the game in a bizarre prison dream sequence with sloppy (by the Bard’s standards, anyway) song? If it were written today, I’d call it a marketing decision overriding the writer’s original plans. Hmm.

Next: I decided I want to move on to a comedy. There’s only one I haven’t read yet: Two Gentlemen of Verona. Last night I read the introductory essay, which begins with a foreboding warning that this is Shakespeare’s least popular play ever.  That doesn’t bode well, and it sounds like I’m in for some sub-standard early-period writing. Some would argue, however, that there is no such thing as “sub-standard” Shakespeare, so we’ll see what wonderful little nuggets it has to offer. Apparently it has “a bit with a dog” (one of my favorite throwaway comments from Shakespeare in Love). So, there’s that.

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Under construction…

It’s hard to believe it’s been over two years since my last post! Though it appears I’ve had a “draft” sitting unfinished for almost as long. :-P

Anyhoo, I’m beginning the daunting task of updating this site with things I’ve been doing since fall 2011. This may take a while, but I’ve renovated some info under a “Literary” category — which has a couple child pages.yeild-to-construction

Many thanks to my friend Dena, who found this appropriate link for me! ;-D (And to 1995, who called to say they want it back…)

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