Making a set of leather armor from absolute scratch
February 7, 2012 10:46 AM   Subscribe

I want to make a set of armor out of leather. Where on earth do I start?

I haven't had a real project to work on in a long time and I'm a little gung-ho about this whole idea, maybe overly so considering my lack of experience.

I want to make a full set of armor (chest, bracers, pauldrons, skirt, boots) out of leather. Well, probably leather- it seems the most approachable way to do it. I'd also possibly like some metal accents, maybe grommets or hammered sheet metal, and intricate designs tooled into the leather.

I have some sewing experience but none in pattern-making. I am pretty handy and creative and headstrong when I want to make something. I have a sewing machine and a decently large space to work in. I know I'll likely need a dress form.

Here's a basic design I sketched out.

Where do I go from here? Should I buy scraps of leather I'm interested in and try tooling and sewing them? Read up on info somewhere? Search out cosplay forums? I've looked into hardening leather to make a molded breastplate and bracers- that seems like the best option for my, um, stature, but sort of seems... difficult.

I want to make this happen! Where do I go from here?
posted by rachaelfaith to Sports, Hobbies, & Recreation (13 answers total) 8 users marked this as a favorite
Boiled Leather.
posted by Loto at 11:00 AM on February 7, 2012 [2 favorites]

Best answer:

Seriously, find your local branch of the Society for Creative Anachronism, announce on their e-mail list what you're interested in doing, specify whether it needs to be authentically medieval or not, and people will flood your inbox with offers to help and advice on how to prepare the leather, what kind to get, how to fit it to your body, etc.

If you can't locate your local group, or no one is responding there, let me know, I can find your nearest/next-nearest group, or your kingdom's leatherworking e-mail list.
posted by gillyflower at 11:00 AM on February 7, 2012 [5 favorites]

This is 1) a pretty cool idea, and 2) possibly a bit more expensive than you might have thought.

I'm going to recommend that you familiarize yourself with Tandy, one of the largest distributors of leather and leatherworking supplies out there. They've got a store in Allentown.

For online resources, check out which appears to be a pretty significant forum for this sort of thing.

But understand that if you want this to look good, you're going to want to make most of it out of the same material, not scraps. Finished leather sells for anywhere from $3.99-9.99 a square foot, and this project could easily take a few dozen by the time you're finished. Plus any hardware you want to use. Plus tools. Etc.

I have a hard time thinking that you're going to be able to do this with a sewing machine. Leather is thick and tough, and your sewing machine probably doesn't have the power to make it work.

But this is entirely doable. Get yourself a crafting book and go nuts!

One final suggestion: you thought about integrating it with chain mail? It's surprisingly easy and cheap to make, just time consuming. MeMail me if you want to talk about it.
posted by valkyryn at 11:11 AM on February 7, 2012

Oh wow, I asked this exact question last year. Some good advice in there for sure. (I have a bunch of leather lying around, some even cut, but man am I lazy and I have nothing particularly wearable.)
posted by restless_nomad at 11:28 AM on February 7, 2012

I have a hard time thinking that you're going to be able to do this with a sewing machine. Leather is thick and tough, and your sewing machine probably doesn't have the power to make it work.

Depends on the leather and the machine. Even a relatively light-weight sewing machine can handle light-weight leather (e.g. 1-3 oz) if you go slowly and use an appropriate needle and thread. See here for details. If you're at all concerned about whether your machine can handle it you'll either have to do it by hand, invest in a proper leather sewing machine (they are not cheap), or make friends with someone who has one (e.g. contact the SCA). Unless your armor is meant to be a lightweight, nonfuctional costume, however, a regular sewing machine will not be sufficient.

The bottom line is "contact your local SCA organization." There will be lots of people with the experience and tools needed, and they'll be happy to point you to the right resources or even help you out directly. Educational outreach to non-members is part of the SCA's mission statement.
posted by jedicus at 11:39 AM on February 7, 2012

Nthing the SCA.

Looks like you're in the East Kingdom. You probably have a master leather worker in your neighborhood.
posted by ChurchHatesTucker at 11:52 AM on February 7, 2012

Response by poster: Never even heard of the SCA before. They sound like a great resource. I'm a little hesitant to pop in with, 'Hey, I know nothing about you guys, but halp me make some armor' but I'll poke around and see what I find. And sorry I missed your question, restless_nomad, I should have also searched by 'leatherworking'.

I'm okay with the cost- I was looking at full sides of leather at Tandy and Brettuns and I'm cool with tossing money at a project I'm excited about.
posted by rachaelfaith at 11:56 AM on February 7, 2012

Best answer: I have made a leather chest plate and bracers.
A few technical notes. Read up on leather tanning, a lot of leather is going to be chrome tanned which wont tool or harden all that well. You want vegetable tanned, its the stuff that you can soak and form, or tool, or apply boiling wax to.

One thing to note, its not cheap, so very not cheap. Looking at about 3-10 bucks a square foot, depending on thickness and quality, and you usually have to buy a double shoulder or side.
To save some money phone around to hide suppliers in your area. Most carry "B" grade or worse hides. Same thickness but they will have holes, brands, scars, or other cosmetic defects. They are used a lot for hidden parts of a saddle to save cost.

As for sewing, two ways to do it, the proper way and the cheating way. Proper way is to get an awl to punch the hole through the leather, then using a pair of blunt needles run a saddle stitch through the parts. Cheating way is to rubber cement the two parts together so they don't move, mark out your stitches, and use a 1mm drill bit to drill all your sewing holes, then run through with the needles as before, way easier.
They also make sewing awls, that are basically a sewing machine minus the machine that work well. They are usually cheaper from camping supply stores.
posted by Pink Fuzzy Bunny at 12:00 PM on February 7, 2012

Can't help much on the leather portion. Agree that you should decide if you are going historically accurate or something fantastical. :)

Chainmaille, that I can help with if you decide to add some to your armor.

Supplies - The Ring Lord, Blue Buddha
Discussion - The Ring Lord Forum
Community - Maille Artisans International League , Maillers Worldwide
Basic Tutorials - CGMaille
posted by PlutoniumX at 12:05 PM on February 7, 2012

Best answer: Speaking as a former Chatelaine at the shire, Baronial, and Kingdom level, we LOOOOVE when someone pops in with "Hey, I know nothing about your guys, but halp me make some armor". (Chatelaine = newcomer welcomer) If anyone appears to snub you, keep in mind we are a bunch of geeks, many of whom are in the SCA partly to work on our social skills; likely anyone not talking to you is either shy or in the early parts of their social skills work! ;)

I can just see you arriving at our weekly fighter practice, hesitantly bringing up what you're looking for to the nearest person in leather armor (hey, our Barony even has a female Knight who makes her own leather armor), and suddenly having three or four people asking questions and getting all jazzed about helping you out. Unfortunately, our weekly fighter practice is in Madison, WI. So I would recommend you seek out your local group (I'll make this simpler: I believe this is where you are.)
posted by gillyflower at 12:07 PM on February 7, 2012

My ex-roommate makes some of the best leather armour I've seen in the SCA, it wears forever-long in our combat, and is very willing to offer advice to others on his craft. He's been bending cow skin into armor for over a couple decades now, IIRC.

Torvald's Leather Armour

posted by IAmBroom at 12:31 PM on February 7, 2012

I made a full set of SCA legal (meaning it meets protection requirements to get beaten by large men with sticks and not get irreparably damaged) of leather lamellar for about 40 in scraps. I went to a local shop that makes leather saddles (this was in Flagstaff, AZ which actually has a market for custom, handmade saddles) and bought everything from their scrap barrels for about 2 months to do it. If you use heavier leather that is well tanned you don't need to harden it. I used Hemp twine (Flagstaff also has a large hippy/granola population) to lace it together. I used a pattern meant for a byzantine cataphract (heavy cavalry/infantry from about 500-1000 AD). The site linked by IAmBroom coveres how to do it pretty well (mine was a little different, but not enough to matter). Lamellar is much more comfortable and cheaper than large bits of stiff leather formed into a breastplate. The armor is much more flexible and allows a lot more air flow. It doesn't look nearly as cool or form fitting however. It kinda looks like something a crazy person puts together in a junkyard for protection from bears. So...might be ideal if aesthetics, not protection is your goal. If protection is your goal you are going to want a gambeson as well. This is a jumpsuit made of quilted canvas you wear underneath to provide more cushion from blows and 'armor bites', which is where the armor pinches you at joints when you move your body. What you drew looks like it might be possible to make out of linen (which is what the greeks used to kick some Persian butt).
Making armor is fun, but for pure sexiness it is hard to beat chainmail (NSFW). Which takes a lot of time. Like need to pass time in a prison cell time.
posted by bartonlong at 6:24 PM on February 7, 2012

'Hey, I know nothing about you guys, but halp me make some armor' but I'll poke around and see what I find.

I have been in the SCA 20 plus years. (I also live in the East Kingdom.) Trust me when I say that a) we're used to it, and b) we love it when people want to know more about the things we're excited about. I'm pretty sure this is your local SCA group. Any of the folks listed on the officers page can help direct you to a local resource who has made leather armor - I'd start with the Chatelaine, but the Knight Marshal can probably help as well.
posted by anastasiav at 6:53 PM on February 7, 2012

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