Medieval girdle purses - How I started to make them


The first medieval girdle purses I made were gifts for my husband and two of my friends. It was an ethusiastic project (as I tend to approach these things) after reading O. Goubitz´s Purses in Pieces (published 2009). The book is probably a modern medieval purse makers bible, and shows everythin you need to know before you start on these things in the chapter about girdle purses. Most of the purses are dated by author in "late middle ages".

The purses should serve to reenactors of 2nd half of 14th century, so I made three diferent patterns according to the text and pictures from above mentioned book, but left out the closing buckles, as it seems to me from contemporary 14th century pictures, that it is not that common there and that those buckles on purses are more of 15th century feature. It was a first attempt on somethin like this, but with skills of leather decorating learned from my mom at early age and skills with forming the leather learned from my father around the same time it went almost smoothly :)

Since then I made some pieces using the same cutting patterns, as they were already tested. I bought thinner leather for the pouchlets (on the original ones is vegetable tanned goat leather made thin from original 2,5 mm to 1mm which is not really the most economical way how to do it... :D O:) ) I started to use modern chrom tanned leather for the pouchlets as I suppose that it behaves more like soft tawed leather used originally for this. I am in process of getting someone who will produce tawed leather for me, but if you know about a proffessional source of it, I would very much appreciate the contact, as I would not have to torture my acquaintances and family with weird tanning related requests... :D You can see most of these pieces on our facebook page where they are mixed with photos of other stuff, or on our pinterest, where they have a special section

Leather purse with decorated flap made according to a piece from Greifswald
Leather purse with decorated flap made according to a piece from Greifswald

I decorate most of the purses I make with carving and stamping. There are not that many decorated  extant pieces, but there are some. O. Goubitz mentiones three of those (Goubitz 2009 fig 34a; fig 35; fig.36), less famous pieces were found in Germany - one in Schleswig  dated to 13th century (Schnack 1998), and one from Greifswald dating to 2nd half of 14th century (Enzenberger 2007) (you can see my interpretation of this piece in the picture, and more pictures and description of the product in Czech here) and also from Czech from 15th - 16th century from Opava (Orlita 2010). Similar decorations as for purses were used on other contemporary leather  products.

A nice push forward in my studies of 14th century purses was a commission from Germany. I was contacted by a gentleman with a query about makin an actual replica of something actually German, as he did reenact a German craftsman in quite puristic way. I recieved two pieces of articles with drawings of fragments from Konstanz (Schnack 1994) and Bayreuthu (Bischof 2010). Both pieces were dated approximately to the 1350s. Interesting thing was, that those drawings did not make that much sense in comparison to Goubit´s theses, even though they were definitelly of the same type as mentioned in the book. I took the challenge, ordered several new books, including the ones with the above mentioned articles, I checked our own library (as my father collected quite some books during his years of work, even though we did not know what was in some of them as our focus was on the early medieval back than) and started an interesting conversation with the customer on how to approach the old articles with "new" knowledge gained from Purses in Pieces. After this really cool proces, which I enjoyed as a new learning curve we agreed on two pieces. One according to an excavated piece from Konstanz (Schnack 1994, taf 44, 1928a), and one according to a piece from London (Egan&Pritchard 1991). The piece from Bayreuth was probably just the back part of the back pocket of a purse, and even though it gives the loose shape and size of the purse there was not much to take from it. The London find was something we stumbled upon in the conversation, and was too interesting after reconstructing to just leave untouched.

Considering the level of reenactment my customer was aiming for we went for the most puristic way possible, and left the piece without colour. We used vegetable tanned goat leather, as the piece from Konstanz was made out of it. Both pieces were fully hand sewn and the added pieces on the bigger one  are of the simpliest versions possible as to leave out any places of argument for our fellow reenactors.

I made the tiny London piece again recently, this time in black. I just like it. The original piece has 9 metal pieces on it for embelishment set in an X shape, and I hope to make it even with those one day. The whole piece was hand sewn on places marked in the drawings, only the front piece was additionaly cut in two and sewn together again, but we left that detail out. (Egan&Pritchard 1991, fig 232 no. 1701 BC72 3879 (150) dated 1350 - 1400. There is a very similar piece from Dordrecht  (O.Goubitz 2008) from which remains only the inner panel of the front pocket. It is almost identical in size (9x9cm) and I think it might serve the same purpose.

What had me so excited about this piece was the fact, that i am convinced that it was a kind of a "knife holder". What got me thinking were those cuts for string, and Olafs mentioning daggers being tied to the purses. Do you remember those absurdly small purses in Romance of Alexander? Most of us would probably consider it an artists input in it, but there are so many... And after trying the pattern out in 1:1 scale and sewing in the weird textile piece it dawned on me, that even though it might not be for anythin else, it can hold a knife just fine and make the joke of "kidney" daggers go as far as it gets. I did not have a good scale of knife at hand at the time of taking pictures, nor a kidney dagger, but I hope it explains my chain of thought well enough.

So that is how I started, and in my second post you can read how I make them now.