A few weeks ago I ran my first leather craft workshop with the aim to teach some friends how to make scabbards for the bronze swords we made earlier in the year. It went pretty well, except I’d under-estimated the time needed to teach and make something that was a mildly ambitious project. As a result most people went home with nicely dyed and finished scabbard fronts and backs that needed stitching together. The finished items will look similar to this, though everyone came up with their own designs for tooling, and colour.
This is something that I’d like to do more of, and the weekend has given me confidence that I actually do quite enjoy teaching leather crafts, and that the people I taught got plenty out of it.
Back home I got on with the first of the wet-moulded masks I’m making for sale via The Cat & Cauldron shop in Glastonbury. ‘Green Man’, the full-face mask, is a variation of the one I made for myself for Jack, my druid LARP character. This new version is more ornate, better tooled and much better finished.
In particular, I used rags instead of swabs to apply the base dye. This might not sounds like much, but it gives much better control of the dye density. This lets the leather grain come through and if you’re careful it also leaves any stamping grooves undyed. A slower method but I really like it, and the mask looks great.
The half-mask I call ‘Herne’. I’ve made this mask before, and again I’ve spent more time on the stamping, tooling, and finishing. On this one I used swabs to apply the base dye, so there’s no outline to the leaf stamps. I also added an embossed leaf pattern to all the hair curls..
I’m very pleased with both these masks and plan to make more, and other designs.
Oh, the world is full of anger,
That ain’t nothing new.
It’s why I cold-brew coffee,
To get a smoother brew!
Those islands of cool reason
Feel far between and few.
That’s why I learned to swim;
Trusting neither boat nor crew!
Who are all a bunch of chancers
Who refuse to take and do
The advice of seasoned experts
Sifting falsehoods from what’s true.
They think they all know better
Fear and anger made them fight
For what they want, not what is best
Vote winnners must be right.
Now we have a world where reason
Is to blame those who warned you not
To do the things you shouldn’a done
For the pain that you’ve now got.
And it’s a pain that I can now
In truth and honesty say
(Whatever the fuck those things are)
I’m sharing day by day.
My advice? I’m not an expert,
So therefore can’t be wrong,
Is don’t get your philosophy
From this rather silly song
And though there’s contradiction
In that verse what I just wrote
It’s the egos of bigots on left and right
And their lies that will sink our boats.
So do yourself a favour
That it all don’t end in tears,
Whatever your gender or sexuality or race or age or faith or politics or economic prospects (which I do admit are bloody important and I sometimes lie in bed worrying about that myself… Where was I? Oh yes, gender, sexuality, race, age, faith, or politics.
Don’t be driven by your fears.
So, Ouch and ouch and fucking ouch
As we spiral round the shitter
And ouch to this and ouch to that
At least the coffee isn’t bitter.
I’ve been to the Milford SF conference three times now. Every time was different, every time I learned new things about being a better writer. Every time was fun, hard work, and in the company of an interesting and varied group of people.
This year I left Milford as the new chair of the committee. When I told Gaie she said, ‘So being a Clarke Award judge wasn’t enough for you?’ It made me think, and my internal answer was ‘Kind of not, no.’
Milford is hugely useful in less immediately obvious ways. My SF novel, Shopocalypse, might never have been published without Milford, because I met someone there who introduced me to someone else. If you’re a genre writer I really recommend you try to go at least once*. This is what you’ll get: fifteen writers, one week, a whole lot of reading, critiquing, and conversation.
The first time I went it was pretty scary – there were WRITERS there. They had AGENTS and had been PUBLISHED. By PUBLISHERS. I soon discovered they were pretty normal really. The second time was different, I knew the ropes, I learned different things. I came away re-energised, just like the first time. The third time, a couple of weeks ago was the same, and it was different again – I learned more new things, and got some great advice. And I realised something else too – It felt a bit like coming home.
I’ve been to my fair share of conventions but I’ve always felt a bit of an outsider. I’ve never felt excluded but I also never really felt like I was really part of the thing itself. Maybe it’s my version of imposter syndrome, maybe it’s because Milford is smaller, maybe I just like hanging out with other writers. So when I heard Sue Thomason was stepping down after several years as Chair, I thought I could take that on and help contribute to running Milford. Thanks for being such a good Chair, Sue, I’ll do my absolute best to be the same. So, I am a chair, but according to some philosophers chairs don’t even exist. Others say nobody actually knows what a chair is. If I find out I’ll let you know.
We’ve got some plans to do more at Milford over the next couple of years, ideas for some extra events around the country. Longer term, maybe even extending to two full Milfords a year if there are the numbers. And of course there’s the Milford bursary**. Check out the web site for details, sign up to the blog, or keep an eye out on Twitter. See the end of this post for more details.
SO, that egg timer… At Milford everyone gets three to four minutes to deliver their crit. These days we time people with a mobile phone, but back at the first UK Milford in 1972 it was an egg timer. That’s the one in the picture, and it’s in front of me on the table now. It’s interesting to hold it and think about all the people who have been timed by that egg timer. In no particular order they include:
James Blish, Neil Gaiman, George RR Martin, John Brunner, Liz Williams, Christopher Priest, Anne McCaffrey, Brian Aldiss, Alastair Reynolds, Samuel Delaney, Jacey Bedford, Robert Holdstock, Gary Kilworth, Kari Sperring, John Clute, Jaine Fenn, Geoff Ryman, Diane Wynn Jones, Colin Harvey, Gaie Sebold, Colin Greenland, Charles Stross, Bruce Sterling, Cheryth Baldry, Paul Kincaid, Mary Gentle, Maxim Jakubowski…
The wood glass and salt of that egg timer must be imbued with some kind of SFnal talent vibe by now. If I’m lucky some of it will rub off. If not, the next Milford I go to, in 2018, will help do the job. Maybe see you there.
* Going to Milford – All you need to know
** The Milford Bursary is a fully-funded bursary for self-identifying science fiction/fantasy writers of colour, i.e. of black or minority ethnicity
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I used to make a lot of leather costume, armour and accessories, mainly for LARP, including my ‘famous’ toblerone™ scabbard. That was a few years back and I needed to knock the rough edges off my neglected skills. I’ve been playing around with scraps, some half-finished things I found in a bag, and also made a few belts.
A few weeks ago I posted about bronze sword casting. Now I’ve also built myself a lovely big craft bench it was time to make something in leather that was a bit more ambitious – a scabbard for the sword. Here it is, along with one of the leaf-bladed bronze swords we made.
The sword is made to a bronze-age style, copying an actual bronze-age sword. You can see the hilt has a round notch where it meets the blade. Style or substance, nobody is really sure, but it does offer a nice way to keep the sword snug in the scabbard.
The scabbard is made of two pieces, front and back, plus a little shield-piece at the hilt which i thought would look nice. The main knot-work carving is a copy from a standard design which I modified so I could run the design down the scabbard in a simple way.
Hand cut, dyed, tooled, stitched and finished, as always. About 5-6 hours work.
Last year I learned how to forge an axe head, tutored by the brilliant Nic Westermann at the Greenwood Guild. After two days of intensely hard work, learning to swing a sledgehammer with absolutely no holding back, discovering who the blacksmith really is*, and carving the handle, I had a hand axe to be proud of.
The axe is razor-sharp and has long needed a sheath for the head, so last night I decided to make one. After trying an over-complicated design I came up with something very simple and effective. Here’s the finished item, showing how the head neatly slots in, and the cardboard template I used.
When you’re making a simple sheath like this the template just needs to be about 5-10 mm bigger than the blade, depending on blade thickness.
And here it is fastened. A couple of scraps of 2mm leather, some dark brown dye, carved a little edge detail, punch the stitch holes, stitch with waxed cord, edge-burnished with gum tragacanth, a wipe with resolene, measure and punch and fit the snap fastener, and there you go.
* Like many people I assumed it was the person swinging the sledge, but it is actually the one holding and turning the work on the anvil. The other guy is just muscle. We took turns.
This is what we did at the weekend! It was hard work but immensely satisfying. We traveled to the Bronze-Age Foundry in Wales, run by the amazingly talented David Chapman, sculptor, artists and bronze worker.
We used recycled copper from electric cables, which is very pure, and tin to make a 10% tin bronze mix. The copper is first heated over the flame to drive off water, as a steam burst can make the crucible erupt molten copper. Here’s the tin being added to the copper.
Here’s a bad picture of the copper being poured into a soapstone mould. Soapstone is excellent for casting, as it absorbs, stores and radiates heat evenly.
After a few minutes cooling the sword came out of the mould. Here is a stack of previously casted swords. Note the triangular sprue on the end of the hilt – first job is to cut that off with a hacksaw.
The sword we were making is a copy of one in the Pitt Rivers museum in Oxford, dated roughly between 1000-800 BCE, and found in the Thames near Limehouse
And the second job is to snip off the spare bronze along the blade edges. Like the sprue lumps all these little bits were carefully saved as they can be melted down again become part of another casting.
And here’s the cleaned and tidied casting, ready for the hard work – filing and polishing.
(We did cheat a bit with the edges.)
This was hard, hard work, and unlike the bronze-age workers, we did it the easy way.
Another job was fitting the oak wood hilt. This is made in two pieces, and is first seared onto the re-heated sword tang, to help seat it. The tang then has four holes drilled, and the hilt fastened with four headless copper rivets. Then the hilt is shaped – more filing and sanding! Finally – a wipe-over with linseed oil.
Here’s the wood being seared into the blade in a clamp.
And then it was more hours of sanding and polishing, working down the grades, all the way to wet&dry 1200, then wire wool, and finally polish. Then an inspection for scratches, and start again. And again.
The reason for so much polishing was to remove the file marks and give the blade the appearance of a true bronze-age sword.
The blades are roughly 18″ / 45cm long, and the swords weigh 1lb 6oz / 644g.
Last summer I spent a week with some friends on Mull, a large and beautiful island off the west coast of Scotland. You reach it by ferry from Oban, home of one of my favourite whiskeys.
From Mull you can then take another, smaller ferry to fabled Iona, or an even smaller boat to the mythic Fingal’s cave, on Staffa. (Although there are plenty of pictures in this post these links take you to more.)
Mull’s main town is Tobermory, with its multi-colored buildings along the quay housing some great cafe’s, restaurants and pubs. It’s also the home of another good whisky, though this one is a little too peaty for me.
While we were there I saw a notice in the local village newsletter for an open day of Torosay Castle gardens. Torosay Castle is more of a baronial pile than fortified castle and as it is privately owned open days are rare. We decided to go, and it was indeed a rare treat. There were damp mossy glades, quiet ponds, enormous beds of nasturtiums, statues – and of course the Cthulhu tree.
The gardens had suffered some neglect but there was plenty of work now being done. Neglect in a garden is not always a bad thing. Some plants need a few years, or decades, or even centuries to come into their own and the formal part of the garden was still very lovely.
A really charming surprise was the avenue of statues, including this mysterious gentleman, and a very nice gardener. There was a pregnant lady, a dodgy drunkard, and many more. Whoever made them had a nice sense of humour and great attention to detail.
There was also a pair of rather dissipated lions. I rather liked them.
And finally – the Cthulhu tree! We found this wood-tentacled monster of a conifer* deep in loneliest part of the garden. This picture gives a good sense of scale. Deep in the silence of the gardens it was a spooky, powerful entity. No doubt many unholy rites and sacrifices have been performed on the blood-drenched soil under these looming branches.
Images of the tree and the diabolic worship I am convinced it must have once inspired (nay, demanded) stayed with me over the next few nights. They inspired some darkly disturbing fever dreams – stories I am unlikely to ever write for the sake of my – and your – sanity.
* As a one-time botanist I’m mildly ashamed to say I don’t know exactly which conifer, but the I was always more interested in ferns than firs and pines. I think it might be a Thuja.
Here’s my latest acquisition – £3.00 from Oxfam, and just about perfect condition. An album I have never previously owned. It’s quite nostalgic to flick through the record stacks again, my finger and thumb haven’t forgotten the technique.
I’ve been getting back into my vinyl collection recently, and enjoying rediscovering some music I only have in that format, like the Eurythmics first album, and Tangerine Dream.
I used to buy almost all my records second hand as a poor student back in the ’70s. I picked up some great music, including what is probably my most valuable album – Nick Drake’s Bryter Layter.
When CDs first arrived I loved how I could listen to an album all the way through without having to get up and turn the record over. Some months backup I overheard some younger music lovers talking about how much they liked vinyl, and in particular the ritual elements of playing a record. I was charmed they took so much pleasure in discovering technology I took for granted, That conversation made me that there is a ritual to playing a vinyl record. It also helped me remember how much I liked to hear that first bump and crackle of the needle as it touched down in the play-in groove, the faint echo you sometimes heard of the track to come – and having to get up half way through and turn it over.
I’m enjoying being interrupted again.
So this weekend it was a trip to the local garden center, always such a chore, to buy a new and bigger pot. It was nice to find one in the same Mediterranean blue.
Re-potting was a two-man job – thanks Gaie! Gloves were definitely needed. Cycads might look all soft and fern-like but their leaves are tough with spikey ends, and the trunks are a mass of prickly scales.
It was worth it, I really love the elegance of this plant. This particular plant is Cycas revoluta, which is one of the most commonly cultivated cycads and is pretty easy to grow. It’s a lovely thing, even if can sulk for two years before deciding to grow. I do wonder what it’s doing with all that sunlight.
* Or his, cycads being male of female. Until it flowers I won’t know which.