A leather costrel embellished with the West Kingdom populace badge. Submitted for judging in the Heraldry in any Mode Competition at Oerthan Winter Coronet, AS 47.
A costrel is a barrel shaped bottle used for carrying liquids—water, or possibly wine and beer. Costrels were often made of leather and sealed with wax or pitch; although ceramic examples have been found[i]. Examples exist from the late 1300’s at the latest, and was used up through the 18th century, at the earliest. They ranged in size from tiny ones holding maybe a cup[ii], to gigantic versions which may have been used to collect wine taxes[iii].
In addition; the Oxford English Dictionary has this to say about the costrel: “A vessel for holding or carrying wine or other liquid; a large bottle with an ear or ears by which it could be suspended from the waist (whence the antiquarian designation “pilgrim’s bottle”) or small wooden keg similarly used, in which sense it is still in dialect use.” The earliest reference to costrels in the OED was by Sir Ferumbr, in 1380.
My rendition of this piece was based on two seperate extant examples. The first, used as the model and construction plan, resides in the Limerick City Museum. The Limerick Costrel dates from the mid to late 15th century, and is slightly over 10 inches tall. Unfortunately, due to the angle the photograph was taken at, I was unable to work out the proportions. If you look closely you can see several of the design features. I chose this particular example because it is in excellent condition and has a shape pleasing to my eye.
The other costrel documents the use of simple heraldry on these pieces. This one is a bit smaller (just over 7 inches tall), and potentially a hundred years older than the other. While it is in much poorer condition than the above example, you can clearly see two simple shields tooled into the leather—I also got inspiration from the pattern of bands on this costrel, although I did not go to the extent of embossing the leather with a pattern suggestive of wood grain.
As I discussed in the paragraphs above, I took several design features from the Limerick City Costrel. The most visible is the flat bottom, which allows it to actually be set down—this is the least important as it doesn’t have anything to do with the structural integrity of the vessel. The other features involve the multiple layers of leather in several spots—around the edges, the “ears”, and the additional layer in the neck. The purposes of these, beyond simple re-enforcement of the leather, is to help produce a vessel which is almost watertight before sealing.
The pattern for the main body of a costrel is simple—it is, essentially, a rectangle with somewhat shaped ends. The fun part of the patterning was trying to determine how long the body needed to be, although I figured out a simple way to deal with that. The ends are also fairly simple—a circle the desired diameter (this is your base height), flat bottomed or stretched as desired—plus your seam allowance. That’s it—the rest is cut out of scraps and consisted of a strip of leather a little wider than your seam and the circumference of the end in length (one per side, please), and the extra two layers per side for the handles.
Materials and tools used.
The most important of the materials used is, of course, the leather. I chose a 5oz vegetable tanned leather for my rendition because it appears to be a appropriate weight for this size vessel, and—more importantly—I already had it on hand.
For the stitching I used a fairly coarse, but even, two-ply linen thread. While modernly, sinew or nylon is commonly used, I wanted to go with a more period option.
Other materials used were the acrylic paint (to be discussed in a different section), and beeswax. It seems that pitch was the more common sealing agent in period. However, I chose beeswax over pitch because pitch tends to flavour everything that touches it, and I can easily acquire the wax from my stash.
On the hardware—I think the most important piece for this would be the awl. I used a basic round awl (more period may have been rectangular or oval), modern leather scissors (a form of specialized knife would be the medieval option), and basic saddler’s needles (hog bristles were used for leather sewing[i]). Also used were paint brushes and the stylus I used for the tooling. And pliers—a small pair of pliers are indispensable in pulling the needle through the layers of leather.
The decoration on this is fairly basic, and inspired by the decorated example shown above, albeit simplified. It consists of simple bands running to the bottom of the vessel--some of which are decorated with chevrons—and the shield containing the West Kingdom Populace badge. The decorations are simple because I plan on making heavy use of the finished product, and I don’t know how far I can stress the leather without reducing durability.
On the paint: No, acrylic paints were not in use during the middle ages. For that matter, there are few remaining examples of painted leather from the Middle Ages[i]. In all likelihood, leather painting was done on occasion, but the paint it’self did not survive the ages. I chose to paint the Populace badge because I wanted it to stand out from the background and used acrylic paint because prior experience has shown me that it can be waxed over without harm.
The first part of the construction (after cutting) is nice and simple. Line up your top pieces and layers—leaving an opening for the neck (mine was about an inch)—and sew. As an experiment, I decided to use a wheat paste hold the separate layers together while stitching. After this bit was sewn, I soaked the neck, stretched it out with an appropriate sized dowel and let it dry.
The sides were considerably trickier. I did paste the rand to the main body, but it did not stay during the rigors of construction. I worked by feel for the most part, punching only a couple holes at a time, soaking and shaping the seam allowance one section at a time. This is not how you should do this step…the much easier way, although more time consuming, would be to build a mold for the ends and allow the leather to dry over it before construction. This way the seam allowance would at the right angles needed for the stitching. I chose to skip this step because I had neither the time nor resources to create a wooden mold.
After all the stitching was finally done it was time to mold the leather. This was achieved by soaking the vessel in hot tap water until saturated, pouring the water out again, then filling it with sand—in my case, I used popcorn kernels (less mess)—and packing it tight with a dowel. After finishing this step, I’m not so sure they used this method to mold the costrel in period, or if they did it wasn’t packed to bulging like I did. The dowel was left in the neck while the costrel dried over a couple days—the leather has to be absolutely bone dry before being waxed, if not painted.
After the molding, I has to stitch the neck liner in. This was made by skiving a small strip of leather down to about 1/3rd the original thickness and tapering the ends. I then carefully sewed it in with the usual saddle stitch.
At this point, I had three simple things left to do before the costrel was completely finished…
I cut the rectangular holes for the strap with my sheath knife, as it was the best tool for the job—and at hand. Somewhere in the early 1500s the strap holes change from a rectangle/oblong to a round one. The decorations also became a bit more intricate, sometimes with elaborate molding.
The stopper is carved of a recently cut piece of birch (again, with my belt knife). As it is unseasoned, I have no doubt that I will have to replace it before too long.
The waxing process was fairly straight forwarded. Pour ladles of hot wax over the vessel, and heat over an open flame to help it soak into the leather. Repeat for the inside, pouring the excess wax out the spout.
The wheat paste was an interesting experiment, and one which I would call successful. The recipe I used was from Marc Carlson’s leatherworking page and is as follows;
“1/4 cup White Flour; 1/16 tsp Alum or Salt; 1 cup water. Combine the flour and the alum or salt. Add the water, eliminating lumps. Bring to a boil for a minute, constantly stirring. If it thickens, add water.”[i]
The paste did do its job of keeping the separate pieces from moving and sliding—it’s not meant to be permanent, but rather is the leatherworkers version of pinning. To use, just rub it into the leather and apply pressure to the pieces while drying. In addition, the paste may be kept in the refrigerator in between uses and does work while cold.
The stitching holding the costrel together is a saddle stitch (a form of double running stitch, with a needle on each end of the thread), with the occasional stitch containing an overhand knot inside the leather. Normally when I do leather working I will incise the leather (to sink the thread below the leather), and run a pricking wheel along the channel to space my stitches. I did not do so in this case because there is no evidence for the use of either in period.
What I would do Different in the Future
Number one--I would use a mold to shape the ends. This would help solve several issues, such as the ends not quite being large enough (mis-estimated the seam allowances), and allow me to hopefully get straighter lines of stitching in this area. I would also probably incise the decorations, rather than tooling them—they would stand out better this way. Something else to consider would be period colouring agents or paints.
What I learned
Where to start? I learned how to pattern this type of vessel (yes, fairly simple, but those seam allowances…) and the importance of molds. I learned how to tie an overhand knot within the awl hole (insurance against broken threads). I also had to learn some basic painting techniques and leather tooling skills (very basic, but I had not done them before). In addition I learned the hard way that a ¼ inch seam allowance wasn’t quite enough with leather this thickness.
Construction Time: A bit over Eleven Hours.
Received 28 out of 30 in the competition, with one point out of each Workmanship and attractiveness. Comment was “Edge of painting could be neater. Good learning piece. Appreciate the documentation.”
http://leatherworkingreverend.wordpress.com/2011/04/14/mary-rose-costrel-81a5749/ A recreation of a costrel found on the Mary Rose. It is also the webpage which contains the instructions I went off of.
http://www.historiclife.com/pdf/Flasks.pdf The document containing the photos of the extant costrels.
 A period sewing awl is a project for another time.
 Interestingly, most of the costrels seem to have been only decorated on the one side.
 While I originally wanted to make use of the three badges (West, Oertha, and Selviergard), I ran into difficulties with scale and the lack of an actual badge for my local group.
 This molding step could probably have been skipped and done during the final shaping.
 To borrow a term from shoemaking…The rand is the narrow strip of leather forming the welt on those shoes which have them.
 If you look at the extant examples you can see that the ends are flat, not bulging outwards like mine.
 I’m not sure what the purpose of this is, but several originals I’ve seen have it, so I figured I’d include it. I believe that the purpose is to cover the seams and create a smoother surface for the stopper, and therefore a better seal.
 I found that you can get a better version of the same by dampening the surfaces of the leather and pulling the thread good and tight so that it digs it’self in.
 http://www.britishmuseum.org/research/search_the_collection_database/search_object_details.aspx?objectid=23950&partid=1&output=Places%2F!!%2FOR%2F!!%2F42360%2F!%2F42360-3-2%2F!%2FFound%2FAcquired+London%2F!%2F%2F!!%2F%2F!!!%2F&orig=%2Fresearch%2Fsearch_the_collection_database%2Fadvanced_search.aspx¤tPage=7&numpages=10 Such as this 15th – 16th century example in the British Museum
 http://sevenstarwheel.wordpress.com/2011/11/27/ashmolean-tudor-costrel-for-those-really-long-trips/ Huge costrel
 If you’re curious how that works go to http://home.teleport.com/~tcl/f3.htm for an explanation.
 http://www.personal.utulsa.edu/~marc-carlson/leather/plwt.html#pl2 Painting and dying in period
 http://www.personal.utulsa.edu/~marc-carlson/leather/plwt.html#pl4 Wheat paste. I do not know if this is a period recipe.
© John Frey, 2014. The Author of this work retains full copyright for this material. Permission is granted to make and distribute verbatim copies of this document for non-commercial private research or educational purposes provided the copyright notice and this permission notice are preserved on all copies. Photos of my work may not be duplicated.