Tuesday, August 23, 2022

Making A 15th Century Brigandine

Before starting this post, it is paramount for me to first explain that I am not an armorer and I have only a working knowledge of late-medieval armor; I am therefore not an expert by any means. This was my first foray into crafting armor and I learned a lot along the way. My hope with this article is to share what I learned--after over 200 hours of labor--inasmuch as it is to show off the awesome brigandine I made.

History Of Brigandines

Brigs left to right: 1400-50 at the Met; 1470-80 at the Royal Armouries; 1540-50 at the RA 

"Brigaundiris," "brigaunders," "brigantiens," and "brigandinis" are just four ways John Paston and his associates referred to the same type of upper body armor of the middle- to late- 15th century. A brigandine, within the cultural context of western European history, is a type of late-medieval (15-16th centuries) torso armor characterized by hundreds of overlapping steel plates riveted to an outer material that's backed with canvas, weighing around 20 pounds on average. A brigandine fulfills a similar defensive role as a back and breastplate (cuirass) that many attribute to the men-at-arms of this period. That said, a brig was worn by both "common soldiers" as well as the aristocracy and everyone in between. One major factor for determining the quality of the brigandine--and thus who wore it--was the outer or "covering" material used. In one surviving example at the Metropolitan Museum, velvet was used as the covering fabric; presumably this was owned and worn by someone who was well-off. Other types of material used to cover the brigandine included silk, wool, linen, and leather.

Interior of a brig from 1470-80 in the Royal Armouries

Basic definition aside, the brigandine wasn't a singular type of segmented armor during this period. As has been hotly debated by actual armor experts on numerous forums, the brigandine is often conflated with the contemporary coat-of-plates. A quick comparison of the two would reveal that they are both segmented torso armor, with steel plates riveted to a covering material as well as an inner fabric. The key differences however are the size and number of the plates used. 

Left to right: late-14th early 15th-century coat of plates from the Bayerisches Nationalmuseum in Munich; 1470-80 brigandine from the Royal Armouries

A coat-of-plates (or "pair of plates") normally has one large breastplate with numerous smaller plates for the peplum (skirt) and back. As has been suggested by the earlier referenced armor experts, the coat-of-plates may have been the ancestor for the later brigandine (sometimes referred to as a "pair of brigandines"), though surviving documents show that both were being used at the same time and clearly delineated (at least by the late 14th century). It is tricky to say with absolute certainty what a medieval person precisely meant by "brigandine" or "pair of plates"--notably if they were the same definitions we have attributed to them in the 21st century--and perhaps it's altogether irrelevant. We have a tendency in the modern age to categorize everything, but did those categories even exist 500 years ago or exist as we know them today?

Planning The Brigandine

Early Stages: Choosing A Brig

1480 brigandine at the Musee de l'Armee in Paris

As mentioned earlier, brigandines varied widely in quality. The covering material is one major factor for determining the quality of the brig. As my living history portrayal is that of an archer, I was not looking to recreate the all too common tri-riveted Italian brigandine in the Royal Armouries collection. Yes, while archers are shown in the artwork of the period wearing colorful and high-quality brigs, I wanted one that was clearly of a lower status--something far more for the commoner than the well to do. I originally toyed around with the idea of a wool-covered brig, but since a member of my unit already has one, and for the purpose of showing multiple types of brigs to the public, I wanted to try something else. Most of the surviving examples are understandably covered in rich fabrics (those tend to survive in wealthy families' collections), but in my research, I came across what appeared to be a brig of more common origins: the leather-covered "archer's brigandine" in the Musee de l'Armee's collection. I latched onto this as the brigandine I wanted to copy. Now certainly, it's purely speculation that the brig was used by an archer, and some aspects of the brig look like they were altered at a later date (shoulders, neckline, and maybe the peplum), but the general shape and construction largely matched that of a typical brigandine from the late 15th century. With a model in mind to base my brigandine off of, I began to consider the details.

Aside from the covering material, another major factor in the quality of historical brigandines was the steel plates themselves: quantity, thickness, and hardness. In short, brigandines were made lighter or heavier to suit the wearer's desire. Referenced a few times by Matt Easton and Augusto Bront in their recent video on how medieval armor was tested, brigandines were tested (or "proofed") among plate armor for their defensive abilities, notably rated at "half-proof" or "full-proof." While later armor of the 17th century and on was proofed for pistols and even muskets, the two sources identified by Augusto Bront clearly show proofing based on crossbows and bows. While fascinating, I could not find any sources that connect half- or full-proof brigandines with anything measurable (overall weight, plate thickness, number of plates, etc.). I hope I can eventually find such a source, but when building my armor, I was at a loss. In fact, my only source for plate thickness was this wonderful how-to by Craig Nadler, who offered that the 1050 spring steel plates should be .035" thick (~20 gauge), except for the lung plates which should measure in at .050" (~17 gauge). It was a shot in the dark, to an extent, to just trust a secondary source with the plate thicknesses, but since I couldn't find thickness measurements of the plates in the Met, Royal Armouries, Musee de l'Armee, or the Philadelphia Museum of Art's online collections, I decided to trust Nadler. If final weight can be used to suggest the quality of a brig though, vis-a-vis plate density, Nadler's measurements seem to hold up. My final brig weighs 20 pounds which is comparable to those in the museums' collections that offer a weight in the description. This isn't a perfect correlation since materials used (leather is heavier than velvet) will skew the results, but as the extants that are listed with weights are about the same size as mine (just a couple centimeters off), covering material is really the only major variable. Needless to say, I'm pleased with my albeit imperfect data and Nadler's plate thicknesses.

Patterning The Body

Leather pieces cut out from pattern

I really could not have begun my brig if it were not for Craig Nadler's article. It is the comprehensive how-to article on recreating a brigandine. I referenced this constantly during the initial planning and again during construction. If you plan to make your own, definitely read Nadler's article first. That said, since I was going to copy the Musee de l'Armee's leather brig, I couldn't exactly use Nadler's patterns to make mine. So, the first thing I needed was the overall pattern; for that, I used my doublet. Enlarging it by about an inch (if I remember correctly) at each seam, I also widened the armscye, and slightly lengthened the peplums. The peplums also had to be a part of the main body, not separate like they are on a normal doublet. Additionally, analyzing the pictures of the extant, I had to ever-so-slightly move the side seams. Confident that this would work, I cut out and hand sewed a mockup from the linen canvas that would become the inner fabric of the brig, using waxed linen thread and backstiches. Everything looked good at this stage, so I then moved forward with the leather.

For the covering material, as earlier explained, I chose leather. Specifically, I went with 4-5oz vegetable-tanned leather (procured from Tandy Leather). Using the same pattern, I cut out the pieces of leather, though without seam allowances (so about 1/2" less on the sides and shoulders where they become seams). Before sewing, I needed to dye the leather. Based on the extant and the most common colors for common soldiers I noticed in the artwork, I decided on black. While it's challenging to say what color the extant in the Musee de l'Armee actually was, I feel confident that it was probably black. Part of my confidence stems from the knowledge that it's extraordinarily easy to dye veg-tanned leather black using the historical vinegaroon (made and gifted to me by a friend who apparently made way too much). Made by mixing rust with vinegar (here's a modern how-to), the concoction creates a chemical reaction with the leather that dyes it black. Here's a clip I took to show you how quickly and effectively it works.

Once dyed, I submerged each piece in water mixed with baking soda to balance out the acidity/basicity of the leather. The last thing I wanted was for the vinegar-soaked leather to encourage/speed up rust development on the steel plates. After the leather dried, I sewed the pieces together using heavy waxed linen thread and saddle-stitching the seams, butting one piece against the other (which is why I didn't cut for seam allowances for the leather). After trying this on, however, I was worried that the leather might be too thick. Looking back at the original, though, I was still convinced I chose the correct weight, but I didn't like how stiff it was. I then spent a good hour or so rolling the leather "vest" around and making it much more pliable. The end result--a soft and pliable leather body--looked exactly like the extant in the museum.

Body sewn up

The last part of this initial stage was to sew the canvas lining to the leather. The extant has leather piping around most of the raw edges of the leather (neck, armscye, and front opening), so I used the piping seams to attach the canvas to the body. To make the piping, I cut very long 1" wide strips of 4oz veg-tanned leather (two the length of the fronts, two the length of the armscyes, one the length of the neck opening, and two half the length of the bottom), dyed with vinegaroon. To attach them, I first lined up the canvas lining inside the leather body, matching seams and then temporarily fastening them together with binder clips. Starting with the front opening, I placed one of the piping strips along the front, matching right sides together, and clipping the piping in place with the binder clips. I then used waxed linen thread and whip stitched through all three layers (canvas, body, piping) the entire length of the front. Then, I turned the piping strip inside the body, covering the raw edges of the leather and canvas, and whip stitched it down to the canvas. Once I sewed on all the piping strips, the body was complete.

Piping whipped down onto the canvas along the neckline and front

Patterning The Plates

At about the same time as when I started making the body, I ordered the steel sheets and rivets. Following Craig Nadler's advice, I bought a couple 2' X 4' sheets of 20 gauge steel (procured from All Metals Inc.). Purely out of convenience and knowing that I wouldn't be facing actual combat with my brig, I opted to use exclusively 20 gauge steel (no differentiation for lung plates which Nadler specified as being ~17 gauge). For rivets, I ordered 1,600 solid brass rivets with 1/2" posts (procured from Buckle Guy). This was after ordering a couple different sizes and, comparing the head size on the assembled leather body to the pictures from the Musee de l'Armee, I went with the .31" wide rivets.

To pattern the plates, I couldn't use Nadler's patterns. Since I used my own pattern for the body of the brig and the shape of the plates just looked like they were different than those he used, I had to make my own patterns. To be clear, no pictures have ever been taken of the interior of the Musee de l'Armee brig. When I reached out to the curator, I was told that it was too fragile for them to dismount it and photograph it for me. So, relying on the rivet placements, I endeavored to pattern out each plate. Sketching on the paper pattern pieces for the body of the brig, I essentially outlined the rivets in a sort of connect-the-dots fashion (see the picture below with the light blue showing a chest plate and the red showing a random front plate). 

The problem, I quickly came to realize, was that every single plate seemed unique; there's no way I was going to be able to just cut out 200+ same-size/shape rectangles and be done with it. So, after sketching every plate out on the body pattern, I labeled each one (1A for the top chest plate, 1B for the one beneath it, 2A for the plate beside 1A, etc.), all 260 plates. As I sketched out each plate, I also drew circles indicating rivet placements.

After sketching and labeling them on the body patterns, I of course needed to make patterns of the plates themselves. What you can't see from the outside of the brig though is that the plates overlap each other--they're not just butted up against each other. So the pattern for each plate needed to be extended half an inch left or right and half an inch at the top or bottom (see picture below). To figure out which direction each plate had to be extended, I referred to Nadler's article which helped to make sense of the brig interiors that you can see in the various extants. Using the example above, the light blue chest plate only gets extended half an inch to the top, but the red plate would be extended half an inch to the right and half an inch to the top. The reasoning is that the armorer rivets the top chest plate first (1A in my example), works down that row to the waist, and then rivets the next row back, working from the front to the sides and ultimately center back. Everything below the waist (the peplums) get riveted in reverse order (after the entire upper body has been riveted), so starting from the bottom fronts and working up to the waist and back to the center-back. All this to say, I traced each plate pattern from the body onto another sheet of paper, adding the the extra half inch were needed, and then cut out each pattern piece. I then taped each plate pattern to the sheets of steel and cut them out using a bandsaw with a steel-cutting blade (or two, after I snapped the first).

Overlapping plates in the first two rows: from top to bottom and left to right

260 steel plates later, I removed the paper patterns from the steel, carefully marking each plate with permanent marker the designated letter/number and a dot where a rivet should be placed. I then filed down sharp corners and edges, and finally drilled rivet holes using a 3/32" drill bit in a drill press. The last step for the plates before riveting was tinning. Every brig in museum collections showed steel plates that were tinned to resist rust. Deciding at this point to take a sort-of shortcut (also I wasn't about to invest in tin-plating equipment), I reached out to a friend who works in a university science lab, to have him electroplate my steel plates with tin. Despite his excellent and arduous efforts, the plating wasn't perfect and the plates were still rusting in parts. Not wanting to buy more equipment for this project, I called it "good enough" and was ready to begin riveting.

Riveting The Plates

As previously described, the plates are riveted starting at the top front plates (technically the shoulder) and working down to the waist and back to the center back. For my brig, that meant seven vertical rows each side (five on the fronts and two on each side of the back). Once done, a center-back row (special row #8) is riveted down. Then, I worked the peplums, starting at the bottom of the front row and working up and back, finished off with row #8 to cover the center. Still not quite complete, a row of plates also needed to be riveted along the waist (so a horizontal row), starting at the fronts and working to the center back. The final plates to be added were the collar plates. Starting at the front and working back, the plates are riveted down. That's the general gist of how they're riveted, but of course it's not quite so cut-and-dry.

First five rows riveted on

When both rows of front plates (left and right sides) were riveted, I had to also include buckles and straps: seven buckles and seven straps to be precise. Because I wasn't sure if the buckles on the Musee de l'Armee brig were actually from the 15th century, and not added later, I opted for simple squared bronze buckles (procured from Historical Enterprises). I cut out the leather for the buckles and the straps, dyed them, and for the buckle-straps, I sewed them with waxed linen thread. For a little embellishment, I also pressed lines into the edges of the straps. To attach the straps to the brig, I carefully cut a slit in the brig's leather next to where the rivet will be (just one of the rivets that holds the plate in place), slid the strap into that hole, and punched a rivet through all the layers (brig outer, buckle strap, canvas, and plate). You can see how it works in the picture below from the extant. Note, too, how you can make out the outline of the strap under the brig's leather covering. Of interest, you can also see where additional buckles were riveted at one point based on the cuts in the leather body--perhaps doubling the quantity of buckles or, more likely, indicating an older placement that for some reason didn't work out.

I should also mention briefly how I made the rivets. When I placed the plate where it should go (I traced out the plates from the brig body pattern onto the canvas lining), I hammered finishing nails through the holes of the plate, into the canvas and leather body, and into a chunk of scrap wood. After removing the nails, I pushed the rivets through, from the leather (outside) into the plate. With a 1/2" steel plate as my "anvil," I clipped off the excess post of the rivets, leaving maybe 1/4 of post sticking out above the plate, and hammered the post with a ball peen hammer. After much of the body was riveted, it became fairly tricky to rivet some plates, so I created a tool to help. I ground down the head of a 3" bolt so that it was slightly rounded (no sharp edges), threaded a couple of nuts onto it--one high up by the head and one closer to the end--and then clamped the bolt to the vise on an anvil with the head sticking up about an inch. I then tightened the nuts to the vise so that the bolt wouldn't shift left or right on me. The head of the bolt is what I used as the anvil for attaching tricky rivets--mostly in areas where the brig was heavily curving.

First chest plate being placed with nails

Final Adjustments

I seldom complete a project without something potentially disastrous happening. As it turned out, I couldn't put on my brig because the armscyes were too narrow and the whole thing is quite rigid. Basically, I could get one arm in, but not the other. After researching brigs early on, I had concluded that the most common trend I saw in the historical artwork was complete shoulders--only a couple showed buckled-shoulders. That was one of the biggest changes I made from the Musee de l'Armee extant: not using buckled-together shoulders. I was determined that they should be solid. Needless to say, if I wanted to wear my brig, the shoulders needed to be opened up. So I took out my seam ripper and popped open the shoulder seams. I then very arduously stitched piping over the now-exposed shoulder edges (working around the plates which were now at this point permanently riveted on). The last step was to add buckles and straps. Of course my original buckle-supplier was out of stock of the buckles I used for the fronts, but thankfully Tod Cutler had almost the exact same buckles in stock, of which I bought four (procured here at Tod Cutler). Since the buckles and straps get riveted on using the same rivets that hold the plates in place, I had to cut out some rivets using a hacksaw blade and a lot of patience (thankfully I hadn't finished riveting the collar plates yet, so I only needed to cut out four rivets). Eventually, I was able to rivet the shoulder buckles and straps on using the same method I used for the front buckles.

Shoulder straps added

The last bit of work was oiling the leather. While I do not know if this was done historically, I know that not-oiled leather doesn't last very long, especially if it's been beaten up a lot through the riveting process. I used neatsfoot oil--the same as what I use to conditioning my historical shoes--and was glad to see the dust and dryness vanish as it darkened a little. 

Final Thoughts

I learned a lot through this project. Forced to over-analyze the smallest details in countless images of armor has given me a greater appreciation for 15th century armor. But so has hand-hammering 1,600 rivets. One thing I dislike about this brig now that it is complete is that it doesn't have anything close to the wasp-waist that you see on other brigs. I knew that it wasn't going to have it when I first started because the original at the Musee de l'Armee doesn't have it and you really can't make it without detached peplums, but I still just dislike the shape of the waist. I also kind of wish I made the armscye a little bigger to allow for a bit more movement. In all though, it's very wearable and it looks like the original and that's really what I was going for.

I hope you enjoyed this article or at least the pictures of my brigandine. When my medieval unit--the Paston Project--creates a website, I'll link to it here so that, should you want to see this brigandine in person, you can visit us at an event. Please leave a comment or ask a question below! If you are interested in making your own, I'd be happy to offer advice or at least get you in contact with someone who knows more. Thanks for reading!

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