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Braiding Leather

bronze_lead

Dog leash made with bronze metallic leather

 

For about thirty years now I’ve been using four-strand braids to create leather goods such as dog leashes, horse reins, hatbands and key fobs.  The four thong braid technique produces a round length of leather cord that is strong, flexible and durable.  I learned to do this braid from an old cowboy.  Braiding leather for use in horse tack is an ancient art.

Braids can be made incorporating up to twelve thin leather strips.  There are so many different types of knots (each with its own colorful name) possible to be tied that whole books are written on this skill alone.  I usually stick to a four-thong braid and a simple Turks Head Terminal knot in my work.  Using thongs of two different colors results in a pretty variegated item that is popular.

The craft of braiding leather has been traced back to at least the Phoenicians though the Moors and then the Spaniards who brought it to the Americas with the men who cared for the horses.  Leather crafting and particularly leather braiding is closely associated with those who keep horses and depend upon them to earn a living.  The tack for controlling a horse is made mostly from leather.  American cowboys and their more southerly counterparts, vaqueros and gauchos, were and still are often skilled in leather braiding.  Therefore, it is not a surprise that an old cowboy should know the craft or that he would want to pass his knowledge on at the end of his life.

lead

Short tab dog lead with bronze snap

key

Black leather key fob with stainless steel ring

With his patient tutelage, I quickly learned the basics of four thong braiding.  I made my first set of reins for my horse, and never looked back.   Over the years I’ve created hundreds of items, especially dog leashes that I sell in my online stores.  People are always asking for custom braiding and it is gratifying to hear how happy they are with the lead, key fob or hatband I have made them.

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Dark brown tan bison hide

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Bronze metallic, lipstick pink and medium brown hides

The process of making a dog leash or other hand braided leather piece begins with a superior leather hide.  I am lucky to be near a tannery that has a shop with great deals on whole hides and scrap pieces.  A full cow hide can cost $100 or more depending on the size, finish, thickness and quality.  a1Leather hide is mostly sold by the square foot although scrap can be purchased by the pound.  I have a large inventory of fine leather in many colors and thicknesses.  There is even some lambskin and bison hide in my stash.  Lamb is very thin and fine, great for hatbands and bison is soft, tough leather that I use to form high quality, up-market dog leads.

a5For the metal fittings, I use the best available, solid brass, bronze or stainless steel.  Because braided leather will last for years, the metal wears out before the leather.  For a long-lived dog lead, set of reins or key fob, cheap zinc or chrome plated base metal will not do.

a2To begin the process of making a dog leash, I select a nice piece of hide, preferably from near the back or side of the animal where the skin has less flex, and I cut a circular panel at least a foot in diameter.  Odd-shaped scraps can be used, but getting as close to a circle as possible will result in less waste.  a3a4I use my strap cutting tool to cut a long, thin, continuous thong of leather. The cut should be on a gentle curve, avoiding sharp corners so the strap will be flat and straight.  I trim the thong if there are any rough stringy bits along the edges so it is smooth.  Now I have the basic material to make braids.a6

Four thong braids around a metal fitting are done with two strips of leather, a little more than double the length of the final product.  To make a lead, the leather is passed through the eye of the bolt snap and pulled until the length is even and the ends meet.  The snap is secured to provide a solid anchor for pulling against to create tension.  Now there are four thongs in your hand.
 A four-foot-long dog lead with a braided-in handle requires two thongs about 12 feet long.  One-quarter of the length is lost during the braiding process as the strips wrap around each other.  Extra length must be calculated to form the hand loop, including the ends for braiding in to hold the loop from slipping.

a9Braiding four strips instead of the usual three is not very complicated.  It requires a little concentration and plenty of hand strength to hold the braid and keep each turn tight.  Not enough tension will result in a loose braid.  For each turn of the braid, the loose thong highest on the braid is brought around the back and placed between the second and third thong.  Care is taken to keep the leather finished side out.  The final round braid should be closely woven with no gaps between the thongs.

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Short bronze leather braided dog lead ready to roll before the handle is completed

During use, all the thongs work together to hold the strain, effectively quadrupling the strength of the leather.  A 1/2″ diameter braid is more than sufficient to form a rein to control a horse.  Most dog leads are 1/4″ to 3/8″ in diameter.  The diameter of the braid is determined by the width of the thong.  To make 1/2″ diameter braid from a moderately stiff piece of leather 1/16″ thick, with not much stretch, each thong is cut approx. 7/16″ wide.  The thickness of the leather is added to the width to equal 1/2″. For very pliable leather, the thong must be cut wider since some width will be lost as the leather stretches during braiding.a11

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Turk’s Head Terminal Knot for round braid

Once the braid is finished, the ends are temporarily secured to hold them. The braid is then rolled under the hands on a hard surface to seat the thongs and make the braid even and smooth.  Then the ends are either knotted or braided in so they do not unravel.

a13To braid the ends in, a fid leatherworking tool that looks like an awl is used to widen the space between the braids.  a12An end is passed through the space and pulled tight, then the process is repeated until the ends are held and can not slip out.a14  The thongs are cut flush with the braid.  I like to secure the ends with a dab of super glue to help hold them.  The finished leash is now ready to take some lucky dog for a walk.  The leash below is bronze leather with a 3/8″ diameter braid and a solid bronze snap.a15

 

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Making Felt Play Food

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For my granddaughter Lia’s third birthday I’m making pizza from felt to go with her kitchen set.  Last year I made bread, sandwich fillings, fried eggs and bacon.a3  These approximately one-half real size play foods are made from patterns designed by Sweet Emma Jean, a store on Etsy. The patterns and bundles of felt for each set are available for purchase.  These are to be made for personal use and not for resale.  Since all the work is hand-done, I would have to charge much more than most would be willing to pay to be compensated for the time it takes to cut out and stitch the pieces.

Even though it takes time and effort, making the play food is fun.  Lia loves the things her mother and I have already made for her and plays with them all the time.  I’m pretty sure she will enjoy the pizza set since pizza is one of her favorite foods.a8

a2So far for the pizza, I have finished the board and five pieces of pie.  a7The slices consist of a bottom crust with dimpled rolled edge for a hand-tossed look, a top crust with attached sauce and two inner layers, one of stiff felt and one of foam, to thicken the slice.  a6

The sauce is stitched on to the top crust, the edge is attached, stuffed with a little fiber fill and sewn down and the two crusts are secured together with blanket stitches.a5 The ends of each crust have a little cap sewn on.a4

I will even be making a little pizza cutter that actually rolls! My hands do get tired after an hour or two of sewing.  Luckily, I still have plenty of time to complete this set, including all the toppings. Lia’s birthday is a couple months away still.

I look forward to sharing several pieces of felt pizza with Lia. Make mine with cheese, mushrooms, black olives and green peppers!

Making a Corn Husk Doll

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I’ve always wanted to make a corn husk doll.  These little figures are traditionally created at harvest time and have a long history in many civilizations including Northern European, Central European and North American native.  Children often construct crude corn husk dolls.  I just think they are sweet and make great decorations.  After some serious research online, I gathered enough information to try making a doll.

c2c3Since I grow indian corn, there are always plenty of husks.  I saved a couple buckets full, both white and red corn husks.  The silk would make great doll hair, but I’ve always fed that to the horses.  In the future I’ll dry and save that for dollmaking.

I found a good supply of tightly curled ringlets of tendrils on the dried squash and gourd vines from last summer.  These will make great curly hair for a doll.  To tie the husks, I’ll use hemp baling twine and I found some thin pieces of corn stalk that can be used to make a broom handle for the doll to hold.c1

c4The dried corn husks are soaked for 10-15 minutes in warm water.  Husks must be dried before use so they will not be too wet and mildew and also not be too brittle and crack. Drying makes the husks tough and soaking them gives a nice pliable material.  I weighted the husks down with a plate and cup of water because they float.

c5Gathering 8-10 long, full pieces of husk, I blotted them dry, lined up the pointed ends, placed the bundle of gourd tendrils on the inside and tied the end tightly with string.c6

Next, I flipped the stalks around to form the hair and top of the head.  There is enough material inside the bundle of husks to fill out the head.c7  I smoothed the husk in one area to make a nice face and tied the neck tightly.  The ends of the husks are cut straight to form the bottom of the doll’s dress.c8 This is her petticoat, a creamy beige color. To make the arms, a slim piece of husk is rolled tightly and trimmed to about 6″ long.  Two pieces of red husk about 5″ square are cut for the sleeves.c9  The red husk is bunched around the end of the rolled piece, about 1/2″ from the end.c10 After tying tightly, the red husk is flipped over and the other end tied. This is repeated for the other sleeve.c11

The arm construction is fed up through the bundled husks and the waist is tied tightly to keep the arms in place.c12

Two slim pieces of red husk are crossed over the body to form shoulders and tied tightly at the waist.  These strips cover and fill out the arm area.
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Next, several broad, long red husks are selected for the skirts of the dress.  The pointed ends are arranged around the waist, tied tightly, then flipped down.c14
The ends are trimmed again to a straight hem line on the dress.c15

Finally, the hair is pulled down, arranged and I used a slim piece of red husk to make a head scarf since my doll is going to be doing housework.c16

I fashioned a simple broom by tying 3″ long bunches of baling rope around one end of a small corn stalk.  To hold the broom in place, one thin strand of hemp twine that is barely visible is tied around the hands and broomstick.

Most corn husk dolls are not given features due to various superstitions from the cultures that originated the dolls.  I prefer a simple face so I sketched one with a fine point black Sharpie pen.  The doll stands 9″ tall and once dried, makes a lovely decoration on a small table in my living room.c21

c19This was so much fun, I intend to make more.  In the future I will use double or triple the number of corn husks for the petticoats and skirts to make them fuller.  This doll is made entirely from natural materials except for the facial features I drew in with the pen.

Children adore fashioning these dolls and I think this will be a great activity to do with my granddaughter.  The doll does not have to be so elaborate.  Often the arms are merely braided lengths of husk tied at the ends.  Boy dolls are made by separating the skirts and forming two pant legs tied  at the ankles.  Sometimes legs are braided to go inside the pants.  These would be tied on at the waist before the final layer of husks.

I have named my doll Maizie, not original, but apt.

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Natural Air Freshener

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For several years I’ve been making natural air freshener using essential oils and water.  The aerosol and pump spray air fresheners sold commercially are expensive, wasteful of metals and plastics unless people recycle the empty containers, and are full of strange chemicals that become aerosolized so we breathe them.  Some propellants even use hydrocarbons that give me asthma attacks.

c3My natural air fresheners cost only pennies per bottle and are very effective.  There is a huge selection of essential oils available so I can create an endless variety of scents.  I prefer to use pure essential oil, distilled from plants. Essential oils concentrate the aromatic essences of flowers, bark, leaves, fruit peels, etc, that contain the plants’ familiar fragrances.  Essential oils are often cut by blending with a carrier oil for many purposes such as candle or soap making. A blend of essential and carrier oil is called a fragrance oil. For my air freshener, I use only essential oil.

Making essential oil air freshener is a simple process.  I purchased a few super fine spray mist bottles like people use in making scrapbooks.  These are little pump sprayers that create a mist as fine as a pressurized aerosol spray.  The bottles I have hold 4 oz.  They are the perfect size to fit in the hand for easy pumping.c2  I first pour in a total of 1/8 to 1/4 oz of essential oil.  This is where I get creative with different combinations of oils, if I want.  For this Christmas I’m doing straight cinnamon.  Last year I made one with frankincense and myrrh and another with orange and nutmeg.  Some of my favorite combinations are florals with woods like sandalwood ylang ylang, or herbs and woods such as cedarwood sage, flavors such as vanilla hazelnut and my husband’s favorites that involve burberry or cinnabar.

After the essential oil mix is in the bottle, I add 2 oz of warm water. This leaves room in the bottle for mixing and the warmth helps distribute the oil.  Next is the most important step.  Shake and shake some more until the oil droplets are emulsified and the mixture has turned white (or sometimes pale yellow depending on the color of the oils.)  Then I add more water to fill the bottle.  After a few spritzes to check the potency, the air freshener is ready.  The bottle is always shaken well before each use to evenly distribute the oils.  Now, when I breathe in the freshener, I am only inhaling minute particles of natural plant oils and no industrial chemicals.

I’ve found that certain oils are so thick they will clog the sprayer head if used alone.  Citrus oils like orange and lemon have to be combined with another oil or two so they don’t gum up the works.  It is a good idea to clean the sprayer head occasionally and also give a thorough rinse to the bottle and sprayer when changing scents.

Spinning Angora Rabbit Fiber

wheel

As I said in an earlier post about spinning, winter is when I spin my angora rabbit fiber into yarn so I can use it to knit.  I have a traditional Saxony single drive spinning wheel, acquired second hand years ago, along with my first two angora rabbits.  The wheel was once used to spin sheep wool and still has some areas of lanolin slick on it.  Angora rabbit fiber does not contain lanolin, a greasy substance secreted by sheep to waterproof the hair.

Angora rabbit fiber is soft and fluffy and not at all oily.  I take great care to produce clean fiber with no vegetative matter, soiling or matting.  When I remove the fiber from the rabbit, I place it all oriented in one direction with tips and ends going the same way.  Because angora is spun tip first, it helps to arrange the fiber this way.

Since the fiber is already clean, loose, and matt-free, it does not require carding to prepare it for spinning.  I simply spin the fiber exactly as it has been removed from the rabbit.  I hand pull the fiber from the animal, to preserve the full length, or staple, of the hair.  Hand pulling does not hurt the rabbit.  Only the loose fiber that is ready to fall out is removed.  Here are a couple samples of fiber, fawn agouti and plain fawn colors, and a fawn rabbit–Gem, a doe. In the photos that follow, I am spinning fawn fiber.

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Gem, angora doe

fawn agouti

fawn agouti fiber

fawn fiber

fawn fiber

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I have several colors of angoras in my rabbitry: albino (white,) sable (gray/black,) fawn (reddish,) and chocolate torte (reddish and light brown.) In the past I’ve had chocolate, a pretty brown color.  Agouti is the wild color of rabbits, each hair is banded with three or more colors.  I have had agouti in the past, as well.

spinning

I like to spin in a well-lit area and usually work bare-footed, I find it more comfortable.  Spinning the fibers involves developing a twist along the length of a small amount of hair and then adding more hair to it to produce a type of thick thread.  This process is called joining.  The fiber it fed with the tip toward the wheel.  The foot pedal turns the wheel which turns the spindle with the strand attached, producing the twist.  New swatches of fiber easily catch onto the twist to quickly form a long strand that is wrapped around the bobbin.

forming twist

joining the fiber

The skill of spinning incorporates keeping the wheel turning at the proper speed with the foot pedal, holding the right tension on the fiber you are joining and feeding the appropriate amount of fiber as it is needed.  Angora fiber is usually spun into a fairly thin strand, especially if it is used pure and not blended with another fiber like silk or baby alpaca. This is because angora fiber is expensive and also very warm.  A little angora goes a long way.

bobbin

bobbin showing guide hooks

foot pedal

the foot pedal

 

The strand of joined fiber runs through the center of the spindle then through the guide hooks and onto the bobbin.  The strand can be placed on different hooks to fill the bobbin smoothly.  To start the strand through the spindle and onto the bobbin, a special hook is used.  The hook is inserted through the spinning end to catch and pull the strand of yarn through.  Occasionally the strand will break during spinning, if the tension is too tight or the strand is too thin.  Then the hook must be used to re-thread the strand.  The tension is maintained with a knob mechanism attached to a spring by heavy monofilament.  At the right tension the strand goes smoothly onto the bobbin.

feeding the yarn

catching the strand with the hook

 

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pulling the strand through the hole in the spindle

tensioner

tensioner mechanism

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

After two bobbins are filled with a single strand, usually the same color, the strands are plied together to form two ply yarn. Sometimes three or more strands are plied together, but mostly I make two ply for my knitting projects. The bobbins are placed on a Lazy Kate and the strands are fed back through the spindle hole and onto a third bobbin. The wheel is then turned in the opposite direction from the direction the strands were spun. This joins the two strands together smoothly without placing more twist on the yarn.

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Lazy Kate

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Two strands running from the Lazy Kate back onto the spindle

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Here are some bobbins filled with single strands of fiber and a small amount of two ply yarn.

sable yarn

sable fiber

choc yarn

chocolate fiber

2 ply yarn

sable two ply yarn

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

For most of my spinning, one ounce of fiber will make about 50 yards of two ply yarn. When I have enough yarn made, I knit up a project in pure angora fiber. Most knit items are made in open, airy patterns to conserve the expensive fiber and make the most of the great insulating qualities of angora. The ends of the fiber often open away from the yarn to form the characteristic “halo” effect of angora. This halo adds to the garment’s warmth.

hat

sable angora hat

scarf

albino angora scarf

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sable angora stole

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I made a very luxurious stole from a thicker yarn spun from Jet, a beautiful sable angora. The stole is closely knit, full and heavy with a big halo. When I’m in need of comfort, perhaps suffering from a sore throat or chill, I wrap my angora stole around my neck. Just like snuggling a bunny!

stole

Making Blown Eggs

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It’s snowing again today, a Nor’easter with 10″-12″ accumulation predicted.  Looks like the weather is trying to live up to the forecast, too.  The snowfall has been steady all day.  A perfect day to process all the pullet eggs I’ve been collecting to make blown eggs.  The work is time consuming so it’s best done when there’s nowhere to go and nothing to do but watch snow fall.

With a healthy flock of young Ameraucana hens just starting to lay, I’m getting a lot of small but very nicely colored eggs.  Ameraucana chickens carry a gene that turns their egg shells blue.  The first eggs a hen lays are always the deepest colored.  My girls lay an assortment of shades, mostly medium pastel turquoises, ranging from green to nearly blue.  I have been breeding these birds for many generations to produce the best, darkest blue color I can.  We’re getting there.

It is a shame to waste the lovely shells, so I save the very best colored eggs that have no laying irregularities like ridges or odd shape.  When I get a bunch, I drill a tiny hole in one end and carefully remove the contents of the egg.  The process I use is one I developed myself through much trial and error.  I prefer not to write about it here, a trade secret.  Suffice to say that it takes a long time to clear out the innards and put the eggs through several rinses to get the insides perfectly clean.  Then I dry the eggs and offer them for sale in my online stores.  The blown eggs sell very quickly and I usually earn about $1 per egg for my efforts.  They are most popular around Easter.  Some people use them to create pysanky, lovely painted decorative eggs.

Nothing from the eggs goes to waste.  I save all the innards and have a big bowl of pre-mixed eggs ready to go into baking or to make a batch of scrambled eggs.  This latest set of blown eggs started as 18 but one shell burst under the pressure of having the insides blown out.  Sometimes an egg will have a weak place that is not visible but shows up when cleaned. Here is a shot of some of the ladies on a nice spring day, when all the snow is forgotten.hens2

Time to Spin

spinning wheel catWinter, the temperatures are below zero and the snow is over a foot deep, time to get out the spinning wheel and the lovely raw angora fiber I’ve been saving all year.  Spinning fiber into yarn is a very relaxing and, for me, therapeutic activity.  The clack of the wheel, rhythmic pushing of the foot pedal, and endless adding on of new strands of fiber to the twist of yarn in my hand sends me into a sort of hypnotic trance.  I can feel my blood pressure lowering and my stress hormones melting away.

Here’s a shot of my spinning wheel, work bag, some gray fiber loaded on the wheel and my old cat, Rusty, who loved to hide in paper sacks.  When I get a chance, I’ll take some more photos of the spinning process and do another post on spinning.