The Use of Leather 革

Leather, kawa, has played an important part in the construction and decoration of Japanese armour since the earliest times. Rawhide or nerigawa, the dried cleaned and de-haired skins of animals was a major defensive material of many armours, either in the form of scales or plates.  Because it softened when exposed to moisture it needed coating with lacquer to protect it against Japan’s often humid climate. Complete armours were made of nerigawa but many have been lost through damage to the lacquer, allowing moisture to enter and cause the hide to swell and flake off even more lacquer.

Cattle, horses and deer were the main sources of hides but none were common in a largely Buddhist country in which little meat was eaten. Large numbers of skins were imported from China and South East Asia to supply Japan’s needs. Both Buddhism and the native Shinto religion regarded the killing of animals and the handling of skins as defiling acts and hence those involved in those occupations were regarded as unclean and little was ever written about the production of leather. Once processed leather lost its defiling properties and it was recognised as being essential in armour production.

Those skins not converted into rawhide were further processed by soaking the hides in rivers before pairing away the hair surface and tanning with vegetable oil. The result was a soft white suede that was seldom used without further treatment.  Much of this suede leather was decorated by applying pigments to the surface through a stencil to produce various patterned leathers called e-gawa. The designs are legion but Chinese lions or shishi gambolling amid the foliage and flowers of peonies are especially common. E-gawa was much used to decorate parts of armours, glued to the lacquered plate and held in place by soft metal rims. Another decorative technique was to subject the leather to dyeing, generally with indigo to give shades of blue. Patterns were created by clamping carved wooden blocks to the leather that acted as a resist, excluding the dye from those areas under the raised parts of the block. A common pattern is shobu gawa having rows of stylised iris flowers and leaves in white on a blue ground. These leathers were often used as a contrasting border for e-gawa.

Another treatment was to subject the suede to smoke from either straw or pine needles to give fusube gawa. By wrapping the leather with cords, or folding and refolding it during the smoking, complex patterns in different shades of yellow and brown could be produced. Fusube gawa found its greatest use in those areas subject to rubbing or for items such as gloves.

Finally, leather was lacquered and used for protective rain covers and similar applications. Lacquered leather, often from the heavily textured hides of buffalo is commonly encountered paired to paper thinness and glued to plates or rows of scales to give a decorative texture to armour plates.

The Restoration Path 修復の仕事

Making Egawa – Decorative Printed Leather

Authentic egawa has a slightly embossed printed relief making it easy spot the difference between modern screen printed or carefully hand crafted. In order to create egawa I cut a katagami 型紙 stencil from a special traditional paper called kozo 楮紙 . The stencil is very time consuming to make and can take months to produce. Original stencils were made from thin copper and therefore more robust, it’s something that I am working towards as the paper versions can tear during the stencilling process. I paint the exposed leather surface with a dabber using vegetable dye. Once the dye has dried I carefully peel back the stencil to reveal the printed pattern.

In the example below I had to make a joining section between a mask and its throat guard called a komori-tsuke.

Kawabari – Outer Surface Covered In Leather

A lot of high-quality armours are wrapped in leather. When I have to cover an item in leather I have to skive the edges so that it becomes wafer thin. This is crucial if the leather is to be wrapped around a plate as the bend cannot be too thick. Also if the plate has a fukurin the leather has to cover it smoothly. To glue the leather I mix ki-urushi with boiled rice flour, it creates mugi, a think urushi based glue that will air dry.

Nerigawa –  Armour Made From Rawhide

I have to make a lot of replacement parts for armour out of rawhide. This is due to the rawhide either warping over the years by changes in humidity and temperature, or and most alarmingly being eaten by rodents due to neglectful storage conditions. I use a standard rawhide to cut patterns, in the example below I have made some replacement panels for a gessen. The holes are punched out for the odoshi braid to pass through. The rawhide will be coated in sabi-urushi and then finally lacquered.