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UncommonCate

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Leather

Mouse Hide Amulet Bag

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Mice have delightfully soft fur. They are also prolific, easy to catch, and easy to skin. The first time I ever even heard of mouse use for hides was last summer at the Echoes in Time skills gathering. One of the basket girls had a tiny mouse hide bag. I thought it was a wonderfully creative and adorable idea, and, being a maker, I wanted to try making one myself. Mouse hides are the perfect size for amulet bags.

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The first part was the mouse hides. Mice are generally trapped anyway because they are often a nuisance, so instead of disposing of the mice from the traps as usual, I threw them in a bag in the freezer. When I had a few I decided to try skinning them. It was much easier than I thought it would be. I thawed them just enough, so that the innards were still mostly solid, but the skin was supple. The skins are very thin and therefore delicate, but they peel right off. The most difficult part was figuring out where to cut the ears and the lips to get the face off intact. I discovered that a cut right under the ears will bring them off nicely, and a pre-cut along the edges of the mouth makes the whole face much easier to deal with. It took me three tries to get a good one with the whole face and no holes (the one pictured).

I then soaked the hides in Earl Grey tea for a few days. Tea contains tannic acid which treats the hide and because the hides were so small, it was much easier to use tea than bark. This is essentially bark tanning. I do not know much about bark tanning, but I find braintan.com‘s section on bark tanning very informative. It’s a highly interesting process. I then rubbed oil (walnut oil mixed with beeswax to be exact because that’s what I had at the time) to soften the hide.

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To make the bag, I folded the back end of the hide up to the ears and whip stitched the sides closed. I then sewed a piece of buckskin lace under the fold of the flap (on the backside of the ears). To make the fold nice, I left the bag with the flap folded down under a book for a while.

“Not a creature was stirring, not even a mouse…” – Clement Clarke Moore, A Visit From St. Nicolas

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Simple Buckskin Dress

hidedress13I have always wanted to be able to wear buckskin clothing. Buckskin is soft and fluffy, but also very durable. Buckskins have been worn as clothes and made into bags, shoes, and so much more for millennia. This dress is a very straight forward design, only requiring two deer hides (in fact, the dress is only two pieces). Luckily my hides were just big enough to get a dress out of. I was definitely on the edge of not having a large enough set of hides. Unless you have really big hides, any dress that will be larger than a size 8-10 would probably need at least one more hide (but more on that in the next step). All seams are laced together with buckskin lacing.

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I began with a dress. For a pattern, I used a fabric dress that I had made from an old scarf. Around the edges on the sides, I left about an inch for seam allowance. I left the necklines very high and cut them down to shape later. Something to remember when sewing buckskin is that there’s no need to leave a hem allowance because the edge won’t fray like fabric, although binding the edge can be a very nice touch. To cut the hides, I used a very sharp scissors that I keep for cutting fabric and leather.

Cutting and sewing buckskin is not like cutting and sewing fabric. Buckskin is very three dimensional and varies in thickness. This is all very important to keep in mind when cutting because if you cut your pieces out of the edges of a hide where it’s wavy and thin it will result in a final garment that is not as strong as it should be, is difficult to sew because of the thickness, and will not lay smoothly on the body. It is worth not squeezing every possible inch out of the hide and just using the good thick consistent part.

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The sides of this dress are laced. Lace is made but cutting a thin piece off an edge of a hide. In simple terms, lace is leather string. I used an awl to punch holes along the side of the dress and threaded the lace through. It’s just like sewing fabric, but on a much larger scale.

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To check the fit, I tried the dress on, cutting a slit in the neck line to fit my head through. I discover that the dress needed a dart in the front and the back on the arm holes because there was a loose wrinkle as the shoulders curve into the arms. I also cut the neck to shape. The lower edges that I had left rough at the bottom, I cut smooth. The back laces, to shape the back without making darts, are threaded though the side lacing. I considered darting the back to fit the curve of the lower back, but then the waist would have been too small for my shoulders to get through without adding an opening and buttons.

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“Buckskin is more than just a beautiful leather and an amazing clothing material, it is also part of the evolutionary history of the human species.” –Woniya Thibeault Buckskin Revolution

Making Buckskin (Brain Tanning Deer Hides in 12 Steps)

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Buckskin is truly amazing material. It’s soft, breathable, strong, durable, and pest repellent in nature. It’s qualities have been tested and proven for millennia. It takes a lot of manual labor to make real brain tanned buckskin. For this reason good buckskin usually costs at least ten, if not fifteen, dollars per square foot from a professional tanner. There are cheaper commercially tanned hides available, but these are not processed the same. They don’t breathe. So commercially tanned is fine for bags and accessories, but it doesn’t wear anywhere near as well home tanned buckskin. If the word brain has caused anxiety, it is not necessary to use brain, a hide can certainly be traditionally tanned using other natural softeners (I often use eggs and olive oil instead of brain). I am by no means particularly accomplished at hide tanning. This is only my ninth hide. I first learned about hide tanning from professional hide tanners at the Winter Count skills gathering. For further instruction/discussion/etc., I would recommend braintan.com, Buckskin Revolution, or fromfarmandforest.com.

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First things first, hide acquisition. Hunting and taking the hide is the most obvious course, but time, place, etc. for hunting can be difficult to manage, so alternatives… Road kill (fresh) is a good place to get hides, or finding a hunter who doesn’t use the hide (which is many modern hunters) and offering some money for a cleanly skinned hide is good source for hides. As few holes as possible makes everything easier during the tanning proccess and results in a better final product. When I get a hide (from a roadkill or a friend who hunts), it may not be an opportune time to tan it, so preservation is usually the next step.

A hide can be saved almost indefinitely in a freezer. If at any point in the process I need to stop for a few days or months for whatever reason, the hide can simply be thrown into the freezer. The point of freezing is to prevent the hide from decaying. If a hide starts to rot, it is firstly not going to make good buckskin because bacteria will weaken the internal structure of the hide, and secondly is really gross and can make the tanner ill. If the hide is balled up, perhaps bundled into a trash bag, fresh, at room temperature, and with the hair still on, the hair will insulate the inside of the hide, allowing bacteria to thrive for several days before the hide is frozen through. So to prevent this, de-hairing the hide first makes putting the hide bundled up in a bag in the freezer possible without fear of rot.

hides003After the hide is thawed, the first thing to do is scrape or cut (whichever is easier) any meat that has remained on the hide after skinning. During the fleshing, graining, and rinsing, I make a point of wearing leather gloves over rubber gloves to thoroughly protect my hands. Hiding tanning is dangerous in that even a tiny cut can get blood poisoning if you work with bare hands. A lot of people do it no problem with bare hands (I have), but in the long run it’s just safer to wear a protective layer, particularly over open wounds, even just a paper cut.

hides004Lye is a strong base (opposite of an acid) and is sold at ordinary hardware stores as a drain opener. The only ingredient should be lye (not just any drain opener). Lye makes a hide swell and shrink temporarily. It loosens the hair, allowing it to come off easily, and the grain (the outer layer of skin) to come off more easily as well. To lye a hide, I get a tub of water (a five gallon bucket at the smallest) and add lye until the water is slippery to the touch (although really its not good to touch lye too much for fear of burns and one has to be wary of the fumes). Lye is a dangerous chemical if used without caution, so use common sense and read the label. I generally leave a hide to soak for a day or so. Changing the water at least once a day helps keep the hide fresh.hides005Making a work surface suited to scraping a hide is not too difficult. There are two common methods; an upright beam and a waist beam. The upright beam (the one I use) is a log or half a log (perhaps 4 to eight inches in diameter or a piece of drain pipe of the same size and almost as long a the tanner is tall) leaning up against a tree with the hide draped over the top. The other is a log or pipe of the same dimensions with two legs at one end so that one end rests on the ground and the other is held up to waist height by the legs. Each method uses different muscles when scraping, so it’s really up to whichever one feels best. I like upright because I don’t have to bend over to scrape (for which my back is always thankful for after a long day of de-hairing and graining).

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After a hide has been soaked in the lye and has become rather thick and rubbery, it’s time to de-hair. The hair should come right off, even if you just run a hand over it, assuming the hide has been soaked in the lye solution long enough. I find the back of a knife or drawknife will lift the hair right off.

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To grain a hide, the best tool (in my opinion) is a dull drawknife. To be more traditional, a piece of wood with one sharp edge, a bone with one sharp edge, or a rock with a moderately sharp edge will also get the job done. The goal is to scrape off the outer layer of skin without damaging the under layers, so the draw knife should be just dull enough that if one runs one’s finger over the blade, it will not create a cut. Use common sense, if you test a blade this way, make sure it really is dull first. The hardest part on the animal to grain is usually the back of the neck and the very edges. Sometimes its better to cut you losses (literally) by cutting off a difficult edge. Deciding whether to put the effort into a difficult part is about weighing the effort you’re putting into the hide and the quality of material you’ll be getting out. If it’s a difficult spot in the center it’s best to power through and scrape it thoroughly, but if it’s the last inch on a thin jagged edge it’s probably better just to trim it off.

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After all the grain has been scraped off, its time to rinse. I place the hide in a bath of plain water, changing it several times throughout a day to allow the lye to soak out. When the hide is white and flexible like wet cloth, as apposed to yellowish and rubbery, it’s probably ready to move on.

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Wringing out the rinse water helps the hide become dry enough, without drying, to absorb the brain solution more thoroughly. I learned to wring using a very specific technique that has worked very well for me. A good thorough wringing requires a smooth, sturdy, and (mostly) horizontal bar or branch and a small separate bar, branch or dowel. It begins by laying the hide membrane side up on a horizontal bar. Smoother is better for the wringing bar because rough spots can tear the hide. Take the edge that hangs farther down and lay it up on the bar, wrapping the hide around the bar loosely. Beginning at either side, roll the edge of the hide up until the middle is reached and then start again on the other side. The small independent pole threads through the bottom parallel to the main bar. This can now be used to twist the hide, wringing out the water. For a thorough wring, repeat this at least three to four times.

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Braining: the word that tends to throw people off. At this point you could take a deer’s head, pull out the brain and rub into the hide. It is a good and traditional method, but if you don’t hunt your own deer, they can be difficult to find. There are a lot recipes for softening hides, many of which do not call for brain. Different tanners will swear by their recipes, but it comes down to permeating the hide with emulsified oils (that is oils that can mix with water). The brain is filled with emulsified oils, so boiled (to kill bacteria), blended (preferably not with the kitchen blender), and then mixed with a little water (to give it enough volume to cover a hide in a bucket) is one of the most well known basic recipes, and probably one of the oldest. Eggs, or rather egg yolks, is a good natural non-brain method. Grated ivory soap with mixed with almost any oil will work as well. Basically, an emulsified oil or an emulsifier mixed with an oil will soften a hide. The tanner I learned from used brain or grated ivory soap mixed with grape seed oil, sometimes both together. I’ve taken to using egg yolks mixed with olive oil because those are things I have at home anyway, and that’s more or less the same solution my dad taught me to use ages ago.

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After the hide is wrung, I let it soak in brain until the hide has absorbed as much as possible. Then wring again, soak again, and wring again (not necessary, but it helps). Now to soften…

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Softening is not difficult, just time consuming. In essence, softening is continually stretching the hide until it dries. If not stretched, the hide will harden back to rawhide. The two methods of this that I have seen are stretching the hide over a post that has been set vertically in the ground at about waist height, or stretching a hide across a metal cable of between a quarter and an eighth inch diameter hung from head height to the ground. Both of these allow the use of body weight to stretch the hide as opposed to just sitting down and trying to stretch the hide with bare hands alone, which is fine, but only for those with strong hands.

When the hide is dry, the hide should be soft and fluffy. If it’s not, re-braining and softening is a good course of action. To expedite this process, smoking and then re-processing helps. If you start without smoking, all softening progress is lost, where as smoking freezes the hides at its current level of softness on which re-softening will build. If you soften a hide, don’t smoke it, and then get it wet it will return to rawhide. Smoking also makes buckskin repellent to pests that would otherwise want to eat the hide.

The first thing to do when smoking a hide is to sew it into a bag with an opening left at the neck to attach to a sleeve. The sleeve should be at least a six inches, preferably more, long and not narrower than the average pant leg. Usually the sleeve some kind of canvas or denim, but it doesn’t really matter. Old cut off pant legs work well.

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For an stove, I use a cinder block sunk into the ground with a hole under it connecting the two chambers (see pictures). On one side I attach the hide sleeve, and on the other I keep a lid with which to access the fire. It’s easier to use a small wood stove with a short stove pipe and attach the sleeve to the stove pipe, but that requires the wood stove that I don’t have. To go really low tech, a hole in the ground will do, but the risk of scorching the hide is much greater this way. The most convenient way I have ever heard of is to use a smoke house (the kind used to smoke meat). This way hides can be simply hung in the smoke house and left with no worries about scorching or sewing them into a bag. Returning to smoking a hide with some kind of stove, the key is to not scorch the hide. This will ruin a hide very easily and quickly (believe me, I know and it’s a dreadful feeling to see all that hard work go to waste).

I learned to smoke hides by making a small bed of hot coals (by burning down some charcoal or small chunks of hardwood) and then adding small pieces of wood, preferably rotten and dried, to keep the fire as smoky as possible. It can be difficult, after a life time of striving for clean burning smokeless fires for heating and cooking, to maintain a smoky fire. When I smoke a hide, I have to attend the fire constantly to maintain it’s smokiness. There should never be flames during hide smoking because this usually means the fire is not producing maximum smoke and flames can burn the hide. Using wood that smells good, or at least not bad, is also something to keep in mind during smoking. The smoke smell fades over time, but it doesn’t really go away. Also, it should be common sense to not use things like poison oak or poison ivy for hide smoking.

It’s time to turn the hides inside out to smoke the outside when the smoky brown color begins to bleed through to the outside. After the color begins to bleed through, leaving a hide to smoke longer is just about getting the desired color. Some people like the pale color and some like the dark, but as long as the smoke has penetrated through the whole hide, it’s essentially all the same.

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At this point, a hide should be finished; soft, fluffy, and a rich beautiful golden brown. The doors now stand open for clothes, bags, anything you can think of…

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Leather Belt Bag

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quiver38This lovely little bag was made to match the Leather Quiver from last post. It functions as either a belt bag or as a quiver bag. It was made to be a quiver bag for the most part, but I have found myself wearing it as a trendy little purse alternative instead. At about six by six inches, it is perfect for a cell phone and wallet.

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It began as six pieces. The front, the back (identical to the back), the closure flap (identical to the front and back except slightly shorter), the belt loops, and the sides and bottom strip. I began by sewing the belt loops to the back panel (saddle stitch as usual).

quiver31Next, I attached the closure flap to the back panel. The belt loop tops are sewn into the same seam as the closure flap.

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The front and back panels were sewn to the sides and bottom strip inside out. I then turned the bag, hiding the seam and creating a more rounded look.

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A button loop and antler button finish off the bag.

     quiver39 quiver40 quiver42 The bag can now be worn at the belt or it can be attached to the quiver by a small strap. The strap is narrow enough to fit under the side lace of the quiver to hold it securely in place. I considered using a small buckle on the strap, but I decided to go low tech. As an adjustable buckle alternative, I punched holes along the strap and then used a piece of lace to tie through the holes, holding the strap at the proper length.

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Leather Quiver

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I tried to make this quiver versatile for use in different environments. The top angle is meant to shed rain and natural forest debris as well as to protect the fletchings from general wear and tear. Since having the arrows totally covered is not as convenient when actually shooting, I decided to design for the top to be folded down for easier access when shooting. On a similar train of thought, I like to carrying a back quiver, but shooting from a belt quiver. So, I made sure to make straps that allow the quiver to be switched from one type of carry to the other quickly and easily.

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A plan was, as always, the first step. Dimensions were next. My arrows are around 28 inches, so I made the apex of the top 30 inches to completely cover the arrows. The circumference of the bottom is about 10 inches.

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I sketched out a cutting pattern on some big paper. The leather is oil tanned cow hide, which has a really nice color and texture.

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For decoration I decided to applique a pattern on the outer surface. It is in no way functional, but I think it looks cool and adds some dimensionality. I cut out the decorative applique from the scraps around the edges. Because this is a repetitive pattern, I made a pattern for each of the five types pieces with the stitches marked so that they would all look the same.  After laying out the pattern on the main quiver piece, I lightly marked where each piece went and labeled each place and piece with a corresponding letter to ensure that each piece ended up where it was meant to be. Each piece was then saddle stitched down.

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To close the sides, I punched a matching line holes along each edges and then laced the side up, tying the lace off at the top on the inside.

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The bottom is a slightly squared oval. I made a paper model first, and then trimmed it down until it matched the bottom of the quiver. I then cut a leather version. The edge is once again held together with a saddle stitch. The sure up the side closure, I made sure to catch the end of the side lace in the seam at the bottom.

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The straps are one inch wide with a buckle to allow the length to be adjusted and clips on the ends to allow the strap to be remove easily. The clips strap attachments are a quarter inch narrower than strap, so the strap is tapered in to accommodate this. A small loop, about 6 inches around, is attached to the top clip of the shoulder strap. This is used to suspend the quiver from a belt. 

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To make the quiver shorter for shooting ease, the top shoulder strap clip is un-clipped, the top is folded down, the D-ring to which the shoulder strap clips is passed through a slit in the quiver top, and finally the clip is re-clipped creating a whole different style. Either style can be carried at the back or the belt.

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Matching belt bag coming soon…   

Ulltuna Helmet (Viking Helm)

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I made this helmet just because Vikings and their earlier ancestors are fascinating people, and it seemed like a fun project. It’s great for reenacting, renaissance fairs, or accidentally scaring the neighbors while taking a photo shoot. This style of helmet is nice because it doesn’t require large pieces of leather or pieces or leather of uniform thickness, so it can be made from scraps. The mask that covers the lower face is also completely removable for a different look. This is one of my favorite costumes.

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This style of helm dates from 6th to 8th century Sweden. It evolved into the Spangenhelm in later centuries. The surviving historical examples seem to be made of metal, but it doesn’t seem unlikely that leather ones also could have existed particularly among poorer and less skilled people. I first discovered this helmet type through the website of a re-enacting group called The Ravens Warband.

Materials: Scrap leather (vegetable tanned cowhide preferred) between 5 and 10 oz weight.

Tools: razor knife, leather hole punch, ruler, bristol board or card stock for patterning, edge beveler, leather lacing or a leather lace cutter, large pot of boiling water for hardening, tongs or similar (also for the hardening process).

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I first made a pattern from thin card stock.

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The two most important parts of the helmet are the crest band and the brow band. The brow band is the part that wraps around the head, passing over the tops of the ears and the forehead. The crest band goes over the top of the head, connecting the to the brow band in the front and back and also extends down below the brow band in front to make the nose guard. My final helmet has an inner and outer brow band and crest band, hiding the ends of the woven pieces and the laces between the inner and outer. The outer bands will need to be about an inch longer than the inner bands to account for the thickness of the leather in between them. The remainder of the helmet consists of a basket weave of leather strips.

In my helmet, the crest and brow bands are both 1 3/4 inches wide, and the woven straps are one inch wide.

The pattern fit quite loosely because the hardening process will shrink the helmet by about ten percent. The paper mock-up felt huge, but it ended up almost perfect in the end. I used six 1-inch wide straps on each side to make the woven portion. I evenly spaced all ends along crest and brow bands. It took me a while to work out the right pattern. I numbered the woven straps and their places on the brow and crest bands will help to stay organized when putting it back together in leather. I took the pattern back apart to trace on to the leather. It was hard to take it apart after putting so much work into putting it together.

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I used the thickest leather I could find for the crest and the brow to maintain the structure as best as possible. One of the crest bands included the extra 2 or 3ish inches for the nose guard.

I cut two of each of the weave pieces. Cutting both the leather pieces off the same pattern kept the woven portions more symmetrical. I almost forgot to flip the pattern over when cutting the second set, which would have left me with two of the same side.

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I laced the ends of the brow band together so that it forms a circle, and then attached the crest band on opposite sides of the brow band so that it formed a half circle (see picture). For the visible portions of the helmet, I put the grain side (smooth side) out for a better appearance.

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After that, I punched six holes evenly spaced on each side of the crest band, and in the end of each weaving piece. Then I laced them on to the crest matching the hole in the end to the corresponding hole in the crest band.

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I repeated the process with the brow band and other ends of the weavers.

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To tighten the whole thing up, I decided to punch holes in each intersection in the woven areas and run a lace around the helmet going through each hole. This makes a sort of thin inner net that becomes part of the woven areas, but I were to make this helmet again, I wouldn’t do this step. In the hardening process, the thin exposed lacing spanning the holes in the weaving became very brittle because it hardens so much faster than the thicker leather in the rest of the helmet.

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I laced the brow band in the front, and the crest band over it, leaving the nose guard sticking down below the brow band.

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Next, I cut five neck guard rectangles, approximately 1 1/2 by 6 inches, and cheek guards, approximately 6 by 3-4 inches.

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I cut tabs of corresponding width to each neck and cheek guards, and then laced them into the bottom edge of the brow band. By hardening the helmet separately and lacing on the the guards later, the unhardened laces act as hinge so the guards can move freely. The cheek guard tabs have an extra hole in the front to attach the mask later on.

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Beveling the edges (basically rounding the edges) made the overall appearance a lot cleaner. It tricks the eye into missing the smaller imperfections. Burnishing the edges a little bit smooths things out as well.

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Hardening makes the leather very stiff and a little brittle. It also darkening the leather. For an even darker color, a little tea in the water will dye it quite nicely. I didn’t dye this helmet, but I did dye some arm guards I had made previously to match the helmet by soaking them in some cooled Earl Grey tea. When hardening, I think it’s better to err on the side of too soft because leather can always be re-hardened, but if it gets over cooked it can become far too brittle and structurally weak.

I began by wetting the the leather until it was thoroughly soaked through. This helps it to shrink less in the hardening process. I boiled enough water to cover the helmet. When the water was boiling, I dipped the helmet in using a pair of tongs, and held it in the water for somewhere between 10 and 30 seconds.

It shrank slightly and pulled out of shape. While it was still hot, I re-shaped the helmet by pulling it into the proper shape, and when it was cool enough, I put it on my head. (No pictures for this part because I didn’t have enough hands for the camera). Wet leather shapes very easily, so it wasn’t too hard to bring back to the right shape. I’ve had a couple of the thinner bands crack a little, but luckily they didn’t crack all the way through and are not really visible.

I repeated the hardening process for each of the neck and cheek guards as well as the face guard. The bottom of the neck guards curve out to accommodate the outward curve of the shoulders.

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The neck guards and cheek guards laced onto the corresponding tabs.
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I later knitted a nice little wool hat cushions the inside of the helmet, and fills in any left over space. It also allows air to circulate under the brow band. The wool hat makes all the difference it the world when wearing the helmet.

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All the hard work paid off in the end. This helmet is both scary and awesome (I think so anyway). It’s also all the more awesome for being completely hand made. It’s very satisfying to say “I made it” when someone asks where I bought it.

 

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