You’ve probably heard the expression before: “measure twice, cut once.”
When you’re starting an endeavor, it pays to do a little more work up front and get things right the first time instead of diving in haphazardly and having to clean up your mistakes later.
Trust me, there are few feelings as awful as realizing that after months of effort you neglected that one detail or made that one little slip-up…and now all is lost!
I’ve experienced this many times. For example, I make wedding cakes as a side business and it only took one experience with turning an entire cake a sickly purple instead of royal blue (the food coloring labels had been switched) for me to always test my colors on a small frosting sample before committing the whole batch.
The same goes for my art. What you see on this website is mostly my finished designs, but before I start on these I frequently hone my ideas on small practice pieces first.
Before building my airbender staff with its novel wing storage system I created 1/8th scale and full-scale mock-ups with sewing scraps to ensure that the design would function and to work out what type of fabric would be best for the final version.
Before starting my Faramir armor, I created samples of numerous chainmaille weaves to test their flexibility, weight, and appearance.
And, yes, before I make a wedding cake I sometimes create a low-detail mock-up to be sure I’ve got my colors perfect.
Creating a draft of any long, involved project can sometimes be frustrating, but I’ve learned the hard way that if you don’t measure twice before you cut, you end up doing a lot more work in the long run.
The Practice Pauldron
All of this brings us to the Kazakh leather pauldron featured in this article. I’m currently working on a suit of leather armor inspired by the Fire Nation from Avatar: The Last Airbender. I knew that this project would take me hundreds of hours spread over a couple years, so I really wanted to get it right the first time.
As a result, I committed more time than usual into my practice piece and this Kazakh leather pauldron was born.
This pauldron (technical term for shoulder armor) allowed me to:
- Test how a baseball stitch would look in a piece of armor,
- Perfect the combination of colors in my dye and leather paint,
- Ensure that my chosen thread would hold up under pressure and would dye acceptably,
- Test the look of gold rivets and other metal pieces,
- Size the leather components of my future armor to fit my shoulders when hardened, and
- Practice with my beveling and matting tools to be sure I had what I needed.
It did a lot for me, in other words, which is why it was worth the 30 hours of effort it required…and why I thought it merited its own mini photoshoot.
Over the years, I’ve amassed a collection of hundreds of armor templates and patterns available for free on the internet. For this project, I selected a design with a rounded shoulder piece made of three parts joined together with a basic baseball stitch.
Below this, I added three curved lamellae that protect the upper arm. The lowest band is attached to a strap which buckles around the bicep so that the armor moves with the warrior’s arm.
All in all, this makes for a beautiful and highly functional piece of leather armor—exactly what I want for my Fire Nation cosplay armor.
These pieces were shaped and hardened using the traditional cuir bouilli (“boiled”) method:
- First, I let each piece soak in cold water for 10 minutes. Then, I dipped them in 170-180 degree (77-82 C) water for 10-30 seconds each. I put additional pieces of scrap leather between my tongs and the leather I was hardening so that the tongs wouldn’t leave dents in the softened leather.
- Next, I took advantage of the temporary softness of the leather created by the heat and formed it around appropriate shapes. For the round piece, I used a six-pound medicine ball borrowed from work (perks of being a physical therapist by day) and for the lamellae I used glass tupperware. This allowed the pieces to fit inside each other like stacked cups.
- I did a little extra leather tooling at this point to refine details which had been lost when the leather swelled and then I wrapped the pieces in cloth (not string, which would leave a dent) and let it dry overnight.
Below, Modrenman shares an excellent video showing how he used this same method to harden a similar rounded shape—the helmet from an epic How to Train Your Dragon cosplay.
Overall, the learning curve wasn’t too steep, but it certainly wasn’t something I would have wanted to try for the first time on my actual Fire Nation armor.
Putting it Together
Once the pieces were dry, I dyed them a custom mixed deep red color, painted the designs with acrylic leather paint, and applied a leather sealer with a glossy finish.
Then, I riveted the pieces together with two strips of flexible scrap leather hidden on the inside of the pauldron. I also riveted in the straps used to secure the armor to the body.
View from the underside of the pauldron.
As a quick aside, I’m not a huge fan of excessive use of buckles and rivets on armor. When overused, they tend to give a steampunk feel to a medieval or fantasy project.
So, to avoid drawing too much attention to my fasteners, I used rivets with a textured head which wouldn’t reflect too much light and hid them at natural places in the pauldron filigree.
The rivets are definitely there, but they’re not the first thing to draw your eye.
Now, most pauldrons are secured to a breastplate or a gorget with a buckle, but since I was making this as a stand-alone piece it needed to be able to…well…stand alone.
There are a couple of ways to secure a single pauldron to a body. The simplest is with a single strap wrapped around the wearer’s chest on the opposite side.
A nice looking pauldron, but the buckle in the armpit is only comfortable if you happen to be an armless mannequin.
This works fine in some cases, but depending on what other clothes the wearer has on, the strap can start to ride up under the armpit, which is uncomfortable and allows the pauldron to start sliding off of the shoulder.
Instead, I chose a design with one short strap connected to two more by a central ring. This changes the angle of pull and allows the pauldron to be secured comfortably under the ribs.
These straps did their job wonderfully. When taking pictures of the pauldron, I had my model (Aden) swing his club and perform many other action shots. The armor moved naturally with his arms and stayed perfectly in place.
Why a Kazakh Leather Pauldron?
So far, I’ve talked over almost every aspect of the pauldron…except what probably caught your eyes first: the distinctive golden designs.
These are derived from traditional patterns of the steppe nomads in the country of Kazakhstan.
But why Kazakhstan?
Kazakh flag. Note the traditional designs on the left-hand side. Image from: Wikimedia commons.
Well, let’s not forget that this practice pauldron is essentially a practice piece for my fire nation armor. That armor will need fiery designs. Kazakh art fits the bill—it has spiraling flame-like forms with a vaguely Asian feel (appropriate for an Anime cosplay) without being recognizably Japanese or Chinese.
But that’s not the real reason I went with these designs.
I believe that in a great cosplay it’s just as important to remember who is wearing the costume as who the costume is supposed to resemble. For example, in my Airbender staff, I altered the color scheme from the Avatar series to accentuate a cosplayer’s golden hair.
In this case I’m the cosplayer…and I happen to have two wonderful sisters adopted from Kazakhstan.
My family dressed in traditional Kazakh garb after my sisters were adopted.
I’ve put up a couple of pictures already featuring the pauldron on a warrior with a war club, a leather shield with a horse tail, and a vest covered in tiny mirrors. These items are actually authentic—purchased from Kazakhstan at the time of my sisters’ adoption.
The Kazakhs are originally a nomadic race of horse-masters. I have a personal love for their culture, so you can bet that when my Fire Nation armor is finally finished, you’ll be seeing a lot more Kazakh art!
When you’re preparing for a big cosplay project, it pays to measure twice and cut once.
The bigger the project, the bigger the practice, and sometimes you might create a practice piece which you can be really proud of on its own. Such was the case with this pauldron.
By the way, I’ve been considering selling this piece, so feel free to share this article if you know someone whose LARP or cosplay is short one epic pauldron!