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notes from the desk of Lord Ihone Munro

Dying Leather Red

Experimentation on using the crab shell dye method from The Secretes of the Reverende Maister Alexis of Piemount. The following process notes are my attempt to refine the process.

First Attempt

First of all, crab shells are hard to find. I ordered some organic crab fertilizer that I was able to find on Amazon, after confirming that it was only crab without any additional additives or chemicals. So that part was solved after some digging. Secondly, burning crab shells to ash creates a smell not unlike what I would envision zombie farts to resemble. I put the crab shells into a packet of aluminum foil and placed them on the grill for several hours. I'd estimate that it was burning for at least 4 hours before the stench started to subside. After the shells were rendered to ash, they didn't smell nearly as bad, but still had a rather unpleasant tone.

After several attempts at finding a vineyard that still had lees available, and finding none, I created a batch of white wine from an inexpensive boxed wine kit. Once the fermentation was complete, I siphoned off all but the gunk at the bottom of the batch.

As indicated in the original recipe, I prepared the skin with water that had been treated with the lees and sea salt. I then added the water into the crab shell ash until it had become a paste, as was indicated (on the side burner for my grill). After the three treatments though, I was not seeing much of a red in the leather sample, just a bit of black from some of the ash. I added some madder and ochre paste to the swatch, as well as to a clean swatch for comparison. It was worth noting here that the treated piece did get a little darker than the piece that was just using the madder/ochre mixture, but neither piece was really the red that I was expecting.

The ochre/madder mixture gave a kind of mauve color as you can see below. I may utilize this pigment in further use, but I don't see significant enough difference in the treatment of the crab shell ash that I would say that it works as expected.

First photo is the ash boiling down to a paste with the treated water. The second photo here is comparing the ochre/madder mixture (left) and the treated swatch with the ochre/madder mixture (right).

Follow up notes for the first attempt

1) I'm not sure, after some additional reading, if lees was referring to vinegar or wine. Some texts appear to use
the terms interchangeably.

2) I'm also not sure in this case on the term of use on crab shell ash itself. The ashes that I used were still black
colored, and I also wonder if perhaps that the original reference was saying to just use the dried crab shells
without having burned them to ashes.

Due to the smell of this experiment, I have been informed by certain other people that live in my home that I am not
allowed to experiment with these reagents again...

Constructive feedback is both welcome and appreciated, please let me know if I missed some pertinent information or if there's somewhere I can improve. As always, thanks for reading!

Sources Cited
  • The secrets of the reverend Maister Alexis of Piemont by Girolamo Ruscelli. OL25228326M
    Translated from French into English by William Ward
    Screen shot is of page 179 of the viewable pdf on Open Library
  • Medieval Leather Dying by Marc Carlson, original compilation by Ron Charlotte also has a direct translation available.
  • Wikipedia, entry about what kermes is, along with entries on usage