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Building the Giberne, Part 2

Red-colored leather Giberne
This distinctive red-colored leather has had Birch tar rubbed into the flesh or inside of the leather to recreate the insect repellent quality of Russia leather.

The red leather that gives the giberne its notable color in the 1757 watercolors is Russia leather, a hard-wearing upholstery leather. This leather was extremely popular through the 18th and 19th century due the preservative effects of the Russian birch tar used in its processing. A German treatise from 1807 advocated for the domestic German production of this leather, describing its processing.

Juchten (Russia) or also Juften leather is a fine cow’s leather, tanned with willow bark and saturated with birch oil. It is waterproof, supple, and strong smelling. It is used for shoe uppers leather, purses, etc.

The initial tanning process of this leather was not altogether different from the tanning of any leather, with willow or similar bark, ground down to make a tan liquor which chemically changed the rawhide flayed from the animal to leather.  In various brick-lined tanning vats dug into the ground tanners first removed the hair with a lime solution. Draping the skins over logs, tanners scraped off the hair and rinsed out the lime solution. Skins went to a second set of tan vats where the bark and water solution worked on the leather for five weeks.

After rinsing and scraping again, Russia leather received its two distinct treatments.

The preparation of skins thus far differs little from the customary tanning of calfskin. Now begins a process, however, which is the essential part of making leather into Russia leather. This is the saturation or impregnation with birch oil. This oil gives the leather the particular smell which repels all worms and insects, suppleness, strength and durability in water, in short all properties whereby leather becomes Russia leather.

Russia leather had a particular finish to the surface, described in this same 1807 treatise.

Tooling is a work that contributes nothing to the quality, but is undertaken purely to give the leather, in the accustomed Russian manner, a refined appearance. The best Russia leather, were this property lacking, would not be taken for it. The tooling is performed with a brass serrated roller with two movable hand grips that looks like a small wheel. With it one cuts the lines on the grain side of the skin, first just parallel, then obliquely criss-crossed, as is seen on Russia leather.

Woman working on Giberne
With our visitor season begun, much of producing these French gibernes occurs inside our historic trades shop.

This leather was almost exclusively dyed red, using red sandalwood. Using similar tools and Scandinavian made birch tar we have closely reproduced this leather for our Languedoc soldier’s giberne reproductions, matching the color, texture, tooling, and distinctive birch aroma.

The 1754 De La Porterie, Institutions Miiltaire includes diagrams of the cavalry and the dragoon patterns of giberne, showing the internal construction of these cartouches rather than merely their external appearance. The diagrams show flap shapes similar to the 1757 watercolors, and a soft leather pouch to hold the cartridge block, and a pocket for tools and flint in front of that. However, while these diagrams show excellent detail of the dragoon pattern, it was similar but not identical to the infantry pattern.  La Porterie’s diagrams clearly do not show the two buckles on the giberne securing the shoulder strap to it as the 1757 watercolors indicate for the infantry gibernes. La Porterie’s diagrams show an extra stabilizing strap on the shoulder strap with small straps to carry a fatigue cap. Likewise, these engraved diagrams leave details like linings to the imagination.

Red-colored leather Giberne
These buckles, so visible in the 1757 watercolors and verified by archaeological evidence, are a key part of our interpretation of this cartridge pouch.

Luckily, many officer’s and sergeant’s gibernes built based on the December 1758 Ordannances survive. While many of these surviving examples often have some fancier details, such as gilded or embroidered coats of arms or ciphers, they fill in many gaps. These original pouches have flaps lined in some thin soft leather. They have flaps which are separate pieces seamed onto the pouch bodies, which on these originals appear to have been made out of the same Russia leather as the flaps. A surviving thirty-hole cartridge block from the 1759 wreck of the Juste in the Loire River, whose dimensions allow the giberne to be patterned based on the proportions shown in visual sources and diagrams. This recovered cartridge block confirms the 1747 regulations which stated that the gibernes were to be made without nails. The artifact block retains the small stitching holes around the outer rim that allowed the wood block to be stitched into the pouch.

Red-colored leather Giberne with wooden cartidge block
The wooden cartridge block was actually sewn into the rest of the pouch, a surprisingly efficient way to secure it in place. The Russia leather folds up to create a pocket in front of the wooden block for tools and flints.

Pulling all these parts, patterns, and construction details together allows us to have, to the best of our current understanding, gibernes not too different than those carried by the Languedoc soldiers to Carillon in 1755. While we have constructed several gibernes based on our current interpretation, this detective work is never truly done. New evidence, use in the field, or new insights may cause a trip back to the drafting board to create a new and improved interpretation of the Languedoc soldier’s giberne.