Preparing for the Siege

Posted by jdg | Wednesday, April 04, 2012 |

I am still lucky enough to get to spend all day Monday and all day Friday with my son. He's four now, and more fun than ever. Next fall he'll be in preschool five days a week, under the influence of his peers more than ever. I am pretty committed to enjoying the time we have right now.

On Friday mornings we usually go to the coffee shop with a pad of paper and he sits next to me while we draw pictures of the costumes he wants me to make him. I will fully admit to going overboard with this, but there's something so satisfying about making stuff for your kid and having him truly enjoy it, especially in a world where Lego Star Wars and Hero Factory and Nintendo DS loom as inevitable---a world where all these corporations cannot wait to sink their claws into your kid and groom him to be a good little consumer. I want to protect him from that as long as I can, and arm him against it.

The other day I saw my son and a few of his friends sitting crosslegged in front of a tree, holding something invisible in their hands and rapidly moving their thumbs. I asked them what they were doing and one of them responded, "We're playing Xbox." When I was a kid I played video games and licensed character toys, so I know my horror at this makes me an annoying hypocrite. But it's precisely because I know how soon we'll be besieged by all that shit that I want to prolong this time when he still looks to his own imagination and to me as his toymaker. His co-storyteller. His squire. Nothing I've ever made has seen as much use as the armor I made the kids last fall. All winter long, on the Mondays and Fridays that my son and I share, he has begged to go for "a knight walk." He's got enough different helmets and capes and foam weapons that he puts together a slightly different ensemble each time. In each adventure he has a different hero name and a different evil enemy he must pursue and conquer. As I strap on his breastplate and hand him his shield, something happens: I can almost see his imagination go to full throttle as we exit into the cold air and he becomes a hero and there are trolls and ogres waiting behind bushes and he knows he is strong enough to defeat them all. The huge apartment towers are an enemy's impregnable castle; the ventilation grates lead to its subterranean dungeons. Smoking steam pipes are a dragon's lair. As we wander around the neighborhood looking for monsters, I whisper a silent apology to Lego and the video game people: Sorry guys, you can't have him yet.

The seven kingdoms of Westeros are puny compared to a 4-year-old's imagination. Who needs Skyrim with all the adventures waiting for you in your own neighborhood? One of my favorite of his additions to the knight costume came in the form of the skunk-skin cap Santa brought him for Christmas. Let me introduce you to Sir Stinker Le Pew:

Sometimes after sitting in that coffee shop drawing knights and dragons, we head to the art museum and stare at the armor in the great hall. I'd known I wanted to make him new, better armor for his birthday, and I was so inspired by the amazing craftsmanship and beauty of those suits of armor from William Randolph Hearst's old collection. When my daughter caught wind of what I was doing, she wanted in so I knew I'd be making two new suits of armor. She wanted to be a "Wood Elf" and he had long before decided he would be the "Dragon Knight." I wanted to work completely with leather this time. I read up on boiled leather armor and bought a few cheap remnants of veg-tanned cowhide and got to work. The first thing I did was carve him a scabbard for his sword with a dragon on it. He named his sword "Dragon's Tooth."

Then I made him shoulder pads just like the ones in his drawing and wanted to make sure he had fully-articulated leg and arm coverage:


It was hard to ditch that metal breastplate, but I really wanted to make him a new leather one with full backing and a dragon carved in it.

I cut and soaked the heavy 9 oz leather in hot water and shaped it over a cardboard mold, baking in at very low heat for several hours. After carving and dying the leather, I hardened it further with several coats of beeswax. Then I added a jewel rivet for the dragon's eye. At some point I had to step back from all this to give myself a good look in the mirror and say, Whoa, you are such a nerd. But that's okay. Because this is so much fun. Oh yeah, I also made him a foam flail/morning star:

I attached some foam "spikes" to one of those $2 plastic prisoner ball-n-chains they sell in costume shops. We added a few links of plastic chain we found on a purse at the thrift store and just screwed an eyelet into a cut dowel. Don't tell him, but that thing's quite harmless.

Trust me.

The night before his birthday I also started working on a new helmet. He wanted a "dragon helmet" which in our drawings looked sort of like the knight cut off a dragon's head and made a helmet out of it. I really enjoyed this part of the project, heating and twisting the leather into the shapes I wanted. It's obviously very "fantasy" rather than historical. The trolls, giants, and other monstrous creatures lurking around the neighborhood are not sticklers for historical accuracy.

With my son's costume, I had to spend a lot of time worrying about making a pattern so the pieces would actually fit him and pivot when he moved. There was a bit of trial and error and once I was done I felt like I wanted to turn right around and build him a whole new suit now that I understood how to do everything right. I really love working with leather. It's such a versatile material. My daughter's wood elf armor was really fun. She drew me a picture of what she wanted: armor made out of leaves so she could blend into the forest easily. We picked up real leaves from around the neighborhood to use as patterns. I had a very light (3-4 oz) veg-tanned leather that I soaked and baked to make the breastplate and then cut and carved a few dozen leaves to attach to it.

For the shoulders, we dyed a heavier leather green and cut out stiff maple leaves (also soaked, baked, and waxed) . There are oak leaf faulds and a few other leaves you can't really see that stabilize the waist. Her arm guards also have maple leaves at the elbows. My wife's favorite part of this armor are the legs, which are just several leather maple leaves attached to each other to form greaves:

My daughter, bless her heart, still believes in fairies and elves and dragons and all that. When she gets home from school she is always more than ready to go out for an adventure.

There's another little girl in the neighborhood with two brothers who's seen her own share of battle. She makes a great sparring partner:

Sometimes my daughter brings her harp along and uses it to soothe the wild beasts (and as everyone knows, trolls hate music).


So, of course I'd like to pretend that this is all about the kids. But it's really about me too. I haven't used my own imagination like this since before my hands first gripped a video game controller. But don't count on me making any armor for myself.

I'm not nearly that cool.