Saturday, February 22, 2014


A year ago I was in an antique shop on the outskirts of town and found this hanging in the farthest corner of the back room. It was the weirdest-looking saddle I had ever seen, and I was quite convinced that parts of it were missing. I looked at the price tag and was astonished that the asking price was $200. For a grubby old half-missing saddle? I thought. No way. 

Picture I took last year. Ah, memories. 
Then I got home and looked around the internet and learned that what I had found was a charro saddle -- a traditionally-built saddle from Mexico. The exposed wooden tree with its giant plate-like horn are its hallmarks. I was intrigued, and went back for a second look. There was so much stuff piled around it, it was hard to get near and really inspect it. I was shuffling things aside when one of the shop owners came to see what I was up to. She didn't seem to know too much about the item. I asked if they'd be willing to come down on the price. She admitted it had been there for quite a while, and said they'd take $100 for it. That was still more than I was willing to pay so I thanked her for her time and left.

I don't visit this particular shop often, because it's out of my way and a bit of a drive (and I also think they can be a little pricey, but maybe that's just me) but every time I went, I'd take another look at this piece. There was one time I even chuckled a bit and congratulated myself on having the good sense not to buy it.

I've been reading a lot about saddle history and construction recently, and suddenly it seemed like I was missing a great opportunity by not taking a closer look at this rig. I decided to see if the shop's main buyer would be interested in doing a little trading. I had a pair of Victorian baby shoes that I'd gotten at a thrift shop for two dollars (I know! Crazy!) and I'd seen similar ones sell online for over a hundred dollars, so I wrapped them in tissue and went to the antique shop.

I traded the baby shoes and fifteen dollars for the saddle and felt like I'd gotten a good deal. The dealer had to help me dig the saddle out of its corner, where it had a wooden chair sitting on top of it and was now fenced in by a bookcase, a box of cookbooks, a moose head wearing a sombrero, and a brass bedstead.

At home, I took pictures and started taking it apart, cleaning and conditioning as I went. It's not the fanciest or best-made example of a charro saddle, but it's very typical and has some charming features: the stirrup covers, or tapaderos, for one, and also the tiny pockets on the saddle skirts. Well, here -- let me show you what I mean!

The poor thing was so mishandled and unappreciated that the stirrup straps were twisted around and the fenders -- which should be laying neatly alongside -- had slipped down the inside and got scuffed along the floor.

The leather was thickly coated in dust (and the occasional bird droppings!) and was very dry. A good wash and a rub with leather conditioner was the first order of business!

Clean, and with the first coat of conditioner.  Dig that tiny pocket! <3

I got this wonderful stuff called Dr Johnson's Hide Rejuvenator at the horse expo last weekend and I wish I'd bought more than one jar. It actually does all the stuff they claim, and it smells nice, too!  I was pleased to discover that, despite being dry, the leather was actually in very good condition and it responded well to my ministrations.

The thirsty leather sucked up the conditioner as fast as I could spread it on. I apply a light coat once or twice a day until it seems happy.  It's while doing those sorts of things that I get to know a new saddle and notice little details like this tiny star on the rivet at the very bottom tip of the tapaderos.

The only leather on the saddle that didn't get conditioned was the suede seat. I cleaned it with my suede brush and ran the shopvac over it to clean up any residue. 

Once the saddle was clean and conditioning was underway, I needed to make a few minor repairs. The long leather saddle strings were weakened and tatty, so I replaced them all with new. And a section of the skirt pocket on the off side had come unstitched, so that needed to be redone. 

I used natural-tone waxed linen thread, but it still seemed very white compared to the old stitching. So I rubbed with a little conditioner and one of the old saddle strings, and that blended it right in.  See for yourself. 

I love these tiny pockets. Most of the other charro saddles I see pictures of have big saddlebags on the back, I wonder why mine has these little pockets instead? They're about the right size for a deck of cards or half a sandwich. Who knows? 

The underside of the saddle had a rather mangy-looking bright orange material on it that I first assumed was fleece (like every western saddle I've seen) but on closer inspection turned out to be wool felt. I spoke to a restorer in Missouri via email who told me that yes, charro saddles usually have thick felt padding rather than fleece. The stuff on this saddle looks like it's been chewed up by a wolverine and definitely needs to be replaced. 

I looked at pictures online and saw that usually a decorative edge is cut into the felt: scallops or pinking. I took a careful look at what remained at the edges of my saddle and sure enough -- evidence to support this, and a pattern I can reproduce. Behold! Only a few lobes remain intact, but it's enough. 

The bright orange is horrible, in my opinion. I can see that the original maker had a theme in mind, as the suede seat is stitched into a sunset sort of pattern, with a half-circle and "rays" in it, and I suppose the orange felt was a conscious choice to add to this warm sunset theme, but I just can't stand it. Ordinarily I'd stay true to the original as much as possible, but in this case, I'm going to tone it down a bit and try to find something more gold-toned. How I'm going to cut out all those tiny lobes remains to be seen. 

Once I get the new felt on and tie it all back together, I'll post an "After" picture for you all. And lest ye think this is turning into a total saddle blog, I have pictures of Dave's Jedi ensemble coming up and more sewing projects in the works for the coming weeks. So stick around for that! 

Thursday, February 13, 2014

Confession, of sorts. (with bonus pic!)

I'm really glad I did so much sewing on my own, from my own patterns and ideas, before attempting to work with commercial patterns. These Jedi robes are not difficult garments by any stretch of the imagination, but sometimes the written instructions that come with them are... well, "unclear" is a nice way to put it.

Case in point: I've come to a place where the directions ask me to cut out four of a certain piece. I can see absolutely no reason to have more than two of the pieces. It's an edge binding; two long strips sewn together to make one long strip, stitched to the garment edge, pressed over, turn a hem, then fold over and slip stitch to the inside.

As I can see no use (in the directions or the accompanying illustrations) for four pieces, I'm going ahead with what makes sense to me. It looks fine.

Besides, we all know that directions are just a suggestion.  A starting point, right? Sure. Stay tuned for pics of the finished outfit by next week.  In the meantime, because I've read somewhere that you should never post some thing without a picture, here is a picture of the Star Wars movies done as a Bayeaux-style tapestry (although it's in cross stitch which I think is not quite as cool as the original Bayeaux stitch, and much more time-consuming!)

Friday, February 7, 2014

A saddle repair post

I got this little saddle last spring. It needed a repair to the rigging, and I'm just now feeling confident enough in my skills to get around to fixing it. A guy at the barn is looking for a saddle for his granddaughter to grow into, and I think this one might be just the ticket.

I made a patch to repair the rigging, making sure to match the original stitching holes onto the patch, which is not easy!

Stitching is not complete in this picture! 
It's funny how you can start out with a simple idea and then it just snowballs into a huge undertaking. After I patched the rigging, I decided that I should take off the skirt of the saddle to make a pattern for the new fleece I plan to sew on. Once I got the skirts off, I thought it would be a good idea to deconstruct the whole saddle so I could clean and oil each part front inside and outside. Then it would be a real renovation, plus good practice for any saddle I may want to take apart in the future. So I did that.

And that's when I found out the tree (the wooden frame of the saddle) had a chip cracked off it. Dave assured me that epoxy would make it as strong as ever, so that's getting glued and clamped before I put everything back together.

I washed each piece of the saddle with Ivory soap and warm water, then oiled them with pure neatsfoot oil. After letting them rest and absorb for the night, I began working in a light application on Lexol leather treatment morning and evening. After three days, they're looking pretty good!

Top : after washing and 3 days of conditioning; Bottom, filthy nasty piece not done yet.

The guy's granddaughter is only four, and though she has long legs for a little girl, they're still much shorter than the average adult's. I decided to try my hand at making half-size stirrup leathers. The seat on this saddle is only about 13-14 inches. I figure she can use the shorter stirrups now, then swap them for the original ones, and conceivably use this saddle into her teens. I didn't have leather stamps that exactly matched the saddle, but I found some that were similar enough. In the picture they need another application of dye, but you can see that the style and pattern is a pretty decent match.

It'll take another few months before I get this done. I work on it in between other projects and it's particularly cold right now to be out in the garage (even with the space heater running) so don't expect any finished project pictures of the saddle soon. But someday!

Tuesday, February 4, 2014

Using the Force.

Jedi robe is done! It's a simple pattern, only six pieces, and machine stitching it together took no time at all. I hand finished the seams on the inside, though, so that accounts for the extra time. Along with the time spent cruising through Netflix looking for the next thing to watch, getting up every fifteen minutes to let the dog out, and constantly moving one or both of the cats off my lap.

The pattern provided four extra inches at the bottom hem so the fabric would puddle on the floor. I took it up two inches in the front and tapered down to one inch in the back. This way he doesn't stumble on the hem, but it still sweeps along impressively behind.

Bottom hem is not done in this picture, sorry. It's an imagination opportunity. You're welcome!

The fabric had an ombre effect at the selvage that I liked the look of, plus I thought the rough edges gave a nice "homespun" appearance. I cut the hood and sleeves to take advantage of this. The flash bleached out the true color of the fabric, but you can see what I mean.

Next is the tunic. I've made a toile to check the fit -- it's fine -- and I'm ready to cut the real fabric later today after work. Dave wants me to drop the hem from the hip and make it long; less Luke Skywalker, more Alec Guinness as Obi Wan. So stay tuned for that!