It might be reasonable, and has been the practice among more detail-oriented living historians and reenactors, to assume that sheaths of smaller knives in, for example, the early Anglo-Saxon period, might be miniature analogues of those of larger seaxes, yet fragmentary sheath remains from a handful of well-studied early Anglo-Saxon sites appear surprisingly crude, with amateurish stitching having unattractively contorted the seams in a way that might disgust a modern leatherworker. There is no reason not to think these examples are not well representative, and indeed, many of the later (Viking-Age) knife-sheath remains from York, though often skilfully decorated, bear the tell-tale marks and contortions of this same rudimentary stitch work.
It is always tempting to base the sheaths of our knives on the very fanciest, and neatest archaeological examples to hand, and perhaps neaten them up with some more modern handiwork, but this can lead to a creeping departure from what is truly known of the historic craft culture purportedly represented. In contrast, replicating (to our modern eyes) “unbecoming” examples might provide useful, practical insights into why they were made this way. Such is the case with these apparently crudely stitched knife sheaths – our experiments in replicating them have revealed what might be a cunning Dark Age leatherworker’s “life-hack” which made the tricky shaping of sheaths vastly quicker and more reliable.
Instead, many Anglo-Saxon and Anglo-Viking knife sheaths (edit: including knives from the 6th century princely burial and cemetery at Prittlewell, Essex, see addendum below) appear to have been stitched crudely with a single running-stitch – a snake which burrows onto the back, then onto the front, then onto the back again, creating an interrupted and alternating stitches on both sides. Weaker and unlocked, tensioning of these stitches causes the leather to concertina, forming the wavy edge seen on the archaeological sheath remains. Why would skilled Anglo-Saxon leather-workers do this?
Quite the opposite - this almost corrugated outcome appears to have been a deliberate choice. In fact, the widely spaced running-stitch and wavy contorted edge evidenced on Anglo-Saxon knife-sheath remains might not represent sloppy, over-tensioned seam-closure, but rather, might have been a crucial feature of the design and manufacture of such sheaths, overcoming a number of technical challenges and greatly improving production reliability and efficiency.
Nevertheless, this process is fiddly, messy and can be frustrating. Even despite the moulding characteristics of the leather, it still is inclined to return to its natural shape, and so the intended curvature of the spine fold will often reduce as it fully dries, is worked further, and ages. On smaller sheaths, made of thinner (and therefore less 3D-mouldable) leather, the technique is proportionally more difficult, and results more badly affected by its tendency to “return”.
Aware of this, it is possible that Anglo-Saxon and Viking leatherworkers achieved the curving fold on the spines of their sheaths with an entirely different technique, which is faster, easier, more reliable, and does not require wetting of the leather at all, and that the crude, concertina-inducing running stitch was an instrumental part of this approach.
In fact, it appears that the curving fold of knife sheaths could have been achieved entirely dry, with no need for moulding, using the following procedure; the leather is folded around the knife, such that the fold is, naturally, straight, and stitch holes are positioned along the blade edge not straight, as they are intended to be in the final product, but rather, in an arc which curves downward to the blade tip where it meets the fold. With the folded back of the sheath straight, and the stitch-line curving, this is the inverse of the final form. The chord is secured at the tip of the sheath, threaded in a serpentine path through the holes along the edge of the sheath forming a crude running-stitch, and pulled excessively tight at every hole, with the result that the path of the cord is shorter than the stitch line on the leather, and must necessarily straighten, while the leather concertinas along it.
Interestingly Cameron (2000) reports stitching associated with the (thicker leather) early Anglo-Saxon knife sheaths from Broomfield, Essex, as a sinuous “tunnel stitch” – a technique where the thread takes a curving path through a “tunnel” in the flesh of a thicker piece of leather and back out the same side, rather than passing right through, so that it is invisible on the outer face. In practice such stitching is impossible with thinner leathers, which lack enough depth of flesh through which to tunnel, but suggests that knife sheaths were indeed stitched through holes awled at oblique, rather than perpendicular angles, as described above.
In summary the crude running stitch and concertinaing effect observable on many Anglo-Saxon and Viking-Age knife sheaths might have served not only as a means of closure, but to pull the sheath into its curving shape. Rather than dealing with shaping and stitching in a conventional sequential fashion, this approach – vastly quicker, more reliable and more practical than wet moulding, especially at smaller scales - would require both the shaping and closure of sheaths to be planned and addressed concurrently. To what extent sheaths of larger seaxes were manufactured in this way remains to be seen, though various c8-10th sheath leathers from York and Gloucester do not appear to feature the characteristic wavy edge – a great many of them bear the holes for (non-extant) rivets which are also a not uncommon feature of early Anglo-Saxon seax sheaths. Although there is precedent for both tunnel-stitching and rivets used in combination for seax sheath closure (eg. Buttermarket, Ipswich, g3243), rivets serve only as an alternative means of closure and cannot have contributed to forming and maintaining the shape of the sheath. It might be that larger sheaths, therefore, were shaped using the more familiar wet-moulding method, perhaps using the rivet holes to temporarily fix the leather around the former, which is proportionally easier and yields better results with larger sheaths and thicker skin product.
Cameron, E.A., 2000. Sheaths and scabbards in England AD400-1100. Archaeopress.
Mould, Q., Carlisle, I. and Cameron, E. 2004. Leather and Leatherworking in Anglo-Scandinavian and Medieval York.
Blakelock, E.S., 2013. The Early Medieval Cutting Edge of Technology: An archaeometallurgical, technological and social study of the manufacture and use of Anglo-Saxon and Viking iron knives, and their contribution to the early medieval iron economy (Doctoral dissertation, University of Bradford).
Grömer, K. and Rast-Eicher, A., 2019. To pleat or not to pleat–an early history of creating three-dimensional linear textile structures. Annalen des Naturhistorischen Museums in Wien. Serie A für Mineralogie und Petrographie, Geologie und Paläontologie, Anthropologie und Prähistorie, 121, pp.83-112
At the time of writing, the Prittlewell Report represents not just a valuable treasure-trove of Early Anglo-Saxon archaeological insights but also the most comprehensive up-to-date reviews of early AS material culture, and with respect to the sheaths of smaller knives provides a useful extra couple of datapoints, which, when combined with others, point to running-stitched calf-skin being the norm. It is worth emphasising that these knives come from elite burials - we have no reason to suppose that they are "cheap" or "shoddy" work. Rather, it seems that, even for elite knifes, running-stitched calf-skin was the sheathing approach of choice, for positive reasons and not for necessity, lack of materials or skill. This seems to support the hypothesis we offer here - that there are real, non-obvious practical benefits to this approach. "It works".