In my world, one ancient culture uses a basic sort of armour made of thin, soaked leather strips which were woven together, either like thatch or like a mere weaving. Below are some pictures to illustrate how I imagine this.

Stock Photo - Patterns of weave bamboo in asia

(Stock Photo - Patterns of weave bamboo in Asia. Copyright : APICHAT NAWEEWONG)

basket weaving close-up; stock photo

(Basket weaving close-up. This is a stock photo, one can find it right here)

More examples of woven leather can be found here.

I am curious as to how effective an armour made in this way can be.

Woven leather armour is meant to be of lower quality than metal armour. But I want to make sure that my armour is still viable, even if less effective than the metal counterparts.

I was thinking that it would allow for more flexibility, kinda like non-metallic chainmail, but not sure if this flexibility would come at a price of armour being too weak.

I mainly want to know whether lower thickness would decrease armour effectiveness. If yes, could this gap be bypassed with the woven patterns?

Additional information:

  • The technological level is around 700~500 BC.
  • They would mostly be dealing with swords and arrows. Blunt weapons were not of much use. And larger scale artillery weapons and firearms were not yet developed.
  • Magic does exist but is not relevant since it is rarely used and almost never in public. Magic is an esoteric secret only known and practised in closed-off secret societies.
  • $\begingroup$ I can't comment on leather, but woven materials were used quite successfully in the ancient world as armor, and were at least in part the inspiration for Kevlar-type vests. en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Linothorax $\endgroup$
    – DWKraus
    May 22 at 2:39
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    $\begingroup$ Effective against what? You should also know they weren't used over bare flesh, wool wadding was used beneath, then another layer of flax or linen, or more usually several. It's difficult to know what you are asking unless you include a detailed picture of what the worldbuilding issue is. I urge you to put some research into it. $\endgroup$ May 22 at 3:00
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    $\begingroup$ Don't post images which you don't own the copyright to without accreditation to the copyright owner, also, obtain permission if they are not free according to creative commons license. $\endgroup$ May 22 at 3:03
  • $\begingroup$ Hello Zoey. I agree with @ARogueAnt., effective against what? Please help us understand your expectations. Remember, we're not here to answer real-life questions. We're here to help you build and consistently use the rules and systems of your fictional world. To that end, the goal is usually believability. Chain mail wasn't worn over skin. There were layers involved. Chain is great at blocking an edged weapon and, to a degree, arrows, but less valuable against blunt weapons - that's where the layers come in. So, what are your expectations? Why are you asking? $\endgroup$ May 22 at 3:10
  • $\begingroup$ Perhaps doing some preliminary research may help you form a more precise question? Try reading quora.com/Did-leather-armor-ever-exist and en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Boiled_leather which seem to suggest that, even if someone were to make such woven armor, it would still be just as hard as normal leather armor and would not provide the flexibility you are seeking. $\endgroup$ May 22 at 4:49

For your two questions:

I mainly want to know whether lower thickness would decrease armour effectiveness. If yes, could this gap be bypassed with the woven patterns?

Yes and yes.

Explanation for question 1: The simplest way to think about it is with a piece of paper. One piece of paper is easily poked through with a pencil. Now take three, four, five ... ten pieces of paper, and now you have difficult getting through even a couple of them. This applies for other materials, especially soft ones like leather (at least soft relative to when they are tanned). So certainly, having a thinner armour will be less safe (though more comfortable !) for the wearer.

Explanation for question 2: Again, using paper helps with the explanation. Have you seen those thick yellow page books or a massive dictionary? If you were to put a heavy concentrated weight on either of them, the object would tear through them and you would be left with a stack of pages with a hole through them. Now, take two fresh dictionaries and interlace their pages. By this I mean: take the bottom page of dictionary 1 then put the bottom page of dictionary 2 above it, then the second to last page of dictionary 1 and so on.... You end up with a rigid stack that can even support the weight of two cars! Another note for this is a sword or spear or arrow can get caught in the grooves of a laced or patterned armour, saving the wearer (or at most subjecting them to a bruise) while a regular leather vest would be torn through (and the wearer would have wished they had chosen a patterned armour before marching onto the battlefield).

Good questions, armour is a beautiful art piece I rarely see discussed

  • $\begingroup$ I question why'd you use the interlaced textbook example when the demonstrated strength from that is due to friction preventing the book from being separated when pulled. It has absolutely nothing to do with the question. Instead, you should compare the ability for paper to withstand piercing forces (as stated in your example with "concentrated weight): thin paper, two thin paper, a thick paper that's the sum of the two thin paper. $\endgroup$
    – Henry Shao
    Aug 11 at 2:47
  • $\begingroup$ Additionally, woven patterns does not really help with "thin armor" because what you're doing is making the armor thicker. In the basket weaving patterns shown in the question, the thickness of the basket is twice the thickness of the fiber (and then some due to the space between the fiber layers), and then near nothing in the gaps. This makes it much easier to concentrate a piercing force, but makes it easier to resist slashing forces thanks to the increased thickness. $\endgroup$
    – Henry Shao
    Aug 11 at 2:49
  • $\begingroup$ Assuming basic armor is an unbroken sheet of 5 mm leather. Then assume woven armor is the same leather cut into strips, woven in the pattern of the first picture. Since every surface has 2 strips of leather layered, you'd need twice the leather. In return, you get double armor thickness and a vulnerability to getting stabbed because now the weapon can get stuck in and be guided by the grooves to a weapon point. In sort, no, woven leather armor does not solve the problem of thin armor, because you're just increasing the thickness. $\endgroup$
    – Henry Shao
    Aug 11 at 2:55

Caveat: Leather armor is a debated topic amongst both professional and amateur historians. Its effectiveness, cost to construct, how common it was, everything about leather armor is in doubt. This answer is based on my own interpretation of sources, and I have included several links at the bottom from differing perspectives and as primers to start you off on your own rabbit hole of discovery.

I mainly want to know whether lower thickness would decrease armour effectiveness.

Yes. Thicker armor always makes for better protection. All armor isn't thick because of added weight, cost, and flexibility.

If yes, could this gap be bypassed with the woven patterns?

Partially. Weaving leather will usually make it more resistant to piercing, for example from a sword thrust or arrow. It might change its protection value against blunt force damage. Leather armor is already quite resistant to slicing, and weaving will have negligible impact on this. Weaving can improve flexibility, but only to a point; more on that later.

Tl;dr Simplified solution: use woven leather for the chest piece (cuirass). Solid leather pieces for the lower arms (vambraces), thighs (cuisse), shins (greaves), and helmet. Cloth fabric for the stomach, groin, and shoulders (either gambeson or another form of cloth armor, like linothorax). Pair it all with a wooden shield. This gives you decent protection that is cheaper and lighter than metal, while also easier to repair. It is also a low-tech solution, enabling your society to use it long before innovations from the high middle ages.

Explanations: What is leather armor?

Leather armor is not supple, soft, or comfortable. Leather had to be hardened to offer protection. This was usually done by boiling, but can be accomplished in several ways. This link is a great one to start with for understanding the boiling process, if you're interested.

Hardened leather is still more flexible than metal plate. Leather can be hardened to become plate- or wood-like, but becomes brittle. This especially hard leather can be used in some ways, such as lamellar, with the expectation that it will need replacement pieces after most battles. For other uses, hardened leather is not made to be that stiff, so it will have some flexibility and give, but it will be like the flexibility of a leather shoe sole, not the sides of a leather boot and definitely not like a pair of driving gloves.

Leather armor does not breathe well; wearing it is a sweaty business. It is lighter than metal, especially if the metal is iron or bronze and not a lighter alloy like steel.

How effective is leather armor?

This depends entirely on the type of armor. Lamellar, brigandine, simple boiled leather cuirass, each type has different properties.

As depicted in many games and fiction, leather armor looks something like this. This is a cuirass. Assuming proper construction (and not a costume), it will not allow the wearer to bend completely in all directions, but it will be fairly light-weight. It will offer some protection against blunt force, though repeated hits will cause stress and eventually break the armor, and padding under the leather will greatly reduce the injuries the wearer takes from such attacks. Piercing attacks made by a sword like this will have a difficult time penetrating, and slashing attacks will likewise not penetrate often.

Extremely sharp swords will easily pierce or slice leather armor. Most battlefield weapons are not "extremely" sharp; keeping that edge is nearly impossible. As soon as you sheath the blade or actually hit anything, the edge will dull. In a pre-steel society, and especially pre-iron, nothing in battle will have such a sharp edge.

Weapons designed for armor penetration, like a medieval rapier, will pierce. Spears will be your most dangerous foe- they allow the wielder to put enough force behind a thrust to penetrate your leather armor, particularly if the spear tip is long and thin. Arrows and javelins will also pierce, provided the hit is not glancing and has sufficient force behind it (hunting bows, with for example a 20lb draw, won't get the job done, though a war bow with a 70lb draw will). Crossbows are unlikely at 600BC tech levels, but if used, they would penetrate.

What about studded leather armor?

There are arguments over whether studded leather armor ever existed historically, or what "studded armor" even is. In games, it is often used to signify leather armor "upgraded" to better protect you. This just isn't the case; metal studs are not going to stop penetration or help against blunt force, and any impact on a slashing attack will be negligible.

Studded leather armor could be a description of pieces of leather held together with metal studs, hence the metal holds the armor together instead of reinforcing it. This would be somewhat similar to lamellar armor, though less flexible. Most historical examples of studded leather were likely brigandine; the amount of metal used means it can't be considered leather armor for our discussion here.

But I asked about woven leather

Weaving leather prior to the hardening process is certainly possible. This should make it easier to obtain material, as strips of leather left over from other projects could be used (to a degree). The complexity is increased, but not so much as to be impossible to make.

What does the weave actually accomplish? It allows the leather to be slightly more flexible, as the pieces can move and shift. The hardening process means it won't be a night-and-day improvement, but it will be noticeable. Unfortunately, this extra flexibility introduces friction, which will wear the leather out as it rubs against itself, reducing the lifetime of the armor. A tighter weave reduces flexibility and friction both.

More importantly, it will improve your protection from piercing strikes. This does not mean the woven leather will be immune to piercing strikes, merely a little better. That said, the weave introduces seams that can be exploited by dedicated piercing weapons, such as the previously mentioned rapier. A tighter weave will be more resistant to this.

There might be a beneficial increase to protection against blunt damage. Speculatively speaking, it could allow enough flex to reduce the stress such blows cause, thus helping the armor last longer under repeated strikes. It would need to be tested before hanging your hat on it, but is likely reasonable enough to pass mustard for fictional works.

Are there other alternatives to woven leather that fulfill your needs?

Flax gambesons could be an alternative. The cost of making these compared to leather armor is debated, but cloth armor in some form was used by nearly every society in history. Layers of cloth quilted or glued together are much better protection than one might imagine: modern kevlar armor is essentially a type of cloth armor, with layers of synthetic fibers put together.

As previously described in the tl;dr above, a combination of leather, woven leather, and cloth armor would probably be the best possible approach your ancient culture could use. The different pieces could be replaced independently, allowing for easier manufacture and field repairs, while providing the benefits of the differing types. It would probably look pretty awesome, too, something like this but with a woven leather chest piece.

Additional links and references: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7.

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    $\begingroup$ Actually, hardened leather armor weave wouldn't have that problem you mentioned with things going through the weave. Since the leather would be hardened, it wouldn't actually separate as much and wouldn't let much through. And you could get pretty flexible with a decently tight weave, so I think that problem can be negated entirely. $\endgroup$
    – Firestryke
    Aug 10 at 22:56
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    $\begingroup$ Also, studded leather did, in fact, not exist. What most people think is "studded leather" is actually brigandine which are small plates attached together with cloth studded on top of it. $\endgroup$
    – Firestryke
    Aug 10 at 22:57
  • $\begingroup$ @Firestryke valid points. I'm clarifying parts of the answer. I'm also altering its structure entirely to be less ramble-y $\endgroup$
    – Taejang
    Aug 12 at 13:18
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    $\begingroup$ Don't forget the fact that although we like to picture it that way, almost nobody used swords in early wars since spears are more powerfull in every way and iron was really expensive. And by the time iron was cheaper, so where the chainmails $\endgroup$
    – clockw0rk
    Aug 12 at 15:48
  • $\begingroup$ @clockw0rk As far as I understand, nobody really used swords as their main weapon in war, ever. Polearms were the primary war weapons, with smaller weapons like swords and maces as secondary weapons. $\endgroup$
    – Taejang
    Aug 12 at 19:53

Yes and Yes, though there are better ways of using leather strips for armor

The problem of thinking of woven leather as an equivalent to chain mail is leather armor has to be hardened to provide any meaningful level of protection against blades. Now, there isn't anything stopping your from boiling and lacquering woven leather strips in any sort of armor. The issue is that they are no longer flexible, since you need a tight weave to avoid having weak points and gaps. This lack of flexibility means they protect you well vs impacts but you won't get the loose flexibility of chain mail, which has no rigidity at all to absorb blows and is only good for blocking slashes.

The use of long woven strips also makes repairing the woven leather armor pieces more effort than it's worth. Being leather, the armor will inevitably take cut and gouge damage even if sharp attacks are deflected unlike higher quality metal armors. Leather armor is pretty good at absorbing blunt damage without losing integrity, which is more damaging vs metal but blunt damage as you have said is not prevalent. If a single strip of the weave is split, the leather woven armor will eventually unravel or loosen the weave on top of the split being a weakspot. Replacement of a strip means re-weaving the armor, which will be a right pain in the arse considering that the armor has been hardened in shape and all of the other strips are wavy and intertwined. Threading in a new supple strip of leather and then boiling the armor again isn't particularly good for the rest of the existing leather strips, and will ruin any lacquering or sealant protecting them requiring the whole armor to be re-treated.

A better solution is to use the leather strips in lamellar or scale fashion as was common in your relative time period. Lamellar is closer to what you have envisioned enter image description here While this piece from the MET isn't in the best condition and isn't from the exact time period, it is one of the better pictures that isn't some recreation and is similar enough to most lamellar armors. Lamellar armor uses the hardened leather in individual pieces that overlap and are woven together with cords. It was very popular and provided decent protection while not being entirely rigid no matter what material was used for the lamellae rectangles be it leather, metal, or even wood and bone. The mobility of the armor is directly tied to how tight the cords weaving the lamellae rectangles together are, allowing it to be adjusted for preference. Lamellar armor is much easier to repair and maintain which matters if you are fielding an army of a few hundred or thousand troopers. Each little leather rectangle can be hardened individually and produced on a large scale without the entire armor needing to be present. It is also a lot cheaper and more efficient, as a woven armor requires long, perfect unbroken strips of leather, meaning a lot of a hide isn't suitable for making armor components. The modest size of lamellae rectangles allows more of a hide to be used due to the smaller pattern size being more forgiving in avoiding defects. While the attaching cord weave usually get damaged in battle, they are much smaller and easier to replace compared to armor grade strips of leather.

Another choice is the use scale armor. enter image description here Similar to lamellar armor in using little individual pieces, scale armor differs from woven armors by instead attaching all of the pieces to another layer of cloth, leather, or mail backing. Just like lamellar, scales can be made of any available material leather or otherwise cheaply as spare parts or for new armor sets. Scale armor is pretty easy to repair as well. As long as the backing is intact, scales can be reattached or even upgraded at will. The backing depending on the material is usually patch-able in most fashions since it isn't the critical outer facing armor face and only needs to hold the scales in place. The stiffness of the backing is also the only deciding factor in the mobility of the armor, as the hardened scales are not attached to each other at all. If your backing material is cloth, the armor will nominally be as bendable as cloth.

  • $\begingroup$ Thanks for the detailed answer, and yeah, that all does make sense. the Hardening would greatly reduce the flexibility. $\endgroup$
    – Zoey
    Aug 12 at 3:31

First of all: Leather armor was, throughout history, never really used anywhere because of the simple fact that it sucked. Don't get baited by hollywood movies and the likes. Yes, leather was used in clothing and thus in military equipement too, but as far as armor goes, the gambison was far superior and protected you more from the incoming damage (depending on the actual time you where living in ofc.) Leather / gambison was mainly worn under chainmail and plate because you would not really want to have metal on your bare skin and also it gave a second layer of protection. Leather was used under chainmail or on places where plate armor had spots that could not be closed. And not thin, string-like leather, but heavy, sturded leather, cooked in oil and hardened with wax / resin

Ultimatively, it all did not matter: Most armies used pikemen (aka vasalls), blunt weapons vs heavy armor, and a mix of arrows/bolts and cavalry, all which could effectively "one-shot" you. This is the reason that later no armor was worn anymore. Leather does not protect well vs. piercing, which is BY FAR the most common damage type since nobody had money for swords.

For your specific question: No. Leather stripes aren't any better than hard, studded leather in which you could insert metal rings to at least try to stop slashing weapons. In eastern military you find even more evidence: The chinese warriors had armor made of paper although they knew about leather long since then. Leather is just not really good in protecting anything other than your hands and feet

  • $\begingroup$ I disagree. The mongols used leather armor in notable quantities due to their large herds of animals. And most youtube "leather armor" tests are terrible, and don't display high level knowledge of working leather, and some even use veg tanned leather as a base or even shoe sole leather! I have reason to believe that due to poor construction techniques much of this so called "leather armor being tested is only performing at 25-50% effectiveness. Not to mention the lack of knowledge about composite leather armors, which are even more effective. $\endgroup$
    – Redbud201
    Aug 12 at 20:04

Well, the usefulness would depend mainly on the thickness. If the armor was, thin, the enemy's weapons could easily find chinks in the armor. But if the woven leather armor was thick, that would be a whole other situation.

Yes, the armor would most likely have nearly no chinks, although it could, if the weaver was incompetent, but then you would have to calculate the weight. The armor would have to be light enough for the soldier to stand and fight in, and I would suggest you not have the armor's weight go to the fullest extent. Why? Because the soldier would most likely have to fight for a long time, and if the armor was the heaviest that the soldier could carry, then that soldier could fight for a while, but would then collapse from the weight and the upcoming exhaustion, and the enemy would be free to either capture him or kill the soldier.

Even if the soldier didn't collapse, the soldier would most likely not fight its best, perhaps even sluggishly and slowly, getting worse as time wears on. The upcoming enemy soldiers, if their armor perfectly bonded with the body and contributed not that much weight, would basically kill and/or capture basically everybody.

However, some soldiers might be fit, and very strong, thus not collapsing or fighting badly, but most soldiers won't be like that. If you DO make it in your book that it is just the opposite (the majority of soldiers are very strong, instead of the majority of the soldiers are the average), I would suggest that you make at least 5% of that army the average, just to make it more interesting to your reader.


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