By Mistress Arianna of Wynthrope (Karen Kasper)
Barony-Marche of the Debatable Lands
Kingdom of AEthelmearc
Jack armor is ideally suited for SCA youth combat body armor. It’s adjustable so it can grow with the kid. It provides the required protection while still being lightweight. It’s compact; you can roll it up to easily fit in an armor bag. It is more authentic in appearance than modern sporting equipment, and can be made in any color the fighter desires. It’s even washable – you can throw the whole thing in the washing machine, then hang it to dry or even run it through the dryer on low heat. It’s not difficult to make, though it can be a bit time-consuming. Even better, older youth fighters can do some or all of the labor required to build it.
Jack Armor, also known as a Jack of Plates, Coat of Plates, or Brigandine, was used extensively in England and Scotland during the 13th through 16th centuries, primarily by infantrymen and longbowmen. There are several styles ranging from a simple padded cloth coat to leather with overlapping plates of metal riveted inside. This article explains how to make jack armor with rectangular pieces of a stiff substance sewn into heavy cloth, providing protection for the body and upper thighs. In period, the stiff substance would have been metal or cuirr bouillie (literally “boiled leather”, or leather that has been boiled and beaten into shape and allowed to dry and harden). Since the stiff material is completely hidden by the cloth covering, I make my kids’ jack armor out of that old SCA armoring standby, plastic buckets.
Note: Jack armor can be also be used for adult SCA combat. However, it is advisable to use a design with either overlapping plates, additional padding under the armor, or both, to compensate for the higher calibration level of rattan combat. One example of a good style for adult combat is the Visby Coat of Plates.
Get some heavy duty plastic buckets. I used joint compound buckets. I’m told car washes have similar buckets you can get if you ask, sometimes for free and sometimes for a nominal fee. Make sure the plastic is stiff enough that it’s difficult to bend. A standard household cleaning bucket is not suitable since it’s not stiff enough. If the bucket cracks as you are trying to cut it, then it’s too brittle and should be discarded.
The number of buckets you’ll need depends on the size of the kid being armored as well as the size of the buckets. We used two large joint compound buckets for a Division 1 fighter (ages 6-9), three for a Division 2 fighter (ages 10-13), and three and a half for a slender but tall Division 3 fighter (ages 14-17).
Wash the buckets thoroughly and let them dry.
Step 2: Cut the bucket into long strips 2-3” wide. We used a jigsaw for this step. You can use tin snips, but the jigsaw is faster and easier. Make sure to wear eye protection. It helps to draw guidelines on the bucket and have a second person holding the bucket firmly while you cut. As you cut more strips, the bucket will wiggle more during cutting, so it may be helpful to brace the bottom of the bucket against a firm object like a wall.
Figure 1: Cutting the bucket into strips
Do not try to cut all the way through the bottom of the bucket. The bottom is reinforced, making it difficult to cut through, and in any case you'll need to keep the bottom intact so you have something to hold on to while cutting the rest of the bucket. You’ll cut the strips from the bucket with snips later.
When the strips are all cut, the bucket will look like the one in Figure 2 below. Notice the tiny bits of plastic all over the youth fighter. These spray from the jigsaw as you cut, and are the reason why eye protection is important.
Figure 2: Bucket cut into strips
Step 3: Cut the strips into rectangles with tin snips or shears, discarding the handle and the reinforced section at the top of the bucket. Cutting the plastic requires a bit of hand strength and is the most time-consuming part of the project. Use the snips to round the corners of each rectangle so they can’t poke through the fabric covering later.
Figure 3: cutting the strips into rectangles and trimming corners
Step 4: Once the rectangles are cut into shape, use a rasp or file to remove the burs from the edges of the plastic and smooth the corners. When you are done, you should have a pile of at least 100 plastic rectangles with rounded corners.
Figure 4: completed plastic plates
Step 5: Take the following measurements on your fighter:
Note that you want the armor to overlap around the fighter’s body. This is why you’re adding 12” to the chest measurement. You should end up with about 5” overlap on each side when the armor is done. This will allow the armor to expand as the fighter grows. Doing this meant my kids were able to wear each set of armor for four or five years, from ages 6 to 11 and 8 to 12!
Step 6: Lay out and cut the fabric for the body using Figures 5A and 5B below. Cut two of each, since the plastic goes between two layers of cloth. Note that the front and back are identical except that the neckline for the back is shallower. If your fighter is female and has wide hips, you may wish to flare the bottom of the armor more than in the pattern shown here. Note: This design has evolved over several years and four suits of armor, and seems to provide the best combination of coverage and flexibility. If you have suggestions for improvements, please contact me at arianna_wyn (at) yahoo (dot) com.
Figure 5A: Front of armor, cut 2
Figure 5B: Back of armor, cut 2
Step 7: With right sides together, sew the two front pieces together along all edges except the bottom. Do the same with the back. Clip the corners and curves, turn right side out and iron the seams.
Step 8: For the front and back pieces, slide appropriate sized plastic plates into the shoulder areas and sew around them to hold them in place using a zipper foot. Continue adding plates until the area from the shoulder to the bottom edge of the neckline is filled with plastic plates as shown in Figure 6 below. You may have to recut some plastic plates to fit as you go along, so keep the snips handy.
Figure 6: Shoulder plates sewn in
Step 9: With a pencil or tailor’s chalk, draw vertical lines from the shoulder and neck edge to the hem of each piece and about ½” wider than the narrower width of your plastic rectangles. Sew a straight stitch along each of these lines to create channels into which the plastic pieces will go.
Figure 7: Channels sewn
Step 10: Using a yard stick or other long thin object, push a plate into each channel until you have one row of plates all the way across the body. Stitch horizontally across the body as close as possible to the bottom of the row of plates. The resulting row should look something like Figure 8 below.
Figure 8: first row sewn
Step 11: Continue inserting a plate in each channel and sewing along the bottom edge of each row. When you reach a point about 8-10” from the bottom edge of the armor, stop and cut a slit from the center of the bottom edge to just below the current row of plates in each piece. This slit is to allow ease of movement. Stitch around the slit to enclose it. Don’t worry about the raw edges – those will be enclosed with bias tape later. Notice the slit highlighted in red in Figure 9 below.
Figure 9: slit cut in center of body
Step 12: Continue adding plastic plates until the front and back pieces are both filled with plates and there is about an inch of fabric left below the last line of stitching. Trim the bottom edges to even them out as needed.
Step 13: Fold and pin the bias tape around the raw edges at the bottom of each piece, pinning carefully around the corners of the slit. Allow extra bias tape to negotiate the top of the slit. Sew the bias tape down to the fabric. This may require hand sewing if you have trouble manipulating the bias tape. The resulting edges should look like the ones in Figure 10 below.
Figure 10: Bias tape sewn on
Step 14: Open up the seams at the shoulders of each piece and sew the front to the back at the shoulders. You will have to either roll one side up to fit under the sewing machine, or sew them by hand. I will admit to being lazy and just zig-zagging the two pieces together at the shoulder, but you can make a more conventional seam if you prefer.
Figure 11: Shoulders sewn together
Step 15: To make the ties, cut four 3” wide strips of the same cloth you used to make the armor. Cutting them along the bias of the fabric (diagonally at a 45 degree angle to the threads of the fabric) will make the ties more flexible. Make each strip ½ the measurement of the fighter’s waist in length (e.g., if the fighter has a 30” waist, make each tie 15” long). There are several ways to make ties; if you are using canvas, you don’t want to make tubes and try to turn them inside out because the stiffness of the fabric makes that difficult. Instead, fold both edges of the fabric in to the middle of the strip lengthwise about 1” and iron it down as shown in Figure 12 below.
Figure 12 Ties folded and ironed
Fold the entire strip lengthwise again and stitch the folded edges down as shown below. Backstitch at the end of each line of stitching to prevent the stitches from coming out.
Figure 13: Stitching the ties
The completed ties should look like the one shown here, with the raw edges of the fabric encased inside the tie.
Figure 14: Completed tie
Step 16: Place the completed body armor on the fighter and determine where his or her waist is located. Mark the waist at the edges of both front and back panels. Stitch the ties at the marks, reinforcing with a double row of stitching. You may want to place the ties a little lower than the fighter’s actual waist, to allow for growth.
The jack armor is now done! You can paint or appliqué heraldry or other decorations on the armor if desired.
Putting it on: We’ve found it’s easiest to bring the ties from the front around the fighter’s back under the back panel of the armor, then tie the back panel’s ties over the front panel. If you make longer ties to accommodate growth, they can initially wrap all the way around the fighter’s waist.
Note: Because of the higher level of blow calibration in Division 3, those fighters may find it more comfortable to wear additional padding under their Jack armor. A padded gambeson or light foam "vest" provides additional cushioning from blows to the body.
Academic Dictionaries and Encyclopedias (website), article: Coat of Plates, accessed 9/12/2010
The Full Wiki (website), article: Coat of Plates, accessed 9/12/2010
The Historic Jamestowne (website), article: Archaeologists Uncover Jack of Plate Armor, accessed 9/12/2010
The History of Scotland from the Accession of the House of Stuart to that of Mary, volume 2, by John Pinkerton, London, 1797, pp. 406-407, accessed on Google books 9/12/2010
A Glossary of the Construction, Decoration, and Use of Arms and Armor, by George Cameron Stone, © 1961 The Southworth Press, Jack Brussel Publisher, New York.
The Grove Encyclopedia of Decorative Arts, vol 1, ed. Gordon Campbell, Grove Art Online, New York, © 2006, pp.32-33, accessed on Google Books 9/12/2010 at
The Royal Armories (website), article The Jack-of-Plates; Evidence of Recycling, accessed 9/12/2010
 The Grove Encyclopedia of Decorative Arts, by Gordon Campbell.
 A Glossary of the Construction, Decoration, and Use of Arms and Armor, by George Cameron Stone
 Historic Jamestowne (website), article: Archaeologists Uncover Jack of Plate Armor
 Academic Dictionaries and Encyclopedias (website), article: Coat of Plates
All information on this site is © 2010 to the author, Karen Kasper