The Umbrella


Depiction of a Royal Hunt
Figure 1:Double-folio from a Shahnama (Book of Kings) by Firdawsi; A Royal Hunt


Many of us use an umbrella at SCA events as well as in modern life, this will explain some of the history as well as construction of an umbrella within the SCA time period.  Umbrellas have been around for thousands of years, in multiple different forms. My interest came about by seeing umbrellas during my research in Persian clothing and head-wear where there are umbrellas depicted in the Shahnameh, the Persian Book of Kings, including a depiction of a royal hunt in Figure 1.

King Ashurbanipal on his Chariot and Elamite Prisoners
Figure 2: King Ashurbanipal of Assyria

Evidence of umbrellas can be seen through multiple areas throughout ancient times.  There is a bas relief showing King Ashurbanipal of Assyria with an umbrella attached to the king’s chariot as seen in Figure 2.[i] There is also a description of an umbrella in the Chinese Tcheou-Li, known as The Rites of Tcheou.[ii]  Umbrellas are also known to the Greeks according to the writings of Aristophanes[iii] where he declares “For our loom is safe, our weaving-beam, our baskets and umbrella”.

There is also evidence for the umbrella in the SCA timeframe, though mainly in the east and near east.  There is evidence from a 16th century copy of the Shahnameh in Figure 1[iv].  An umbrella can also be seen in Figure 3 from Khamsa by Nizami[v].

Khamsa by Nizami Nushirwan Listens to the Owls
Figure 3:Folio from a Khamsa (Quintet) by Nizami; verso: Nushirwan Listens to the Owls

Just outside of our timeframe there is Tavernier who describes in his “Voyage to the East” that there were umbrellas on either side of the Mogul throne.[vi]  There is some evidence that there are umbrellas in medieval Europe as well, as seen in Figure 4 which is a page from the 11th Century Harley Psalter.

Figure 4:Harley Psalter, Harley MS 603


Based on the depictions of umbrellas in the sources listed above, the umbrellas could have a range of structural supports.  These supports could be similar to the modern umbrella, with ribs radiating from the center, or they could be made similar to the way I constructed this heraldic umbrella.  I started this project with the question of ‘How can the support rod of the umbrella be at such an odd angle’ as seen in Figure 1.  My idea, was that it could be made like a hoop skirt with a supporting ring on the outer edge and a rod connected to the peak as seen in Figure 5.


Figure 5: First attempt at an umbrella

I tried this design on a small scale, the canopy of the umbrella is a cone made with 7/8ths of a circle with a supporting ring of stiff material.   The canopy is made with two layers and a channel can is formed at the edge of the circle to hold the hoop which keeps the umbrella open.  The fabric is sewn closed on the straight edge to form a cone.  The pole to elevate the umbrella is drilled with three holes in a triangular shape similar to what is seen in Figure 6. The pole is then attached to the canopy using waxed thread.

Ethiopian codex board sewing
Figure 6: Depiction of a board attachment in an Ethiopian codex from The Archeology of Medieval Bookbinding, J.A. Szirmai pg 46.

This umbrella is very much a small scale prototype and I have used materials that I had immediately available.  The fabric of the canopy is cotton, the hoop is made of spring steel corset boning and the pole is craft wood.

The next step in development of the Persian umbrella was to make it with more appropriate materials such as silk for the canopy and reed for the hoop.  Figure 7 is the second umbrella prototype constructed.

Figure 7: Second attempt at an umbrella

This partial umbrella is constructed of silk and thin dowel rod.  The canopy design was changed from the original trial umbrella to see if using three triangles would get a similar shape.  Once the dowel rods were sewn to the edge of the canopy it became clear that the canopy did not have a satisfactory shape.  The shape of the canopy is pyramidal, the shape may be more satisfactory if multiple smaller triangles were used to make the canopy.  The dowel rods in this trial umbrella did not work well.  They were thin enough to bend around the curve of the canopy, but they were fragile and would break easily.

Figure 8: Third attempt at an umbrella

The current step in the development of the Persian umbrella is seen in Figure 8.  The pattern of the canopy is ¾ of a circle, sewn up the straight edge to make a cone.  The base of the canopy is made with white linen and there are decorative bands of green and blue linen appliqued to the white linen.  An additional band of yellow linen is attached to the edge of the canopy to get a similar shape to the umbrella in Figure 1.


Figure 9: Four layers of basket reed and one layer of spring steel boning.

The supporting ring was initially made with strips of reed, but after several layers were attached to the edge of the canopy, it became obvious that the reed would not be stiff enough to support the umbrella.  In order to stiffen the reed thin dowel rods were attached to the canopy, but this solution still did not work.  The dowel rods were still too fragile.  The dowel rods were removed from the umbrella and spring steel corset boning was added to the reed ring. Figure 9 The corset boning, although not period material, provided the stiffness and flexibility needed for the umbrella to be used without worry of it breaking.

The initial supporting pole was constructed of two pieces that can either be used together, to make a longer pole, or just one piece for a shorter pole.  The poles were 3/8 inch dowel rod painted with blue acrylic paint, sanded down, painted with blue acrylic paint again and then sealed with polyurethane spray.  This initial pole was too weak to support the umbrella, so another support pole was made which is 3/4 inch dowel rod.(Figure 10)


Figure 10: 3/4 inch dowel vs 3/8 inch dowel

A lining of lightweight leather was added to the inside of the umbrella where the pole connects to the canopy in order to protect the canopy, seen in Figure 11.

Figure 11: Leather lining

Check back soon, once I have a decent photo of the umbrella in use, I will post it.



[ii] Umbrellas and Their History, Chapter 2.

[iii] Umbrellas and Their History, Chapter 2, Aristophanes, Thesmoph “For our loom is safe, our weaving-beam, our baskets and umbrella”

[iv] Freer-Sackler Gallery item S1986.188.1-2 Double-folio from a Shahnama (Book of Kings) by Firdawsi; A Royal Hunt,

[v] Freer-Sackler Gallery item S1986.157a-b Folio from a Khamsa (Quintet) by Nizami; verso: Nushirwan Listens to the Owls

[vi] Umbrellas and Their History, Chapter 2. Tavernier, Voyage to the East.